Paul Johnson

The age of stout hearts, sharp swords — and fun

The age of stout hearts, sharp swords — and fun

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It is exactly 100 years since F.E. Smith made the most famous maiden speech in history. Do MPs still make maidens? One never hears of them. Indeed one never hears of any speeches in the Commons these days; as a theatre of oratory it is dead. But it was a different matter in 1906. The January election was among the most disastrous in Conservative history. From having a majority of 134, they found themselves with barely 150 seats, and the Liberal majority was 356. This nadir of Tory fortune gave Smith a fine opportunity to make his name at a stroke by restoring their morale in his first speech (he was the newly elected MP for Walton, Liverpool), delivered on 11 March at 10 p.m., then regarded as the best slot of the day.

Traditionally, a maiden speaker ‘craved the indulgence of the House’ in hearing him, and repaid it by keeping his material uncontroversial. Disraeli had ignored this in 1837 and had been howled down. Smith also craved no indulgence and made his speech as offensive to the government benches as he possibly could. He prepared it with great care, spiced it with ferocious malice, witticisms and stunning jokes, learnt it by heart and delivered it without notes and with superb confidence. He was 34 and a striking figure: six foot two, and enormously good-looking, ‘a long, lean brown face and impudent nose, eyes the colour of a peat pool in Dartmoor, full of light and fringed by luxuriant silky eyelashes, his lips slightly ajar as if about to close on a cigar, and shaped for insolence and disdain’. When he stood up, the Tory benches, meagrely attended, were a picture of misery and dejection. When he sat down, 50 minutes later, the House was packed, for word had got around that something remarkable was taking place, and the Tories were a cheering, foot-stamping mass of delight and excitement. No one had delivered a maiden like that before, not even Pitt or Fox or Peel or Palmerston. FE, a young barrister, had to take the midnight train north to fight a case in Chester. He woke up the next morning, like Byron a century before, ‘to find myself famous’.

What fun they had in those days! How splendid to be young and brilliant and ambitious in London, centre of a world empire, pivot of modernity, finance, the arts. The same year, 1906, FE had a triumph in his profession too. Lever, the soap king, wanted to sue Northcliffe and his newspapers for libel, but a well-known KC had advised him that he had no case. Not satisfied, Lever was told to consult FE, ‘a clever young fellow’. FE was summoned by telegram to London and arrived at the Savoy to find a stack of papers four feet high awaiting him in his room, and an urgent request to give an opinion by 9 a.m. the next morning. He ordered two dozen oysters and a bottle of champagne, and worked through the night. Promptly at 9 a.m. he delivered his opinion, one of the shortest on record: ‘There is no answer to this action for libel, and the damages must be enormous.’ They were, too — £50,000, worth five million today.

When I first came to London in 1955, eager and ambitious, FE was a cult figure for me and my friends: scintillating, witty, arrogant, a huge earner and profligate spender, successful womaniser, reckless rider to hounds, yachtsman, boxer, athlete, drinker, scourge of the philistines, utterly shameless. ‘Oh! You should have known that man,’ Lord Beaverbrook told me, ‘the Cleverest Man in the Kingdom.’ What impressed me was that there was nothing goody-goody about FE. He made no bones about wanting to get to the top and enjoy all the good things in life. When he was made PC in 1910 he said to Beaverbrook, ‘The Conservative party is the one for us. What have the Liberals got to offer us? We are sought out by dukes. We are flattered by marchionesses. Countesses give us dinner parties. What have the Liberals to offer us? Nothing but the society of knights’ ladies!’ FE ran a huge house in Grosvenor Gardens with 20 servants, six big cars (and four chauffeurs), a country house near Oxford with eight horses in the stables, a yacht waiting for him at Portsmouth. He became the youngest Lord Chancellor (when the job was still worth having) and an earl — the Treaty of Versailles was sealed in his pantry.

What we liked about FE was his contempt for humbug and the conventional wisdom of the day. He believed we lived in a harsh world given over to the survival of the fittest. It would always be thus and we should look the truth squarely in the face. In 1923 the students of Glasgow University chose him as their rector, in preference to the ultra-fashionable progressive seer H.G. Wells. It was the noontide of postwar idealism. Bloomsbury was on top: Bertrand Russell, J.M. Keynes and Lytton Strachey were laying down the moral law for the young. The League of Nations had ended war and ruled the world. In his rectorial address of 7 November, FE fired an oratorical torpedo at this nonsense. The speech was, in its own way, as sensational as his maiden and required the same kind of courage. The League, he said, would not keep the peace. There would always be wars. The claims made on its behalf were ‘fantastic’ and ‘its framers forget human nature as absurdly as they neglected history’. You young people, he told them, should note the facts of life: ‘The motive of self-interest not only is, but must be, and ought to be, the mainspring of human conduct.’ Only ‘the desire of self-advancement’ was an adequate ‘incentive’ to motivate the labour required to push the world forward. If youth understood this, it would do well, for ‘the world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords’.

The students applauded this notable absence of hypocrisy. Their elders were shocked, indeed outraged. The bishops rose as a body to denounce FE as a disgraceful example of wicked cynicism, gross materialism and satanic worldliness. Among the right-thinking, he was treated as a leper. He laughed, and carried on drinking, womanising, getting and spending (chiefly the latter) and scorching the dull and worthy with his wit. Of course, the pious loved to relate, he came a cropper. He died in 1930 from a burst blood vessel brought on by excess, not yet 60, leaving behind a mass of debts and a huge overdraft. He also left behind his youngest child, Lady Pam, who inherited his brains, courage, recklessness and ruthlessness, and soaring ambition, his love of life and capacity for friendship, his saturnine good looks, his wit and love of fun. I was lucky enough to become one of her chums and rejoiced in her company until her own untimely death in 1982. FE did not believe girls should go to boarding schools and university, and Pam regarded herself as uneducated. So what should she do with all her talents and energy? She became a hostess, the leading hostess of her time, the last of the great political hostesses. For more than 30 years her table at her pretty doll’s house in Cowley Street was the gathering-place of London’s true elite. Pam used to phone me early each morning to discuss the day’s news. I miss her more than any of my friends of those days. She carried one back, through her father, to the days when Britain was not only powerful but stylish, and life was an adventure. Are there still stout hearts and sharp swords? I hope so. I pray so.