Arthur Bryant, Britain's Establishment Historian
Reba N. Soffer is Emeritus Professor of History at California State University, Northridge. She is the author of History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan (Oxford, 2009).
Considerable time, energy, pseudo-science, and wishful thinking have been expended to demonstrate whether any kind of statement—oral, written, or graphic—ever reaches, let alone affects, the audiences for whom they were intended, either in their own time or in a later period. It is a further speculative leap to imagine what audiences wanted to hear, what they actually heard, and further still what they made of what they believed they heard. Even if some individuals really appreciated what they were meant to understand, can we determine whether their thinking or behavior was altered by such an understanding? In a written, spoken or pictorial effort to transmit ideas, the intention and purpose may be stated explicitly but the contents of the ideas may still be equivocal. Different kinds of audiences and different members of the same audience will find a variety of meanings, often inconsistent, in what they read, hear, or see. My research interest was the origins, contents, contexts, and influence of conservative thought in Britain and America from the decades after the Great War through the 1960s . I concentrated on those historians who proclaimed themselves “conservatives” and described, explained and justified, coherently and accessibly for large audiences and powerful public figures, what they believed was the historical inevitability and fitness of quintessential conservative ideas
Among the eight historians who I emphasize in my History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America, the British historian Arthur Bryant’s influence was easiest to establish. From 1929 through his death in 1985, he wrote thirty-seven patriotic books that sold over three million copies and. Seventy or eighty hours of his week were devoted to writing, he testified, while he breakfasted alone and had lunch and dinner on a tray. Even accounting for some hyperbole on Bryant’s part, his enormous output and the loss of two wives to divorce testify to a large measure of truth in Bryant’s account. What sort of obsession compelled him to pursue such a life?
His first book was the polemical The Spirit of Conservatism (1929), but his reputation as a historian was established by Charles II two years later. As part of his concerted effort to establish a conservative readership, Bryant founded, edited and produced books for the conservative National Book Association from 1936 to 1939. Acting for the Conservative Party’s policy apparatus, Bryant prepared material for two prime ministers—Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain—as well as for media moguls such as Lord Kemsley, Lord Beaverbrook, and J. L. Garvin. He burnished the defense of Munich, became Chamberlain’s point man with the BBC, and prepared war aims for the Government in 1939. From the early 1930s, Bryant was the most consistent spokesman for the Conservative Party’s policy of appeasement and, through at least 1940, he conducted secret peace negotiations with Nazi Germany with the encouragement of Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and Rab Butler, the Foreign Under-Secretary. In prose that his enormous, receptive public found addictive and from every possible pulpit, Bryant lauded national character, patriotism, duty, rural values, a hierarchical social order tempered by social justice, an elite conservative leadership, the Church and the monarchy. After the war, Harold Wilson had him knighted and made him a Companion of Honour, and his friendship with Clement Atlee was based upon their shared idealization of “national life.”
Can we establish who Bryant’s audiences were and what was his effect upon them may have been? Bryant set out to persuade as many people as possible about the rectitude of conservatism on both historical and pragmatic grounds. To do this, he appealed to an electorate uncertain about party affiliation; he cultivated policy and opinion makers; and he courted those interested in exploring questions about human nature, society, character, nation, and religion. Audiences were created and maintained through a strenuous schedule of lectures to political clubs, self-betterment groups, and any assembly able to pay and willing to listen to him. There was no end to those able and willing. In 1927 he became educational adviser, later a Governor, and from 1946 to 1949, Chairman of the Council for the Bonar Law College, Ashridge, founded to disseminate “conservative” rather than Conservative ideas, but with the full, although secret, backing of the Conservative Party. Bryant also taught Oxford University Extension classes from 1925 to 1936; he lectured to the troops during the Second World War about military history and strategy, political science, and sociology and, after the war, lobbied strenuously for popular civics education. Bryant found an additional audience by imagining, organizing, and creating epic historical pageants—including one at Greenwich in 1933 that had a cast of twenty-five hundred costumed volunteers and an audience of twelve thousand, with the entire Cabinet and the King and Queen in attendance. Remarkable for his prolificacy by any standard of measurement, Bryant wrote, spoke, traveled, managed, and shamelessly flattered those who furthered his influence and his career. Richard Crossman, well on the left as assistant editor of The New Statesman, admitted to being a “vituperative” critic of Bryant before the Second World War. A month after the war began, Crossman felt compelled to solicit Bryant for service in the Home Publicity Division of the Ministry of Information because of the crucial part he played in “forming public opinion.”
Bryant’s most faithful followers were the readers of his ‘Our Note Book’ column, the leading feature in the Illustrated London News for nearly fifty years from 1936. His columns and best-selling books were all romantic, didactic and patriotic, filled with robust heroes, despicable villains, and praise for hard-working, lawful, ordinary people living in the best possible “Christian land.” His massive correspondence included other historians, press barons, journalists, novelists, scholars in other disciplines, military leaders, industrialists, bankers, and both European and American statesmen. Whatever he wrote about was all part of his conservative fantasy about what England had been in the pre-industrial age and what he wanted it to become again.
For over half a century, Bryant’s father, Sir Francis Bryant, served the Royal Household of King Edward VII and King George V, was George V’s Sergeant-at-Arms and the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales. Growing up as a member of the elite by birth and surrounded by royal trappings, Bryant learned to venerate order, place, rituals, historic tradition, religion, and the monarchy as the essential symbol of national unity. He may have written sympathetically and romantically about ordinary people, but he always thought of himself as belonging to a much higher link in the social, cultural, economic, and political chain of being. In the Royal Flying Corps, he flew over France as a pilot who bombed the Rhineland towns. That was the definitive experience of his life and he believed forever after that peace was worth any price. Bryant’s often ambivalent views on appeasement, the Nazis, anti-Semitism, and the aristocracy were shaped in great part by the aristocratic and governing communities in which he moved, above all, by choice. He always saw a commitment to purvey his patriotic conservatism and pacifism as consistent with his paternalistic obligations and his scholarship, which he believed to be objective. That commitment afforded him the pleasures, as he saw it, of doing good and living well. An educated public and policy makers in search of confirmation and expression of their views made Bryant’s chosen life possible.
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