Not Just Another Recession
Why the Global Economy May Never Be the Same
THE LIFE OF LORD CURZON. BY THE RT. HON. THE EARL OF RONALDSHAY. London: Benn. New York: Horace Liveright. 3 vols. 1928.
WE live today in an age of catch-words and the edges of our daily awareness are blunted to uniformity. We employ these slogans with democratic indolence, scarcely realizing that they possess an affective quality which disturbs our reason. "Imperialist" we say, not pausing to consider what we mean by the expression, too lazy even to discount the depreciatory effect which the word produces. "Reactionary" we say again, confident that we are implying something discreditable, confident that progress is good absolutely, that to be retrograde is absolutely to be bad. Such habits of thought and expression are perhaps inevitable: we are too busy, in this lively world of ours, to resist the temptation of verbal fore-shortening, to struggle against the intellectual label. At times, however, something occurs to arrest our attention: these familiar words, with their trite emotional connections, are by some sudden alteration of lighting, thrown into relief: we see them with fresh eyes, we are bewildered by the altered angle of familiarity, even as we are puzzled for a moment by an envelope which we have addressed to ourselves. "Imperialist" we again murmur, and the word detaches itself from its background; it becomes the symbol of something wider and deeper; it awakes enquiry; it makes us pause and think.
Some such sudden readjustment of values is occasioned in any unbiassed reader by the admirable biography which Lord Ronaldshay has just completed on Lord Curzon of Kedleston. On reading this tragic human history, even the most inveterate victim of the slogan-habit would feel that the scarlet label of "imperialist" was no adequate explanation of the problem; that Lord Curzon's passionate and idealistic conviction of his own mission constituted a psychological mystery at once so vivid and so complex that it imposes upon any honest enquirer some reëxamination of what he means by imperialism, some recognition that this particular political emotion is not necessarily vicious, and not necessarily inhumane. Clearly, and Curzon is there to prove it, imperialism in the twentieth century is highly inexpedient. For that reason it is doomed, at least in its political form, to disappear. But the honest enquirer, on reading this enthralling book, will come to appreciate that a political theory, even if outworn, can still be a subject of living scientific interest; and he will feel grateful to Lord Ronaldshay for having displayed this specimen with such care, such vivid detail and such intelligence.
The task of Lord Curzon's biographer was not an easy one. In the first place, he was faced by an almost overwhelming mass of detail. The actual correspondence which Lord Curzon either amassed or emitted was stupendous; then there were his pencil notes, scattered in portfolios, rammed untidily into official envelopes, scored on the margins of letters; hopes, fears, disappointments, bitterness -- all were recorded in that large and flowing hand; recorded in pencil, written down, kept. Behind all these personalia existed a great mass of official records and documents, needing to be read and digested, needed to be fitted proportionately into the whole. No wonder that a slight atmosphere of exhaustion hangs about the last of the three volumes: and fittingly so, since it was in an atmosphere of dynamic exhaustion that Lord Curzon passed the last years of his life. Not only has Lord Ronaldshay been hampered by a plethora of papers, but he has been careful not to offend those who are still alive. Lord Curzon would at moments lash himself into fierce vituperative passions against people who, he imagined, had offended him, and these outbursts have rightly been suppressed. Unpublishable also are many of the broad rabelaisian sallies with which he would season his letters, and which formed so pungent a constituent of his conversation and his style. A great deal of Curzon has thus escaped from these volumes, but what remains (and it is essential) is sufficient to give us what is one of the best English standard biographies, and to provide those interested in political problems with a very durable subject of discussion.
What, in fact, was the nature of Curzon's political doctrine? Was his essential failure due to some inner defect in his own character, or merely to some fault in the circumstances of his life? If the latter, then is the tragedy of Lord Curzon to be regarded as a criticism of democratic institutions, as implying that in democracy only the mediocre can prevail? What again was the quality of his intelligence and imagination? How far did the ideals that he stood for proceed from the springs of his conviction ? How far were they but the surface stirrings of his emotionalism and conceit? Such are the questions which this book arouses and such are the questions to which I should propose an answer. It is easy enough to explain away Lord Curzon as an anachronism strayed out of the eighteenth century. The whole story is far more poignant and more complicated than that. It is a strange story of which we today can scarcely grasp the meaning. A hundred years from now students of social history may see in Lord Curzon one of the most arresting figures of our age. They may, for all we know, regard him as the last defender of a disappearing order; on the other hand they may, for all we know, honor him as one of the few statesmen of the twentieth century who had the audacity not only to see, but to say, what was going wrong.
I do not think myself that the failure of Lord Curzon to reach the highest pinnacle of office can by any honest enquirer be attributed to the short-comings of the democratic system. I feel that there were certain flaws in his personal character and intelligence which vitiated his immense abilities, and which were responsible for onsets of blind unreason, and for sudden weakenings of his domineering will. Lord Ronaldshay hints as much in his biography, but does not analyze either the causes or the effects of this strange warping of an essentially noble character and an essentially brilliant brain. And yet it is in this problem that the inner tragedy of Lord Curzon is to be sought.
Let me illustrate the problem at the outset by an incident in my own experience, an incident on which I often look back with interested and puzzled scrutiny. It was during the Lausanne Conference. Lord Curzon, that morning, had been rude, excessively rude, to a tiresome but harmless member of one of the Allied delegations. His victim on this occasion was a little old man, somewhat like Philip II in appearance, who had interrupted the progress of one of Curzon's harangues. He had raised his wizened hand aloft like a school-boy in class and had piped out some foolish interruption. Curzon paused and stared. He stared at Philip II with the eyes of a pained basilisk. The latter, who was not only courageous but convinced, continued to babble his inconsequences. Lord Curzon, in a voice of ice, told him to hold his tongue. "Voulez-vous bien," were the words he used, "vous taire." At which the old gentleman (who incidentally considered himself of great European importance) tottered from the room twittering with rage and mumbling imprecations. Lord Curzon, monumental in the presidential throne, gulped slightly, and then continued his discourse. That evening I was asked to extract an apology from my chief. This was no easy task. I appealed to his magnanimity, to his regard for old age, to his regard for distinguished statesmen who had rendered great services to the Allies, to the actual expediency of not embittering relations on so small a point. Lord Curzon was obdurate: the little old man had interrupted him: he was not only irritating but foolish: the sooner he left Lausanne the better: an apology might encourage him to stay: besides, he, Curzon, never apologized. I was in despair: I then appealed to his emotion: I said that it made me unhappy to see my chief rendering himself disliked: I begged him, as a return for the real affection that I felt for him (and God knows I still feel it), to render me this small service. A wave of sentiment descended upon him. "You are very kind," he said, "Of course. . . . " he said, "Of course. . . . ." He pulled a sheet of paper towards him, and dashed off a letter, resting the writing pad upon his knee. No letter of apology has ever been conceived with such grace and kindliness. I thanked him. He sat there hunched in his chair with his leg thrust out upon the green-baize foot-rest. "Ah yes," he sighed, "I will tell you something which will surprise you. Every morning when I say my prayers, I ask God that he will grant me not to be disagreeable during the coming day. And do you know? Every evening when I look back upon my day I am forced to confess that I have been disagreeable to five, or sometimes even six, different people!" He said this with a puzzled seriousness which it is impossible to convey. It was only when I laughed, that he allowed his own face to relax from the earnest, and indeed religious, expression which it had assumed.
In this incident you have concentrated the essential enigmas of Lord Curzon's character. His initial cruelty and insensitiveness: his refusal to admit he was in the wrong: his obdurate resistance to all reasonable arguments: his lavish collapse before an emotional argument: his ultimate generosity: and the amazingly naïve commentary by which the incident was closed. For Curzon was hard in the wrong places and soft in the wrong places. He had the mentality of an adolescent. His character became ossified at the age of nineteen.
I do not think Lord Ronaldshay has paid sufficient attention to the early influences by which Lord Curzon's nature was warped. There was that austere and lovely house at Kedleston. The vast rooms and terraces, the cold alabaster columns in the hall, the bell, that echoed through those cold corridors announcing morning prayers. Little Curzon ran, fearful of being late; little Curzon knelt there listening to his father reading the Old Testament, imbibing the conception of a cold and revengeful Jehovah. Then there was Miss Paraman, the governess into whose care those wretched children were entrusted. Deeply did she impress upon those pliant minds her own theories of God and Hell and parsimony and discipline. Her anger was terrible, her punishments ingenious in their cruelty. She wore, Lord Curzon would relate, a large greasy skirt, the bottom of which was trimmed with six broad bands of braid. One of her punishments was to force the children to unpick those bands of braid, and to stitch them on again. Little Curzon, weeping in the big cold house, stitching at Miss Paraman's unpleasant skirt. Then there came Mr. Dunbar, the assistant master at the Rev. Cowley Powle's private school at Wixenford. Mr. Dunbar was violent and sensitive. He believed with passionate fervor in the value of accuracy. Detail was his God. He also destroyed whatever sense of values little Curzon might himself have evolved. Then his mother, Lady Scarsdale, died when he was just sixteen. Three years later he developed curvature of the spine. From that moment he was isolated from his kind by a curtain of suffering and exhaustion. The character which he possessed at eighteen was thereafter incased, as his body was incased, in a cage of steel. Through the interstices of this rigidity, his human qualities escaped but rarely, and then in the shape of emotionalism. He retained throughout his life the "larme facile" of his puberty: I have never known a man cry so frequently or so easily as Curzon cried.
Such then were the early influences which twisted his character into contorted forms. Miss Paraman had taught him the importance of parsimony, and throughout his life his attitude towards money matters was lacking in charm. Miss Paraman had taught him cruelty, anger, suspicion, resentment: these lessons remained with him till the end. Mr. Dunbar, for his part, had impressed upon his then receptive mind the vital necessity of attending to detail: Lord Curzon's passion for detail was to ruin his career. A grandiose and chilly childhood, softened by scant humanity, troubled by fears of God and Miss Paraman and what happened to people who failed to know about the Treaty of Amiens. And beneath it all, emerging while he was still at Eton, a determined egoism, a consciousness that with so uncertain a body, so uncertain a will, great efforts would be necessary if he were to realize his vast ambition. He set his teeth and made those efforts: he tackled every circumstance in his life with torrential energy; immense generators, vast dynamos, were employed to thread a needle; and in the last resort energy, efficiency, accomplishment, became ends in themselves, irrespective of the purposes to which they were devoted. Miss Paraman and Mr. Dunbar had left their mark. Lord Curzon at the age of sixteen had fallen into the fallacy of confusing energy with strength of mind.
It is legitimate, I think, thus to assume that Curzon's character was warped in childhood, and that his spinal affection, although sometimes exaggerated by himself and his biographer, did in fact account for much of the psychological obtuseness which marred his high abilities. Scarcely less important, however, was the comparative disaster of his career at Oxford, where he failed to obtain a first class in the schools. "Now," he wrote, "I shall devote the rest of my life to showing the examiners that they have made a mistake." Curzon was always far more affected by his failures than by his successes. From that moment his ambition became embittered by the poison of his academic defeat, it became ruthless, inelastic, unremitting. The God of success, an amiable deity, loomed for him as Jehovah, demanding blood and human sacrifice. He gave it, and in vain, all that it desired.
It is absurd, of course, to contend that Lord Curzon obtained from his God no rewards for such devotion. He was Viceroy at 39: he was Foreign Secretary at a time of vast historical importance: he possessed riches and titles and many great houses and the glitter of the Garter at his knee. He rode on elephants whose trappings were of gold and emeralds, he sat on alabaster thrones while potentates bowed jewelled heads before him, he walked on the wide lawns of English homes, he purchased castles and palaces, and he won the love of two of the most lovely women of our age. Yet all these were for him but a temporary solace in great bitterness. He did not get a first at Oxford; he did not get the better of Lord Kitchener, or of Mr. Lloyd George; and it was Mr. Baldwin, not George Curzon, who was appointed Prime Minister at the death of Mr. Bonar Law. These three disappointments remained for him the essential facts of his existence. His victories were for him but evidence of the injustice of his defeats.
It is not, I think, correct to dismiss Lord Curzon as a materialist who failed through lack of any directing idea. He had his ideas and his ideals. That they were somewhat old-fashioned bears, to my mind, but scant relation to the problem. His imperialism, for instance, was in no sense a despicable thing. There was much about it, of course, that was vain and flashy. "No Englishman," he wrote at the age of 28, "can land in Hongkong without feeling a thrill of pride for his nationality. Here is that furthermost link in that chain of fortresses which from Spain to China girds half the globe." "The sight," he wrote on the same journey, "of these successive metropolises of England and the British Empire in foreign parts is one of the proudest experiences of travel." This of course is wrong and silly. But the imperialism of Curzon was made of stuff far more serious than mere national showing-off. Americans may smile at the Britisher's belief in his own mission, and indeed this facile theory is apt to cover many selfish sins. But to those who have seen British imperialism in action it is not wholly ridiculous to feel that in the administration of alien peoples the Anglo-Saxon genius finds its fullest expression. To Curzon this theory was an article of faith. He believed that God had bestowed on England a divine mission to administer what he called "backward races." This mission which had been "for some peculiar and inscrutable reason entrusted to her by Providence" entailed upon Great Britain "that supreme idea without which Imperialism is only a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, namely the sense of sacrifice and the idea of duty." "If," he said while Viceroy, "I felt that we were not working here for the good of India in obedience to a higher law and a nobler aim, then I would see the link that holds England and India together severed without a sigh."
Lord Curzon, of course, was not of those who believe that self-government is in every case better than good government. "Efficiency of administration," he wrote, "is in my view a synonym for the contentment of the governed. It is the only means of affecting the people in their homes and of adding only an atom perhaps, but still an atom, to the happiness of the masses." It never occurred to him that, except for a "handful of agitators" the people of India might really prefer their own warm muddles to the chilly efficiency of English rule. He sincerely dreaded the extent of human suffering which would be caused in India by any sudden relaxation of our dominion. He insisted, however, that that rule, though alien, should be just. "I do not know," he wrote to the Secretary of State for India in connection with some cases of ill-treatment of natives, "I do not know what you think of these cases. They eat into my very soul." In writing that Curzon was absolutely sincere, and the whole burden of his doctrine and his ideal is contained in the magnificent farewell speech which he made on leaving India. "A hundred times," he said on that occasion, "have I said to myself, 'Oh that to every Englishman in this country, as he ends his work, might be truthfully applied the phrase, Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity.' No man has, I believe, ever served India faithfully of whom that could not be said. All other triumphs are tinsel and sham. Perhaps there are few of us who make anything but a poor approximation to that ideal. But let it be our ideal all the same -- to fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to swerve neither to the right hand not to the left, to care nothing for flattery or applause or odium or abuse, never to let your enthusiasm be soured or your courage grow dim, but to remember that the Almighty has placed your hand on the greatest of His ploughs, in whose furrow the nations of the future are germinating and taking shape, to drive the blade a little forward in your time, and to feel that somewhere among these millions you have left a little justice or happiness or prosperity, a sense of manliness or moral dignity, a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment or a stirring of duty where it did not exist before -- that is enough, that is the Englishman's justification in India. It is good enough for his watchword when he is here, for his epitaph when he is gone. I have worked for no other aim. Let India be my judge." There will be sceptics, of course, who will dismiss this fine finale as mere rhetoric: they would be wrong: these words represented the very essence of Lord Curzon's faith: there have been faiths more peccant and more harmful; there have been few faiths which have done such practical good.
But again we are brought back to the original conundrum. How came it that a man who had been given such talents and opportunities, who was inspired by such high ambition, such dogged energy, such burning faith, should have missed the main object of his ambitions, should have been worsted in the struggle by lesser minds, should have failed, ultimately, to make good? The explanation, as I have already indicated, may well lie in that strange rigidity which came over his character at the age of nineteen. Other men have been egoistic, but Lord Curzon's egoism was of so inelastic a character as to render him dangerously impervious to what was really going on. He was apt to allow his judgment to be affected by purely personal considerations. His anti-Turkish bias, for instance, dates from the inconvenience to which he had been subjected by the Turkish customs officials in 1889. His dislike of France, and the low opinion he held of French statesmen, could be traced back to his early contempt for the French officials he had met in Cochin China and to the irritation caused him by the incident at Muscat. His scant sympathy for the cause of Greece is to be attributed not merely to his dislike of M. Venizelos, but also the fact that he had been severely heckled on the Cretan question when Under Secretary of State. This personal aspect frequently vitiated his sense of proportion. "If only," he wrote in 1899, "I could transfer a little of the misplaced anxiety about the Transvaal to Persia and the Persian Gulf. . . . " That, in 1899, was an excessively foolish thing to say.
A further, and most unfortunate element in Lord Curzon's egoism, was the extreme combativeness, often on petty matters, which it provoked. It was, as Lord Ronaldshay remarks, "with the utmost difficulty that he subordinated his views to those of other people." He was continually being diverted from the object he was pursuing by some personal slight or suspicion; often by the mere desire to triumph over his adversaries upon some wholly secondary point. His comparative insuccess as Foreign Minister is implicit in a passage of a letter written in 1900: "I never," he wrote, "spend five minutes in enquiring whether we are unpopular. The answer is written in red ink on the map of the globe. Neither would I ever adopt Lord Salisbury's plan of throwing bones to keep the various dogs quiet. . . . They devour your bone and then turn round and snarl for more. No; I would count everywhere on the individual hostility of all the Great Powers, but would endeavour so to arrange things that they were not united against me. And the first condition in such a policy is, in my opinion, the exact inverse of your present policy: for I would be as strong in small things as in big." Here, in a phrase, lies the secret of Lord Curzon's failure to realize the great hopes and opportunities of his tenure of the Foreign Office. "As strong in small things as in big," -- Curzon was so busy being "strong" about the little things that he had no time left to deal with the really important problems which called for solution.
This native egoism was, for the conduct of negotiations, rendered even more unpalatable to his colleagues or opponents by Curzon's unfortunate passion for marshalling facts. This was the fault of Mr. Dunbar at Wixenford who had insisted somewhat unduly on accuracy of detail. Lord Curzon became so intoxicated by his own ability to present a case that his every remark became an oration, and that he adopted the manner, as Labouchère had observed even before he went to India, "of a Divinity addressing blackbeetles." "The pleasure," writes Lord Ronaldshay, "which he derived from speech and writing made him a great master of language; but it tended to broaden rather than deepen his mind. He absorbed knowledge rather than evolved it." Hence arose an unfortunate prolixity, and much irritation, boredom and resentment on the part of those to whom these diatribes were addressed. M. Poincaré, for one, did not appreciate Lord Curzon's rhetoric in the least.
Curzon, for his part, was amazed at his own efficiency. He was proud of what he called "my middle-class method," or "my remorseless scrutiny into everything." "The goal," writes Lord Ronaldshay, "at which he aimed can be described compendiously as achievement, -- the bringing of things to a conclusion, the multiplication and accumulation of bundles of acts of accomplishment, across whose respective dockets might be written with a flourish of satisfaction res gestae." The amount of unnecessary business with which Curzon obstructed his daily life was almost incredible. His conviction that only he himself could do a job to his own satisfaction was a very unfortunate element in his character and one which when he came to office did him untold harm. He was so overwhelmed by unimportant matters which he refused to entrust to other hands that he had no time to think of anything important. His official life was a hurricane of trivialities. I have seen him, during a serious European crisis, writing invitations to a dinner party with his own hand for fear lest his wife or secretary might make some mistake. And I have heard from his daughter the story of the lawn at Hackwood which is so extraordinary that it merits to be retold. In the first place Hackwood was not his own home, but a house which he had rented for a term of years. In the second place the lawn at Hackwood is about half a mile square. Lord Curzon observed that the lawn was disfigured by the presence of several dock-leaves or plantains. He ordered the gardener to remove these unsightly objects. This was before luncheon. By three o'clock the lawn was black with gardeners removing docks. Lord Curzon came to watch. He said that the gardeners were doing it all wrong, that they were leaving holes where the docks had been extracted. They answered, with all respect, that if one removes a large dock from a piece of lawn, a slight abrasion is bound, for a day or two, to be left on the surface. "But not at all," said Lord Curzon, "not at all. As usual you do not know your job. I see that as usual I shall have to do it myself." The gardeners were then told never to touch the lawn again. And during the next few months Lord Curzon spent his Sunday afternoons extracting docks from the Hackwood lawn, a task he loathed. They would lunch early and hurriedly. Lord Curzon would then approach the lawn, preceded by a footman carrying a leather cushion, and followed by his three daughters carrying baskets into which the docks were thrown upon extraction. Lord Curzon would kneel slowly down upon the cushion and proceed slowly from dock to dock while his daughters and the footman followed behind. At tea time they would return exhausted to the house, leaving the lawn pitted with the excavations in which Lord Curzon had indulged. Nor did it occur to him for one instant that gardeners were perhaps better at docks than he was, or that there might be something less exhausting and less trivial that he and his daughters could have done on Sunday afternoons.
Such blindness, such evasions of reality, diminished his efficiency as Minister for Foreign Affairs. During his first tenure of that high office he was irked by the inevitable dominance of the Prime Minister, during the second period his labors were nullified by the antagonism of M. Poincaré. He choked himself with a mass of detail and in the intricacies of personal polemics, and in one notable instance, that of Persia, he failed completely to realize that the world had altered somewhat since 1899. But he was almost a great Foreign Secretary, and we are too apt to forget that it was Curzon who was the real originator of the Dawes Plan, and that it was he who in the face of immense difficulties restored British credit at the first Conference of Lausanne. His failure was the failure of adaptability. He was ruined by the rigidity of his own temperament. And in the ultimate resort there was a flaw in the steel. His will-power, so dominating, so ruthless up to the last moment, would suddenly collapse. The essential Curzon was not a strong man. From this there came apparent inconsistencies and betrayals: what Lord Ronaldshay with great kindness calls "his new-found pliancy;" and thus one cannot wholly excuse his sudden abandonment of loudly proclaimed principles as in such questions as the House of Lords Reform, the Woman Suffrage problem, and the Montagu-Chelmsford report. Had he been less inconsistent, he might have died Prime Minister of England. But he hesitated and made excuses to himself: and people realized that he did not in fact possess that strength of character which alone would have justified his egoism and his obstinacy.
Let it not be thought, however, that Curzon was a little man. He had faults of pettiness and vulgarity, he was often unkind. His intellect and his imagination were marred by curious limitations. But he possessed a soaring sense of duty, a deep intrinsic humanity, and above all a passionate love of truth. "Let me," he wrote, "side with those who abhor the diplomatic lie." And it was truth and duty which inspired what Lord Ronaldshay rightly calls "the breathless activity of his days."
Then there was his charm. Even in the most querulous of his moments, even on what he called his "angry days," the fascination of the man, his "cheery and boisterous energy," held one entranced. He was such a boy. So simple, so petty, so human. He was so amused and hospitable; so interested in every manifestation of reality or life. Lord Ronaldshay speaks of his lack of consideration to his subordinates. I think this is exaggerated. He had little sense of time and would keep one waiting about. But then there was champagne to follow. There was always that champagne feeling when one worked with Curzon, and it was worth it. While behind it all was the immense pathos of his later life. One's heart went out to this sick and querulous man, a man at one moment radiant at some unexpected compliment or triumph, at another cast into the depths of gloom by some unkindly criticism or misfortune. Lord Ronaldshay tells of how, when the days of disappointment and disillusion were already upon him, he discovered in a drawer at Kedleston a collection of his school reports, in which his masters had unanimously predicted for him a great future. Had these forecasts proved correct? Lord Curzon summed up his impressions of his own career in a note of great pathos evoked by these faded school reports. "I never seem," he wrote, "to get any credit for anything nowadays. No one accuses me of any definite errors or blunders of statesmanship. But there seems to be a general tendency to run me down, or completely to ignore what I am doing or have done. If one looks at the record of this in any book of reference it is very substantial, as varied, and in a way successful, as that of any Englishman of my age living. And yet it does not seem to count for much, and I am treated as though I were rather a back number. Well, perhaps I am. I suppose one gets what one deserves and I daresay the fault lies somewhere in me. And yet, how I have worked and toiled and never spared myself, while I see others treating work as a jest and life as a holiday."
For reasons such as these posterity will look back upon Lord Curzon, not as on some arrogant proconsul who gloried in the honors he obtained, but as on a man of superhuman energy and great gifts who, by the irony of fate, had been robbed of the gift of adaptability. Curzon did not fit. But in the end, after that agonizing interview with Lord Stamfordham of May 22, 1923, after a night of bitter weeping, he attained to real moral greatness, and accorded to the man who had won the prize for which he himself had yearned since childhood his unswerving loyalty and his unstinted support. The story of Curzon's life is a drama of disappointed ambition. And his biographer has rendered it with all the skill and dignity that it deserves.