The Home Secretaries (4): Sir John Simon

Sir_John_Simon_1-3-16Sir John Simon, 1915-16; 1935-37

Liberal 1915-16 (under Asquith in the wartime coalition,1915-16); Liberal National (1935-37, in the National Government under Baldwin)

Sir John Simon’s was one of the more remarkable political careers in British history.

Simon was a genuine self-made man. He was the son of a congregational minister whose outstanding academic ability saw him secure scholarships to Fettes College and then to Wadham College, Oxford (where he won a first in Greats) and then All Soul’s. He became a successful barrister before entering the Commons in the great Liberal landslide of 1906 (as the member for Walthamstow, a seat later held by Clement Attlee). He rose rapidly, as the youngest solicitor-general since the 1830s (aged 37) in 1910, then entering cabinet as attorney general in 1913.

Simon had married in 1899, but after two daughters were born, his wife Ethel (a daughter of the historian JR Green) died shortly after giving birth to a son in 1902. It had a permanent effect of him, accentuating his natural reserve and his obsessive approach to work. He remarried in 1917, but not entirely happily (not helped by his second wife’s drinking).

Before the war, Simon was talked of as a future leader of the Liberals, but the war badly damaged his political career. He was always at best uneasy about the conflict. His first stay of the Home Office was cut short by his principled resignation in opposition to the introduction of conscription in 1916. He would not hold office again for 15 years. He became implacably opposed to Lloyd George, an antipathy made worse when he lost his seat (along with most of the ‘Squiffites) in the Coupon Election of 1918.

Simon returned to the Commons in 1922 as MP for Spen Valley 1922 and soon became deputy leader of the Liberal Party. His hostility to Lloyd George was now also matched by his hostility to socialism (he famously said, in the Commons, that the general strike was illegal). Being out of office in a Liberal Party reduced to a mere 40 seats in 1924 also meant that he had no prospect of office as a Liberal. Instead, he led the Simon Commission (into India’s prospects of self-government).

His political position was transformed by the creation of the National Government in 1931. By then, he had already split the Liberal Party. Simon wanted the Liberals to vote with the Conservatives to bring down Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government. He also held Baldwin in high regard, and found Baldwin’s liberal Toryism congenial. He was even willing to abandon free trade. In June 1931, the Simonites threw off the Liberal whip. After the 1931 landslide, Simon became foreign secretary (see the forthcoming entry in the foreign secretaries). When the Samuelite Liberals left the government in September 1932, the Simonites remained, now officially organised as a separate Liberal National Party.

In 1935, when Baldwin took over from Ramsay MacDonald, Simon went back to the Home Office. As was the case in all four of his spells in the great offices of state, he achieved little, though he was home secretary at the time of the abdication crisis. When Chamberlain became prime minister, as a member of Chamberlain’s inner circle, he was made chancellor of the exchequer (see the forthcoming entry in the chancellors).

He was never much loved, a fact not helped by his shyness, and his gauche attempts to overcome that: his famous tendency to slap colleagues on the back and get their names wrong probably didn’t help him. Nor did the commonly held belief that he was Jewish. Crossing the floor earned him the undying enmity of Lloyd George, who quipped that Simon had ‘sat on the fence for so long that the iron has entered into his soul’; he also spoke of his ‘intolerable self-righteousness’ and ‘the slime of hypocrisy’. Harold Nicholson called him a ‘foul man’, like a toad and a worm’. Brendan Bracken compare him to Uriah Heep;  Asquith nicknamed him ‘the Impeccable’. Eden, appointed to act as his minder when Simon was at the Foreign Office, said that he was burdened with ‘Too penetrating a discernment and too frail a conviction’; he also thought him ‘snaky’. Beatrice Webb saw him as among the most unpleasant people she had met. Nye Bevan’s quip was more to the point: ‘nobody believed he believed’. His biographer, David Dutton, wrote that he was the great barrister who won many cases, but lost his own.

For all that, he remains one of only three men since 1900 to have held the three great offices of state other than prime minister (like him, one of them, Rab Butler, was never prime minster). Becoming Lord Chancellor (an office held with far greater distinction than any other he held), he became the only man to have held the three great offices and to be Lord Chancellor. He is one of eight men since 1900 to have been home secretary and chancellor, and one of six to have been at both the Home Office and the Foreign Office. He is also one of only three men since 1900 to have been home secretary twice. Yet, he remains an elusive figure and one without too much to show for it.

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