High Priest of Mumbo-Jumbo

R.W. Johnson

  • Lord Hailsham: A Life by Geoffrey Lewis
    Cape, 403 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 224 04252 1

On the face of it, Quintin Hogg ought to be a great historic figure. He comes into the history books as the victorious pro-Munich candidate at the famous Oxford by-election of 1938, is Under-Secretary for Air in Churchill’s Government by 1945, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time of Suez, the head of various other ministries, Tory Party Chairman and, for a record 12 years, Lord Chancellor, formally the country’s highest office. (The Lord Chancellor has often earned more than the prime minister and outranks him on all official occasions.) He had every advantage: a wealthy background, a Lord Chancellor as a father, a good brain, Eton and Christ Church – the classic pedigree of the Tory grandee – and easy social connections wherever it mattered. (When Hogg’s right-wing polemic, The Dilemma of Democracy, was published, in which he spoke of Labour’s victory of 1974 as proof that democracy was breaking down, the Queen wrote him a long handwritten letter to tell him of the ‘intense interest and enjoyment’ his book had occasioned: she was, she said, sure that it would help ‘many slightly muddled, BBC-battered people to see things more clearly’.) The title of Geoffrey Lewis’s biography could have been ‘Quintin Hogg’, ‘Quintin Hailsham’ or just ‘Hailsham’. No one, after all, would dream of writing a biography of, say, Harold Wilson and calling it ‘Lord Wilson’ because deep down we know that was all a hollow sham. But Lewis clearly feels that Hogg is, well, lordly.

In a sense this hits the nail on the head, and not just because he was twice ennobled: having disclaimed his title in order to run for the Tory leadership, he got the Hailsham tag back when he became Lord Chancellor. Such interest as there is in Hogg derives not from anything of real worth or interest that he did – his lengthy career is quite devoid of such achievements – but in the caricature he presents of the old ruling élite. During his time at Eton the kindly regime of J.F. Grace – later recalled as ‘the Reign of Love’ – was replaced by that of ‘Bloody Bill’ Marsden, an outstanding sadist. The young Hogg, as Lewis puts it, ‘co-operated enthusiastically in Marsden’s disciplinary reforms’. What can that mean? That he flogged smaller boys with a passion rare even in that intensely homoerotic environment? And his only redeeming feature, his cleverness, was spoilt by his extreme conceit. The words used of him by contemporaries depict an almost supernaturally disagreeable young man: ‘ambitious, even ruthlessly so’, ‘obstreperous’, ‘loud’, ‘aggressive’, ‘exuding hubris’, ‘raw bumptiousness’, and so on. At Oxford, absurdly, he stood for the presidency of the Union in his very first term.

The English upper classes have, enthusiastically and for generations, paid large sums of money in order to exile their male children from home at an early age and send them to schools at which they know they will be beaten and sodomised, the victims eagerly sacrificing their own children in like manner. What sort of people are these? In what sense can such behaviour be termed normal? The damaged nature of so many upper-class Englishmen is surely structural rather than accidental. In Hogg’s case the death of his mother when he was 17 appears to have added considerably to the emotional damage. Utterly egocentric, he was an isolated figure, wanting love but unable to give it. Not long after his mother’s death there followed the suicide of his elder brother, Edward, a right-wing Tory MP and a man of what Lewis delicately calls ‘fragile temperament’. Edward was clearly mad, terrifying his fiancée and the doctors before doing away with himself – with Quintin’s shotgun. Quintin’s first marriage, to Natalie Sullivan, was an absurd disaster: he proposed, changed his mind, asked to be released from the engagement; but when Natalie refused to agree he went through with it as a point of honour and spent ten years in misery as a result. The person who elicited his strongest feelings was a young officer met during the war, called Robert MacGill (Hogg ‘loved him’, he said, ‘almost like an adopted son’).

Hogg’s conduct was wild, irascible and volatile, both verbally and physically (he got into a number of fist fights at Oxford). He also had what another brother, Neil, described as ‘intense superficial sentimentality’, allowing himself to be overcome by gusts of skin-deep emotion. He was clearly encouraged by the notion that Churchill (whom he knew well) had a personality somewhat similar to his own. It was a fatal model. Hogg recorded with delight Churchill’s reaction to the receipt of a report by Eden on his tour of the Middle East in 1941: ‘Capital. There are only two clichés you have forgotten: God is love, and Please adjust your dress before leaving.’ The war allowed Churchill to get away with things like this – but Hogg was a peacetime politician.

One problem of a personality like Hogg’s is an inability to be in the wrong. Having come into politics to defend Munich, he has defended it ever since. (Lewis, by the by, seems to believe that his subject is dead: he writes that Hogg defended Munich ‘to the end of his days’ and ‘to his dying day’.) But his reasons have changed over time and were never entirely coherent. The fact that his father was in the Cabinet that made the deal, and appears, indeed, to have been the first to apply the phrase ‘peace with honour’ to the occasion, may have been the determining factor. Again, Hogg recognised that Churchill had gone too far with his infamous 1945 campaign speech claiming that Labour in power would require a Gestapo, but still he insisted that this ludicrous idea contained ‘a germ of most important truth’. By 1947 he himself was saying that ‘the Labour Party almost admittedly aims at the establishment of a single party system.’ And: ‘Never since the days of Cromwell has a single force in this country constituted a more formidable menace to political liberty.’ Lewis continually exhorts us to remember Hogg’s formidable intellect, but this was often well disguised. His real hallmark was overheated hyperbole – and that often went beyond parody. What to say of an MP whose maiden speech was a strong plea for the retention of flogging?

On the one hand, Hogg’s emotionalism galvanised the Tory faithful, who instinctively recognised it as part of the kit of a true member of the gentry; something rarely revealed, but all the more exciting when it was. On the other, his displays of emotional bravura deeply upset members of the leadership, not only because of an 18th-century horror of enthusiasm, but because this sort of behaviour was simply not something a gentleman went in for – and, if he did, it proved that he was not ‘sound’. Hogg’s career was littered with incidents which both inspired the troops and led to a fearsome backlash against him.

The first such incident occurred when, as Party Chairman, he presided over the 1957 Tory Conference at Brighton. Each morning before breakfast he appeared in striped dressing-gown and micro-trunks for an early-morning swim – watched over by large numbers of press photographers, whose presence guaranteed him a place on the front page of every newspaper. He followed this up with the famous seizing of the handbell on the Conference podium: reciting Donne, he declared that the bell was tolling for the Labour Party and brought an audience of four thousand to their feet. (He was so pleased with the effect that he gave a repeat performance at Blackpool the following year.) Over time the image of Hogg and the bell did as much damage to his career as seizing the Speaker’s mace did to Michael Heseltine’s. Noting in his diary that Hogg was ‘really not safe’, that he was ‘in a very over-excited condition and keeps giving ridiculous “press conferences”’, Macmillan dropped him as Party Chairman. Since it wasn’t possible to make him Leader of the Lords ‘without disaster’ and unthinkable, given his provenance and standing, to let him go altogether, he was given a series of what were, in high Tory eyes, lesser jobs – Minister of Education, Minister for Science and Technology, minister responsible for the problems of unemployment in the North-East (Hogg immediately donned a cloth cap), minister responsible for sport, minister in charge of negotiations with the US and the Soviet Union to get a nuclear test ban treaty signed.

This last job brought him into collision with the immensely experienced American negotiator, Averell Harriman. Warned of Hogg’s ‘instability’ by the US Embassy in London, who noted that he had about him ‘more than a suggestion of intellectual arrogance and the consequent tendency to find his own opinions especially congenial and convincing’. Sure enough, Harriman thought Hogg abominable: Hogg presumed, laughably, to know better than his fellow negotiator, who found him offensive and querulous and went home fuming. This turned out to be of considerable consequence.

The Profumo affair provided another occasion for Hogg to lose his temper, this time on television: ‘a great party,’ he raged at his interviewer, ‘is not to be brought down because of a squalid affair between a woman of easy virtue and a proven liar.’ Aware that tales were being told of bacchanalian scenes involving cabinet ministers in sado-masochistic sex, he insisted, white with anger, ‘I am not the man in the iron mask,’ and even attempted, forlornly, to show that a central lie-factory was fabricating these poisonous rumours. In effect, Hogg tried to use his bullying tactics and political weight to persuade the media that all this was none of their business. Again, whatever the galvanising effect on the Tory faithful, the enduring image was not good.

All these chickens came home to roost during the Tory leadership contest of 1963. Macmillan, after much vacillation, decided that the main thing was to defeat Butler and that Hogg was his man. Home concurred, though he feared that ‘complete disunity’ and great troubles would follow. This gradually hardened into a resolve to stand himself. Meanwhile Hogg, overcome by excitement, threw his hat into the ring, provoking scenes which greatly upset Butler. ‘When I was entering the Winter Gardens,’ Butler noted, Hogg ‘was emerging, surrounded by hysterical and weeping women on the lines of a Hitler campaign.’ The next morning Hogg just happened to be walking around the hotel with his one-year-old daughter, mixing baby food in front of the cameras. Lord Dilhorne told Macmillan that he tried to warn Hogg against such exhibitionism ‘but he would not listen and was in a state of hysteria, bursting into tears and clutching his baby and generally behaving in a strange way’. Finally, David Ormsby-Gore, Britain’s Ambassador in Washington, rang Macmillan and told him that Hogg’s succession ‘would be a tremendous blow to Anglo-American relations and would in fact end the special relationship’ – so appalled had Kennedy been by what Harriman told him. For Macmillan that was decisive.

Hogg warned Home, also of Eton and Christ Church, to keep out of it: ‘Of course I pitched it strong,’ Hogg said to Ian Gilmour. ‘Alec and I have known each other for forty years. We are gentlemen, so we say what we think. If I had been talking to Ted Heath, I would have been more polite.’ As Lewis remarks, this is reminiscent of the Gerald Brenan character who claimed that the great advantage of being born a gentleman was that one need never behave like one. It was no good: Macmillan wouldn’t have Butler and Washington wouldn’t have Hogg – which made Home inevitable. Had Lee Harvey Oswald moved just a bit quicker, Hogg might have made it.

When little Lord Lundie was found wanting at the top because of his habit of bursting into tears he gradually worked his way down to the post of curator of Big Ben. Once Hogg had finally been declared ‘unsafe’ it was quite clear what should be done with him: he was put in everlasting charge of the country’s judicial and legal system. (The comparison is close: faced with Hogg’s wilful outbursts, one of his departmental officials opined that in looking after the Lord Chancellor it was more important to be good with children than with old people.) He was, in many respects, ideally suited to the task. He loved the Bench and Bar as traditional English institutions and wanted to preserve them exactly as they were. He was shocked when Sir John Donaldson, in charge of the National Industrial Relations Court, dispensed with gown and wig: wigs, gowns and flummery were the essence of the law. He not only opposed any notion that the free-market principles preached to the rest of the nation might apply to the Bar – he would simply not allow its monopoly of audience in the High Court to be considered or discussed – but championed the cause of judicial secrecy. When, in 1979, Thatcher appointed a select committee to scrutinise the public spending of all government departments, Hogg managed to get her to agree that the (high-spending) Lord Chancellor’s department alone should be exempt from scrutiny: it would be sacrilegious to have MPs poking around wanting to know about the deep mysteries of the system, such as how judges were appointed. Lewis does not seem to find it odd that the best way he can find to cast light on these appointments is by doing detective work on Hogg’s engagement diaries – i.e. that there is no properly laid down procedure. Similarly, faced with Hogg’s jealous protection of the Upper Bench as the preserve of white upper-class men educated at private schools, Lewis asks ‘whether any of this matters or whether the quality of justice is any the worse for it’.

In every respect Hogg’s defence of the indefensible was quite unerring. When Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice, developed Parkinson’s disease Hogg was horrified to hear it said that he, as Lord Chancellor, should speak to Widgery about the impossible situation created by his sharply declining powers: the principle of judicial independence was far more important than whether or not the Lord Chief Justice was compos mentis. Luckily, Denning grasped the nettle and told Widgery it was time to go. Lewis rejects any suggestion that Hogg was the Brezhnev of the system, followed by the reforming Mackay’s Gorbachev, but that is almost exactly the truth of the matter. When, after many years in office, Hogg eventually allowed a review of civil procedure that would tackle the appalling problem of legal delays he attempted to persuade the rest of the Government that such a review would take at least five years and be impossibly complex. In fact the review was quite pointless because Hogg made sure his department kept tight control over it and insisted that the Bar’s monopoly was not even up for discussion. In the end nothing changed, except that some of the delays were shifted from the High Court to the County Court.

Hogg took most seriously of all his position as high priest of constitutional mumbojumbo. The Lord Chancellor’s office is an abomination to anyone who takes democratic principles seriously: after all, the Lord Chancellor is a member of the Cabinet, Speaker of the House of Lords and the head of the judiciary – which breaks all the rules about the separation of powers; and the office is far too powerful for the elective principle to be allowed anywhere near it. Hogg, however, announced that ‘the separation of powers is the primary function of the Lord Chancellor, a task which he can only fulfil if he sits somewhere near the apex of the constitutional pyramid.’ Naturally, he reinforced the traditional pro-executive bias of the judiciary where he could: he was alarmed by the progress of judicial review and warned that judges who declared that ministers had acted unlawfully were obviously not well informed about ‘constitutional practice’, that such behaviour was provocative and might bring retribution down on their heads. He insisted on the ‘Kilmuir Rules’ about judges playing no part in public life, and spoke approvingly of a judge who was also a conductor refusing to perform in a BBC concer, so anxious was he to evade public notice. This again was mumbo-jumbo, because there were no rules: merely a letter from the Earl of Kilmuir – David Maxwell Fyfe – to the BBC expressing a private opinion. Hogg himself, of course, was entirely exempt from any form of prohibition and, while Lord Chancellor, not only gave the Dimbleby Lecture but engaged in some wildly partisan electoral campaigning.

Views of such rigour and majesty made Hogg a major constitutional expert. By the early Sixties he had become an outspoken devolutionist and in 1976, outraged by the sight of Labour in power (‘elective dictatorship’), he demanded a written constitution, an entrenched Bill of Rights, Proportional Representation and the replacement of the Lords with a senate. Once he was given the power and time in office to put such ideas into practice he lost interest in them, citing Lord Melbourne’s response to any suggestion of reform – ‘Why not let it alone?’ ‘We have,’ he said, ‘more important things to do.’ What this meant was that the Tories were back in power and, with that, God back in his heaven. The wilfulness he had learnt in the nursery was now dignified as constitutional principle and he was, naturally, invited by a grateful establishment to expatiate at length on his views. Inevitably, he was surprised when, in 1987, Thatcher finally asked him to go – he was by then nearly eighty.

Hogg’s disgraceful judicial career was capped by his vehement condemnation of his successor, Lord Mackay, who tackled all the issues of reform Hogg had deliberately avoided. Having lectured us all about the dignity and wisdom of the law which, for 12 years, he had embodied in his capacity as Lord Chancellor, he was childishly rude, telling his successor that ‘one does not know whether the Government is sitting on its head or its bottom. Its trouble is that it is thinking with its bottom and sitting on its head.’ Lewis says of Hogg that as Lord Chancellor he carried a political weight rivalled perhaps only by Lord Dilhorne. This – like his whole book – is ludicrously over-respectful. What he might have said is that Dilhorne – Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller – was known to his peers as Sir Reginald Bullying-Manner and that what he and Hogg had in common was a desire to make a principle of government out of infantile sulking and churlishness.

It is tempting to say ‘thank God they are gone,’ but these people come in dynasties. When I was a student at Oxford there was much merriment in the Union at the childishness of Quintin’s son, Douglas Hogg. It seemed beyond belief that nature could do this to us twice or, more incredible still, that he could become a cabinet minister, but we have already had to accept that it is so. However low the ebb in Tory fortunes now, it makes sense to prepare for grim times ahead.