Eulogy of Stephen Haseler by Brendan Donnelly

Eulogy of Stephen Haseler

by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust
13th October 2017

We have already heard today evocative and moving accounts of Stephen Haseler as a brother, Stephen as a friend, Stephen as a politician, Stephen as a republican and Stephen as a mentor. I want to talk about Stephen as an intellectual force as an intellectual presence. This aspect of his life went well beyond his day job as a Professor of Politics. I think it was central to the person he was and the person he wanted to be. It was certainly central to the person who enriched my life and that of many others here today over the past decades. Stephen’s intellectualism was always life-enhancing, never life-constraining.  His intellectualism was not just something he practiced but something he lived and was eager to encourage others, from different backgrounds, different generations and different talents to share.

A phrase I sometimes heard Stephen use, particularly about prominent American colleagues, was that of “public intellectual.” Stephen might have regarded is as pretentious when applied to himself but I think it well captures Stephen’s desire and capacity to straddle both the world of academia and    that of more direct political action. Dick Taverne has spoken of Stephen’s traditional political career, but Stephen certainly saw his writing and broadcasting in more recent years as a continuation of the political struggle by other means. He believed in and possessed the academic virtues of intellectual rigour, of respect for evidence-based policy-making, of always verifying his references before publication. But he did not want simply to describe the world. He wanted to change and influence it as well. In this he certainly succeeded, perhaps more than is generally realized. Because many of his ideas about globalization, about the super-rich, about English nationalism, about the self-deceptiveness of the supposedly special British relationship with America have now seeped irreversibly into the popular consciousness, it is easy to forget just how controversial and formative these ideas originally were and how central a role Stephen played in their formulation and dissemination.

But for me Stephen emerged from the already distinguished company of high-grade political scientists for two particular and apparently contradictory reasons, his overwhelming moral seriousness and his sense of humour. As striking feature of any lengthy conversation with Stephen about politics was his conviction that politics was not simply or even primarily a technical field of activity. Politics for Stephen was the domain of moral choices, moral choices that needed to be made as consciously and transparently as possible and then pursued with good faith and coherence. As a teacher, Stephen attached the highest possible value to the clarification of real choices with which societies and individuals were confronted. Although himself a man of definite and well-formed views on many subjects, he never found any difficulty in respecting and debating with those whose views and choices he rejected. Although it is not a phrase I ever heard him use, Stephen certainly regarded the unexamined life as not being worth living. Over his long life Stephen undoubtedly changed his mind on some important issues. I would say that was the inevitable and appropriate consequence of the endless examination and re-examination of his own assumptions and those of others that was so prominent a feature of his personal makeup. None of this is to say that Stephen was an agonized or agonizing oscillator between various poles of intellectual attraction. He was a robust and sometimes aggressive controversialist. But he always had high respect for those who having made their choices exhibited the moral and intellectual courage to act in accordance with them. Stephen had no time for opportunism, temporization or careerism. I saw Stephen’s ability to combine firm and decided views of his own with a genuine respect for those disagreed as being one of his most attractive and honourable features.

All this probably sounds very high-minded and it is meant to be. But no account of Stephen’s intellectual personality would be complete without full recognition of his humour and good humour. I recently found myself being lectured by a former Conservative Cabinet Minister on how British pragmatism could never permit long-term membership of any idealistic and dynamic organization such as the European Union. The uniquely fortunate history of the United Kingdom in the twentieth century happily dispensed it from the need to seek alternatives to the nation state in sovereignty-pooling continental alliances. As I left this dispiriting conversation it came as a real jolt to me to remember that I could not ring Stephen Haseler to share with him on the telephone this self-important drivel from a nationally known politician. How we would have laughed and how we did laugh, again and again and again at the vagaries of the dysfunctional British political and constitutional system. It always seemed to me that Stephen’s intellectual and moral seriousness coexisted with what my Liverpudlian grandmother would have called a “prominent funny bone.” He did find the British establishment, he did find the monarchy, he did find New Labour, he did find Euroscepticism screamingly funny as well as extremely off-putting. My life is distinctly the poorer for never being able in future to answer the phone and hear Stephen struggling to contain his laughter as he directed my attention to the latest headline in the Daily Telegraph about Mrs. May’s shoes, about the Duchess of York’s marital travails or about the supposed deficiencies of Michel Barnier’s coiffure.

I will end with one last memory of Stephen. I had kindly been invited by Bay and Stephen to a very pleasant lunch at their flat in Kensington. I left at about half past four and was amused to observe a full and frank exchange of geopolitical views between Stephen and other guests still going on in the corner of dining room, an exchange of views showing no sign of being about to finish any time soon. A couple of days later I bumped into one of the other guests and asked how long the discussion had gone on after I left. “I can’t remember exactly when you left” was the reply. “Was it before or after the European Union declared war on China?” One could always expect the unexpected in any conversation where Stephen was present. There were for him no taboos and no polite conventions, no ignored elephants in the room or overlooked five hundred pound gorillas. Some of Stephen’s best known writings contain fierce criticism of successive recent American governments. But in many ways Stephen’s directness and outspokenness seemed to me at least to be a reflection of his long-term exposure to American politics and culture. He did not baulk in the slightest at the idea of a European superstate incorporating what he saw as being the best elements of the American dream, its egalitarianism, its optimism, its openness to new ideas and its republicanism. When I knew him, the most powerful motivating force of Stephen’s political interest was the European Union and its future development. I hope and he would certainly have hoped that all of us here today have the opportunity at some stage to raise a glass and think of him when we read in the marital columns of The Times that the divorce announced between the UK and the European Union will not now take place. If and when that happy day occurs, Stephen will certainly be very much in my thoughts and I hope he will be in yours as well.