Herbert Samuel was a leading figure in the Liberal Party for over fifty years, from its zenith before the First World War to the nadir of its fortunes in the mid-1950s. With Sinclair , he was the last independent Liberal to serve in the Cabinet. A respected statesman, formidable mediator and administrator, and notable political thinker, his period as Liberal leader from November 1931 to November 1935 was one of calamitous decline for the party.
Herbert Samuel Samuel was born on 6 November 1870 in Liverpool, youngest son of Edwin and Clara (ne Yates) Samuel, whose families – Ashkenazi Jews from what is today western Poland – emigrated to England in the late eighteenth century. The family made its fortune in the international banking boom of the 1850s and 1860s in which his uncle Samuel Montagu, Herbert’s guardian from 1877, was one of the most successful figures. Samuel was thus born into the secure Victorian haute bourgeoisie and was able to devote himself to politics, philosophy and travel, untroubled by the need to establish a career and earn a living. Samuel rejected his family’s orthodox Judaism at the age of about twenty. He maintained his links with the Jewish community and in later life became one of its respected figures, but his religious ideas were tempered by a rationalist, scientific humanism.
He was educated at the progressive University College School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a first. His commitment to Liberal politics and social reform began early, inspired by campaigns in Whitechapel for his uncle Montagu, the local Radical MP and his brother Stuart, a member of London County Council and later an MP. While at Balliol he was selected as candidate for South Oxfordshire, which he contested and narrowly lost at both the 1895 and 1900 general elections. During this period he was also closely involved in building up the Liberal Party organisation in the Home Counties and nationally. In 1897 he married his first cousin, Beatrice Franklin, who became active in Liberal politics and served on the executive of the Womens’ Liberal Federation. They had three sons and one daughter.
Samuel was firmly on the left of the party, immersing himself in the problems of urban and rural poverty, actively supporting the 1889 dock strike and associating closely with the Fabians, particularly the Webbs and Graham Wallas. He was prominent, with Ramsay MacDonald, in the Rainbow Circle of Liberals and socialists. Samuel rejected laissez-faire liberalism and took advanced positions on the social issues of the day. However, his thinking remained firmly within the framework of Liberalism and his attachment to the Liberal Party never wavered. The clarity and comprehensiveness of Samuel’s ideas can be seen in his Liberalism: An Attempt to State the Principles and Proposals of Contemporary Liberalism in England (1902), one of the seminal works of the New Liberalism of the early 1900s.
Samuel became MP for the Cleveland division of Yorkshire at a byelection in November 1902, and became Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office when the Liberals came to power in December 1905. He was in the thick of the social reform programme of the Liberal government, piloting through legislation on working hours, the probation service and child welfare. He entered the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (from June 1909), serving later as Postmaster-General (from February 1910), and President of the Local Government Board (from February 1914 to May 1915).
As Postmaster-General, the responsible minister, he was mired in the Marconi scandal of 1912-13, though unlike Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs, his own conduct in the affair had been above reproach. Other unfounded accusations, with an anti-semitic edge, were also made at this time against Samuel and his cousin, Edwin Montagu, a junior minister at the India Office. At the Local Government Board, his ambitious plans for slum clearance and urban planning, announced in a speech delivered in Sheffield in May 1914, were frustrated by the outbreak of war. He did, however, launch a major expansion of maternity and child welfare centres. His social radicalism did not extend to womens’ suffrage, on which he took a cautious line, although it was on Samuel’s motion that women were given the right to stand for election to Parliament in 1918.
On the peace wing of the party, he nevertheless supported the war when Germany infringed Belgian neutrality. He remained Postmaster-General, outside the Cabinet, when the coalition government was formed in May 1915. He re-entered the Cabinet in November of that year, with the additional post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In January 1916, he replaced Simon as Home Secretary when the latter resigned in protest at the introduction of compulsory military service, and was responsible for handling the aftermath of the Easter Uprising in Ireland.
He stood by Asquith in the December 1916 crisis despite Lloyd George’s efforts to persuade him to stay on at the Home Office. He had little in common temperamentally with Lloyd George and did not expect his government to last. In the Asquithian fiasco at the 1918 election, Samuel lost Cleveland and withdrew from party politics for nearly a decade.
After a few months as Special Commissioner for Belgium, he served from July 1920 to July 1925 as High Commissioner for the Palestine Mandate. Pro-Zionist from before 1914, he supported the establishment of a Jewish national home in a multinational Palestine, but was unable to win Arab agreement for such a constitution. Otherwise his period of office was successful and constructive.
Retiring to Italy to study philosophy, he was persuaded by Baldwin to return to serve as Chairman of the 1925-26 commission of inquiry into the coal industry, part of the deal to head off a miners’ strike. During the 1926 General Strike, his unofficial mediation was pivotal in convincing the TUC to abandon the strike. In February 1927, Samuel re-entered party politics as head of the Liberal Party Organisation. As a skilled administrator and mediator, acceptable to all the factions, he played a major part in the Liberal revival culminating in the 1929 general election, in which he gained the traditionally Tory seat of Darwen, Lancashire, by a narrow majority.
Samuel was Lloyd George’s deputy in the 1929-31 Parliament and as acting leader during the August 1931 crisis took the Liberal Party into the National Government; he returned to the Home Office. In October he gave way to Conservative pressure for an election. Samuel insisted that the Liberals’ fight on their own free trade platform, but the election left the government and Commons dominated by an overwhelming Tory protectionist majority. The Liberals were hopelessly split between the Samuelites, Simon’s Liberal Nationals, and Lloyd George, who vehemently opposed the election and continued Liberal support for the government, and was loudly critical of Samuel. Only thirty-three Samuelites were elected to fight a rearguard defence of free trade.
In February 1932 the Liberal minority in the Cabinet agreed to differ over the introduction of import duties rather than resign. But when, in September 1932, the Cabinet decided to go ahead with the protectionist Ottawa Agreements, Samuel and his fellow Liberal ministers, under pressure from the party rank and file, resigned from the government while continuing to support it from the backbenches. In November 1933, again under activist pressure, Samuel finally abandoned this strange compromise and took the party into opposition. This lack of political direction was matched by a calamitous decline in Liberal Party organisation, morale and electoral fortunes. Samuel’s balanced intellectual approach to politics, sense of duty and rather dry, uncharismatic personality did not inspire the voters. Lacking Lloyd George’s funds, the party fielded only 161 candidates in the 1935 general election and won only twenty-one. Samuel lost his own seat at Darwen and resigned the leadership. The Liberals had slid to the status of a minor party in apparently terminal decline.
After his peerage in 1937 (first Viscount Samuel, of Mount Carmel and Toxteth), he acted as Deputy Liberal Leader in the House of Lords, taking increasing responsibility from the (more) elderly Lord Crewe. Samuel was one of the few leading Liberals to support Chamberlain’s appeasement policy and the Munich agreement, and even after the war he continued to believe that this was the correct course. In 1939 Chamberlain offered him a place in the Cabinet, but, having consulted party colleagues, Samuel declined. He was Leader in the Lords from 1944 to June 1955. He remained one of the Liberals’ main campaigners, especially in the 1945 and 1950 general elections. When the party was offered the opportunity of Britain’s first televised party political broadcast, on 15 October 1951, Samuel was chosen to deliver a scripted address. It was a measure of the party’s weakness that an eighty-one year-old peer was deemed the Liberals’ greatest televisual asset, primarily because of his popularity as a panellist on the radio show, The Brains Trust. The broadcast was not a conspicuous success, being brought to an accidentally premature conclusion as Samuel continued to read from his notes.
After 1935 Samuel pursued his long-held ambition to write about philosophy and science. He was President of the Royal Institute of Philosophy from 1931-59. Over the next two decades he published a string of books: Practical Ethics (1935), Belief and Action (1937), his major work of popular philosophy, An Unknown Land (1942), A Book of Quotations (1947), Creative Man – A Collection of Essays and Addresses (1949) and A Threefold Cord: Philosophy, Science, Religion (1961). Most remarkably, in his eighties, he produced two critiques of Einstein’s ideas in Essay in Physics (1951) and In Search of Reality (1957). He died on 5 February 1963.
In addition to Samuel’s Memoirs (Cresset Press, 1945), there are two biographies: Herbert Samuel – A Political Life (Bernard Wasserstein, Oxford University Press, 1992) and Viscount Samuel – A Biography (John Bowle, Victor Gollancz, 1957). His political papers are in the House of Lords Record Office.
Jaime Reynolds was awarded a PhD for research on the political history of Poland. At the time of writing this piece, he was a civil servant working on international environmental policy.