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.

In the Commons debate on 7 August 1912 Samuel is ‘subjected to close questioning’. He accepts the advice of Rufus Isaacs, reinforced by the Prime Minister, not to prosecute the Eye Witness for libel, although he learns, when the advice is given, that Rufus has bought, and still holds, American Marconis. On 11 October Samuel tells the House that neither he himself nor any of his colleagues ‘have at any time held one shilling’s worth of shares’ in the English Marconi company, ‘directly or indirectly, or have derived one penny profit from the fluctuations in their prices’. The libels reach a climax with one in Le Matin on 14 February 1913. Samuel and Isaacs prosecute, and while it is revealed that Isaacs, Lloyd George and the Master of Elibank have bought American Marconis, the paper admits the libel and apologises. When, in June 1913, the Select Committee Report and the three unofficial reports appear, ‘all absolve Samuel of any wrong-doing’; and the chapter ends with Lady Donaldson’s conclusion that Samuel ‘was free from all blame unless one attaches blame to loyalty’.

The view that Asquith and Samuel saved the political careers of Lloyd George and Isaacs, with most fortunate results for Britain, is reinforced by the belief that the outcry resulting from any early disclosure of the American Marconi holdings would have forced both men to resign. As far as the debate on 11 October is concerned, that is almost certainly correct: but in Wasserstein’s pages the early part of the story is obscured, for Samuel may well have missed a chance to bring the affair to an end in July 1912.

The insinuation by Asquith, and by his official biographers, that he did not know about the American Marconi purchases until early in 1913 should never have been given credence. He knew about them in July 1912, as he revealed eight months later in answering a question by Archer-Shee. Samuel wrote revealingly in his Memoirs that, when he told the Prime Minister in June or July, the latter ‘felt more concern than I did’. The suggestion that there was no link between the fortunes of the American and English companies could not possibly have looked convincing to any politician of Asquith’s experience who knew the basic facts. While the American company held no shares in its English counterpart, three of the English directors sat on the American board and the two companies used the same patent. Asquith would not have thought himself implicated. He is unlikely to have known as early as this that Liberal Party funds had been invested in American Marconis. Thus the wily old Premier, who saw the full seriousness of the position, had a certain interest in inaction, while his younger colleague, the Postmaster-General, had failed to foresee that inaction could be as dangerous for himself as for anyone.

Asquith had to balance the risks and probabilities. It was reasonable to hope that the fact would not come out and that the preposterous virulence of Belloc and Cecil Chesterton would prove self-defeating. If the facts were revealed, he would still have a good chance of preventing resignations. Rufus Isaacs was very popular; and the Liberal Party could be rallied to defend him against an attack which had included a disgusting outburst of anti-semitism. It is hard to believe that the Prime Minister found some lessening of Lloyd George’s reputation a wholly unwelcome prospect. When everything had come out, and he was on the Front Bench listening to Lloyd George, he remarked to his neighbour: ‘I think the idol’s wings are a bit clipped.’ He could rely on his dominance of the Commons, and on Liberal solidarity, to ensure that a ‘revelation’ did not jeopardise his government. He would have echoed George Rose’s remark in Pitt’s day: that the remedy for a very bad case was to apply the majority to it.

Samuel was far more vulnerable to the revelations which might result from a policy of concealment. His reason for not bringing his department’s negotiations with the Marconi Company before the House was that the acceptance of the tender on 7 March was far from being a final step: yet, if it was not final, a minister buying Marconis in April was placing himself so that his financial interest could conflict with his ministerial duty, since his shares could be expected to go up if the Government eventually awarded the contract to the English company. Moreover the Postmaster-General would have to answer all the questions about alleged ministerial dealings in Marconi.

If Samuel had been as cold, calculating and selfish as some thought him, he would have told the Prime Minister, first, that he would prefer, in answering in the House about the rumours, to speak for himself alone, saying that he had not at any stage had any interest in any Marconi company, and, secondly, that if he were obliged to speak for the Cabinet, he would deny than any minister had held, or was holding, shares in the English company. That would have obliged Asquith to take action. The PM had a low view of Bonar Law’s abilities, but he would not have supposed Bonar incapable of asking why the same assurance could not be given about the American company. If Asquith had then required Lloyd George and Isaacs to sell their holdings at once, standing any losses, and giving any gains to charity, and to make personal statements when the contract was debated in the first week of August, he would have had an unassailable case for refusing to allow them to resign. Members would have dispersed for the recess after a debate dominated by the Prime Minister’s statement; and with the exception of the National Review, the more respectable parts of the opposition press would have turned towards the Government’s other crimes.

What actually happened was more like a series of charades than Professor Wasserstein allows. There was an element of charade in Samuel’s request in August for Isaacs’s advice about prosecuting the Eye Witness. A prosecution for libel was bound to be more attractive to Samuel, who had nothing to hide, than he could have supposed it to be to Isaacs and Lloyd George: he knew that their cupboards contained skeletons. Asquith was absent with a slight indisposition on 11 October when Rufus Isaacs denied holding any shares in ‘that company’ and Samuel denied holding any ‘in this company’. Cecil Chesterton’s comment on this phrasing when the truth came out was, for once, entirely fair. ‘We can place no reliance in future,’ he wrote in the New Witness, ‘on the assurances of these politicians, unless we examine every word they say with a microscope. We know that they say indignantly that they have never dealt in the shares of the Marconi Company when they have dealt largely in the shares of associated companies. We must be prepared to find that when they say they did not ‘see’ a man they mean they spoke to him on the telephone.’ On 12 February 1913, when Leo Maxse appeared before the Select Committee, it became clear that the secret of the American purchases was out. Maxse’s evidence was very damaging, but in reporting it Le Matin made the allegations which gave Rufus Isaacs the chance of revealing his and his colleagues’ purchases in the most favourable way. He needed to bring an action where there would be no cross-examination by the defence; and he needed to bring it jointly with Samuel so that the latter could recite the complete story of his acceptance of the Marconi contract in the witness box, establishing, by no means for the first time, that the arrangement made by the Government had been the best one possible. Once again Samuel was involved in a charade. This episode was celebrated in G.K. Chesterton’s best vein:

I am so swift to seize affronts
My spirit is so high
Whoever has insulted me
Some foreigner must die.
I made a claim for damage
(For the Times has called me ‘thief’)
Against a paper in Alsace
A paper called Le Juif.
And when the Morning Post unearthed
Some murders I’d devised
A Polish organ of finance
At once apologised.

Lord Robert Cecil’s Report – in effect, the report of the Select Committee’s opposition members – was published, like the Select Committee Report itself, in June 1913. The three censures on Samuel contained in it illustrate vividly that ‘innocence’ such as his is not a desirable quality in a cabinet minister. In all three cases he had taken a line which a warier or more cynical politician would not have allowed. The first concerned the clause in the tender of 7 March 1912 under which the Government could cease paying Marconi a royalty ‘upon using a system entirely independent of the Marconi system’. In Marconi’s circular published that day this clause was not mentioned; and Samuel did not issue any correction either in reply to Parliamentary questions or when giving an account of the tender in the debate on the Post Office estimates on 20 May. The importance of the clause was much disputed, but one simple fact should have alerted Samuel to the need to publish its text: namely, that the chairman of Marconi had originally wanted it kept secret. Secondly, Samuel was blamed for giving Archer-Shee the impression on the evening of 6 August 1912 that he would press for ratification on 7 August, when Asquith had undertaken earlier in the day not to ask for ratification until October. There was nothing sinister in his wish to make haste, and in August 1914 many regretted that haste had not been made: but for Samuel to suppose that his statement on the last day before the recess would satisfy the House showed self-confidence bordering on arrogance. Thirdly, Cecil censured Samuel’s ‘reticence’ in referring to ‘this company’ on 11 October 1912 ‘as a grave error of judgment and as wanting in frankness and in respect for the House of Commons’. The injustices of political life are endless. Hobhouse, who was in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy, wrote in his diary after the Select Committee debate: Lord Loreburn ‘blamed, and not unfairly, the PM for not seeing from the first how serious the matter was’. But the Premier was not subjected to public criticism. The one person in the Marconi Affair who was innocent in all senses was the one who suffered almost as much as the guilty. Amery made a cruel comment on the failure of the Select Committees majority to report on the Marconi contract itself. ‘They knew,’ he said, ‘that the resources of the whitewash pail were exhausted, and that after the liberal helping given to Mr Lloyd George and Sir Rufus Isaacs there would not be enough left to furbish up poor Mr Samuel.’ Samuel showed great courage in negotiating a fresh Marconi contract and securing its ratification in July 1913.

Professor Wasserstein’s account of Samuel’s Zionism is eminently full and fair, yet here too puzzles remain. In Samuel’s ‘initial flurry of Zionist activity in late 1914 and early 1915’, Wasserstein writes, ‘he achieved the crucial first step of placing the subject on the agenda of serious political discussion at the highest level.’ How did Samuel manage suddenly to become such an immensely influential Zionist? The passage from which that quotation is taken does not quite give the flavour of those heady days of early March 1915 when he circulated his memorandum on Palestine to the Cabinet. ‘All concerned understood,’ writes Wasserstein, ‘that any effective decision must await the advance of British troops from Egypt into Palestine.’ But in early March 1915 all concerned expected the imminent collapse of the whole Turkish Empire. At the beginning of January the Turks had been routed on the Caucasus front at Sarykamysh. A month later they had suffered a humiliating repulse on the Suez Canal. The naval attack on the outer forts of the Dardanelles was judged successful and the penetration of the Straits had begun. In anticipation that they would soon be opened to allied shipping, wheat prices had fallen sharply on the Chicago Exchange. Samuel had chosen his moment well.

For the biographer ‘how’ is usually less important than ‘why’. Here were two Jewish first cousins, both of them cabinet ministers, bombarding the Prime Minister with diametrically opposed views about the best future for the Jews. This was not as strange as it may seem. Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu differed greatly from each other in temperament, but both had undergone in youth the same traumatic experience. Both had lost their faith in Judaism as a religious creed. Both were agnostics. Between them they symbolised the weakening of the force which had held the ‘cousinhood’ together. It was almost inevitable that Montagu, neurotic, self-doubting, and bent on marrying Venetia Stanley, should argue for assimilation, and that Samuel, armed with ‘supreme intellectual self-confidence’, should throw in his lot with Weizmann and have faith that the National Home could be achieved.