Friday, January 11, 2019

Curzon’s fate was sealed

‘[Leo] Amery related the important part he played in choice of Baldwin as PM in 1923. [. . .] Amery did not think Curzon suitable on personal grounds as PM. He went round to see Salisbury, who confessed that he had not previously thought that any alternative to Curzon was possible. But eventually he agreed to accepting Baldwin. Amery and Bridgeman immediately went round to Stamfordham’s house: he was already on way to Palace. They caught up with him in St James’s Park. There, standing for about twenty minutes, they convinced Stamfordham, and Curzon’s fate was sealed.’ Today is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Lord Curzon, he who had an illustrious career in India, and then, famously, fell out with Lord Kitchener. Twenty years later, Curzon looked to be a shoe-in for prime minister to replace the dying Bonar Law, but - as this anecdote from the newly-published diaries of Kenneth Rose shows - a few senior Tories with the ear of the Sovereign’s private secretary (Stamfordham) were able to change the course of history.

George Nathaniel, 1st Marquess Curzon, the eldest son of Lord Scarsdale, was born on 11 January 1859, at the family home, Kedlestone Hall, Derbyshire. He was ignored by his parents, and had a tyrannical governess. As a teenager, while riding, he suffered a serious spinal injury which left him needing to wear a corset for the rest of his life.
He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, where he was President of the Union. Curzon was soon researching and writing speeches for Lord Salisbury, who, on becoming prime minister, made him assistant private secretary. In 1886, he entered Parliament as Member for Southport. With Salisbury’s approval, Curzon spent much of the next four years travelling widely, largely in Asia, and publishing books on his findings.

In late 1891, Salisbury appointed Curzon to the post of under secretary of state for India. In 1895, he married Mary Victoria Leiter, the daughter of a Chicago millionaire, and they had three daughters before Mary died, tragically young, in 1906. Also in 1895, Curzon was promoted by Salisbury to under secretary of state for foreign affairs. Four years later, in 1899, he was appointed Viceroy of India. Although his career in India is described as illustrious, at the end he stood down from the Viceroyship following an acrimonious dispute with Lord Kitchener over the organisation of the Indian army. The dispute left him a political outcast for the best part of a decade. He remained busy, however, winning an election to be chancellor of the University of Oxford, a role he took on with zeal.

With the onset of war, Curzon joined the coalition cabinet of Herbert Asquith, and, then, under Lloyd George, took over as leader of the House of Lords with the office of lord president. In 1917, he married Grace Duggan, widow of a rich Argentinian rancher. In the postwar government led by Lloyd George, and then Bonar Law, he was appointed foreign secretary, and painstakingly dealt with the problems of postwar Europe and the near east. Many expected him to become prime minister when the ailing Bonar Law stepped down, but Stanley Baldwin was chosen instead. Curzon died two years later in 1925. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Gov.uk.

Although there is no obvious evidence among Curzon’s archived papers (as listed by the National Archives) that he left behind any diaries, the Richard Cocks Society (about which I can find nothing online) published, in 1985, a book called Lord Curzon’s Japan Diaries, as edited by Anthony Farrington (about which I also know nothing).

However, Kenneth Rose, who wrote a formidable biography of Curzon published in 1969 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) called Superior Person; a portrait of Curzon and his circle in late Victorian England, was a diarist, and his diaries include several substantial entries about Curzon. Rose, who also penned an award-winning biography of King George V, died in 2014, but it is only now that a first collection of his diaries has just been published: Who’s In, Who’s Out: The Journals of Kenneth Rose: Volume One 1944-1979 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) edited by D. R. Thorpe. Some pages can be previewed at both Googlebooks and Amazon.

Jane Ridley’s review of Journals in Literary Review says: ‘As a history of the Establishment in the second half of the 20th century, these journals will become indispensable and definitive. They are the equivalent for that period of the journals of Harold Nicolson and Chips Channon for the first half, combining sharp observation and anecdote with political and social insights. They are also extremely entertaining.’ And Philip Ziegler in The Spectator has this to say: ‘Kenneth Rose’s diaries do not make history and do not set out to do so. There are no significant revelations which will change the way we look at events or radically alter our judgments of important public figures.  But they do illuminate history and give it life. If one cannot be there oneself then Rose provides as good an apparatus for eaves-dropping as can well be conceived. He deserves our gratitude.’

Here are four extracts from Rose’s diaries about Curzon.

13 July 1950
‘Conversation with Count Sforza [Italian minister of foreign affairs] at Palazzo Chigi, Rome. I asked Sforza for an estimate of Curzon’s character and work. ‘I liked and respected Curzon, but I have never known a man of such blue blood who was so great a snob. Curzon worshipped titles, orders and decorations.’

I asked Sforza whether he had ever spoken to Curzon on subjects other than politics. ‘Generally I enjoy talking to British statesmen on outside subjects. I have talked to Bonar Law of the Canadian temperament, and to Ernest Bevin on religion. But Curzon was a monument, and one cannot speak informally to a monument!’

I asked Sforza how far one should take L.G.’s constant interference into consideration. ‘It is impossible to judge Curzon alone, because L.G. constantly opposed him. I know of no parallel case in which a PM so attacked his Foreign Minister. There was an immense difference in temperament. L.G. was an adventurer and loved confidential talks and secret agents. L.G. wanted his revenge on the upper classes.’

We discussed the conference at Lausanne, 1923. ‘To achieve success, a conference with a beaten enemy must be quick. But Curzon was very verbose, and while he talked, the Turks grew stronger.’ ’

1 May 1951
‘Conversation with Leo Amery [retired Conservative politician] in Eaton Square about Curzon. Amery saw little of him before World War I when the university was appealing for a large fund. Curzon was Chairman of the committee, and asked all its members to write begging letters to friends. Two or three weeks later he summoned them again, and like a schoolmaster asked each person in turn how many they had written. One replied three, another two, etc. And Amery was proud at having sent twenty (dictated) letters. Curzon looked round the committee in scorn. ‘I have written 3,000 letters,’ he said, ‘and all in my own hand!’


Curzon played a great part in bringing about conscription, but by the time he became Foreign Secretary in October 1919 he had lost his grip, and could only argue or write memoranda, never taking bold and immediate action.

Amery was a Secretary to Cabinet Committees. First Cabinet he ever attended was in December 1916. Curzon cleared his throat and began, ‘You may not be aware . . .’. At this point he was interrupted by Balfour. ‘It’s all right, George, we all know you have written a monumental work on Persia!’

In the Conservative Party, Curzon was mistrusted, e.g. House of Lords reform. Amery wanted Asquith to make extra peers and so be forced to reform compositions of the second chamber. But Curzon wanted exclusive H of Lords. In coalition from 1919 to 1922, the government was really in the hands of four men - Winston, Lloyd George, F.E. Smith and Austen Chamberlain. Curzon was rather out of it, and so felt no doubts about leaving coalition in 1922.

Amery related the important part he played in choice of Baldwin as PM in 1923. Amery had gone skiing and met Bonar Law passing through Paris on his return. Amery was told by Bonar Law that he must shortly resign premiership [owing to ill health]. Back in London as First Lord of the Admiralty, Amery was visited by Bridgeman, who had just seen Salisbury. Bridgman told Amery that Curzon was definitely to be PM. This was not unexpected as Curzon had been presiding over Cabinets in absence of B.L. (although B.L. would have preferred Cave to do so). Amery did not think Curzon suitable on personal grounds as PM. He went round to see Salisbury, who confessed that he had not previously thought that any alternative to Curzon was possible. But eventually he agreed to accepting Baldwin. Amery and Bridgeman immediately went round to Stamfordham’s house: he was already on way to Palace. They caught up with him in St James’s Park. There, standing for about twenty minutes, they convinced Stamfordham, and Curzon’s fate was sealed. Later that day Balfour arrived and suggested that Curzon being a peer should be offered as reason for choice of Baldwin: real reason was Curzon’s domineering temperament. Unfortunately, Stamfordham sent a clumsily worded telegram to Curzon, which caused him much unnecessary distress. Curzon was wonderfully magnanimous to Baldwin. Also to Amery, who had thought it his duty to deny Curzon’s greatest ambition.’

13 March 1952
‘Saw the Earl of Halifax about Curzon. Curzon was pathetic in his later years. He was often overruled by the Cabinet and that hurt him very much.

When Curzon laughed he did so from the waist and shook all over.

One day the Cabinet was discussing Oswald Mosley. Curzon expressed the hope that the Cabinet would not be deflected from its proper course by ‘the conduct of my sinister son-in-law’.

Even if Curzon had been in the House of Commons in 1923 he would still not have become Prime Minister. He was too unpopular in his own party.

Halifax agrees that Chamberlain wanted him, Halifax, to be Prime Minister in 1940 - ‘but this was a stupid plan for a variety of reasons'.

The day Curzon died in 1925, Halifax met Lord Salisbury in the street and said to him: ‘Were you a great friend of Curzon?’ Salisbury replied: ‘Yes, I suppose I was, if he had any.’

Halifax once casually mentioned to Curzon that he was going to look at the chateaux on the Loire. The next day he received sheets and sheets and sheets of information about them in Curzon’s own hand.’

24 August 1952
‘Conversation with Sir Thomas Beecham at his Edinburgh hotel, after hearing him conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He drinks iced milk, and I am given sherry and a cigar at 5 p.m.

Much talk about politicians and music. On Curzon - ‘A great statesman, the last of the statesmen. Sometimes, owing to fatigue, he was reticent, restrained and brief. In congenial company, he shone. The three best conversationalists in England were Curzon, Balfour and Harry Cust. Delius was good in argument. George Bernard Shaw did not shine in conversation.

Neither A.J.B. nor Curzon were good at public speaking. Lansdowne was the worst of all at it - but the most charming. Winston Churchill spoke as if with pebbles in his mouth, and had an irritating trick of letting his voice rise at the end of a sentence.

What a pity Curzon did not succeed Bonar Law as PM. Instead, there was Baldwin, who led us onto the rocks, and Neville Chamberlain, who led us into the quicksands.’

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