‘There is,’ John Lord Campbell observed in his multi-volume, Mid-Victorian Lives of the Lord Chancellors, ‘no office in the history of any nation that has been filled with such a long succession of distinguished and interesting men as the office of Lord Chancellor.’ A roll-call which included such illustrious history-makers as Wolsey, More, Bacon and Clarendon lent some credence to Campbell’s hyperbole. But since then, things have gone rather down hill, and most recent Lord Chancellors have been woolsacked worthies rather than eminent statesmen: grave, wise, sober, learned, venerable – and unmemorable. Names like Herschell, Loreburn, Buckmaster, Finlay, Cave and Caldecot trip off the tongue with about as much familiarity as the batting order of a minor counties cricket eleven. Indeed, during the last hundred years, only two Lord Chancellors have rivalled the renown and repute of Campbell’s greatest hits: W.S. Gilbert’s rich comic creation in Iolanthe, a susceptible insomniac who married a fairy; and F.E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, whose appointment to the Woolsack was denounced by the Morning Post as ‘carrying a joke too far’.
FE’s life was shamelessly, successfully and simultaneously devoted to self-advancement, self-advertisement, self-indulgence and self-destruction, and he achieved more distinction in each of these fields than most men achieve in any. Driven by remorseless ambition, and aided by a first-rate brain of quicksilver speed, he amassed a remarkable tally of gongs, baubles and glittering prizes, at Oxford, in the law, and in politics. Endowed with a gigantic ego and towering self-confidence, he was the supreme right-wing demagogue between Lord Randolph Churchill and Mosley, with mesmeric oratorical gifts of lightning wit, stinging retort and poisonous vituperation. And he was as reckless as he was rude: his magnificent carelessness, shameless hedonism and limitless extravagance betokened an inexhaustible appetite for life and pleasure; he squandered several fortunes on houses and horses, cars and cards, boats and brandy; he excelled at rugby, riding, golf and tennis; he burned all his candles at both ends; and he drank and spent as if there was no tomorrow. His consumption was conspicuous in every sense, and in the end he died of drink and left only debts. In one guise, FE was the classic exemplar of the rags-to-riches fable: in another, he was the sort of man who gets ambition a bad name. If Gilbert’s Lord Chancellor had been played by Errol Flynn, the result might have been a passable imitation of Lord Birkenhead.
Such a Janus-faced judge presents daunting problems for any intending biographer. Indeed, when Birkenhead died, J.L. Garvin observed that at least two lives would have to be written about him: one covering his political career, which could be completed at once; the other, concerned with what might politely be called his personality, which could not be written for some time to come. Within five years of his death, Birkenhead’s son produced a two-volume biography, which was revised, condensed and reissued in 1959. Considering that FE was such a beastly father, this was a remarkable work of filial piety and affectionate loyalty, on a par with Winston’s life of Lord Randolph for devotion and discretion. Then, in 1960, William Camp completed his ‘unofficial portrait’, which took its title, The Glittering Prizes, from one of Birkenhead’s more controversial and offensive later speeches, and pulled no punches at all. As biographies, they were both eminently readable in style, yet quite contradictory in substance. The one depicted Birkenhead as generous, warmhearted, brilliant, loyal and kind: the other stressed his arrogance, cynicism, extravagance, superficiality and ultimate failure. Now another John Campbell has tried to bring together the sober judge and the drunken lord, and in so doing has written the most fully researched and fully revealing life of this particular Lord Chancellor that we are ever likely to get.
Or want: for, like many definitive biographies, this book is more the kiss of death to its subject than it is a guarantee of life everlasting. At best, Birkenhead was never more than a political figure of the second rank: an MP for only 13 years, a Cabinet Minister for barely ten, and dead and gone at 58. To lavish nine hundred pages on so brief and brittle a life seems indulgent in the extreme. All too often, Birkenhead himself disappears into a morass of wordy contextualisation, and there is far too much ‘substantial quotation’ from speeches, letters, essays and judgments. Had this been a vehicle for recounting new stories, offering new interpretations or developing new arguments, there might have been some justification for such lengthy exposition. But the only new insight which (no doubt unintendedly) results from such inexorable treatment is that Birkenhead seems rather boring. Indeed, there are moments when the book threatens to overwhelm not only its subject but also its author. The prose never flags, but it does occasionally sink to the level of journalese: ‘the question was, could Lloyd George deliver?’; ‘FE in 1912 had the Prime Ministership well within his sights.’ It seems unhelpful and ahistorical to compare FE with President Kennedy or Enoch Powell. Some of the material is repetitive. And it is odd that Campbell should speak of Birkenhead’s ‘sober dignity’ as Lord Chancellor, and ‘sober judgments’ in Baldwin’s Cabinets, when he was already hitting the bottle extensively.
At the end of this massive book, Campbell’s Birkenhead remains the same bifurcated being to whom Garvin had drawn attention – lovable to some, loathsome to most, and baffling to virtually everybody. Despite his admirably extensive researches, Campbell is no more successful than his predecessors in reconciling the contradictions in Birkenhead’s temperament. The result is a book lacking in evenness of tone or steadiness of viewpoint, a roller-coaster of admiration and criticism, which leaves the reader unsure whether this is a work by a biographer evoking a personality or by a historian addressing a problem. For example, Campbell devotes much effort to depicting ‘the real FE’ as a man who had ‘fresh and penetrating things to say’ about all the major political issues between 1906 and 1928. Yet, as he admits, much of Birkenhead’s rhetoric was ‘purest fantasy’, ‘magnificent emptiness’, ‘spurious nonsense’, ‘pure moonshine’, ‘crudest fustian’, ‘hollow emotionalism’ and ‘wishful hot air’. It is rather difficult to know how to reconcile these views. ‘The real FE’ never actually stands up. Indeed, in certain guises, he would not have been able to. Cynthia Asquith thought him ‘a magnificent bounder’ she ‘could not help’ liking; and the same seems to go for Mr Campbell.
The fact that it takes some hundred and forty pages to get the young FE into Parliament gives some idea of the soporific scale of this book. Of course, these were undeniably glittering years of promise and achievement: the open scholarship to Wadham; the brilliant colleagues like Simon and C.B. Fry; the presidency of the Oxford Union; the Vinerian Law Scholarship in which he defeated Holdsworth; the Merton fellowship; the dazzling and lucrative career as a barrister on the Northern Circuit; the successful entry into Parliament in the 1906 General Election; and the audacious and legendary maiden speech – all before he had reached his 34th birthday. Yet even at this early age, he was inclined to exaggerate both obstacles and achievements, and not everything went his way. His background was much less deprived than he liked to suppose, and the fact that his father died too young of too much drink was an ominous pointer to his own future fate. He bitterly resented his failure to win a scholarship to Harrow; he spent two years at Liverpool University before going up to Wadham; he had to eradicate his Northern accent before he could become a Union swell; he only achieved a Second in Mods and the BCL; he had to wait a year for the Merton fellowship; the maiden speech was little more than a lengthy cluster of impertinences; and for several years thereafter he was still known in some parts of the Commons as ‘Single-Speech Smith’.
Even so, between 1906 and 1914 he established himself as a coming man who might yet make it. He earned a fortune at the Bar, took silk in 1908, and became a Privy Councillor in 1911, after only five years in Parliament and while still under forty. But his achievements were more pyrotechnic than substantive. As a lawyer, he was never involved in a really great case, had no outstanding interrogation to his credit, and was conspicuously worsted by Lady Sackville in the contest over the will of Sir John Murray Scott. And, when his political prospects conflicted with his professional obligations, as in the Lever libel case, he put political prospects first. As a politician, his searing assaults on the Liberals’ Education, Licensing and Welsh Church Disestablishment Bills, as well as on the People’s Budget and House of Lords reform, were too forced and frenzied to convince: clever advocacy rather than expressions of deeply-held belief. He helped to shout down Asquith in the Commons in 1911, and his exhortations to Ulster Unionists in the years immediately before the First World War bordered on the treasonable. Yet, while publicly thus partisan to the point of excess, he was constantly in search of a coalition with the Liberals from 1910; he founded the Other Club with Churchill in 191l; and he defended Liberal Ministers in the libel actions which resulted from the Marconi scandal. So, by 1914, he was hated by the Liberals for being too partisan, and distrusted by the Conservatives for not being partisan enough. For a man so obviously on the make, he was curiously unsure of what he wanted, and dangerously indifferent to what people thought of him.
On balance, his war was less good than bad. In 1915 he became Solicitor General and then Attorney General with a seat in the Cabinet, a post which he kept until the end of the war. But before the First Coalition came to his rescue, he had a disastrous spell as Press Censor, and his military service, although not evaded, was far from glorious. Cushily accommodated behind the lines, with ample supplies of cigars and brandy, he seemed to shirk the role of combatant he so strenuously pressed on others. And in the wartime governments of which he was subsequently a member, he was never a dominant figure. He played only a minor part in policy-making; he was on the sidelines in the plotting to promote Lloyd George; he conspicuously misjudged both Kitchener and Asquith; and his tour of America was tactless and unsuccessful. The Coalition put an end to that partisan oratory essential to his style; he made few speeches inside or outside Parliament; as a law officer unable to practise, his income was much reduced; and his prosecution of Casement brought him more notoriety than acclaim. By 1918, he had made little progress, and the knighthood and baronetcy that came his way signified lack of power rather than plenitude.
But in 1919, Lloyd George offered Smith the Woolsack, a bauble so tempting that he could not refuse it, yet so tarnished that he would always regret it. Even by Birkenhead’s standards of self-regard, it was a breathtaking prospect at 46, and in rapid succession he became baron, viscount and earl, with a motto proudly and punningly proclaiming that he was ‘Smith of my own fortune’. But by dangling before him this irresistible prize, Lloyd George effectively thwarted him even as he promoted him. As a peer, the supreme political office was de facto closed to him; he was increasingly isolated from grassroots, constituency opinion; and he would be unable to return to the Bar to earn his living once he left the Woolsack. Nor was his tenure of the office altogether happy. He hated the sitting and the ceremony associated with the job; he failed to reform the Divorce Law or the House of Lords; the 1922 Law of Property Act, which he regarded as his greatest triumph, was well advanced in the pipeline before he took office; and the Irish Treaty, in which he played a part, was more heroic than honourable. He was an irregular attender at Cabinets, and once again was little involved in the making of government policy. His health began to trouble him; there was a long affair with Mona Dunn; and he began to drink not wisely but too well. By 1922, he was established in the public mind as the quintessential villain of the Lloyd George Coalition: arrogant, overbearing, hard-faced, bitter and contemptuous. As one contemporary put it, ‘his brains had gone to his head.’
When the Coalition fell, Birkenhead fell along with it, and unlike Churchill and Austen Chamberlain, he never recovered. He failed to create a centre party of anti-socialist fanatics, and he was hated by the Tories – partly because of the Irish Treaty and his devotion to Lloyd George, partly because Conservatives (especially the women) found his life-style ‘morally intolerable’, partly because he called Lords Salisbury and Selborne ‘the Dolly sisters’, and partly because his ‘glittering prizes’ speech was an affront to Baldwin’s new brand of emollient Tory democracy. Yet Baldwin brought him into his 1924 Administration, probably thinking that FE would be less trouble inside the government than out. He was refused the Woolsack again because he was so often drunk, and became Secretary of State for India, where he could do little harm and even less work. He knew nothing of India, never visited it, and cared not a rupee for its peoples, their thoughts or their aspirations. He played a great deal of golf; he was rude to visiting Indian deputations; he never mastered intricate matters to do with the country’s economy; he advocated the cynical policy of divide and rule; and he only wished to hold on to India for the glory of the British crown. When he retired from politics in 1928, this was greeted with relief. As Laski put it, ‘he has shot across politics like a meteor, and his disappearance leaves the sky unchanged.’
His last years were sorry in the extreme. He was surrounded by unsavoury characters and spongers like ‘Buns’ Cartwright and Maundy Gregory; it was rumoured that he was being blackmailed; he was often drunk in public, and saw the world through a glass, darkly, if he saw it at all. As his debts mounted, his style of life became only more irresponsibly extravagant, and he rowed publicly and indecorously over his Lord Chancellor’s pension. To make some badly-needed money, he wrote several dreadful books, whose titles (Fifty Famous Fights in Fact and Fiction, The World in 2030) were as bad as their contents. They were amateurish, superficial, pompous and long-winded, sometimes ghosted and occasionally plagiarised. He had to resign from the government in 1928 because his creditors would not wait, but he was unable to recoup his losses in the City, despite several lucrative directorships. He had neither knowledge nor experience of industry or finance, and he made no impact on the business world because he did not and could not try. He was disillusioned by his physical collapse, was unable to reconcile himself to his ultimate failure, and was appalled at the prospect of his impending death. He had always believed in the survival of the fittest and, when no longer fit, he could not survive. As his Times obituary put it, he saw life primarily as a matter of getting on, and having got on as far as he could, there was nothing left but to get off.
In a shorter compass than nine hundred pages, this remains a riveting story of flawed and fissured greatness. Like Lord Campbell’s earlier Lord Chancellors, Birkenhead was undeniably distinguished and incontrovertibly interesting. But his ambition was not reinforced by character, and although Beaverbrook called him ‘the cleverest man in the kingdom’, he was not clever enough to understand that cleverness was not enough. He never lived down a well-merited reputation as a superficial adventurer, who was so fluent that he could parade platitudes as profundities or profanities with equal ease. As a lawyer, he preferred advocacy to serious legal argument, and as a politician he was always the partisan rhetorician, never the statesman. He could ridicule his opponents’ proposals and witheringly expose inconsistencies in their arguments: but he left behind no major, positive achievement in law or legislation, politics or government. He was high on invective, impertinence and intolerance, but low on imagination, insight and intuition. As a second-ranking political figure, his achievements cannot compare with Butler’s length of service to the state, Curzon’s devotion to Britain’s Imperial mission, or Bevin’s contributions at the Ministry of Labour and the Foreign Office.
He was selfishly indifferent to his family’s immediate and future financial needs, and left them only debts. As a father, he saw his children entirely as an extension of himself. His only son was the repository of all his dynastic hopes and, from an early age, was made to dress like him and urged to do well, like him. He was forced to drink too much too soon, and it did him no good. (The present Earl, FE’s grandson, is understandably teetotal.) His attitude to women was chauvinist in the extreme: they were conveniences, ‘mere conduit pipes’, ordained for men’s use as relaxation and entertainment, to bolster their morale and massage their egos. They were not intelligent, should not be given the vote, and must be kept out of the Lords at all costs. And, for a self-styled intellectual, he was singularly boorish and philistine about the life of the mind. His much publicised library was more for bragging about than browsing in. And he had no time for introspection – which was a pity, but understandable.
At the end of this long book, Birkenhead’s rise seems less attractive, and his decline more pathetic, than ever before. He may have been the architect of his own advance, but he was also smith of his own misfortune. Like Lord Campbell’s earlier Lord Chancellors, there was ‘a sort of romance’ about him. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Lord Birkenhead’s career, like Lord Randolph’s, was ‘mostly opportunism’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.