MY FRIEND HUGH THOMAS REMEMBERED (21 October 1931 – 6 May 2017) by Jimmy Burns
Hugh Thomas, who has died aged 85,was a historian with an enduring interest in and passion for the Hispanic world straddling epochs, continents and empires. He also played an active part as a policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and in his later years served in the House of Lords as a life peer, never seeing this as place of patronage let alone retirement but as an integral part of an effective and accountable parliamentary democracy.
He had developed an interest in Spain after a first visit in the 1950’s when he set himself the task of writing the first comprehensive history of the Spanish Civil War. The result was a ground-breaking account, detailed and innovative in its research, highly readable, and above all balanced in a way that contrasted with the poorly sourced, prejudiced and often crudely propagandist accounts that had emerged until then from each side of the conflict , both in Spain and the UK.
An international best-seller, the seminal The Spanish Civil War set a hard to beat high standard for other researchers to surpass while encouraging an increasingly prolific bibliography and evolving academic courses on the subject.
Several of Thomas’s subsequent works of history came to be characterised by a similar sense of perspective and literary power unrivalled by any other academics in his field, although his ventures into fiction proved less successful. He didn’t easily suffer historians he considered unworthy competitors, but was generous in his moral support for much lesser known and underpaid younger writers he respected.
Thomas was a true liberal, in his openness to and willingness to engage with alternative views, while unyielding in core principles , and never succumbing to those on the extreme of the political spectrum.
He showed little patience with fellow historians whose subjectivity distorted and manipulated the material they had accessed to justify their opinions. For example he took issue with the description of the Spanish Empire as cruel and rapacious by the Victorian Cambridge professor JR Seeley in his account of the British Empire . Thomas wrote that such an assessment made Seeley appear “ an ignorant and parochial ideologue.”
Thomas’s comment is to be found in World Without End (2014) , the third volume of his magnificent trilogy about the Spanish Empire published over the last fourteen years and which stand as a worthy bookend to his life as a historian.
Even in his advancing years, Thomas never shied away from the challenge of another ‘magnus opus’ while along the way writing novels and periodically delving into smaller scale projects like his biography of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the 18th century French polymath.
Thomas was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Windsor in 1931-his father was a colonial commissioner- and was educated at one of Britan’s leading private boarding schools Sherborne . In 1953 he graduated from Cambridge where the wit and intellectual sharpness that stuck with him for most of his life , had him elected president of the Cambridge Union before he pursued further studies at the Sorbonne.
Thomas’s firs employment was at the Foreign Office, where he worked for two years in a department dealing with the United Nations, and was briefly a prospective Labour candidate. He was Professor of History at Reading University from 1966-1975. By then several years had gone since he had approached for the first time my parents the late Tom Burns and Mabel Marañón at their home in London. My father had developed a life-time interest in Spain after serving in the British embassy in Madrid during World War 2 and marrying my Spanish mother, the youngest daughter of Gregorio Marañón a Spanish physician, scientist, historian, philosopher, humanist, and writer, considered one of the most brilliant Spanish intellectuals of the 20th century. My parents provided Thomas with an invaluable list of contacts straddling the Spanish political spectrum, from Franco ministers to former members of the Republican government who had fled to exile, among many others. Thereafter, Thomas pursued his research into the Spanish Civil War, and developed an enduring friendship with the Burns Mabel Marañón family, along with other members of the BritishSpanish community based in London grouped in cultural organizations like the British Spanish Society.
I count myself honored to have benefited in my early days as a writer from Thomas’s generosity, as he offered me invaluable confidential advice linked to separate books I wrote on the Falklands War (The Land that Lost its Heroes) and on British intelligence in Wartime Spain-(Papa Spy) apart from becoming an enduring point of reference on all matters relating to British-Spanish relations.
After his Spanish Civil War book, Thomas followed up with another large volume, this time on the history of Cuba, which took a critical view of Castro’s submission to Soviet influence and his curbing of human rights. By the time of its publication in the mid 1970’s Thomas’s political allegiances had shifted away from the Labour party to the Conservative Party because of what he saw as Labour’s less than enthusiastic attitude to Britain’s membership of the European Common Market.
After Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, Thomas developed a personal friendship as well as an advisory role , heading up the centre-right think-tank Center For Policy Studies. He was then honored as Lord Thomas of Swynnerton of Notting Hill, the London neighborhood where he lived .
Thomas allowed some years to elapse before sharing details of the interesting part he played in trying to win over some of the so-called Notting Hill ‘ set’ to the Thatcher ‘revolution’ at a private dinner he organized in his large Georgian House in Ladbroke Grove with her as the guest of honor.
It was late 1982, a few months after the British victory in the Falklands War when despite her popularity among a majority of voters, Thatcher had yet to win hearts and minds ,among her enduring enemies, not least certain writers, and academics. Thomas was seen as a potential bridge between Number 10 and their world . By then he knew Thatcher well because he ran her favourite thinktank, the Centre for Policy Studies.
Those invited to the dinner with Thatcher at Thomas’s house included the poets Stephen Spender and Philip Larkin, , hispanist writer VS Pritchett, the writer Anthony Powell, the playwright Tom Stoppard, and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who had taught Hispanic studies at King’s College London and was pursuing his international literary and political career.
The meal was cooked by the artist Lady Thomas (formally Vanessa Jebb, the daughter of Gladwyn Jebb, first acting secretary-general of the United Nations), with their daughter Bella and one of her friends, Maggie Evans, acting as waitresses. The guests dined on pheasant and drank Rioja, a wine that at the time had yet to enter the British supermarket shelves on a major scale.
The Thomas’s were always convivial hosts, and Vanessa’s home cooking delicious, as I can attest having attended one such ‘intellectual’ dinner with the late Harold Pinter and his wife Antonia Fraser some five years later after I was awarded the Somerset Maugham prize for my book on the Falklands war, a similar prize given to Thomas after he published the first edition of the Spanish Civil War in 1962. By then it was evident that any attempt to reconcile Thatcher’s personality and politics with the liberal tendencies of the north London literati was doomed to failure.
Thomas’s politics were individualistic, radical, and pragmatic-very English traits according to his Spanish admirers who read his books and articles in translation with huge interest and who have produced an outpouring of generous obituaries on the news of his death.
As I came to know him, Thomas was outspoken when he felt it necessary to the point of brashness, and enjoyed flattery, while never allowing himself to be seduced by power or pigeonholed by ideology.
In 1997 he quit what he saw as the increasing anti-Europeanism in the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats. He later became a cross-bencher in the House of Lords rather than openly support any one party.
Like many of his compatriots who voted to remain in the European Union, he was deeply shocked by the result of the British referendum and the government’s subsequent push for Brexit. Sadly, the referendum coincided with a period of declining health that had left Thomas increasingly fragile and with less energy to take on big challenges as in the past.
His love of Spain and Latin America endured however, and just months before he died made the effort to attend the inauguration of the new offices of the Institute of Cervantes in London, where he conversed, with the Spanish and Cuban ambassadors, among other friends and contacts, handing out copies of one of his books.
His committed Europeanism , as expressed through his love of Spain, was not only political but also cultural as he made clear in an interview he gave just over a year ago to Luis Ventoso of the Spanish newspaper ABC. “ I have always strongly defended Spain, I have done everything I can in this respect. “
On Gibraltar he was aware of the potential minefield he was treading but never shied away from his firmly held view that the best possible future for all sides involved, if negotiated skillfully, was shared sovereignty.
Thomas received several honors in the UK, France, Latin America, and Spain, including the prestigious Spanish orders Isabel la Católica y Alfonso X el Sabio- testament to the cultural bridges he helped build in defiance of the forces of intolerance and division.
He is survived by his wife Vanessa, and their three children Inigo, Isambad, and Bella.