BOOK REVIEW: A much maligned political figure?

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NO British statesman of the nineteenth century reached the same level of international fame as Lord Castlereagh, or won as much respect from the great powers of Europe or America. Yet no British statesman has been so maligned by his contemporaries or hated by the public. DANIEL FRAZER speaks to Dr John Bew the author of a new biography about Lord Castlereagh (Castlereagh: From Enlightenment to Tyranny) about how his reputation is being revived.

How did you come to write Castlereagh?

I started my career writing about aspects of Irish history but really wanted to move away from that into the bigger issues of British and international history – not to mention debates about foreign policy (the origins of interventionism, realpolitik etc) which are still of great relevance today. Castlereagh’s life is, in itself, a fascinating story for a biographer with sex scandal, dueling, bravery, betrayal, bloodshed and suicide. But what was fascinating for me was that it touched on so many bigger questions and debates in history – the French Revolution, the war against Napoleon, the Irish rebellion and the Act of Union, political reform, international relations, the birth of modern Britain and how she found her place in the world.

Why did you want to tell that particular story? What was it that attracted you to such a maligned figure?

Castlereagh is unique in being one of the greatest villains of both British and Irish history. On the other hand, he is arguably the greatest ever Irishman (in terms of international power and standing) and perhaps the greatest ever British Foreign Secretary – so I figured he must have been doing something right. I suppose there was the counter-suggestive appeal of focusing on an anti-hero and there was also a semi-autobiographical element involved. He was from a half-Ulster, half-English family. He was born in Ireland and his intellect was shaped there and yet he made his career in England where, in some ways, he felt more at home. I was born and raised in Belfast and have an English mother so I could relate strongly to that side of him.

How did you go about attempting to reassess the contributions to governance and diplomacy by such an infamous figure as Castlereagh?

In fairness, Castlereagh has had his defenders. The great diplomatic historian Charles Webster revived his reputation to some extent in the 1920s and Lord Salisbury was also a huge admirer of his hard-headed but cool approach to foreign policy. Yet, Castlereagh has also been a little unfortunate in that some of his defenders – chief among them Henry Kissinger – have also been condemned by the literati, just as he once was. I wanted to take re-examine his foreign policy in its own right and to try to get into his mind, understanding the context in which he operated rather than measuring his success or failure against modern political criteria.

How much of an effect do you think Castlereagh’s confused philosophy had on his later political career?

I don’t think Castlereagh’s philosophy was confused but it did evolve in ways that were bound to make him unpopular. He was born into a world which was consciously invested in the ideas of the Scottish and French Enlightenment and Castlereagh, in his own mind at least, never rejected or moved away from these core ideas. Where he became more cautious was in his view that the world was often less enlightened than the proponents of the Enlightenment assumed it was.

Visiting France during the Revolution, and knowing what he knew of Ireland, he became convinced that slow and gradual change was the best way to preserve Enlightened values against religious and social fanaticism. This is something he explained very cogently in the early part of his career. However, I do think his political imagination retracted and he became more of a knee-jerk opponent of reform later in life, without devoting the same level of thought to these questions. This was partly because of the pressures of his workload and the fact that he barely spent any time out of office. He had less time to read and reflect and it began to show later in his career.

As a historian how do you find the balance between research and writing, how did you process your archive material?

I have thought about this question a lot. The first thing I did was attempt to read what Castlereagh did (including novels) and to reflect on what he might have made of this literature. I also read through as many of his private letters to his family as possible; these are full of political content and are often more honest and incisive than the standard fare of diplomatic correspondence which most historians have focused on. There are about eight previous biographies of Castlereagh but I put all of them to the side until the end, as I wanted to make up my own mind and not to be shaped (even subconsciously) by the interpretations of others. Throughout all of this, I kept writing as I researched. The advantage of modern technology to a writer is that you can always return to your text to shape and sculpt it as more information emerges. I had something resembling a full draft relatively early in the process and added to that right up the time I completed the manuscript, with new trips to the archives.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing Castlereagh and how did you get over it?

The sheer scale and breadth of his career; it encompassed so many massive issues from the French Revolution through to Irish, British and European-wide history. This required a lot of secondary reading in order to make sense of the primary sources. But the advantage of biography is that you are dealing only with one person’s response to these events so it was still quite self-contained.

Have you been pleased with the critical/reader responses to the books so far? Were you worried about the possibility of Irish readers accusing you of being too generous to your subject?

I have been delighted by the response so far. The book has reached the audiences I wanted it to reach including Foreign Secretaries past and present and a broader readership who remember Castlereagh from studying History at school. In Ireland, Castlereagh’s role in suppressing the rebellion of 1798 has not won him any friends but as historian, all I can offer is a fair portrayal and appraisal of his attitudes and approaches to Ireland. Most of these, I think I prove in the book, were warm-hearted and (in Castlereagh’s strange way) genuinely patriotic. The realities of the rebellion of 1798 were utterly brutal and there is no way of getting away from that. That said, very few people came out of it with any credit. The bottom line is that Castlereagh wanted as little bloodshed as possible and that shaped his approach to Ireland more than anything. So long as people read the book and engage with the evidence, I’m fine with how they respond.

Do you have a favourite historian? Was there someone who inspired you to follow the path of becoming a historian?

I don’t have a favourite historian, though there are lots of historians I respect (Professors Brendan Simms and Jon Parry in Cambridge come to mind – though both will, to their great credit, hate being mentioned). Both my parents are professors of history so many people think it’s natural for me to have followed in their path. In fact, they never encouraged me to do so and I kind of fell into it after doing a Master’s degree, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. In truth, I would rather have been a footballer. But, once I realised I was nowhere near good enough, I wanted to do something I was good at – and I suppose that was ‘writing’ in some form or other. One observation I would make is that people make an unnecessary divide between academic and popular/public history. There’s often a lot of backbiting across that divide (mainly from rather pious academics) but in my view everyone can and should have their cake and eat it. We need academic historians to study things that are unfashionable but broaden horizons and push boundaries and we need public historians to keep people outside the academy engaged. What’s the issue?

Do you have a favourite historical quote?

“It is always an advantage to a great Character to get into a Scrape – the Resurrection carries him higher than if his progress had been uninterrupted … I am unwilling to give up a Hero, whom one has so long respected.” Castlereagh about the Duke of Wellington, 1809.

What you are working on now?

I am juggling two potential projects though, at the moment, they are still just ideas. The first is a biography of Clement Attlee, who was always one of my favourite politicians – like Castlereagh, his career encompasses so many larger issues from the rise of the Labour party to the War and the nuclear bomb. The second is a History of the War on Terror (from 9/11 to Bin Laden’s death). My view is that it is time to write the first draft of history of this period – getting away from the shrillness and the polemical arguments and trying to piece together events using the many documents that have come to light in recent years (from official commissions, court cases, and leaks). Historians approach questions in a rigorous and forensic way – these skills are pretty useful and we should be bolder about we are prepared to tackle when the opportunity arises.

This article was first published on the Quercus Books website at

Castlereagh: From Enlightenment to Tyranny by John Bew. Published by Quercus Books, Hardback, priced £25.