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Maxwellisation

30 August 2015

MxIt may be of some relief to learn that a number of the posts I think of don’t make it into this blog. Some are fatuous or simply wrong; some, which seemed clever enough halfway down the escalier, don’t seem that interesting by the time I’ve got to the bottom. One recent piece which I thought a little edgy didn’t make it past my wife (she rarely gets this job, but on this occasion she was right). And one was written about eight months ago when the first signs of delays in Chilcot coincided with the publication of old photographs of a member of the Royal Family in a story that was also vaguely associated with Robert Maxwell. My blog (which I didn’t keep – my computer is already overloaded with rubbish) had some silly title such as “My years under Cap’n Bob”, and related some of my experiences at Pergamon Press, the scientific publishing house he founded and for which I worked, as managing editor of the physics and mathematics programmes, nearly forty years ago. That was, to put it in geological terms, after the famous Board of Trade enquiry (which damaged his reputation), but well before his raid on the company pension funds (which destroyed it).

I didn’t finish the piece because nothing particularly monstrous happened to me in my time at Pergamon: on the contrary I had the privilege of a far more responsible position for my age than I would have obtained in a more conventional company; I learned a great deal about business (even if not all of what I saw would be readily transferable elsewhere); and I left of my own accord. Some colourful stories of my own encounters (like being phoned by him in the middle of the night to tell me to relocate from Oxford to Boston, immediately) seemed inconsequential set against those in the numerous biographies of the tycoon. But one thing that you couldn’t miss working in daily contact with the man was the climate of pure caprice under which the business operated. (I think I’ve written before of the parallels with the court described by Saint-Simon.) It makes it peculiarly ironic that his is the name associated with the process of bringing fairness to judicial enquiries. A generation for whom Maxwell’s name is less familiar might well imagine that he was some kindly, broad-minded judge with a particular commitment to fairness. Robert Maxwell was never that, even if he tried to portray himself with those political credentials.

My decision not to proceed with the post at the time was perhaps an instance of self-Maxwellisation (I should probably write this with a -z- rather than an -s- ; whether Pergamon should adopt “Oxford” spelling or follow almost all other English publishers exercised us greatly at the time: I opted for -z- for my books, partly because it is less incongruous in America where most of our sales were). But of course we didn’t use the term then. A good part of my physics list included translations from the Russian on topics such as plasma physics (which everyone hoped would unlock limitless, safe energy), and “Maxwellisation” was a term that cropped up in statistical mechanics treatises concerned with how quickly particles would reach an “equilibrium” and follow the famous Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution (en dash, not hyphen: neither was a judge, nor a publisher: but the grandmother of the first was a pastellist, whose particles were charged with colour, not electricity). So I can’t resist including this formula which will tell you when Chilcot will appear, having dealt with all those highly charged army officers who are currently interacting:

M

At the time I suppose I might have thought the term appropriate to describe the process of indoctrination whereby those who worked for Maxwell gradually began to think that his behaviour was normal. It didn’t happen to all, and certainly not to those who were summarily dismissed, but it was in effect the plea of those accused of wrongdoing after his death.

I wondered when the word had first been used. Actually it doesn’t appear in the OED in either sense (I bet it will soon), although it has been in official House of Commons documents for some years (Penrose’s Equitable Life report seems to have been the cause of the first use in the judicial sense, in 2009; in physics there are examples going back to 1960). The Inquiry Rules 2006 (SI 2006/1838 r13) set out the requirements made for public enquiries following the case of Re Pergamon Press [1971] Ch388, where Lord Denning remarked that

before [the inspectors] condemn or criticise a man, they must give him a fair opportunity for correcting or contradicting what is said against him.

Of course Denning didn’t use the five-syllable word – his linguistic preferences were altogether plainer. And he would certainly have hated “Denningisation” although that is what we should really call it.

“Maxwellisation” excited the special disapproval of John Humphrys (Lost for words, 2011), not merely because the name was misleading (although he wasn’t thinking of plasma physics) but because “its very formation is an outrage”: a proper noun first turned into a verb before being extended into another noun, “as obscure and ugly as his accounting methods”. Well this certainly threw Humphrys off his equilibrium.

My greater worry is not that enquiries get things wrong, but that they usually refuse to acknowledge this. You will have seen my numerous squabbles with planning committees or the incompetent Financial Ombudsman Service (my latest case has still not reached the ombudsman after 15 months, but the bias to rubber-stamp the juniors’ incompetence is built in). All credit to Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues if as is reported, like John Maynard Keynes, they are not too arrogant to change their mind when new information became available (but what will we conclude if they dissent?). We’ll probably never know how difficult it was to penetrate the camouflage in which the original evidence may have been couched (an enquiry into the enquiry?), but it would be complacent to assume that a lawyer would have got further.

There is one thing I should say about Robert Maxwell. It was the key to his success, and to his ultimate failure; it explains his mercurial unpredictability, and why caprice was unavoidable. His entire achievement was built upon pure energy: he was like the highly charged particle in a plasma, but without the statistical numbers required to reach an equilibrium, as you find in the committee and management structures in conventional organisations. Those who worked closely with him had one main task: to focus that unpredictability into something constructive, usually by ignoring the bad ideas (of which there were a great many: I simply didn’t move to Boston) while embracing the occasional flash of brilliance, implementing it with all the speed that only a flat management structure could deliver. We were in effect Maxwell demons (another physics joke: just ignore). It was fun while it lasted (provided you didn’t have a mortgage), and before it went wrong; but since in the end the laws of thermodynamics will prevail, prevail they did.

But shouldn’t Maxwellisation be extended into non-judicial matters? Now that we have the possibility of free, worldwide distribution on the web, shouldn’t art historians intending to publish catalogues raisonnés issue all or part of their work for advance circulation? Before we condemn a picture wouldn’t Lord Denning want there to be a fair chance to defend it?

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From → Justice

2 Comments
  1. 16 September: I see that John Kay has hit upon the same topic for his column in today’s Financial Times. While he gives a somewhat more detailed account of the case itself (albeit without mentioning Leasco), his conclusion – that Maxwell later succeeded in conveying the impression that the DTI report was a vindication, not a failure, and that “maxwellisation” is “a process by which the rich and powerful obstruct criticism of their actions” – is completely at variance with my recollections of working at Pergmon. Few readers will have the patience to follow Lord Denning’s judgement, let alone the full circumstances of the cases concerned (there were two), so I fear both John Kay and I are guilty of contributing to misrepresentation at least by abbreviation.

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