Young Brutes

R.W. Johnson

  • Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery: The Tragedy of a Political Family by David Faber
    Free Press, 612 pp, £20.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 7432 5688 3

Leo Amery, who lived and breathed the British Empire and could claim to have invented the Commonwealth, would doubtless find it sad that he is chiefly remembered for helping to bring down Neville Chamberlain. When, in September 1939, Arthur Greenwood, the acting Labour leader, rose to reply to Chamberlain’s ludicrously inadequate response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he began by saying he would speak for the Labour Party, but Amery, unable to control himself, burst out with ‘Speak for England!’ (In Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On this becomes ‘Speak for England, Arthur,’ but witnesses all say there were three words, not four.) Greenwood spoke well but the House, still stunned by Amery’s intervention, then broke up in confusion. Eight months later, appalled at Chamberlain’s mismanagement of the war, Amery made the speech of his life, quoting Cromwell at every turn and ending with his famous words to the Long Parliament: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’ At the end of the debate, 42 Tories voted against Chamberlain, another 36 abstained and, almost immediately, despite Chamberlain’s frantic attempts to hang on, the age of Churchill began.

David Faber, an Old Etonian and, like Leo and Julian Amery, a former Tory MP, has had the good idea of writing the story of the father and his two sons. Julian was appointed minister of aviation by his father-in-law, Macmillan, and could claim to be the man behind Concorde, but he wasted his talents in pursuit of hopeless right-wing causes and never made the cabinet. Jack, the elder son, was an unpleasant psychopath from his earliest years and, after a career of unbroken disreputability, ended up in France in 1940, and did a deal with the devil. Hence the awful drama of November 1942, when the family of Speak-for-England Amery gathered round the radio to hear Jack broadcasting from Berlin for the Nazis: speaking for Hitler. A great deal more of the same followed, including rabid anti-semitism, even though Leo’s mother had been a Hungarian Jew and Leo himself had been attacked by Lord Haw-Haw as ‘the half-Jew Leopold Amery’. At one stage Jack asserted that the victory of the German armies was ‘necessary in order that small children shall no longer be the victims of the Jews’. He also attempted to recruit British POWs to fight for the Nazis; this, not unreasonably, led to his eventual execution for treason.

It’s a rich story, and Faber tells it well, but he makes no attempt at interpretation, no effort to explain why the Amerys turned out so differently and what, if anything, they had in common. The best clue lies in the picture of Julian Amery arriving at Summer Fields prep school in Oxford in 1928. It was soon noted that the nine-year-old ‘refused to conform to the customs or routine of school life and exuded a self-confidence which could only have been interpreted as a form of provocation’. The headmaster warned Leo, then colonial secretary, that Julian was ‘far too inclined to criticise and, I fancy, has a very good opinion of himself’. He was ‘provocative, uncompromising and combative’ and had ‘developed a point of honour which would have been excessive in a 16th-century Castilian grandee’. When someone commented on his smallness, he would reply: ‘But I make up for size in intelligence.’ He never turned down a fight, told other boys they were stupid, spoke fluent French, argued with all his teachers and once knifed another boy just above the eye. He was precociously political and harangued his peers with orations during which ‘his gestures were both menacing and majestic.’ Where other boys were embarrassed by any show of parental affection, Julian hugged and kissed his (equally diminutive) parents quite unabashed, for he believed ‘that he, his mother and father were all equals’ (his letters to his mother, Bryddie, were addressed to ‘My Sweetheart’ or ‘My Angel’). He ‘fiercely resented any injustice and would fight against it to his last breath’, though he ‘tended to consider personal criticism as an injustice’. He had, in acute form, what used to be termed a ‘Napoleon complex’ – and sure enough, a biography of his hero, Bonaparte, was ever by his side.

The picture is deeply revealing of the Amery household, where all three men were worshipped, egotistical and spoiled rotten. Faber wonders, throughout his book, how Leo and his sons dealt with the fact that they were partly Jewish, but all of them were so thoroughly integrated into the British establishment that there is no sign that any of them thought of themselves that way. Leo’s mother, Elisabeth, had come from a rabbinical Budapest family which had, for the most part, converted to Christianity, viewing their Jewishness as ‘a birth deformity, corrected by a baptismal operation’. Elisabeth left India, where Leo was born, with her children when Leo was three, divorced his errant father, Charles Amery, settled in London, and associated mainly with a cultured circle of German and Hungarian Jews who had embraced Anglicanism. The only Jewish thing about Leo Amery was that he had been brought up by a devoted Jewish mother whom he adored. Nehru, who attended Harrow a few years before Leo, was struck by the anti-semitism there – Jewish boys were known as ‘the damned Jews’ – but Leo never mentioned it. Even when he played a key role in drafting the Balfour Declaration he never seemed to feel that Jewishness had any place in his own life.

There was no doubting Leo’s abilities. He had a remarkable gift for languages: he could speak Hindustani by the age of three, and had French, German, Italian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Serbian and Hungarian, knew Sanskrit and could rapidly mug up almost any other language he wanted (chatting away to Paul Kruger in Afrikaans, for example). As a child brought up by a single parent without any of the advantages of aristocratic descent or a wider family network, he embraced wholeheartedly and romantically all the institutions of the establishment, and they in turn seemed wondrously open to his talents, outsider though he was: at 15 he was the top scholar at Harrow, he took a brilliant First at Balliol and was then elected a fellow of All Souls. These institutions became his wider family: he was a governor of Harrow and devoted to All Souls all his life. Bryddie was, like him, an outsider in an establishment she had wholeheartedly embraced: she came from a Canadian family of Empire Loyalists with ‘an exaggerated reverence for the Crown and everything British’ – she and Leo spent their first date in passionate discussion of imperial preference schemes. Leo loved nothing better than roaming the enchanted garden of the dominions – by embracing Englishness one could feel at home all over the world.

As an aspiring Tory politician he had numerous disadvantages, however. He had no money, his size – 5’4” – always counted against him, he talked far too much and his oversized ego made him oblivious to how much he was boring or annoying his listeners. He was seen as doctrinaire (especially about tariff reform) and, in Balfour’s famous comment, ‘the cleverest bloody fool alive’. Surprisingly, Faber never considers the possibility that, while Amery may not have thought of himself as Jewish, he was almost certainly the object of anti-semitism. He quotes a long tirade against him by Wickham Steed, later editor of the Times – for whom Amery was an untrustworthy little Jew without ‘a drop of English blood in his veins’ – but never confronts the fact that in the Tory Party of the first half of the 20th century such prejudices must have been shared by many others. Yet the pattern was persistent: Leo, for all his talents, always got the short end of the stick – to take just one example, he was unreasonably denied the military rank that was his due during the First World War. It is revealing that Milner, his great friend and patron, clearly believed that all promises to appoint Amery to office would be welshed on, that there was an insurmountable prejudice against him. Bonar Law and Lloyd George were profuse in their praise but somehow no job could ever be found for him. When, after the war, Milner was pressed to stay on as colonial secretary, he made it a condition of his acceptance that Leo be made his under-secretary.

Amery was pugnacious – he several times got into fist fights with opponents, fought a libel action all the way to court and insisted on contesting a string of hopeless seats before at last becoming a Birmingham MP – but had a way of making himself indispensable. Once war broke out he became director of recruiting (the Pankhurst sisters turned up on his doorstep, bargaining an amnesty for themselves in return for assistance with the recruitment campaign). He played football in no man’s land at Christmas 1914, got torpedoed, wrote a military handbook on Serbia, played much the same role in getting rid of Asquith as he would with Chamberlain in 1940, and ended up as secretary both to the War Cabinet and the Imperial War Cabinet, attending all the meetings, drawing up their agendas and minutes and serving as one of Lloyd George’s key advisers. He drafted the Allied plan of campaign for 1918 and, later, the terms of the Armistice for several war theatres; the two minutes’ silence each Armistice Day was his idea. It came to seem natural that, time after time, Leo should help draft the Tory election manifesto.

He was often far more influential than his position suggested he should be – and was prone to exaggerate even that, claiming that he had drafted the Locarno Treaty, for instance. He was not slow in pushing for his own advancement (suggesting that he ought to be given cabinet rank simply as a reflection of the work he was doing). He was importunate, writing to Lloyd George to tell him how he should reshuffle his cabinet. And he was a schemer, a ringleader in the plot to bring down Lloyd George in 1922. He repeatedly suggested that he was ready to become chancellor of the exchequer or colonial secretary, a post he finally got in 1924. His response was typically grandiloquent: he and Bryddie set off on a seven-month tour of the empire, their own royal tour in effect, Amery giving three hundred speeches and telling himself that he had now bound the empire together. He managed to get one mountain in Canada named after himself and another after Julian.

He was probably the only person to be surprised to find, on his return, that his long absence had weakened his position in cabinet (his colleagues had been relieved to wave him goodbye for he was always telling them how their portfolios should be managed). Amery responded by telling Baldwin that he must choose between him and Churchill, demanding the Board of Trade for himself, and then offering a deal of unsolicited advice as to how the cabinet should be reshuffled with himself becoming chancellor. After the election defeat of 1929, he refused a whole series of directorships on the grounds that he might later have ‘to weigh their claims as colonial secretary or chancellor of the exchequer’. He badly needed the money, however, and had to arrange a vast overdraft (after which he suggested to his bank that it might like to make him a director).

When the National Government came to power in 1931, Amery again pressed his claims to be colonial secretary – in vain. In 1932, during the Depression, an Imperial Economic Conference was summoned in Ottawa. Amery, who had organised the Imperial Conference of 1926, when all dominions achieved equal rank with Britain and the Commonwealth was born, assumed he would be invited since none ‘of them could handle the business as well as I could’. When no invitation followed, he went anyway and could not forbear from demonstrating his close personal relations with many of the dominion leaders. During the difficult economic negotiations, Baldwin and Chamberlain found, to their fury, that Amery was advising the other side. Both vowed never to have him in government again. Hence his long exile on the backbenches in the 1930s and, ultimately, his revenge on Chamberlain – the third premier he was able to bring down.

In 1935, von Ribbentrop alerted Hitler that Amery was taking his family on a climbing holiday near Berchtesgaden and Hitler invited him to visit. They spent two hours discussing politics. Amery found his host ‘crude at times and coloured by deep personal prejudice’ but they got on well, thanks to ‘the fundamental similarity of many of our ideas’ – though Amery was careful to keep away from such topics as ‘Austria, constitutional liberty, Jews or colonies’. But his anti-appeasement views quickly hardened: when, in 1938, Chamberlain announced his flight to Munich to the cheers of the House, Amery was one of only four members who remained seated (the others were Churchill, Eden and Harold Nicolson). He was, in particular, horrified by what the expansion of Hitler’s power meant for Europe’s Jews but even when he spoke on the issue he did so as a non-Jew.

With Chamberlain overthrown, Churchill, knowing he had to reward Amery, gave him the minor post of secretary of state for India. Amery, naturally, began interfering in everything. He was a constant presence in the War Room and the War Office, circulated the cabinet with his own set of war objectives and quickly came up with a plan for reshaping the government – at which Churchill read the riot act to him, though even this did not prevent Leo proposing himself as viceroy of India a little later on.

Julian, meanwhile, was demonstrating the same breathtaking ego as his father. He spent the war swanning round the Middle East and had the temerity, as a young captain, to tell Churchill in front of Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, just what he thought about the army’s defeatism, its equipment problems and so forth. ‘The cheek of the young brute was almost more than I could bear,’ Brooke recorded. Just like his father, Julian was seemingly quite oblivious to the offence he had given.

In Jack these family traits merely found their logical extension. From an early age he was utterly indifferent to notions of right or wrong and did what he wanted, regardless of the cost to others. In the endless difficulties this provoked at school, Leo and Bryddie always took Jack’s side. And when it came to the wartime broadcasts, they refused at first to believe that it was Jack’s voice they heard. At the war’s end, with Jack on trial for treason, the entire family failed to acknowledge how serious his situation was. Bryddie intervened endlessly with those in authority to get her son off, while Leo thought that this ‘break in his life’ might give him ‘a new start’. The family were quite adamant that Jack was no Nazi, that he had merely been made use of.

Yet Jack had fought for Franco, was a close friend of the French Fascist leader, Jacques Doriot, and a member of his party, as well as a friend of Mussolini. He was well paid by Vichy and the Nazis for his denunciations of the Allies and the Jews, and became a celebrity lecturer on these matters throughout Occupied Europe. He loved dressing up in jackboots, black shirt and all the rest. ‘I know exactly what will happen, Jack will go over to the other side,’ Julian declared when war broke out and Jack refused to come home. This did not prevent Julian going to Spain at the end of the war to try to fake documents showing that Jack had become a Spanish citizen and was thus not subject to British justice. It is remarkable that this didn’t in any way affect Julian’s career.

After Jack’s death, Bryddie never smiled again, but Leo’s egotism was such as to survive even that, helped by the fact that Churchill, with the misdemeanours of his son Randolph always in mind, made it clear that no one could blame a man for a wayward son. Julian had managed to get himself adopted as a Tory candidate for Preston but both he and Leo were swept away in the 1945 Labour landslide. ‘I do think the Party owes me a reasonable [i.e. safe] seat,’ Leo very typically insisted at the age of 75. When it became clear this would not be forthcoming he dithered over whether to accept a peerage – much to Macmillan’s fury – because it would, in those pre-life-peerage days, have summarily ended Julian’s political career. In fact, Julian was to squander his good start by his passionate support for Rhodesian UDI – an enthusiasm that made him unappointable even by Mrs Thatcher.