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Cover Story: The Friendship Between Churchill and F.E. Smith

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It was one of my most precious possessions.” —WSC

DAVID FREEMAN

 

Professor Freeman, a regular contributor to Finest Hour, teaches History California State University Fullerton.

 

He was tall, dark, slender and a little over-dressed. His eyes and hair were lustrous; the first from nature, the second from too much oil. His mouth had always a slightly contemptuous droop, his voice was a beautiful drawl. He had acquired, not diligently but with too much ease, the airs of a fox-hunting man who could swear elegantly in Greek. Many people loved him, most distrusted him, some despised him, and he despised almost everybody. In his later career as Earl of Birkenhead he served himself more faithfully than his God or his country, and has been left naked to his biographers; who, when they come to dealing with him, will discover among other less creditable attributes that he was without question the most fascinating creature of his times.”1

So wrote the historian George Dangerfield in 1935, only five years after the death of his subject, Frederick Edwin Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead, invariably referred to by those who knew him as “F.E.” One who knew him personally remembered him as possessing the “most powerful mind with which I had ever been brought in contact.”2 This was said by Sir John Masterman, the respected Oxford historian best known for directing counter-espionage activity in Britain during the Second World War, and a man who knew his fair share of geniuses. Asked late in life if he really meant what he said, “Masterman replied impatiently that he did not write what he did not mean.”3

Across the political spectrum, Clement Attlee remarked that he would “rather hear [F.E.] make a speech in the House than anybody.” The former Labour Prime Minister described Birkenhead as possessed of both a “brilliant mind” and “bags of guts.” He believed the “Tories should have made him [their] leader in the 20s” as he was one of the few Conservative politicians “who understood the working man.”4

Yet for all of this high praise. F.E. Smith is best remembered today, if at all, for having been Winston Churchill’s best friend. Partly this reflects Churchill’s continuing popularity and Smith’s own early demise, but partly it is the result of a steady—even dramatic—decline of interest in political history. Interest in things Churchill is by no means a poor portal through which to enter the field of “F.E. Studies.” No more dynamic friendship is to be found in British history.

 

EARLY YEARS

F.E. Smith was born on 12 July 1872 in Birkenhead, England, an industrial suburb of Liverpool, the second and eldest son among seven children born to Frederick and Elizabeth Smith. His father was a local councillor and solicitor, but the family fortunes stemmed from a firm of estate agents founded by his grandfather. Not unlike many politicians, the adult F.E. fostered the deception that he came from humble beginnings. In truth he was raised in upper middle-class affluence.

Sadly, the Smith family seemed to have been doomed to short life-spans. At sixteen, F.E. became his family’s senior male when his father died at forty-two. This, however, was not before Frederick Smith had instilled in his son the ambition to become the Lord Chancellor of England. His mother fueled her son’s developing sense of self-importance. According to her grandson, Elizabeth Smith had an “almost Oriental sense of priority for the dominant male.”5 She and her daughters deferred to and waited upon F.E. and his two brothers to an extent which would shock the modern mind and, not surprisingly, produce in F.E. a staunch male chauvinist stridently opposed to women’s suffrage. Yet, by all accounts, his mother “was the one person of whom he was [and always remained] in awe.”6

At Oxford, F.E. was a brilliant scholar, but he had received his entire early education at nondescript schools in the Liverpool area. In 1886 he failed the entrance exam for Harrow, whose headmaster, Dr. Welldon would accept Winston Churchill on slender evidence of qualifications two years later. F.E. did not take failure lightly. As Lord Chancellor in 1919, thirty-three years later, he found himself seated across a dinner table from Dr. Welldon and took the opportunity to sneer at his lack of perspicacity. “It was rather my failure,” the aged Welldon politely replied.7

While attending Liverpool University in 1891, F.E. gained a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself as President of the Union, earned a First in Jurisprudence and secured the Vinerian Law Scholarship. Elected a Fellow of Merton College, he served a three-year appointment as Lecturer in Law.

 

INTO POLITICS

With the start of the Edwardian era, F.E. left Oxford to make his way towards fame and fortune as a Liverpool-based barrister. His world-view had been formed in late-Victorian Liverpool, as Churchill wrote: Smith “had reached settled and somewhat somber conclusions upon a large number of questions, about which many people are content to remain in placid suspense.”8

Liverpool in F.E.’s time functioned as a virtual colony of Belfast. Masses of working-class Ulster Protestants, who had crossed the Irish Sea to fill the need for industrial labor, had organized themselves into the Liverpool Workingman’s Conservative Association (LWMCA) and had defined local politics. Believing passionately in the Union, the Empire and the Church of England, they opposed Irish Home Rule, and made no secret of their anti-Catholic bias. With almost equal bitterness, they distrusted efforts by the Liberal Party and religious Nonconformists to restrict the drink trade. F.E. became their articulate spokesman. Yet he also possessed a strong libertarian instinct, as when he summed up his efforts to stop restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the words: “Better England free than England sober.”9

Away from politics, F.E. established both a family and a successful legal career. In April 1901 he married Margaret Furneaux, the daughter of an Oxford don. They made a good if not always faithful couple and together had a son and two daughters. At the Bar F.E. became one of the best known and most highly-paid barristers in the country, making over £10,000 per year before the war. He “took silk” as a King’s Counsel (KC) in 1908.

When Joseph Chamberlain launched his Tariff Reform campaign in 1903 in the belief that protective tariffs could preserve the Empire, F.E. became an ardent supporter. Defying the national trend, he won his seat in Parliament as a Conservative MP for Walton (essentially Liverpool East) against the Liberal tide in 1906, and sought to make an immediate splash and fire up a dispirited Opposition.

In his maiden speech his formidable forensic skills, developed at the Oxford Union and polished before the Bar, alternated with his legendary sarcasm and quick wit as he ripped into the Liberal Government, laying debating traps into which his opponents walked with child-like innocence. According to Violet Bonham-Carter, who witnessed the entire speech from the gallery, members of the House shouted and roared with ecstasy. Only towards the end did Winston Churchill enter the chamber to catch the last of Smith’s bravura performance.

 

CHURCHILL

Two years younger than F.E., Churchill had been a Conservative, but his support for Free Trade caused him to switch parties in 1904, leading to his appointment as an Under Secretary in the new Liberal government. Some months after F.E.’s maiden speech a mutual acquaintance introduced them. “From that hour,” Churchill recalled, “our friendship was perfect….It grew stronger as nearly a quarter of a century slipped by and it lasted till his untimely death.”10

The friendship between Churchill and F.E. Smith was not only the strongest that Churchill ever had, but virtually his only one based on a shared sense of equality. With Lloyd George, Churchill always felt the inferior, just as he occupied the superior role in his association with Brendan Bracken. With Max Beaverbrook there was always a certain friction, with Roosevelt there was a clear distance. But Winston and F.E. could share all their thoughts and wisdom, with the knowledge that each would receive a valuable experience. Churchill’s private secretary Sir John Colville recalled that “several times during the Second World War, when storms were threatening,” the Prime Minister “told me how much he missed F.E.’s wise counsel.”11

Clementine Churchill thought differently. Although good friends with Margaret Smith, she believed F.E. encouraged her husband’s worst habits, particularly gambling and drinking. She grouped Birkenhead with Beaverbrook and Bracken as the “Terrible Bs.” But during the lowest ebb in her husband’s life, following the failed Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, when F.E. nearly alone sought to sustain Churchill with visits, letters, gifts and encouragement, Clementine recognized the value of “a true and faithful friend.”12 That fierce loyalty was part of what Churchill had in mind when he described F.E. as possessing “all the canine virtues.”13 Nevertheless, F.E. could never be classified as Churchill’s poodle.

Mutual talent and similarity of temperament explains their immediate attraction, because on the political issues F.E. and Churchill nearly always disagreed. They were mostly in opposing parties. When Churchill was Home Secretary in 1910, F.E. criticized him, contrary to popular mythology, for not using troops to quell striking Welsh miners at Tonypandy. Smith opposed the Liberals’ “People’s Budget” of 1909, though both men thought it madness for the Lords to reject it. F.E. was among the diehards opposing the 1911 Parliament Bill, which stemmed from the budget crisis—not because he favored the privileges of hereditary peerages but because he believed the composition of the Lords required reform: he favored a largely appointed assembly. What F.E. did not support was a restriction on the powers of the upper chamber. He feared the tyranny that could result from an unchecked, essentially unicameral legislature. Many today would not argue with that reasoning.

 

THE OTHER CLUB

Against the background of political antagonism, F.E. and Churchill organized the now-legendary Other Club. According to unverifiable tradition, the impetus for the formation of the group came when both men were simultaneously blackballed from joining the exclusive dining circle known as The Club, which traced its pedigree back to Dr. Samuel Johnson and his cronies in 1764. While neither ever cared for much for the traditional world of formal gentlemen’s clubs, both enjoyed stimulating talk around the dinner table.

Membership in The Other Club, when founded in the summer of 1911, was by invitation only, the principal criteria being personality and conversational skills. The forty-one charter members included Lloyd George, Lord Kitchener, the actor Beerbohm Tree, Churchill’s beloved cousin Sunny (Ninth Duke of Marlborough), The Observer editor J.L. Garvin, the Portuguese ambassador, and the King’s secretaries.

Meetings were to take place at the Savoy Hotel at 8:15 pm on alternate Thursdays when Parliament was in session. In practice, though, meetings did not take place so regularly, and more than once The Other Club went into abeyance for extended periods—such as the 1914 Home Rule Crisis, which stretched political friendship to the limit. Still, The Other Club survived thanks to its founders, whose twin spirits infused the celebrated rules they established including the famous Rule 12: “Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics.”14

Extending an invitation to join The Other Club became for Churchill something like an honour in the personal purview of the Sovereign: it was his highest accolade. Still, The Other Club’s original criteria had to be met by each potential invitee. Much as he admired Clement Attlee’s abilities, for example, Churchill did not think his Labour counterpart met Other Club standards.

 

THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The 1914-18 war altered the career paths of Smith and Churchill. Asquith had to reorganize his Liberal government as a coalition with the Tories, following the initial failure of the Dardanelles campaign in May 1915; Churchill was made scapegoat and demoted from First Lord of the Admiralty to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. By contrast, as a leading Conservative, F.E. was appointed Solicitor General and, by tradition, was knighted to become Sir Frederick Smith KC MP.

Only a few months later, when Churchill left the government to serve in the trenches on the Western Front, F.E. was promoted again, to Attorney General with a seat in the Cabinet. This position he retained when Lloyd George replaced Asquith in 1916, and continued to hold for the duration of the war. While Churchill served his exile on the Western Front F.E. made visits and sent him letters and gifts. (Briefly serving in France himself early in the war, F.E. had learned that boxes of cigars sent as gifts from his wife tended to be stolen. He directed Margaret to wrap the boxes in plain paper and affix to them specially made labels reading “Army Temperance Society Publication Series 9.”)15

On one memorable occasion in 1916, F.E. toured the front and stopped to see his friend at Churchill’s “Plugstreet” headquarters. A vindictive staff officer who cared for neither man gave orders for the Attorney General to be arrested. This event triggered volcanic fulminations from both F.E. and Churchill, though both were able to laugh it off the next day at Gen. Haig’s headquarters, with the aid of copious amounts of brandy.

 

THE CASEMENT TRIAL

The First World War also provided the setting for the most famous case which F.E. ever litigated. As Attorney General he personally assumed the role of lead prosecutor in the 1916 trial of Sir Roger Casement. The charge was treason and the evidence indisputable. Casement, a Protestant Ulstermen, had been knighted for his humanitarian efforts as a Foreign Office diplomat in Latin America, but had morphed into an Irish-Catholic Nationalist who openly sought German assistance for his cause during the war.

Apprehended by the British, Casement intended to plead guilty and embrace martyrdom, but his lawyer convinced him to fight the charge. Fearing the arousal of trouble both in Ireland and among Irish-Americans, the British sought to neutralize sympathy for Casement, whose conviction was never in doubt. Ironically, the defendant himself provided the very means to accomplish this: Casement kept a diary detailing homosexual liaisons, including a fetish for boys. Irish Nationalists later claimed the diary to be a forgery and accused F.E. of showing it about in secret to defame the putative author. Neither charge is true. During the trial, F.E. showed the diary quite properly to no one other than Casement’s attorney and the Attorney General for Ireland.

Five years later, during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, Sinn Fein representatives Michael Collins and Eamonn Duggan requested to see the diary by special appointment at the House of Lords and F.E., by then Lord Chancellor, made the necessary arrangements. According to Duggan, Collins verified the handwriting and pronounced the diary both genuine and “disgusting.”16 Casement was executed in August 1915, but his remains were eventually returned to Ireland for a state funeral in 1965.

 

LORD CHANCELLOR

By the summer of 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George felt secure enough politically to bring Churchill back into the Government as Minister of Munitions. F.E. and Churchill thus became Cabinet colleagues for the first time, and remained as such for nine of the following eleven years.

Following the Armistice and victory of the Coalition government in the general election of 1918, F.E. considered a return to private practice. Lloyd George, determined not to lose so valuable an asset (or see him become a potential adversary), seduced him with an offer of elevation to the Woolsack.* At 46 Sir Frederick Smith became the First Baron Birkenhead and the youngest Lord Chancellor in modern times.

F.E. could not resist this very desirable political plum, but he did sacrifice his chances of leading the Tories as prime minister, as well as his future earnings potential at the Bar. In compensation he received a salary twice that of the prime minister and successive promotions in the peerage to viscount and earl.

Not all approved of the appointment. The Spectator saw the insidious influence of Churchill, whom the journal fancied to be pulling the strings of a puppet prime minister. For his part, F.E. is supposed to have remarked: “Should I be drunk as a lord or sober as a judge?”17

In fact F.E. became one of the most successful of England’s Lords Chancellor. The job entailed many responsibilities, legislative, executive and judicial. At 46 he could bring more energy to these tasks than his often elderly predecessors. Churchill judged his friend “more at home in the House of Lords, and more dominating upon that assembly than ever in the Lower Chamber.”18 Although he disliked the fancy dress and the long hours, F.E. took his job seriously.

When it came to the business of appointing judges, he did not forget his own experiences facing supercilious men on the bench (see sidebar). As Lord Chancellor he curtly dismissed the application of one would-be judge with the remark, “he is a pompous little ass.”19 In legislative matters he unsuccessfully but passionately championed a reform of the divorce laws, which he judged favored the wealthy few. In this debate he delivered what his son later judged to be the greatest speech of his life. Sexist and racist by the standards of today, F.E. believed nevertheless in equality before the law.

But it was in Cabinet that F.E. was at his strongest. Churchill thought it so and others agreed with the description WSC penned of his friend in this setting: “He had acquired in the legal profession the habit of listening mute and motionless hour after hour, and he rarely spoke until his counsel was sought. Then his manner was so quiet, so reasonable, so matter-of-fact and sensible, that you could feel opinion being changed.”20

 

IRELAND

“Looking back,” Churchill wrote in his book Great Contemporaries, “I think that the post-war years of the Coalition must be regarded as the great period of F.E.’s life. And there was nothing in it that became him more than the part he played in the final settlement of the difficult and dangerous Irish controversy that had distorted English politics for over thirty years.”21

His part in drafting the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty was F.E.’s proudest accomplishment and the centerpiece of his political career. In a sense he had to be part of the solution because he’d been part of the problem: the refusal of Ulster Protestants to submit to Irish Home Rule.

Yet “Orange Smith,” as some called him, saw further than most through the darkest issue in British politics. He concurred with the Jeffersonian view that governments derived their just powers from the consent of the governed. The Catholic majority of Southern Ireland, he believed, should no more be permitted to impose its authority upon the Protestant North than Britain was entitled to continue ruling a resistant South. Thus, from the first F.E. was prepared to accept the geographically untidy solution of partition.

The postwar political landscape in Ireland made finding a solution more treacherous than ever, what with the terrorist activities of the IRA and the equally vicious counter-actions of the British military police, the “Black & Tans.” As Secretary of State for War in 1919, Churchill was seen by many in Ireland to be the minister responsible for the latter outrages. Churchill supported Irish self-government and played a significant role in the treaty negotiations. But the leading government men in the Irish talks were Prime Minister Lloyd George, the Conservative leader Austen Chamberlain, and Lord Birkenhead.

Perhaps the key moment came when Chamberlain and Birkenhead simultaneously accepted Dominion status for Southern Ireland. The challenge then shifted to convincing the Sinn Fein representatives, Michael Collins, Eamonn Duggan and Arthur Griffith, that Dominion status less Ulster was the most they could expect to get from Britain at that time.

F.E. established a rapport with Collins which, along with Chamberlain’s rapport with Griffith, and above all Lloyd George’s formidable powers of persuasion (perhaps deception)—produced a treaty that, for Britain at least, settled the seemingly impossible issue for fifty years.

Birkenhead knew that Unionist die-hards would never forgive him. In putting his name to the treaty he remarked to Collins that he may have signed his political death-warrant. Collins, accurately as it turned out, replied that he had probably signed his actual death warrant.

 

WILDERNESS YEARS

By autumn 1922, F.E. was fifty and exhausted. Heavy work and drink had begun to take their toll. For a time he experienced vision trouble, which prevented him from being able to read. His staff could read to him most paperwork, but it was probably Churchill who kept him informed about matters restricted to the Cabinet. He made himself anathema to his party by sneering and insulting those Tories who wished to withdraw from the Coalition and unseat Lloyd George. Margot Asquith pithily remarked: “Lord Birkenhead’s brains appear to have gone to his head.”22

From October 1922, F.E. and Churchill found themselves out of government for about two years, and Labour replaced the Liberal Party as the primary opposition to the Conservatives. F.E. and Churchill, however, both made the mistake of taking seriously the socialist rhetoric of Labour, believing they must keep a Marxist menace from power. Neither saw that the British working class sought only an improved standard of living within the context of a capitalist economy, regulated but not controlled by government.

Tory Democracy, that illusory concept of Lord Randolph Churchill, hero alike to his son and F.E., had been buried, but Liberal support of the first Labour government cleared the way for Churchill to rejoin the Conservatives. Meanwhile, F.E.’s backing for the Tories in the successive general elections of 1923 and 1924 enabled his own return to government under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin.

 

INDIA

The India Office of the 1920s seemed respectable for a former Lord Chancellor. F.E. did not really desire a return to the demands of the Woolsack; nor did Baldwin, who allegedly suggested it would be inappropriate to see the Lord Chancellor drunk on the street. But Baldwin did want the unity that Churchill and F.E. would bring. As a duo they were potentially too dangerous to leave out.

For F.E. the India Office had the advantage of not being too taxing. The real work was done by the Viceroy in Delhi. This left the Secretary of State in London to do little more than act as a liaison with the Cabinet. One of F.E’s secretaries during these years recalled a half century later that they seem to have spent rather a lot of time playing golf. Churchill, by contrast, as Chancellor of the Exchequer was busier than ever.

Birkenhead and Churchill shared the view that Britain provided an enlightened and benevolent rule which Indians could not presently establish on their own. Both, therefore, opposed any movement towards Indian Home Rule, and both were wrong in believing that they or anyone could do anything to prevent it. Where the force of nationalism is at work, rational argument holds no power. Following their Irish experience, both men should have understood this, but notions of race and imperial identity clouded their judgment.

To their credit, both held British government in India accountable to the rule of law. One of Churchill’s most effective speeches in Parliament had been his defense of the Coalition government’s condemnation of Gen. Dyer for his part in the 1919 Amritsar massacre: “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia....” As Lord Chancellor, Birkenhead delivered an equally potent speech in the Lords that echoed Churchill’s views, in the face of a more conservative and more hostile chamber.

By the autumn of 1928, however, F.E. was a spent force. In fast-declining health, heavily indebted from a lifelong habit of good living, he resigned from the government, hoping to try to make some money.

 

ALCOHOL

Birkenhead’s drinking stood out even at a time when high consumption was commonplace. Yet he had no drinking problem before the war. Indeed, opposition to restrictions on the sale of alcohol made him popular with the working men of his constituency. During a wartime visit to the United States, he was appalled by the ominous signs of encroaching Prohibition.

But after the war, his drinking was increasingly noticed. When seated at dinner one evening next to a pretentious woman who introduced herself as “Mrs. Porter-Porter with a hyphen,” F.E. replied that he was “Mr. Whisky-Whisky with a siphon.”23 In 1921, Lord Beaverbrook shrewdly wagered F.E. that he could not go the year without drink. Birkenhead took up the bet and for months held to the offer with gusto. Churchill sniffed at the ill effects of temperance upon his friend, but Leo Amery recognized F.E.’s improved performance, and credited sobriety for his success with the Irish Treaty.

An equally pronounced difference materialized after F.E. resumed drinking. When appendicitis prevented Churchill from campaigning during the election of 1922, his friend traveled to Dundee to give a speech in his place: an arch-Tory supporting a Liberal. "He was no use at all," Clementine reported, "he was drunk."24 Sadly, both F.E. and Churchill encouraged their sons to believe that alcohol consumption showed the measure of a man: Randolph Churchill died at an even younger age than his godfather, while Churchill's godson, the Second Earl of Birkenhead, battled successfully to become a reformed alcoholic.


THE END

F.E. had always been an athletic man, fond of tennis, golf and horseback riding. Well into middle age he took pride in showing off his muscles. He was a natural to mentor the 1924 British Olympic team, and is ably played by Nigel Davenport in the great film, “Chariots of Fire.” (Incidentally, the role of the runner Lord Lindsay is played by Nigel Havers, a believable Randolph Churchill in “The Wilderness Years” starring Robert Hardy.)

Eventually, though, F.E. started to put on weight. As with Randolph Churchill, heavy drinking and smoking wore out every organ in his body simultaneously. By the late summer of 1930, only a year and a half into retirement, his system became so weakened that he succumbed to pneumonia on 30 September.

“Between the setting of the sun and night,” Churchill wrote, “there was only the briefest twilight. It was better so.”25 A month later, the largest attendance ever at The Other Club heard Winston Churchill break with Club precedent and eulogize his friend and co-founder. “Let us drink tonight in silence,” Churchill concluded, “to the memory of a dear and honoured friend whose like we shall never see again.”26

 

ENDNOTES

1. George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (New York: Perigree Books, 1980), 534-35. First published 1935.

2. John Campbell, F.E. Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 702.

3. Ibid.

4. Kenneth Harris, Attlee (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1982), 555.

5. Campbell, 16.

6. Ibid., 688.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries (New York: Norton, 1990), 109. This essay is a revised and expanded version of Churchill’s introduction to the Second Earl of Birkenhead’s biography of his father, published in 1933.

9. Campbell, 185.

10. Churchill, 109.

11. John Colville, Winston S. Churchill and His Inner Circle (New York: Wyndham Books, 1981), 19. Published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicholson as The Churchillians.

12. Campbell, 425.

13. Churchill, 109.

14. Campbell, 270.

15. Ibid., 388.

16. Ibid., 421.

17. Ibid., 469.

18. Churchill, 112.

19. Campbell, 478.

20. Churchill, 113.

21. Ibid., 114.

22. Campbell, 616.

23. Ibid., 257.

24. Ibid., 618.

25. Churchill, 116.

26. Campbell, 836.

 

FURTHER READING

Birkenhead, Second Earl of, Frederick Edwin, Earl of Birkenhead. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1933 (2 vols).

___, F.E.: The Life of F. E. Smith First Earl of Birkenhead. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1959. (A heavily revised edition of the above, with more on his political career and less on his legal career.)

Churchill, Winston S., “Birkenhead,” News of the World, 1 March 1936, reprinted as “‘F.E.’ First Earl of Birkenhead” in Great Contemporaries. London: Thornton Butterworth, 1937; many reprints since.

Coote, Sir Colin, The Other Club. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971. Alas, now rare and expensive.

For secondhand copies of these mostly scarce works, see www.bookfinder.com.                                        ✌