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Simon: A Political Biography of Sir John Simon.

Prime Minister Asquith called the young Simon 'the Impeccable'; so we may regard ourselves as rather peccable. This gives a clue to what was wrong -- he could not give himself away -- and if only he had been more peccable people would have liked him better. As it was, hardly anybody did, and people said the most awful things about him. Even Attlee, a just man, said 'always the lawyer, could argue anything, never believed in anything'. This had a point but it was not fair. Mr. Dutton sets himself to be fair to Simon; he has done his homework and succeeds very well.

In all the years at All Souls in which I knew Simon I never disliked him, though disagreeing politically. He was always agreeable with me, and actually told me things of political interest, in some of which I had to recognise, though a young Leftist, that he was right. As against nationalization of the railways, he regarded the competition of the four main lines as all to the good. He was right about confronting Japan over Manchuria: we couldn't do anything about it, it was America's business and they were not going to do anything. Over Germany he told me that he often had to defend Vansittart (who was right) in the Cabinet.

All Souls was the abiding love of Simon's life. Mr. Dutton does not know what went on inside the College. I shared Simon's manservant with him, and it was queer that the fat fellow stood in quivering terror of him. Again, with a dying Warden who could not make up his mind to resign, Simon as Senior Fellow took the matter into his own hands and got the resignation all right. I was much impressed by his decision.

But how wrong Simon was about the war in 1914! The Kaiser's militarist Germany had to be fought, as Hitler had later. Simon could not see that: he was totally ignorant of Europe, or the German record, and Britain's very existence was at stake. And Simon's resistance to Conscription was wicked -- when the little British army in France was being crushed by sheer weight and the French, on a much larger scale, were being bled white. He was really a Gladstonian Little Englander with his Liberal illusions adrift in the 20th century, and as even Chamberlain said then, a 'congenital pacifist'. No good as Foreign Secretary having to deal with Hitler's Germany -- as Lord Sherfield said of Chamberlain himself later, he |didn't know what he was doing'.

There was no excuse for them: it was all laid out in Mein Kampf beforehand. And there were all the murders of June 1934 to tell them quite early on. Mr. Dutton brings out the usual excuse that the country was bemused and behindhand. But it is the business of a government to lead public opinion, not to lag behind it.

On the other hand I do not blame Simon for going in with the Tories. It was all over and done with the Liberal Party -- there would never be a Liberal government again. Mr. Dutton sees this in terms of surface politics, and the personal disputes of the leaders. Far deeper are the social forces at work, the mass movements in society that make it obvious that, to be effective, one is either Tory or Labour. Otherwise a waste of time.

What Simon is to be blamed for is making one of the egregious quadrilateral -- with Chamberlain, Halifax, Hoare -- who went on appeasing Hitler and Mussolini to the edge of the precipice, and would not take the essential step of allying with Russia to stop them. Chamberlain did not even want the help of the United States, which ultimately saved us! Simon was not the worst of them. The brilliant lawyer's best home was the Home Office, and his proper seat the Woolsack.
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Author:Rowse, A.L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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