Obituaries: E. H. H. GREEN ; Acute Historian of 20th-Century Conservatism Whose Own Political Sympathies Lay Elsewhere

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E. H. H. Green was one of Britain's leading historians of 20th- century British Conservatism. Green was convinced from his graduate days under Peter Clarke at St John's College, Cambridge, that Conservatism was an ideology as much as Liberalism and Socialism, one that was founded on a belief in the limitations of the human mind, political scepticism, traditionalism and social mutual dependence.

Starting from this conviction, he devoted his academic career to exploring the different and often bitter policy debates that have divided the Conservative Party since 1900 as it has endeavoured to frame an electorally popular political programme consistent with these fundamental principles. His contribution to our understanding of modern Conservatism is primarily contained in three exceptional books.

The first, The Crisis of Conservatism: the politics, economics and ideology of the Conservative Party, 1880-1914, which appeared in 1995, examined an era in which the Tories were in the political wilderness. Attacking the conventional argument that the party's lacklustre performance in the Edwardian period was to be attributed to the poor quality of its leaders, he effectively demonstrated that the weakness stemmed from deeper causes.

Put simply, the Tories could not agree on how to recast their identity as the party of Conservatism against a backdrop of an expanding electorate, structural change in the economy and Britain's weakening international position. Instead they divided into two embattled groups of free-traders and tariff-reformers, who started from the same point but ended with diametrically opposite positions.

Green's second book, Ideologies of Conservatism: Conservative political ideas in the twentieth century, published in 2002, extended this approach to look at a variety of contentious policy squabbles which have divided the Tories ideologically over the last hundred years. Particularly noteworthy was the chapter on the intellectual genesis of Thatcherism, where he demonstrated that the free-market ideas that dominated government in the Thatcher era were not developed as a response to the dire condition of the British economy in the 1970s but had had a constituency within the party since the Second World War: the much-vaunted post-war But skellite consensus was really a myth.

This point was hammered home further in Green's third book, Thatcher, which came out in January this year. Not a conventional biography, this was an attempt to analyse further the content and context of Thatcherism and its lasting influence over the New Labour Project. Margaret Thatcher herself, it emphasises, was not a convert to economic liberalism: she had been speaking against the post-war consensus since the early 1950s.

Green's arguments were always supported by formidable archival research. But his books were not weighed down by his learning and his prose was precise and clear. He took the ideas he discussed seriously and had an enviable knack of bringing them to life. This was all the more surprising in that he had no sympathy with 20th- century Conservatism.

On the left of the political spectrum, he had no love for Tory politicians. The day that he delivered the manuscript of his biography of the Iron Lady to the publishers, a friend asked him if there was any question that he would have liked to have asked the former prime minister. His reply was curt: "Yeah! How did she get away with it?"

But he was too serious a historian to allow his political sympathies to influence his published work and was careful to be just. He was quick to point out that the more malign social effects of Thatcherism were the unintended consequences of her policies. She had never wanted to abolish society but had aimed to replace a bloated welfare state with voluntary associations and neighbourly reciprocity.

Green's ability to empathise with his political enemies reflected a generous and open nature. …