He was educated at Fettes College, and in 1892 was enrolled at Wadham College, Oxford, where he studied classics. He became president of the Oxford Union, obtained a first-class degree in 1896, and was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. Two years later he was called to the bar. He was a very successful barrister, becoming King’s Counsel, and in 1909, standing counsel to the University of Oxford. By that time, Simon was already carving out a political career.
In 1906 he became Liberal M.P. for the Walthamstow Division of Essex, after which he rose quickly in Liberal circles. His legal training had prepared him well for an appointment as solicitor general in 1910, a post that he held until 1913, when he became attorney general (with a seat in the cabinet). He was also appointed a privy councillor in 1912.
In 1927 Simon was made chairman of the Indian Statutory Commission, which within the context of widespread unrest and nationalism undertook to examine the way in which constitutional progress could be achieved in India.
When Baldwin replaced MacDonald as prime minister in 1935, Simon was appointed home secretary and deputy leader of the House of Commons, during which he was involved in the abdication crisis of Edward VIII and the coronation of King George VI. When Neville Chamberlain replaced Baldwin as prime minister in 1937, Simon became chancellor of the exchequer and a member of Chamberlain’s inner cabinet.
Thereafter, Simon played little part in the war effort. In May 1940 he became lord chancellor in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government and was given the title of Viscount Simon of Stackpole Elidor. He retired from politics in 1945 and died on 11 January 1954 after suffering a stroke.
By 1931 Simon was disgruntled with the Liberal Party, which was propping up Ramsay MacDonalds second Labour government. In March 1931, he opposed Lloyd Georges decision to continue to support the Labour government; and when that government collapsed in the financial crisis of August 1931 and the National government was formed under Ramsay MacDonald, he gave his full support to the new administration. Yet the formation of the National government was flawed by the fragmentation of the Liberal Party. David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader, stayed outside the National government and led a faction of Liberal M.P.s that was increasingly dominated by his relatives and close friends. Sir Herbert Samuel entered the National government, but withdrew with the Liberal free traders in 1932, when it became blatantly obvious that the Conservative-dominated National government was going to be staunchly protectionist. Simon joined the National government, and with about 25 supporters, formed the National Liberals—a group that formally proclaimed its separate existence on 5 October 1931. The loyalty of the Liberal National group to the National government was cemented by Simon’s appointment as foreign secretary—a post he held until 1935—and by his abandonment of the principle of free trade and acceptance of protectionism.
Like many Liberals, Simon was unhappy about Britain’s involvement in World War I. He believed that peace would be best secured through international negotiations, and along with other leading Liberal figures, he seriously considered resigning from government, but did not do so. He refused the post of lord chancellor in the Asquith wartime coalition government, formed in May 1915, but accepted that of home secretary. It was a short-lived appointment, lasting only seven months; he resigned when Asquith’s government introduced military conscription in 1916. This period of office had, in fact, been painful to him, since he had had to sanction the police seizure of pamphlet stock of the Union of Democratic Control, a group founded at the beginning of the Great War to protect civil liberties, among whose members were some of Simon’s old friends. From 1917 on, despite his hesitancy about the Great War, he spent the rest of the war with the Royal Flying Corps in France.
Simon remained a supporter of Asquith and opposed Lloyd George’s “coupon” arrangement in 1918, whereby those taking the coupon promised to support Lloyd George if he was returned as prime minister. As a result of this stance, he lost his seat in the 1918 general election. He contested the Spen Valley parliamentary by-election in November 1919 and December 1920, but faced with a pro-coalition opponent who divided the Liberal vote, he was defeated by the Labour candidate, Tom Myers. In 1922, however, the situation had changed and he was elected for Spen Valley, a seat he held until 1940, as a Liberal until 1931 and as a National Liberal thereafter.
Until 1931, Simon was firmly within Liberal ranks. He was staunchly opposed to Lloyd George because of the way he had divided the Liberal Party in December 1916; but he recognized that ideas and inspiration came back into the party when Lloyd George returned to the Liberal fold in 1923. However, the Liberal Party still remained divided—despite its attempted unity in the 1920s. The Asquithian free-trading section of the party was led by Sir Herbert Samuel in the late 1920s; David Lloyd George led his own section of the party and published many policy initiatives, encouraging state intervention in certain circumstances; and Simon led an increasingly right-wing and nationalistic section of the party. The differences between the three sections were evident on many occasions. For instance, during the General Strike of May 1926, Lloyd George condemned the actions of the Baldwin government, Sir Herbert Samuel attempted to bring about a settlement between the coal miners and the coal owners, and in the House of Commons on 6 May Sir John Simon condemned the miners’ strike and the general strike. Simon went so far as to suggest that the strike was unlawful and that “every trade union leader who has advised and promoted that course of action is liable to damages to the uttermost farthing of his personal possessions.” Such a comment was not surprising, for by the mid-1920s he had come to see socialism as the ultimate political evil.
Being strongly rooted in the Liberal tradition, Simon fulfilled the role of foreign secretary in the 1930s in an entirely nonaggressive manner, thus becoming one of the originators of the appeasement policy toward fascism. His tenure as foreign secretary has been described as “disastrous” and “surely the worst in modern times”.
Simon was an excellent lawyer who relished debate. However, he lacked the ability to make wise decisions in office, and thus became associated with the policy of appeasement in the 1930s that encouraged Hitler’s political expansionism. Although he held three of the four major offices of government, and might have come close to securing the post of prime minister in 1937, it is clear that his political reputation has never been of the caliber associated with Britain’s great statesmen.