Alexander, Albert Victor, Earl Alexander of Hillsborough 1885-1965, politician, was born 1 May 1885 at Weston-super-Mare, the fourth child and only son of Albert Alexander, blacksmith and artisan engineer, and his wife, Eliza Jane Thatcher. After the death of his father in 1886, his mother, a woman of great determination and energy, moved with her young family to her parents' house in Bristol and set out to provide for herself and her children by returning to her trade of surgical belt and corset-making. Although she ultimately built up a thriving business, the early years were a hard struggle and when Alexander was only thirteen he decided, for himself, to give up full-time schooling and start contributing to the family income.
He left his first job after a few months to become a boy clerk in the office of the Bristol school board, to begin a career in educational administration which was to last until 1920. In 1903 he transferred to the school management department of the Somerset County Council and returned to Weston-super-Mare to live. By his natural abilities he rose to become in 1919 chief clerk of the higher education department.
In 1908 Alexander married a schoolteacher, Esther Ellen, daughter of George Chapple, of Tiverton, Devon. Influenced by her he joined the Baptist Church and became a lay preacher, thus following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, who had been a highly individual evangelist of some note. During this period as a local government official he not only continued his education at evening classes, but also took an active interest in the National Association of Local Government Officers, eventually becoming secretary of the Somerset County Council branch. He also joined in the affairs of his local Co-operative Society and in time became its vice-president. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the Artists' Rifles; he served throughout the war and was demobilized with the rank of captain.
His activities as a lay preacher, trade-union branch secretary, and Co-operative Society committee member all provided Alexander with experience which was to prove valuable in his subsequent political career; but his entry into politics at the national level was quite fortuitous. After returning from the army, life as a local government officer ceased to satisfy him and, on a sudden impulse, he applied in 1920 for the post of secretary to the parliamentary committee of the Co-operative Congress, which he happened to see advertised. To his surprise he got it. At first it proved less exciting than he had hoped but when he complained that the work was insufficiently demanding, his chief suggested that he should set about defeating the Lloyd George Government's proposal in the finance Bill of 1921 to introduce a corporation profits tax applicable to Co-operative Societies. After an intensive lobbying campaign the measure was in fact defeated by a narrow margin, and Alexander's contribution to this success caused him to be immediately recognized as a rising star in the Co-operative movement and he was invited to stand as Labour and Co-operative Party candidate in the Hillsborough division of Sheffield, for which he was returned in the general election of 1922. He held the seat, except for a break between 1931 and 1935, until 1950. In the Commons he quickly gained a reputation as a forceful and knowledgeable debater on matters of trade and industry, so that when the Labour Party formed a minority Government in 1924 he became parliamentary secretary to the Board of Trade, under Sidney Webb [qv.].
His first term of office lasted only a few months, but when Labour won the general election in 1929 he was judged ready for promotion. On the strength, it is said, of the acquaintance with Merchant Navy affairs which he had gained in 1924, he was appointed first lord of the Admiralty. Although MacDonald's choice was perhaps surprising, it was a happy one. Alexander took to naval affairs as if by instinct and he rapidly developed an enduring admiration and affection for the navy. During this first term of office his most important work lay in the negotiation of the London Naval Treaty signed in 1930. Although the policy of agreed numerical and qualitative limitations enshrined in the treaty provided less than he or the naval staff would have wished, Alexander welcomed the fact that agreement of some kind had been achieved; he was later to take particular pride in the achievements in the battle of the River Plate of two of the cruisers, Achilles and Ajax, built in conformity with the treaty.
In the crisis of 1931 Alexander was among those who were not prepared to support a reduction in unemployment payments and he did not join the national Government. At the general election he stood once more as an orthodox Labour-Co-operative candidate. He lost his seat and returned to his work for the parliamentary committee of the Co-operative Congress. In 1935, however, he was once more returned for Hillsborough and became the principal Opposition spokesman on naval affairs. In this role his understanding and support of the needs of naval defence were unwavering, although he did not hesitate to attack the Government with great vigour if he thought that any particular aspect of policy was unsound.
By now Alexander had become a recognized master of naval affairs, so that there was nothing surprising in his second appointment as first lord in May 1940, when Churchill formed his wartime Government. Not only was he the only Labour minister with experience in charge of a Service ministry, but it was also an appointment in a field in which the prime minister, who had also twice been first lord, would brook no interference. It may be significant of the prime minister's attitude to Alexander, and perhaps also that of the Service chiefs, that the first lord was not allowed access to the most secret materials and did not have entry to the most secret war room. Alexander remained in this post for the whole of the war. The direction of operations was of course concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and the chiefs of staff; but what was left to the first lord Alexander tackled with unflagging energy and solid competence. He enjoyed the support of the sea lords and worked in full harmony with them, especially with the first sea lords, Sir Dudley Pound [qv.] and Sir Andrew Cunningham (later Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope) [qv.]. With Pound he made a hazardous journey to Bordeaux in June 1940 in an effort to secure assurances from the French authorities that the French Fleet would not be allowed to fall into enemy hands. The failure of this mission faced him and his colleagues with a cruel dilemma: whether to use force to immobilize the French ships at Oran in July 1940. Neither on this occasion nor any other did he falter in his judgement of naval needs or his resolve to see that, if possible, they were met. He represented with skill and persistence the naval case in the crucial discussions which went on continually about the allocation of scarce resources between the Services; and he found time somehow to speak up and down the country during the Warship Weeks which were designed in part to sustain public enthusiasm for the war effort and in part to stimulate investment in national savings. His sense of identity with the navy was, indeed, so marked that he occasionally caused raised eyebrows by talking of my navy, when all he meant to signify was his own devotion to the Service of which he was immensely proud to be the political head.
The war over, Alexander was replaced as first lord during the short caretaker Government which preceded the general election of 1945; but he returned to the Admiralty for his third term of office as first lord when the Labour Party emerged victorious. Alexander's long experience of naval administration served him in good stead in the difficult task of guiding the navy through the transition from a war to a peace footing. He also served as a member of the Cabinet delegation, with Sir Stafford Cripps [qv.] and Lord Pethick-Lawrence [qv.], which went to India in 1946. Lord Wavell [qv.] recorded in his journal that Alexander was straight, sensible and honest, the very best type of British Labour, the best we breed. At the beginning he knew nothing of India and the ways of Indian politicians, and sat back. At the end he really had a surer and more realistic grasp of the situation than either of the other two.
In December 1946 Alexander moved, after a brief interval as minister without portfolio, to a yet higher office in the defence field, when he was appointed as the first minister of the new Department of Defence created to reorganize the higher direction of defence policy. His term of office was both less successful and less satisfying than his time at the Admiralty. The chiefs of staff tended as before to pursue the interests of their separate Services and there was no Service chairman to co-ordinate their views from an independent standpoint. The task of adjudicating between conflicting claims came less naturally to Alexander's particular talents than the advocacy of a single case. Nor were his relations with some of his Service colleagues, and Field-Marshal Montgomery in particular, as uniformly harmonious as they had been with the sea lords. Furthermore he faced political difficulties over conscription as a result of the conflict between the military needs as assessed by his advisers and the widespread dislike of conscription among Labour backbenchers. The opposing pressures thus engendered caused him first to propose a period of eighteen months, then to reduce it to twelve during the passage of the national service Bill, only to restore an eighteen-month period a few months later. Whereas his policy on this central issue appeared vacillating, in the international sphere he played a consistently constructive role in the Western Defence Union through his ability to get on well with the defence ministers of the other countries in the alliance.
The general election of 1950 signalled the end of Alexander's career as a departmental minister. The Labour Party had so narrow a majority that it was felt essential that the minister of defence should be in the House of Commons. Alexander, who had been raised to the peerage in the New Year honours, became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. When Labour went out of office in 1951 he became deputy leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords; and even though he was by then seventy, in 1955 he was unanimously elected to succeed Lord Jowitt [qv.] as leader. In spite of increasing physical disability from an arthritic hip he insisted on performing the duties of leader with great conscientiousness until late in 1964. To the end he made well-informed, hard-hitting contributions to debate, especially on defence matters.
In the Co-operative movement Alexander was a leading figure, for many years by far the best-known and most effective advocate of its ideals and policies. From time to time he also played a significant part in shaping the movement's internal organization. He was, for example, one of the prime movers in the creation of a new national Co-operative authority in 1932. A few years later, when the probability of war became apparent, he joined with other representatives of the food industry in pressing for the creation of a large reserve of stocks of wheat.
As a Baptist lay preacher it was natural that Alexander should be a staunch defender of the Protestant faith. Both before his energies were absorbed by high ministerial duties and after he moved into the calmer atmosphere of the House of Lords, he campaigned actively for the right of every man to worship God in his own way, and, if he so desired, without the intervention of priesthood or hierarchy. He was fond of quoting the dictum of his favourite author, Emerson, that whosoever would be a free man must first be a non-conformist. In 1956 he was president of the Council of Protestant Churches.
When Alexander died, Attlee paid a moving tribute to this loyal, strong man. Loyal he certainly was, with an unshakeable devotion to the national interest, as he saw it, and to his party; but strong was not strictly accurate if taken to mean inflexible in the pursuit of his own policies. Certainly Alexander held a few fundamental principles on which he was unyielding, but in what to him were secondary matters his approach was pragmatic and his way to a solution the search for a consensus. Similarly, as a political figure, he was trenchant and forthright in debate; but generous in his personal relations with friends and opponents alike. He declined to publish his memoirs because he saw so many others draw into backbiting criticism in the pursuit of self-justification. This innate magnanimity earned him the respect and friendship of so many colleagues. Indeed, behind an often gruff exterior he had a gift for conviviality and friendship. The circle of his friends extended far beyond politics and the Co-operative movement and included men and women in industry, in the City, in medicine, in the theatre, and in sport. He was particularly proud, as a lifelong soccer enthusiast, to be vice-president of the Chelsea football club. He was a member of the Bakers' Company and served his turn as master. A keen self-taught musician, he was never happier than when seated at the piano, leading a ward-room gathering, a group of European defence ministers, or even a viceroy in a sing-song.
Although he wrote a good number of articles on political and Co-operative subjects and at least one short religious tract, Alexander exerted his public influence as a speaker. When himself deeply moved, his speeches, and still more his sermons, were fired by an equally moving fervour; but his normal parliamentary manner was different. It was well summed up by Harold Laski [qv.] who described him as a good debater without being a great orator and went on what he says is always made with point and directness. He is never at a loss for a phrase or an idea. He puts his views with a hale honesty that is a real index to his character.
But if Laski caught Alexander's normal speaking style accurately he exaggerated his commitment to socialist ideology. In fact there was nothing of the dogmatist about him and his social-political philosophy was essentially that of a nonconformist radical, concerned to work pragmatically for the freedom and welfare of those whose lives, like his own when young, were cramped by circumstances outside their own control.
Alexander was a man of medium height; broad in the shoulder and deep in the chest, with a square jaw to match. His features were well marked but the most readily noticeable was his wide mouth, sometimes set in a very firm line, but often relaxed in a good-humoured smile. His voice had a warm resonance about it in which his west-country origins could often be detected and his manner had an engaging, if occasionally blistering, spontaneity about it. Nature had endowed him with the enormous stamina for the long hours which he had to accept throughout his ministerial career and he had the invaluable gift of being able to sleep at will and managing on only a few hours rest during the night.
He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1929 and appointed CH in 1941. In the same year he became an elder brother of Trinity House. In 1950 he was created a viscount and in 1963 an earl. In 1964 not long before his death he was appointed KG. He was an honorary freeman of Sheffield and Weston-super-Mare, and an honorary LLD of Bristol (1945) and Sheffield (1947). He had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter. The title therefore became extinct when he died in London 11 January 1965. His widow died in 1969.
Of two portraits by Ernest Moore, one is in the possession of the family and the other went on indefinite loan to the Admiralty. He was also painted by Flora Lion.
The Times, 12 January 1965
Contributor: Clifford Jarrett