Augustine Birrell, K.C.
( Originally Published 1907 )
IF a vote were taken in the House of Commons on the question of the most popular member, it is certain that Mr. Augustine Birrell's name would be in the first half-dozen. For Mr. Birrell is an impostor who has been found out. He affects to be a very gruff and menacing person. He looks fiercely at you from below his corrugated brows. He raps out an answer like a schoolmaster cracking an unruly pupil across the knuckles with a ruler. He will have you understand, sir, that he is not to be trifled with. You are to know, sir, that he is a very hard and ruthless taskmaster not at all the person to stand any nonsense, sir. Do you not flinch before this fierce eye, sir? do you not tremble at the roll of this terrible voice?
You do nothing of the sort, for you have discovered long since that all this stage thunder is deplorable make-believe. The eyes that try to look so fierce are really twinkling with good-humour behind the spectacles, and the mouth that is closed with such firmness gives itself away by curving up at the corners into an avuncular benevolence. You suspect that his hand is feeling in the avuncular pocket for half a crown. He is, indeed, " the whitewashed uncle " of the " Golden Age," who comes up on the horizon like a black cloud and vanishes in an auriferous shower. Even the little boys in Battersea Park found him out, for has he not told us that when he was wandering there, excogitating his speech on the Education Bill, all the youngsters pursued him with the refrain,
Please, sir, will you tell me the right time? " That fact is a certificate. When a little boy asks you for " the right time, please, sir," you are entitled to regard yourself as an amiable figure. It is a mark of public confidence and esteem, It is a tribute to you not only as a man of property and of leisure, but as a man of that easy, companionable exterior, that placid frame of mind that invites the casual intrusion. You have room and to spare in your capacious nature for the little amenities of life. You may be thinking in continents, but there are lollipops in your pocket. I can imagine no more conclusive epitaph than this: " The children loved him, and asked him for the right time."
There is an idea that Mr. Birrell is a cynic that, like Walpole, he believes every man has his price and that humanity in the lump is a very bad lot. But his cynicism, too, is a masquerade. It is a cynicism not of Swift, but of Thackeray, of whom he is reminiscent both in temperament and appearance. His heart is so tender that he pretends he hasn't got one. " Man delights me not, nor woman neither," he seems to say. " Look what a rogue you are, sir, and see what a merciless, inhuman fellow I am. I am an ogre, sir, and you are another we're all ogres." And then, down in his comfortable study in Elm Park Road, you run the reality to earth and discover in him a man full of the milk of human kindness, sensitive to a fault, endowed with a large and spacious tolerance, bearing the burden of office with a sympathy and an anxious solicitude that bring to mind John Redmond's axiom that only a man of the toughest fibre and indurated heart can fill the Irish Office under present conditions, and that Mr. Birrell has far too much feeling for the job.
Mr. Birrell, indeed, has not the temperament which is adapted to politics. Parliament is no place for the man of feeling. It demands either a rare moral elevation that is unconscious of the whips and scorns of office, or a hard integument that is impervious to them. The big motives move in the atmosphere of an attorney's office, and he is the most successful who has the fewest scruples. Your principles must hang about you, in Falstaff's phrase, " lightly, like an old lady's loose gown," and you must be able to tack and turn with the veering wind. You must have, in fact, the barristerial frame of mind, emotionally detached from the cause it advocates, cool, agile, and sincerely cynical cynical, that is, in fact and not in form. If your conscience is a little seared, so much the better, for politics is a compromise with conscience, and a seared conscience gives least trouble. All this means that the lawyer and the business man are most at home in the atmosphere of politics.
Now Mr. Birrell is not a lawyer. It is true that he has lived in chambers, is a King's Counsel, and has earned his bread by the law. But no man I know has less of the lawyer temperament less of the mental outlook of so typical a lawyer as, let us say, Sir Edward Carson. You cannot imagine Mr. Birrell treating a client with the cold detachment of an algebraical problem. He regards him less as an intellectual exercise than as a human emotion. It is not enough to think for him : he must feel with him, or against him, as the case may be. His mind is never engaged alone; his heart must be engaged too. Intellect and feeling are not in watertight compartments, as they ought to be in every well-equipped lawyer; they are one and indivisible.
This is a serious handicap for the politician. It prevents him making out the best possible case for a thing in which he does not believe. Here we have the cause of the singular variations in Mr. Birrell's Parliamentary manner. When he brought in the Irish Councils Bill a legacy from his predecessor in the Irish Office he brought it in in the accents of defeat. The key was minor, the terms apologetic. When at the close Mr. Balfour rose and said, " The right hon. gentleman has brought in a Bill which the House does not believe in, and which, I venture to say, the right hon. gentleman does not believe in himself," you felt that he spoke the truth and held the winning hand. How different when Mr. Birrell brought in his Universities Bill ! Here he believed in his client whole-heartedly, and his speech had an elevation and a conviction that carried the House as one man. If I were a client with an honest case I would rather have him as my advocate than any man I know; but as advocatus diaboli he should be given the widest berth. He would throw up his brief and leave the Devil in the lurch.
His candour is a fatal bar to the fulfilment of the promise which he gave in Opposition. He has no concealments, none of that atmosphere of impenetrable mystery which all artful leaders cultivate, and his valour is greater than his discretion, which is a serious defect in a leader. He does not suffer fools gladly, or at all. If he tires of a job he says so, and his patience with bores and with peddling opposition is soon exhausted. " God takes his text and preaches patience," says Herbert, but Mr. Birrell does not listen to the sermon. He is sometimes more than a little impatient with his own political friends. " You may as well tear up the Bill," he says hotly to a committee worrying him to concede something he won't concede, and he foreshadows a new measure with the honest if impolitic announcement that two of his legislative attempts have been defeated, and that if the third fails he will take his quietus.
It is this blunt frankness with himself and with the world that handicaps him as a statesman, and makes him so dear to the House. He is always himself never filling a part or playing for safety. He is what in Lancashire they would call " jannock. Dissimulation vanishes at his breezy presence, and his gay veracity and unequivocal good faith win all hearts even though they may lose votes. He clears up the spirits and restores the humanities of debate. He is like an oasis in the desert of arid talk, bubbling with fresh waters and rich with Verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
He has indeed the most individual note that is heard in Parliament a certain mingling of mellow wit and mellow wisdom that is unique. He brings with him the atmosphere of the library, and moves, as it were, under the arch of a great sky. His dispatch-box may contain the draft of a Bill, but you suspect that Lavengro, a thin-paper, leather-covered, dog's-eared volume, is in his pocket. Or perhaps it is the Religio Medici or the Apologia, for his sympathies have no limits within the limits of noble literature and honest feeling. He loves to hear " the wind on the heath, brother "; but he loves, too, the cool, cloistral calm of Newman. He is true to the tradition of Free Churchmanship, which he derives both from his father, the Rev. Charles M. Birrell, a distinguished Baptist minister of Liverpool, and from his mother, a daughter of the Rev. Dr. Grey, one of the Disruption fathers; but he cares little for creeds either in religion or politics. " Liberalism is not a creed, but a frame of mind " he says somewhere, and he turns from the conflicts of the sects with unconcealed wrath. In all things he cares more for the spirit than the letter--
For forms of faith let graceless zealots fight, He can't be wrong whose life is in the right.
He would be the last man to scrape an acquaintance with on the ground of community of creed: the first to greet you on the ground of human sympathy.
Mr. Birrell, in fact, is not primarily a politician or a lawyer, but a literary man of strong humanist sympathies. It was as a literary man that he swam into our ken. The freshness and sanity of Obiter Dicta made him a marked man. We came to look to him for a certain generous wine, " with beaded bubbles winking at the brim "—a wine compounded of all the great vintages of the past, but with a bouquet all its own. His wit has a distinction that is unmistakable. It is at once biting and genial. It is like the caricature of " F. C. G." in its breadth and humanity. It does not wither you. It buffets you with great thwacking blows; but without malice. He thumps you as though he loved you, with a jolly humour that makes you the sharer rather than the victim of his fun. The Birrellisms that he has scattered in his path are unlike any other blossoms of wit. You know them as you know the demure pleasantries of Holmes or the archaic solemnities of Lamb. " The House of Lords represent nobody but themselves, and they enjoy the full confidence of their constituents." Or, " a pension of five shillings a week is not much encouragement to longevity." Or of Mr. " Tim " Healey, " he loves everybody except his neighbour." His humour leaps out with a kind of lambent playfulness that makes you feel happy because it involves pain to none. " Are you going to punish people," he asked in a libel action before Mr. Justice Darling, simply for having a lively fancy? " " There wouldn't be many to punish," interposed Mr. Justice Darling, the licensed jester of the Bench. " I don't know," said Mr. Birrell, with that heavy gravity with which he loves to envelop his fun,—" I don't know that many judicial vacancies would be created, my lord." It is the summer lightning of a gracious sky luminous but kindly.
There is in him a touch of chivalry that borders on Quixotism, a generous and uncalculating spirit that makes him the leader of forlorn hopes. Who but he would have surrendered the security of West Fife in the midst of the khaki election to go out and fight North-East Manchester? It seemed like an act of political felo-de-se. It meant years of exclusion from Parliament, and possibly the wreck of his whole career. This disinterestedness, so rare in politics, was revealed in his acceptance of the Irish Secretary-ship. He had just borne the brunt of the battle at the Education Office, and was entitled to a period of pause and to any office that he chose to ask for. I am revealing no secret in saying that other men, more discreet, declined the most thankless task the Ministry has to offer. Mr. Birrell took it, and for the second time in succession became the centre of all the lightnings of the political sky, charged with a Bill which was not his conception and faced with the problem of cattle-driving. It is the highest tribute to his good sense and to his mingled firmness and reasonableness that he got through that ugly difficulty without disaster. It might have meant coercion, with all its calamitous consequences. It is that dread hanging over the Irish Secretary that must make the office a nightmare. For no Ministry and no Minister is safe from it. Convictions may be strong, but external rule must rest ultimately upon coercion. You cannot get rid of the danger until you have got rid of the system. Mr. Birrell knows that. There is only one remedy for Ireland," he says, and as he says it you recall Lincoln's axiom that God never made one people good enough to govern another people "—not even though the governing people were so virtuous as the English and the governed so imperfect as the Irish.
It is curious to recall that there was a time when Mr. Birrell was regarded as a possible leader of the Liberal party. That possibility soon disappeared when he was seen in office. He has none of the masterful grip of the House which Mr. Asquith possesses and none of the swiftness and subtlety of Mr. Lloyd George or Mr. Balfour. He wears harness uneasily, is apt to be brusque and impatient, to blurt out what is in his mind with a " take-it-or-leave-it " air, and to give the impression that he will see you hanged before he will do this, that or the other. With all his delightful humour, in short, he has little suaviter in modo and little skill in the management of men and situations.
The wear and tear of office have left their mark more visibly on him than on any other member of the Ministry. It is the price which the literary temperament has to pay for entering into the sphere of affairs. A literary man in office is like a fish out of water. His temperament is too nervous and apprehensive for the rough task of politics. He may create the atmosphere of politics, but it is the " rude mechanic fellows," to use Cromwell's phrase, the men of action, the men who can handle facts rather than ideas, and who are governed by mind rather than spirit, who are necessary for statesmanship. It is a significant fact that no essentially literary man has ever made a first-rate position in practical politics, and the succès d'estime of Mr. Birrell and Lord Morley does not surprise by its modesty, but by its relative magnitude. It is like a defiance of a natural law. And however boldly Mr. Birrell writes his name on the Statute Book, the real place to find his authentic signature will always be on the flyleaf of a merry book. " Would you return to the bar if the Government went out of office? " he was once asked. " When we are kicked out of office," he is said to have replied, " I shall retire with my modest savings to and really read Boswell." It is an enviable ambition. We may wish him a long evening for its fulfilment.