British author, historian and journalist Paul Johnson, who shifted his allegiance from the left to support Margaret Thatcher and conservative causes, died on Thursday after a long illness, his son announced on social media. He was 94 years old.
A prolific writer, Johnson produced more than 50 books and numerous essays spanning history, biography and travel. Writing more for the public than for critics, his subjects ranged from Jesus to the Beatles, with titles including “The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1830-1815,” “A History of the Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s,” and “The Search for God: A Personal Pilgrimage.” “
Born on November 2, 1928, in Manchester, England, Johnson was educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit primary and secondary school, and Oxford University, where he met Thatcher and studied with the left-wing historian and journalist AJP Taylor.
After graduating, Johnson served in the British Army, based mainly in Gibraltar. His military service helped him get a job at the Paris magazine Realites, after which he was appointed Paris correspondent for the New Statesman, a British current affairs magazine. Johnson continued to work for the magazine when he returned to London and served as its editor from 1965 to 1970.
During the 1970s Johnson became increasingly conservative in his outlook, and began to support Thatcher’s message of less government and less taxation.
“In the 1970s, Britain was on its knees. The left had no answers,” Johnson wrote on his website when he explained his decision. “I was disgusted by the too powerful trade unions that destroyed Britain.”
After Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, he offered advice on legislation limiting the power of trade unions and became one of its speechwriters.
“I was immediately drawn to her,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson’s views were sometimes controversial, such as when he placed Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, at the top of his list of great political figures of the 20th century. Lee made Singapore one of the richest, safest, most orderly and sensible countries in the world, Johnson wrote, ignoring those who criticized him as a tyrant who arbitrarily detained opponents. In the same list, Johnson dismissed Nelson Mandela “under whose timid rule South Africa went straight to the rocks”.
This list appeared in a column Johnson wrote for The Spectator, a British conservative publication focusing on politics and culture, from 1981 to 2009. He also wrote a column for the Daily Mail, a traditional supporter of the UK Conservative Party, until 2001.
An anti-communist, he found Richard Nixon’s behavior in the Watergate scandal less objectionable than Bill Clinton’s alleged perjury following allegations of his relationship with a White House intern.
But his conservative politics won him fans on the American right. President George W. Bush awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, saying that “his powerful writings have captivated and educated people around the world.”
“A citizen of the United Kingdom, he holds America in special esteem, calling our nation’s creation ‘the greatest of all human adventures,'” Bush said.