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’).

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