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Lord Loreburn

( Originally Published 1907 )

LORD LOREBURN started life with two enormous advantages. He was a Scotsman and he was known as " Bob " Reid. To be born a Scotsman is to be born with a silver spoon in the mouth. It is to be born, as it were, into the governing family. We English are the hewers of wood and drawers of water for our Caledonian masters. Formerly they used to raid our borders and steal our cattle, but they kept to their own soil. In those happy days an English-man had a chance in his own country. Today he is little better than a hod carrier. The Scotsmen have captured not our cattle, but the British Empire. They sit in the seats of the mighty. Westminster is their washpot, and over Canada do they cast out their shoe. The head of the English Church is a Scotsman, and his brother of York came out of a Scotch Presbyterian manse. The Premier is usually a Scotsman and, if not Scotch, he sits for a Scotch constituency, and the Lord Chancellor, the keeper of the King's conscience, is a Scotsman too. London has become an annexe of Edinburgh, and Canada is little more than a Scotch off-hand farm. Our single satisfaction is that whenever we want a book to read we have only to apply to Skibo Castle and Mr. Carnegie will send a free library by return. It is a pleasant way he has of reminding us that we want educating.

Next to being born a Scotsman, Lord Loreburn was most fortunate in his name. Many a man's career is blasted by an ill name. When Mr. A. C. Morton rose upon the firmament of Parliament, he seemed to have a prosperous future before him. But one day a malevolent pressman in the Gallery discovered that " A. C." stood for Alpheus Cleophas. He published the fact to the world, and Mr. Morton never recovered from the blow. He vanished in derisive laughter. His fate was sealed at the font. No man can stagger to success under such a burden as Alpheus Cleophas. And half the bitterness felt towards Mr. Jabez Balfour was due to his unctuous name. It was an aggravation of his offence. It was felt to embody all the negative pieties. Lord Loreburn, on the other hand, might claim that his name was his fortune. There was a simplicity and directness of appeal about "Bob " Reid that was irresistible. It left nothing more to be said. It was like a certificate of good character. It made you trust him without knowing him. It seemed to bubble over with good humour, to radiate honesty and simple worth, to utter volumes of sound sense. A man who was known to everybody as " Bob " had disarmed the world. He simply had to enter in and take possession.

A plain, unvarnished man, large of frame and soft of voice, stiff in opinion, honest and unimaginative, loyal in friendship, immovably obstinate in purpose, he represents the British type in its stubborn devotion to justice as perfectly as his predecessor represented it in its ruthless claim to the supremacy of force. There was more geniality about Lord Halsbury than about Lord Loreburn. But it was the geniality of a merry ogre, secure of his victims, jubilant in his strength, jovially contemptuous of moral considerations. Under the Stuarts he would have whipped Dr. Clifford off to Jack Ketch with a quip about shaving his beard for him.

Nothing is more significant of the change effected by the election of 1906 than the fact that Lord Loreburn sits where Lord Halsbury sat for nearly twenty years. Lord Halsbury for whose genius as a lawyer, by the way, Lord Loreburn has a profound admiration filled his great office with a jolly cynicism that made his tenure of the woolsack notorious. He frankly regarded it as a political instrument. He reduced the Bench to a lower level than it had touched for a century. Any party hack, any necessitous relative of a Tory magnate, might look for office from the Lord Chancellor. There is a story probably invented, but conveying the spirit of political preference with which he exercised his great powers of patronage that when one position on the Bench fell vacant the late Lord Salisbury asked him to appoint a certain barrister to the post. Even Lord Halsbury was staggered at the proposal. " But," he said, " a Judge must know a little law. It would be a scandal to put on the Bench." " It would be a worse scandal," replied Salisbury, " for a member of an old county family to pass through the Bankruptcy Court." The plea was irresistible. Lord Chancellor Westbury, when his nepotism had become so gross a scandal as to lead to protest from his colleagues, replied, " But remember my oath. I have promised to appoint only those whom I know to be fitted for the duties. A dozen names are submitted to me. One of them is that of a man whom I have known for years, perhaps all my life, and whom I know to be fitted for the office. What am I to do? " It was an unanswerable way of putting the case; but Lord Halsbury had a certain blunt honesty that would have scorned such ingenious defences. " To the victors the spoils " was his maxim, and he acted upon it with a gay contempt for criticism which had a certain merit that adroit excuses would not have had.

The fault of Lord Loreburn is in the opposite direction. He is overwhelmed with the sense of responsibility. The solemn oath he has taken is ever present to his mind. " I saw him take it," said a friend of his to me, " and I saw the deep impression it made later. I went to see him when he was considering an appointment. When he began to murmur his oath, ` without fear or favour,' and the rest, I knew there was going to be trouble." Soon after the election I was sitting at dinner next to one of those clever women of the Tory Party who pull the strings of Government behind the scenes. " I was terribly frightened of your Lord Chancellor," she said. " I have just met him at dinner. We have nothing to fear from your Lord Chancellor." What she meant was that Lord Loreburn was so just that he could be relied on to be a little unjust to his own side.

Hence the anger, not loud but deep, that has raged around him. His speeches in the House of Lords are brave utterances of uncompromising Radicalism. The man who stood like a rock against the war now faces the serried ranks of Toryism and in suave accents delivers the most Radical speeches ever spoken from the woolsack since the days of Brougham. But when it comes to the administration of his department, then away with party. Justice, as he conceives it, shall be done though the heavens of Liberalism fall in ruins. It was he he, the fierce enemy of the war and. of Chinese serfdom who stood for the sanctity of those 16,000 permits which the Tories issued to the mine-owners on the eve of the dissolution. It is he who has restored the full authority of Tory lord-lieutenants throughout the country to ratify the nominations to the magistracy. Every appointment shall be made on its intrinsic merits and through traditional channels without relation to politics. An excellent ideal, except that the lord-lieutenants have no legal authority, as Lord Herschel showed. An excellent ideal, if we did not start with a bench packed during twenty years with Conservatives. But to the plain man who fought to destroy this gross partiality of the bench, and who incidentally placed Lord Loreburn in the position to do him justice, this excessive correctitude seemed like a betrayal.

Lord Loreburn has faced the rebels in his own camp as unflinchingly as he faces the Lords on questions of policy and principle, or as he used to face the bowling in the days when he kept wicket for Oxford. He faces them with a certain stiffness and hauteur that treats criticism as an affront to his solemn oath. " I do not wish to be introduced to Mr," he said on one occasion of a certain Liberal M.P. " I do not wish to be introduced to those associated with him. He has been very rude to me on the subject of the magistrates."

Whether we like this view of duty or not, we cannot but respect its honesty and fearlessness. It springs from a rare purity of motive, from the ideal of public service as a sacred trust. Such a tradition will make the task of future Halsburys difficult.

In his personal relations Lord Loreburn has none of the cold severity of office. He is a man of singular sensitiveness and tenderness of heart, clinging to old memories and old friendships. His devotion to the late Sir Frank Lockwood when living, and to his memory now that he is dead, is typical of this fine trait. They were the David and Jonathan of the Bar and the House. Sir Frank as those who saw the exhibition of his caricatures will remember satirised his friend mercilessly, pictured him in kilts holding on to a lamppost, meeting a young lady in the dusk with the legend, " Meet me at the corner when the clock strikes nine," and preparing his speech for the Parnell Commission with the aid of a short black pipe and a huge whisky bottle. But no one enjoyed these wild extravagances of friendship more than Sir Robert. His affection for kindly John O'Connor, M.P., is a tradition of the House and of the National Liberal Club, and he never fails to preside at the frequent dinners to Spencer Leigh Hughes. " Show me a man's friends. " In these friend-ships we have the key to Lord Loreburn's character. He loves the plain, unpretentious man, who wants nothing, fears nothing, hates cant, and tells the truth. All the better if he plays cricket. " Does he bowl? " used to be one of his questions when a candidate for the Eighty Club came before him. For in the days of his youth he was a brilliant wicket-keeper, filling the position for Oxford against Cambridge, and in the days of his years and dignities he became President of the M.G.C. Thrice, moreover, he represented Oxford at racquets land later fought for the amateur tennis championship unsuccessfully against Sir Edward Grey. But he was far too good a Scot to allow pleasure to absorb his energies, and his industry and solid capacity secured him a double-first. And when he saw that the attractions of the playing fields endangered his career, he put bat and racquet firmly aside for ever.

The same resolute purpose and tenacity carried him to the head of his profession. When Jowett asked him what career he proposed for himself and he told him the Bar, the Master of Balliol said in his arid way, " You will do no good at the Bar. Good morning." When, years later, his reputation made and his future secure, he revisited Oxford, Jowett said, " By the way, Mr. Reid, I told you you would be no good at the Bar. I beg your pardon. Good morning." It is dogged that does it, and the Lord Chancellor's career is the most striking example today of what may be achieved by plain, homespun capacities governed by an indomitable purpose.

His love of the plain man was the secret of his devotion to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, as it was of Sir Henry's attachment to him an attachment not blind to his little defects. " Reid is a splendid fellow and a very good Radical," he said to me, " but if he doesn't have his own way he can be an uncomfortable bed-fellow." Through all the bitter time of the war Sir Robert stood by him with a loyalty that neither asked nor gave quarter. He was the relentless enemy of the Liberal League, stiff, uncompromising, and challenging. He burnt his boats with the Rosebery Party, and in the Temple his chances of the Chancellorship were ridiculed. But when Lord Rosebery went down to Bodmin one Saturday and said finally, " I will not serve under that flag," he incidentally placed Sir Robert Reid on the woolsack. His was the first appointment Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman made when he came into power.

With the exception I have indicated, it has been splendidly justified. Lord Loreburn has not the learning of Gladstone's great Chancellors, Page Wood and Roundell Palmer, but he has courage, high purpose, and persuasiveness. His appointments to the High Court and the County Court have won general approval. He has set himself to reform the " law's delay " with striking success. On the bench his judgments are grave, lucid, and weighty.

He is an example of the maxim that " honesty is the best policy "—honesty backed by very plain, everyday qualities, industry, courage, unwavering purpose. A solid man, without brilliancy, imagination, profundity, or humour, he has risen to the highest place in a profession in which these qualities are more common than in any other department of life. It is the triumph of character, the reward of the " industrious apprentice " and of sterling worth. England has had more brilliant Lord Chancellors, but none who combined in a greater degree the sense of the high responsibilities of his office with perfect honesty, unaffected dignity, and rare lucidity of thought and utterance.

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