28 October 1988 - 30 October 1988

The Art of Political Biography in the Twentieth Century

Chair: The Rt Hon the Lord Blake FBA

The Ditchley Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Conference

This conference was the first to be held jointly with the University of Texas at Austin. The topic made an interesting departure from the political subjects which constitute Ditchley’s usual diet. We were fortunate in having Lord Blake in the chair and a number of distinguished historians, biographers and practitioners in related fields as participants.

By the nature of the subject, the discussions ranged widely but led to no firm conclusions. Nevertheless, I think that it was generally agreed that a good biography, whether "political" or not, should aim to give as full a portrait as possible of the subject, warts and all - "the portrait of a soul in its voyage through life", as we were reminded Edmund Gosse had put it. As with history itself, there could be no definitive version; but, certain sceptics apart (Freud, for example, had said that biographical truth was not to be had and if it could, could not be used), the attempt was worthwhile for the insight it gave into the motives of the actors who had shaped events in a given period and into the period itself. A plea was entered for biographies of secondary actors whose lives often threw as much light on their times as did those of the prominent even if, from a commercial point of view, the latter might sell better, particularly, though regrettably, if scandal came into it.

It was agreed that all serious biographers must approach their work primarily as historians. It was that approach which distinguished political biography from biography in general and from "campaign biography" (sc. propaganda) or "instant biography" (sc. journalism) in particular. There was clearly a place, however, for these classes of biography also, as well as for serious television biography, the records of which, even if not used, would remain available as source material. The point was made that there was a 'half-life' to any political figure: beyond that the commercial appeal of the biography tended to fade. While there was thought to be a legitimate place for the historical novel (whether written, on film or television, or on the stage), in which fictional characters were set against an historical background, the dangers of "faction" were obvious, where historical figures were portrayed in unhistorical situations, with invented dialogue. (Might Shakespeare’s histories, however, qualify as faction, in that sense?)

An ethical issue that was debated, but perhaps not entirely resolved, was the extent to which it was right for the biographer to use details of the subject's private life to fill out the portrait of the personality. At one extreme, the psychological school of biography might think it right to use everything and, for example, to trace every subsequent action back to incidents in childhood: that school found little support. At the other, it was argued by some - the predominant view, perhaps, outside the Anglo-Saxon world - that biographers should show reticence as regards the subject's private life, particularly where it might involve scandalous or salacious impacts, since it was the public activities and their impact which were significant in history. Probably the median school of thought prevailed, that the biographer, exercising professional judgement, should draw on those matters of private behaviour that were relevant to the subject's public activities and illuminated his personality, even if the feelings of relatives and friends might thereby be injured. The difficult decisions involved must be faced - and again it had to be accepted that scandal was profitable.

Must a biographer like the subject? If that were so, no biography surely would be possible, for example, of a Hitler or a Stalin. At the least, it was felt, the biographer must be able to understand the subject: empathy if not sympathy was essential, if a full portrait was to be painted. Picking up the analogy, many agreed that biography was an art: it was a story, designed to tell what happened next, and why, and to lead the reader on from one event, one chapter, to the next.

There was much discussion of the value of oral evidence. Several discounted it as a reliable source, unless corroborated, while admitting its value in illuminating the personality of the subject, judged as much by the character of his acquaintance as by their testimony: indeed some of those who scouted its value as a source, nonetheless argued that it was important to have access to archives, public or private, while eye-witnesses were still alive for questioning.

The question of access to official archives was considered in some depth. The British system of comprehensive release, with some exceptions, after 30 years came in for some unexpected praise on the grounds that it was more orderly, better understood and less arbitrary than the rules operated by the various agencies in the US, the Senate, the House, the National Archives, the State Department, the papers of past Presidents (though the last were excellently managed) among others. Even the famous Freedom of Information Act, was less helpful than it might be, dogged as it was by bureaucratic controls and delays. In the Federal Republic, the rule was 30 years but the archives were not united, and in France the rule was 50 years. Some - and this applied equally to autobiography - criticised the practice of giving privileged early access to papers, both state and private, on the grounds that all would-be researchers should be treated alike and that privileged access tended to produce one-sided and self-serving accounts, with possible adverse effects on former colleagues or political parties. Churchill's History of the War of 1939-45 was an example among many, including memoirs and diaries of several British Ministers. Against that, any serious historian granted privileged access would be governed in his use of it by regard for his professional standing in the light of subsequent full release; and it could be argued that even partisan and partial disclosure was better than nothing and provided useful, indeed irreplaceable, clues for the unprivileged historian. Similar considerations applied even more strongly to official histories.

Owners of private archives, governed by copyright for 50 years after the owner's death, had the right in any case to dispose of their valuable property as they wished and subject to such-conditions as they chose, although a reputable biographer might need to consider whether to work under imposed conditions.       

To the question whether political leaders and others were influenced by the prospect of future biographical scrutiny, the short answer was no; and if they were, it could only be for the good. Concern about instant publicity in the press was a much greater influence. People in the highest positions probably did operate, to varying degrees, under a sense of history, and all were conscious of the use to be made of history. It was noted in passing that, while many leading British politicians were themselves biographers, Americans of equivalent standing, though prolific in memoirs, were not. No reason for this was identified.

Finally, it was stated that biographies played a useful role in education.

All in all it was an enjoyable and stimulating weekend, which produced a fascinating exchange of ideas.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: The Rt Hon the Lord Blake FBA
Life Peer (Conservative); writer; author of biographies of Bonar Law and Disraeli; Editor, Dictionary of National Biography; Honorary Fellow, The Queen’s College, Oxford; Chairman, Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts; Member, Board of Trustees, British Museum



Dr Allan Martin
Senior Fellow in History, The Australian National University; author, “Sir Henry Parkes”; currently researching for biography on the late Sir Robert Menzies

The Rt Hon the Lord Blake FBA JP
Mr Samuel Brittan

Principal Economic Commentator and Assistant Editor, Financial Times; author; a member of the Programme Committee, the Ditchley Foundation
The Hon John Grigg
Writer; columnist, The Times; author of biographies of Lloyd George and Nancy Astor; Chairman, The London Library
Sir Nicholas Henderson GCMG
Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Keeper of the Privy Seal of the Duke of Cornwall; writer; author of biography of Prince Eugen of Savoy and of “The Private Office, a Personal View of Five Foreign Secretaries”; Director, Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust, M&G Reinsurance, Hambros, Tarmac, Eurotunnel; a Governor and Member of the Council of Management of the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Anthony Howard
Deputy Editor, The Observer: writer; author of biography of R A Butler;
The Rt Hon the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
Life Peer (Dem.); Chancellor, University of Oxford; writer; author of biographies of Asquith, Truman and Baldwin
Dr Janet Morgan
Writer and consultant; editor of the diaries of Richard Crossman; Adviser to the Board, Granada Group PLC
Sir Derek Oulton KCB QC
Permanent Secretary, Lord Chancellor’s Office and Clerk of the Crown in Chancery; barrister-at-law
Professor B J Pimlott
Professor of Politics and Contemporary History, Birkbeck College, University of London; author of biography of Hugh Dalton (winner of the Whitbread Biography Award, 1985) and Editor, The Dalton Diaries; political columnist, The Sunday Times; currently writing biography of Harold Wilson; founding Editor, Samizdat
Mr Robert Rhodes James MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Cambridge; Chairman, Buchan and Enright, Publishers; author of biographies of Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill, and Anthony Eden; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
Lord Stewart of Fulham
Life Peer (Labour); writer
The Rt Hon the Lord Weidenfeld
Life Peer (Social Democrat); Chairman, (Founder 1948) Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd (London); Weidenfeld & Nicolson (New York); Wheatland Corporation, New York; Grove Press Inc, New York; Trustee, The National Portrait Gallery, The English National Opera; Member, The South Bank Board; Trustee Emeritus, the Aspen Foundation, Colorado; Governor, Tel Aviv University; Vice Chairman, Board of Governors, Ben Gurion University of the Negev; Governor, Weizmann Institute; Trustee, the Jerusalem Foundation; Honorary PhD, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Mr Phillip Whitehead
Writer and television producer, Director, Goldcrest Film and Television Holdings Ltd, Brook Productions;
Mr Philip S Ziegler
Writer; author of biographies of William IV, Melbourne and Earl Mountbatten of Burma

Professor Peter Waite

Visiting Professor, Department of History, University of Western Ontario; Professor of History, Dalhousie University; writer; author of biographies of Macdonald and Sir John Thompson; currently writing biography of Viscount Bennett

Dr Jochen Thies

Chief Editor, Europa-Archiv; writer

Professor Stephen E Ambrose

Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, University of New Orleans; writer; author of biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon; member, American Historical Association, Southern Historical Association, Boards of Directors, American Committee on World War II and American Military Institute
Mr Donald C Bacon
Writer and editor; co-author of biography of House Speaker Sam Rayburn
Professor Robert Dallek
Professor of History, UCLA; writer; author of biographies of William E Dodd, Franklin D Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B Johnson; Fellow, Society of American Historians; Member, American Historical Association; Committee on the History of the Second World War
Mrs Carol Felsenthal
Freelance writer; biographer of Alice Roosevelt Longworth
Professor Warren F Kimball
Distinguished Professor of History, Rutgers University; Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions, University of Cambridge and Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1988-89); writer
Mr Donald S Lamm
Chairman (Editor, Director, President), W W Norton & Company, Inc.; President & Director, National Book Company, Liveright Publishing Corporation and W W Norton & Company Ltd, London; Fellow, Branford College, Yale University; President, Board of Governors, Yale University Press; Trustee, Columbia University Press; Ida H Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship, University of Iowa (1987-88)
Professor Arthur S Link
George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of American History and Director and Editor, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University; writer on 20th century history, biographer of Woodrow Wilson, editor of 59 volumes of The Wilson Papers published to date
Mr William S Livingston
Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies and Jo Anne Christian Professor of British Studies, The University of Texas at Austin; member, Board of Directors, Council of Graduate Schools in the United States; member, American, Southern and Southwestern Political Science Associations and Southwestern Social Science Association
Professor Wm Roger Louis
Professor of English History and Culture, University of Texas; Fellow, St Antony’s College; Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford; writer; founding chairman, American St Antony’s Trust
Mr J Kenneth Macdonald
US Government Historian, Washington, DC; writer;
Mr Harry J Middleton
Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas; writer
Professor Elspeth Rostow
Stiles Professor of American Studies, and Professor, LB J School of Public Affairs and Department of Government, University of Texas; Dean, Division of General and Comparative Studies University of Texas; writer; member, Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation
Professor Walt Rostow
Rex G Baker Jr Professor of Political Economy, Department of Economics and History, University of Texas; author; writer; author of biographies of President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy
Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr
Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, City University of New York; writer; author of biographies of President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy
Professor Ronald Steel
Professor of International Relations, University of Southern California; writer