Lord Longford: A Crusading Peer

By Doering, Jonathan W. | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Lord Longford: A Crusading Peer


Doering, Jonathan W., Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: It is somewhat ironic that the two British politicians whose deaths received the widest and most sympathetic coverage last year were hereditary peers. At a time when the Blair Government is anxious to destroy all the political influences of the hereditary peers, people were reminded of the tremendous role they had played in public life. The political careers of both Lord Longford and Lord Hailsham stretched back to the 1930s. Both men were distinguished by colourful, indeed eccentric, personalities and strong religious commitment reminiscent of an earlier era. In a two-part series Jonathan Doering considers the lives and achievements of these two peers.

FRANCIS Aungier Pakenham, Seventh Earl of Longford, who died last August at the age of ninety-five, was an exceptional man. As an aristocrat in a democracy, as an academic, parliamentarian, government minister, businessman, philanthropist, and author, he was distinguished by his broad interests and deep Christian commitment.

Born in 1905, the second son of five siblings, he was raised in an impeccably aristocratic tradition. From the beginning, Longford seemed destined to have a foot in more than one camp: a scion of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (a forebear suppressed an Irish revolt in 1798), he would later be the only British minister to hold an Irish passport, and a close friend of Eammon de Valera. (Although he only became Lord Longford in the 1960s, we will use that name throughout this article.)

Educated at Eton and New College, Oxford (where he received a First in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics), Longford was originally a stereotypical patrician aristocrat. Whilst sharing rooms with Hugh Gaitskell (later Leader of the Labour Party) he tried to convert his friend to compassionate Conservatism. But whilst it was Longford who would ultimately be converted, he maintained friendships with people on the political Right throughout his life. The strongest force in his life was his Roman Catholic religion, to which he was a convert.

Perhaps the greatest pressure on him to shift politics came from Elizabeth Harman, an undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall, whom he first met when she peered over him in concern on finding him sleeping on a friend's floor. Elizabeth was an ardent Labour supporter. Whilst she remained at Oxford to complete her studies in the late twenties and early thirties, he went to London to try to make a career for himself, working at the Conservative Research Department, and as a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association. It was his time with the WEA, observing at first hand the grinding poverty of many of Britain's workers, that convinced him to switch political allegiance. It was also at this time that he had his first brush with a career in writing, as an aspirant leader writer for the Spectator and then the Daily Mail. He later remembered, 'The only successful short leader I wrote was concerned with skirts, which the woman editor wrote for me . . .' During this time he did not lose his links with Oxford: he was d elighted (and perhaps a little relieved) when in 1932 he was offered a lectureship in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford.

Back in Oxford, he sat on the City Council, and began his lifelong activity of prison visiting. In 1938, the incumbent Conservative M.P. for Oxford died. Communist, Liberal, and Labour parties agreed to co-operate in order to return an Independent Progressive candidate to Parliament in protest over the Munich Agreement. The Labour candidate, Patrick Gordon Walker was induced to stand down, and A. D. Lindsay, one of Longford's tutors and then Master of Balliol, became the Independent candidate. In the event, Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) held Oxford for the Conservatives.

This was Longford's first unsatisfactory brush with electoral politics. In his memoir, Avowed Intent, Longford had the grace to include the tale of his second experience. In 1945, in what was to be a landslide election victory for the Labour Party, Longford, gambling that Oxford's electoral boundaries would be redrawn, gave up his candidacy of West Birmingham (a safe seat), taking the Oxford candidacy from Walker. …

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