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.