- F.E. Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead by John Campbell
Cape, 918 pp, November 1983, ISBN 0 224 01596 6
‘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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.