Remembering Rodney Lowe (1946-2018)

Martin Gorsky writes:

Here in the Centre we were sorry to hear about the death on 1st December 2018 of our friend Rodney Lowe.  He was Emeritus Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Bristol and had been one of the first external members and supporters of our Centre.  Rodney was a contemporary historian of British social policy – ‘contemporary’ signifying for him a time period from the mid-twentieth century to the present, but always with an eye of what had gone before.  The NHS, of course, formed a central strand, so he liked to keep abreast of scholars like us working on health politics and their history.  His work in turn helped us, by showing how the twists and turns of health policy were part of the bigger story of the welfare state.

For the scholarly community his key works were a history of the Ministry of Labour, Adjusting to Democracy, his handbook guides to documents in the National Archives for researching the welfare state, his classic article debating the nature of the post-war consensus, and his final book before falling ill, Reforming the Civil Service, Volume I: The Fulton Years, 1966-81, the first part of his official history of the civil service. Volume II, completed with Hugh Pemberton and covering the Thatcher and Major years, will appear posthumously in May 2019.  However, for the reading public, for generations of students and for fellow academics, he will be best remembered for his The Welfare State in Britain Since 1945.

This was first published in 1993, and was a tour de force of clear-sighted historical analysis.  It starts with a summary of the different theoretical approaches to the welfare state, and the basics of British political and economic history required to understand it.  At its heart was a major study of what Rodney called the ‘classic welfare state’, covering the key areas like employment, social security, education, housing, health and social services in the golden years of growth between 1945 and 1975.  Next it surveyed the phase 1975 to 1990, when welfare was under attack ideologically and squeezed economically.  The concluding evaluation gave a strong endorsement of the contribution the welfare state had made to British society, both in terms of social stability and the betterment of the people.  A third edition of the book in 2004 deepened the sections on the Thatcher era and sketched the case for the Blair years as continuity in key respects.

Behind its textbook facade, Rodney’s history of the welfare state was the work of a historian with a sharp and judicious perspective. His position is probably best seen as somewhere in the ‘vital centre’ of postwar British politics, and closest to what he called the ‘reluctant collectivists’, like Keynes and Beveridge.  He was equally skeptical of New Right ideologues and ‘muddled lefties’ (as, I expect, he viewed me).  On the one hand he despaired of the failure of Conservatives since the 1980s to develop a positive philosophy of the welfare state, which properly acknowledged its ‘achievement’ in creating the good society.  On the other, he countered the criticisms of radicals with a firm insistence on the good the state had done in furthering fairness, always emphasizing the hard data that lay beneath the Thatcherite bluster.  He was also unhappy with the extent to which the decline of deference had morphed into lack of respect for politicians.  They were people who at least rolled up their sleeves and tried to effect change, rather than sniping from the sidelines.  (Whether this extended to the present leadership and the Brexit farrago, I do not know!)

A pragmatic outlook therefore marked Rodney as a historian.  He was fiercely committed to the importance of contemporary history, and a past that was made to speak to the present.  This could extend to a wry skepticism of scholarship on earlier periods if it shirked clarity.  I remember his aside on exiting an overlong Bristol seminar on ‘night-flying’ given by an eminent Oxbridge historian of witchcraft: ‘That Martin, was what you call garbage-in, garbage-out’!  He also seemed unimpressed by the cultural turn in social history, precisely because it abandoned larger synthesis and ignored political economy.  ‘Belongs in the literature department!’ was his comment after another seminar, this time from a leading discourse analyst on working-class subjectivities.  So, Rodney was a scholar who we in the Centre will sadly miss, for his humour and his judgment.  But more importantly we’ll miss his support of our endeavours, and his belief in the importance of bringing the history of public health into the heart of contemporary British history.  He has also left behind an important body of work, one that means he won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Virginia Berridge adds:

I met Rodney later in his career after the publication of his welfare book. I had used his discussion of the idea of a post war consensus in social policy in writing about HIV/AIDS policies under Mrs Thatcher. I was immediately struck by his interest and support – not always the case with contemporary historians who are sometimes dismissive of health policy as not ‘high politics’ enough. He was an early external supporter of the Centre at LSHTM and made sure its staff were integrated into journal and other networks.  We will miss him, not least for his sense of humour.

17th December 2018