Wigan Peer

Stephen Koss

  • The Crawford Papers: The Journals of David Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford and 10th Earl of Balcarres, during the Years 1892 to 1940 edited by John Vincent
    Manchester, 645 pp, £35.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 7190 0948 0

One evening in 1935, after a ‘copious’ dinner at Grillion’s, Austen Chamberlain retaliated against Winston Churchill. Course after course, Churchill had harangued his companions about British concessions in India ‘as though we were a public meeting... never letting anybody else get a word in’. Worthy of F.E. Smith’s gibe that he was the sort of gentleman who always played the game and always lost it, Austen waited for his adversary to depart before having ‘his revenge – pouring out an incessant flow of reminiscence which might be amusing were it crisp and to the point but every sentence is expanded and every trifling incident magnified, until dear good Austen begins to rank as a first-class bore – he is so insistent as to be a positive fatigue.’

This tart commentary was provided by David Alexander Edward Lindsay, better-known (after he succeeded his father in 1913) as the 27th Earl of Crawford, and probably best-known as the tenth Earl of Balcarres, a junior title that did not bar him from the House of Commons. To unravel his pedigree, as his forbears proudly attempted from time to time, would prove a fundamentally pointless exercise. One would expect to find Diehards among the descendants of Mary Stuart’s loyalists. The 27th Earl was born in 1871, began to keep a journal in 1892, and entered Parliament in 1895. Until his father’s death catapulted him into the peerage, he sat for the mining constituency of Wigan, where he owned extensive properties. As opposition chief whip, he wrestled with such contentious issues as A.J. Balfour’s removal from the Unionist leadership, Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ and the Parliament Act crisis. Although he went on to hold minor portfolios in the wartime and post-war coalition governments, his father’s demise cost him not only a substantial amount in death duties but also any further hope of major ministerial advancement. The road had stopped short for the Wigan peer.

‘Bal’, as he was known to friends who knew better than to confuse him with Albert Ballin, compiled 54 ornately-bound volumes of diaries, which his son eventually entrusted to John Vincent for editing ‘That Lord Crawford was a man of distinction was agreed by all,’ attests Vincent, who seems unduly impressed by royal letters of condolence. Nevertheless, Vincent admits to finding it slightly difficult ‘to convey something of his quality’, which alternately comes across as bland or unreasoning. Depending on bigotry for wit, Crawford helplessly betrays an unendearing turgidity, which a different format might have helped to disguise. Much like Austen Chamberlain’s after-dinner fulminations, Crawford’s diary entries are windy, self-regarding and tortuously rambling. They boast a certain charm in the early sections, when the diarist is an Oxford Gladstonian, but grow increasingly tedious towards the end, when editorial control should have been applied more stringently.

Of Crawford’s sensitivity there can be no doubt, but he expressed himself awkwardly and often with an arrogant credulity. ‘I believe every word of the talk,’ he adamantly insists after delivering a highly melodramatic account of Lord Randolph Churchill’s contretemps with the Prince of Wales. It is difficult to discern the political philosophy for which Vincent assigns him credit or, for that matter, the exacting standards by which ‘Bal’ supposedly qualified as ‘necessary’, yet not quite ‘important’. Contrary to the editor’s tentative suggestion, the Crawford journals illustrate, not so much successive shifts in Tory ideology, still less fundamental changes in the social composition of Tory support, but rather the immutability of Tory habits and procedures through the decades. Delighted to operate as ‘an intriguer and wire-puller’, Crawford man ages to disclose surprisingly little about the actual conduct of high politics. He furnishes more extensive documentation about his whiply functions than any counterpart of any party persuasion, most of whom confined their jottings to the backs of envelopes: but, except as a disruptionist, he fails to reveal a sense of purpose or a commitment to any but the crudest of ideas.

In taste and temperament, he was steadfastly Late Victorian. Foreign travel, including a pilgrimage to Bayreuth on the very eve of the First World War, afforded the ‘dilettantist knowledge of painting, heraldry, architecture and Wagner’ that stood him in good stead for a lifetime. He could not, however, overcome a distaste for Oscar Wilde Vincent, with apparent seriousness, goes so far as to see Crawford as ‘a central figure in the official world of art and culture in the broadest sense between the wars’, which may say more about the times than about the man. There can be no denying Crawford’s efforts on behalf of the British Museum, the National Gallery, the BBC, Manchester University, and other institutions. Yet as a fighter ‘for the greatness of the English heritage’, with Baldwin at his side, he presents a comic image.

Outfitted with a third-class degree in history, he left Oxford to dispense charity in the East End of London (‘was it a waste of time?’ he asked himself), then quickly acquired a seat at Westminster. ‘I am elected member of parliament and feel inclined to laugh at it. So absurd that I should be an MP,’ he airily reflected on 7 June 1895. A.J. Balfour favoured him with a few friendly words in the lobby. Lord Salisbury, Balfour’s uncle and the party chief, employed the opposite approach. ‘I have met him several times and have now stayed four or five days in his house,’ Balcarres recorded with greater awe than irritation: ‘yet I have never spoken to him, neither has he done to me.’ Among Tory backbenchers, this reticence evidently counted as an asset. Had Salisbury been ‘more talkative – in fact if he had spoken to several of his guests whom he does not know by sight – our curiosity would have been gratified but our admiration could not have been increased,’ Balcarres reasoned.

The contemporary politician who made the strongest impression, however profoundly they came to disagree, was Gladstone. Balcarres treasured his recollection of having glimpsed the ‘great liberal statesman’ at Oxford, and went several times to see him lying in state. Joe Chamberlain, who lived at High-buty among ‘orchids, marble, and unmarried daughters’, took a while to win his confidence. And Winston Churchill struck him as ‘pugnacious, obstinate and nervous – he cannot sit still.’ Max Beerbohm was ‘an offensively decadent little beast’ and C.F G Masterman was a ‘tiresome little person, with the aspect of a seedy biblewoman, and with a cockney accent which throbs on the drum of the ear’. John Burns’s cockneyism, infused with anti-semitism (‘the Jew is the tapeworm of civilisation’), was more acceptable. Balfour was consistently high-minded, frequently to his personal disadvantage. Curzon (‘the All-Highest’) was a posturing bombast, and Asquith is rarely mentioned without reference to his drinking habits. Still, as Bonar Law conceded, ‘Asquith drunk can make a better speech than any one of us sober.’

What are any or all of these pronouncements worth? All of them have appeared elsewhere, usually with greater pungency, relevance and insight. Why should one of our most distinguished scholars have considered it worthwhile to prepare such a lengthy document for publication? Why should it have been deemed worthy of such sumptuous presentation? After all, it was only briefly and intermittently that Crawford was involved with momentous events – and, even then, it is not absolutely clear that he grasped the full importance of what he happened to be witnessing. ‘We are now reaching the stage where personalities and prejudices may play a supreme part in the political drama,’ he observed on 15 October 1922, when the Lloyd George coalition was on the verge of capsizing. Personalities and prejudices were hardly new to the scene, as readers of John Vincent’s other books will know.

Many of the anecdotes that Crawford purveys are second or third-hand, and they are especially untrustworthy when they project the marital plans of Liberal widowers, neither Rosebery nor Campbell-Bannerman acquired second wives, as predicted, although the reader is permitted to infer otherwise. A considerable number of stories, including some recounted at unpardonable length, deal with the domestic activities of individuals whom the diarist never met or scarcely knew. There are incidental reports about the weather, cryptic references to conversations that remain undescribed, and quantities of idle gossip, meaningless except as an index to the shallowness of the rapporteur: ‘The Duke of W – is having a domestic crise, so they say: I repeat the allegations. So is the Duke of M – but he won’t try for a divorce, because of his affection for the Marquess of L – whose son Lord C – is a guilty party. Mr A – is mixed up with the Countess of W – who cannot be sued by her husband, who was recently caught with (I fancy) his sister-in-law.’ Occasionally, the editor will pause to supply a name or correct a blatant misperception. Ordinarily, however, a false impression is allowed to stand undisputed, with the result that it seemingly qualifies as a statement of fact. No contradiction is offered, for example, when ‘Spender’ is listed as the editor of the Morning Leader, and anyone who checks the index to ascertain which Spender – J.A. or Harold – has been thus misidentified will discover both to be among the missing entries. More to its credit, the index includes both Dalziels, and spells their name correctly, as the text fails to do.

Despite these assorted disappointments, the Crawford journals have their value and virtues. It is delightful to find the diarist complaining in 1924 that the Manchester Guardian has disfigured a one-column report of his lecture by introducing no fewer than forty misprints: ‘It is singular how badly this excellent paper is printed.’ While it is doubtful that Balcarres’s predecessor as chief whip declined a minority shareholding in the Times, Balcarres imparts useful information about his own techniques of newspaper management, which were far more arbitrary and casual than certain theorists would surmise. Not least, there are flashes that illuminate celebrated episodes, specifically the fall of the Asquith and Lloyd George administrations, in which he served with quiet efficiency. Nothing of tremendous consequence gets revealed, but the apprehensions of those years are effectively captured and the dynamics of bureaucratic expansionism are vividly charted.

A coalitionist malgré lut, the diarist was gradually inspired with ‘a great belief in the recuperative power of Lloyd George’. The greater his distance from the centre of power, the more certain he became that Lloyd George would ultimately resume the responsibilities of the premiership. That distance can perhaps best be measured by the fact that, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Crawford sharply disapproved of Lloyd George for delegating matters of patronage to a ‘Presbyterian called Stevenson (sex uncertain but I should guess female and Calvinist)’. A degree of unworldliness, if not other-worldliness, is always to be expected from archbishops. But surely a party whip, and especially one from the opposing side, ought to have had the lowdown on Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s ‘Darling Pussy’. The Countess of W –, whoever she might have been, could not have been half so important.

Crawford died in 1940, reconciled to Churchill as the embodiment of ‘complete totalitarian victory’. As someone whose putative ambition was to qualify as a man of letters, his vocabulary left a good deal to be desired. Another aspiration, perhaps less consciously entertained, was to set a proper example. Yet the decline of the coal industry deprived him of the means to show ‘how aristocratic and territorial traditions have continued to play a part beneath the surface of British public life’, or so Vincent would have it. If only by default, he concludes by classifying Lord Crawford as ‘a museum reformer from first to last’. Or would museum piece be more appropriate?