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  John Allsebrook Simon (1873–1954), by Bassano, 1931 John Allsebrook Simon (1873–1954), by Bassano, 1931
Simon, John Allsebrook, first Viscount Simon (1873–1954), politician and lawyer, was born on 28 February 1873 at 16 Yarburgh Street, a terraced house in Moss Side, Manchester, the only son and elder child of the Revd Edwin Simon (1843–1920) and his wife, Fanny Allsebrook (1846–1936). Edwin Simon, like three of his five brothers, was a Congregational minister, pastor of Zion Chapel in the Hulme district of Manchester. Fanny was the daughter of William Pole Allsebrook, a Worcestershire farmer, although she claimed descent from Margaret, countess of Salisbury, niece of Edward IV.

Education, the bar, and marriage

Simon was educated at kindergarten in Manchester until he moved to King Edward's School, Bath, where his father had become president of the Somerset Congregational Union. From there he won a scholarship to Fettes College in Edinburgh. At Fettes his outstanding intellectual ability first became apparent and in 1891 he secured an open scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where his contemporaries included F. E. Smith and C. B. Fry.

After a distinguished undergraduate career, crowned by a first in Greats and the presidency of the union, Simon was elected a fellow of All Souls in 1897. Thus began a connection which he would maintain to the end of his life and which became increasingly important to him in his later years. After coming down from Oxford at the end of 1898 he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple, where he was a pupil of A. J. Ram and then of Sir Reginald Acland. In court his strength lay in his ability to analyse and clarify issues of great complexity. His preferred style was to persuade a jury through logic and reason rather than oratory or histrionics. But, notwithstanding his undoubted legal talents, he never looked upon the law as more than a stepping-stone towards a career in politics.

On 24 May 1899 Simon married Ethel Mary Venables, daughter of Gilbert Venables, and the niece of the historian J. R. Green. She was a student when they met at Oxford, and became vice-principal of St Hugh's Hall. Two daughters were born in 1900 and 1901, but Mrs Simon died shortly after the birth of a son, Gilbert, in September 1902. It is difficult to exaggerate the impact this tragedy had upon the young lawyer. Even three years later he spent Christmas day walking aimlessly in France to try to escape from his sorrow. In time he recovered, to the extent that on 18 December 1917 he remarried. His second wife was Kathleen Manning (1863/4–1955) [see ], the widow of Thomas Manning, a Dublin doctor, and daughter of Francis Eugene Harvey. But in other respects the impact of this early bereavement was never erased. His natural shyness intensified, and he devoted himself with reinforced and sometimes obsessive commitment to his work.

Liberal lawyer

At least Simon's legal career prospered. In 1903 he acted for the British government in a complicated dispute concerning a boundary between Canada and Alaska, and he was made a KC in 1908. More importantly, he secured election to the House of Commons as member for Walthamstow in the Liberal landslide of January 1906. In parliament he rose rapidly, despite the amount of competition on the packed Liberal benches, and was appointed solicitor-general on 7 October 1910, with the customary knighthood. At thirty-seven he was the youngest holder of this office since the 1830s. In February 1911 he successfully conducted the prosecution of Edward Mylius for criminal libel, the defendant having published allegations that George V was a bigamist. Promoted to attorney-general with, unusually, a seat in the cabinet on 19 October 1913, he was widely seen as one of the rising stars of the Liberal government and was even spoken of as a possible successor to Herbert Asquith for the premiership.

The First World War, however, saw a distinct downturn in Simon's political prospects. Though he became home secretary at the formation of the first coalition on 25 May 1915, turning down an offer of the lord chancellorship since the resulting peerage would have curtailed any prospect of future political advance, he had accepted British involvement in the conflict with marked reluctance. For the first time both colleagues and opponents sensed the equivocation which became his trademark. His position within the government became increasingly uneasy, and he resigned in January 1916 over the introduction of conscription.

Simon, however, was no pacifist. His opposition to conscription was on the narrow but important principle of a man's right to decide for himself whether or not he fought for his country. Accordingly, in 1917 he served with distinction in the Royal Flying Corps, attached to General Trenchard's staff. He remained loyal to Asquith and opposed the Lloyd George coalition. Not surprisingly, he lost his parliamentary seat in the 1918 ‘coupon’ election, sharing the fate of the vast majority of independent Liberals, and Lloyd George successfully thwarted his attempt to return to the Commons at the Spen Valley by-election in 1919.

Post-war politics

Simon did manage to secure the Spen Valley seat at the general election of 1922 and soon became deputy leader of the Liberal Party. But that party was no longer the vehicle for political advancement which it had been before the First World War. Simon now seemed destined to play out the remainder of his political career confined to the ranks of permanent opposition. At the beginning of the 1920s he stood as the champion of independent Liberalism. But as the decade progressed he became increasingly disillusioned with the party's prospects. Simon's relations with Lloyd George remained poor, notwithstanding the apparent reunion of the warring Liberal factions for the general election of 1923. He found himself repeatedly at odds with Lloyd George over party tactics, particularly over the question of how Liberals should respond to the advent of Labour as a governing party. But it was Lloyd George rather than Simon who emerged as Liberal leader after Asquith's retirement in October 1926.

Increasingly, Simon was coming to see socialism as the ultimate political evil. Such thinking no doubt helped to prompt his famous declaration in the House of Commons on 6 May 1926 that the general strike was illegal. At the same time he recognized in the Conservative Party of Stanley Baldwin a reflection of some of the Liberal values which he continued to espouse. Yet while Lloyd George remained Liberal leader it seemed possible that Simon might withdraw from politics altogether. His legal career was at its peak and he was now the highest-paid barrister of his generation. In 1927 he accepted the government's invitation to chair a statutory commission on Indian constitutional development following the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms of 1919, and in 1930 he headed an inquiry into the R101 airship disaster. His Indian report was a classic of its kind, a lucid exposition of the problems of the subcontinent in all their complexity. But it was hamstrung by the government's terms of reference and was largely pre-empted by the declaration on dominion status made by the viceroy, Lord Irwin, in October 1929.

Foreign secretary in the National Government

The political and economic crises of the Labour government of 1929–31 opened up the possibility of a revival in Simon's career. The mounting problem of unemployment even compelled him to question his adherence to the traditional Liberal doctrine of free trade, thus facilitating a rapprochement with the Conservative Party. Frustrated by Lloyd George's refusal to put the minority Labour government out of office, Simon and about thirty Liberal supporters broke away to form the Liberal National group in June 1931 [see ]. Simon received his reward when appointed foreign secretary on 5 November in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. When members of the mainstream Liberal Party, now led by Herbert Samuel, withdrew their support from the government over the introduction of tariffs in 1932, going into formal opposition in November 1933, the breach in the historic Liberal Party became permanent. Critics have argued that Simon and his band of supporters now became prisoners of a government dominated by the Conservative Party, and that Liberal Nationals and Conservatives rapidly became indistinguishable. More charitably it may be suggested that the Liberal National grouping enabled Simon to sustain his political philosophy while accepting the electoral reality that the Liberal Party itself was no longer a serious aspirant for power.

Simon entered office in an atmosphere of considerable goodwill. When he moved to the Home Office in June 1935 his period as foreign secretary was almost universally condemned, even by his governmental colleagues, as a disaster. One wit judged him the worst foreign minister since Ethelred the Unready. But these were years in which it would have been difficult for any incumbent to have made a success of the Foreign Office. It was Simon's misfortune that his tenure witnessed the first major challenge to the authority of the League of Nations with the Japanese attack on Manchuria, the rise of Hitler to power in Germany, the collapse of the World Disarmament Conference of 1932–4, and the first stirrings of Italian aggression in Africa. All this was at a time when Britain's defence capability was at its lowest level in the whole inter-war period.

With hindsight the Manchurian episode took on a symbolic importance as a decisive first step in the process of appeasement which culminated at Munich seven years later. But this was not how it was seen at the time. None the less, the speech which Simon made to the league assembly on 7 December 1932, in which he declined to deliver an unqualified denunciation of Japan's conduct, was to haunt him for the rest of his days. He was always sceptical about the prospects for disarmament, but did put forward one of the conference's more constructive proposals, that for qualitative rather than quantitative disarmament. He showed no particular insight into the unique threat posed by Hitler, but the external menace inherent in the Nazi regime only became fully apparent after Simon had left the Foreign Office. That said, his ministry was characterized by indecision and hesitation. His complex mind could always see too many dimensions in any given problem to render decisions and action easy. Throughout his life he was always more confident in analysing situations than in drawing conclusions from his analysis.

Home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer

Simon's temperament was more suited to the Home Office, where he served between 7 June 1935 and 28 May 1937. There his legal skills enabled him to play an important behind-the-scenes role in handling the constitutional aspects of the abdication crisis of 1936. Within the ranks of the National Government his standing recovered considerably with the result that, when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister, Simon was promoted to be chancellor of the exchequer in Chamberlain's place. As chancellor he continued the management of the economy along the orthodox lines already laid down by his predecessor. Believing that a strong economy would represent the nation's ‘fourth arm of defence’ in any future war, he was careful to limit expenditure on rearmament. This policy now seems less culpable than it once did, but it meant that Simon would inevitably occupy a high place among those ‘guilty men’ who were held to have brought Britain to the brink of military disaster in May and June 1940. To his credit he led a group of cabinet ministers on the evening of 2 September 1939 in insisting to Chamberlain that there could be no further delay in Britain's declaration of war following the German invasion of Poland.

Lord chancellor

As a close colleague of Chamberlain and a leading advocate of the policy of appeasement, it was not surprising that Simon was excluded from the higher direction of the war effort when Churchill formed his government in May 1940. But his talents were too great to be dispensed with altogether. He now served with distinction for five years as lord chancellor, elevated to the woolsack (13 May 1940) as Viscount Simon of Stackpole Elidor, the small Pembrokeshire village from which his father's family hailed. In this position he was responsible for interrogating Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, after the latter's bizarre flight to England in May 1941. In his judicial capacity Simon was outstanding. Some of his judgments relating, inter alia, to the principles upon which damages as regards expectation of life should be calculated in cases of death by negligence and the principles upon which a jury should be directed in a murder case where there is a possible alternative defence of manslaughter, became landmarks in English law. Despite his own preferences it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the lord chancellorship was his rightful destiny, and that he was more successful as a lawyer than as a politician.

Assessment of career

Simon's ministerial career came to an end in July 1945 after the defeat of the Conservative Party in the general election. He remained, however, active in politics and the law in the House of Lords and the judicial committee of the privy council, and entertained hopes of being reappointed lord chancellor when Churchill formed his peacetime government in October 1951. The position went, however, to Lord Simonds. By this time Simon was seventy-eight years old, but still mentally and physically vigorous. He now regarded himself as for all practical purposes a Conservative, although Churchill firmly resisted his attempts formally to join the party. In his final years Simon completed a disappointingly uninformative volume of memoirs, Retrospect (1952). Of more lasting value was Simon's Income Tax, whose publication he supervised in 1948 and which became a standard text. But his most revealing piece was probably the short memoir of his mother, to whom he was devoted, which he had published in 1936, Portrait of my Mother, in which Simon revealed flashes of a softer, warmer personality than he usually displayed in public.

Simon's array of high offices in a career at or near the top of British public life of more than thirty years marks him out as a figure of distinction. He was appointed KCVO in 1911 (for his defence of George V in the libel case), GCSI in 1930, and GCVO in 1937. In 1948 he succeeded Lord Sankey in the honorific post of high steward of the University of Oxford. His great intellect was matched by a distinguished appearance. Tall, slim, athletically built, with graceful limbs and sensitive hands, he had, judged one contemporary, ‘the most remarkable head in London’ (Leslie Hore-Belisha in the Evening Standard, 27 Nov 1924). A fine portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly of Simon in the robes of the chancellor of the exchequer hangs at the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place. Yet it remains difficult to assess his career, at least as a politician, without a strong feeling of failure and disappointment. His career peaked in the 1930s, a decade which damaged, often beyond repair, the historical reputation of many British ministers. But the failure surrounding Simon reflects also his inability to secure the affection or even respect of most of his contemporaries. Many indeed made a point of recording their dislike of him. ‘I am always trying to like him’, stressed Neville Chamberlain, ‘and believing I shall succeed when something crops up to put me off’ (Chamberlain to Lord Irwin, 12 Aug 1928, Irwin MSS, MS Eur. C/152/18). Throughout his career he had difficulty in convincing others of his sincerity, the consequence perhaps of the facility with which the lawyer–politician became the advocate of the cause which it fell to him to champion at any given moment. For this reason he was always a more effective speaker in the courts of law than in parliament.

Simon knew that his manner tended to alienate others, but seemed incapable of doing anything about it. His outstanding intellect was in one sense his most notable attribute. But it could also be a considerable handicap, since he found it difficult to strike up an easy relationship with those possessed of more commonplace minds. Some sign of human frailty might have made him a more congenial colleague. As it was, Simon remained, as Asquith styled him, ‘the Impeccable’. His ability to see all sides of a complicated question easily degenerated into an irritating inability to make up his mind. As the cartoonist David Low explained: ‘I sometimes draw him with a sinuous writhing body because that conveys more or less his disposition to subtle compromise’ (D. Low, Ye Madde Designer, 1935, 55). Yet Simon's unctuous attempts to ingratiate himself probably reflected the efforts of a lonely and insecure man to compensate for his innate shyness.

Simon suffered a stroke during the Christmas recess of 1953, and died in the Westminster Hospital, London, on 11 January 1954. Despite his upbringing as a son of the manse he lacked religious faith and, following his own instructions, was cremated in his Oxford robes without religious ceremony. His second wife survived him.

D. J. Dutton

Sources  

D. Dutton, Simon: a political biography of Sir John Simon (1992) · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Simon · R. F. V. Heuston, Lives of the lord chancellors, 1940–1970 (1987) · C. E. B. Roberts, Sir John Simon (1938) · E. B. Segal, ‘Sir John Simon and British foreign policy: the diplomacy of disarmament in the early 1930s’, PhD diss., U. Cal., Berkeley, 1969 · [J. A. Simon, first Viscount Simon], Retrospect: the memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Viscount Simon (1952) · R. Bassett, Democracy and foreign policy (1968) · The Times (12 Jan 1954) · N. Rostow, Anglo-French relations, 1934–36 (1984) · D. J. Dutton, ‘John Simon and the post-war national liberal party: an historical postscript’, HJ, 32 (1989), 357–67 · R. Jenkins, ‘Sir John Simon’, The chancellors (1998), 365–92 · G. D. Goodlad, ‘The liberal nationals, 1931–1940: the problems of a party in “partnership government”’, HJ, 38 (1995), 133–43 · private information (2004) · corresp. with Lord Halifax, BL OIOC, MS Eur. C 152/18

Archives  

BL OIOC, corresp., evidence, and papers as chairman of Indian statutory commission, MS Eur. F 77 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp., diaries, and papers · NRA, priv. coll., MSS including scrapbooks, visitors' books, photographs · TNA: PRO, foreign office corresp, FO 800/285–291 |  All Souls Oxf., letters to Sir William Anson · BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51082 · BL, letters to Lord Gladstone, Add. MSS 46062–46085 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Halifax, MS Eur. C 152 · BL OIOC, Reading MSS · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., letters to A. L. Goodhart · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Lord Lugard · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Eric Phipps · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian · Lpool RO, corresp. with seventeenth earl of Derby · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with H. Samuel · PRONI, corresp. with Edward Carson · U. Birm., Avon MSS · U. Birm., Neville Chamberlain MSS · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, recorded talk [Britain under National Government] · BFINA, news footage · BFINA, propaganda film footage

 

SOUND

 

BFINA, news footage


Likenesses  

F. Dicksee, line print, 1922, NPG · G. Kelly, oils, c.1924, Wadham College, Oxford · Bassano, photograph, 1931, NPG [see illus.] · M. Beerbohm, caricature drawing, 1932, All Souls Oxf. · O. Birley, oils, 1933, lord chancellor's office, London · O. Birley, oils, 1933, Inner Temple, London · D. Low, pencil drawing, before 1933, NPG · H. Coster, photograph, c.1935, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1937, NPG · G. Kelly, oils, 1938, National Liberal Club, London · F. O. Salisbury, portrait, c.1945–1946, judicial committee of the privy council, Downing Street, London · C. Beaton, photograph, NPG · E. I. Halliday, pencil drawing, priv. coll. · K. Kennet, bust, All Souls Oxf. · K. Kennet, bust, Fettes College, Edinburgh · P. A. de Laszlo, portrait, All Souls Oxf. · WH [W. Hester], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (18 Oct 1911)

Wealth at death  

£93,006 12s. 0d.: probate, 12 Feb 1954, CGPLA Eng. & Wales