Obituary: Professor Jimmy Burns

J. H. (‘Jimmy’) Burns, Reader in the History of Political Thought  1961-66, Professor of the History of Political Thought,  1966-86, Head of History Department, 1970-75

The students and colleagues who had the luck to be in the UCL History Department at the same time as Jimmy Burns will remember him with admiration and affection and grieve at his death.  He came to UCL as Reader and shortly afterwards he was persuaded to take over the Directorship of the Bentham project. Although he developed a distaste for Bentham’s ideas and personality, raising in a public lecture once the question of whether Bentham was a fully paid-up member of the human race, he worked hard for the project, co-editing two volumes of Bentham’s writings, a skilled and laborious task, and collecting a talented team around him. Even aside from his work on Bentham he was a distinguished scholar and intellectual, but served the Department with equal distinction as its head and, perhaps above all, as a teacher.

Jimmy Burns was a lowland Scot whose first degree was in Edinburgh, an MA as all first degrees in Scotland are. Here the fiery and charismatic medievalist J.H. Galbraith was an important influence.  After a brief spell with the BBC, he returned to academic life to Balliol College for a second degree in Philosophy Politics and Economics. In his generation it was common for brilliant young Scots to pay that kind of homage to Oxford. He then took up a lectureship in Political Theory at the University of Aberdeen, in 1947. From 1952 -60 he was head of Department of Politics. After that  the attractions of UCL were too strong to resist.

Bentham, teaching, and running the department slowed down his research in his own special field, political thought with a Conciliarist (‘council over pope’/ state constitutionalism) tinge in the late medieval and early modern period. Far from abandoning it, however, he published on it what was probably his most important book after retirement had given him the necessary leisure. This was Lordship, Kingship and Empire: the Idea of Monarchy, 1400-1525 (Oxford, 1992). In the same year and no doubt in consequence he was elected to the British Academy in 1992.

His interests extended far beyond the late medieval period, however, and perhaps his most remarkable and characteristic publication was a paper on ‘Majorities’, which the teachers  of the department first heard in a Departmental seminar. The assumption that a 51% majority confers legitimation was shown to be a relatively modern creation. This was History at its best: showing that current assumptions are just that, not constants of human culture. It was published long after his retirement, in History of Political Thought (2003). This was symptomatic: Jimmy continued to do research and publish almost up to the end.

As well as editing Bentham, that is, transcribing, annotating and introducing writings, Jimmy did important editorial work of the other sort: bringing together chapters by other scholars into a coherent whole. His two Cambridge histories of Political Thought, for the medieval and early modern periods, were distinguished contributions to this demanding genre, requiring as they did an encyclopaedic knowledge of the field and the capacity to bring collective order to the thoughts of many individual historians.

The teaching of the History of Political Thought, year in and year out, to more essay classes than was customary in those relatively leisurely days, was no doubt the key to his encyclopaedic grasp of his field. As a teacher he was well known by his colleagues to be outstanding, possibly the best in a department of (mostly) very good teachers. He had the gift of recognizing talent when others might have missed it, and his dedication to his students won their affection and gratitude. His colleagues two recognized that he was something special. The originality of his intellect was unmistakeable, but it went with personal modesty and humanity and what one can only describe as goodness. His convert’s Catholicism was no obstacle to close friendships with agnostic friends. His wife Yvonne was crucial in his life and more part of the Department than spouses often are today. At that time they often came to Cumberland Lodge and helped make students and young colleagues feel at home. In a sense, Jimmy Burns was a man of a different era, but as a man and an intellectual his qualities transcended the  transitory spirits of his time. He was fit and well, though frail, until quite near his death.

Professor David D’Avray

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