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Margesson, (Henry) David Reginald, first Viscount Margesson (1890–1965), politician, was born in London on 26 July 1890, the third of the five children and the elder son of Sir Mortimer Reginald Margesson (1861–1947), private secretary to the earl of Plymouth, and his wife, Isabel Augusta Hobart-Hampden (d. 1946), daughter of Frederick John Hobart-Hampden, Lord Hobart, and granddaughter of the sixth earl of Buckinghamshire. He was brought up in Worcestershire and was educated at Harrow School (1904–7) and then at Magdalene College, Cambridge, though he left without taking a degree and decided to travel, and seek his fortune, in the USA.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Margesson volunteered and joined the Worcestershire yeomanry. In November 1914 he was commissioned, and he served with the 11th hussars for the remainder of the war, experiencing trench warfare on the western front. He became adjutant within two years and won the MC for ‘helping to pull the line together’ (DNB). He retired with the rank of captain in 1919.

On 29 April 1916 Margesson married Frances Leggett, the only child and heir of Francis Howard Leggett, a wealthy New York wholesale provision merchant, whose wife was a friend of the Margesson family. They had two daughters and a son. Later they became estranged and lived separate lives before obtaining a divorce in 1940; but after the First World War they lived the life of a squire and his lady in Worcestershire. Yet the round of rural sports and village good works soon palled, and Margesson was recruited by Lord Lee of Fareham as a Conservative candidate in the general election of 1922, winning the Upton division of West Ham. He soon made his maiden speech (which turned out also to be his last from the back benches), seconding the address—a signal honour for a new MP—and was appointed parliamentary private secretary to the minister of labour, Sir Clement Anderson Barlow. It was a propitious start to his parliamentary career, but one cut short by defeat in the general election of 1923.

Government chief whip

Yet Margesson's career suffered only a brief hiatus. He had attracted the attention of the Conservative leader, and fellow Old Harrovian, Stanley Baldwin, and of his chief whip, B. M. Eyres-Monsell, both of whom were Worcestershire men. Hence he was found a safe seat, Rugby, and was duly returned to parliament in the election of 1924 which unseated the first Labour government. He remained MP for Rugby until 1942. He entered the whips' office, at first as a junior whip, and was a junior lord of the Treasury from 1926 to 1929. Then, after his apprenticeship under Eyres-Monsell and at the relatively early age of forty-one, he became chief whip in the National Government, in November 1931, following the general election. He held the position until December 1940. As chief whip he was one of the most powerful political figures in Britain, even if the power was exercised unobtrusively. Baldwin judged him to be ‘first rate’ (Jones, 228), while Lloyd George considered him the most efficient chief whip he had known (Cato, 92). In 1933 he was sworn of the privy council.

Margesson, who devoted himself to his work in the Commons as his marriage broke down, served as chief whip to four successive prime ministers: MacDonald, with whom relations were distant and whose resignation he was anxious to secure in 1934–5, even going so far as to tell MacDonald that by-election results were so poor because ‘the country was tired of its leaders’ (Channon, 137); Baldwin, whose confidant he was; Chamberlain, with whose policies he became identified; and Churchill. Over this period he developed a reputation as a formidably strict disciplinarian. A junior whip judged that he could ‘put the fear of God into new Members’ and that he was ‘a real dictator’, powers enhanced by his tall, imposing figure and habitual garb of immaculate black morning coat with black and white checked trousers (Harvie-Watt, 31, 133). Critics said he was a man who ‘never forgives nor forgets’ those who crossed him (Nicolson, 43). His authority was enhanced by his influence over ministerial appointments. Certainly under Chamberlain he was said to share with Sir Horace Wilson ‘a commanding influence on political appointments’ (Colville, 36–7). Those not in his favour tended to judge that he was swayed too much by the ‘old school tie’ and the wealth of prospective appointees and that he was unduly brusque (Headlam Diaries, 240): indeed he elevated ‘obedience over ability’, so that the tory front benches by the end of the decade were full of yes-men (Nicolson, 71). It is also said that he clamped down on opposition, thus causing it to become magnified, rather than detailing back-bench concerns to the prime minister.

Yet Margesson's image as a martinet is one-sided. Certainly Harold Macmillan, who as a back-bench critic of the National Government's unemployment strategy fell foul of the chief whip several times, judged that he ruled the party by ‘charm’ as well as ‘military discipline’ (H. Macmillan, Winds of Change, 1966, 401); and a civil servant found him attractively extrovert—‘certainly an unusually agreeable man’ (Colville, 71). One going to see him for the first time, aware of his reputation as a strict disciplinarian with the qualities of an admirable school prefect, was pleasantly surprised: ‘He bade me sit down, he was friendly, charming, attentive. He completed his inquisition, to which I replied to the best of my ability. He was appreciative … We chatted in easy sympathy’ (Mallaby, 89).

Despite large victories for the government in the elections of 1931 and 1935, Margesson needed all his powers of persuasion, coercion, and efficient organization to minimize back-bench revolts and secure government majorities during this decade of crisis and controversy. One source of friction was the premiership of Ramsay MacDonald, the former Labour statesman whose powers were evidently failing from late 1933; another was the gargantuan Government of India Bill, which saw Margesson battling against Churchill's formidable powers of obstruction. In the controversy over the Hoare–Laval plan in 1935 Margesson and Baldwin managed to forestall their critics at the cost of the foreign secretary's resignation, and both emerged successfully from the abdication crisis, Beaverbrook judging, somewhat melodramatically perhaps, that the chief whip had thwarted his efforts to retain Edward VIII as monarch. But it was the issue of appeasement which, more than any other, had tarnished Margesson's image by 1940.

Appeasement and the fall of Chamberlain

After the formation of Churchill's government in May 1940 Margesson was seen by many as a ‘man of Munich’. He received a whole chapter in Cato's Guilty Men, published in July 1940 [see ]. Yet, unknown to his critics, Margesson had pressed for Churchill's entry to the cabinet in May 1937 and thereafter. In addition, he insisted that he had often warned the government ‘to modify its intentions because of feeling in the House’ (Colville, 298). But he also had to do his job, and as efficiently as possible—and it was a difficult job because, as he confided to Baldwin, by autumn 1939 Chamberlain ‘engendered personal dislike among his opponents to an extent almost unbelievable’ (G. R. Searle, Country before Party, 1995, 188). That few sensed any difference of opinion between the prime minister and his chief whip is testimony to the skill and determination with which the formidable chief whip performed his tasks.

Margesson was aware, by the beginning of May 1940, that trouble was brewing for the government. Before the debate on the Norwegian campaign he told a sympathetic back-bencher that ‘we are on the eve of the greatest political crisis since August 1931’ (Channon, 244). This awareness did not stop him deploying all his energies to secure a government majority. Brandishing the carrot and the stick, he intimated that there would soon be changes in government personnel and imposed a three-line whip. When, on 8 May, over thirty Conservatives voted against the government and more than sixty abstained, Margesson gave vent to his pent-up feeling with a string of expletives, for instance describing one young rebel as ‘a contemptible little shit’ (Jenkins, 583). He now knew that Chamberlain could not survive.

At a fateful meeting on 9 May 1940 with Chamberlain, Halifax, and Churchill, Margesson insisted that unity was essential and that it could not come about under Chamberlain. According to Halifax, he did not ‘pronounce very definitely between Winston and myself’ (Earl of Birkenhead, Halifax, 1965, 454). The choice fell on Churchill. But would he now dispense with the chief whip's services? Many thought he should, but Churchill gave the critics short shrift:
Even during the bitterest times I have always had very good personal relations with Margesson, and knowing what his duties were I never had any serious occasion to complain … I have long had a very high opinion of Margesson's administrative and executive abilities. (M. Gilbert, Finest Hour: Winston S. Churchill, 1939–1941, 1989, 918)
Churchill offered him a secretaryship of state, but when he declined, retained his services as chief whip. One of Margesson's first duties was to co-operate with Brendan Bracken in filling junior positions in the new government.

War Office and peerage

The relative eclipse of the House of Commons during the war, however, meant that Margesson's abilities were not fully utilized as chief whip, even when he was also a member of the palace of Westminster Home Guard. Hence he was able to advise that thought should be devoted to reconstruction so that ‘we don't leave it to the Labour people to do all the thinking and planning’ (Addison, 361). Churchill appointed him secretary of state for war in December 1940. He made a good start in his first department. He read out his speeches ‘with a good voice and delivery’ (Headlam Diaries, 242) and struck an informed observer as ‘keen and energetic’ as well as ambitious and interested (Alanbrooke War Diaries, 132). He established very good relations with chief of Imperial General Staff Sir John Dill. Yet Leo Amery, calling the War Office ‘that home of inertia and circumlocution’, judged that Margesson ‘always fell back on his officials’ (Amery Diaries, 778). Certainly he had little impact on grand strategy, and his opposition to the invasion of Greece in March 1941 had no impact whatsoever on Churchill's policy. Hence when a resignation was needed after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Margesson was told by his replacement as chief whip, James Stuart, that he had to go.

Margesson's resignation, and that of Moore-Brabazon from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, paved the way for Sir Stafford Cripps to enter the government, as indeed Margesson had recommended. Yet his departure was undoubtedly a personal blow which he felt deeply. He is reputed to have given a deliberately unhelpful nomination as his successor at the War Office, the civil servant Sir James Grigg, in an attempt to stave off departure—and to have been astounded when it was accepted. ‘This is the last time I recommend anyone for anything’, he later lamented (D. Irving, Churchill's War: Triumph in Adversity, 2001, 338–9). Few believed that Margesson had merited his dismissal, and according to a partial observer a ‘wave of indignation has swept over London at the dropping of David’ (Channon, 323), though equally few thought his removal would weaken the government. He was made Viscount Margesson of Rugby in April 1942, an elevation which softened the blow.

Thereafter Margesson's political involvement was minimal. He attended the Lords but did not make a speech. He also turned down Churchill's personal offer of the chairmanship of the Conservative Party in October 1944. He might have accepted office in 1945, and he certainly expected a victory for Churchill: he judged Churchill's ‘Gestapo’ broadcast of 4 June to be ‘a beauty’ (M. Gilbert, Never Despair: Winston S. Churchill, 1945–1965, 1990) and predicted a Conservative majority of about 100 (Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survival, 1940–1965, 1968, 285). But Labour's victory seems to have ended his ambitions. Nor did he write his memoirs. His energies were taken up in the City, as a director of the General Electric Company and of Martin's Bank. He was also reputed to be an adept manager ‘no longer for prime ministers but for his friends’ (DNB). He died on 24 December 1965 on an annual visit to Nassau in the Bahamas. He was survived by his three children, his son succeeding him as second viscount.

Robert Pearce

Sources  

DNB · The Times (28 Dec 1965) · The Times (30 Dec 1965) · The Times (5 Jan 1966) · H. Channon, ‘Chips’: the diaries of Sir Henry Channon, ed. R. Rhodes James (1993) · G. S. Harvie-Watt, Most of my life (1980) · J. Colville, The fringes of power: Downing Street diaries, 1939–1955 (1985) · G. Mallaby, From my level: unwritten minutes (1965) · Parliament and politics in the age of Churchill and Attlee: the Headlam diaries, 1935–1951, ed. S. Ball, CS, 5th ser., 14 (1999) · T. Jones, A diary with letters, 1931–1950 (1954) · The empire at bay: the Leo Amery diaries, 1929–1945, ed. J. Barnes and D. Nicholson (1988) · Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke: war diaries, 1939–45, ed. A. Danchev and D. Todman (2001) · R. Jenkins, Churchill (2001) · H. Nicolson, Diaries and letters, 1939–45 (1970) · P. Addison, Churchill on the home front, 1900–1955 (1992) · Cato, Guilty men (1940) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1966)

Archives  

CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO, private office papers, WO 259 |  CAC Cam., corresp. with E. L. Spears · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1930, NPG · two photographs, c.1945, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£84,279: probate, 21 March 1966, CGPLA Eng. & Wales