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Gilbert Murray - a Liberal Life
Today, Gilbert Murray is a forgotten figure. Even by the time Roy Douglas's History of the Liberal Party was published in 1971, only 24 years after his death, Murray warranted just a single mention for writing a letter to Herbert Gladstone. Yet for several decades in the early 1900s he was a crucial link between the worlds of international liberalism, the British Liberal Party, and Oxford academia, and played a significant role in forming the mental outlook of the radicals of a generation. He deserves to be better remembered.

Murray was a Liberal, not from being taught but from experience and inheritance. He was born in Sydney in 1866, son of Sir Terence Murray, a rich stocker. The estates, however, gradually lost money and eventually the family was reduced to moving to 'a succession of ever-smaller suburban houses in Sydney', and this, together with his father's death in 1877, gave Murray a certain social uneasiness which stayed with him despite marrying into the British aristocracy. Notwithstanding academic success - in his later years at Merchant Taylors School he won eight of its chief prizes - he became inured to being an outsider and treated as such. In fact, he seemed to collect characteristics that would isolate him. 'Few people like teetotallers', he wrote, 'Still fewer tolerate vegetarians; in the ancient universities which I frequent they don't much like Liberals ... and I am all those objectionable things.'

Challenge was a constant theme in Murray's life. In the school debating society he spoke in favour of unpopular notions such as pacifism and devolution (the Union was 'a ridiculous swindle'); at Oxford he founded a Home Rule League and argued in the Union for total abstinence from alcohol, closing pubs on Sundays, and the combination of free nations in self-defence. As a Classics tutor at Glasgow he taught the first intake of female undergraduates, and rebelled against the custom of reading the Lord's Prayer at the start of classes, first by reading it in Greek, then dropping it altogether. He was a pro-Boer in the 1890s. He did not oppose World War One - in fact, his pamphlet in support of Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal Foreign Secretary, made him something close to a Government propagandist - yet he exerted influence in support of conscientious objectors who were brought to his attention and was almost the only figure still remaining in Government circles who did so. He had links with the chief personalities behind the  anti-government League of Democratic Control, and it was natural that he remained in the Asquithian 'wee free' wing of the Liberals after the split of 1918. His children inherited the difficult, radical streak; Basil Murray, for instance, was beaten up in 1936 for heckling at a British Union of Fascists meeting in Oxford's Carfax Assembly Rooms, and joined the Republican effort in Spain only to die there of pneumonia the following year. Even Murray's party-political activity looked like the acts of a man who almost relished marginalisation. At any rate he never contested a seat he might have won, appearing as the Liberal candidate for Glasgow College in 1903 and 1910, London University in 1909, and Oxford University in 1919, 1922, 1923 and 1929 (in 1924 he stood as an Independent).
 
Murray's academic work was closely linked to his political attitudes. He came to see the ancient Greeks as embodying his own rationalist ideals, and as early as 1889 published a revealing novel,
Gobi, which described a lost tribe of Hellenes in a Mongolian Shangri-La who are morally superior to the British who discover them. He earned criticism from HG Wells for reading modern political beliefs into those of Greece, but his influence, and attitudes, went far. In 1932 Naomi Mitchison described a journey to Soviet Russia in a letter to Murray: now, she said, she knew what Athens in the 5th century BC had really been like! It was further than Murray would have wanted to go, but along the same road.

Religion was also a key element in Murray's politics. One of his Irish ancestors had been the only one of seven Catholic brothers to survive the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, and he seems to have cherished his rebellious Irish inheritance. But, while Sir Terence was a Catholic, his wife was a Protestant, and this division gave Gilbert a lofty, if intellectually superficial, disdain of all religion. 'I am not sure Westerners ought to have a religion,' he mused, 'it is a way of thinking which does not go with science and politics'. His
Five Stages of Greek Religion compared Christianity unfavourably with the liberal virtues he saw in the ancient Athenians, arguing that it represented a retreat into personal mysticism and away from the public, active ideals of the Greeks. He was shocked and disappointed when his daughter Rosalind became a Catholic, and her story of his deathbed conversion seems entirely out of character for this determinedly secular rationalist. He could still respect individuals like Charles Gore, the left-wing Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Oxford, who he described as 'a saint', and was fond of calling himself a Puritan: even when his wife Mary inherited her share of the Castle Howard inheritance, which brought the couple 10,000 per year, the Murray household maintained a pronounced frugality. But while personal taste may have led him to behave like a Nonconformist Liberal of the classic Victorian stamp (even to the point of his opposition to drink!), there was no belief behind it.
 
Apart from his studies, Murray was perhaps most devoted to his internationalist work. A
somewhat rootless intellectual, the theme of international fraternity was a natural one for him. During World War One he was involved in the early discussions which led to the founding of the League of Nations, and with his wide-ranging contacts - he seemed simply to know everyone there was to know in international liberal circles - he was the obvious choice as the first Chairman of the League of Nations Union and its successor, the United Nations Association, a post he held for thirty years. This particularly came to the fore in Murray's later life after the end of his formal academic career. He was Chairman of the Council for Education in World Citizenship, and President of the Liberal International 1947-49. Even after he gave up his many formal offices, his friends who ran the committees and boards of the UN continued to use him to facilitate contacts, read reports and documents, and render advice, a service that carried on until within months of his death in May 1957. In 1953, for example, Murray was used to approach the BBC to broadcast an appeal for the UN's fund for Korean refugees.
 
Despite his long association with Oxford, as Fellow of New College from 1905 and Regius Professor of Greek from 1908 to 1936, and a resident of Yatscombe, Boar's Hill (yards from the house of Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos), Murray's relationship with both town and University was never entirely easy. In 1918, when he returned to the city, 'as I got out of the station I loathed Oxford, the squalor, the damp, the curious and captious atmosphere. Then, as I met individuals, I liked them'. In 1930 a former pupil, Isobel Henderson, asked his advice about her application for a Fellowship at Somerville; 'Oxford is narrow, provincial, stick-in-the-mud,' he told her. 'Undergraduates are too young and silly, and dons wither fast, or fatten, which is worse'. The University resolutely failed to elect Murray as one of its MPs; after the defeat of 1929, a friend wrote in Classical manner in the
Oxford Magazine: 'Still a brace of arrant Tories / You on Parliament bestow. / Where (o tempora! o mores! /As we read in Cicero) /O magistri et doctores, /Where do you expect to go?'

Nonetheless he remained a friend and occasional contributor to the Liberal Club in the University. He even addressed it on VE Day in 1945. The President, Henry Fairlie, later remembered how the excited students were 'in no mood for speeches', 'yet from the moment he stood on his feet and the high-pitched, cultivated voice began to utter its words of sanity, they sat enraptured'.

Murray thought his political ideas were consistent across his long life, yet in 1950 this great radical - who'd been described as a 'full-blooded and rabid Communist' in 1929 - voted Conservative for the first time. The following year, he even wrote to Liberal leader Clement Davies urging him to merge the party with the Tories. 'Nearly all the educated people I meet are Liberal, but vote Conservative', he said in justification. Even when he found himself supporting the Eden government over the Suez Crisis, he saw this as consistent with his life-long internationalism. The UN had failed to uphold the peace of nations, so Britain had to.

Although he never held political office, Murray's influence was remarkable and carried on to the end of his life, both as a 'star speaker' for the BBC (between 1939 and 1957 he delivered 80 talks for the Corporation) and a regular member of the Brains Trust. He personified the cool, rational, intellectual side of liberalism, and showed how individual experience could produce such a personality. In fact, he took that Enlightenment tradition forward well into a century which seemed determined to refute it in blood and violence.

Gilbert Murray
From the National Archives of Australia

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