Lord Trevor Smith pays tribute to Professor Anthony H Birch 1924 - 2014

PROFESSOR ANTHONY H BIRCH   1924 – 2014

Tony Birch was one of the most productive and innovative British political scientists over the past sixty years. Although widely read and respected, he never quite received the recognition he merited. Invariably his publications were pioneering; he was a true lateral thinker.

His first book, Federalism, Finance and Social Legislation (1955) was based on his doctoral thesis and covered issues previously the preserve of economists. Small-Town Politics (1959) introduced a behavioural dimension to the study of local politics which prompted a number of authors to emulate him in what became something of a paradigm shift that is still influential in the approach to the subject of local government and community politics. Of even greater importance was Representative and Responsible Government (1964) which blended both the theory and practice of UK governance in a novel and lucid interpretation. That was followed by The British System of Government (1967) which became a standard textbook which ran to ten editions. His interests in both federalism and localism led him to write “Political Integration and Disintegration in the British Isles” (1977) much of which has retained its relevance today. Concepts and theories of Democracy (1993) confirmed him as one of the major contemporary political theorists.

He was born and grew up in north London as an only and rather sickly child. He attended the prestigious grammar school, William Ellis, in Gospel Oak. He always complained of being severely bullies at school which had an enduring effect on him and influenced his brilliant and sympathetic analysis of Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the BJPS.

After school he went up to University College, Nottingham and read for the London External BSc (Econ), graduating with First Class honours in 1945. Ill health prevent him from being conscripted during and after the Second World War and he joined the Board of Trade as an Assistant Principal where he stayed for two years during which time he enrolled for a PhD under Harold Laski at the LSE.

He was appointed an Assistant Lecturer in Government in the Economics Department at Manchester University where he was soon to be joined by W J M Mackenzie as the first Professor and Head of the newly created Department of Government. Birch, along with many others, greatly benefitted from the tutelage of Mackenzie, and almost all of them went to professorships in the political science departments that later burgeoned in the expanding provincial universities. At that time in the 1950s, Manchester was a leading centre for the social sciences that included economics, social administration, philosophy, anthropology and sociology. Among the academic staff there was a good deal of inter-disciplinary interaction of a kind rarely seen before or since. This again influenced Birch’s own career development.

During 1951-52 he was a Harkness Fellow at both Harvard and Chicago Universities. While there he met his future wife Dorothy. Returning to Manchester he gained promotion and then went on to become the foundation Professor of Political Studies at Hull in 1961. He joined W H Greenleaf and Robert Dowse who had taught politics within the Economics Department. He never quite got on with either, nor they with him.

In the subsequent appointments he made he laid the basis of one of the most successful politics departments in the UK. Almost all of the appointees became professors, including Bob Benewick, Bob Berki, David Coombes, Howard Elcock, Dennis Kavanagh, Stephen Kirby, Stephen Ingle, Michael Leifer, Jeremy Noakes, Bhikhu Parekh, Paul Taylor and, I must declare an interest, myself – indeed, I was the first appointment he made at Hull. Like his mentor at Manchester, Bill Mackenzie, he was an adroit selector of talent.

On the downside, he was a bad manager. He was rather authoritarian and secretive, so much so that we had to read his secretary’s shorthand notes to discover what he was up to. Continuing bouts of illness, especially with the onset of winter meant many absences. When I inquired about these, Greenleaf contemptuously dismissed the reason as “hyponchondriacal melancholia” and, indeed, there was more than an element of truth about that. He only completed one  year of a three year appointment as Faculty Dean.

In 1970 he moved to the chair at Exeter University which he had previously described as “a country club masquerading as a university”. To the chagrin of both, Bob Dowse had preceded him there. Nevertheless, Birch’s appointments were again very successful and the department of politics at Exeter has moved from strength to strength since then.

In 1977 the University of Victoria tempted him to a chair. He remained in post until retirement in 1989 and stayed on in Vancouver until his death in December 2014 at the age of ninety.

He was active in the political science profession both nationally and internationally. He served as chair of the PSA (1972-75) but was ousted in a well-planned coup led by Jack Hayward and Jim Sharpe. This was justified as the PSA was stagnating as a learned society of which Birch seemed unaware. He was also Vice-President of IPSA (1973-76). He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, but Hull should have recognised him with an Honorary Doctorate and should have been elected as a Fellow by the British Academy in recognition of his academic standing. However, the PSA awarded him its most prestigious award, the Sir Isiah Berlin Prize in 2002 and, I suggest, might now consider arranging a festschrift in his memory  

 His pastimes included greyhound racing when a civil servant, and sailing and card games.

Dorothy preceded him as did their adopted son Peter. He is survived by their adopted daughter, Tanya, two grandsons and two great grandchildren.  

- Trevor Smith