Davidson, John Colin Campbell, first Viscount Davidson 1889-1970, politician, was born 23 February 1889 at Aberdeen, the younger child and only son of (Sir) James Mackenzie Davidson, a distinguished surgeon, and his wife, Georgina Barbara Watt, daughter of the Revd William Henderson, of Aberdeen. Davidson's grandfather, John Davidson, in 1825 had emigrated to the Argentine where he carved out a substantial fortune of which his grandson eventually inherited a half share. Davidson was educated at Fretherne House preparatory school, Westminster, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he obtained a third class in part i of the law tripos in 1909. He was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1913.
In May 1910 Davidson left Cambridge and joined the Colonial Office as unpaid private secretary to the secretary of state, Lord Crewe [qv.]. He continued in that capacity under Crewe's successor, Lewis (later Viscount) Harcourt [qv.], from the end of 1910. On the outbreak of war in 1914 Davidson was anxious to serve in the armed forces, but his tact, zeal, and efficiency had become indispensable to Harcourt whose reiterated pleas prevailed on him to stay at the Colonial Office, despite receiving the white feather on one occasion. In May 1915 Bonar Law replaced Harcourt who strongly urged him to retain Davidson. The two men soon struck up a warm friendship: Bonar Law treated him as a member of the family and relied on him as heavily as Harcourt had done.
With the accession of Lloyd George as prime minister in December 1916, Bonar Law became chancellor of the Exchequer, leader of the House, and second man in the Government. He insisted on taking Davidson with him to the Treasury. There Davidson was to some extent responsible for an appointment which had far-reaching effects on his own career and the history of Britain. He persuaded Bonar Law to take on as his parliamentary private secretary Stanley Baldwin, a hitherto obscure back-bencher who thus made his first step in the ladder of promotion. Davidson and Baldwin found that they had much in common. Their close personal and political friendship ended only with Baldwin's death some thirty years later. There was, however, one intimate of Law's whom Davidson kept at arm's length. He did not doubt the sincere affection with which Lord Beaverbrook [qv.] regarded Bonar Law, but he sensed dangers. Nor did he like the slightly raffish atmosphere of Beaverbrook's house, Cherkley Court. I dined, I lunched there, he wrote, but I never slept there. — Perhaps I was puritanical, but I also wanted to be independent — Davidson was responsible for the final draft of the famous coupon for the election in 1918, and on behalf of the leader of the House reported the political scene in the new Parliament to the King's secretary, Lord Stamfordham [qv.], who came to have a high respect for his judgement. In November 1920 Davidson was elected unopposed as Conservative member for Hemel Hempstead at a by-election and became parliamentary private secretary to Bonar Law who had become lord privy seal in 1919 while continuing as leader of the House. In March 1921, because of ill health, Bonar Law resigned. Davidson then became parliamentary private secretary to Baldwin, the new president of the Board of Trade. The coalition by now was beginning to lose its glitter. Davidson distrusted Lloyd George and his closest confidants, Churchill and Lord Birkenhead [qv.]. In October 1922 he was among the many influences causing Bonar Law to return and agree to accept the leadership of the Conservative Party if it voted to end the coalition. As he walked up the steps of the Carlton Club to the famous meeting on 19 October a lobby correspondent called out What is going to happen? Davidson prophetically replied A slice off the top.
On becoming prime minister, Bonar Law promptly invited Davidson to return as his parliamentary private secretary and reassume his old position as unpaid, unofficial secretary. Davidson was thus closely involved in the formation of the new Cabinet. His next assignment was to wind up Lloyd George's garden suburb—a task he performed with cool ruthlessness. Bonar Law's premiership ended with the collapse of his health in May 1923. The succession lay between Lord Curzon [qv.] and Baldwin. Davidson's part in influencing a decision remains something of a puzzle.
Bonar Law himself was ill and undecided. He personally preferred Baldwin but he did not see how Curzon's claims could be set aside. He asked to be excused from giving advice; but his true opinion was understandably of interest to Stamfordham who had the task of making soundings. In 1954 there was discovered in the royal archives a typed memorandum (unsigned but admittedly dictated by Davidson) in which the case for Baldwin against Curzon was most cogently argued. (Sir) Ronald Waterhouse, another of Law's secretaries, had handed it to Stamfordham when he and Sir Frederick Sykes [qv.] conveyed Law's official letter of resignation to the King. Stamfordham minuted at the head of the document that Waterhouse had stated that it practically expressed the views of Mr. Bonar Law.
There is nothing in the memorandum to corroborate this statement, and all the evidence suggests that Waterhouse had no right to make it. Davidson himself, in conversation long after the event, said that he had dictated it in response to a request from Stamfordham for a note written from the point of view of the average back-bencher in the House of Commons. There is nothing in the memorandum (or any contemporary papers which have come to light) to corroborate that statement either. Davidson, who doubted whether Waterhouse had even read the memorandum, was certain that he had no authority to pass it off as Law's opinion. Nevertheless he considered that it did not in fact misrepresent Law, although its forceful clear-cut arguments for Baldwin and against Curzon can scarcely be regarded as an accurate picture of a dying man's mind torn by misgivings, hesitation, and doubt. In any case, the result was affected only marginally. The King's decision was firmly based on his own good sense and the powerful arguments of Balfour against the choice of a peer as prime minister.
Davidson became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in Baldwin's Government, in effect continuing as the prime minister's private secretary. He lost his seat at the general election of December 1923, the timing of which he regarded as disastrous, but he recovered it in the election of 1924. In Baldwin's second administration he became parliamentary and financial secretary to the Admiralty where he had to circumvent Churchill's determination to force economies upon the Service, especially in regard to the building of new cruisers. During the general strike he played an important part as deputy chief civil commissioner, responsible for publicity. He managed the British Gazette and showed some skill in controlling the more intemperate outpourings of its turbulent editor, Churchill. He also arranged for the broadcasting of official bulletins whilst taking care to safeguard in principle if not in practice the independence of the BBC.
At the end of 1926 Davidson left office to take up the post of chairman of the Conservative Party. His main tasks were to clean up the honours system and simultaneously raise a great deal of money. He succeeded in both (ruining incidentally in the process that most notorious of honours touts, Maundy Gregory). The foundation of Ashridge, in memory of Bonar Law, as a Conservative adult education college was due almost entirely to Davidson's enthusiasm and he was now able to set about establishing its finances on a firm basis. He presided over its opening in 1929. Into the Central Office he introduced new blood: (Sir) Joseph Ball [qv.] from the secret service and Sir Patrick Gower from the Civil Service. He left a lasting imprint on the organization of the party and many of the changes attributed to his successor, Neville Chamberlain, were in fact his. He recognized the importance of the women who worked for the party; and he saw the need for a research department financially independent of Central Office. He and Ball also managed to penetrate the Labour Party headquarters and secure advance information about its policies and plans. But the loss of the election in 1929 counted against him, as did the personal link with Baldwin who, himself under heavy fire from Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere [qv.], and other malcontents, felt obliged to accept Davidson's resignation in May 1930. Davidson considered that he had been let down but he did not allow this to mar his friendship with Baldwin.
After the election of 1931, Davidson again became chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He went to India in 1932 as chairman of the Indian States inquiry committee and in 1933 became a member of the joint select committee whose proposals preceded the Government of India Act of 1935. He was offered, but refused, the governorship of Bombay. When Baldwin finally retired from politics in 1937 Davidson, who had little sympathy with Neville Chamberlain, retired too, and was made a viscount. Although he maintained his interest in Ashridge, he took no further active part in politics, but devoted himself to business interests and the promotion of good relations between Britain and South America. In 1940-1 he served in the Ministry of Information and in 1942 he made an official tour of South America.
A man of much charm and geniality, bespectacled and ruddy complexioned, Davidson could be very tough. He was essentially one who operated behind the scenes rather than on the front of the stage. A streak of Scottish puritanism put him emphatically on the side of the respectable. He had no sympathy with the buccaneers—Lloyd George, Churchill, Birkenhead, Beaverbrook. He was deeply devoted to Baldwin who owed a great debt to his advice, companionship, and support.
Davidson was appointed CB in 1919, CH in 1923, and GCVO in 1935. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1928.
In 1919 Davidson married a friend of Baldwin's family, Frances Joan, daughter of Sir Willoughby (later Lord) Dickinson. They had two sons and two daughters. His wife succeeded him as member of Parliament for Hemel Hempstead from 1937 until 1959. She was created a life peeress in 1963 as Baroness Northchurch. Davidson died at his London home 11 December 1970 and was succeeded by his elder son, John Andrew (born 1928).
Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: the Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law, 1955
Robert Rhodes James, Memoirs of a Conservative: J. C. C. Davidson's Memoirs and Papers 1910-37, 1969
Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, Baldwin, 1969
A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook, 1972
H. Montgomery Hyde, Baldwin, the Unexpected Prime Minister, 1973