Termagant

Ian Gilmour

  • The Cliveden Set: Portrait of an Exclusive Fraternity by Norman Rose
    Cape, 277 pp, £20.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 224 06093 7

‘In twenty years,’ Lady Astor used to say of Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, ‘I’ve never known Philip to be wrong on foreign politics.’ Though Lothian himself thought much the same, it is, in fact, harder to think of an occasion when he was right. As Sir Robert Vansittart, the strongly anti-Nazi head of the Foreign Office in the 1930s put it, ‘Lothian was an incurably superficial Johnny-Know-All.’ In 1938, A.L. Rowse, who knew him at All Souls, went further, pillorying Lothian as ‘Britain’s public enemy number one’. That was over-harsh, but by then Lothian and the rest of the Cliveden group or clique were under fire in the press and elsewhere, and most of them deserved it.

The origins of the so-called ‘set’ lay in Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’, the bunch of young men, mostly from New College, Oxford, whom Lord Milner summoned or took with him to rebuild South Africa after the Boer War. With their mission completed by the foundation of the Union of South Africa, they returned to England but maintained some cohesion by starting a quarterly review, The Round Table, dedicated to turning the British Empire into an organic union; and they continued their South African practice of convening regular ‘moots’, which were frequently held at Cliveden, a palatial house near Windsor.

This book deals with the core members of the set: Lothian, judged by another member to be ‘airy and viewy’, a Roman Catholic who converted to Christian Science, became private secretary to Lloyd George in the First World War, and the British Ambassador in Washington in the Second; Robert Brand, thought by Jan Smuts to be ‘the most outstanding member of a very able team’ in South Africa, who became an investment banker and remained easily the best of the set; Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times for 26 years, who almost worshipped Neville Chamberlain; Lionel Curtis, like Brand and Dawson, a fellow of All Souls, but unlike them often a grinding bore, who pursued impossible ideas such as the unification of the British Empire, and dreamed in Shanghai ‘of all nations knit in one robe for the Infinite Mind’; and Waldorf Astor, whose father, an American multi-millionaire, had decided that, while America was ‘good enough’ for a man who had to make a living, there was no reason for ‘travelled people of independent means’ to ‘remain there for more than a week’. Consequently, his son was educated at Eton and New College but did not then go to South Africa. Apart from Brand, Astor was the only member of the group who often exercised good judgment; he did not display it in 1906, though, when he decided to marry Mrs Nancy Shaw, née Langhorne, from Virginia, who had recently divorced her impossible and drunken husband. She had wanted merely a separation, but had been forced into a divorce by her husband’s family’s discovery that he had married again and was about to be prosecuted for bigamy.

Any doubts as to whether these people merit a book of their own are soon allayed by its author. Norman Rose, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, is also a master of Britain’s internal relations. He has studied the archives and the memoirs, and apart from one or two very minor solecisms about Eton – he seems to think it was founded by George III not Henry VI – his knowledge is extensive and his touch assured. With the exception of Bob Brand the members of the Cliveden Set tended to take themselves all too seriously. Rose does not take them on their own valuation, and in fine, economical, sometimes epigrammatic prose he has written a thoroughly entertaining, absorbing account of their mostly misguided and often self-important activities.

Whether or not Waldorf Astor’s father, William Waldorf, the first Lord Astor, approved of his son’s marriage to Nancy Shaw – he did not go to the wedding on the grounds of ‘poor health’ – he was not niggardly with his wedding presents. In addition to giving Nancy an invaluable tiara, he handed over Cliveden, together with a large number of millions to keep it up. The suitably enriched newly-weds soon began entertaining on a scale appropriate to their wealth and the magnificence of their house. The leading politicians of pre-1914 Britain, Curzon, Cecil, Balfour, Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill all came, as did some leading literary figures, Kipling, Barrie and Buchan, none of whom was liked by their hosts, as well as Lytton Strachey and Hilaire Belloc, who were more popular. Royalty also figured: the occasional Austrian archduke, the Queen of Romania, Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught, and less frequently King Edward VII. Rose quotes one of Nancy’s ‘most celebrated bons mots’: when invited by the King to play bridge, she is said to have refrained with the claim: ‘Why I don’t even know the difference between a King and a Knave.’ The author rightly thinks this to be probably apocryphal, without adding that the remark was first made by John Wilkes in the 1760s when it had more political relevance.

None of the set saw active service in the 1914-18 war. They were either too old – the youngest was 32 – or too unfit, but Waldorf Astor insisted on joining the Army and was put in charge of monitoring Army waste, while Cliveden was used as a Canadian Army hospital. In 1916, what Rose calls ‘a small group of Milner’s cronies’ began to dine together every Monday. They included Milner himself, Astor, Dawson, Lothian, L.S. Amery, Carson and Lloyd George. All were strongly in favour of removing Asquith; and when that was achieved and Lloyd George had taken his place, most of them got their reward in the form of jobs of some sort.

In 1919, Waldorf Astor lost his job as MP for Plymouth on the death of his father, who three years before had accepted a peerage – awarded for large gifts to the Conservative Party – without consulting his son. Waldorf was succeeded in his constituency by his wife, who thus became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. She got off to a poor start, with a typically egotistical display at her introduction. Sponsored by Lloyd George and Balfour, she broke the rules by talking to them while advancing from the bar of the House to the table, then talked to Bonar Law instead of signing the register, and ended by wanting to have a chat with the Speaker. A bundle of irrational prejudices herself – against Jews, Roman Catholics, alcohol etc – she encountered, appropriately and inevitably, much anti-female prejudice among MPs who, even before they had met her, thought a woman’s place was in the home. One Labour MP, Jack Jones, pleased her, however, by saying: ‘we have plenty of old women in the House, so I have no objection to having a young one.’

Rose does not record two other exchanges with the same man which pleased her less. In one of them, when she was denouncing alcohol, Jones asked her why she thought drink was such an evil. Because, apart from anything else, she replied, it rots your stomach. Well, rejoined Jones, I’ll lay my stomach against yours any day. In the other, again inveighing against drink, she declared that she would rather commit adultery than drink half a pint of beer. To which Jones responded: who wouldn’t? More often, however, because she could not think consecutively, as George Bernard Shaw maintained, for more than 60 seconds at a time, she was the interrupter not the interrupted; she once congratulated herself to her dinner guests: ‘I got in a wonderful interruption tonight.’

Nancy Astor was a bundle of contradictions as well as of prejudices. While, as Rose points out, her anti-semitism was much more genteel than the murderous German variety, it was still rude, stupid and profoundly unattractive. Yet she helped place Jewish refugees from Germany in British universities, and when told by Felix Frankfurter that his uncle was trapped in Vienna she delivered a successful ultimatum to the German Ambassador that he be released immediately. So mean to her long-serving maid that she begrudged giving her a £5 a year raise, she was at the same time generous to any hard-up friends and to many charities. Her anti-Catholicism alone seems to have had no redeeming features. As France was both Latin and Catholic, the country was ‘nothing but a big brothel’. And when her youngest son, Jakie, decided to marry an Argentinian Roman Catholic, she refused to go to the wedding, stopping her husband going, too. Luckily, the young Chiquita Astor soon proved herself well able to stand up to her formidable mother-in-law.

Chips Channon described Nancy as an ‘interfering termagant’ who was warm-hearted only to those she could patronise. I remember her at one or two children’s parties in the early 1930s. As a seven or eight-year-old one expected to be bossed by grown-ups at children’s parties, but Nancy Astor was certainly more of a termagant then than any other adult I came across. Bob Brand found her a ‘startling combination of great beauty, extreme frankness and friendliness, brilliant wit, tremendous energy and dashing initiative’; but he also described her ‘uncanny instinct’ to wound. That vein of cruelty extended even to children. One eight-year-old whom she did not know – not me, fortunately – was humiliated in front of a large gathering by having Lady Astor put her finger in his mouth and being told: ‘I thought so. You did not clean your teeth today.’

She was an unsettling mother: ‘All your children are cases of arrested development,’ Jakie told her. Certainly, the eldest son, Bill, was dull; and of the other three boys, all of whom were highly intelligent, only David fulfilled his potential. Against his mother’s violent and continuing opposition her husband made him editor of the Astor-owned Observer, where he proved himself to be probably the best of all British post-Second World War editors.

The other two, as well as Bill, became Conservative MPs. When in Spain, Michael, in response to a request from the Whips to return to vote on a three-line whip, sent this telegram from the Ritz in Madrid – I think I have the wording right: ‘You must take me as you find me. That is, if you can find me.’ (They couldn’t.) Obviously, his political career was not going to be a long one. The opposition to the Whips of Jakie, the wittiest and most entertaining of all the Astors, was more positive. He was one of the few Conservatives brave enough to vote against Anthony Eden’s ill-conceived Suez aggression in 1956. Nevertheless, like Michael, he soon decided to leave Parliament.

Nancy helped to convert Philip Lothian to Christian Science. As was usual with him, he adopted his new belief without even a dash of moderation or doubt. ‘I am increasingly convinced,’ he said in all seriousness, ‘that Christian Science is the real key to all our problems, political and economic, no less than personal.’ Lothian seems to have fallen in love with Nancy as well as with Christian Science. Even so, Rose thinks that only once ‘did a flash of desire pass between them’, and on that occasion they knelt on opposite sides of the bed until the spasm passed. As Lothian’s only previous love affair had ended because of religious disagreement, which hardly suggests tempestuous sexual passion, and as Nancy Astor had an aversion to the sexual act, they were probably both happier praying separately on either side of the bed than they would have been together in it or on it.

Lothian was more passionate about the Treaty of Versailles. Lloyd George spoke of his ‘priceless help’ at the Peace Conference, and Lothian at first thought the Treaty just. But he soon swung and found it ‘full of defects’. Bob Brand, who had also been in Paris, thought much the same. He was close to his friend Maynard Keynes in thought, though as befitted a merchant banker he was more addicted to laissez-faire economics. Yet Brand’s belief that Germany had been ill-treated over reparations did not lead him, as it did Lothian and most of the set, into being strongly pro-German. When Hitler came to power in 1933, one Astor paper, the Times, praised his ‘moderation and common sense’ and the other, the Observer, thought him ‘definitely Christian in his ideals’. That perverse myopia became endemic in the Cliveden set, with the exception of Brand, who saw that its Nazi dictatorship precluded Germany from being a good neighbour. Waldorf Astor, too, had doubts, partly because, when he met him, Hitler had shown no interest in Christian Science and partly because he had thrown a tantrum when Astor told him to alleviate the plight of the Jews.

The Cliveden set’s nemesis, and in a sense, too, its creator, was born at the same time as Hitler’s coming to power. The Week, a news sheet run by Claud Cockburn, a clever Communist journalist who had been a successful foreign correspondent of the Times, first appeared in March 1933. Cockburn published news that other papers were not prepared to print, and also published as ‘news’ what were merely rumours, inventions and his own points of view. I met Cockburn a few times in the late 1950s – he occasionally contributed to the Spectator, which I was then running. Invariably the funniest man in the room and usually the most intoxicated, he was quite open about his journalistic practices twenty years earlier: he used to invent things but often they turned out to be right. From what I can remember and from what I have heard from others, Rose’s account of Cockburn’s ‘preventive’ and ‘creative’ journalism is excellent and exact.

As a Communist, Claud Cockburn was fiercely hostile to Nazi Germany. Most of the Cliveden clique were anything but. Even though they had mostly come to know that Hitler was dangerous and aggressive, they wanted to do a deal with him. Since the set’s strongly pro-Empire politics ruled out returning any of Germany’s former colonies, the only field for concessions lay in Eastern Europe, where Lothian and others were prepared to give Hitler a free hand even at the cost of breaking the Anglo-French alliance. Effectively, Lothian’s policy was that Britain should agree to give Hitler everything he wanted, before he took everything without an agreement.

Towards the end of 1937 Cockburn began denouncing ‘the Cliveden Set’ – before that the usual phrase was ‘Cliveden group’ or ‘clique’ – as a disloyal bunch of upper-class Englishmen and expatriate Americans, based at ‘Schloss Cliveden’, who were ‘the friends of the Third Reich’. The Week’s attacks were more true in general than in particular. Though much of what it alleged was a farrago of lies and invention, the drift of its articles was often near the knuckle. Where Cockburn was seriously at fault was in depicting the set as vastly powerful – ‘Britain’s other Foreign Office’ – and impressively cohesive, when it was neither of those things. Despite, or rather because of these and other errors, Cockburn’s barrage against the Astors, Lothian and Co created a sensation, not only in Britain but abroad as well, as a result of which the Cliveden set became the most unpopular and dangerous conspiracy since the Gunpowder Plot. In fact, as Rose points out in his admirably fair summing-up, there was no organised body and no conspiracy. Nor, as Cockburn himself later conceded, was there even a set – ‘just people interested in the same objectives standing around in a co-operative frame of mind’.

Dawson in the Times, Lothian and Nancy Astor welcomed both the Anschluss and Munich, while Brand opposed them and Waldorf Astor had doubts. Only Hitler’s march into Prague turned the other members of the set – Dawson excepted – against Germany. Later, however, Lothian reverted to type. Although he proved a good Ambassador in Washington, he wanted to make peace with Hitler in 1940. As usual, ‘Philip’ was wrong ‘on foreign politics’.