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Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel

Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel

British politician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British politician
A.K.A. Herbert Samuel
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Politician Diplomat Statistician
Gender male
Birth 6 November 1870 (Liverpool, Liverpool, Merseyside, North West England)
Death 2 February 1963 (London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom)
Politics Liberal Party
Children: Edwin Samuel2nd Viscount Samuel
Education University College School, Balliol College
Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel
The details

Herbert Louis Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel GCB OM GBE PC (6 November 1870 – 5 February 1963), was a British Liberal politician who was the party leader from 1931 to 1935. He was the first nominally-practising Jew, although a personal atheist, to serve as a Cabinet minister and to become the leader of a major British political party. Samuel was the last member of the Liberal Party to hold one of the four Great Offices of State. He also served as a diplomat.

One of the adherents of "New Liberalism", Samuel helped to draft and present social reform legislation while he was serving as a Liberal cabinet member.

Early life

Herbert Samuel was born at Claremont No. 11 Belvidere Road, Toxteth, Liverpool, Lancashire, in 1870. The building now houses part of the Belvedere Academy. He was the brother of Sir Stuart Samuel. Educated at University College School in Hampstead, London and Balliol College, Oxford.

He had a Jewish upbringing, but in 1892, while at Oxford he renounced all religious belief, writing to his mother to inform her. Samuel worked through the influence of Charles Darwin and the book On Compromise by senior Liberal politician John Morley. He remained a member of the Jewish community, however, to please his wife, and kept kosher and the Sabbath "for hygienic reasons".

Early political career

Samuel in 1893

Samuel unsuccessfully fought two general elections before being elected a Member of Parliament at the Cleveland by-election, 1902, as a member of the Liberal Party. He was appointed to the Cabinet in 1909 by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, first as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then as Postmaster General, President of the Local Government Board and eventually Home Secretary.

He put forward the idea of establishing a British protectorate over Palestine in 1915, and his ideas influenced the Balfour Declaration. As Home Secretary, Samuel faced a shortage of manpower needed to fight in World War I, and he initiated legislation to offer thousands of Russian refugees (many of them young Jews) a choice between conscription into the British Army or returning to Russia for military service.

In December 1916, Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by Lloyd George. Lloyd George asked Samuel to continue as Home Secretary, but Samuel chose to resign instead. He attempted to strike a balance between giving support to the new government while remaining loyal to Asquith. At the end of the war he sought election at the general election of 1918 as a Liberal in support of the Coalition government. However, the government's endorsement was given to his Unionist opponent, and he was defeated.

Women's rights

Initially he had not been a supporter of women's suffrage but then changed his position. In 1917, a Speakers Conference was charged with looking into giving women the vote but did not have, in its terms of reference, consideration to women standing as candidates for parliament. However, Samuel moved a separate motion on 23 October 1918 to allow women to be eligible as Members of Parliament. The vote was passed by 274 to 25, and the government rushed through a bill to make it law in time for the 1918 election.

High Commissioner of Palestine


One month after Britain's declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, Samuel met Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the President of the World Zionist Organization and later the first President of Israel. According to Weizmann's memoirs, Samuel was already an avid believer in Zionism and believed that Weizmann's demands were too modest. Samuel did not want to enter into a detailed discussion of his plans but mentioned that "perhaps the Temple may be rebuilt, as a symbol of Jewish unity, of course, in a modernised form".

One month later, Samuel circulated a memorandum, The Future of Palestine, to his cabinet colleagues, suggesting that Palestine become a home for the Jewish people under British rule. The memorandum stated, "I am assured that the solution of the problem of Palestine which would be much the most welcome to the leaders and supporters of the Zionist movement throughout the world would be the annexation of the country to the British Empire".

Appointment as High Commissioner

In 1917, Britain occupied Palestine (then part of the Ottoman Empire) during the course of the First World War. Samuel lost his seat in the election of 1918 and became a candidate to represent British interests in the territory.

He was appointed to the position of High Commissioner in 1920, before the Council of the League of Nations approved a British mandate for Palestine. Nonetheless, the military government withdrew to Cairo in preparation for the expected British Mandate, which was finally granted two years later by the League of Nations. He served as High Commissioner until 1925 . Samuel was the first Jew to govern the historic land of Israel in 2000 years.

He recognised Hebrew as one of the three official languages of the territory. He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) on 11 June 1920.

Samuel's appointment to High Commissioner of Palestine was controversial. While the Zionists welcomed the appointment of a Zionist Jew to the post, the military government, headed by Edmund Allenby and Louis Bols, called Samuel's appointment "highly dangerous".

Technically, Allenby noted, the appointment was illegal, as a civil administration that would compel the inhabitants of an occupied country to express their allegiance to it before a formal peace treaty (with the Ottoman Empire) was signed violated both military law and the Hague Convention. Bols said the news was received with "[c]onsternation, despondency and exasperation" by the Muslims and Christians.<re>Ingrams, Palestine Papers, p. 106.</ref> Allenby said that the Arabs would see it "as handing country over at once to a permanent Zionist Administration" and predicted massive violence.

Lord Curzon read the last message to Samuel and asked him to reconsider accepting the post. Samuel took advice from a delegation in London representing the Zionists, who told him that the "alarmist" reports were not justified. The Muslim-Christian Association had sent a telegram to Bols:

Sir Herbert Samuel regarded as a Zionist leader, and his appointment as first step in formation of Zionist national home in the midst of Arab people contrary to their wishes. Inhabitants cannot recognise him, and Muslim-Christian Society cannot accept responsibility for riots or other disturbances of peace.

The wisdom of appointing Samuel was debated in the House of Lords a day before he arrived in Palestine. Lord Curzon said that no "disparaging" remarks had been made during the debate but that "very grave doubts have been expressed as to the wisdom of sending a Jewish Administrator to the country at this moment".

Questions in the House of Commons of the period also show much concern about the choice of Samuel: "what action has been taken to placate the Arab population... and thereby put an end to racial tension". Three months after his arrival, the Morning Post wrote, "Sir Herbert Samuel's appointment as High Commissioner was regarded by everyone, except Jews, as a serious mistake."

Historic plaque on King George Street, Jerusalem, affixed in 1924 by Herbert Samuel during his term as High Commissioner of Palestine
TE Lawrence with Sir Herbert Samuel, Sheik Majid Pasha el Adwan (at far right) and Gertrude Bell (at left) at the aerodrome of Amman, April 1921
Sir Herbert Samuel, seated centre, with Jerusalem church leaders and British officials, 1922.


As High Commissioner, Samuel attempted to mediate between Zionist and Arab interests, acting to slow Jewish immigration and win the confidence of the Arab population. He hoped to gain Arab participation in mandate affairs and to guard their civil and economic rights, but refused them any authority that could be used to stop Jewish immigration and land purchase. According to Wasserstein his policy was "subtly designed to reconcile Arabs to the... pro-Zionist policy" of the British.

Islamic custom at the time was that the chief Islamic spiritual leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was to be chosen by the temporal ruler, the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, from a group of clerics nominated by the indigenous clerics. After the British conquered Palestine, Samuel chose Hajj Amin al-Husayn, who later proved a thorn in the side of the British administration in Palestine. At the same time, he enjoyed the respect of the Jewish community, and he was honoured by being called to the Torah at the Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

During Samuel's administration the Churchill White Paper was published. It supported Jewish immigration within the economic absorptive capacity of the country to accommodate them and defined the Jewish national homeland as

"not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride".

Samuel won the confidence of all sections of the population by his noted "impartiality". He struck a particularly strong relationship with Pinhas Rutenberg, granting him exclusive concessions to produce and distribute electricity in Palestine and Trans-Jordan, often strongly backing Rutenberg in his relations with the Colonial Office in London. Samuel government signed the Ghor-Mudawarra Land Agreement with the Baysan Valley Bedouin tribes, that earmarked for transfer 179,545 dunams of state land to the Bedouin.

Samuel's role in Palestine is still debated. According to Wasserstein,

He is remembered kindly neither by the majority of Zionist historians, who tend to regard him as one of the originators of the process whereby the Balfour Declaration in favour of Zionism was gradually diluted and ultimately betrayed by Great Britain, nor by Arab nationalists who regard him as a personification of the alliance between Zionism and British imperialism and as one of those responsible for the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland. In fact, both are mistaken.

Samuel Commission

On his return to Britain in 1925, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin asked Samuel to look into the problems of the mining industry. The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926, recommending a reorganisation of the industry but rejecting the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended the government subsidy to be withdrawn and the miners' wages reduced. The report was one of the leading factors that led to the 1926 General Strike.

Vera Weizmann, Chaim Weizmann, Herbert Samuel, Lloyd George, Ethel Snowden and Philip Snowden

Later political career

Samuel returned to the House of Commons following the 1929 general election. Two years later, he became deputy leader of the Liberal Party and acted as leader in the summer of 1931 when Lloyd George was ill. Under Samuel, the party served in the first National Government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed in August 1931, with Samuel himself serving as Home Secretary. However the government's willingness to consider the introduction of protectionist tariffs and call a general election to seek a mandate led to the Liberal Party fragmenting into three distinct groups. Sir John Simon had already led a breakaway group of MPs to form the Liberal National Party.

The Liberal leader, Lloyd George, led a small group of Independent Liberals, opposing the National Government. That left Samuel effectively as leader of the parliamentary party and in control of party headquarters. The government's moves to introduce tariffs caused further friction for the Liberals, and Samuel withdrew the party from the government in stages, first obtaining the suspension of cabinet collective responsibility on the matter to allow Liberal members of the government to oppose tariffs. In October 1932, the Liberal ministers resigned their ministerial posts but continued to support the National Government in Parliament. Finally, in November 1933, Samuel and the bulk of the Liberal MPs crossed the floor of the House of Commons and opposed the government outright. He remained leader of the Liberal Party until he again lost his seat in 1935.

In 1937, he was granted the title Viscount Samuel; later that year, Samuel, despite his Jewish ancestry, aligned himself with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Adolf Hitler, urged that Germany be cleared of its 1914 war guilt and recommended the return of German colonies lost after the war. He declined a later offer by Chamberlain to return to government.

In 1938, he supported the Kindertransport movement for refugee children from Europe with an appeal for homes for them.

Samuel later became the leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords (1944-1955). During the 1951 general election, on 15 October 1951, Samuel became the first British politician to deliver a party political broadcast on television.


On 17 November 1897 Samuel married his first cousin Beatrice Miriam (1871–1959), daughter of Ellis Abraham Franklin, a banker. They had three sons and one daughter. His son, Edwin, served in the Jewish Legion.

Samuel was great uncle to the scientist Rosalind Franklin.

Literary career

In his later years, he remained concerned over the future of humanity and of science, writing three books: Essays in Physics (1951), In Search of Reality (1957) and a collaborative work, A Threefold Cord: Philosophy, Science, Religion (1961). The three works tended to conflict with the beliefs of the scientific establishment, especially as his collaborator and friend in the last work was Herbert Dingle.

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