Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Courtney, Leonard Henry

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4174155Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Courtney, Leonard Henry1927Francis Wrigley Hirst

COURTNEY, LEONARD HENRY, first Baron Courtney, of Penwith (1832-1918), journalist and statesman, eldest son of John Sampson Courtney, banker, of Alverton House, Penzance, by his wife, Sarah, daughter of John Mortimer, was born at Penzance 6 July 1832. As a boy he worked in Bolitho’s bank at Penzance. His mathematical talents attracted attention, and he won a sizarship at St. John’s College, Cambridge. His university career was distinguished; for he became second wrangler (1855), Smith’s prizeman, and fellow of his college. In 1857 he went to London and in 1858 was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. But journalism drew him from the law, and he threw himself into the study of politics and political economy. In 1865 he was appointed leader-writer to The Times under John Delane [q.v.], and during the next sixteen years wrote some 3,000 articles for its columns. He also contributed to the Fortnighily Review, forming a lifelong friendship with its editor, John (afterwards Viscount) Morley. From 1872 to 1875 Courtney occupied the chair of political economy at University College, London. Some years later he became interested in bimetallism and expressed admiration for Bryan’s ‘silver’ speeches in the presidential campaign of 1896 in the United States.

Courtney entered parliament in 1875 as liberal member for Liskeard, and made his mark on the left wing of the party with Henry Fawcett, Joseph Chamberlain, and Sir Charles Dilke. In 1880 he became under-secretary for the Home Office in Mr. Gladstone’s second administration, then under-secretary for the Colonies, and in 1882 secretary of the Treasury, a speedy promotion which promised him Cabinet office. Two years later he fell out with the government. Having become a zealous believer in proportional representation as a means of protecting minorities, he urged its inclusion in the Redistribution Bill. When the Cabinet declined to adopt this novel proposal, Courtney rather quixotically resigned. In 1886 he rejected Gladstone’s Home Rule policy, holding that Ireland was unfit for self-government. At Gladstone’s suggestion he became chairman of committees and deputy-speaker. In that office, which he held until 1892, his decisions were wittily, but a little unjustly, described as ‘impartially unfair to both sides’. In 1892, though a liberal unionist, he was pressed by the liberal government to accept the speakership, but declined, partly owing to unionist opposition, partly because he preferred political freedom and influence to dignity and opulence.

The growing spirit of imperialism found an obstinate opponent in Courtney. He resisted consistently and conscientiously the ‘forward’ policy in Egypt, the Sudan, and South Africa. His interest in South African affairs dated from 1877 when he had strenuously opposed the annexation of the Transvaal. In 1896 he denounced the Jameson Raid, and afterwards the Rhodes-Chamberlain-Milner policy which ended in the Boer War. After its outbreak in October 1899, Courtney’s persistent advocacy of ‘forbearance and conciliation’ made him one of the leaders of the anti-war party. As chairman of the South African conciliation committee he did all that was in his power to counteract the demand for annexation and unconditional surrender. This severed Courtney’s official connexion with the unionist party, and made him for the first time a national figure, though it lost him his seat in the general election of 1900. For the next six years Courtney lived the life of a political sage in Chelsea. Some years before his eyesight had partially failed, but his vigour was unimpaired.

In 1901 appeared his first book, The Working Constitution of the United Kingdom, and in 1904 The Diary of a Churchgoer was published anonymously. His old zeal for proportional representation also revived, and he made many converts.

After the liberal victory of 1906 Courtney accepted a peerage and became Baron Courtney, of Penwith. During the last twelve years of his life he spoke often in the House of Lords. He had agreed to the principle of Home Rule, and opposed everywhere the spirit of domination. After the death of Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman (1908) his distrust of Sir Edward Grey’s foreign policy grew apace. He repeatedly urged a reduction in armaments, and demanded that the understanding with France should not be exclusive, but should be followed by a similar understanding with Germany. The European War confirmed his fears, and he criticized the British government for the failure of its diplomacy, agreeing in this with his old friend, Lord Morley. As the fearful conflict progressed, he opposed all measures which seemed likely to prolong it. At home he pleaded for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. He explored all avenues that might lead to peace, and would have closed no door to negotiations, however unpromising. Only a few days before his death he wrote to the Manchester Guardian, arguing that neither side could be overwhelmed and that reconciliation should be tried. Courtney died in London 11 May 1918. He had married in 1883 Catherine (Kate), daughter of Richard Potter, at one time chairman of the Great Western Railway. They had no children.

Courtney was perhaps the greatest British statesman, since Cobden, of those who have never held Cabinet office. He was a genial host, fond of society, in argument dogmatic and sometimes pragmatical, stiff in opinions, and always ready to sacrifice his career to his convictions. To a mathematical mind and a strong logical sense, which insisted on arguing out every question, he united a very warm and emotional disposition.

There is a portrait of Courtney by Alphonse Legros in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

[G. P. Gooch, Life of Lord Courtney, 1920; personal knowledge.]

F. W. H.