Edwin Samuel Montagu reached the summit of his political career as Secretary of State for India, a position he held from 1917 to 1922, and he is best known for his contribution to constitutional reform in that country. However, following the publication of letters revealing the close relationship between H. H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley, Montagu’s own relationship with Venetia, who became his wife in 1915, has also become a subject of interest.
Montagu was born in London on 6 February 1879, the second son of Samuel Montagu, later the first Baron Swaythling. His father had made a considerable fortune in banking, and was a Liberal MP from 1885 to 1900. But besides their common attachment to the Liberal cause, father and son had little in common; in particular, Edwin had little sympathy for his father’s rigorous adherence to the Jewish religion, though he remained a member of the Jewish community all his life.
Between the ages of eight and twelve Montagu was taught at the Doreck College, a preparatory school in Kensington Gardens Square, London, and from 1891 he attended the Jewish House at Clifton College, near Bristol. However, owing to his ill-health it was thought that he would benefit from travel, and in the winter of 1891–2 he made a voyage round the world with his tutor, J. D. Israel. On his return he returned to Clifton College till 1893, and then studied at University College, London, where he took a science degree at the second attempt in 1898, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he passed the Natural Sciences Tripos in the third class in 1902.
At the general election of January 1906 Montagu was elected member of Parliament for West Cambridgeshire, and he represented this constituency and its successor, Cambridgeshire, continuously until 1922. Shortly after his election he was invited to become Parliamentary Private Secretary to Asquith, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he continued to hold this post when Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. The following year Montagu made the acquaintance of Venetia Stanley, his future wife, who had already become a close friend of Asquith’s.
In 1910 Montagu was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India, and while in this post he made his first visit to India, the events of which he recorded in his first Indian Diary. For a while his rise continued smoothly. In February 1914 he became Financial Secretary to the Treasury; in the New Year’s Honours of 1915 he was made a Privy Councillor; and in the following month he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which gave him a place in the Cabinet at an unusually young age. But his position of eminence was short-lived, for the Liberal Government was replaced by a Coalition in May, and in the consequent changes of office Montagu was reduced to his previous post of Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
About the same time his affair with Venetia reached a crisis, and she finally consented to marry him in May. She converted to the Jewish religion—a procedure which both husband and wife considered a mere matter of form—and the couple were married at the West London Synagogue on 26 July. Venetia spent most of the period of their engagement working at a hospital at Wimereux near Boulogne, and a considerable correspondence between the couple survives from this period. In the following years, much of the Montagus’ attention was given to the development of their house and estate at Breccles in Norfolk, under the direction of Sir Edwin Lutyens.
In June 1916 Montagu was appointed Minister of Munitions, a post he held for a year before accepting the office of Secretary of State for India, which he had long desired. Following the declaration in Parliament that the goal of British policy in India was to be the ‘progressive realization of responsible government’, Montagu made a second journey to that country, accompanied by a small delegation, from November 1917 to May 1918. He again kept a Diary of his experiences, an edited version of which was published by his wife in 1930. The eventual scheme of constitutional reform became law as the Government of India Act, 1919. But Montagu’s sympathy with the interests of Indians was to lead to his downfall. After the war, the question of the treatment of conquered Turkey aroused great agitation among the Muslim population of India; and in 1922, when Montagu authorized the publication of the Government of India’s protest against the treaty of Sevres without obtaining the permission of Cabinet, he was compelled to resign.
Montagu spent his last few years in business, making a journey to Brazil in the winter of 1923-4. He died on 15 November 1924, at the early age of forty-five.