Robert Norman William Blake, Baron Blake, FBA, FRSL (23 December 1916 – 20 September 2003), was an English historian and peer. He is best known for his 1966 biography of Benjamin Disraeli, and for The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill, which grew out of his 1968 Ford lectures.
In 1947 he became a student (fellow) and tutor in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford, replacing Lord Pakenham, who had joined Clement Attlee‘s government. His first work was an edition of the papers of Douglas Haig, which did much to restore Haig’s reputation. It was followed by a biography of Bonar Law, written at the invitation of Lord Beaverbrook, Law’s executor.
Blake’s most famous work is his 1966 Disraeli, a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, which has been variously described as “the best single-volume biography of any British prime minister” and “the best biography of anyone in any language”. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy the following year.
Having abandoned a project for a biography of Lord Derby, in 1970 he published The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill, a general history of the Conservative Party based on his 1968 Ford Lectures. The work was later extended to cover the period up to the premiership of Margaret Thatcher and, later, that of John Major.
In 1968 he was elected provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford, a post he retained until retirement in 1987. On 17 May 1971, on the recommendation of Edward Heath, Blake was created a life peer as Baron Blake, of Braydeston in the County of Norfolk. In the House of Lords he took the Conservative whip. In 1972 he moved the address in reply to the Queen’s Speech.
His History of Rhodesia (1978) is, according to Kenneth O. Morgan, “essentially a study of white rule, ending with sharp comments on the illegal breakaway regime of Ian Smith, where Blake’s views were much influenced by his friendship with the liberal Garfield Todd and his daughter”. It makes interesting reading in conjunction with the less critical Sunrise on the Zambezi (1953).
In 1987 Lord Blake was nominated in the election for the Oxford Chancellorship, but lost to Roy Jenkins, although polling ahead of former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. Blake was hurt by the fact that the Cabinet had decided to endorse Heath, and became withdrawn from Oxford. In 1992 Blake gave the centenary Romanes Lecture on “Gladstone, Disraeli and Queen Victoria”.
Blake was for many years Senior Member (the University don responsible for ruling on internal disputes such as accusations of electoral malpractice) of the Oxford University Conservative Association.
Concomitant with his study of Conservative history, Blake was a political Conservative, and took the Conservative whip in the House of Lords. He defended the British government during the Suez Crisis and in later life was a Eurosceptic. He was, however, a supporter of proportional representation, and served as the Chairman of the Electoral Reform Society. He also rebelled over the War Crimes Bill.
Blake opposed the Labour Party’s policy to abolish the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Writing the year before the 1997 general election, he commented:
“Abolition of the hereditary vote…is alleged to be phase one of a policy to substitute an elective Upper House for the existing chamber. Meanwhile we would have the biggest quango of all time: a House whose members would owe their seats solely to past or present prime ministerial patronage. Even as an interim measure, this would be thoroughly undesirable, and certainly no improvement on the present composition. The hereditary system, whatever its logical defects, does produce some people of independent opinions and also some who are much younger than the normal run of middle-aged legislators…My guess is that after achieving stage one, which would involve a great deal of parliamentary time and much controversy, a Labour Cabinet would rest on its oars and postpone for many years any plans for an elective chamber. There are immense difficulties involved – its powers, electoral system, and above all relations with the Commons, which would certainly resent the creation of a body with rival claims to democratic legitimacy.”
Books in order of publication:
- The Private Papers of Douglas Haig (1952) (Editor)
- The Unknown Prime Minister. The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law, 1858-1923 (1955).
- Disraeli (1966).
- Disraeli and Gladstone (1969) (Stephen Lecture).
- The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970) (later revised and updated as The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher, then again as The Conservative Party from Peel to Major).
- The Office of Prime Minister (1975).
- Conservatism in an Age of Revolution (1976).
- History of Rhodesia (1977).
- Disraeli’s Grand Tour: Benjamin Disraeli and the Holy Land, 1830-31 (1982).
- The English World (1982)
- The Decline of Power, 1915-1964 (1985) (part of The Paladin History of England series).
- An Incongruous Partnership: Lloyd George and Bonar Law (1992) (The Welsh Political Archive Lecture).
- Gladstone, Disraeli and Queen Victoria. Centenary Romanes Lecture (1993).
- Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (1993) (edited with Wm Roger Louis).
- Winston Churchill (1998).
- Jardine Matheson. Traders of the Far East (1999).