KERR, Philip Henry
18th April 1882 to 12th December 1940
Kerr was Lloyd George’s private secretary during the First World War, and also editor of the journal Round Table. He later became Marquess of Lothian and served as British ambassador to the USA.
Kerr was born in London on 18 April 1882, the son of a general. His paternal grandfather was the seventh Marquess of Lothian; his maternal grandfather was the fourteenth Duke of Norfolk. Kerr was educated at the Oratory School in Birmingham, where he first planned to become a Catholic priest, and then in 1900 formed the idea of joining the army to fight in the Boer War. His parents discouraged him from doing so, and Kerr instead went to New College, Oxford. He graduated with a first-class degree in modern history in 1904, and then applied for a scholarship at All Souls College, but was rejected. One of his tutors at Oxford was the historian H.A.L. Fisher, who would also go on to speak at a Rowntree conference.
In 1905 Kerr joined the South African civil service. He was part of the group of young men of promise who were known as ‘Milner’s kindergarten’ after Alfred, Lord Milner, the high commissioner of South Africa. Lionel Hichens, another future Rowntree speaker, was also part of this group. In 1907 Kerr was asked to edit a new journal in South Africa, The State, which argued for the unification of the four South African colonies under a single administration.
Kerr returned to England in 1909. In 1910 he was appointed editor of Round Table, a new journal devoted to imperial affairs. Kerr and the other supporters of Round Table were liberal imperialists, believing in the reform of the empire and the granting of more power to the colonies and dominions rather than outright independence. Kerr had met and was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, and was an advocate of Indian self-government within the empire.
Kerr also became friendly with Nancy Astor. He had by this time rejected Catholicism, and it may have been Astor who introduced him to Christian Science. Kerry probably became a Christian Scientist around 1913, at the same time as Astor, but did not convert formally until 1923, probably in order to avoid distressing his devout Catholic parents.
In 1916, thanks in part to the influence of Lord Milner, Kerr was appointed as a private secretary to the prime minister, David Lloyd George. He became a member of the kitchen cabinet around the prime minister known as the ‘Garden Suburb’, who were criticised for being an unaccountable and unelected elite who nonetheless wielded great influence over policy. Kerr served as the prime minister’s advisor on foreign affairs, to the anger of Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, who felt his own role was being undermined. Kerr advised Lloyd George to accept and push forward Indian plans for self-government, which earned him the anger of many imperialists.
Kerr further incurred the wrath of Winston Churchill when he advised Lloyd George to refuse Churchill’s plan for military intervention in Russia after the Bolsheviks came to power. During the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, Kerr was Lloyd George’s chief aide; Macmillian (2001: 42) describes him as the ‘gatekeeper’ who determined who the prime minister saw and what information he received. It has been suggested that Kerr drafted the
‘war guilt’ clause in the treaty, assigning Germany primary responsibility for starting the war, but Macmillan assigns primary responsibility for this to the American lawyer, John Foster Dulles.
In 1921 Kerr left his government post to become a director of United Newspapers and managing editor of the Daily Chronicle. He left this post too in 1922 to devote more time to the study of religion in general and Christian Science in particular; during this period he wrote articles for the Christian Science Monitor. In July 1925 he became secretary of the Rhodes Trust, an appointment that caused Rudyard Kipling to resign his own post as a trustee in protest. Kerr himself became increasingly pro-American in his sentiments, perhaps partly as a result of his continuing friendship with Nancy Astor.
In 1930 Kerr succeeded his cousin and became eleventh Marquess of Lothian. In 1931 he served in Ramsay MacDonald’s government, first as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then until late 1931 as under-secretary of state at the India Office, where he continued to push for Indian self-government. During the later 1930s he supported the policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany, arguing in 1936 that Adolf Hitler was right to re-occupy the Rhineland. Before the Second World War, Kerr met twice with Hitler, hoping to negotiate a peaceful settlement of Europe’s disputes.
In April 1939, Kerr was appointed British ambassador to the USA, a post he accepted with alacrity. Once war began, Lothian set aside his views on Germany and campaigned vigorously for American support for Britain. He had just finished negotiating the Lend-Lease deal between the American and British governments when he fell ill in December 1940. As a Christian Scientist, he refused all medical intervention, and died accordingly in Washington on 12 December 1940.
As noted, Kerr was a liberal imperialist. With the passage of time he became a strong federalist, moving from a position of breaking down barriers between states to one of removing state boundaries altogether. As described in his essay Pacifism is Not Enough (1935), he advocated the creation of commonwealths of nations and peoples. The British empire could become one such commonwealth, and perhaps also join forces with the USA. Europe he felt should be similarly united under one government, but without Britain; Kerr felt the differences in history and culture between Britain and the rest of Europe were too strong to allow such a federation to work.
Kerr’s Rowntree lecture was given during the middle period of his career, when he was out of power and, for the moment, content to stand on the sidelines and observe and theorise about international relations. His subject, ‘some international aspects of Britain’s economic problems’, gave him an opportunity to expound on his federalist views. In the lecture, Kerr warns his audience that Britain’s economic difficulties cannot be solved by domestic measures alone. Britain is no longer an island; what happens in faraway places has an impact on the British economy, and vice versa.
Kerr points out, for example, the rising Indian independence movement led by Gandhi is as much an economic phenomenon as a political one. For decades, Kerr says, Britain pumped its mass produced factory goods into India, thereby destroying the old Indian economy which had lasted for more than two thousand years, thereby impoverishing the country. He argues, quite correctly, that the independence movement is as much a matter of achieving economic freedom as seeking political independence. The same is true, he says, of parts of Africa.
Closer to home, Britain’s economic health depends heavily on her international trade. This is greatly hampered by tariffs, with the USA and many continental countries continuing with strongly protectionist policies. To trade with Europe, Kerr says, British manufacturers need to negotiate with 25 separate tariff regimes (the implication is that if Europe were politically united, only one tariff regime would exist). Another problem is that labour is cheaper on the continent than in Britain, and Kerr accuses some continental governments of driving wages down and subsidising their own industries in order to make them more competitive. He argues that the International Labour Organisation in Geneva could usefully expand its role to monitor not only wages but movements of capital in order to make it clear which countries are deliberately undercutting others.
And too, Kerr says, political peace is needed. In the mid-1920s, long before appeasement, he is clearly worried at the direction continental politics is taking, and already regretting the harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
What will Russia be, what will Germany be, in twenty years? Will they be democracies? The peace of Europe and the destiny of the League of Nations, and the ideals for which it stands, depend upon the answer to that question. Only if the League’s ideals triumph can we avert another war.
Bosco, A. and May, A. (eds), The Round Table: The Empire, Commonwealth and British Foreign Policy, London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1997.
Butler, J.R.M., Lord Lothian, London: Macmillan, 1960.
Kendle, J., The Round Table Movement and Imperial Union, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975.
May, A., ‘Kerr, Philip Henry’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Macmillan, M., Paris, 1919, New York: Random House.
‘Some international aspects of Britain’s economic problem’, 18 April 1925, Balliol College