The Foreign Secretaries (7): the Marquess of Reading

Marquess Of ReadingMarquess of Reading, 1931

Liberal, in Ramsay MacDonald’s first National Government

Rufus Isaacs’ political career had seemed to have ended when, in 1913, he ceased to be attorney general and became lord chief justice. In fact, he would have more than one significant role in politics after, culminating in his brief occupancy of the foreign office in 1931.

In 1912, he had a reputation as one of the country’s leading lawyers, but his political career seemed destined to hit the buffers. In the previous years, he had helped pilot a raft of contentious reforms: in the Parliament Act that overturned the Lords’ power of veto, the Official Secrets Act, the National Insurance Act, the Trade Unions Act, 1913, and the Home Rule Act. He became a friend of Lloyd George’s and was highly regarded by Asquith. However, in 1912 things went awry: he was passed over by Asquith in favour of Haldane for the post of Lord Chancellor, and then he became embroiled in the Marconi scandal.

The Marconi scandal saw Lloyd George and others accused of being involved in insider trading, when the government awarded a major government contract to Marconi, whose shares rose tenfold. Circumstantially, there seemed to be something in it. Isaac’s brother Godfrey was the managing director of Marconi. After the sinking of the Titanic Isaacs had bought some shares in Marconi, but the American company, not the British. When the press got hold of the story, a parliamentary enquiry ensued. In the highly partisan atmosphere of the time, a parliamentary select committee split along party lines. In truth, just in the way Herbert Samuel’s involvement in the committee saw him accused of guilt by association, so was Isaacs: the fact that both were Jewish leant an unpleasant air of anti-Semitism to the affair.

If the now Lord Reading thought his political career was over, it was not. When war came, his old friend Lloyd George prevailed upon him to be what was, in effect, an adviser and troubleshooter, helping draft the raft of wartime legislation. His appearances at the bench became sporadic, though he did preside over the treason trial of Sir Roger Casement. Over the course of the war, he led much of the drive to court the United States, ending up winning US loan capital and, becoming ambassador, ensuring closer cooperation once they had entered the war. When in Britain in 1917, and again in 1918, he attended the war cabinet.

He wanted a role at Versailles, but none was given, so he returned to the law, though was still a confidant of Lloyd George’s. He got his reward when Lloyd George made him viceroy of India. He met with Gandhi and Jinnah, though he also had Gandhi put on trial for sedition. On the other hand, he also visited Amritsar (the site of the 1919 massacre) and organised the successful visit of the Prince of Wales. Upon his return to England in 1926, he continued to play a role in Indian affairs, including the round table conferences initiated by MacDonald in 1930. He was also prominent in the drawing up of the 1935 Government of India Act.

Back in 1916, Reading had tried to mediate between Lloyd George and Asquith. In the ‘twenties, he tried to heal the rift between the Liberal factions. As an elder statesman respected on the Simoinite and Samuelite wings, there was certain logic to him taking the post of foreign secretary for his short time in 1931, acting as leader of the House of Lords. As foreign secretary for so short a time, he could do little, but as leader of the House of Lords he piloted through the legislation to take Britain off the gold standard. With MacDonald’s victory in November 1931, he resigned.

Reading was one of four foreign secretaries after 1900 also to have been viceroy of India. His spell at the foreign office, just 72 days, was shorter than that of any incumbent since 1900. If Bonar Law was the unknown prime minister, Reading could well be the Foreign Office’s equivalent.


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