Frederick Edwin Smith Birkenhead, Lord

(b. 1872)

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(b. Birkenhead, 12 July 1872; d. London, 30 Sept. 1930)

British; Lord Chancellor 1919–22, Secretary of State for India 1924–8; Kt. 1915, Viscount 1921, Earl 1922 The son of a barrister, Smith was educated at Birkenhead School and Wadham College, Oxford, where he took a first in jurisprudence. He lectured in law at Oxford University before being called to the bar. He established a reputation as a brilliant and combative lawyer, willing to demolish weak judges as well as witnesses. He was elected to the House of Commons as a Unionist (Conservative) in 1906. In 1914 he served with the Expeditionary Force but the following year was brought into government as Solicitor-General and, five months later, was promoted to Attorney-General. In 1916 he led the prosecution for treason of Sir Roger Casement. In 1919 he was appointed Lord Chancellor and moved to the Lords as Viscount Birkenhead. He carried through a significant reform of property law. He served until the fall of the coalition government, refusing to serve in the new government formed by Bonar Law. Recalled by Baldwin in 1924, he was given (apparently deliberately) a post inappropriate to his particular talents, that of Secretary of State for India. He gained Baldwin's trust as a man of sound judgement, both on India and on domestic issues. Never a rich man, he resigned in 1928 in order to establish a better income for himself and his family. He took up directorships of ICI and Tate & Lyle, but his business career proved a short one. He died in September 1930 at the age of 58.

Beaverbrook rated him ‘the cleverest man in the kingdom’, an assessment that Birkenhead probably shared. His inability to suffer fools gladly counted against him, ensuring he had plenty of enemies in the political world. Though ambitious and arrogant, he gained the confidence of both Baldwin and Churchill, the former relying on him more and more during his last years of service in the Cabinet.

Subjects: Politics.

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