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July-August 2010: Philip Murphy

Philip Murphy
Professor of British and Commonwealth History, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I’ve been interested in history for as long as I can remember, but what absolutely obsessed me as a teenager was politics. The early ‘80s was such a fascinating time in Britain. It seemed to me like a straight fight between good and evil – although I was already becoming aware that the devil had some of the best tunes. And essentially I’ve turned into a modern political historian focusing largely on what, from my perspective then, would have been the ‘dark side’, namely the Right. I was part of a new generation of historians of the Conservative Party who were not, generally speaking, ‘True Believers’. Nevertheless, I’d like to think we opened up the field and did so in a way that was both fair and dispassionate. This is something that academics from other disciplines sometimes find perplexing about historians: how we can devote ourselves to understanding a system or organisation, deploying a sympathetic understanding of the people who made it work, but without buying into the ideology that animated it. This lack of comprehension applies a thousand-fold to historians who write about Empire. There’s a sense that unless we insulate ourselves from our material through a mode of discourse that constantly signals our moral indignation, we will in some sense become infected by it, while at the same time providing intellectual succour for all manner neo-con oppression. This strikes me as nonsense. If you approach the past from a position of impregnable moral superiority you can never hope to understand it properly. And if the events of the last decade demonstrate anything it is that we have a duty to understand how power works. The ability of Bush and Blair to sell the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to their electorates owed less to the work of a handful of right-wing academic cheer-leaders and more to a general ignorance of what motivates imperialism, the multiplicity of forms that it can take, and the sources of its weakness.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

The person who probably had the greatest influence on me at school was actually my English teacher in the 6th form, Nick Fitton. Having landed temporarily in a rather monochrome Northern city, Nick was witness to the fact that there was Technicolor elsewhere in the Universe. I hope he continues to flourish wherever he is. His counterpart in History was certainly charismatic, although he was also a passionate admirer of Hitler, something that was seen as a little bit odd even in Hull in the 1980s. I remember him lending me Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, a book that certainly made a great impression, although I had to fight my way past his anti-Semitic annotations. Like much of my childhood, this has left me with a fairly robust attitude to education. While I’m certainly not in favour of poisoning the minds of the young by leaving them in the hands of maniacs, I do worry that today’s teachers are so well-balanced and reasonable that our children aren’t growing up with a proper suspicion of authority.

In terms of my professional career as a historian, by far the greatest influence was Tony Kirk-Greene. He taught me in my final year as an undergraduate. At one point he asked me what I wanted to do and with typical lack of initiative I said I didn’t know. “Why don’t you come here” (i.e. to St Antony’s College, Oxford) he asked, “and why don’t you do a DPhil?” So that’s what I did, and he was in every respect the perfect supervisor. Magdalen College, where I was an undergraduate, had a remarkable group of fellows teaching history. I’m sure everyone who was lucky enough to be taught by Angus Macintyre benefited, as I did, from his kindness and generosity. I remember him coming into a tutorial after some particularly ghastly University committee, lighting up a cigarette, and declaring with a mixture of defiance and enthusiasm, “Let’s do some History”. I regularly find myself repeating that phrase, particularly after marathon committee meetings. And, of course, the people who really educate you at university are your friends. In that respect, particularly at St Antony’s, I was lucky to be studying alongside an extremely talented group of people whose collective interests stretched to most areas of the globe. Beyond that, I can’t think of better preparation for being a historian of the modern Conservative party than having tutorials on Medici Florence with the formidable Philip Jones of Brasenose College.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I hate to think. I don’t seem to have any other discernable talents (except perhaps for parody – so perhaps a stint on Private Eye).

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

I’ve enjoyed all my books. I suppose the one I’m most proud of is the Central Africa volume of the British Documents on the End of Empire Project (BDEEP). It was an enormous privilege to be involved in this venture – like being welcomed into a warm, extended family of outstanding scholars. And with that sort of support it was possible to produce something far superior to anything I could have done on my own. But I greatly enjoyed writing the biography of Alan Lennox-Boyd. Biography is terribly unfashionable, but I still think it’s the greatest challenge to try to make sense of another human being. By my stage in life, I guess most historians have already built up a list of books they should have written but didn’t. I had a period of sabbatical some years ago when I was supposed to be turning the course I was teaching at Reading on the Intelligence community and twentieth century British politics into a book. I regret not doing this, as it needed to be done, and I had quite a lot of interesting material. But there’s nothing more boring than writing up old lecture notes, and what took its place was an attempt to chart the career of the intelligence chief of the Central African Federation. This turned into a fascinating piece of detective work and led, in turn, to the BDEEP commission. So it all ended happily.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

It’s very difficult to spot trends, even as the editor of a journal. And the publication I co-edit with Stephen Howe, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, has a rather broader remit than just British history. I’m always pleased to come across young scholars who are able to apply economic analysis to modern British history. This requires a set of skills that are unfortunately fairly rare, but the results can be fascinating. The decolonization research seminar which we host here at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies recently heard a paper from Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb on the economic dimension of Reuters’ operations in the inter-war Commonwealth. It brought a completely new dimension to the already fairly extensively researched subject of Empire and the media. I would also like to see more of a genuine dialogue between military historians and social and political historians. David Edgerton’s Warfare State is a recent example of the insights that can be gained by such a fusion; but it also points to how much more work needs to be done in explaining the militarisation of modern British society. Above all, I think British historians have a duty to ensure that their subject remains volatile and subversive – something that will explode in the faces of politicians and interest groups from any part of the political spectrum who try to subordinate it to their narrow ends. That’s why we need a genuine plurality of voices and approaches. We also need to resist censorship of all kinds, and particularly the censorship of the historical record – something I don’t think historians of modern British political history care nearly enough about.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

None. There’s a story about Harold Macmillan meeting Field Marshal Alexander later in life and saying something like, “Alex, wouldn’t it be fun if we did it all over again?” And Alexander replying, “Certainly not. We might not do nearly as well.” I have the greatest admiration for young scholars beginning their careers in the current climate, which is far more challenging than the one my contemporaries faced. I wouldn’t know where to start. They should keep their ears very close to the ground and avoid any unsolicited advice.

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