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.

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