Lord Thomas of Swynnerton 1931-2017 (Chairman of CPS 1979 – 1991)

An appreciation by Ferdinand Mount.

I first met Hugh in a white suit and straw hat in Malaga in 1960, when he was just finishing his first masterpiece, The Spanish Civil War. His later blockbusters, on the Cuban Revolution, the Conquest of Mexico and the Atlantic Slave Trade, made him the foremost Hispanic historian of his generation, revered by Spanish speakers on two continents. That might seem enough for one man, but he had always had a close interest in British and European politics, quickened by his revulsion from the Labour Party in the 1970s (he had been a Labour candidate), and his growing admiration for Margaret Thatcher. Even so, it was a surprise when he succeeded Keith Joseph as Chairman of the CPS in 1979. Already in place at Wilfred Street was the founding director of studies, Alfred Sherman. Ironically, not only was Alfred another refugee from the Left, he was a Spanish veteran too, having served in the International Brigade in the Civil War. Rarely can two more explosive characters have shared the same offices. Alfred had carried over his handiness with a machine gun into a capacity for relentless verbal fusillades, while Hugh’s preferred weapon was the libel writ (usually withdrawn the morning after the storm).  It all ended in a memorable bust-up which Hugh survived and Alfred didn’t. 

The casus belli  was whether or not the Centre, in the person of Alfred, should be allowed to attack Ministers, or whether it was there strictly to serve Mrs Thatcher and her government. Like many another trigger of all-out war, it seemed strangely unreal. Those of use who served in the Board in the 1980s had varying views and interests, and none of us felt any inhibition in expressing them or in commissioning pamphlets which might strike out in  new directions. In fact, the CPS’s combustible core generated an unpredictable energy which was far more productive than any agreed guidelines.

As a personal adviser, Hugh also gave Mrs Thatcher reinforcement during the Falklands crisis and in her dealings with the Soviet Union and her subtle overtures to Eastern Europe. As a genial and congenial host, he introduced her to an assortment of distinguished scholars: Bob Conquest, Leonard Schapiro, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Howard the military historian. The legendary literary dinner party he gave at Ladbroke Grove, at which Philip Larkin had to be told to speak up, was only one of many lunches and dinners at which he broadened her circle and gave her access to fresh ideas - always such a difficult thing in the enforced isolation of Number Ten. 

In the end, the cause that broke up this fruitful friendship was  the same cause that had driven Hugh out of the Labour Party twenty years earlier, his unwavering dedication to European unity and her no less unwavering scepticism. All the same, Hugh did leave behind  his own legacy of perestroika. No longer is the Conservative Party hermetically sealed against the winds of change. The CPS has much to be grateful for those twelve years he was in the chair. And I look back with pleasure on half a century of unclouded friendship with an original and delightful man.

Date added: Tuesday 9th May 2017