One autumn night in 1982, Margaret Thatcher was driven in a government Daimler from Downing Street to a house in Ladbroke Grove. The occasion was a quite extraordinary dinner party. She entered without fanfare. One of the other guests, indeed, had to whisper to the host, the historian Hugh Thomas, who had recently been created Baron Thomas of Swynnerton: “Behind you!”
An impromptu receiving line formed with a sense of each side sizing the other up. The prime minister was wearing blue and it made her stand out among the grey and black suits worn by the other guests, almost two dozen of them, all men. They amounted to a who’s who of literary London. As well as the poets Stephen Spender and Philip Larkin, their number included the novelists Anthony Powell and Dan Jacobson, the writer and critic Sir VS Pritchett and the playwright Tom Stoppard.
Larkin later described the evening in a letter to his friend the novelist Kingsley Amis. “The Thatcher occasion was tough going . . . The worst part was after dinner, when old Thomas initiated a ‘conversation’, and everyone talked about fawn countries and fawn politics, just like the college essay society. There was nothing in that for me. At last I got the blue flash, ‘You haven’t said anything yet.’ I draw the veil.”
There had been much agonising by Thomas over whom to invite and he had written letters, rather than sending out formal invitations. Then he had got cold feet that the novelists, poets and playwrights might be tongue-tied, and that “good talkers” would be needed, so he invited three academic heavyweights, including the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. The meal was cooked by Lady Thomas (formerly Vanessa Jebb, the daughter of Gladwyn Jebb, the first acting secretary-general of the United Nations), with their daughter, Isabella, and one of her friends, Maggie Evans, acting as waitresses. They dined on pheasant and drank rioja, a Spanish wine that was then rather a novelty.
The dinner was, in essence, a strange grooming exercise. Thomas felt that the prime minister needed to woo the literary establishment, get them on side for the cultural wars that lay ahead, not least with her plans to take on the universities and the Arts Council. He was seen as a bridge between the literary world and that of Tory politics, and he knew Thatcher well because he ran her favourite think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS).
Although his monument is his best known book, The Spanish Civil War, which won the Somerset Maugham award in 1962, Thomas will also be remembered as a significant player on the Westminster political scene, not least because his skills as a historian helped Thatcher to make history. Like many of the Thatcherite praetorian guard, he was no Conservative in the ordinary sense. In fact, he was a one-time Fabian. That did not stop Mrs Thatcher giving him a signal honour, in choosing him to succeed her beloved Keith Joseph as chairman of the CPS, a post that Thomas held from 1979 to 1991.
Thomas had the fussy appearance of a Victorian curate
In the late 1970s, while the Tories were in opposition, the CPS had provided the intellectual base on which Thatcherism was founded, and it attracted a range of talented people, from high Tories to ex-Marxists. Many intellectuals who had been leftwingers in the 1960s were now disillusioned with socialism, as well as with (pre-Thatcher) Conservatism. When Thatcher entered Downing Street and Joseph joined her cabinet, it was never going to be an easy task for his successor at the CPS. What was not foreseen was that Thomas would not see eye to eye with Thatcher on at least one vital issue — Europe. The European Union was not high up Thatcher’s scale of priorities when she became prime minister, but it rapidly became so. Thomas, meanwhile, had always been a devout, some might say wretched, European.
Hugh Swynnerton Thomas was born in Windsor in 1931, the son of Hugh Whitelegge Thomas, the sometime secretary for native affairs on the Gold Coast, and Margery (née Swynnerton), who did her bit working for the Colonial Nursing Service. He attended Sherborne School in Dorset followed by Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he studied history and became president of the union in 1953. He attended the Sorbonne in Paris, a dangerous hotbed of Europeanism. None of his conventional upper-middle-class education prevented him as a young man from arguing, along classic left-wing lines, about the need to overturn the public school system.
He worked for a few years in the Foreign Office, which inspired his light-hearted novel called The World’s Game, about the absurdities of diplomacy. He was then selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate and proceeded to build up a reputation as an academic. The Spanish Civil War was published in 1961. The ideologically symbolic struggle between Franco and the republicans had inspired reams of political phrase-making during the 20 years that had passed since the war ended, but Thomas’s book was the first general historical study of the subject. Within Spain, still a censor-ridden dictatorship, there was little enthusiasm for raking up the past, yet there was a market for the book when it was smuggled in to be sold from under the counter. An expanded edition appeared in 1977.
Thomas married Jebb, who was a painter, in 1962. The couple had three children: Isabella; Inigo, an author and journalist; and Isambard, named after his great-great-great-grandfather, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who is a cartographer and book designer.
In 1967 Thomas produced another history with a background of ideological conflict, The Suez Affair. He spent ten years writing his next one — Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom, an analysis of the causes of the Cuban revolution, although some critics were dismayed by its extreme length (1,700 pages). He had also moved to the University of Reading as professor of history, having been a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
As a leftwinger he was convinced that many of Britain’s failings, at home and abroad, could be traced back to the influence of “the establishment”. By the 1970s, however, there was ample evidence that the real conservatives hampering progress were often on the Labour side, and Thomas was among a number of thoughtful leftwingers who felt that they might inject their anti-establishment zeal into the Tory party — if only it could rid itself of the timid ethos that stood in the way of radical change.
A change of ethos was what the Thatcherite revolution was all about, and in the 1970s Thomas lent his pen to the cause. For him, the unleashing of free enterprise seemed as exciting as the prospect of socialist revolution had been. In 1979 he produced An Unfinished History of the World, which, it was noted, contained various little Thatcherite homilies on how market forces down the years had benefited the wealth of nations.
With his flowing, collar-length hair, cultivated, slighty fluty voice, and ruddy cheeks, Thomas had the fussy appearance of a Victorian curate. In 1981, during the early, stormy days of the Thatcher government, he was made a life peer and embraced the role and the ermine with gusto. He was at his closest to the prime minister in 1982, the year not only of that star-studded dinner party, but also the Falklands conflict, and he had an input into the involved diplomatic negotiations in Latin America that went on alongside the battle in the South Atlantic. He also contributed to the analytical thinking in Westminster inspired by the outcome of the conflict, when it became clear that military success at the other end of the world had created a powerful impact on British national psychology.
To provide a sidelight on this cultural effect of the Falklands he wrote another novel, Havannah, published in 1984. It was very much a historian’s novel, demonstrating Thomas’s scholarly interest in the maritime development of the Spanish empire and the slave trade. It described a British expedition that sailed for Cuba in the 1760s with the blessing of Pitt the Elder, and achieved a victory as remarkable as that in the Falklands. Thomas fantasised about how one of the naval commanders idealised the aims of the expedition: “Our task is to free Cuba from an odious despotism . . . to free commerce with the rest of the civilised world . . . Rule, Britannia!”
However, when the triumphant British returned from Cuba they found that the politicians at home were going to betray them, because the realities of world diplomacy demanded a negotiated peace that would return Cuba to Spain. There were morals aplenty for those who looked for them in post-Falklands Britain.
Thomas saw nothing inconsistent in combining Thatcherite views on free enterprise with the idea of aiming for a European federal constitution; in 1973 he had written Europe: the Radical Challenge. But by the late 1980s, when he was installed at the CPS, hostility to European unity had become a key feature of Thatcherism. There was anger at the think tank at their chairman’s Europeanism and he gave up the post in 1991. He switched to the Liberal Democrat benches in 1998 and latterly sat as a crossbench peer.
Although the lack of a chair at an old British university may have caused some disappointment, it nevertheless opened the way for him to take up teaching appointments in the United States, and enabled him to maintain the independence that he so valued and enjoyed. He liked to describe himself as “a historian in private practice” — even if it did not always endear him to the establishment that he had once disliked, and had later embraced.
Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, historian, was born on October 21, 1931. He died on May 7, 2017, aged 85, after suffering a stroke