The Home Secretaries (18): David Maxwell Fyfe

maxwell fyfeDavid Maxwell Fyfe, 1951-54

Conservative, under Churchill

David Maxwell Fyfe was born in Edinburgh, and was educated at George Watson’s (thus being the second old boy of that school to be home secretary in the 20th century). After Balliol College, Oxford, he went into law. After a long and unsuccessful search, he was elected to parliament in 1935. He was a strong Chamberlainite, and supported appeasement in 1938. In 1941, Rab Butler made him his deputy on the party’s central committee on post-war reconstruction. The following year, he had made enough of mark to persuade Churchill to make him solicitor-general.

When Labour won power, Maxwell Fyfe stayed on, to act as nominal deputy chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials: in fact, he led the British prosecution team. His cross-examination of Göring, who had run rings around Maxwell Fyfe’s American equivalent, was hailed as the great success of Nuremberg.

Upon returning to Britain, as well as the bar, Maxwell Fyfe threw himself into opposition politics. His dogged criticisms of nationalisation won him respect on the backbenches; working with Butler again, he played a leading role in creating the Conservatives reformation of policy, the Industrial Charter. He also took a great interest in moves towards European integration, having a notable role in the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights.

When the Conservatives returned in 1951, he probably expected to be minister of labour, but the trade unions were suspicious of him (something not helped by a brief reference to possible legislation). In any case, he was a natural fit for the Home Office. There isn’t much to remember his time there for, in truth, but that was his job. He piloted one major reform through the Commons: the act for the creation of ITV (then, as now, many Conservatives detested the BBC). He led the response to severe floods on the east coast.

Less happily, he sanctioned the execution of Derek Bentley. Bentley had not, himself, killed the policeman, Sidney Miles. Instead, Christopher Craig fired the shot, but was under age. The jury convicted Bentley on the principle of joint enterprise on very flimsy evidence. The jury had recommended mercy; the judge differed. In his memoirs, Maxwell Fyfe would justify his decision, and supporters of the death penalty have long seen the murder of police officers in the line of duty as an exceptional crime. However, the decision to let Bentley hang was deeply controversial at the time, and does not look good now.

Maxwell Fyfe had leadership ambitions, but in the face of Eden’s inevitable succession, he accepted the woolsack in 1954. As lord chancellor, he would continue to play a prominent role in the government until he was one of the seven victims of Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives in 1962. He bitterly resented his sacking, complaining that he would have given his cook more notice (Macmillan’s retort was the good cooks were harder to find than good ministers were).

He was not a great home secretary (or a great lord chancellor come to that). However, he was a steady pair of hands in a government that required such virtues. More widely, his role at Nuremberg and in refashioning the Conservative Party were far more important.

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