A politician every bit as flamboyant as Alan Clark
Alan Judd reviews Galloper Jack by Brough Scott
Time's toll on contemporary reputation is always greater than we think. You could be close to kings and prime ministers, minister of state, war hero twice over, friend of Churchill's for 48 years, founder of the National Savings movement, father of the 1930s National Government, ennobled, arch-appeaser of Mussolini and Hitler, then repentant and vigorous supporter of war against them – all this and more, yet within a few decades your name is known only to historians and your family.
But Jack Seely – the first Lord Mottistone – may become better known as a result of his grandson's affectionate memoir. Brough Scott, racing correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph and Channel Four, decided to add bones and structure to the corpus of family stories about their dashing and heroic Edwardian forebear. The result is a story both uplifting and instructive, well researched and written with infectious, but not uncritical, enthusiasm.
The Seely fortune grew from Nottinghamshire coal, but home for Jack (1868-1947) was the family estate on the Isle of Wight. The privileged, impetuous youth became and remained a stalwart member of the local lifeboat crew and the experience reinforced in him those liberal and egalitarian instincts that so often went hand-in-hand with Victorian and Edwardian patronage. Theirs is an age we have, in Scott's words, "cast into caricature" and Jack Seely, with his upper-class drawl and imperial assumptions, could easily be caricatured.
But to do so would be as facile and unjust as that cinematic sneer against the First World War, Oh! What a Lovely War. Grim experience of the Boer War – when he ruffled feathers by protesting against military muddle and by opposing ranch burning and concentration camps – sharpened his political instincts, and he entered Parliament to campaign for Army reforms. He was first a Conservative, then a Liberal MP, but always, essentially an issues rather than a party man.
He progressed to secretary of state for war, but politics turned his virtues – loyalty, straightforwardness, honesty, courage – into vices: naïve judgment, simple-mindedness, self-advertisement. In 1914 he was made scapegoat and forced to resign over the Curragh Mutiny. He also had his share of ill-luck: while he was breaking up a fight at a royal function between the South African and Canadian representatives, his horse bit the King's foot – and that is what stuck in people's minds. To the military hierarchy, it showed he was a loose cannon.
This was despite the judgment of Maurice Hankey, first and archetypal Cabinet secretary, that Seely did more than anyone apart from Asquith and Haldane to facilitate the country's belated war preparations. Not least of his achievements was helping to found the Royal Flying Corps and organising shipping to get the Army to France. Flying became a theme of his life: he was the first minister to fly, became post-war Under-Secretary of State for Air, and in 1919 scandalised the powers-that-were by flying a sea plane through Tower Bridge to land at Westminster. Of modern ministers, perhaps only Alan Clark might have had that style.
In the First World War, Seely forsook Westminster for the trenches, commanding a Canadian cavalry brigade with idiosyncratic flair and systematic bravery. He endured four harsh winters in the line and numerous near escapes before the brigade he loved met its own Calvary at Moreuil Wood, during the 1919 German Spring Offensive. This, like other war episodes, is vividly evoked by Scott, a biographer who rightly makes the effort to walk the ground he describes. The commentary box asides that pepper his earlier chapters – remarks that might work on air, but appear intrusive and otiose in print – are less evident here. His depictions of the four million horses killed on the Western Front, and his descriptions of Seely's incomparable mount, Warrior, are written with all the informed enthusiasm you could expect of a former jockey.
Seely led a vigorous life after the war, but he was somewhat adrift and his ardour never to see such suffering again blinded him to the realities of Mussolini and Hitler. Always an idealistic optimist, he became, says Scott, "a cock-eyed one" who found Hitler "absolutely truthful, sincere and unselfish". It took another war to restore his political sight; he donned uniform and went to Churchill in tearful repentance. He died in 1947 of the gas that had got him in 1918.
Not least among our misconceptions of that age is the assumption that our forebears repressed their emotions; one of the attractions of this sympathetic piece of family and social history is that it shows how fearlessly and well they could express feeling, and how Roman they were in performing their duty. I doubt we match them in either.