W. Sydney Robinson’s latest book zooms in on the lives of four figures who rose to prominence in inter-war Britain. In his view, they embody the values of the Victorian past. Each rose to power or fame from an austere childhood: Joynson-Hicks to a career in politics, William Inge to one in the Church, John Reith to prominence in the BBC and Arthur Bryant to distinction in letters. They were all driven by personal ambition, indefatigable effort and a protestant view of how England ought to be.
William Hicks was the eldest of a pious Smithfield meat merchant’s six children. Educated at Merchant Taylors’ school and then apprenticed to a solicitor, Hicks became known as a tough litigator. He married into a rich Manchester Conservative family (becoming William Joynson-Hicks, known popularly as Jix) and winning a Manchester seat, on his third attempt, in 1908.
His populist espousal of right-wing causes and tinges of anti-Semitism may have embarrassed the leadership, but he became a junior minister in 1923 and Home Secretary the following year. In his readable account, Robinson exaggerates Jix’s role in ending the General Strike and mistakenly portrays Baldwin’s strategy as defeatism. More serious, it is unconvincing to present Jix as a Victorian outrider. He was the most common type of 20th-century Tory Home Secretary, who play the politics of reaction to their own advantage.
Jix’s resistance to High Anglicanism was shared by the scholar, churchman and publicist, William Ralph Inge. He too suffered a joyless childhood. At Eton he was bullied, worked relentlessly and was academically distinguished. He emerged from Cambridge with a double first in the Classics Tripos (not, as the author suggests, “Greats”) and followed his father into the Church, becoming Dean of St Paul’s.
Inge’s reactionary fervour made him a popular newspaper columnist, though his criticism of high-church beliefs and practices, the woman’s cause, loose morals and socialism were not unusual at the time and hardly enough to brand him as a “Victorian” leftover.
John Reith, the “founding” Director General of the BBC, was another gloomy churchman’s son, sent to train in a Glasgow engineering company. He made his way to be the Managing Director of the new BBC with a staff of four and the mission to educate and improve the great British public; to a seat in the Commons; and, finally, to the Lords.
Reith’s obsessive attachments to younger boys, his marriage and subsequent bizarre relationships with women spice this story of a grim managerialist. Robinson’s account prompts the question of how Reith, who professed himself a Gladstonian liberal, built up a monopoly structure for the BBC, seeking to veto competition and ensure the lion’s share of a hypothecated public tax, the licence fee, while promoting through this managed organ just the sort of monolithic view of public education which that great and true Victorian, Gladstone, had opposed.
For Arthur Bryant, what mattered was a view of England, the island story conceived as a great romantic adventure, a note he struck with his first and spectacularly successful biography of Charles II. The first child of a member of Queen Victoria’s secretariat, Bryant became a propagandist for the Conservative party, and in wartime he looked back to England’s glories. Bryant was no mere stooge, however: his edition of Alan Brooke’s wartime diaries was seen as depicting Churchill in an unfavourable light.
Robinson’s enthusiasm for his subjects and racy account of their oddities makes for a volume that is enjoyable to read. But his view that the four men were people left behind, clinging to Victorian values, is unconvincing. Religious and moral conviction in politics may seem a throwback to the Victorian age, out of step with the progressive era heralded by shorter hemlines, moving pictures and the motor car. But that is to look through secular 21st-century eyes. True, religion is not a fashionable cause for politicians; indeed it has hardly been one since the 17th century, and certainly was not in Victoria’s time, despite Gladstone’s apparent wish to put God back into politics. Yet the underpinning of English society, its voluntary, educational, charitable and institutional base, cannot be separated from its religious and denominational evolution. It remains central to political debate and is no longer confined to charities and schooling but affects the debate about citizenship, immigration, the operation of the law and the exercise of autocratic powers by the state.Eccentrics they may have been, but Robinson’s famous four lived by values, moral and religious, that fit firmly within the gamut of the 20th century and even our own.