“The greatest prime minister who never was,” is how many admirers on the right characterized Great Britain’s Lord Hailsham upon his death last year at age 94.
Conservative Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 and put genuinely conservative ideas about a free society into action. One of the premier intellectual sculptors of those ideas was the man christened Quentin Hogg. Hogg twice took the title of Lord Hailsham: first, reluctantly, upon the death of his father in 1950, when Hogg was forced to end his stint in the House of Commons to assume a hereditary peerage; then, after renouncing the title to re-enter politics, he accepted it willingly in 1970 to become Lord Chancellor, overseer of Britain’s judiciary.
Geoffrey Lewis’s Lord Hailsham: A Life vividly brings back to life this remarkable man who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, seemed to be Britain’s Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater all at once. As British Conservatives today are languishing and grasping for fresh initiatives with which to challenge Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party, Hailsham’s life and work are particularly poignant reading. Hailsham breathed fresh life into the British Conservative Party with The Case for Conservatism, a book which forcefully defines freedom as the “diffusion of power” and makes a solid case for the free society over statism. More than half-a-century later, this cogent book is as well respected in Britain as Kirk’s American classic, The Conservative Mind.
As Conservative Party chairman during its triumphant re-election of 1959, Hailsham became a hero to the party as its winning campaign manager and seemed destined to become prime minister. He was, in fact, the first choice of an ailing Harold Macmillan as his successor in 1963. But a series of missteps that year at the Blackpool Conservative conference convinced Macmillan and other Tory elders that His lordship’s quirky exuberance made him unsuitable for head of government.
Macmillan switched his endorsement of heir to another peer, Lord Home, who thereupon disclaimed his title and surfaced in the House of Commons as Alec Douglas-Home, Conservative leader and prime minister. It proved a disastrous selection. Within a year, the colorless, wooden Home became the first Conservative prime minister in 14 years to lose an election. The Labor Party, under the youthful and energetic Harold Wilson, won by a margin of four seats to take the House of Commons.
When he was named first Lord of the Admiralty (the British secretary of the navy) in 1957, Hailsham learned of the disastrous government plan to attack the Suez Canal. He personally opposed the attack, “Operation Musketeer,” but oversaw this mission. It was Britain’s blackest mark in postwar years and another roadblock to Hailsham’s political ascent.
Like Barry Goldwater in his twilight years, Hailsham would find himself in clashes with younger soulmates on the right, as times and issues were changing. In 1968, he vociferously denounced fellow “Shadow Cabinet” member Enoch Powell’s warning about the dangers of liberal immigration and calls for repatriation of immigrants to their homelands. That stand resulted in Powell’s removal from the shadow Cabinet, but it almost surely helped the Tories return to power in 1970.
Lord Hailsham’s personal friendship and philosophical conviviality with Baroness Thatcher notwithstanding, Hailsham expressed doubts about the way the party was run when she was leading the opposition. He was disturbed by its “extreme right image.” This echoed the same charges moderates had voiced about him a decade before. After Thatcher took office, Hailsham “came to accept the rightness of her policies” and agreed that Britain had to turn back from “the road to irreversible socialism”‘
Lord Hailsham’s political judgment and instincts were by no means flawless. His life, his ability to motivate through the printed word and mass media made a lasting mark on the Conservative Party and British conservatism. Margaret Thatcher may have said it best: “He always got the big questions right.”