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Greasy Pole: Death of a Buffoon

Greasy Pole

Quintin McGarel Hogg, Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone in the City of London, who was "a sweet, dear man" (Woodrow Wyatt); a "political genius" (Harold Macmillan); a "cantankerous old man" (Margaret Thatcher); "a gentleman" (himself) died last month. He was 94 years old and his life was richly productive of the kind of material beloved of fawning obituarists, who did him full justice. By the time we had absorbed that he was a kind, effervescent, clever, intellectual giant we could only wonder how the world would survive without him. Could it really go on, with its wars and disease and poverty, untouched by the death of one of capitalism's more arrogant and volatile politicians? Should we not reproach ourselves for failing to value this paragon more appropriately when he was alive? Except that Hailsham, was not quite like his admirers make him out to be.

He came of a family of lawyers and politicians and ended his career in politics seemingly welded to the Woolsack, holding the job of Lord Chancellor longer than anyone since the days of Lord Halsbury at the end of the 19th century: ". . . he couldn't go on being that for ever" said an exasperated Margaret Thatcher when she was contemplating removing him from that office. His father held the same job in the 1920s and was the MP for St. Marylebone. His son Douglas is an MP and has held some minor ministerial jobs – although not to wide acclaim or without controversy. A daughter is a High Court judge. The Hogg family looks likely to carry on into infinity, producing volatile eccentrics who are willing to play their part in running British capitalism in the interests of the class they are born into.

Eton and All Souls
Hailsham was educated at Eton; where else could a boy like him have gone to school? He was said to be the cleverest pupil there, too clever for some of the masters and he was fully aware of it, being known as ". . . a disagreeable boy, academically clever, but emotionally arrogant and extremely self-centred". Of course he was elected to Pop, that self-appointed aristocracy above the aristocrats of the school. Members of Pop wore fancy waistcoats and walked about arm in arm, they were fawned on by many of the masters and feared among the other boys for their arbitrary powers of flogging and the enforced servitude known as fagging. Clearly, Eton had little to teach the young Hailsham (or Hogg, as he was then, before succeeding to the title) about asserting himself as a member of the ruling class. He was notorious for the gusto and frequency with which he beat other boys (his half-brother, Edward Marjoribanks, was "passionate" about it and had a reputation for sadism). It was a useful education in guiltless suppression of anyone classified as socially inferior.

After collecting a succession of prizes at Eton which proved how clever he was Hailsham went to one of the more traditional of Oxford colleges, got a first class degree and was accepted as a Fellow of All Souls. This is a kind of Pope of the university, although more sober and industrious. It was founded in 1437 with the main purpose of praying for the dead (part of its landholdings include Willesden Junction, a grimy part of North West London where the inhabitants need rather more than prayers to give them some hope). Hailsham began his time among the brains of All Souls as a "Screw", whose job was to decant the after dinner port which was drunk in such quantities. Places like All Souls, with their exclusivity and their rituals, play a part in informing the working class that they must accept their inferior status in society, the running of which should be left to their betters. How reliable a concept this is can be judged by the kind of politician to have passed through those privileged doors - recent examples were Keith Joseph and John Redwood, who have gone down in history as eccentric blunderers. We shall see how Hailsham measured up to the popular expectations of him.

He burst onto the political scene as Conservative candidate in a bye-election at Oxford City in 1938, supporting the Chamberlain policy of "appeasement" of Nazi Germany against an all-party candidate. This took some living down later, when appeasement became a nasty word and Chamberlain was universally unpopular. Hailsham survived the war with a slight wound and continued as an MP with a reputation as a kind of verbal blunderbuss in his attacks on the Labour government. Some time after the Tories won power he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, which pandered to his need to behave like an attention-seeking adolescent. But behind his posturing the fact was that, although he was one of the Service ministers he was kept in the dark about the secret negotiations between Britain, France and Israel which laid the plans to justify the Suez invasion. Hailsham denounced the Egyptian take-over of the Suez Canal as "wholly illegal" (as if such concepts are of the slightest consequence in capitalism's wars) and never doubted that Britain and France were right to "intervene" (as he called it) in the war between Israel and Egypt. It was not the most penetrating analysis of that sordid affair.

Under Macmillan's prime ministership Hailsham, who succeeded to the title when his father died in 1950, was given the kind of jobs which could have paved his way to the top. Appointed party chairman, he seized the opportunity to engage hysterically with the membership. In 1957 at the Tory conference in Brighton he made his first appearance in the early morning on the beach, wearing baggy trunks and plunging briskly into the sea for a swim. It was not coincidence that he was accompanied (although not into the water – there are limits to the call of duty) by a posse of newspaper hacks. At the end of that conference Hailsham grabbed the chairman's bell and rang it in a frenzy, declaiming the poet's words about who the bell tolls for – meaning the Labour Party. The party faithful loved it, stamping their feet and cheering but others – particularly his rivals in the party - were sourly uneasy at his vulgar publicity-seeking.

Flat Cap
This behaviour was rewarded in 1963 when Hailsham was given not one, but two, jobs involving responsibility for sport and for injecting some hope into the North East, where unemployment was at 4.5 percent compared to 2.4 percent nationally. The region's most important industries – steel, shipbuilding, coal – were in decline. Hailsham was not a sportsman – he regarded the very idea of a minister of sport as akin to fascism – and he was not an economist. This did not disqualify him from holding the jobs but it did make the appointment look like a typical piece of Macmillan gimmickry. Hailsham did nothing to dispel this by touring the region wearing the kind of flat cap usually seen in working men's clubs, or the dole queues. Later he tried to explain this away as a matter of chance; he had left his bowler hat in his car in London and was offered a choice of a pork pie hat or the cap. He chose the cap because it would be useful when he was out shooting. But the impression endured, that he was either making fun of the hard-pressed workers there or was clumsily trying to convince them that in spite of his Eton education and his large house in Sussex he was really one of them. "I do not pretend" he wrote later "that the plan (which he drew up after his visit) succeeded to the extent that my visit to the North East permanently solved the chronic difficulties of the region". Well no, it didn't but at least he got a nice new cap out of it, for his times on the grouse moors.

Later that year his big chance arrived, when Macmillan decided to resign and the Tory party descended into the kind of frenzied back-stabbing which should have had no place in what was called, in the days before Thatcher, the gentleman's party. It all happened at their 1963 conference where, after Macmillan's announcement, the atmosphere was, according to William Rees Mogg, "ugly". Hailsham was Macmillan's first preference as his successor but he had to get rid of his title and return to being plain Mr. Quintin McGarel Hogg. Without following the custom of first informing the rest of the cabinet he launched his bid for the top job in a carefully stage-managed announcement at the end of an otherwise dull meeting, which erupted into hysterical applause at the news. Randolph Churchill roamed the conference pinning large badges with the letter Q onto anyone unwise enough to stand still within arms reach. Hailsham got himself photographed spoon feeding his one year old child in the hotel foyer. All of this was not to Macmillan's taste and so from the chaos of ugliness emerged the unlikely figure of Douglas-Home. Hailsham had blown it.

Which must have been a relief to the many people who had him correctly summed up, not as a genius but an arrogant buffoon, isolated by his conceit from the real world around him. Throughout his life he was buoyed up by the assumption that he and the rest of his class were superior, born to rule in the best of all possible worlds which is capitalism. The rest of us should only be grateful that there are people like Hailsham who are willing to exploit, degrade and ridicule us. To anyone concerned for society and its people Hailsham will not be missed.