John Barnes, Historian

Crookshank, Harry, 1st Viscount (1893-1961)

Crookshank is best remembered as a parliamentarian, Leader of the House of Commons from 1952 until 1955, when he was elevated to the peerage, and a man whose mastery of parliamentary procedure and deft chairmanship of parliamentary committees suggested that, had the choice fallen on him, he might have made a memorable Speaker. He was a keen student of parliamentary history and displayed considerable reverence for the tradition and usages of Parliament. He was one of the last Members to remain faithful to the silk hat.

When he entered the House in 1924, it was soon discovered that his urbane manner and rather ingenuous air of old-fashioned Toryism concealed a rapier-sharp wit that (as The Times observed, "could bite deeply into his opponents' defences." In his memoir, Orders of the Day, a fellow Conservative MP, Lord Winterton, observed that three young men, "all with a fine record in the 1914 war - Captain Crookshank, Captain Macmillan and Captain Anthony Eden - were among those whose names began to be familiar to the public in the 1927 session, from parliamentary press reports. Even in those days I had been long enough in the Commons to be, or to flatter myself that I was a fairly good judge of those amongst the young and new members who were likely eventually to attain high office; I was confident that such a position in the future would be reached by the three captains in question." Crookshank was not to attain ministerial office, but once on the Government front bench, he was speedily given a measure of independence as Secretary for Mines and, four years later, in 1939 became Financial Secretary to the Treasury and a privy councillor. His route to the top seemed assured, but surprisingly not only did he miss out on all the great offices of state, but he was overtaken in the ministerial stakes by his close friend, Harold Macmillan.

Harry Frederick Comfort Crookshank came of a long-established Ulster family. He was the only son of Harry Maule Crookshank of Cairo and was born in 1893. He was educated at Eton, where he was a King's Scholar, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. He served in the First World War, initially in the Hampshire Regiment and after 1915 on the Special Reserve of the Grenadier Guards. Macmillan recalls that they were both wounded on September 15th during the Battle of the Somme. Subsequently he served at Salonika and received the Order of the White Eagle and the Serbian Gold Medal for Valour.

Demobilised in 1919 with the rank of Captain, he entered the diplomatic service as a Third Secretary and was subsequently Second Secretary at Constantinople and Washington. In 1924 he resigned upon his election to the House of Commons for Gainsborough. He proved to be a conscientious and hard working Member, and was widely regarded as being on the progressive wing of the party.

In 1934 he was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary to the Home Office, in recognition of which his constituents made him a special presentation. He quickly built a reputation as a safe pair of hands and in the reshuffle following Baldwin's succession to the Prime Ministership in June 1935 was promoted to be Secretary for Mines. Arguably this was the most successful and creative part of his ministerial career. The Labour Government's 1930 Coal Act had not provided any long-term basis for the resolution of hours and wages in a declining industry and when in 1935 the Miners Federation renewed its demand for a national wage increase, Crookshank thought their case that wages were too low because the coal owners had failed to use the powers conferred on them by the Act to secure reasonable prices was "unanswerable". He urged the Cabinet to adopt the union's policy, which was to force the owners to reorganise their marketing by obliging them to pay higher wages, and to attempt an advance towards national wage determination and "district selling agencies under central control".[1] He had the full backing of his ministerial chief, Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, and the Cabinet agreed. In the winter of 1935-36 the government pressurised the owners to accept the case for higher wages and to take part in the national consultative machinery, the Joint Standing Consultative Committee. But Crookshank had inherited an interdepartmental committee's report that advocated nationalisation of mining royalties and the cancellation of existing leases to facilitate amalgamations and he was ready to accept the case made by the Chairman of the Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission that amalgamations were impossible under the 1930 Act. Although there was an inherent contradiction between the Government's decision to force the reform of the industry's marketing arrangements and the drive for efficiency implied by compulsory amalgamation, Crookshank had no doubt that it was right enforce reorganisation. Unlike his predecessor, he was not afraid of the political implications. Backed by Runciman, he secured the inclusion of the nationalisation of mining royalties in the Government's manifesto for the 1935 election. In February 1936 he argued that the Cabinet should take forceful action to restore the authority of the Reorganisation Commission by modifying the 1930 Act to ensure that it would not be hamstrung by legal challenges. His only concession to the Owners was to allow them a two year period in which they could amalgamate voluntarily. After that, the Commission could use compulsion. The Cabinet agreed and the Coal Mines Bill was published on 6 May 1936.

The Mining Association accused the Government of a breach of faith. They had agreed to centralised selling in the belief that it would put an end to the possibility of compulsory reorganisation. They had the backing of other industries and their lobbying was successful in arousing sufficient opposition from Conservative backbenchers to cause the Government to postpone the Bill's second reading. To contemporary observers, the Government seemed to have capitulated to a sectional interest, but Crookshank had grasped that the opposition of the Federation of British Industries to the Bill was largely down to their anxiety about the quasi monopoly powers of the selling agencies rather than hostility to enforced mergers. In the summer of 1936 new procedures were promised to safeguard consumers and by the winter of 1936-37 Crookshank could report that not only was opposition on the backbenches more muted than he had feared, but that leading representatives of major consumers like the iron and steel firms, electricity generation and gas favoured compulsory rationalisation of the coal industry. A revised coal bill along the lines that Crookshank favoured was included in the King's Speech and introduced in November 1937. It created a new Coal Commission, which would take over mineral rights and was entitled, if it was dissatisfied with the process of voluntary reorganisation in any district, to seek an order from the Board of Trade bringing compulsion to bear. There would, however, be a two year delay before any order could be sought and the order would be subject to negative resolution in the Commons. Part I of the Bill dealing with the nationalisation of royalties went through with relative ease, but the Mining Association's continued opposition to compulsory reorganisation found crossbench support from opponents of state interference on the Conservative benches and mining MPs fearful of unemployment. Oliver Stanley, who had succeeded Runciman at the Board of Trade, was eventually forced to concede that each proposal would be subject to examination by a select committee before it was ratified and with that concession, Crookshank successfully piloted the Bill through its remaining stage in the Commons by April 1938.

Crookshank was resentful that Chamberlain did not seem to recognise his success, but it is probably unfair to associate his growing opposition to the Government's appeasement policies with his bruised feelings. It appears that more than once during the Munich crisis in 1938 he was on the brink of resignation and after the debate on the agreement he told Chamberlain that he would have to leave the Government. The Prime Minister in response made it clear that he did not stand by the phrase, 'Peace with Honour' and said that he would press on with rearmament and the search for collective security. He also promised that there would be no election and Crookshank, feeling that his 'ultimatum' had been successful, decided, despite mental reservations, that he would soldier on[2]. In 1939 he was rewarded for his loyalty by appointment to the Privy Council and promotion to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He was never a Chamberlain enthusiast: for example, when he learnt on the outbreak of war that all the Liberals had been offered in return for joining the Government was a non Cabinet post, he wrote in his diary: "What a fool Chamberlain is and how mean minded - as if they could look at such an offer."[3] He was equally scathing when Chamberlain's only response to pressure to reconstruct his government was to install Hoare in place of Kingsley Wood at the Air Ministry. "This seems fantastic", he noted. "PM must be mad."[4] But when Churchill formed a Coalition government in May 1940, he noted as "a sign of the times" that his ministerial chief, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had given way to Bevin on old age pensions and he was to play his part later in the war in the activities of the Reconstruction Committee. Churchill had wanted to make him Minister of Reconstruction, but Butler had persuaded the Conservative Chief Whip against the move - it would be too provocative to the Labour Party.

In May 1940 Churchill had re-appointed him as Financial Secretary and he was to prove an able lieutenant to Kingsley Wood. In this period of intense strain, Crookshank's close study of the facts stood him in good stead and his parliamentary skills were put to the test in debates upon successive finance bills. He was resolute in defence of the Chancellor's proposals, but on occasion overruled by the Chancellor, whose highly tuned political instincts led him to gauge that a concession needed to be made. One such occasion was the result of endless rows over the restrictive nature of the dependants' allowance (CHECK SAYERS). By February1942 he was one of only three ministers who had held the same office since the beginning of the war and Wood thought his promotion was long overdue. Churchill thought of him as a possible candidate for the newly-created Ministry of Fuel and Power, and he was actually offered the posts of Minister Resident in West Africa and later in North Africa. His doctor ruled out the former and he refused the latter, making way for his friend, Harold Macmillan. The reason was the same, the wounds he had suffered in the First World War. Normally the Financial Secretaryship was the last stepping stone to Cabinet rank, but in the unique circumstances of a wartime coalition Crookshank had in the end to be content with promotion in 1943 to the Postmaster Generalship in command of a great public enterprise, a post he filled with unobtrusive efficiency. His final task at the Treasury was to visit Washington in 1943 to investigate the cost of Britain's wartime effort in the United States.

In opposition, he was appointed to lead for the Conservatives on the Select Committee that streamlined parliamentary procedure, thus enabling the Labour Government to get through its immense legislative programme. But he made his reputation by his relentless questioning and pertinacious criticism of the Government, most notably of their nationalisation programme. He had always been in demand to reply to debates, where his readiness of wit and command of the facts showed to good advantage, but it was his performance in opposition that consolidated his position as a senior member of the front bench team. A typical performance was that on the bill to nationalise the Bank of England. Crookshank was aware that his leader was not ill-disposed to the move and that views on the Conservative benches were mixed. He therefore concentrated on the Government's motives, arguing that it had been nationalised "for one purpose only, and that is to demonstrate to the supporters of the Socialist Party that in the first six months they have carried one of their election promises - just one. Are there more homes? No. Has there been quicker demobilisation? No. Is there more food and more clothes?" In addition behind the scenes he organised induction sessions for new Conservative MPs on the tactics of opposition and laid on lectures on the rules of the House. "One of the best and most consistent performers was Harry Crookshank", Macmillan recalled in Tides of Fortune: "deeply versed in the procedures of the House, ready to seize any advantage based on this knowledge. He was a witty, entertaining speaker, often interrupted, but never thrown off his balance." Crookshank was a member not only of the Leader's Consultative Committee, which met fortnightly over gargantuan lunches to listen to Churchillian monologues - "how he can bore one", Crookshank wrote - but also of the much smaller inner grouping that met in the intervening weeks.

Churchill found him distinctly unsympathetic and the antipathy was mutual. Crookshank more than once was the fount and origin of moves to be rid of his leader. In July 1947, as James Stuart recalled, "about six or eight of the chief people met at Harry Crookshank's house in Pont Street and discussed this awkward and important subject. In the absence of Anthony Eden they came to the - for me - not very attractive conclusion that I was the one who should tell Sir Winston Churchill (sic) the bad news..." But when he did so, Churchill "banged the floor with his stick and got quite annoyed." The move came to nothing. "When Winston became Prime Minister for the second time", Lady Churchill told Moran, "I discovered that [Crookshank] was a Chamberlain man, and that he gave parties for Tories who had been admirers of Mr Chamberlain. I thought I would try and see whether I could not make him more friendly to Winston. But when I found he hated him I gave it up."[5]

In October 1951, although he took his advice on many of the junior appointments, Churchill despatched him to the Ministry of Health, a department that had been downgraded by the removal of its housing and local government responsibilities and added the deputy Leadership of the House. When Eden decided that he was unable to take on the burden of leading the House, as Churchill had originally intended, this task was given to Crookshank, to his undoubted pleasure. Despite a brilliant performance when winding up the debate on the Opposition amendment to the Address on 13 November 1951, he was thought to have made a faltering start, and Seldon is of the opinion that it "took him a year.... to gain sufficient confidence to settle down in the job" and he notes Woolton's recollection that he never won Conservative affection, nor fully satisfied backbenchers.[6]

That was perhaps a jaundiced view. Certainly no one who heard that initial speech ever forgot it, and more particularly one memorable passage: "During the election I remember saying - it was rather an obvious remark - that one could not foreshadow the future exactly for fear of what skeletons there might be in the cupboard. But it was not in the cupboards that the skeletons were; they were hanging like candelabra in every office and Department in Whitehall".

It fell to Crookshank to chair the Cabinet Committees in the autumn of 1951 that settled the King's Speech and determined whether the Government could introduce legislation before Christmas to denationalise the steel industry. Finding this to be impossible, he advised the issue of a directive which would prevent the Board from any action that would prejudice the return of the industry to the private sector. He was subsequently to chair the Cabinet's Steel Committee, was one of those pressing for the bill to be brought in and for few concessions to be made to the Opposition, and later he asked for the disposals to be speeded up. He was also the architect of the proposal to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Nationalised Industries. Although he presided over the Cabinet on three occasions when Churchill and Eden were in the United States in the winter of 1951-52, Butler was subsequently given the job. In the Cabinet, he contributed little, except on parliamentary business, but privately he remonstrated with Monckton about the pay deal struck with the railwaymen in 1954. Throughout he remained the principal arbiter of the Government's legislative programme and he chaired the committee to determine what legislation could be put forward in the 1954-55 session since it was widely expected to be terminated by a General Election.

In his account of Churchill's Peacetime Ministry Henry Pelling is dismissive of Crookshank's brief tenure of the ministry of Health. Although it is true that there is little about the department in his diaries, that would appear to be unjust. In fact Crookshank won the admiration and affection of his senior officials. He quickly grasped the complex relationship between the professionals and the administrators, comparing it in his own mind to the War Office, where ministers had to deal with the CIGS and the Permanent Secretary. Sir George Godber, the Chief Medical Officer, was impressed by his intellect, his commitment and his zeal and found that his grasp of how the machinery of the department operated was matched by a considerable knowledge of the problems of health care.[7] He was particularly interested in the subject of mental health and was determined that it should not be neglected. He was also conscious of the need to right abuses. One of his early actions was to present the Permanent Secretary with a list of issues about which the public felt strongly or which he thought were unpopular, and he asked for an analysis to be made of the way in which grievances could be redressed. What is true is that his wish to introduce hotel charges for patients in hospital fell on stony ground in Cabinet, but he was permitted to introduce charging for drugs, medicines, certain appliances and dental treatment in 1952. He also played an important part in persuading the Cabinet to accept the recommendations of the Danckwerts Committee on doctors' pay.

Pat Hornsby Smith, who served as his junior minister, was apprehensive initially about how this "Edwardian bachelor" would treat her, but she found herself treated with consideration, offered shrewd counsel, and, unusually for that period, was allocated clearly defined areas of work.

As Minister, Crookshank laboured under an enormous handicap. He had to be in or near the House when it was sitting and much of his departmental work and in particular ministerial visits had to be confined to Friday and the occasional Saturday. Labour MPs complained that he could not operate as a departmental minister and treat them fairly as Leader of the House and it was clear that, if they knew he was away, they would make an enormous fuss. The burden of combining the leadership with departmental office also, as Eden had found during the war, was immense and there were signs that it was affecting Crookshank's own health. Early in November 1951 Churchill had told Crookshank to let him know if the two offices were going to prove too much, But Crookshank was reluctant to give Health up. When there was press speculation in February 1952 that a new Minister was to be appointed, Crookshank noted in his diary: "Not a word of truth in it so far as I know." But he may have been relieved when, on 5 May 1952, Churchill asked hi to concentrate on the leadership of the House. Two days later, he noted: "To bed early as I am so tired, but dropping Health will help."

The move seems to have been inspired by the doubts felt by some of his colleagues, notably Eden, about his effectiveness as Leader. Appointed Lord Privy Seal on 7 May, he could now concentrate on that job, but the move was not altogether a success. The task of arranging and controlling parliamentary business requires tact and a delicate weighing of the balance between making concessions and getting the Government's business through. No Leader can hope to satisfy everybody, but a little give and take can ease the parliamentary process and keep the House in good humour. The Opposition were inclined to think that Crookshank interpreted his duties too narrowly and that he was inclined to be too partisan. Although he was always courteous, seldom raised his voice and was never flurried, the dry laconic manner in which he treated issues that had passionately engaged the feelings of Labour MPs could infuriate them. They thought he trivialised issues or rode off into irrelevancies, seldom treating matters of great concern with the weight they thought was deserved. It is important not to exaggerate this. Often they were simply baffled by the adroit way in which he slipped out of awkward situations, and his easy charm and equanimity could be very disarming. Kilmuir, writing of "his immense knowledge of the procedure of the House of Commons, which he was to lead with ebullient charm for four years", adds "he loved the House with great tenderness, and he was so universally popular that he could say the most outrageous things of the Opposition without being swamped by their indignant howls." And Macmillan, when Crookshank was asked in December 1955 to surrender the leadership of the House and the Privy Seal to Butler, judged that he "was not being removed because of any failures of his own. He had proved himself able and resourceful, and the best manager of Parliamentary business in living memory."[8]

Crookshank, when he chose to stand his ground, could display another side to his character, a degree of stubbornness and a steely resolve that found its voice in a tartness that could be stinging and a frosty disdain. But that was not the side of him that most remembered. In general he spoke mildly and displayed both charm and a mellow good humour.

Behind the scenes Crookshank was one of those who wanted to be rid of Churchill. His doubts about Churchill's judgement were confirmed in August 1954 when the Prime Minister bullied Eden into making a fresh overture to the Soviets. Together with Salisbury, Crookshank led to resistance to the move in the Cabinet and was damned for his impudence.

When Eden succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister in April 1955, Crookshank retained the leadership of the House and he was reappointed after the General Election in May. He was one of those in Cabinet who resisted any move to link Britain's fortunes with the emerging European Economic Community, writing to Butler to convey his view that it would do damage to the Commonwealth. Ironically the great proponent was his close friend, Harold Macmillan. It was the need to find a suitable position for Butler when he left the Treasury in December that put an end to Crookshank's political career. In return for surrendering the leadership of the House and the Privy Seal, Eden offered him a peerage and a chance to assist Salisbury in the Lords as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. After consulting Macmillan, he decided to accept the peerage, but not the more junior place in Eden's administration. He was made a Companion of Honour and his Viscountcy was gazetted in January 1956.

A deeply religious man, he took the chair of the Historic Churches Trust in 1956. Three years later he was appointed to chair the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, and in March 1960 he became High Steward of Westminster. In a happy move the new Chancellor of Oxford University made him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law in June. Later that year, on the eve of the anniversary of the battle in which both had been badly wounded, Crookshank for the second time and Macmillan for the third, the two dined for the last time. "We talked of old times mostly. He is wonderfully brave, but I fear he is a dying man." Barely a month later, Crookshank died of cancer at his London home on 17 October 1961.

He had never married. A slightly withdrawn and fastidious figure, he found it difficult to convey in public the seriousness with which he approached issues and few were aware of the warm heart and congenial manner that characterised his private life. He was a deeply sensitive man, who inspired considerable affection in his friends. In office he displayed considerable intellectual vigour and great administrative ability, while he brought a keen mind and incisive wit to Parliamentary debate which enriched and enlivened the deliberations of the House. Duty and loyalty were his watchwords and few doubted that they lay at the heart of the man.

[1] CAB 24/257/19-26 [27 September 1935]

[2] Crookshank diary 4 & 6 October 1938. Cf. N.J.Crowson: Facing Fascism. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1997. p.97

[3] Crookshank Diary 29 December 1939

[4] Crookshank Diary 2 April 1940

[5] Moran p.

[6] Woolton Diary 27 January 1956, cited A.F.Seldon: Churchill's Indian Summer. Hodder & Stoughton, 1982. p.91

[7] Interview. Seldon op.cit. pp.264-5

[8] Tides of Fortune p.687