Can anything good come out of Birkenhead? A rhetorical question answered perhaps by Cammel Lairds and F. E Smith. But then again, it was Cammel Lairds who built the Titanic whereas F. E Smith drowned in alcohol. He did though escape from Birkenhead.
After a fairly dodgy start he rose to become a fellow of Oxbridge, a lawyer who took no prisoners, an equally ruthless MP, and, at 47 the youngest Lord Chancellor in memory. His response held an element of prophecy: “Should I be drunk as a lord or sober as a judge?” He died in 1930 from Cirrhosis of the liver.
Some attribute this to thwarted political ambition. He may have been the youngest Lord Chancellor but though prestigious, it was also a political cul-de-sac. From 1919, other than a brief year of sobriety, his drinking was prodigious— something Lady Curzon experienced first hand.
After Smith, in effect called her husband a liar, she came across him at a ball, and took great pleasure in snubbing him but, in her words, he was "too drunk to notice."
It hadn’t always been so. The historian George Dangerfield describes F.E Smith as a young man. His description and the Spy Cartoons give a wonderful impression:
“He was tall, dark, slender and a little over-dressed. His eyes and hair were lustrous; the first from nature, the second from too much oil. His mouth had always a slightly contemptuous droop; his voice was a beautiful drawl. He had acquired, not diligently but with too much ease, the airs of a fox-hunting man who could swear elegantly in Greek. Many people loved him, most distrusted him, some despised him, and he despised almost everybody.”
His quickness of mind and verbal ripostes reinforce the picture of a man who didn’t tolerate fools.
A 1924 entry in Evelyn Waugh’s diary described how an English High Court judge presiding in a sodomy case sought advice on sentencing from Lord Birkenhead. "Could you tell me," he asked, "what do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?" Birkenhead replied without hesitation, "Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds: whatever you happen to have on you.”
This particular judge got off lightly. On other occasions he could be a little more cutting:
Judge: You are extremely offensive, young man!
Smith: As a matter of fact we both are; and the only difference between us is that I am trying to be, and you can't help it.
Judge: I've listened to you for an hour and I'm none wiser.
Smith: None the wiser, perhaps, my lord but certainly better informed.
Judge: What do you suppose I am on the bench for?
Smith: It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.
Nor was it for him to get too worked up about sexuality. He might have used Roger Casement’s buggery of boys as ammunition when prosecuting him for treason, but dismissed calls to criminalise lesbianism on the basis that ninety nine women in a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices."
He was not infallible, remarking about India that to him it was ‘frankly inconceivable that India will ever be fit for Dominican self-government. At the same time he had a degree of prescience when he also observed:
“The greater the political progress made by the Hindus, the greater, in my judgement, will be the Moslem discontent and antagonism. All the conferences in the world cannot bridge over the unbridgeable, and between those two countries lies a chasm which cannot be crossed by the resources of modern political engineering.”
As Lord Chancellor he savaged the mine owners in the 1926 General Strike:
“It would be possible to say without exaggeration that the miners' leaders were the stupidest men in England if we had not frequent occasion to meet the owners.”
A year later it was the Unions, when he attacked mass picketing:
“We are asked to permit a hundred men to go round to the house of a man who wishes to exercise the common law right in this country to sell his labour where and when he chooses, and to 'advise' him or 'peacefully persuade' him not to work. If peaceful persuasion is the real object, why are a hundred men required to do it?”
Though he was a formidable ‘Class Warrior’ of the Right, his intellect and wit were acknowledged by a future Labour leader, Clem Attlee, who may have chuckled at another F.E Smith aphorism. Referring to Bolshevism, Smith observed:
“Nature has no cure for this sort of madness, though I have known a legacy from a rich relative work wonders.” Cynical but the key to the Establishment’s success in turning too many Labour politicians into hypocrites.
At a smart party a lady approached Smith and pompously told him ‘My name is Porter-Porter, with a hyphen. He replied ‘Mine is Whiskey Whiskey, with a siphon.
‘He is very clever but sometimes his brains go to his head’ Margot Asquith
“Churchill has spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks.”
Sir, if you were my husband, I would poison your drink.”
“Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”
Exchange between Lady Astor and Lord Birkenhead—