Friday, 10 February 2012

Have the Liberals always produced more blackguard MPs than other parties?

In 1915, John Gruban, a naturalised German-born engineer married to a German wife, was a successful businessman living in England and running his own munitions firm. Given there was a war on, and with Germans definitely off the Christmas Card list, Gruban looked for a powerful English friend to help him hold onto his company and to stop him from being interned. He was introduced to Frederick Handel Booth, a well-respected Liberal MP.

Booth, who claimed to be a close friend of the Minister of Munitions, offered to join Gruban’s Board of Directors at the exact moment the government had asked a supervisor to look into the company. Any criticism would have led to Gruban’s removal and the internment he so feared. Gruban welcomed Booth on board with open arms.

Almost immediately, Handel Booth suggested that the company’s directors should be paid a commission on all profits and that he, Booth, should be paid the highest commission – 10% - as he was the most valuable director. Gruban refused. But, later, Booth persuaded him that the only way the government would leave the company alone would be if Gruber allowed him to take over as Managing Director. Subsequently, Booth said that, in order for Gruban not to be interned, he would have to sign over to him all his shares and assets in the company: Booth would, of course, return everything to him when the situation improved. Utterly frazzled, Gruber did as he was asked – and was promptly issued with an order for his internment.

Gruban appealed against the order, and his appeal was heard by two British judges, who questioned Gruban and then his supposed saviour, Booth. The tribunal ordered Gruban’s immediate release and recommended that he sought the services of a solicitor to protect his interests.

Gruban’s solicitor, concluding from all the available evidence that Handel Booth was nothing but a swindling blackguard, instituted proceedings against the Liberal MP. The jury trial began as hatred of Germans reached its zenith, in the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania. Booth was represented by a bevy of powerful barristers (including Quintin Hogg), Gruban by Patrick Hastings, appearing in his first major case.

From the start, Handel Booth appeared relaxed and openly contemptuous of his sausage-noshing opponent, who retained a pronounced German accent - what could go wrong?

The key question put by Hastings to the defendant was, “Mr Handel Booth, would it be dishonest for the director of a company to seek for himself a secret commission on his company’s earnings?” Yes, it would. “ If you did such a thing would you consider yourself a rogue?” “Of course.”

What Handel Booth had forgotten was that, when he’d suggested a secret commission to himself on all the company’s profits, he’d drawn up a memorandum of agreement to that effect in his own handwriting, which Gruban had angrily thrown into his wastepaper basket. And what Handel Booth didn’t know was that Gruban had later retrieved the memorandum and kept hold of it. 

Hastings now produced that piece of paper in court.

In summing up, the judge told the jury "be sure that you permit no prejudice… to disturb the balance of the scales of justice”. It took the jury ten minutes to find Handel Booth guilty of fraud and to award damages of £4,750 (£193,000 these days) to John Gruban.

In Cases in Court, Sir Patrick Hastings’ fascinating review of some of his most significant cases, first published in 1949, he concluded his account of this one (which led to him being appointed a KC) with these words: “An English jury is seldom, if ever, wrong. In my opinion twelve ordinary English men and women sitting together form the best tribunal that the world has ever known.”

I bet that was true then. I wonder if it still is today. I certainly hope so. 

Hastings, by the way, led an interesting life. He had to leave Charterhouse at the age of 16 because of lack of money (he hated the place anyway), and took a job as a navvy on a North Wales mining project before fighting in the Boer War (he hated the Army as well). He was a drama critic while studying for the bar (he later wrote a number of plays, some of which were filmed, and one of which a critic described as "the worst play I have ever seen", which promptly caused it to be sold out). He served as Attorney General in the first Labour government, but had to give up politics due to bad health, and returned to the Bar, where he enjoyed enormous success. His political leanings didn't prevent him from severely duffing up LSE principal Harold Laski in a libel case (Laski denied newspaper reports that he had called, at an election meeeting, for the introduction of socialism even if it required violence - the jury concluded that he had).

Whatever, reading Sir Patrick's account of the Gruban case cheered me up on my sickbed.


  1. Booth." He was lyin' when he should have been truthin' ". Ms N. Sinatra.

  2. It's an interesting point. Even before you get to the business (sic) of Mark Oaten, where his defence was that hair loss made him do it, the Libs have a lot of previous. I still find myself wondering exactly what Jeremy Thorpe had in mind when he wrote "Bunnies can and will go to France" in his note to Norman Scott. I suppose we will never know.

    I have also always had a soft spot for lawyers' memoirs. There was one in the school library by a former pupil about his successes as a defence lawyer which had the title "Only two were hanged", underneath which some one had written "The rest were shot."