F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

British politician (1872–1930)

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, GCSI, PC (12 July 187230 September 1930) was a British Conservative statesman and lawyer of the early 20th century. He was a skilled orator, noted for his staunch opposition to Irish nationalism, his wit, pugnacious views, and hard living and drinking. He is perhaps best remembered today as Winston Churchill's greatest personal and political friend until Smith's untimely death at age 58.

We have the highest authority for believing that the meek shall inherit the earth; though I have never found any particular corroboration of this aphorism in the records of Somerset House.

Quotes edit

If peaceful persuasion is the real object, why are a hundred men required to do it?
The world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords.
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.
Churchill has spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks.
  • 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? … Every honest man knows why trade unions insist on the right to a strong numerical picket. It is because they rely for their objects neither on peacefulness nor persuasion. Those whom they picket cannot be peacefully persuaded. They understand with great precision their own objects, and their own interests, and they are not in the least likely to be persuaded by the representatives of trade unions, with different objects and different interests. But, though arguments may never persuade them, numbers may easily intimidate them. And it is just because argument has failed, and intimidation has succeeded, that the Labour Party insists upon its right to picket unlimited in respect of numbers.
    • Speech in the House of Commons against the Trade Disputes Bill (30 March 1906), as published in The Speeches of Lord Birkenhead (1929), pp. 15-22
  • Instead of seeing that men got enough to eat the Government spent the whole Session in securing that they should have nothing to drink.
    • Speech in Limehouse (4 October 1909) on the Liberal Government's Licensing Bill, quoted in The Times (5 October 1909), p. 4
  • Free trade had once and for all broken down. Even when combined with depredation it did not pay; it could not find them the money to pay this year's national bills. The Conservative party had one alternative to a Budget which destroyed capital—the alternative of men who had watched the history of tariffs in Europe and America for 30 years, and learnt the great lesson upon which Bismarck taught his fellow-countrymen.
    • Speech in Limehouse (4 October 1909), quoted in The Times (5 October 1909), p. 4
  • ...votes are to swords exactly what bank notes are to gold—the one is effective only because the other is believed to be behind it.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (11 July 1910)
  • The Conservative Party is the parent of trade unionism, just as it is the author of the Factory Acts. At every stage in the history of the nineteenth century it is to Toryism that trade unionism has looked for help and support against the oppressions of the Manchester School of liberalism, which cared nothing for the interests of the state, and regarded men as brute beasts whose labour could be bought and sold at the cheapest price, irrespective of all other considerations.
    • Introduction to H. Hills and M. Woods, Industrial Unrest: A Practical Solution (1914)
  • An MP had been elected as a Unionist candidate, but when Parliament re-assembled, he had immediately "crossed the floor" without seeking re-election.
    Smith said:"He entered the House not on the crest of a wave, but rather by means of an opportune dive. Everyone in the House must appreciate his presence, for there could be no greater compliment paid to it than that he should be in our midst, when his heart is far away. And it should be obvious to all who know the honourable gentleman's scrupulous sense of honour, that his one desire at present is to be amongst his constituents, who are understood to be at least as anxious to meet him."
    • Legal Life and Humour (1916), edited by Joseph Heighton, p. 49
  • May I be perfectly candid? I also am still a Unionist in this sense. If I were certified of twenty years of unbroken power in this country, I am still most clearly of opinion that the solution of the Irish question which would be best for England and best for Ireland would be the prosecution during that period of the policy which, in our opinion at least, had attained so large a measure of success in the year 1906. ... The late Lord Salisbury spoke of "twenty years of resolute government." The Unionist Party, in the period to the close of which I refer, had been given some ten years, and it was only given those ten years by what many members of this House would describe as the accident of the issue, with its repercussion on the Election, of the war in South Africa. That accident and that Election gave the Unionist Party some ten years of office. Is it not evident, in trying to descry what lies in front of us through the mists of the future, that no man living can claim that twenty years, or anything like twenty years, lie in front of any Party that believes in the maintenance of the relations between Ireland and this country on the lines that have existed since the passing of the Act of Union?
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the Government of Ireland Bill (23 November 1920)
  • Politically, economically and philosophically the motive of self-interest not only is but must...and ought to be the mainspring of human conduct...For as long a time as the records of history have been preserved human societies passed through a ceaseless process of evolution and adjustment. This process has sometimes been pacific, but more often it has resulted from warlike disturbance. The strength of different nations, measured in terms of arms, varies from century to century. The world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords; it is therefore extremely improbable that the experience of future ages will differ in any material respect from that which has happened since the twilight of the human race … it is for us who, in our history have proved ourselves a martial … people … to maintain in our own hands the adequate means for our own protection and … to march with heads erect and bright eyes along the road of our imperial destiny.
    • "Idealism in International Politics", Rectoral Address at Glasgow University (7 November 1923).[1]
    • Quoted in The Times (8 November 1923), according to "Guarantee of Peace: The League of Nations in British Policy 1914-1925" by Peter J. Yearwood, pg 280
  • An economic creed in an imperfect world must be at least equally adapted to the purposes of war as to the purposes of peace. ... when war came in 1914, what was the situation of this country? The free-trade system had wholly failed to equip the Government of this country with the many instruments which were absolutely vital for the purposes of conducting war.
    • Speech to the Constitutional Club (20 November 1923), quoted in The Times (21 November 1923), p. 17
  • It appears that we are to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are to have 1,300,000 unemployed in this country. There are no unemployed in the United States of America, no unemployed at all in France. There are hardly any unemployed in Italy. The United States of America, France, and Italy are protectionist countries. We are a free-trade import country.
    • Speech to the Constitutional Club (20 November 1923), quoted in The Times (21 November 1923), p. 17
  • I have read the Liberal programme. They talk of cooperation between employer and employed. That is not the problem. There is no use in cooperating when there is no work to be done. There is no use in imposing capital levies upon a capital which every year dwindles and disappears. ... The problem that awaits the people of this country is to increase the markets within which their goods can find employment, and you will never increase those markets until you have enabled our working people on equal terms and our manufacturers on equal terms to deal with the working people and manufacturers of the world.
    • Speech to the Constitutional Club (20 November 1923), quoted in The Times (21 November 1923), p. 17
  • The Glasgow address ["Idealism in International Politics"] represented a true conception of Tory policy. ... During those black years from 1906 to 1914 he and other members of this party warned the country that the deadly and growing menace of German armaments might involve, unless steps were taken to correct it, the imminent destruction of this country and Empire. How were their warnings treated? Foolish idealists told them there was no menace. ... But while Liberals and Socialists passed resolutions calling for reduction of armaments, the Tories, not so deceived, insisted on the supreme importance of strengthening the Army and the Navy.
    • Speech to the Liverpool Junior Conservative Club (30 November 1923), quoted in The Times (1 December 1923), p. 6
  • As the Tories happened to be right then, and their opponents happened to be wrong, as they had been wrong at every moment in the nation's history when similar issues had arisen, was he to remain silent when men were preaching the same crazy doctrine that there would be no more war and when he looked round and saw wars and threats of wars? Whenever he met such sentimental folly he would castigate it.
    • Speech to the Liverpool Junior Conservative Club (30 November 1923), quoted in The Times (1 December 1923), p. 6
  • The greatness of this country was attained not by teaching the message that one class of Englishmen must wed itself to a bitter antagonism against other classes of Englishmen, but was was rather founded on the doctrine that they were all English. All that was changed. They were to be class conscious. ... It means that we are to drive into that solidity of English life, which has secured our greatness, the poison of a belief that the interests of England require that there should be vital and eternal antagonism in her midst which prevents all Englishmen uniting for an all-English cause. In the old spacious days of Queen Elizabeth, when the Empire was still in the winning, as well as in the days of the Napoleonic Wars, we conquered by the force of a gallant and united nation. We did not march to battle under the Red Flag.
    • Speech in Epping (21 October 1924), quoted in The Times (22 October 1924), p. 18
  • Nobody disputed that in the year 1914 it was evident to everyone that the country would have to struggle for its life. Knowing that, Mr. MacDonald stated that the war had been deliberately engineered by the fighting forces of this country in order to obtain battle-practice for our fleet. ... The people of this country had now the chance of deciding whether they wished to see this ancient country presided over and governed by a man who, had he had his way, would have ruined and destroyed us in the war; and he knew what their answer was going to be. They were going to say to him, “Dress yourself in your red flag or your yellow flag; go and attend your board meetings in the McVitie Company. We do not believe you for this reason—that every speech you make contains some piece of shifty, tricky inventiveness which we have never been used to from the Prime Minister of England.”
    • Speech in Epping (21 October 1924), quoted in The Times (22 October 1924), p. 18
  • I charge him [Ramsay MacDonald] deliberately with this, that from the first moment of the war to the Armistice there was nothing which he could say to embarrass the cause of the British arms that he did not say—there was nothing that he could do to assist the German cause that he did not do. That is the man I am asked to take as spokesman of the British Empire. ... He was the man who vied with Sir Roger Casement in disservice to Britain. In the greatest crisis in our history Mr. MacDonald tried to set up Soviets in the British Army. I am to treat him as spokesman of the British Empire? Never! Never!
    • Speech in Liverpool (22 October 1924), quoted in The Times (23 October 1924), p. 10
  • We have the highest authority for believing that the meek shall inherit the earth; though I have never found any particular corroboration of this aphorism in the records of Somerset House.
    • Quoted in Contemporary Personalities (1924) by Marquess Curzon.
  • Like you, I believe strongly that where there is a revolutionary element expressed in action, one must act resolutely. My reading of Indian history has led me to believe that a Government founded so completely as ours is upon prestige can stand almost anything except the suspicion of weakness.
    • Letter to Lord Reading (13 November 1924), quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Reading (Heinemann, 1967), p. 382
  • To me it is frankly inconceivable that India will ever be fit for Dominion self-government.
    • Letter to Lord Reading (4 December 1924), quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Reading (Heinemann, 1967), p. 382
  • I have always placed my highest and most permanent hopes upon the eternity of the Communal situation. The greater the political progress made by the Hindus, the greater, in my judgment, will the Moslem distrust and discontent become. All the conferences in all the world cannot bridge over the unbridgeable, and between these two communities lies a chasm which cannot be crossed by the resources of modern political engineering.
    • Letter to Lord Reading (March 1925) on India, quoted in H. Montgomery Hyde, Lord Reading (Heinemann, 1967), p. 387
  • 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.
    • Statement of 1925, as quoted in Britain between the Wars (1955) by C. L. Mowat, p. 300.
  • Nature has no cure for this sort of madness, though I have known a legacy from a rich relative work wonders.
    • On Bolshevism, in Law, Life, and Letters (1927), Vol. 2, Ch. 19
  • What was intended is plain. It was intended to appease them. Why was this particular moment selected for their appeasement? I will tell your Lordships why. It was because a grave threat had been made subversive of civil government in India. ... I have had occasion in the last six years to make such study of Indian history as my abilities have qualified me to undertake, and I have drawn one deep lesson. The way to discharge our fiduciary obligations to India is never to yield to threats—never, never! The moment in which to make gestures of appeasement is not when you are threatened by men of influence and authority with a general campaign of civil disturbance. And what a method to select! You address the politically-minded classes of India. They are the only ones with which you are dealing, for you do not suppose that the 290,000,000 of peasants who cannot read are being appeased; they do not need appeasement and we were long since told of their pathetic contentment. What was the object of making this statement at this moment?
    • Speech in the House of Lords (5 November 1929)
  • 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.
    • Quoted in F.E. : The Life of F. E. Smith First Earl of Birkenhead (1933) by Frederick Second Earl of Birkenhead, 1959 edition, Ch 9
  • Judge: What do you suppose I am on the Bench for, Mr. Smith?
    Smith: It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.
    • Quoted in F.E. : The Life of F. E. Smith First Earl of Birkenhead (1933) by Frederick Second Earl of Birkenhead, 1959 edition, Ch 9
  • Churchill has spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks.
    • Quoted in A Politician Must Watch His Wit by Clayton Fritchley in The New York Times Magazine (3 July 1960), p. 31
  • 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.
    • Quoted in "London Letter" by Francis Cowper in New York Law Journal (28 August 1961), p. 4
  • High Court judge presiding in a sodomy case, seeking advice on sentencing: "Could you tell me, what do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?"
    Smith: "Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds; whatever you happen to have on you."
    • A 1924 entry in Evelyn Waugh's diary, cited in The Times 23 May 2006, Law supplement p. 7

Unionist Policy and Other Essays (1913) edit

  • ...although in many well-paid trades the attitude of labour is unreasonable and grasping, the wrongs under which many poor persons labour are so cruel and so undeniable that it is astounding that any school of political thought should conceive a policy of inactivity to be possible. I should like to inscribe on the walls of every Conservative club, and particularly of those clubs to which the wealthier members of the party belong, these words from Mr Booth's Life and Labour of the People: "The result of all our inquiries makes it reasonably sure that one-third of the population are on or just above the line of poverty or are below it".
    • "The Future of the Conservative Party", p. 16
  • I entertain no doubt that Tariff Reform would considerably alleviate these evils, but I have never believed that it will end them. Which party in the State stands to lose most by their continuance? Is it not evident that the party, to whom stability and content are vital, is far more deeply concerned to restore happier conditions than the party which lives upon discontent and the promulgation of class hatred? A contented proletariat should be one of the first objects of enlightened Conservative policy.
    • "The Future of the Conservative Party", p. 17
  • According...to our Individualist and Free Trade friends, Prince Bismarck ought to have come to the conclusion that German industries were from "natural causes" unfit as compared to their British rivals; that they could never hope to hold their own in the struggle for existence, and that it would be cheaper to buy in the British market. That great statesman, who was never deceived either by the ideologues of Individualism or the ideologues of Socialism, saw very clearly that though this might be the case for the moment it need not be the case in all perpetuity, but that to give way for the moment was to give way for ever. English goods might beat German goods for the given year, but granted a tariff and the encouragement of State-aid, German goods might be beating British in under a quarter of a century. The static comparison was against the German Empire, but the dynamic impulse given to German industry by the tariff of 1878 has carried her right to the front, and the result of the policy has been of enormous profit to the German exchequer.
    • "State Toryism and Social Reform", p. 38
  • Disraeli, in his youth, laid down the principles on which the England of his time ought to have been based, and his comparative failure to convince his contemporaries or to overbear his philosophic opponents left his country the richer by a supreme instance of political genius and the poorer by its slums, its wasted physique, and its industrial unrest and class hatred. If a Providence could have made Disraeli a dictator in the early 'thirties, there would have been no social problem to-day. That great man desired to build up the new industrial State on the principles and practice which had animated the older rural and urban dispensations—on the community of interest between master and man, between capitalist and employee, between guild and guild, between agricultural labourer and town workman. What was best in the feudal conception of the past was to be applied to the new progressive forces of the nineteenth century, and the aristocracy of industry was to follow in the tradition of the aristocracy of feudalism and make itself the guardian, and not the exploiter, of its new retainers.
    • "State Toryism and Social Reform", pp. 41–42
  • We stand for the State and for the unity which, whether in the form of kingdom or empire or class solidarity, the State alone can bring. Above all stands the State and in that phrase lies the essence of Toryism. Our ancestors left it to us, and not the least potent method of preserving it is to link the conception of State Toryism with the practice of Social Reform.
    • "State Toryism and Social Reform", p. 46
  • Who are we that we should invite Germany to acquiesce in the principles of "Uti Possidetis" at a moment when we possess comparatively everything and they possess comparatively nothing? It is a law as old as the world's history that those who hold valuable possessions coveted by others will hold them so long as, and no longer than, they are able to protect them by the strong arm.
    • "Lord Roberts and Germany", p. 70
  • Abuse of Germany for doing what we ourselves did, and for cherishing ambitions which every powerful nation at every stage of the world's history has entertained, is childish, irrelevant, and futile. History laughs at such criticisms. Lord Roberts made no such mistake. With penetrating instinct he stated his admiration of German temper and German discipline. Every virile citizen of any nationality, and, indeed, every person whose judgment is not debauched by a sentimentalism wholly out of contact with facts, will echo Lord Roberts' tribute. Abuse, disapproval, and pious exhortations are all utterly useless. Only one thing is useful. This country, if it means to survive, must develop its preparations upon the same scale and in the same spirit as does the great nation whose ambitions and development we are examining.
    • "Lord Roberts and Germany", pp. 74–75
  • Either we must make up our minds that we will not take part in a European war under any circumstances, or we must have national service; but we cannot make up our minds on the first of these points unless we are prepared to do what our ancestors to their eternal glory refused to do in the days of Napoleon, acquiesce in the hegemony of Europe by one titanic Power.
    • "Lord Roberts and Germany", p. 78

Quotes about Smith edit

  • F. E. Smith is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head.
  • He had all the canine virtues in a remarkable degree – courage, fidelity, vigilance, love of chase.
  • If he was with you on Monday, he would be the same on Tuesday. And on Thursday, when things looked blue, he would still be marching forward with strong reinforcements.
  • Birkenhead's pure eighteenth-century. He belongs to the days of Fox and Pitt. Physically, he has all the strength of our best yeoman stock. Mentally, he's a colossus. But he'll tear himself to pieces by the time he's sixty.
    • Sir Thomas Horder, 1928, quoted in Gilbert Frankau, Self Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (1941), pp. 262–263
  • He is a powerful intellect, a democrat.
    • David Lloyd George's remarks to C. P. Scott, as recorded in Scott's diary (23 October 1922), quoted in The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott, 1911–1928, ed. Trevor Wilson (1970), p. 429
  • [David Lloyd George] made a strong defence of F. E. Smith. Somehow or other he always thrusted the worst side of his nature on to the public, whereas he was a man of sterling character and one of the finest he had ever known. ... When L[loyd] G[eorge] made him Lord Chancellor, there were a number of important people, including judges, who "thought I made a great mistake". But some time afterwards two judges, one of whom was Lord Dunedin, came and said: "When you made Birkenhead Lord Chancellor, we frankly thought you had made a great mistake. We now see you were right and we were wrong. He is the best Lord Chancellor we have ever had".
    • David Lloyd George's remarks to A. J. Sylvester, as recorded in Sylvester's diary (22 April 1933), quoted in Life with Lloyd George: The Diary of A. J. Sylvester, 1931–45, ed. Colin Cross (1975), p. 95
  • While in Paris I saw a good deal of the Lord Chancellor (F.E.) – an interesting study. Very clever and brilliant, but drinks too much. Far more than is good for him. ... He has some wild political notions. He said if the Labour people show signs of revolution, we must shoot. Shooting is the right method to repress such agitations. The trade unions are tyrannical. We made a great mistake to permit them to maintain Members of Parliament.
    • George Riddell's diary (22 January 1920), quoted in The Riddell Diaries 1908–1923, ed. J. M. McEwen (1986), p. 303
  • The country was as much amused as affronted when Sir F. E. Smith became Attorney-General. But it is carrying a joke beyond the limits of pleasantry to make him Lord Chancellor. There are gradations in these matters.
    • The Morning Post on his appointment as Lord Chancellor, quoted in John Campbell, F. E. Smith: First Earl of Birkenhead (1983), p. 460
    • Often misquoted as "carrying a joke too far".

References edit

External links edit

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