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Young, (Edward) Hilton, first Baron Kennet (1879–1960), politician and writer, was born in London on 20 March 1879, the fourth child and third son of , and his wife, Alice Eacy, née Kennedy (d. 1922), widow of Sir Alexander Lawrence. His childhood was darkened by the death of a beloved sister, Eacy, and lightened by a family printing press on which his picaresque novel, The Count, was printed when he was nine. In 1893 he went to Eton College, where he joined the army class, then the only way to study science, and became its captain. After a short time studying chemistry under William Ramsay at University College, London, he went in 1897 to Trinity College, Cambridge, whence he emerged in 1900 as president of the Union, editor of the Cambridge Review, and with a first in natural sciences. His friends were G. M. Trevelyan, E. M. Forster, and the circle which later became known as Bloomsbury. It was to him that Bloomsbury turned in 1914 for evidence that their pacifism antedated the war.

Having left chemistry for law Young was called by the Inner Temple in 1904. He held a few briefs, but it did not take. After a short period studying international law at the University of Freiburg he found a truer line of progress as a writer and journalist about finance and as a Liberal Party worker. He was assistant editor of The Economist from 1908 to 1910, and organized free trade unions in Yorkshire and the City of London. In 1910 he became City editor of the Morning Post and London correspondent of the New York Times financial supplement. In 1912 he published Foreign Companies and other Corporations, and in 1915 The System of National Finance which, reissued in 1924 and 1936, remained the standard textbook until 1939.

Young joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1914. His war service was varied, including spells with the Grand Fleet, with the naval mission to the Serbian army on the Danube and its evacuation to Corfu, with light cruisers on the Harwich station, and with naval siege guns ashore on the Belgian beach at Nieuport les Bains. For this last he was awarded the DSC and the Croix de Guerre. In 1918 he volunteered for the blocking of Zeebrugge and, serving in the Vindictive, commanded a gun turret until his right arm was wounded; it was later amputated. From this battle he acquired a bar to his DSC, forty years of intermittent pain, and the beautiful half-uncial script he learned to write with his left hand. When he had recovered he volunteered for service in Russia, where he found himself in command of an armoured train fighting a war of head-on confrontation with Bolshevik trains coming up from Vologda. For this he was appointed to the DSO. In 1920 he published a book of war memoirs, By Sea and Land, which traces his movement from a not deeply considered patriotism to the constructive internationalism which later sent him as a national delegate to the League of Nations.

Twice before the war Young had stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a Liberal; in 1915 he had been returned unopposed in his absence at a by-election in Norwich. At the 1918 general election he was returned as a ‘free Liberal’, but soon threw in his lot with Lloyd George. He gained the ear of the House of Commons with speeches mainly on finance, and became financial secretary to the Treasury in 1921. After the election of 1922 he became chief whip of the Lloyd George Liberals, was sworn of the privy council, and regulated the disordered finances of his party. He lost his seat in 1923 but regained it in 1924.

Socialism he would not have, and when in 1926 Lloyd George propounded a land policy which he thought socialistic, Hilton Young left the Liberals and became an independent. At the time of the general strike, believing that socialism and direct action could be effectively met only by a single party, and that this could never again be the Liberal Party, he joined the Conservatives. By agreement with his constituents he kept his seat until the general election in 1929, and was then returned for the Sevenoaks division of Kent, which he held until 1935. He was appointed GBE in 1927.

During the Labour government of 1929–31 Young attended the Conservative shadow cabinet and attained a leading position in debate in the house. He was also general editor of a group of journals, of which the Financial News was the chief. In 1931 he became minister of health in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. His main job was slum clearance and rehousing. His policy was to confine subsidies to clearance, thereby encouraging local authorities to attack that vigorously, while stimulating private builders to provide new houses by releasing them from subsidized competition. The policy produced unprecedented progress with both clearing and building. But it was unpopular with the left because of its emphasis on the private builder, and alienated important interests on the right because it did not compensate slum landlords. ‘You do not’, he said, ‘compensate the butcher for selling fly-blown meat when it is seized.’ Young was responsible for the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932, the first to apply to all ‘developable’ land, and for a Housing Act (1935) which was the first to lay down standards of accommodation and provide for their enforcement.

When Ramsay MacDonald resigned in 1935, Hilton Young accepted a peerage as Lord Kennet of the Dene and took no further part in politics. The name Kennet was taken from the river by which he had a cottage in Wiltshire.

The unusual breadth of Kennet's early training—science, law, finance, and journalism, as well as politics—had made him a valuable negotiator and committee chairman. He was British representative at The Hague conference on credits for the Soviet Union in 1922, and a member of the British delegation to the League of Nations assemblies in 1926, 1927, 1928, and 1932: a natural fruit of his thinking about war. He headed a British mission to Poland (1923–5) which laid the foundation of a balanced budget and got the złoty through some of its early difficulties. He did much the same for Iraq in 1925 and 1930, designing the Iraqi currency and chairing the Iraq currency board in London for many years. In 1925–6 he chaired the royal commission on Indian finance, which stabilized the rupee and drew up the constitution of the Indian Reserve Bank. In 1928 he chaired a mission to east Africa which advised on the closer union of the British territories there, drawing up a plan which was partially adopted over the years.

At home Kennet chaired the 1925 departmental committee on the constitution of the University of London, and was the first lay member (for the crown) of the General Medical Council (1926–31). He refused appointments which would have entailed his leaving parliament.

During the Second World War, Kennet chaired the joint committees of the Treasury and the Ministry of Labour which administered the exemption from military service of civil servants, workers in financial institutions, and university teachers. From 1939 to 1959 he chaired the Capital Issues Committee, which administered the control of investment throughout the economy. For all this work he accepted no payment, public or private, and it was his practice to write his own reports.

At different times Kennet was also chairman and director of many commercial and financial corporations, among them English Electric, Hudson's Bay, Denny Mott and Dickson, Union Discount, British Bank of the Middle East, and Equity and Law Life Assurance. After 1935 his working life was passed mainly in the City, where he was known as a specialist in reordering the finances of companies standing in need of it. His varied presidencies included the Royal Statistical Society, the Association of Technical Institutions, the Poetry Society, the Gas Federation of Great Britain, the Association of Municipal Corporations, and the National Association of Youth Clubs.

Kennet's leisure interests were old books, which he collected—principally Venetian incunabula and first editions of the English philosophers—and birds, about which he published a book of essays, A Bird in the Bush (1936), illustrated by his stepson . He also published a book of verse, A Muse at Sea (1919), reprinted with additions as Verses in 1935. One became an anthology piece: ‘A boy was born at Bethlehem’. He was an enthusiastic small-boat sailor until his sixtieth year, sailing single-handed in a stricter sense of the word than is usual, and a good swimmer and diver. He was a spirited draughtsman, usually for political or didactic purposes. All the special skills required to maintain an active physical life with one arm he carefully learned and maintained.

Kennet was of compact build and average height, handsome in youth, with curly dark hair and straight nose, alert and courteous in white-haired age. He was on affable terms with his eldest brother, Sir George Young, fourth baronet (1872–1952), the eccentric diplomat and historian of Turkish law, and on terms of affection with his next brother, , the mountaineer and writer.

Kennet was brought up in a rather rigid broad-church family but, under the influence of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell at Cambridge, abandoned Christianity for an aesthetically flavoured humanism. Face to face with death in 1914 he felt the need for a stricter system, and studied Spinoza among shellbursts. He remained a Spinozan pantheist until his death. Towards the end of his life he wrote essays for private circulation, tracing this philosophical development and examining the defects of democracy in general and the House of Commons in particular. He held that the chief threat to the welfare of a community comes from the excesses of extremists both left and right, and that it is the duty of rulers to counteract them by leaning right or left as the times require. Spinoza was his philosopher; ‘Trimmer’ Halifax his statesman.

Kennet was at home in scholarship, in administration, and in debate, but never in party politics. These he held in contempt, and it showed. A reserved manner and a certain caustic integrity prevented his achieving the highest political offices. He had a measure of the brilliant contrariety characteristic of his family, but balanced it with a genial empiricism of his own. He called himself a jack of all trades: his admirers called him an uomo universale.

In 1922 Young married , the sculptor. Although entered into late in life, the marriage was singularly successful, their temperaments being nicely complementary: hers passionate and intuitive; his quizzical and rather reserved. He died at his home, The Lacket, Lockeridge, in Wiltshire on 11 July 1960, and was buried at Overton parish church, near Marlborough.

His only child, Wayland Hilton Young, second Baron Kennet (1923–2009), politician, was born on 2 August 1923 at 174 Buckingham Palace Road, Victoria, London. He was educated at Stowe School and Trinity College, Cambridge. His undergraduate career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with the Royal Navy from 1942 to 1945. After the war he completed his degree, served in the Foreign Office, and worked as a journalist, including as correspondent in Rome and north Africa for The Observer (1953–4), theatre critic for Tribune (1957–8), and a columnist for The Guardian (1959–64). On 24 January 1948 he married Elizabeth Ann Adams (b. 1923), author (as Elizabeth Young), and daughter of Bryan Fullerton Adams, naval officer. They had five daughters and a son. A Labour supporter and a keen internationalist, he served, after succeeding his father as Lord Kennet, as a delegate to the parliamentary assemblies of the Western European Union and the Council of Europe (1962–5), and much later as a nominated member of the European parliament (1978–9) and the North Atlantic Assembly (1997–9). He also served as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (1966–70) and opposition spokesman on foreign affairs and science policy (1971–4). He wrote a number of books advocating international arms control but was opposed to the unilateral disarmament movement, and it was in part the ascendancy of unilateralists within the Labour Party and in part the party's anti-European turn which led to his defecting to the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. He served as first SDP chief whip in the House of Lords (1981–3), and first SDP spokesman in the Lords on foreign affairs and defence (1981–90). In 1982 he edited The Rebirth of Britain, the most convincing statement of the SDP's intellectual case. When the bulk of the SDP merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 he declined to follow, and he later returned to the Labour Party, on the grounds that it had returned to social democratic principles; but he was a constant critic of Tony Blair's foreign policy and found no preferment within the party (and indeed was not one of the hereditary peers slated either for election back into the House of Lords or for appointment also as a life peer). He was involved in numerous organizations, especially those relating to architecture, environmental issues, and the heritage of Wiltshire. He was the author of some seventeen books (some with his wife, Elizabeth); perhaps his best known was The Profumo Affair (1963), though there were also weightier books on Italian culture and politics, arms control, and architecture. He divided his life between his inherited properties in Lockeridge, Wiltshire, and 100 Bayswater Road, London, where J. M. Barrie had written Peter Pan. He died on 7 May 2009 at St Mary's Hospital, Westminster, of pneumonia and heart failure, and was survived by his wife and their six children.

Wayland Kennet, rev. Alex May

Sources  

E. Hilton Young, By sea and land (1924) · personal knowledge (2004) · family papers, including autobiographical notes, CUL · gravestone, Overton parish church, Wiltshire · The Times (10 May 2009); (18 May 2009) · Daily Telegraph (12 May 2009) · The Guardian (12 May 2009); (14 May 2009); (22 May 2009) · The Independent (12 May 2009) · Wiltshire Gazette (21 May 2009) · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · b. cert. [W. Young] · d. cert. [W. Young]

Archives  

CUL, papers |  BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52729 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Montgomery Crook · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sidgwick & Jackson · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with C. W. G. Walker · Bodl. RH, corresp. with C. W. G. Walker · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · CUL, letters to Stanley Baldwin and others; corresp with Sir Peter Markham Scott · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · Parl. Arch., corresp. with David Lloyd George  

FILM

 

priv. coll., film


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, three photographs, 1919–43, NPG · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1924, NPG · T. Cottrell, print, NPG · D. Low, pencil caricature, NPG · K. Scott, statuette; known to be in possession of Wayland Young, in 1971 · P. Scott, portrait; known to be in possession of Wayland Young, in 1971 · obituary photographs (Wayland Hilton Young)

Wealth at death  

£23,266 4s. 9d.: probate, 29 Sept 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £2,266,267—Wayland Young: probate, 9 Dec 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales