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Lord Reading

Denis Judd

John Campbell | Published in

Lord Reading's was the sort of career that sounds wonderful on a dustjacket. To quote this one: 'Rufus Isaacs was the first commoner to rise to the rank of marquess since the Duke of Wellington'. (This actually forgets Curzon, but let that pass). 'Born into a lively Jewish family engaged in the London fruit trade, he went on to become a brilliant QC, Lord Chief Justice ... Ambassador to the United States, Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary ... Trusted by Asquith and at the same time very close to the controversial Lloyd George.'

To rise from such a background to the heart of politics, and to such a variety of glittering offices – taking in an early hammering on the Stock Exchange, the Bar (lots of gripping courtroom dramas) and a major corruption scandal on the way – here surely is a biographer's dream. One can see why Denis Judd should have felt that Reading, despite previous biographies by his son and by Montogmery Hyde, had the makings of an attractive addition to his already impressive bag of subjects.

The trouble is that Reading was a very dull man. Here is the real paradox which Dr Judd, eager to find paradox in every twist of his career, is understandably reluctant to confront. His life story is unquestionably remarkable; he was universally described by his friends and colleagues as enormously brilliant, charming etc. ('l may say', F.E. Smith remarked to his wife on introducing her to Isaacs in 1902, 'that I consider this man quite as able as I am myself'); but he never did, said or wrote a memorable thing. For all the apparent romance of his rise and his allegedly rakish youth, he was no reckless adventurer in the mould of Smith, Lloyd George or Churchill, but an exceedingly cautious operator, valued by Prime Ministers as a shrewd financial adviser and a tactful negotiator; a grey eminence, with the emphasis on the grey.

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