Sir Larry Siedentop, political philosopher who turned a cool eye on the 21st century EU – obituary

Siedentop: an American who had lived in Britain since 1960
Siedentop: an American who had lived in Britain since 1960 - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

Sir Larry Siedentop, who has died aged 88, spent more than 40 years teaching political thought at Oxford, with a special interest in 19th-century French liberalism. He was happy to toil away, winning the plaudits of colleagues, until 2000 when he wrote a book which won the enthusiastic praise of critics and was seized on as required reading in the chancelleries of Europe.

He called it Democracy in Europe, a nod to his great idol, Alexis de Tocqueville. Just as Tocqueville, in his classic Democracy in America (1835), turned the cool eye of a European on the still-integrating United States of the 1830s, so Siedentop brought the eye of an American, albeit one who had lived in Britain since 1960, to bear upon the European Union of the 21st century. It remains perhaps the only study of the fraught history of the EU to win admiration from both Eurosceptics and Europhiles.

Democracy, to Siedentop, was the heart of the matter. De Tocqueville had been struck by its vigour in America; Siedentop by its feebleness in the EU, an institution which, he observed, had come together in a series of gradual shifts and backroom deals with little of the grand vision and none of the public wrestling with political ideas that led to the “miracle at Philadelphia” – the Constitutional Convention of 1787 which thrashed out the details of the United States Constitution.“Where are our Madisons?” he asked.

The builders of Europe, he argued, had acted as if they got the money right, the politics would take care of itself, approaching the EU solely as if it were a trading club, even though they were clearly in the business of creating a new political entity.

While this argument clearly held appeal to Eurosceptics, Siedentop saw the neo-liberal right, especially in Britain, as the worst offenders in making economics Europe’s all-powerful raison d’être. The result had been a debate of such poor quality that no one seemed to know what key terms, such as federalism, actually mean.

Siedentop's book was a nod to his idol Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America observed the United States of the 1830s
Siedentop's book was a nod to his idol Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America observed the United States of the 1830s

To the Germans, it means a decentralised system like theirs, where Berlin cannot dictate to regional governments, while citizens and media are protected by the constitution against an overbearing central government. In Britain, by contrast, it has come to mean the complete opposite – a vast overpowerful superstate.

Partly as a result of Britain’s failure to engage in the debate and its strident opposition to anything like the German federal model, the initiative had been taken by the French who set out to shape the EU on its own, centralised, techo-bureaucratic image, threatening the “diversity in Europe” rooted in the continent’s history and culture.

Far from disliking the idea of a federal Europe, Siedentop favoured it, albeit on the American model. “Federalism is the right goal for Europe,” he wrote. About how to get there he was rather more vague, other than proposing a European senate of national parliamentarians, so that national parliaments could have some real oversight of European law-making. It would, he conceded, need a change in the political culture of the member states that would take decades, not years.

“It’s incredibly moving, to see a free people governing itself, and that’s what you see in America, and what you don’t see in Europe,” he said. “I’m not sure how to get there from here, but I know we’ve got to start.”

Larry Alan Siedentop was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 24 1936 to Russell and Dorothy Siedentop and attended Hope College, Michigan, before taking an MA at Harvard.

He came to Oxford in 1960 on a Marshall scholarship and took a DPhil at Magdalen College under Isaiah Berlin, with a thesis  entitled “The Limits of Enlightenment” (1966) focusing on the philosophy of Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), and Maine de Biran (1766-1824).

From 1968, after three years as a research fellow at Nuffield College he spent most of his academic career as a fellow of Keble College and as a university lecturer in Political Thought.

Siedentop at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 promoting his book Inventing the Individual, which traced western liberal individualism to early Christianity
Siedentop at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 promoting his book Inventing the Individual, which traced western liberal individualism to early Christianity - Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

Before Democracy in Europe he was best known for Tocqueville (1994), a study in OUP’s Past Masters series.

His last major work,  Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) took on Jonathan Israel’s passionate advocacy for role of Spinoza and the Enlightenment philosophers as the founders of western liberal individualism.

Siedentop, by contrast, traced it back to the early fathers of the Church. In pre-Christian societies, he claimed, individuals were not seen as having rights separate from family, clan or tribe. Christianity, in stressing the individual’s relationship with God, made the idea of rights for individuals comprehensible and persuasive.

It was not John Locke or John Stuart Mill who said “it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions”, but the early Christian author Tertullian in the third century AD. Secular liberals, in other words, owe far more to Christian ideas than they might think: “If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?”

Siedentop was appointed CBE in 2004 and knighted in 2016 for services to political science.

He was unmarried.

Sir Larry Siedentop, born May 24 1936, died June 13 2024