John Campbell

John Campbell’s F.E. Smith, First Earl of Birkenhead was published last November.

Bertie pulls it off

John Campbell, 11 January 1990

The British monarchy was tested almost to destruction in 1936-37. The crisis had three phases, of which the actual abdication of King Edward VIII was only the most visible. The monarchy had already been placed under acute strain by Edward’s unkingly conduct in the few months since his father’s death – his feckless hedonism, his dangerous political naivety and his neglect of the more tedious duties of his role. His abdication – an entirely characteristic act of childish stubbornness – was an unprecedented shock to a system founded upon precedent: yet to most of those who had seen his inadequacy at close quarters it was a relief – or would have been if there had not been serious doubt whether his brother the Duke of York was up to the job either. His health was poor, he suffered from a severe stammer and he lacked even Edward’s vapid charm. For some months – while the American press speculated that the new king was ‘of poorer royal timber than has occupied England’s throne in many decades’ – courtiers and royal-watchers held their breath to see if ‘Bertie’ would make out. In fact, the responsibility thrust upon him brought out unsuspected qualities in George VI, and the institution emerged from the trial stronger in public affection than ever before.’

Hit and Muss

John Campbell, 23 January 1986

In its own small sphere, the destruction by Express Newspapers of the Beaverbrook Library must rank as one of the worst acts of intellectual vandalism in recent years. No one who had the privilege of working there during its brief existence in the late Sixties and early Seventies will ever forget it. There, instantly accessible in their sliding metal racks, were the Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Beaverbrook and other papers; on a quiet day, when one was trusted, one could actually get out one’s own files. There also were to hand not only Hansard but Beaverbrook’s copies of the biographies and memoirs of practically every political figure of the 20th century, generously supplemented by A.J.P. Taylor’s accumulated review copies. From time to time there would emerge from his tiny office in the thin end of the wedge-shaped building, behind the Sickert portrait of Beaverbrook and the cases of Lloyd George memorabilia, the high priest Alan Taylor himself, presiding gnome-like over the shrine of his late friend and mentor the arch-hobgoblin, whose life he was writing. But, best of all, around the walls hung a wonderful selection of original Low cartoons.


John Campbell, 19 December 1985

Who was it who said that the thousandth biography of Napoleon will sell more than the first of any ‘neglected’ second-ranking figure, however significant? Whoever it was, it remains depressingly true, and here are two more biographies of Kitchener – Britain’s closest approach to Napoleon in terms of popular acclaim, though not in military genius – to prove that publishers still believe it. Kitchener has never lacked biographies, either in his lifetime or since his death. The last, by the Canadian George Cassar, appeared as recently as 1977. Before that there was Philip Magnus’s in 1958 and one by General Ballard in 1930, in addition to the three-volume official life published by his former private secretary, Sir George Arthur, in 1920, a host of shorter studies and several investigations into the circumstances of his death. The present offerings add remarkably little to the body of knowledge about Kitchener already available. Philip Warner’s is little more than an opinionated sketch, chatty, anecdotal, unsubstantiated and frequently inaccurate. Trevor Royle’s is an altogether more serious book, a thorough, workmanlike biography which must surely have assembled the last possible jot of evidence on the sinking of the Hampshire. Both authors, however, feel it necessary to present their portraits as the solution to an unsolved biographical mystery.’

Bevan’s Boy

John Campbell, 20 September 1984

For several years, until he became Labour leader and had to watch his entry more carefully, Neil Kinnock claimed in Who’s Who to be the author of an anthology of the writings and sayings of Aneurin Bevan entitled What Nye said: each year the supposed publication date was authoritatively amended, although the book has never appeared. When asked about it by G.M.F. Drower, Kinnock prevaricated:

Kiss Count

John Campbell, 19 April 1984

The spectacle of members of the upper class setting out solemnly and in a spirit of scientific research to study the lower classes in their natural habitat is a peculiarly Thirties phenomenon. Earlier social investigators, like the Webbs, had quarried their material at second hand from mountains of blue books, reports and statistical abstracts. Young men from the public schools, like Clement Attlee, had gone to live and work among the poor, but to help rather than to observe. Rowntree and Booth admittedly went to York and London to study poverty on the ground, but they limited themselves strictly to examining physical conditions and their economic causes. Moreover, the purpose of all these investigators was to secure political reform. The Thirties attitude was at once more political and less so. This was the period when self-consciously progressive intellectuals, many of them decidedly unpolitical in the traditional sense, were driven by guilt and romantic despair to join the Communist Party. They felt not merely uncomfortable about the existence of poverty, but personally guilty about their utter ignorance of how the mass of their fellow-countrymen lived. They began, under the influence of a fashionable neo-Marxism, to idealise the working class, to see it (as Orwell did) as the repository of all decency and hope, and to value the vigour, humour, stoicism and comradeship of working-class culture – things that would never have occurred to earlier investigators, who saw poverty only as a breeding ground of vice. However, the attempt to expiate upper-class guilt by identifying with the poor, reinforced by an anthropological concern to document a species which reform might threaten, could easily induce an attitude which was in effect quite apolitical, or positively conservative.

Three hopes​ or dreams have played important parts in modern progressive politics in Britain in the decades after 1945. The first is the dream of the social-democratic equivalent of the...

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In the Front Row: Loving Lloyd George

Susan Pedersen, 25 January 2007

Imagine you are hired, fresh out of college at the age of 24, as tutor to the teenage daughter of the chancellor of the exchequer. His wife is away in the country much of the time; he wanders...

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Why did it end so badly? Thatcher

Ross McKibbin, 18 March 2004

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Even those, John Campbell suggests, who have little or no memory of Margaret Thatcher, live in a world she created; and from which there is no going back. More...

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We know both too much about Margaret Thatcher and too little. She was 20th-century Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister, and occupied the post for a longer continuous period than anyone...

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Tale from a Silver Age

Peter Clarke, 22 July 1993

Time was when the leadership of the Tory Party passed smoothly and gracefully from one incumbent to the next, as the old leader, full of years and honours, felt moved to bow out and the new...

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Maximum Embarrassment

David Marquand, 7 May 1987

As the Labour Party continues to unravel, it becomes more and more obvious that the follies and misadventures which have plagued it during the last few months can be understood only against the...

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Lord Bounder

David Cannadine, 19 January 1984

‘There is,’ John Lord Campbell observed in his multi-volume, Mid-Victorian Lives of the Lord Chancellors, ‘no office in the history of any nation that has been filled with such...

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