Paul Johnson, Prolific Historian Prized by Conservatives, Dies at 94
Paul Johnson, the prolific journalist, historian, biographer, speechwriter and novelist whose public conversion in 1977 from Labour Party stalwart to bulldog defender of Margaret Thatcher and conservatism made him a divisive figure in British literary circles, died on Thursday at his home in London. He was 94.
His son Daniel announced the death, “after a long illness,” on Twitter.
A writer of immense range and output, capable of 6,000 words a day when in harness, Mr. Johnson modeled his career after earlier English men of letters, like Thomas Babington Macaulay and G.K. Chesterton. With an affable prose style and supreme confidence in his own opinions, he was happy to deliver forceful judgments on almost anything: the tangled politics of the Middle East, his personal quest for God or the cultural meaning of the Spice Girls.
The author or the editor of more than 50 books, Mr. Johnson alternated between large histories (of Christianity, Judaism, England, the United States, the middle years of the 20th century, art) and slim biographies of eminences from the ancient or more immediate past (Socrates, Jesus, Edward III, Elizabeth I, George Washington, Mozart, Napoleon, Darwin, Churchill, Eisenhower, Pope John XXIII.)
Writing more for a popular audience than for the approval of specialists, he filtered his wide reading through an ethical lens. As a historian, he looked back to the Victorians, for whom readable prose was as crucial as archival research, and, like those old-fashioned moralists, he was fond of hierarchies. Whether the subject was Renaissance sculptors or American humorists, no era, nation, religion, politician, event, building or piece of art or music was safe from his need to compare and rank.
These synthesizing qualities were impressively displayed in Mr. Johnson’s ambitious cross-cultural study, “The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830,” published in 1983, for which he received perhaps his finest, least begrudging reviews.
Other tomes, such as “Modern Times: A History of the World From the 1920s to the 1980s” (1984) and the 1,100-page “A History of the American People” (1998), were more polemical, extolling conservative economic policies and deriding liberal ones. Reviews often split along party lines, although several titles, including “A History of Christianity” (1979) and “A History of the Jews” (1987), sold widely.
As a journalist, Mr. Johnson was versatile enough to tailor his views to the space limits and philosophic biases of many different magazines and newspapers. He was a columnist, initially on the news media, for the Tory literary weekly The Spectator, from 1981 to 2009, and on sundry topics until 2001 for the British tabloid The Daily Mail. All the while, he contributed regularly to numerous other publications, including The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, in Britain, and the august art magazine Apollo.
Paul Bede Johnson was born on Nov. 2, 1928, in Manchester, England, and grew up during the Great Depression. His father was an artist who moved his family to Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, after being appointed principal of the art school there.
The move from city to town, he wrote in the first of his two memoirs, “The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries” (2004), was viewed by his mother as “a catastrophic descent from civilization to barbarism.”
Although the class system was firmly in place during his childhood, Mr. Johnson grew to be suspicious of Marxist thinking in any guise. As he wrote in 1990, “The truth is that by the time a person becomes conscious there is such a thing as a ‘working class,’ he has already lost touch with it and has ceased to be a credible authority on its characteristics.”
Both parents had “a horror of debt,” he wrote, a fear inherited by their son. Both mother and father were practicing Roman Catholics, and the faith sustained him as well, he said, inspiring his 1996 book, “The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage.” His father died suddenly when Paul was 13.
As he summed up his upbringing: “Poverty was everywhere but so were the Ten Commandments.”
Mr. Johnson attended Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit secondary school about 35 miles north of Manchester, and then Magdalen College, Oxford. In his university years, tutored by the iconoclastic historian A.J.P. Taylor, he met many of the figures who would shape his life in London, including Margaret Thatcher. He graduated with an honors degree in history.
After national service in the British Army, which stationed him in Gibraltar, he joined the left-wing magazine The New Statesman, first as its Paris correspondent and then, after he had moved back to London in 1955, as a writer and deputy editor. At the same time, he tried his hand at fiction, publishing two novels, “Left of Centre” (1959) and “Merrie England” (1964). Neither was successful enough for him to rethink his career. He was promoted to editor of the magazine in 1965 and served in that post until 1970.
Over the next decade, he became increasingly alarmed by what was happening to a faltering Britain. Blame for inflation and unemployment rested, in his eyes, squarely with the Labour Party policies of James Callaghan and the country’s trade unions.
In 1977, Mr. Johnson published “Enemies of Society,” an attack on the 1960s left-wing intellectuals Ivan Illich, Herbert Marcuse and others. Written from the perspective of Karl Popper, the Viennese philosopher who settled in England and shaped conservative and liberal political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, the book signified a new and vigorous anti-communism in Mr. Johnson’s writing.
That same year, he resigned from Labour, claiming that its leaders espoused a philosophy of “corporatism” and “authoritarianism” similar to Mussolini’s Italy. His apostasy became a minor media sensation.
At the same time, Mr. Johnson vowed to join the Conservative Party if it would choose Mrs. Thatcher as its leader over the current prime minister, Edward Heath.
After Mrs. Thatcher’s election as prime minister in 1979, Mr. Johnson became an adviser and speechwriter for her. In 2004, he recalled that he had been impressed by her at Oxford, where they overlapped. “She was not a party person,” he said. “She was an individual who made up her own mind.”
Mr. Johnson’s breakneck pace of writing only increased in the 1980s. “The Birth of the Modern” sweeps across the histories of Britain, the United States, Russia, France, Germany and the Spanish-speaking countries. Its 1,115 pages offer his entertaining thoughts on politics, art, music, technology and literature, with cameos by Napoleon, Goya, Beethoven, Faraday, Mary Shelley and dozens of others.
He had an eye for the telling fact: “Between 1800 and 1835 Parliament debated no less than 11 bills seeking to make the deliberate ill-treatment of animals unlawful; all failed, mostly by narrow margins.” And: “In 1730 three out of four children born in London failed to reach their fifth birthday. By 1830 the proportion had been reversed.”
In 1994, a group of his American conservative admirers produced “The Quotable Paul Johnson: A Topical Compilation of His Wit, Wisdom, and Satire.” Arranged in alphabetical order, from “Abolition” to “Zionism,” with an introduction by William F. Buckley Jr., the book’s 2,000 excerpts from his writings included this typical excerpt on “Television” from a 1987 Spectator column:
“If everyone agrees that television has unrivaled efficiency at selling goods, services, culture, music, God, politics and fashion, why does the industry continue to claim that the one thing it cannot sell is violence?”
Mr. Johnson’s reputation as a Tory moralist suffered a setback when his own failings were exposed. Shortly after denouncing President Bill Clinton, who had been accused of lying under oath over a liaison with a White House intern, Mr. Johnson was revealed in 1998 to have had an 11-year extramarital affair with another writer, Gloria Stewart. (Her published account did not skimp on salacious details; spanking, for instance, was “a big part of our relationship,” she wrote. Mr. Johnson did not publicly respond, and his marriage, to Marigold Hunt, a psychotherapist and one-time Labour Party parliamentary candidate, survived.)
Many of his opinions seemed intended to outrage liberals and modernists, or at least force them to question their orthodoxies. In a 1999 article for The Spectator about the 20th century’s greatest political leaders, he ranked Lee Kuan Kew of Singapore and Mrs. Thatcher at the top, with the repressive dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile only a rung below. Stability and economic progress were his measuring sticks of success.
“I don’t fall for the hype about Nelson Mandela, under whose timid rule South Africa went straight for the rocks,” Mr. Johnson scoffed.
Elsewhere, he expressed his loathing for Picasso, as an artist and as a man, and declared that William Randolph Hearst’s Mediterranean Revival castle in San Simeon, Calif., was “arguably the finest building in North America.’’ He promoted the neglected art of watercolor and practiced it assiduously himself.
His longstanding admiration for the United States and many of its political and military leaders, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant to Richard M. Nixon (he despised John F. Kennedy), was reciprocated in 2006 when President George W. Bush honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
But Mr. Johnson seemed happiest when assessing the history of his own country, especially its powerful men and women.
“Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and the most likable,” he wrote in a 2009 biography. “It is a joy to write about his life, and to read about it.”
In addition to his son Daniel, who is also a journalist, Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1958; two more sons of theirs, Cosmo and Luke, a businessman and former television executive; a daughter, Sophie Johnson-Clark, a television script editor; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Easy as it seemed for him to write expansively, whether on the works of the 18th-century painter George Stubbs or the complex history of Israel’s founding, Mr. Johnson also recognized that concision was as valuable a skill for a writer. In a piece for The Wall Street Journal in 2012, he praised Arthur Bryant’s 109-page biography of Macaulay as “the best short biography ever written” and explained its virtues:
“What is required for this kind of work is a combination of ruthlessness and elegance. Ruthlessness in discarding everything but the essential; elegance in concealing your brutality behind a flow of prose in which not a word is wasted, room is found for wit and the telling anecdote, and the reader never gets an impression of hurry.”