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Glen Newey obituary

As a political philosopher, Glen Newey was more interested in understanding politics than in telling people what they should do
As a political philosopher, Glen Newey was more interested in understanding politics than in telling people what they should do

My friend, former student and colleague Glen Newey, who has died aged 56 as a result of a boating accident, was one of the most interesting political philosophers of his generation. He was best known for his work on toleration, about which he wrote two seminal books, Virtue, Reason, and Toleration (1999) and Toleration in Political Conflict (2013), and on political morality, being an early progenitor in his book After Politics (2001) of the “realist turn” in political theory.

He also wrote a brilliant guide to Hobbes’s Leviathan and numerous, diverse articles on contemporary political philosophy. Glen was “oppositional” by nature, and most comfortable engaging in invariably penetrating critiques, especially of current liberal political theory. Where he stood, however, could be less easy to pin down, partly because he was more interested in understanding and analysing the complexities and tensions inherent in politics than in telling people what they should do.

Born in St Helier, Jersey, the son of Billie (nee Taylor), an artist and homemaker, and Frank Newey, a bookmaker, Glen read history and philosophy at Jesus College, Cambridge, before obtaining his MA and PhD from the University of York. His first academic post was at the University of Sussex, followed by a readership at Strathclyde and chairs in Keele, Brussels and Leiden.

He was a charismatic, sometimes unconventional, teacher, much revered by his students. He sought to avoid administrative responsibilities and, for someone acutely sensitive to the complexities of politics in his theoretical writings, he was rather inept politically – not least because of his unwillingness to pander to those in authority.

Glen had many talents; early on he was an excellent amateur actor, and later he pseudonymously published a scatological novel, as well as book, cinema and theatre reviews. He wrote with enormous elan, saying that words were to him like shoes to Imelda Marcos. He became a popular, iconoclastic blogger for the London Review of Books, his only use for a sacred cow being to slaughter it in as painfully funny a way as possible.

What most struck people about Glen, besides his obvious intelligence and personal kindness, was this fiercely irreverent wit. But, while he could be funny about anyone and anything, his invective was reserved for the privileged and powerful. This black humour also helped keep him from succumbing to a bleak nihilism that sometimes threatened to engulf him.

Glen is survived by his wife, from whom he was estranged, his mother, brother and sister, and his two children, to whom he was devoted.

This article titled "Glen Newey obituary" was written by John Horton, for The Guardian on Thursday 12 October 2017 03.13pm


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