Max Egremont

Buccaneering Brilliance

F E Smith, First Earl Of Birkenhead


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Political biography is a difficult art. Too often the central figure becomes obscured by the politics, lost against the vastness of his or her historical circumstances. Another danger lies in the elevation of the subject into a romantic drama where, in a mixture of anecdote and lush description, the issues become mere reflections of an individual’s character, talents or sexual proclivities. Probably the ideal is a mixture of these two approaches, avoiding both the deadness of an academic study and the excesses of Miss Barbara Cartland.

F E Smith is a wonderful subject, the political biographer’s dream. At the centre of the stage from his entry into parliament in 1906 until his premature death in 1930, he exercised a fascination over his contemporaries that went far beyond the mere achievement of power. High office does not guarantee the interest of posterity. One thinks, in this context, of some of the luminaries of the inter-war years such as Samuel Hoare, Sir John Simon and colourful Kingsley Wood. But F E shone brightly. That is why the balance of the personal and the political will always be so important for his biographers. Indeed they should perhaps be judged on their ability to catch the man’s style as well as his substance, to conjure up the uniqueness of the phenomenon that was F E.

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