A rogue gene at work

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Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery

David Faber

Free Press, pp. 612, £

No commemorative blue plaque adorns the wall of 112 Eaton Square, ‘that curious house’, in Barbara Pym’s words, ‘with its oil paintings and smell of incense’. Yet, as David Faber reveals in this important history of the Amery family, for over 70 years the house was one of the foremost London political salons. The paterfamilias was Leo Amery, known as the ‘pocket Hercules’ for his gymnastic prowess at Harrow, where he once hurled Winston Churchill into the swimming pool. Balliol double first and All Souls prize fellow, author of the seven- volume history of the Boer war and one of Lord Milner’s ‘kindergarten’ in South Africa, his belief in Imperial Preference won Joseph Chamberlain’s patronage and the seat of Birmingham Sparkbrook for 34 unforgiving years. King-breaker rather than king-maker, Amery was a central figure in the demise of the prime ministers Asquith, Lloyd George (‘What a lovely room,’ said the Welsh Wizard when visiting the L-shaped library, ‘I suppose this is where you planned my downfall’) and, most notably, Neville Chamberlain. Amery’s call for Arthur Greenwood to ‘speak for England’ on 2 September 1939, as Chamberlain prevaricated over Hitler’s invasion of Poland, was one of the iconic moments of anti-appeasement. Under his son, Julian, the family home became ‘an alternative foreign office’, to which a variety of political figures from around the world beat a path, not to mention the historians who recorded their activities.

The political wags said that had Leo Amery been half a head taller and his speeches half an hour shorter, he could have become prime minister. Yet under Bonar Law, Baldwin and Churchill, he was first lord of the admiralty, colonial secretary, and secretary of state for India. David Faber’s eye for the telling detail of the career’s undertow makes for a compelling read. We learn that Leo Amery played in a Christmas football match in no-man’s-land during the first world war, found in Admiralty House the mark recording the heights of Nelson and Napoleon (he was shorter than Nelson but taller than Napoleon), and was the last privy councillor to floor a fellow MP in the Commons on a point of honour. An enthusiastic mountaineer, Amery climbed the Matterhorn by one of its most difficult routes, and conquered eponymous peaks in Canada and South Africa named in his honour.

Julian Amery also served under three prime ministers, including at the Colonial Office, occupied his father’s old room in the India Office when minister of state at the Foreign Office, and completed the six-volume official life of Joseph Chamberlain, once marked for Leo. Faber analyses the paradoxes of Julian’s career well: his passionate imperialism, yet whole-hearted support of the European community; his rebellions over the party line on Suez and Rhodesia, and his consistent opposition to capital punishment, even before the execution of his elder brother John, known as Jack, in 1945, ‘one of the casualties of a world revolution,’ as Leo wrote, which ‘found him at the finish on the wrong side of the barricades’.

The story of Jack Amery’s execution for treason in 1945 is the emotional heart of this moving book. Even at the time, many felt that Jack ’s position was more analogous to that of P. G. Wodehouse than William Joyce. Faber dispassionately examines the connection of both Wodehouse and Jack Amery to the Abwehr, German military intelligence, and Wodehouse’s post-war exile from England. Despite the personal appeal of many world figures, including Prime Minister Smuts from South Africa, Jack was hanged. The social climate of the time, as Rebecca West observed, was never going to permit a reprieve to one of the governing class, though, as Faber shrewdly shows, Leo and Julian were actually political outsiders. After Jack’s death his mother Bryddie ‘never smiled again’, and on five occasions the home secretary Chuter Ede refused her request to visit Jack’s grave at Wandsworth. A later home secretary was more understanding. In the last year of Julian Amery’s life Michael Howard granted a licence for the exhumation of Jack’s body, whose cremated remains were then scattered in the south of France near his great love, Jeanine Barde.

The biographical triptych is a difficult genre to realise, but David Faber has succeeded with great technical assurance, exhibiting, as a former MP, a sure understanding of the nuances of parliamentary life, as well as a personal empathy for the life and times of his subjects. Based on over 40 collections of primary sources, including the newly released Amery papers at Churchill College, Cambridge, Speaking for England is not only an invaluable addition to the political history of the Conservative party, but also an affecting illustration of how, as the proverb says, ‘a wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother’.