William Joynson-Hicks, Conservative 1924-29 (under Baldwin)
History has been even less kind than usual to Joynson-Hicks, or Jix as he styled himself when defeating Winston Churchill in a 1908 by-election in North-West Manchester in 1908 (he had lost to him in 1906). In that by-election, Joynson-Hicks set the tone that predominated throughout his political career. In the first place, he wasn’t even meant to contest it. By law, when an MP took ministerial office, he submitted himself to re-election; by convention, he ran unopposed. Not only did Joynson-Hicks oppose Churchill, he did so by fighting a campaign the keynote of which was a shrill Tory populism and a willingness to be violently offensive to his opponents; he was openly anti-Semitic too. That might have been the sum of his political career, as he lost the seat in 1910, but he returned to the Commons in 1911.
Up until that point Joynson-Hicks had been primarily known as a solicitor with a particular fascination for cars, planes and telephones, he was chairman of the AA in 1922, as well as being one of the country’s better known and more strident evangelicals. The quintessential Tory right wing backbencher, his brand of Tory populism was hardly likely to commend him to the likes of Lloyd George. When he visited Amritsar, for example, he wrote approvingly of Dyer’s actions there in 1919: to wit, the massacre of 379 Indians. That political position served him well, however, when his party rejected Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain at the Carlton Club. As one unsullied by coalition, Bonar Law gave him his first junior government job; by the time Baldwin lost power in 1924, he was at the Ministry of Health.
His promotion to the Home Office when Baldwin returned later in 1924 was surprising then and still raises eyebrows now. His highly illiberal right wing Toryism seemed out of step with Baldwin’s rather more liberal, conciliatory and measured Conservatism. Nor had he achieved much before. Perhaps that misses a point. With Churchill at the Treasury and Austen Chamberlain at the Home Office, the two other great offices were in the hands of old coalitionists (and in Churchill’s case, a very recent ex-Liberal). By giving Joynson-Hicks the Home Office, Baldwin was giving his own right wing a little red meat to chew on; likewise, the anti-coalitionists who had made up Bonar Law’s 2nd XI, let alone the rank and file membership in the country who rather liked Jix’s brand of red-blooded Tory politics.
Certainly, there were many ways in which Baldwin’s right wing were going to be disappointed by a government that was studiedly liberal in so many ways. There would be no restoration of the Lords’ veto, nor the wholesale suppression of socialism many hoped for. Instead, for the backwoodsmen, Joynson-Hicks at least offered something. For a start, he was famously puritanical and Protestant. The Home Office gave him plenty of opportunities to give that puritanism free rein. He railed against the ‘flood of filth’. He used the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 against the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, a translation of the Decamaron, pamphlets advocating birth control and, most of all, anything by DH Lawrence (and Lady Chatterley’s Lover in particular). The literary journals abhorred him; the right wing popular press adored him (a bit of second hand sleaze alongside a healthy dollop or righteous indignation being the tabloid staple of the era). Alongside his 1928 appointee as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Byng of Vimy (yes, that Byng), he hounded London’s nightlife half to death. He used his five years in office to promote puritanical Protestants to the senior ranks of the Home Office, the judicial bench and the department of public prosecutions. In the aftermath of the Well of Loneliness trial, the Met stepped up prosecutions of homosexuals. Joynson-Hicks left a long legacy: in the 20 years that followed prosecutions for homosexuality rose by 850%. As Sybil Colefax dubbed him, Jix was ‘the old ladies’ darling’.
It wasn’t just sex that aroused his righteous ire: so did socialism. He took the Churchillian hard line over the General Strike. In 1927, he mounted the Arcos Raid on the flimsiest of evidence and without Austen Chamberlain’s agreement: the police raided the Soviet trade delegation’s offices in search of a non-existent incriminating document. Insofar as there was no such document, the raid failed. Politically, it reaped pleasing dividends: relations with the USSR were broken off, and a number of leading communists (including Harry Pollitt) were put on trial for seditious libel, in a manner reminiscent of the good old days of the French Revolution and our very own Lord Eldon.
To our eyes, the strangest obsession of Joynson-Hicks years at the Home Office was the revised prayer book of the Anglican Church, brought forward in 1927. Since 1921, he had been president of the National Church League, an evangelical grouping. He saw the revised prayer book as a little short of popery. Finding himself being compared to Oliver Cromwell, and using language straight out on the 17th century, he led a parliamentary campaign to prevent its promulgation. He won the vote, and did so by reverting to the kind of openly anti-Catholic political language not heard outside of Glasgow, Liverpool or Ireland, or since the home rule crisis of 1912-14. The establishment of the established church hated it, and Baldwin was not happy about it: many Tories and Anglicans loved him for it.
It is very easy to depict Joynson-Hicks as the unreconstructed face of right wing Toryism and, in truth, there is some justice in the caricature. There was, however, something of another side to him. He reformed the borstal system for young offenders. He blocked Churchill’s attempts to ban greyhound racing, on the grounds that if the upper class had horse racing then the workers could go to the dogs: the teetotal and pro-temperance Jix also hoped it would keep them off the drink. Most of all, he bounced the government into the 1928 Equal Franchise Act, which gave women the vote on the same terms as men. Without his intervention, it is very unlikely that the Baldwin government would ever have moved the bill. He formed an unlikely friendship with the cartoonist David Low; Low satirised him mercilessly, though Joynson-Hicks rather liked the caricature (such as the one from 1924, above).
Joynson-Hicks was, for many, a figure of fun, whilst being a hate figure on the liberal left. In part, that owed as much to his political bark as his bite (though that bite could, and did, leave a sour taste). In truth though, much of his puritanism fitted that of a large slice of British public life for much of the century, and the sneering of liberals hardly did him political harm. Furthermore, he initiated a more substantial constitutional reform than most of his fellow-occupants of the Home Office. As Baldwin once said of him, ‘he may have said many foolish things but rarely did one’. Perhaps a tad kind, but there is a germ of truth within.