Jonathan Sumption

A square peg

In life, it helps to be called Rothschild. Victor Rothschild discovered this well before he became associated in the public mind with think tanks and spycatchers. Visiting the United States as a 29-year-old Cambridge academic in 1939, he was received by President Roosevelt, as well as by the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary and the Director of the FBI. Although an MI5 officer of only middling rank, he entertained the prime minister to dinner in wartime in a private room at the Savoy Hotel. At a humbler level than this, he made it his business to know an astonishing range of civil servants and politicians, artists and writers, journalists, lawyers and academics.

It was another world, in which men were appointed to public positions because people knew them, and knew them to be able. Of course, such a system is unfair to applicants, not all of whom will be known to the right people. But it has existed overtly or covertly in most advanced political societies. In England it has produced both the best and the worst public servants in our history. It is an interesting question whether we were, on balance, better served by it than by the more transparent processes that have replaced it. Not every one wants to know the answer to that question. But for those who do Victor Rothschild is an ideal test case. He was the great master of the establishment network. He used the wealth and reputation of his family to cultivate men of influence. He charmed them. He earned their respect. He put them in his debt. He was a man whom people knew.

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