The Busy Life of England’s Premier

The London Magazine March 1 1908

The Busy Life of England’s Premier

The London Magazine March 1 1908

The Busy Life of England’s Premier

The London Magazine

I HAD known for some months that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was in a poor state of health, but I was not prepared to find him so badly run down as I did when I visited him at Belmont Castle during the autumn.

The fact is that he never got over the death of his wife, to whom he was deeply attached. He has been brooding over his loss; and, being a man of far greater imagination than is popularly supposed, the depression of his spirits has affected his general health.

During a friendship extending over many years I have had ample opportunity of observing him ; and, while I should never have set him down as a man of particularly robust health, he seemed to be fairly wiry, and to escape the ordinary trivial ailments which assail even quite vigorous persons.

I should not say that he was ever really fitted for a great stress of work ; and as he is exceptionally conscientious in discharging all his duties and giving personal supervision to details, the strain of the Premiership bears more heavily upon him than it would upon most statesmen.

I wonder how many people have any idea how severe that strain is? Of course, Mr. Balfour, with his golf and his easy manners and his frequent appearances in society, gave one the impression that it was possible to be Prime Minister and yet enjoy the good things of life. But he is an exceptional man, with an exceptional capacity for doing real hard work, and then throwing off the cares of State as though he forgot all about them.

Sir Henry does not possess that

capacity. In spite of his genial smile and pawky jokes, he worries over business out of office-hours, and really never seems to have a single moment to himself.

I remember an anecdote which was told me by Mr. Winston Churchill. He was talking one day with Aír. Chamberlain about the advantages of being in office.

“It is all very well for you,” he said, “but I have to do practically everything for myself. You have your armies of secretaries and officials who prepare your speech for you ; and by the time you come to the Treasury Bench you have it all cut and dried, and there only remains for you to deliver it.”

“Yes,” Mr. Chamberlain replied, with a merry laugh; “I have no doubt it is very easy when you get to the Treasury Bench, but you must remember you have to get there first.”

All the same, there are a great many things which secretaries and clerks cannot do for a Minister. I have often been with Sir Henry while he has been preparing a great party speech. The amount of personal care and trouble which he has devoted to it has amazed me. \\ hat is called the “gift of the gab” does not come naturally to him, and he has to take far greater pains over a speech than the ordinary politician.

I was once told by Lord Randolph Churchill how, when he first embarked upon a political career, he used to write out his speeches wonl for word, commit them to memory, recite them to himself at various intervals, walking up and down the room, and then finally deliver them almost without a note.

But when he was in office he frank-

ly admitted that the most he could do was to jot down a few notes, a peroration, or a few striking phrases, and then trust more or less to chance.

John Bright, too, it will be remembered, always wrote out his speeches at full length for great occasions. He rarely used a single note, but he felt confident if he had his speech in his pocket ready to fall back upon at an emergency.

One day he rose in the House of Commons and regretted that the debate had been sprung upon him unawares, so that he was unable to make any preparation for it. He proceeded quite glibly for a certain time, then suddenly lost the thread of his discourse, and broke down. Forgetting his affectation of not being prepared, he calmly put his hand in his pocket, drew out the speech, found his place, and went on. But the Irish members, who were then vehemently hostile to him, noted the action, and burst into derisive laughter, which he never forgave.

Sir William Harcourt also used to have the greater part of his speech written out, but he was so skilful in the manipulation of his notes that scarcely anyone noticed that he was using them.

I should say that Sir Henry reads a larger proportion of his speeches than any Minister of the front rank has ever done before. But one of his many charms is an engaging frankness ; and he never makes the faintest attempt to conceal what he is doing. On a despatch-box in front of him you may see a great pile of papers, which he turns over one by one as he has finished reading from them.

Oddly enough, this practice detracts very little from the effect of his speeches. But though he is fairly successful with an audience, he takes no pleasure whatever in addressing it. He does not care about crowds and excitement, but what he chiefly dreads is the labor of preparation.

To convey an idea of this labor, I must take you into his study in the morning after breakfast. He is seated in an armchair at a long table, cov-

ered with despatch-boxes and books. A secretary comes in with a paper containing a variety of suggestions for topics and their treatment. Another brings a digest of the points in the speech of some adversary, with useful annotations.

Sir Henry peruses these somewhat wearily, occasionally cocking his eye in that delightful roguish way of his, or allowing a faint smile to play upon his lips. Every now and then he asks a shrewd question, but does not seem to take any very great interest in the answer. All the while he is at work with a long pencil, striking out passages and making notes in a queer sort of shorthand of his own, which no one else could understand. From time to time he asks for facts or figures, and someone has to go off and procure documentary evidence.

What most impressed me as I watched him was his infinite patience, his love of detail, and his great pains to ensure accuracy. When at last the groundwork of his speech is complete, he prefers to remain alone wrhile he is drawing up his notes. As he is not a quick worker, this process usually takes a very long time. Once his notes are complete, he proceeds to dictate from them to a shorthand writer. Typewritten copies are brought to him, and further corrections are made. When at last the final notes are ready, quite an elaborate process of manufacture has been gone through, almost as elaborate as that of transforming rubber from its liquid state on the banks of the Congo to the finished pneumatic tyre.

For a slow worker like Sir Henry, the work of preparing and delivering speeches during an autumn campaign would really be sufficient to occupy all this time. But as it is only one out of about a hundred of his occupations, it is a standing marvel that he manages to pull through. As I observed him during an arduous week, I could not fail to be struck by the pathetic sight of this benevolent old gentleman, intended by Nature to fill the role of a country squire with dignity, caught up in the whirl of machinen* and hurried forward at breath-

less speed. All day long his attention must never relax ; even meal-times scarcely afford an instant’s respite ; and far into the night, when his temples are throbbing, his weary eyes blinking, he must still struggle with his endless labors far beyond the limits of his physical strength.

Talk of the white slaves in the sweaters’ dens, talk of the man on the treadmill relentlessly driven on by implacable machinery, talk about gangs of convicts in the salt mines of Siberia! Even their cruel lot is scarcely less endurable than that of the aged Premier, whose only taskmaster is a conscientious determination to do his duty. Yet he never complains, his temper is ever unruffled, he is always kind and considerate and courteous.

I think it is the recognition of these qualities, of that quiet and even mind which turns a prison into a hermitage, that has caused the recent popular revulsion in his favor. It is not so very many months ago that the mere mention of his name excited universal derision. Wherever two or three were gathered together, he was denounced as a Little Englander, the friend of every country but his own, the weak and helpless leader of a discredited party. But after his break in health even his opponents were actuated by friendliness and almost admiration towards him, there being not a man in the country who was not sincerely sorry to hear that his health was impaired, and that he was obliged to give up the struggle for an enforced rest.

And what a struggle it has been !

In mv humble sphere I always find interruptions the greatest curse of life. At a public meeting an interruption is all right, because it bucks you up and inspires you to some splendid repartee. But when you are struggling to condense your thoughts over an article or a speech, when you are doing your utmost to get into an entirely placid frame of mind, it seems a monstrous outrage when someone rings the bell, or counts out the washing near your study door, or hums a refrain in the kitchen. But 1 never

realized the full torture of interrtip-

tion until I sat for half an hour with Sir Henry when he was engaged upon affairs of State. He had said to me airily after lunch :

“Come in here, if you don’t mind my attending to business, and I will talk to you from time to time. At any rate, you can smoke a cigar, and turn over the newspapers or look at some of these books.”

The job he had anticipated turned out difficult. I saw him frowning and fidgeting and seeking the advice of secretaries, but always, just as he seemed to see light; just as the difficulties began to vanish away, there would be an intrusion. A servant would come in with a telegram or a visiting-card, or a tremendous bundle of correspondence, and the train of thoughts would be dispelled. The interruption was usually unnecessary, but it was no less distracting. Sometimes, again, it might be a matter of urgent importance, and that was more perplexing still. A messenger had come from his Majesty, or a restive colleague wanted to be satisfied on some utterly unimportant matter; or, worst of all, the housekeeper threatened to give notice. A hundred and one interruptions, one perhaps worth five minutes’ attention, the other hundred certainly worth no attention at all, would force themselves upon the Premier, and waste many more hours than they actually occupied. When one intruder was dismissed, and when, very wearily and very laboriously, the patient worker had got back to his previous question and was beginning to flatter himself that he might now go straight ahead, another unwelcome messenger would appear, and the whole trouble would have to be gone through again. For a man who almost requires the conditions of a restcure this was intolerable. He never showed any annoyance on the arrival of a persecutor, but I have seen him wring his hands piteously when thev left the room and he turned back to his task.

It is all very well to suggest that a little better organization might have avoided him these annoyances, but in the case of a Prime Minister there are

a very great number of annoyances which cannot be avoided at all.

One of the chief curses of the age is the multiplicity of correspondence. We are always boasting about the great advance in the conveniences of this age. But one of the great inconveniences of the age, from the point of view of the statesman, is the increased facility of communications. When Pitt and Fox led parties, anybody who wanted to write to them had to pay several shillings and wait several days while post-horses careered across country. The arrival of a letter was an event for most people. Nowadays, nearly all of us who are either literary men or politicians, or even grocers, are inundated with reams of rubbish by almost every post.

It used to be considered a mark of bad manners to ignore a letter or even to delay answering it. But surely we must establish an entirely different code of manners now that correspondence has become so utterly bewildering.

At any rate, there ought to be a close season for Prime Ministers in the matter of letter-writing. I almost believe that after a few more conversations I may induce Sir Henry to bring in a bill on the subject.

When I was a boy there used to be a brown leather letter-bag which arrived in the morning, and which was solemnly unlocked by the head of the family, who distributed the contents after prayers. Nowadays it would be difficult to find a letter-bag big enough to hold the ordinary correspondence of the ordinary family. What, then, must be the correspondence of the ordinary Prime Minister? It arrives in huge sackfuls, which would defy the ingenuity and patience of even the most accomplished limerick judges to unravel. Of course, he has an army of clerks and secretaries, who go through the mass, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

But even in the case of a lazv Prime Minister there would still be very many letters which he would feel obliged to answer himself. In the case of his own family, for instance,

and still more his wife’s family, Sir Henry always answers every letter laboriously with his own hand. What cruel wretches relations are very often ! Here is a man whose every instant is precious beyond untold gold, whose autograph will probably find many bidders at auctions during the next generation.

Some admiring little niece expects an acknowledgment for a pair of slippers for his birthday, or a sister-inlaw wants advice about the investment of her jointure. Just the ordinary little trivial demands which encroach upon the good nature of most of us. If we are not busy people, we do not feel any grievance about spending a few minutes over the distribution of small compliments and thanks and loans. But successful people— and Prime Ministers are presumably succe: sful people—enjoy the doubtful benefit of too many relatives ; and to keep in touch with them and satisfy them would require the patience of Job and the imagination of Ananias.

Everything which is expected of the ordinary country gentleman is expected of the Prime Minister a hundredfold Supposing as asks you to dinner, you will expect him to say something which you may remember and treasure up for posterity. A Prime Minister seems to live under a magnifying glass. There used to be talk about the fierce light that beats upon a throne, but that is nothing compared with the scorching element which tortures a statesman. And yet we may congratulate the good-natured, weary, benevolent old man who has our destinies in his hands upon the fact that the closest inspection only enhances his attractions.

Perhaps the task which Sir Henry finds most trying of all is that of maintaining harmony among his colleagues. When he was called upon to form a Government, there were probably about ten times more claimants than offices. Old men, who had toiled for the party during long years in the wilderness, regarded all the best places as their due ; brilliant youths, who had done all the hard work, naturally expected their reward; Whigs

and Socialists, and representatives of the Nonconformist conscience, every section and fad and interest, clamored for excessive recognition. It was only by a miracle of tact and common sense that Sir Henry was able to form his Government without making a single serious enemy. But it must be a still greater miracle to continue to keep it well in hand.

If the public only knew the incessant vigilance, the infinite pains, the extravagant flatteries, the trying humiliations which have been necessary, their pity for Sir Henry would only be surpassed by their admiration. And, apart from his work as a peace maker, he has always had the labor of giving practical supervision to every department.

No doubt he has confidence in the colleagues he has chosen, but it is impossible for him to forget that a blunder by any subordinate will always be laid at his door.

I should say that he was more successful as a diplomatist than as a politician. This is particularly noticeable when he is entertaining foreign guests ; and a considerable share in the improved relations with foreign countries is due to him as well as to the King.

Unlike most English statesmen, he speaks excellent French, and he knows exactly how to set foreigners at their ease. On the occasion of a recent visit of French deputies, he delivered an excellent little French speech, which was obviously spontaneous. He certainly possesses a short cut to the hearts of Frenchmen, and every one of them whom 1 have met at his house has been loud in the praises of the bonhomie of “Sir Bannennan.”


A short diary of the Prime Minister’s week may serve to illustrate the nature and extent of his labors:

Monday (7.30).—Drank tea and perused papers in bed; 8.15, bath; 9, breakfast; 9.30 to 1.30, correspondence (frequently interrupted); 1.30,

lunch and discussion of political matters with Ministerial colleague; 2.30, consultation with gardener; 3 to 7.30, preparation of a speech (much interrupted) ; 7.30, dressed for dinner, arrival of a messenger from the King; 8, dinner, 9, reply to King’s letter, perusal of marked passages in London papers, wrote fifteen private letters with his own hand, and dictated answers to about fifty more, made hasty notes for speech.

Tuesday (12.30 a.m.)—Went to

bed and perused various papers for nearly an hour. Called at 7. Breakfast at 8. Started at 10.30 in motor for Dundee. Took 11.35 train. Dictated twenty-seven letters, revised notes for speech, and lunched in the train. On reaching destination, received seven deputations, opened a new Liberal Club, and paid six visits; 7, dinner; 8, public meeting, spoke for forty-five minutes; 10.30, light supper and long political consultation with colleague far into the night.

Wednesday.—Rose early and returned home, transacting business in the train. Devoted afternoon to preparing draft of proposals to lay before Cabinet Councils. After dinner, read arrears of newspapers, and dealt with a large mass of correspondence. Preparations for a speech announced for next week.

Thursday.—Devoted the morning to perusing and annotating draft of new Licensing Bill. At lunch entertained three influential supporters, and pointed out at great length how impossible it was to create any fresh peers at present. After lunch, received an Italian journalist, discussed the affairs of Macedonia with an ardent Turcophobe M.P., and read over the draft of an article which he was expected to sign in a well-known Liberal paper. Long correspondence, including two difficult letters to colleagues who had come very near to a quarrel. To bed just before midnight.

Friday and Saturday.—Very similar to Monday, but a great rush of callers from all parts of the country.