Written by Andrew Roberts
Robert Blake, who died on 20 September 2003 aged 86, was a delightful man as well as being a fine scholar. The author of the superlative – indeed the definitive – life of Benjamin Disraeli; Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, for nigh on two decades; the leading historian of the Tory Party; highly respected peer; a constitutional expert regularly consulted by the Court, he was also a sweet, charming, rubicund son of Norfolk who never failed to help and encourage historians far younger than him. Had Sir Edward Heath’s vanity not thrust himself forward for the chancellorship of Oxford, thereby splitting the Tory vote, Blake might well have been elected to that post in succession to Harold Macmillan in 1987.
Robert Norman William Blake’s love of history stemmed from his father, who taught it at the King Edward VI Grammar School, Norwich, from where Robert won a scholarship to read PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford. A small ‘c’ conservative as much as – in fact often more than – a large ‘C’ one, Blake fell hopelessly and headlong in love with Oxford, and despite lucrative offers of employment elsewhere he never left until retirement back in Norfolk beckoned half a century later. Despite decades of dining at Oxford High Tables, Blake had not a scintilla of that donnish malice that peppers the personalities of so many others who live in that biosphere.
Blake had a good war; not waiting to be called up, he immediately joined the 124th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, but was captured three years later outside Tobruk. Incarcerated in Italy, he read the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and the Italian dictionary. The last proved invaluable when in September 1943 he and two comrades-in-arms managed to escape from their POW camp and hide behind enemy lines until joining up with the Eighth Army five months later. He won a mention in despatches.
Blake spent the rest of the war in MI6, working with Hugh Trevor-Roper, who became a lifelong friend, and Kim Philby, who did not. In 1947 he was elected to the studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, where he taught politics and stayed as a Fellow until he was elected to the provostship of Queen’s in 1968, where he was popular and efficient. He held a number of senior university as well as college posts, all of which he adorned with his inimitable blend of good-humour, fair-mindedness and respect for tradition.
It is none the less as an author rather than a teacher, politician or administrator that Robert Blake will be longest and best remembered. The Private Papers of Douglas Haig (1952) were scrupulously edited, and controversial on publication because of the revelations of the field-marshal’s low opinion of his French counterparts. The Unknown Prime Minister (1955) was for over four decades the standard life of Andrew Bonar Law. Then in 1966 came Disraeli, a sublime book that stands as a beacon, a model and a reproach to all British political biographers and historians. When historians set out to write significant books on important biographical subjects, there can be no better advice to them than to read Robert Blake’s Disraeli.
As Oxford’s Ford Lecturer of 1967-68, Blake published his lecture series asThe Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970), which went into many editions, was twice updated and was in print for many years. It established him as the foremost biographer of the Conservative Party, someone whose opinions on constitutional and other political matters were constantly sought by newspapers, radio and television programmes, as well as by Buckingham Palace and also by his colleagues in the House of Lords after he was ennobled in 1971.
Blake reviewed history books widely and with near-impeccable judgement. Indeed, in all his pronouncements Blake was unfailingly charming, judicious and keen to place current affairs in their correct historical perspective. (The deaths of Lords Dacre, Bullock and now Blake have almost denuded the Upper House of historians, a situation that the Government ought to address.)
Blake’s further books included The Office of Prime Minister (1975); A History of Rhodesia (1977); Disraeli’s Grand Tour (1982) – which was dedicated to his two co-escapees of 1943; The Decline of Power (1985); and finally Jardine Matheson, Traders of the Far East (1999). From 1980 until 1990 he was a distinguished co-editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the RSL in 1966.
Severe thrombosis led to the loss of first one of Lord Blake’s legs, and then the other while in his eighties, the operations and subsequent discomfiture from which he bore with the utmost stoicism. Blake’s home life was conspicuous for its great happiness; his beloved wife Patricia predeceased him in 1995, but he is survived by their three attractive, intelligent daughters.