Peregrine Worsthorne on Hadsham, and his public soul
For readers who have come to expect spicy revelations from the memoirs or autobiographies of elder statesmen, Lord Hail. sham's rather old-fashioned volume* will come as a bit of a disappointment. It does not seek to take us behind the scenes of the great public dramas in which he has played a part; often a star part. Indeed, the chapters which might arouse the greatest expectations — those, for example, on Suez and the struggle for the Conservative leadership after Harold Macmillan's sudden retirement — turn out to be the least interesting, since Lord Hailsham seems almost perversely determined to be at his most discreet when describing precisely those events in his life about which there is greatest curiosity.
The clear implication is that Lord Hailsham does not approve of indiscretions by public men, preferring to conform to what he regards as a more honourable and gentlemanly tradition of not embarassing former colleagues. For this he deserves credit which one would be all the more willing to grant did he not so sanctimoniously parade his own virtue. As it is, one is almost provoked into the suspicion that there is also an element of laziness, even timidity in his discretion: not wanting to dig too deep into past events lest this would involve him in re-assessing his own role, along with those of others. How much easier to be discreet than fearlessly and painstakingly truthful. This is a harsh criticism, but such are the strengths of this book that it can take a few knocks. Lord Hailsham is possibly the most formidable English public figure alive today; perhaps the only one who can measure up to the standards of a Victorian worthy. One would have wished that he might have produced a volume of reflections on his life and times in a class of its own. This he has failed to do, which • is all the more distressing since, on every page, there is evidence of what he might have done had he struggled harder to refine his own perceptions and distil his own experiences. Instead he has preferred the easier task of writing nothing that rises above the level of one of those grander television talk programmes in the religious hour on Sunday night.
"This is a book", we are told at the outset, "largely about philosophy and religion". And the second chapter starts: "I am quite sure that the centre of my life, the thing which gives coherence to the rest of it, and purpose to the whole, is my belief in God." And then later on after a lot more of this kind of spiritual reminiscence, we learn that: "The road was clear which I had thought completely blocked by heaps of stone. If there was no reason why an intelligent man should believe in God, there was clearly no reason why he should not. . . was not a Christian. I was not even a theist. But my scepticism had become so deep that it had undermined even my unbelief."
It is difficult to know quite what to say about this kind of religious writing. It used to be fairly common in Victorian autobiographies, with public men feeling it necessary to describe how they had either found God or lost him. But very few public men, at least English ones, are any good at it, and Lord Hailsham is no exception. After all, what is he trying to do? Clearly former Lord Chancellors do not bare their souls in public, since that would be unseemly, even indiscreet. If he were to describe truthfully his struggle with the Devil, or attempt to describe that miraculous moment when, out of grace, faith is born, then he would need, as a pre-condition of so doing, to master a language more subtle than anything likely to be learnt, by statesmen or lawyers, for the purposes of politics or the bar — the kind of language perfected, say, by J. H. Newman or, at a much lower level, by Ronald Knox or C. S. Lewis or even Graham Greene. But lawyers, even great lawyers, and politicians, even statesmen, seldom, if ever, possess this kind of skill.
In the old days of faith, this may not have mattered, since readers were then much less critical about religious writing. They were prepared to swallow a lot of Christian apologetics which, to the modern palate, seems rather half-baked. But today, much more is required of an author setting out to describe his spiritual odyssey, if he is to carry conviction, hold the reader's attention or even avoid the danger of sounding a shade absurd. I am not at all sure that Lord Hailsham does avoid this danger; or is even aware of it. This is not to say that Lord Hailsham is anything other than a deeply religious man, since this whole book bears witness to the fact that he is. But there is something characteristically complacent, even insensitive, about his assumption that he can communicate the spiritual aspect of his life in the bluff and breezy manner chosen here.
As to the political chapters, there is really not much in them that illuminates the period in the sense of casting new light upon the events and men involved. But this, it is true, is not what Lord Hailsham intended the book to do. His purpose is to explain his opinions, and how he came to hold them and how they all relate into a coherent whole. The trouble with such an ambitious, not to say pretentious, aim is again that it demands of an author a vast intellectual effort; much more so than is required to write a conventional memoir. In the event Lord Hailsham has not made the necessary effort; perhaps is no longer capable of making it. But the aim, declared with great emphasis at the outset of the book, prevents him from doing what he does do very well, on the rare occasions that he relents long enough to allow himself to do it: that is, to let his memory run free without being anchored to some great intellectual purpose. For example, re-calling his childhood, he tells a story involving his much beloved father, the first Lord Hailsham, then, in 1914, a leading Conservative statesman. The Hoggs were an Ulster family and passions were running high because of the Curragh incident, and young Quintin, allowed down to the dining room when the family had reached the coffee stage, piped up with the question: "Who. Daddy, is Winston Churchill?"
"My father, ordinarily the most cherubic of characters, became obviously aware that the eyes and ears of the assembled family were upon him, and he determined to rise to the occasion. He began by addressing me as he had never done before, and never did again. 'My son', he said gravely, 'you know I have always taught you that it is very wrong to wish that anyone is dead. But if ever I could bring myself to wish that anyone was dead, I would wish it about Winston Churchill'."
In fact, of course, memorable stories of this kind are the very stuff of memoirs, and need no excuse or justification for the telling. But because of the author's vow, or self-denying ordinance, at the outset not to write a memoir, they always have to be dressed up as something more pretentious, which is a great pity because there would be more room for more of them did not the author always feel it necessary to place them in a frame of general—and often instantlY forgettable — moral and philosophical musing.
Another one I like, for its own sake, tells how shortly after being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1956, he called on the recenq retired Sir Winston, his most illustrious of predecessors:
"The old man received me with elaborate courtesy. He had already heard of my appointment. 'I congratulate you,' he said, and then, after a pause, 'You must get yourself a sloop'."
I know I should not be taking these stories out of context, because they are all meant to fit into some great pattern. But journalists will be journalists just as, I suppose, former Lord Chancellors have to write like former Lord Chancellors.
As to intimate revelations, there are very few, although one of them is haunting, and concludes the chapter on the lost leadership, when Lord Hailsham, backed by Mr Macmillan, was passed over in favour of Alec Home:
"Only one permanent mark remains on my character. From 1940 until 1963 I used to write verses regularly as a form of self-expression. From 1963 onwards, whatever little gill of inspiration there ever was has dried up. I have written poetry no more."
I am guiltily aware that this review does not do justice to this book, which contains much political wisdom. Here is a great Conservative thinker and statesman surveying the past half century, and his part in it, with great warmth of understanding and insight. But I must confess to having expected something rarer and better, since the author has been a hero ot mine all my adult life. What is the missing ingredient that makes the whole work seem so disappointing?
The answer, I think, is that after a life time of public speaking and political declaration it is almost impossible to avoid a certain flatulence of style which is all the more marked in those statesmen who, like Churchill and Hailsham, are great orators. But in the case of Lord Hailsham, this is a terrible pity, since within this discursive volume there is a lean, concentrated and potent classic struggling to get out. But now, I fear, it never will.