Jonathan Davis

When I met Ian in my first year at Oxford I was immediately dazzled by his sheer cleverness; would I be able to keep up with him? I soon learned, though, that his quick-witted conversation had nothing to do with the intellectual bullying all too often encountered amongst bright undergraduates. He was, instead, paying me the compliment of assuming that I could match his brisk pace. On those occasions when I did fall behind, he would, without condescension, help me catch up either by retracing steps in his argument or by sharing his sources, often in the form of an issue of one of the many periodicals, ranging from Marxism Today to The Spectator, to which he subscribed.

This intellectual generosity was coupled with an enthusiasm for sharing in other ways. From the bottles of port that Ian ordered up to his room in Oriel on my first visit there to the dinner at The Gay Hussar he shared with me on one of my last visits to London, Ian was unfailingly generous. The pleasure he took in others enjoying the good things in life informed both his personal relations and his politics too.

Ian was as Ianish as ever when he came to say with me in Austin not so long ago. He arrived with fossils and magic coins for my children, shared jokes and shrewd observations about Texas history and politics as we strolled around the state capitol, and made me think hard about political philosophy as we chatted over drinks and dinner.

The term I would use to sum up Ian’s life would be “anti-establishment”. I noted on the memorial website that one of Ian’s contemporaries from Marlborough remembered him as a liberal. That early political identity makes sense, because Ian always struck me as in part a legatee of that British tradition of liberalism, radicalism, and whiggery; he had a soft spot for Charles James Fox, loathed the Pitts of past and present, and always spoke with particular scorn of that continuing and, to foreign eyes, bizarre manifestation of Tory establishment, the seating of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords.

As with so many in that liberal tradition, what took the place of an intellectually indefensible Protestantism was ethical conviction and a confidence in the power of rationality to articulate that conviction. Ian never had much time for the Nietzschean critique of that ethical stance, and an uncompromising moral autonomy was central to Ian’s life and work. Yet ethical conviction was only part of Ian’s identity. Shaping his outlook and action in addition to the liberal tradition was Ian’s understanding of the realities of class and other kinds of social power in these islands and beyond, an understanding nourished both by his wide reading in politics and history and then his activity in the labour movement and radical campaigning.

This combination of ethical conviction and social percipience meant that Ian never confused politics with moralizing; it also meant that Ian would never belong to the establishment that would otherwise have welcomed a man of his talents. A more pliable Ian could have risen to the top of that establishment, whether in politics, public administration, or academia. Instead he chose not to compromise himself and remained the Ian we remember – foe of both the old establishment of judges hobnobbing with ministers and the newer establishment of corporate powers and their agencies of disinformation, sympathizer with rebels against established power whether they be in South Wales or the American South, and always, always a practitioner in politics of that strategic approach he so much admired in chess, American football, and collective bargaining. Ian’s major achievement in helping put an end to smoking in public places should not be forgotten, yet I feel that under a better social dispensation he could have achieved much more. That he did not join the establishment speaks well of him and ill of our country. Tragedy is a word that comes to mind, yet it is one we must cast out because Ian never had time for histrionics.

Instead we should remember Ian lying on the sofa, top trouser button undone, looking up from a Bill Hicks video or Charles Laughton film with an expression of quizzical amusement as if to ask how we propose to continue to sabotage the establishment – but also, glass in hand, reminding us not to forego a decent French red or single malt as we go about the work of making trouble.