Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2015
Hardcover. x+135 p. ISBN 978-1782256236. £25
Reviewed by Neil Davie
Université Lyon II-Lumière
This short book considers the political and legal career of David Maxwell Fyfe (1900-1967), Conservative Home Secretary in the early 1950s, and later (as Lord Kilmuir) Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain. Jurist and legal historian Neil Duxbury argues convincingly in his introduction to Lord Kilmuir : A Vignette that despite his subject’s reputation as a “judicial bit-part player” – “Blink, and his judicial work is missed” is how the author puts it – Maxwell Fyfe deserves our interest and thus a book-length treatment for his contributions in other areas. Duxbury’s judicious and accessible study makes it clear that his subject considered himself a politician first and lawyer second (he took the silk in 1934 and entered parliament the following year, clearly considering the latter the more notable achievement). Indeed, it was above all Maxwell Fyfe’s political talents – determination, diplomacy, attention to detail – rather than his legal brain that gained him advancement in Churchill’s war-time coalition government and subsequently in successive Conservative administrations of the 1950s and ’60s – a fact which he was happy to admit.
Like many politicians of his generation, Maxwell Fyfe’s political ideas were strongly coloured by his experience of the Second World War and its aftermath, and in his case this included playing a key role in presenting the British prosecution case at the Nuremberg trials; where his dogged attention to detail and ability to work smoothly with prosecutors from other legal traditions made him a highly effective force, earning him praise from contemporaries. Maxwell Fyfe was convinced that what he called “the criminal programme of Nazi Germany” had thoroughly “corrupted the human conscience” and that everything should be done to ensure that such a programme would never stain European history again. A crucial part of this response, he believed, was a Europe-wide charter of legally enforceable Human Rights, backed up by a European Court of Human Rights. As Britain’s representative on the “Judicial Section” of the European Movement’s International Executive Committee, Maxwell Fyfe had the opportunity to put these convictions into practice, playing a crucial role in the discussions leading up to the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1949, and the creation of the European Court at Strasbourg the following year. He considered any loss of national sovereignty a price worth paying for Europeans to profit from what he called in an article of 1948 “the minimum requirements of democracy: the legal right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and to a fair trial, the domestic rights, the right to information and the right to religious freedom.” Maxwell Fyfe seems to have taken the same view on sovereignty with regard to the fledgling European Community, and supported the Conservative Party’s pro-European turn in the early 1960s.
While understandably emphasising his subject’s tangible legacy in European affairs, Duxbury does not shy away from presenting the more controversial episodes of Maxwell Fyfe’s political career. Chief among these was his legally-dubious advice, given while Lord Chancellor (advice incidentally contradicted by the government’s own law officers) that Britain had the right under international law to intervene militarily at Suez in 1957. Duxbury shows that Maxwell Fyfe’s qualities as a politician, notably that of “settling on a position and holding it resolutely”, could on occasion turn into weaknesses, making it difficult for him to react to a rapidly evolving situation, or reappraise a position in the light of new evidence. This character trait may also help explain his refusal, while Home Secretary earlier in the decade, to countenance the possibility of granting mercy following two controversial capital convictions, that of Timothy Evans (1950) and Derek Bentley (1953), though Duxley concedes that his subject’s motivations in this area remain unclear. Whatever its origins, it is clear that Maxwell Fyfe’s punitive stance on law and order issues while at the Home Office, although popular in his party and the police, attracted fierce criticism in some quarters. Ironically though, on the question of decriminalising homosexuality, despite his personal opposition to any change in the law, Maxwell Fyfe turned out to be, as Duxbury observes, “a facilitator of reform malgré lui”; accepting the political case for a far-reaching inquiry into the subject. The result was the influential Wolfenden Committee, appointed in 1954. Its 1957 report recommended that homosexual practices between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.
Duxbury notes that the career of David Maxwell Fyfe “provides […] an object lesson in why it is always best to think very carefully before pinning labels on people.” He was a progressive on some issues – including that of industrial policy, discussed in an interesting passage in chapter 2 – while a hard-line defender of the status quo on others. The author is to be commended for bringing such nuance and complexity in post-war Conservative thought and policy to the attention of readers. The format chosen for this book (with a total of just 130 pages of main text) is inevitably going to leave readers hungry for more detail at certain points. One casualty is the relative scarcity of direct quotation from its subject’s speeches and publications. Another is the lack of any detailed treatment of Maxwell Fyfe’s private life or personality. However, despite these limitations, Lord Kilmuir : A Vignette provides an excellent introduction to the career of a man who, for better or worse, played a key role in some of the major political controversies, domestic and foreign, of post-war Britain.
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