Addison, Christopher, first Viscount Addison 1869-1951, statesman, was born at Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, 19 June 1869. His father, Robert Addison, came of a line of yeomen who had farmed in the vicinity of Hogsthorpe for generations. In 1861 he had married Susan, daughter of Charles Fanthorpe, a customs official in Newcastle. There were twelve children of the marriage of whom seven survived; Christopher was the youngest of three boys.
Brought up on a farm, Addison retained throughout his life a taste for country ways. But it was so clear at an early age that he possessed exceptional abilities that it was decided he should receive an education beyond that customary in the neighbourhood for a farmer's son. At thirteen he was sent to Trinity College, Harrogate, and later, in conditions of considerable financial stringency, he went to the medical school at Sheffield and thence to St. Bartholomew's. He specialized in anatomy and, soon after qualifying in 1892, returned to Sheffield to teach. In 1897 he was appointed professor of anatomy in the University College of Sheffield, leaving in 1901 to become a lecturer in anatomy at the Charing Cross Hospital in London. During these years he taught, researched, published, and administered with the energy and enthusiasm which were later to characterize his political activities. He published several works on anatomy, delivered the Hunterian lectures, edited the Quarterly Medical Journal, and, as a result of one piece of research, gave his name to a part of the human body, the Addison plane.
In 1902 he married Isobel Mackinnon, daughter of Archibald Gray who had made a considerable fortune in trade with India. They were to have three sons (one of whom died in early childhood) and two daughters. The money which his wife brought to the marriage made it possible for Addison to think seriously of a political career. In 1907 he was adopted as a Liberal candidate for the Hoxton division of Shoreditch.
His decision to abandon medicine and enter politics was taken at a time of political ferment. The Liberal upsurge which culminated in the victory at the election of 1906 appeared to open up totally new prospects for radical reform. Addison's own interests were in matters of health and social welfare. His general political outlook was that of a typical Radical. He was well read in John Stuart Mill [qv.], was in favour of Home Rule, and supported the nationalization of land. But what had moved him to enter politics was the plight of the poor which he had witnessed as a doctor, their chronic state of undernourishment, the lack of adequate medical attention when they were ill, the miserable and overcrowded conditions in which so many of them lived.
Addison entered the Commons at the first election of 1910 and, astonishingly for a man with no connections and little skill as an orator, had made his mark in not much more than a year. His chance came with the national health insurance bill of 1911. His special knowledge made him an invaluable member of the group of politicians and civil servants around Lloyd George which was responsible for the measure. Addison helped with the drafting of amendments, served as a link with the doctors, and worked indefatigably in the lobbies. It was the sort of work for which he had entered politics and for which, within the Liberal Party, he was uniquely fitted.
During these months he fell under the spell of Lloyd George. It was the making of an association which was to shape his whole political future. Lloyd George, a politician to his finger tips, had popular appeal, a subtlety of approach to difficult issues, an ability to charm and manage men, qualities which Addison almost totally lacked. But Addison's own skills were not inconsiderable, especially as they were complementary. He had a capacity, unusual in politicians, for mastering technical problems, his appetite for work was inexhaustible, and he was to prove himself a sound and thorough administrator. Moreover, he was content to be a subordinate since he was almost without the kind of political ambition and competitiveness which Lloyd George himself possessed in such abundance. Believing that Lloyd George shared his aims and that he was the only man in politics capable of achieving them, Addison was to serve him with total loyalty.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Addison was still a backbencher, although since 1911 he had been much involved as Lloyd George's aide in a number of schemes for the expansion of welfare services. He was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education in August 1914; then, when a ministry of munitions was set up with Lloyd George at its head in May 1915, Addison joined him. His post was that of parliamentary secretary, but to him Lloyd George assigned the main responsibility for organizing from scratch a ministry which, in the range of its personnel and the scope of its functions, had no precedent. It came into existence at a time of crisis when the traditional methods of supplying the army had proved incapable of meeting the demands generated by modern war. By the application of new techniques, soon to be labelled war socialism, a transformation was wrought in the British economy. Production soared, private industry was brought under a system of control and supervision, the Government itself built and operated factories on an enormous scale. In all this, Addison was invaluable, undertaking much of the detailed ministerial work which Lloyd George was only too happy to delegate. Perhaps Addison's largest contribution was to work out a costing system for munitions which by the end of the war had saved the country an estimated £440 million. He was sworn of the Privy Council in June 1916.
In July Lloyd George left munitions to become secretary for war, but Addison remained absolutely his man. In the ministerial crisis of December his canvass of Liberal members of Parliament was of key importance. The assurance that many Liberals would be willing to support Lloyd George if he could form a government enabled Lloyd George to demonstrate not only that he could muster sufficient support to maintain himself in office, but that he was the only man who could do so.
Addison's reward was the Ministry of Munitions which by now exercised control over almost every aspect of war production. But in July 1917 he left to become minister of reconstruction. He went with some reluctance, but Lloyd George was anxious to replace him by (Sir) Winston Churchill and had taken pains to weaken Addison's position by some characteristically devious activities during an engineers' strike in June. Addison, however, was soon enthusiastic about his new task: reconstruction not only offered a chance to plan the transition of the economy from war to peace, but also to produce longer-term schemes for social reform. Once again he threw himself into the organization of a new ministry. Committees in abundance were set to work to draw up blueprints for the future.
As the war drew to a close, Addison began to realize that most of his hopes were to be dashed. His capacity to influence policy had always derived from his relationship with Lloyd George. He had neither party support nor political backing of his own. To the public at large he was still Dr. Addison, remote and almost unknown. By 1918 he was no longer as close to Lloyd George as before. The prime minister was preoccupied with more pressing problems than reconstruction and on matter after matter Addison found himself unable to get a decision.
From the general wreck of reconstruction, however, Addison's favourite scheme, the establishment of a ministry of health, was salvaged. He became president of the Local Government Board in January 1919 and then introduced a bill to establish a ministry of health, becoming the first minister himself in June. He had always been attracted by the opportunities offered by the consolidation of all health questions in one ministry, but in 1919 the first priority was to devise ways of implementing the pledge of Homes fit for heroes which had been so loosely given at the election of 1918. Before the war the provision of housing for the working classes had been left almost completely to private builders and Addison knew from the start that the situation required a solution such as had been imposed by the Ministry of Munitions in 1915. But he had no control over prices and raw materials and no power to direct capital or labour from inessential work to housing. Houses could be built only by stimulating the local authorities to build them. The Housing, Town Planning, etc. Act of 1919 (usually called the Addison Act) provided that local authorities should build a virtually unlimited number of houses, that their rents should be controlled at a low level, and that the Government would meet, by subsidy, any loss beyond that which could be covered by a penny local rate. During the next three years the State built or financed well over 200,000 houses but, in conditions of post-war boom, the cost was tremendous. There was an outcry among many of the Conservative supporters of the coalition and, in April 1921, Lloyd George decided to let them have Addison's head. Addison kicked his heels until July as minister without portfolio and then, his housing policy having been torn to shreds, left the Government.
There was some force in Lloyd George's complaint that Addison regarded himself as a martyr to the cause of public health and refused to understand that not even the prime minister had any hope of stemming the tide running in favour of economy and against extravagance. But Addison could see only the betrayal of the promises that had been made to the homeless and the slum dwellers. It was for him a period of deep bitterness and frustration. His attachment to Lloyd George had long since cut him off from the main body of Liberals so that, after a defeat at the election of 1922, it was almost inevitable that he should turn to the Labour Party. His experience of the post-war coalition had persuaded him that the Labour Party offered the sole hope of achieving the social reforms on which his heart was set and, as he reflected on the lessons to be drawn from his years at munitions and reconstruction, he became convinced that socialist forms of control were not only socially desirable but could also be considerably more efficient than the methods of traditional capitalism.
Addison failed to get back to the Commons at the election of 1924 when he stood for Hammersmith South, and these years were mainly devoted to writing. He gave his version of the housing controversy in The Betrayal of the Slums (1922) and this was followed by Politics from Within (2 vols., 1924) and Practical Socialism (2 vols., 1926). In 1929 he was returned for Swindon and was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in the second Labour Government, succeeding Lord Noel-Buxton [qv.] as minister in June 1930. In a Cabinet which contained few energetic figures Addison was quickly ready with a major legislative programme for agriculture. Then came a stroke of fortune. Because Addison's parliamentary secretary was in the Lords, it was agreed that he would need help with piloting what were certain to be extremely controversial measures through the Commons. C. R. (later Earl) Attlee, who had recently succeeded Sir Oswald Mosley as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was assigned the task. He was deeply impressed by Addison's ability to master a subject and by the skill with which he ran his department and managed both his own party and the Opposition in standing committee.
In major political matters, Addison was on the outer fringe of the Cabinet. But when the financial crisis which destroyed the Government came to a head on 23 August 1931 he stood with those who opposed MacDonald and Snowden on cuts in unemployment benefit, the only middle-class member of the Cabinet to do so. Loss of office was followed, at the election in October, by loss of his seat in the Commons. He regained it at a by-election in 1934 only to be defeated at the election of 1935. His wife had died in the previous year.
In May 1937, powerfully persuaded by Attlee, he was created a baron. Later in the same year he married (Beatrice) Dorothy, daughter of Frederick Percy Low, a solicitor. He continued to be an active writer and publicist, his most important books of these years being Four and a Half Years (2 vols., 1934) and A Policy for British Agriculture (1939). In 1940 he became leader of the Labour peers, but the war afforded no outlet for his talents more considerable than the chairmanship of the Buckinghamshire war agricultural executive committee.
But, after the Labour victory at the election of 1945, Attlee appointed him leader of the House of Lords. He was then seventy-six, yet he was still in the Attlee government when it fell in October 1951, having held meanwhile the posts of secretary of state for dominion affairs (1945-7), lord privy seal (1947-51), paymaster-general (1948-9), and lord president of the Council (1951). Throughout this period if his administrative responsibilities had been small, in the Lords he faced a task which tested his skill to the utmost. He was responsible, in the face of an overwhelming Conservative majority, for the passage of a large and far-reaching legislative programme. He managed the Lords superbly, greatly aided by the fact that Lord Salisbury, with whom he struck up a remarkable understanding, was leader of the Conservative peers. To explain Addison's success, Attlee was wont to quote what a Conservative whip had said of him in 1931, ‘How can we oppose this man? He is so decent.’ No doubt deeper political consideration than this lay at the root of the decision of the Conservative peers to make sparing use of their strength after the débâcle of 1945, but Addison's persuasiveness did much to reconcile them to their lot.
As an elder statesman with no political ambitions of his own, he was of great value to Attlee in the Cabinet. His advice was listened to and he could always be relied upon for help in dealing with ‘difficult people like Aneurin Bevan’. Attlee, who rarely allowed personal and political relationships to come into contact, had a great admiration and affection for Addison and turned to him constantly as friend and adviser.
Addison was advanced to a viscountcy in 1945 and created K.G. in 1946. He died 11 December 1951 at his home at Radnage in Buckinghamshire, and was succeeded by his eldest son, Christopher (born 1904). His career had been one of the most unusual of his time. Not entering the Commons until he was forty, he was, apart from Lloyd George, the only man to hold office continuously from 1914 to 1921. Then, his career seemingly in ruins, he had to wait until he was seventy-six for a second chance. His responsibilities in the Attlee government were general and legislative, but few politicians of the second rank can match his record of innovation in the earlier part of his career. Before 1914 he helped to work out the details of a new medical and welfare system. During the war of 1914-18 he played a large part in initiating the methods of ‘war socialism’ which began the conversion of individualist capitalism to the collectivism of a later age. The Ministry of Health was his personal creation and, in spite of the circumstances of his political fall, it was Addison who more than any other man transformed the housing of the working classes from a capitalist enterprise into a social service. The setting up of the research councils for medicine, science and industry, and agriculture was largely due to his energy and determination.
Attlee wrote of him, ‘Patience, friendliness, common sense¾these were his virtues¾nobody wanted to quarrel when Addison was around. He made it seem wrong.’ But Addison's career was based on more than these personal qualities. He represented the idealist and humanitarian tradition in British politics and part of his importance is that he emphasized the chain of continuity which linked the Labour Party to a Radical past. But he was at his best in office, loyal to colleagues, active in innovation, sage in council, and skilled in administration.
Addison's own writings;
R. J. Minney, Viscount Addison: Leader of the Lords, 1958;
Observer, 7 February 1960;
Contributor: Maurice Shock.