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Birkenhead-rabble-rouser, self-indulgent, sybaritic K.C. ; spendthrift and shameless careerist, with perhaps the finest mind of his generation. When he died in 1930 no wonder The Times said of him that 'no public figure of his day has ever been more real to the mass of his contemporaries."
A meteor, perhaps, more than a man : a meteor which burnt itself out at the early age of fifty-eight, absurdly young for a lawyer. But, in truth. it was a miracle that he lasted so long. Lord Chancellor at forty-six, out of office at fifty, followed by eight years of increasing excess and decline, and then death, when ChurchilL who was only two years younger and his greatest friend, had not even entered his prime.
What was the truth about F. E. Smith? Nobody, it seemed, pursued the world's prizes with such single-minded, frantic energy. But was he as black as he painted himself? 'Self-interest' he proclaimed (in a notorious speech) to the rising generation, 'is and ought to be the mainspring of human conduct.' Was he, in fact, more ruthless than his political contemporaries, or simply more honest? Baldwin, who once said that he wouldn't touch him with a barge-pole, in later years revised his opinion : 'his heart was as good as his head, and that is saying a lot.'
In The Glittering Prizes William Camp has made a fascinating study of one of the most controversial - and tragic - figures of modern politics.