A Very Bad Case

Michael Brock

  • Herbert Samuel: A Political Life by Bernard Wasserstein
    Oxford, 427 pp, £45.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 19 822648 9

This admirable biography answers nearly all the old questions about Herbert Samuel, but raises a few new ones. He was no more a ‘cold and dry person’ than Hugh Gaitskell was ‘a desiccated calculating-machine’. These descriptions, by Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan respectively, reveal little more than the effects of personal irritation on imaginative Welsh politicians. In his final chapter Professor Wasserstein draws attention to ‘a fundamental innocence’ and ‘supreme intellectual self-confidence’ as two salient features of Samuel’s make-up. These characteristics, allied to immense industry and administrative capacity, invite a comparison with a British statesman of an earlier generation, Sir Robert Peel; and they made, as Peel’s career had shown, a dangerous combination.

Samuel’s Balliol in the final Jowett years had the same pre-eminence as Peel’s Christ Church. Both took first-class honours (though Samuel’s history First after four years hardly matched Peel’s performance); both were well enough off not to need any profession except politics. ‘For so very clever a man,’ Disraeli wrote of Peel, ‘he was deficient in the knowledge of human nature. The prosperous routine of his youth was not favourable to the development of this faculty.’ The same could have been written of Samuel. Both men belonged to aspiring groups – the Lancashire industrialists in Peel’s case, the Jewish ‘cousinhood’ in Samuel’s; and both had the wariness of manner characteristic of some ‘new men’. Neither developed the easy bonhomie which politicians need, ‘that very open, honest manner which is never to be trusted’, as Melbourne advised the young Queen Victoria. O’Connell compared Peel’s smile to the silver plate on a coffin. Samuel’s ‘sense of humour’, Beatrice Webb noted, ‘takes the irritating form of tactless irony at the expense of the people he is talking to’.

It is a feat to have dealt perceptively with all the phases of so long a career. Under this guidance we can understand Samuel’s thoughts and reactions from his youthful resolve ‘to add a little to the stock of happiness in the world’, through his experiences as a young Parliamentary candidate, as a minister, and as Governor of Palestine, to his leadership of the Liberal remnant, and his long Indian summer as a sage. In one crucial episode Professor Wasserstein’s account is open to challenge. A more penetrating interpretation of Samuel’s part in the Marconi Affair, far from contradicting the statements about his innocence and self-confidence, would have helped to reinforce them. Samuel was the Postmaster-General dealing with the Marconi contract which in 1912-13 became the subject of the ‘Marconi Scandal’. The 18 pages given to this episode are a careful and sympathetic biographer’s echo of the account which has been generally accepted since the publication of Frances Donaldson’s study in 1962. Asquith and Samuel are depicted as taking the only honourable path open to them: that of standing by two erring colleagues. Deep emotions are stirred here, since, as events turned out, if Lloyd George (to say nothing of Rufus Isaacs) had been thrown overboard in 1912, the history of the 20th century might have taken a different turn. Yet the contention that no other decent course was open to the Prime Minister and the Postmaster-General is subject to enough doubt to merit examination.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in