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The Peterhouse School’

In response to:

The Moral Minority from the March 13, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

It is one of the pleasures of being a Fellow of Peterhouse that one can be reviewed by one’s own Master. I am grateful to Lord Dacre (H.R. Trevor-Roper) for his review of my book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England [NYR, March 13], the eight hundred pages of which can be bought as a two-volume set, for £40 in England (and through any reputable publisher for an equally reasonable price in the United States).

I differ from Lord Dacre in many respects but can say here only that the “opacity” of my “Cave” is deliberate and hermeneutic and may or may not be lightened in Volume III which in any case will deal with most of the topics Lord Dacre found missing from Volume II. What I do want to say, however, is that Lord Dacre has misunderstood Mr. Covell’s book The Redefinition of Conservatism which, in the briefest of reviews, he dismissed as a consecration of the “Peterhouse school of history.”

The Redefinition of Conservatism is a survey of Wittgenstein, Professor Oakeshott, Dr. Casey, Professor Scruton, Mrs. Letwin, and myself insofar as we can be thought to have contributed to an intellectual Conservatism. Though the other subjects are all philosophers, I am not a philosopher and, moreover, none of the others could conceivably be thought of as a member of a “Peterhouse school of history.”

The phrase “the Peterhouse school of history” was coined, I believe, on the fertile tongue of Professor Joseph Lee of the University of Cork who was a Fellow of Peterhouse in the 1970s. What Professor Lee meant, however, was not a philosophical position but what he called, with a historian’s rancor, the “high-political” works which had been written about the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English politics by Professor J.R. Vincent, Dr. A.B. Cooke, Dr. Andrew Jones, and myself in the years between 1965 and 1976.

Mr. Covell’s book is not a justification of a “Peterhouse school of history,” as Lord Dacre seems to suppose, but an analysis of a strand of intellectual Conservatism which began in Professor Oakeshott’s hands in the 1940s and reached its present forms from the middle 1970s onwards. Mr. Covell states, and states rightly, that the Conservatism he discusses was concerned with literature, religion, philosophy, and political theory, and had little to do with the day-to-day politics of the Conservative Party. Mr. Covell is critical of it and does not identify himself with any of the thinkers in whom he finds it. He tends to misunderstand my view of the connections between Conservatism and Christianity and to draw lines too sharply between my own opinions and the Conservatism of Lord Blake. But no one who reads his concluding chapter will doubt that his own Conservatism is closer to Lord Blake’s than to any of the other Conservatisms that he describes in his book, that he regards Professor Oakeshott and Mrs. Letwin as sharing more of the mainstream Liberalism of Professors Hart, Rawls, and Nozick than either of them might wish to suppose, and that in Dr. Casey and Professor Scruton he finds the chief focus of enquiry in an unresolved tension between religion and natural law on the one hand and their secularized, post-Kantian philosophical perspectives on the other.

These are the considerations which make Lord Dacre’s account misleading. I am sure that anyone who understands how misleading it is will appreciate that the scope of Mr. Covell’s book is wider than Lord Dacre suggests and is filled with a great deal more blood than a mere passing sideswipe could bring out.

Maurice Cowling

Peterhouse, Cambridge

H.R Trevor-Roper replies:

Mr. Cowling writes as if I had been unfair to Mr. Covell’s book by “dismissing” it “in the briefest of reviews.” I was not “reviewing” Mr. Covell’s book: I merely cited it (in a footnote) as evidence that Mr. Cowling’s “intellectual Toryism,” of which I am critical, is taken seriously by other writers of this university. “The Peterhouse school of history” is now a common phrase. Like most such phrases it is no doubt a simplification; but it must be unique in having been “coined on the fertile tongue” of anyone.

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