Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
When I started studying history, I had some notion that understanding the past would help me understand the present.
Much later, when I went into politics, I realised that it was the other way around. Watching contemporary political developments, sometimes driven by unbelievably petty ambitions, made me reassess events to which the passage of time had lent a heroic sheen invisible to the actors themselves.
For example, 20 years ago MEPs rejected the nomination of the Italian Commissioner-designate, Rocco Buttiglione, because he had voiced orthodox Catholic teachings about homosexuality. A German colleague, who was a terrific Anglophile as well as a Euro-federalist, told me excitedly: “You of all people should appreciate this, Hannan: this is our 1641 moment!”
He was referring (I assume) to the Grand Remonstrance, when Parliament asserted itself against the executive.
My first thought, looking around the distracted faces in the hemicycle, was that it was almost sacrilegious to compare these self-regarding MEPs to Pym and Hampden.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that most of the MPs who had sat through the Grand Remonstrance debate would have been less interested in whether Parliament could veto Crown appointments than in which appointments they personally stood to secure. Indeed, I’d be prepared to bet that fair number were idly wondering what was for dinner.
If good history requires imaginative sympathy, Jesse Norman must be reckoned a first-rate historian. A former philosophy don, he has written beautiful books on Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. He has also been an MP since 2010, and understands Parliament in his bones.
This unusual combination of qualifications gives his first novel, The Winding Stair, its power.
The book tells the story of the rivalry between the natural philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and the lawyer Edward Coke (1552–1634). Except that Norman is chiefly attracted to them as competing MPs and office-holders. To borrow from Jeffrey Archer, his book begins as an Elizabethan First Among Equals, a race for preferment, and ends as a Jacobean Kane and Abel, the story of two men bent upon one another’s destruction.
In framing his tale this way, Norman almost certainly comes closer to the truth than a conventional biographer would have done. These days, we are primarily interested in Bacon as a pioneer of the scientific method. And we are primarily interested in Coke (pronounced Cook) as a jurist, the man who, more than any other, defined how the common law has come to be understood.
But the two men themselves were almost certainly more concerned about their careers. To read back our present obsessions into their age is anachronistic.
Anachronism has no place in these pages. The argot is immaculate, to the point where it is impossible to tell the direct contemporary quotations from the author’s own embellishments. The closest we get to a modern reference is a very subtle play on a passage from P.G. Wodehouse, so exquisitely rendered into Jacobean English that it is easy to miss.
The period that Norman covers is often passed over in our schools. Our children learn about the Tudors and, if they are lucky, about the civil wars of the 1640s. But the era in between tends to be treated as a prelude to that breakdown – with, again, many historians anachronistically reading back premonitions of war into every quarrel between King James and his MPs.
But if the years between the Armada and the Grand Remonstrance are often neglected as history, they are critical as literature. Norman begins several of his chapters with lines of verse. Along with a dash of Shakespeare, I recognised some Marlowe and some Jonson. I think a few of the poems were by Norman himself, but such is the verisimilitude of his style that I honestly can’t be sure.
Several reviewers have compared The Winding Stair to Hillary Mantel’s Tudor novels. But Norman has sought, and achieved, greater purity.
Mantel allows herself the odd modern word; Norman does not. She places some fictional characters alongside her historical figures; he does not. She gives herself a measure of dramatic licence (we can be pretty sure that Thomas More was not a torturer, for example); Norman is rigid in his accuracy.
Here, in short, is a splendid study of the intellectual currents in English law and politics at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century. It is a serious book for grown-up readers, assuming a measure of intelligence.
But the reward is a brilliant disquisition on how our legal and political systems came into existence, based as they are on the notion that the common law precedes the king, and that it grows like a coral, each judgment serving as the starting point for the next case.
Long-standing readers will know that this is a Whig column – on both political and aesthetic grounds. Like the greatest of Whig historians, Macaulay, I thought of Bacon’s politics (when I thought of them at all) as servile and authoritarian. Like his brilliant great-nephew, GM Trevelyan, I thought of Coke as “one of the most important champions of our liberties.”
Seeing the two men together has given me a much more nuanced view, and leaves me feeling more patriotic. I became even more convinced, as Roger Scruton always was, that the miracle of the common law is the true foundation of our freedom. Not a bad feeling to get from someone’s first novel.
The Winding Stair is published by Biteback.