Edwin Montagu, 1879-1924

Few of the young men swept into Parliament by the Liberal landslide in 1906 endured as meteoric a rise and fall as Montagu. By the age of thirty-eight he was Secretary of State for India, introducing sweeping reforms to the government of the subcontinent. Yet he was forced to resign in 1922 after a bitter Cabinet dispute and he died a disappointed man only two years later.

Edwin Samuel Montagu was born on 6 February 1879 in London, the second son of Samuel Montagu, later the first Lord Swaythling. Swaythling was a prominent financier, a staunchly Orthodox Jew and a Liberal MP for fifteen years. His son was sympathetic only to the last of these activities. Montagu was educated at Clifton College, the City of London School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became President of the Union and developed political ambitions. An allowance from his father enabled Montagu to become a full-time politician and in 1904 he was selected by the local Liberals to fight Cambridgeshire Chesterton. He won the seat in 1906 and held it until 1918, when he became MP for the unified Cambridgeshire constituency.

Montagu was attracted to the Liberal Imperialist strand of thought in the party and had caught the eye of one of its leaders, H. H. Asquith, while still at Cambridge. Asquith became his mentor and his friend, making Montagu one of his private secretaries in 1906, and in 1910 promoting him to the post of Under-Secretary of State for India. Unusually, Montagu actually visited India in 1912-13 and soon came to regard himself as an expert on Indian affairs. It was not until February 1914 that Montagu started to move out of Asquith’s orbit. In that month he became Financial Secretary to the Treasury, working under David Lloyd George, the Cabinet’s other commanding figure. In February 1915 he entered the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

However, when the coalition government was formed in May 1915, Montagu, as the most recent recruit, was left out of the Cabinet and went back to his post as Financial Secretary. But his work at the Treasury was highly regarded and he returned to the Cabinet in January 1916, succeeding Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions in July of that year. In that post he came to share his predecessor’s views about the necessity for the direction of industrial labour and to drift further away from Asquith. He attempted, without success, to mediate between his old chief and Lloyd George during the crisis of December 1916, when he found his loyalties severely torn. He would have liked to have accepted a post under Lloyd George, had he not felt obliged to follow the rest of his Liberal colleagues out of office on Asquith’s resignation.

In June 1917, though, Lloyd George offered Montagu the Secretaryship of State for India, after a long mutual courtship. This was too attractive an offer to turn down and Montagu accepted. He had strong views that a further round of reform was inevitable in the government of India. The First World War had produced intense strains in the Raj. Its response to such situations since the late nineteenth century had been to give Indians a bigger role in local and provincial government, so separating moderates from extremists, while preserving British rule at the centre. Montagu believed this process should be taken a step further and coupled this plan with a declaration that Britain’s ultimate goal was Indian self-government. However, this was to be in the far-distant future and Montagu’s reforms were meant to swing India behind the war effort and quieten unrest for the next decade or so. His intentions were embodied in the 1919 Government of India Act, planned after a lengthy visit to India in 1917-18.

However, the Act seemed initially to stimulate violent protests, rather than produce calm. Montagu urged the Indian government to moderation in its response and wished for a stronger condemnation of General Dyer for his massacre of demonstrators at Amritsar in 1919.

His attitude was fiercely criticised by Tory diehards in a bad-tempered Commons debate in July 1920, but by 1922 the situation in India was quiet and remained so until the late 1920s, seeming to vindicate Montagu’s approach. In domestic politics Montagu consistently urged the coalition Cabinet in the direction of social reform. He also took a strong interest in foreign policy – a field in which he claimed an independent voice as the representative of India. In particular, he insisted the government should not provoke Indian Muslim opinion by partitioning Turkey, the only Muslim power and seat of the Caliphate.

The latter issue was Montagu’s undoing. In March 1922 he authorised the publication of a message from the Viceroy, setting out India’s wish to revise the Treaty of Sevres that had been imposed on Turkey in 1920. This severely embarrassed the Foreign Secretary in the middle of negotiations on this subject. Montagu had already challenged Cabinet policy in Egypt and Kenya and Lloyd George was finding him an increasingly obstreperous colleague. He took the opportunity to force him to resign. Montagu was devastated and vigorously denounced Lloyd George as a quasi-dictator in a speech to his constituents. But his career was over, and when he lost his seat in the 1922 election he retired from politics, an embittered man. He took a number of jobs in the City and died in London on 15 November 1924.

Montagu married in 1915 Venetia Stanley, daughter of the Liberal landowner and politician, Lord Sheffield. They had one daughter, Judy. Asquith had been in love with Venetia – probably a factor in his estrangement from Montagu. She edited Montagu’s An Indian Diary (1930). There is a biography by S. D. Waley, Edwin Montagu: a Memoir (Bombay, 1964).


At the time of writing this piece, Ian Packer was a Visiting Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast. He has published a number of articles on the Edwardian Liberal Party, and a biography of Lloyd George.