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The Case for Hailsham

Lord Hailsham / Wikimedia Commons

There are few sights and sounds more British than the Conservative Party engaged in one of its periodic leadership squabbles. Although given a more populist twist in recent years with a provision for actually consulting the grassroots membership, the process as it existed in October 1963 resembled nothing so much as some medieval cabal whose delegates yelled, stamped their feet, and pulled at each other’s beards to resolve the issue at hand.

That was the month in which 69-year-old Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, suffering from prostate trouble, abruptly decided to call it quits. The circus that then began under the glare of the television cameras in the decayed northern England resort of Blackpool, where the Tories happened to be meeting for their annual conference, came in marked contrast to the air of Edwardian gravitas Macmillan himself seemed to embody. Readers need only think of a politically charged movie like “The Candidate,” as interpreted by the cast of Monty Python, to get the flavor.

The star turn of these antics was a squat, bustling figure, the 2nd Viscount Hailsham, who had been born 56 years earlier as Quintin McGarel Hogg. Hailsham, as we’ll call him, was incredible. Superbly shod, pop-eyed, with a shock of white hair and that thin film of superiority between himself and the rest of the human race that apparently comes from being the leader of the House of Lords, he was one of those strangely enjoyable anachronisms that reflected the divided fabric of Britain in the early ’60s, when the patrician establishment briefly coexisted with the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Hailsham came equipped with a full set of ruling-elite credentials. After a brilliant Eton career, he had been president of the Oxford Union, qualified as a barrister, and first stood for parliament at the age of 30, when he ran successfully on a platform supporting Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. (“Hitler wants Hogg” was a popular slogan of his opponent’s.) Hailsham, it should be immediately said, fought bravely for his country during the war—a wound sustained while in the Egyptian desert nearly cost him his right leg—before returning to political life in 1945. He inherited his title on his father’s death in 1950, and went on to hold a series of cabinet posts while sitting in the House of Lords.

At the time of Macmillan’s health crisis, Hailsham was serving in the somewhat unlikely role of minister for education and science, as well as being responsible for England’s economically troubled northeast, whose constituents he privately characterized as “stupid, mad, ugly, and boring.” Hailsham’s robust political style was combined with the flamboyant mannerisms of an Edwardian dandy. He was known to proffer his hand in papal fashion when encountering the public, for example, and liked to sign his correspondence with the letter “Q” followed by a half-dozen cascading flourishes. In short, he was the quintessential English toff of a certain kind, although like two others of the species—Churchill and Macmillan—he had an American mother: the former Elizabeth “Missie” Brown of Nashville, Tennessee.

There was a riverboat gambler struggling for ascendancy with a London clubman within Hailsham, the fastidious aristocrat with a penchant for the most boisterous school of political campaigning. Perhaps that helps explain his legendary performance in the already chaotic circumstances surrounding the Tory conference in 1963. Amid the faint air of bumbling and gentlemanly self-deprecation that characterized his rivals to replace Macmillan, Hailsham struck a brashly discordant note. On the first day of the proceedings, a group of his supporters under the shrill leadership of Randolph Churchill was ejected from a committee room for the impossibly tasteless offence of passing out promotional lapel badges in praise of their man, thus “turning the Party Conference into an American Convention,” as The Times reprovingly put it in the course of an editorial rebuke for the “lamentable exhibition” of the event as a whole. At a subsequent platform speech, such was the raucous atmosphere that some commentators thought darkly in terms of a Nuremburg Rally.

Hailsham himself then caused a media furor when, the following morning, he appeared in the lobby of the Conservatives’ hotel brandishing his diaper-clad infant daughter in the air, before calmly proceeding to bottle-feed her while fielding reporters’ questions on the precarious state of the national economy. It would hardly have mattered had he in fact been reciting the Black Panther manifesto because most of his words were lost in a cyclotron of derisive laughter and incredulous gasps.

This was not the sort of etiquette expected of a middle-aged Tory grandee 50 years ago. Social revolution might be breaking out in Britain on every level, but it had yet to disturb the age-old idea of what constituted acceptable public decorum—specifically, the degree of outward affection thought proper between a father and his child. Short of stripping off all his clothes and running amok through the streets of Blackpool while chanting the chorus of the latest Beatles single, it was hard to think what Hailsham could have done that would have been more controversial.

Lying groggily in his hospital bed in London, watching the events on television, Macmillan wrote in his diary: “The party is upset at the rather undignified behaviour of Hailsham and his supporters. It wasn’t easy for him, of course, since whenever he appeared he was surrounded by mobs of enthusiastic supporters. But it was thought that he need not have paraded the baby and the baby food in the hotel quite so blatantly.”

Assessing the “vulgar carnival” of Blackpool as a whole, the outgoing PM added poignantly, “I feel almost tempted to step back into the ring, but I know it would be folly. I have lost the great moment. The Spirit was willing but the Body was weak…”

Out of the leadership vacuum there “emerged”—as Tory leaders did in those days—the almost primeval figure of the 14th Earl of Home, or plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home as he was to become upon renouncing his title. (A lord could still become prime minister, in theory; in practice, however, a leader from the House of Commons was more plausible.) Hailsham, too, then renounced his title and successfully fought a by-election to return to the House of Commons. “After all, I am only 56. Perhaps about 1970 if there is a Tory government some ass might make me Lord Chancellor,” he remarked to a journalist at the time.

Oddly enough, this was precisely what happened. When later Conservative lader Ted Heath unexpectedly won the 1970 general election, Hailsham became the first man to return to the House of Lords as a life peer after having previously disclaimed an hereditary title.

As Lord Chancellor, he again brought a certain forthrightness to a job traditionally associated with patrician dignity and restraint. Watching him tangle in debate with his elaborately bewigged opponents struck one Labour peer as “presenting the distressing prospect of an exquisitely groomed poodle being grilled by a pit-bull.” Hailsham’s pugnacious style also came as something of a shock to foreign leaders accustomed to the Oxbridge urbanity of many other British peers. When asked in 1971 what he thought of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s agitations for a reunified Ireland, he remarked: “Bastards like that have no right to interfere in the domestic arrangements of the United Kingdom.”

Nor, in the 1960s, was Hailsham one of those Western politicians who conspicuously sought to appease Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Over the course of 30 years, his attitude toward what he called “the tinpot elite” among world rulers, whether of the right or left, underwent a marked sea change. Speaking in the Lords in 1962, Hailsham was led to admit that “Some of us flinched when Herr Hitler first threatened the peace, and we rued that decision.” By contrast, “No one should be in any doubt about the intentions of Soviet Russia, which involve the wholesale export of its corrosive system of government.” The Allies should certainly seek to coexist with the USSR, Hailsham announced in an address to that year’s party conference, “but never by the means of surrender or submission to that form of inhuman tyranny known as Marxism-Leninism.”

So it was an unexpected and somewhat capricious choice when, in July 1963, Hailsham was named as the chief British negotiator in three-way nuclear-test-ban talks to be held with the Soviets and Americans in Moscow. Averell Harriman, the 71-year-old railroad heir and former secretary of commerce, led the U.S. side. An excessive diplomatic finesse hadn’t previously been noticed in Hailsham, who may have been chosen for the job in the hopes that he would prove compatible with the more extroverted of his Russian hosts.

On July 23, Khrushchev himself unexpectedly appeared at the talks, and ended up taking Harriman and Hailsham to an extended dinner. After months of stonewalling about on-site inspections, the Soviet leader now not only wanted to conclude a comprehensive test-ban treaty but pressed his guests for a general “non-aggression pact” as well. The British were willing enough, Macmillan signaled, but President Kennedy preferred to take one step at a time.

A certain tension crept in between the two Western delegations as a result. Hailsham cabled back to the Foreign Office that Harriman “seems … tired, and becoming a little deaf. The Americans are rather suspicious of me personally. At one moment they suspected I was in [cahoots] with the Russians!” With his ebullient table manners, not unlike Khrushchev’s own, Hailsham was said to be the center of attention at the lavish banquets that were laid on for the diplomats.

A deal was finally struck that banned nuclear tests underwater, in the atmosphere, and in space—but not underground—and allowed up to seven annual on-site inspections by each side. Ratified by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 80 to 19, the treaty was widely hailed as a significant thaw in East-West relations, if not the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Macmillan broke down in tears of relief when he heard the news. Kennedy told the American public in a televised address that “for the first time, a shaft of light had cut into the darkness” of the arms race.

The next morning, Hailsham flew back to a hero’s welcome in London, brandishing aloft his gift of caviar from the Soviet ruler. It was another case of his consuming flair for the dramatic, as well as his utter freedom from false modesty. In his autobiography, Hailsham wrote of the Moscow treaty as “the last time that Britain ever appeared in international affairs as a great power.”

Less than three months after his success in Moscow, Hailsham found himself at the center of the Tory leadership convulsions in Blackpool. His leading role on the world stage had done wonders for his profile in the nation at large, where he was regarded as an endearing British bulldog unbowed by his recent encounter with the Russian bear. For all that, doubts about his candidacy lingered at the very highest levels of the Western Alliance, even before the tragicomic saga of the baby-food. Harold Macmillan later told his official biographer, Alistair Horne, that he regarded Hailsham as “one of the finest men I knew—a big man, a great churchgoer, and idealist. But he didn’t always do himself justice; there was an excess of boyishness…”

This was mild compared to the opinion of him expressed elsewhere. Macmillan wrote in his diary of a phone call, at the height of the leadership melee, from the British ambassador in Washington, “in a great state, to say that if Hailsham was made PM this would be a tremendous blow to Anglo-American relations and could in fact end the special relationship. It was believed that the ambassador had been talking to the President.” Kennedy let it be known that he was altogether more partial to the reassuringly suave figure of Home, the foreign secretary.

Bitterly disappointed at the outcome, Hailsham was not among those Conservatives who refused to serve in Home’s administration, despite telling the new PM with characteristic tact that he thought his tenure would be a calamity for the party and country. (“It’s not what the 14th Earl believes that worries me,” he confided to a reporter. “It’s whether he believes anything.”)

When the Tories duly lost the general election of 1964, Hailsham became the opposition spokesman on home affairs. He’s remembered for leading the chorus of disapproval that greeted his colleague Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech warning of the “rivers of blood” he foresaw as a result of Britain’s immigration policies. “There is no place in civilized society for [Powell’s] views on racial relations,” Hailsham pronounced stoutly. Even so, it would be a mistake to think of him as an inveterate supporter of civil rights or as one who necessarily aligned himself with the farrago of wasp-striped mini skirts, flower garlands, and smoldering joss-sticks that offered such visual gratification that Time was moved to coin the phrase “Swinging London.” Hailsham was not a man whom either temperament or training had cut out for the role of striving to move the guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior.

In fact, he was impervious to anything that might undermine the moral values of a bygone age. The student protesters of the late 1960s and 1970s were “rubbing ideological elbows with Stalin and Mao,” he announced, while a long-haired heckler at one political event was silenced by the rebuke: “Sir or Madam, whichever the case might be, we have had enough of you.” He was convinced that the permissive society, rather than legitimate social grievances, had led to that era’s exponential rise in crime.

Hailsham’s own private life was one of almost schizophrenic contrasts. On the one hand, he was the epitome of the old-school Englishman who would brook no violation of the family honor. In June 1963, he attacked his recent fellow minister John Profumo for having lied to Parliament about his “squalid” affair with a society call girl. On the other hand, he had an occasional unwitting talent for public scandal. Hailsham’s first marriage ended badly when, in 1941, he came home unexpectedly from army duties to find his wife, as he later put it in a television interview, “not alone”—more specifically, in the arms of General de Gaulle’s chef de cabinet, Francois Çoulet. thisarticleappears

Hailsham’s enthusiasm for a subsequent lady friend seemed to cool in proportion to the progress of her ensuing pregnancy. Hailsham was eventually married again, to Mary Martin, a union that lasted 34 years until her death in a horse-riding accident. Hailsham married for a third time in 1986, when he was 79, although his wife again predeceased him.

Hailsham died in October 2001 at the age of 94. Having been born in an era when Great Britain defended her empire by gunboats and cavalry charges, he survived to see a time of lost certainties, when Britain operated largely as a branch office to her American headquarters. He remains one of the “nearly men” of politics, a sort of Zelig figure who managed to be in the front row of the chorus for some of the 20th century’s great European events.

Among other books, he left behind one called The Case for Conservatism (1947), which argues cogently in favor of the emerging welfare state but warns against the excessive “interference, nannying, and poking about in individuals’ affairs” that struck him as lying at the heart of the socialist agenda. It reads as pertinently today as it did nearly 70 years ago.

Hailsham was also part of a significant dynasty in British public life. The son of a prominent Tory politician of the 1920s, his own son went on to become a cabinet minister under John Major, while his granddaughter is currently the chief executive of the Bank of England. It’s an impressive family record by anyone’s standards, but somehow you can’t help wondering what might have happened if only Hailsham had kept his baby daughter and her bottle safely out of view in that Blackpool hotel. Instead of a disciplined, impeccably cautious leader, the Tory party might have buckled itself in and taken a risk on an altogether wilder ride.

Christopher Sandford is the author ofHarold and Jack: The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy.

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