Big Acts

Ross McKibbin

  • Portrait of a Progressive: The Political Career of Christopher, Viscount Addison by Kenneth Morgan and Jane Morgan
    Oxford, 326 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 19 822494 X

The Doctors Morgan had the happy idea of converting Jane Morgan’s doctoral thesis on the career of Christopher Addison into a book and the result is this important and sympathetic biography. As they point out in their preface, he has hitherto had no worthwhile study; R. J. Minney’s biography is, they rightly note, ‘very unsatisfactory’ and drawn from a narrow range of sources. The opening of Cabinet and department records and the depositing of Addison’s bulky papers in the Bodleian Library made the writing of a new biography desirable and inevitable; further, given their formidable combined expertise, it was probably desirable and inevitable that it should be written by Kenneth and Jane Morgan.

At first sight, it is surprising that Addison should have to wait so long for the kind of treatment that other political figures of less stature have received all too soon. He entered the House of Commons in 1910 – after winning a seat, Hoxton, that actually stayed Tory in 1906 – and ended his political career no less than 41 years later. He was Minister of Munitions, Minister of Reconstruction, President of the Local Government Board, (first) Minister of Health, Minister without Portfolio, Minister of Agriculture, Secretary of State for the Dominions (Commonwealth Relations, as it became). Lord Privy Seal, Lord President of the Council, and leader of the House of Lords for the whole of the Attlee Government. This record is awesome enough and suggests a Third Republican capacity to accommodate and to please. He was, however, in no sense a ministerial time-server: on the contrary, he was a prickly and principled man, and a recitation of his offices gives no idea of the oddness of his career.

He began in the Liberal Party and ended in the Labour Party, and if there was nothing particularly odd in that – most of the pre-1931 leadership of the Labour Party had done the same thing – for a Lloyd George Liberal and a minister in Lloyd George’s Government it was not only odd, it was singular. Thus he was a minister under Lloyd George (1916-21), MacDonald (1930-31) and Attlee (1945-51): during the First World War and its aftermath, the depth of the Depression, and the Second World War and its aftermath – three of the most demanding ‘epochs’ in modern British history. Again, of the four boldest attempts at inter-war social legislation, two were of his devising and, for better or worse, bore his name: the 1919 Housing Act (unquestionably the ‘Addison Act’) and the 1931 Agricultural Marketing Act which determined the main lines of British farming policy until our entry into the Common Market. Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Act was without doubt more important than either of these two, but no other British minister can plausibly claim to have established the framework of policy in two such fundamental – and discrete – areas of policy as housing and agriculture. Furthermore, he was offered and accepted a number of the juicier morsels from the British political table: he was made a baron, then a viscount and capped them all with the Garter.

Why then has a man of such sumptuous career and honour been treated so poorly by the historians? In one way, it is not easy to see. The Morgans have been able, with apparent ease, to construct an admirable biography. It is uncluttered, proceeds carefully and lucidly, and, though its treatment is chronological, they insert helpful comparative and recapitulatory comment whenever it is necessary. The book is planned so as to give all sides of his political life fair treatment: about half to 1922, when he more or less abandoned the Liberal Party, about half after then. A good deal of what they say is, it is true, already known to the historian, at least in outline: Addison’s part in engineering the Lloyd George Government (December 1916), the Ministry of Munitions and, most obviously, the origins and ultimate failure of the 1919 Housing Act. What they have done is to show personal evolution and the development of individual attitudes and to supplement existing knowledge from the Addison papers. They also vigorously defend him from his critics, particularly Professor Gilbert. They argue – rightly, in my view – that it was because of mean and foolish monetary policies adopted by Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain under pressure from the Treasury and the right of the Tory Party, and because of trade-union selfishness, that his post-war housing policies failed (and failed in any case only in relation to reckless promises made during the course of the 1918 election campaign). Here perhaps they do not do justice to the critics: in fairness to them, their criticisms might have been summarised for the benefit of the reader who knows the argument less well than the Morgans do.

Other parts of his career are much less well-known, even in outline. I found most revealing their account of his role in the development of the National Insurance Act of 1911 (he had been one of the country’s leading anatomists before entering politics), of his break with Lloyd George in 1921, when he joined what Arthur Henderson in 1917 called the long and interesting list of former ministers waiting to tell the truth about Lloyd George (Addison waited less long than Henderson), and, above all, of the origins and passing of the 1931 Agricultural Marketing Act. Little has been done on Labour’s agricultural policies and here the Morgans fill a real need and fill it very well. I thought, however, their discussion of his part in the Attlee Government was somewhat disappointing. It lacks coherence and tends to depend upon assertion. Yet it is hard to blame the Morgans for this: for most of the time Addison was (in effect) a Minister without Portfolio, tied to forcing the Government’s programme through the House of Lords; he was not (as he had been in the inter-war years) personally associated with any major legislation and, although they say he often influenced Attlee, they give few examples. A man much admired and liked by all sides, as he was after 1945, is simply less interesting than one who was not admired and liked by all sides, as he was after 1919.

The Morgans’ biography justly emphasises the uniqueness of Addison’s career and that always has personal attraction; it is also in this reader’s opinion another nail in the coffin of Lloyd George, although I doubt if Kenneth Morgan will agree. But it is still easy to see why historians have been chary of writing about Addison. Biographies are most accessible if they point to patterns, illustrate representative types, elucidate wider movements. Addison’s life invites none of these things; in giving meaning to his career they have had (inevitably) some of the problems that Professor Marquand had in his otherwise invaluable life of Ramsay MacDonald. Addison as a political type is very hard to categorise. He was not really a party political figure at all. He was more like the great and vigorous civil servants of the Edwardian era who wished to do things, to write major pieces of social legislation, and for whom the natural political instrument was the Liberal Party. Yet, since commitment to the party was tactical and not ideological, he could make the transition to the Labour Party with comparative ease. But he had no political base there; he was unique in entering it after he had reached his political maturity; unique in being a Lloyd George Liberal; and perhaps unique in entering it for the reasons he did. He saw it after 1922 as the only available vehicle for continuing social legislation, while for most of the Liberals who took shelter there after 1918 the Labour Party was to serve their particular foreign policy and ‘ethical’ purposes. Furthermore, these purposes were actually much more congenial to the Labour leadership, which, unlike Addison and (off and on) Lloyd George, never grasped the political importance to any progressive party of major legislation (‘big acts’, as Gladstone put it). Nor was Addison likely to be much taken by the Labour Party’s ‘socialism’. As the Morgans point out, he favoured the nationalisation of utilities but was very dubious about legislation that trenched upon the rest of the capitalist economy: thus he opposed the nationalisation of iron and steel under Attlee. He, perhaps more than any other Labour minister, had no particular reason to love the unions or the special interest-protective legislation that was increasingly coming to pass as socialism in the Labour Party. Addison was a loyal member of that party, as his actions in 1931 demonstrate, but his loyalties were not tribal. Of his agricultural policies the Morgans comment that he ‘had achieved the ambition of removing agricultural questions from the field of party politics’ and they note interestingly that even if the Conservative Party could never have given him a home he saw little difference between himself and its social-imperialist wing: Waldorf Astor was his under-secretary at the Ministry of Health and he conceived an almost extravagant admiration for Milner. The Morgans write that ‘in many ways Addison shows the continuity of the progressive tradition in politics’: that is certainly true, but his form of progressivism, which was at bottom apolitical, was one which the British political system increasingly found unsympathetic. Addison, unlike Lloyd George, was a good picker of political horses and that sustained his career. Others of the same ilk, Lloyd George or E. D. Simon, fell away. The Morgans have written a very valuable study of one of the most impressive of the post-Edwardian ‘legislative’ ministers: it is a study, as they more or less admit, that has wide implications, and individual interest, but not one from which we can easily make more representative judgments.