The Home Secretaries (22): Sir Frank Soskice

Soskice, Baron Stow Hill (1902-79)Sir Frank Soskice, 1964-65

Labour, under Wilson

In many ways, it is hard to see Sir Frank Soskice’s brief tenure of the Home Office as anything other than a somewhat indifferent hors d’oeuvres before the splendid main course that was Roy Jenkins. On the face of it, Soskice’s background looks wholly conventional:  St Paul’s, a first in classics from Balliol and then the bar. As such, a career in Tory politics, surely? In fact, his background was far more interesting. His father was born in Ukraine as David Vladimirovich Soskis, the son of non-religious Jews. He went on to be a journalist who campaigned against the tsars and was forced to flee to London; later, he supported Kerensky and the February revolution, but was forced to flee St Petersburg when the Bolsheviks seized power in the October. His mother was a writer and critic; Frank Soskice was born, in Geneva, before they were married.

In the Second World War, Soskice served in East Africa, Cairo and in SOE. In 1945, he entered parliament. Attlee immediately made him solicitor-general. As such (and as attorney-general from April 1951) he took a wide-ranging role, notably in piloting the Gas Bill through the Commons. In opposition, he was very much part of Gaitskell’s Hampstead set. However, opposition saw him continue with his legal career.

By the time Wilson won in 1964, Soskice was perhaps past his sell-by date. Even Wilson saw his appointment as home secretary as stopgap one. He was not a success. He botched his response to boundary commission findings. His Race Relations Act, 1965, made racial discrimination illegal in public spaces, but offered no criminal sanctions for its violation. He cut the number of immigrants, using his powers under the 1962 act. Most of all, he lacked political nous and acted more like a law officer than a minister.

His poor health was an extenuating circumstance. He was, though, the first home secretary under whose aegis no one went to the gallows. By the time he had left the Home Office, Sydney Silverman’s Murder Act, 1965, had become law: it abolished the death penalty for five years (it was abolished finally in 1969). Soskice deserves to be remembered for that, if nothing else.

His appointment as lord privy seal in Wilson’s December 1965 reshuffle was something of a mercy killing, though. Early on, Wilson had recognised his inadequacy. Soskice went to the Lords, and the Home Office went to Jenkins.

 

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The Foreign Secretaries (18): Patrick Gordon Walker

pgwPatrick Gordon-Walker, 1964-65

Labour, under Wilson

If Patrick Gordon-Walker is remembered at all, it is primarily for losing his Smethwick seat in the 1964 general election. In the end, that defeat brought to a shuddering halt to what had been his seamless ride to the top hitherto.

He was the son of an Indian civil servant and spent most of his childhood in the Punjab, before being educated at Wellington College and Christchurch, Oxford. By the mid-‘thirties he was a don, but one whose attentions were increasingly drawn to politics. He spent much of 1930, and some of 1933 in Germany; he became a passionate opponent of appeasement. His fluent German led him to broadcasting for both the BBC and the Americans. His response to entering Belsen is still powerful today. You can read about it here, and watch below.

In 1945, Gordon-Walker entered the Commons. His rise was rapid. By 1946, he was Herbert Morrison’s PPS. The following year, he was a junior minister in the Commonwealth Office. By 1950, he was secretary of state for the Commonwealth and in the cabinet. He would become the party’s leading specialist on the Commonwealth, an institution in which he placed a great deal of what would prove to be misplaced faith.

Like all of his generation of Labour, the 1951 defeat would mean he was in opposition for the next 13 years. He became a prominent supporter of Gaitskell, and a moderniser, looking to weaken links with the trade unions, ending the commitment to further nationalisation and opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. When Bevan did in 1960, he was a natural choice for Gaitskell and so became shadow foreign secretary. He was talked of as a possible future leader, but when after Gaitskell’s sudden death, he ran George Brown’s campaign.

His defeat in Smethwick bucked the national trend. Whilst nationally there was a swing to Labour, Smethwick saw a 7% swing to the Conservatives. The West Midlands had seen large-scale ‘new Commonwealth’ immigration, and the Tories played the race card.

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Gordon-Walker, with his strong Commonwealth links, had opposed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1962. The same West Midlands that gave us Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 gave us one of the more disgraceful political campaigns in modern history. Apart from the infamous slogan (right), Tory canvassers also spread rumours that Gordon-Walkers daughters had married black men (so-called mixed marriage was deeply controversial at the time), that he had sold his house to blacks and that there would be lepers hospitals opening in the area. Wilson called the result ‘a disgrace to British democracy’, but Labour now knew they would have to contend with white working-class racism. Gordon-Walker’s career was the collateral damage. The story is well told by Tides of History.

For all that, Wilson still intended him for the Foreign Office. A safe seat was found in Leyton, East London. Immigration was not a big issue in the campaign, though the far right taunted him (see below): Denis Healey famously punched the fascist Colin Jordan and, certainly, the East End was hardly immune to the charms of racism. The Tory press enjoyed caricaturing him as the Hampstead liberal forced upon reluctant cockneys. The voters certainly proved resistant, and he lost, and lost the Foreign Office with it.

patrick-gordon-walker

He won Leyton in 1966, and retuned to cabinet. It was, however, a brief diminuendo and he left office in 1968.

 

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The Foreign Secretaries (17): Rab Butler

rab-butler-1Rab Butler, 1963-64

Conservative, under Home

You can read about Butler’s early career and his time as chancellor, here; about the period of Suez, his time as home secretary and his failure to become prime minister, here.

The said irony is that Rab Butler had always wanted to be foreign secretary; but that by the time he won the office, he no longer had the fire in his belly for it. He wanted it badly when Macmillan beat him to the leadership; by the time Home was prime minister a second failure to win the highest office had knocked the political stuffing out of him. He was a steady pair of hands, but with an election looming, foreign affairs were hardly paramount. Unlike before, he played little role in the build up to or the campaign for the 1964 election.

cover_Rab_ButlerMichael Jago’s recent biography says it plainly: The Best Prime Minister We Never Had? Butler is one of Edward Pearce’s The Lost Leaders. Years later, Home and Macmillan came to believe that the Conservatives might have won in 1964 had he been leader. That assumption is based upon the idea that Butler was more popular in the country than he was in his party. Therein lay the rub. Butler’s moderate, even Baldwinian Toryism sat uneasy with the right of the party. As a reforming home secretary, he alienated the hangers and floggers; his equivocations over Suez reminded many of his days as an arch-appeaser. He could wow conference; the backbenches were unsure.

Most of all, though, his colleagues were less sure. His ready wit, and his sometimes equivocal support for policies he doubted (especially Suez), aroused strong suspicions of duplicity. Ironically, the primary beneficiary of those suspicions was the far more duplicitous Macmillan. Butler’s failure to win the top job, twice, arouses suspicions that he didn’t quite master the dark arts in the way his rival did. Certainly, it was Macmillan who did more than anyone to deny him both times; more than anyone except Butler, at least. Butler’s primary fault was indiscretion, which sometimes looked like deviousness.

rab possHis fundamental decency and grasp of the realities of political life shine through his memoirs, The Art of the Possible, one of the few examples of its kind worth careful study. He edited and introduced a fine history of the party, The Conservatives. He remains one of only three men since 1906 to have held all three of the great offices of state other than prime minister (like Sir John Simon, never getting the top job). He was one of eight men to have held both the Foreign and Home offices; one of eight to have been foreign secretary and chancellor. He was a significant reforming home secretary. The Butler Act remains the single most important education reform in the 20th century. For Churchill, Eden and Macmillan he was essential to the smooth working of government. If Butler failed, it was a failure of very great substance.

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