Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Lewis Harcourt

( Originally Published 1907 )

" WHAT I really think -," said Mr. Harcourt.

" What you really think," interrupted the other, laughing, " is known only to Mr. Lewis Harcourt and his Maker."

Mr. Harcourt smiled his inscrutable smile and proceeded. The thrust glanced off the impenetrable corslet. But it expressed what one feels about this dominating, masterful figure, that sits so tight in the saddle, wears ever an unruffled front, turns aside the smashing blow with a jest, seems never hurried, never worried, pursues his purpose with such stillness that he is forgotten until the mine explodes and the match that fired it is seen in his hand.

The lightnings play about the path of Mr. Winston Churchill: Mr. Harcourt advances in the shadow, unobtrusively, unnoted, except by the few. Watch him casually, and he seems but a spectator of the game, amused and interested, but never caught in its central swirl—a man after Mr. George Russell's own heart, carrying with him the atmosphere of the eighteenth century, full of worldly, ironic wisdom, rich in stories of men and events, too fond of pulling the mechanism of the watch to pieces ever to become a wheel in its works.

That is the superficial view of Mr. Harcourt. Behind this easy, imperturbable exterior you find one of the most subtle, most far-seeing, most unswerving influences in politics. " It was the intrigues of young Harcourt that upset my apple-cart," Lord Rosebery is reported to have once said. The saying, if authentic, was not quite true. The man who upset Lord Rosebery's apple-cart was Lord Rosebery. But those who know most of the intricate story of those troubled years when Sir Henry Campbell - Bannerman was holding aloft the old flag, surrounded by open enemies and cold friends, know how much of the ultimate triumph was due to the astuteness and passionless loyalty of Mr. Harcourt. I would rather have him at my back in a row than any man in politics.

Mr. Harcourt bides his time. He has the rare gift of immeasurable patience. Jacob toiled for Laban fourteen years; but Mr. Harcourt toiled for his father twenty. He gave up not only his youth but his maturity to that filial service. He took on himself the humblest secretarial tasks. He learned short-hand and typewriting to facilitate his father's work. He sought no place for himself. He drudged seventeen hours a day over his father's budgets; he grubbed among blue-books and dusty documents.

He was over forty before he sought a seat in Parliament. Even when he entered the House he was content to remain silent to wait. He was, to the world, just " Lulu," Sir William's son, an amiable young man devoted to his father, the shadow of a great name. When he was given a place in the Ministry he had not uttered a word in Parliament, and there was a certain justice in the allusion to him as " an interesting experiment." The phrase tickled him. I have a letter from him signed " The Interesting Experiment."

He delivered his first Parliamentary speech as a Minister of the Crown, and he came into his kingdom at a stride. His long apprenticeship was over, and a new force of first-rate possibilities was added to the drama of politics. He emerged in a day from the obscurity of twenty years into the front rank of the conflict, equipped with every Parliamentary resource, knowing all the inner workings of the machine, familiar from his childhood with the great figures of the past, Gladstone, Disraeli, Salisbury, astute, serene, unfathomable, with the suavity of conscious power, and most dangerous when he was most suave. The glove was velvet, but the hand within was iron.

Today Mr. Harcourt stands out as one of the three men in the Liberal Party to whom all things seem possible. Political life never furnished a more start-ling contrast in temperament and outlook than two of those three furnish the one eager, restless, inquiring, passionate, modern as the morning's news-sheet, drinking life in great feverish draughts, as if he feared that every moment would snatch the goblet from his lips for ever, a mountain torrent in spate; the other calm and secure, cool and calculating, living as if he had all eternity to work in, as if he had the key to every problem and had tasted all that was in the cup of life. The orbit of the one incalculable: the orbit of the other known to the fraction of a second.

For Mr. Harcourt has his roots in the past. He treads in the established tradition of British statesmanship. To him the world is still divisible into Whigs and Tories, the old party lines still plainly mark the path before him. He will never lead a Social Revolution. He will never blaze out into any " raging, tearing propaganda." He will never desert the tabernacle, and if ever the Old Guard comes into action on the evening of some Waterloo, it will be Mr. Harcourt who will lead the van.

In a word, he is for the Party first and last, for Liberalism as he understands it and as his father understood it, for Liberalism as the instrument of sober, considered progress, upon familiar lines; yielding here a little and there a little to the fierce clamour of the new time with its new, strange voices; but keeping ever to the great trunk road, of which Walpole was the engineer in the eighteenth century and Gladstone in the nineteenth. How far a mind so rooted in the past, so remote from popular sympathies and the spirit of the modem democratic movement, so governed by a conception of society organically unchanging, can control the lightnings that flash in the political sky of the twentieth century and bring them into the service of the cause to which he is devoted is one of the most interesting problems of the future. It is the problem of Liberalism itself the problem of how far the principles of Liberalism which have worked out the civil and religious freedom of the people can be successfully applied to securing their economic freedom, and their liberation from the serfdom of circumstance and the wrongs of social injustice.

Few men have appealed less to the gallery than Mr. Harcourt. He does not scan far horizons. He does not declare any vision of a promised land. He has no passionate fervour for humanity, and is too honest to pretend to any. He is a practical politician, with no dithyrambs. He loves the intricacies of the campaign more than the visionary gleam, the actual more than the potential, present facts more than future fancies. He is the man without a dream.

But he is the type of man who brings the dreams of others to pass the builder who translates the imagination of the architect into terms of wood and stone. Other men will prophesy; he will perform. Other men will create the atmosphere of change ; he will give it form and shape. He is the man who " puts things through." There has been no more striking feat of supple capacity combined with unyielding purpose than his conduct of the Small Holdings Act last Session. His smile is more potent than the speeches of other men. He has you unhorsed with a phrase. And when you think to catch him napping. you find that he has all his battalions within earshot, ready to descend on you like an avalanche. He is the organiser of victory, the general who will not lose a gun. If his possibilities are not realised it will be because in his secret heart he distrusts the eager movement of the time and conceives his function to be that of a check upon its enthusiasms rather than an inspiration, and because he has too much of the spirit of the grand seigneur to be entirely at home in the heat and dust of these democratic days. To the general he will always be a little caviare. " The general " is not responsive to persiflage and elaborate irony.

Mr. Harcourt has the manners and the mental habitudes of the ancien régime. He would not pass for a parvenu. You would not associate his origins with dry goods. His philosophy is that of Walpole, and it is of that statesman more than any other that he reminds you. There is about him nothing of the hurry of the Twentieth Century, and no suspicion of its feverish intellectual unrest. The riddles of the universe do not disturb him. He is the man of leisure and of taste, who is very pleased with the world and entirely at home in it, and who has the security and ease that come from generations of spacious life. If he drops into poetry you expect it to be Horatian, and when he tells a story it has the flavour of the great world. He suggests ancestors, knights in armour, bishops in lawn sleeves, stalwart Eighteenth-Century squires striding over ploughed lands with a gun and drinking their three bottles at night in Georgian mansions, masterful men all, lords of many acres, politely familiar with the classics, their walls hung with Lely's leering ladies and Kneller's unimaginative wigs.

He is at once curiously like and unlike his father. He has Sir William's great height he stands six foot two or so but he is as lean as Cassius, while his father's girth was Falstaffian. Sir William was a famous trencherman, with the constitution of a Norse hero; his son is delicate and fastidious, and when he comes into the room he looks for the draughts. He has much of his father's wit, but none of his father's irascibility. He smiles urbanely and darkly where his father thundered. He has the Olympian manner of Sir William, but it is more restrained, and men never joke about his Plantagenet descent, though to his father's Royal pedigree he adds another kinship with royalty through his mother, a Clarendon. The toast of " Sir William Harcourt and the rest of the Royal Family " is never adapted to his case. But he is not indifferent to the other branch of the family, and is a close friend of the King, whom he entertains at Nuneham in regal state. For he has great wealth through his wife, the daughter of the late Mr. W. H. Burns, of New York. The heavy, untuned voice like the late Duke of Devonshire's, the voice of an authentic aristocracy, broken, I suppose, in the " view halloo " of generations of fox-hunting forebears is not adapted to rhetoric; but his speeches are of the same vintage as Sir William's, and when he rises the House knows that it is going to have some innocent merriment. Sometimes his merriment is out of touch with the modern sentiment, as in the case of his speeches on the woman suffrage question which would have done very well, no doubt, in his own Eighteenth Century, but ring a little unpleasantly in ours.

There is a certain incongruity between a man of such powers and his office. It is like Hackenschmidt wheeling a perambulator. But he wheels it astonishingly well, and seems to enjoy the task. He has raised the office of First Commissioner of Works to a level that it had never reached before. He has shown in it the same managing spirit that he revealed at the Home Counties Liberal Federation for the triumph around London in 1906 was largely his and which is restoring the ancient glories of the Nuneham seat which came to him in some embarrassment and decay. He has saved the time of the House by simplifying the divisions; he has reorganised the catering as adroitly as though he had spent his youth at Spiers and Pond's instead of Eton; he has rearranged the dining-rooms and won the heart of everybody by his thoughtful stewardship. He has inaugurated a great scheme for the development of the public galleries, and has worked wonders in the Royal parks, raising wages, cheapening refreshments, giving facilities for games. I know of no pleasanter fact about him than his consideration for the children. He has some charming children of his own, and perhaps that is why he re-members other people's little girls and boys who have no Nuneham Park to play in. His happy idea of making some of the animals in the Zoo visible from the outside where the children play in Regent's Park is an illustration of this engaging side of his character and administration.

When he resigns the perambulator, Parliament will discover behind this exterior of polite persiflage one of the ablest executive brains in politics, a capacious mind moving without haste and without deviation to deeply considered ends, subtle, adroit, resourceful omnia capax imperii, but most capable of all in ruling men whom he knows through and through, while he himself remains always something of a mystery. For he has none of the self-revelation of Mr. Churchill, who throws all his cards on the table with the careless frankness of Fox, and turns out his mind with the joy of a boy turning out his pockets. Mr. Harcourt has his battalions masked.

" What I really think," he says.

" What you really think! " you reply.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com