Curtis, Lionel George (1872–1955), English public servant, writer, and political polemicist, was born 7 March 1872 in his mother's home at The Outwoods, Derbyshire, youngest among four children of Revd George James Curtis, rector of Coddington, Ledbury, Herefordshire, and Frances Curtis (née Carr), a clergyman's daughter. His paternal family had Anglo-Irish antecedents in Co. Tipperary. Reared in Coddington rectory, in adulthood he rejected his parents’ evangelical biblical literalism, but retained a fervent moral earnestness and sense of mission. He was educated in preparatory school, at Haileybury college (1885–91) (where an elder contemporary was Erskine Childers (qv), afterwards his adversary in the Anglo–Irish treaty negotiations), and at New College, Oxford (1891–4). He performed social work in the east end of London, studied law, and served for six months in the South African war as a private in the City Imperial Volunteers. Joining the staff of the South African high commissioner, Sir Alfred (later Viscount) Milner (1900), he was pre-eminent in the clique of energetic young civil servants known as ‘Milner's kindergarten,’ dubbed by his colleagues ‘the prophet’ for his zealous advocacy of ambitious schemes for structural reconstruction. Occupying a succession of offices, he devised a plan for the new municipality of Johannesburg, organised municipal authorities throughout the Transvaal, and (pursuant to Westminster's decision to grant responsible government to the former Boer republics) wrote a formal memorandum outlining union of the four South African polities that was accepted by the governments as the basis for discussion. Resigning from government service (1906), he organised ‘closer union’ societies throughout South Africa, helping foster the climate of public and political opinion leading to the 1910 unification. He served in the nominated Transvaal legislative council (1907–10).
Based back in Britain, he was principal founder (1910) and salaried general secretary of Round Table, a study group devoted to promoting the closer institutional union of the self-governing countries of the British empire, perceived by Curtis as the necessary alternative to imperial disintegration owing to separatist pressures. Writing prolifically in the organisation's quarterly review, travelling extensively to establish Round Table branches, Curtis popularised the term ‘commonwealth of nations’ to describe the web of relationships into which he believed the empire must evolve. In two books, The problem of the commonwealth and The commonwealth of nations (both 1916), he argued that the ‘organic union’ of the empire could be secured only by fundamental constitutional innovations that reconciled regional self-government with centralised federal institutions, including a central government and administration responsible to an elected commonwealth parliament.
Invited to India as unofficial advisor in the United Provinces (1916–18), he devised the system of ‘diarchy,’ a division of selected local functions between parallel British- and Indian-controlled provincial administrations, conceived as preparation for gradual realisation of responsible self-government and dominion status. Incorporated into the 1919 government of India act, the scheme satisfied neither radical nationalists nor the Indian civil service. While attached to the League of Nations section of the British delegation to the 1919 Paris peace conference, he initiated a plan resulting in establishment of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (headquartered in Chatham House, London), and the parallel American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. He served the British institute as secretary (until 1930), councillor, and president (1944).
As early as the home rule crisis of 1912–14, Curtis regarded Ireland as a potential laboratory for his ideas, envisioning a reform of the United Kingdom along federal principles, with devolved parliaments in each of the four constituent nations, a model for his projected reconstruction of the commonwealth. Visiting Ireland in March 1921, he made an assessment of the situation that persuaded the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, of the extent of popular support for Sinn Féin, and the consequent imperative for a negotiated, rather than a military, resolution. As second secretary to the British delegation to the Anglo–Irish conference (October–December 1921), he was special adviser to Lloyd George on constitutional issues. At an early stage of the proceedings, in response to the Irish demand for sovereign republican independence in external association with the empire, Curtis drafted a memorandum outlining the theory and practice of dominion status within the empire, insistent upon allegiance to the crown as an inviolable essential to imperial unity. It is thought that Curtis's memorandum, with its description of equality among Britain and the dominions, virtual dominion sovereignty, and the commonwealth as an evolving community, persuaded Michael Collins (qv) of the acceptability of dominion status as a stage towards greater sovereignty and independence.
A colonial office adviser on Irish affairs (1921–4), Curtis travelled frequently to Ireland as a liaison between British and Free State ministers and officials. In early 1922 he advised the British cabinet that direct intervention in Free State affairs might provoke a backlash of republican sentiment to the jeopardy of the treaty, and warned against endorsement of the new, sectarian Northern Ireland special constabularies. When the British cabinet rejected features of the draft Free State constitution as republican in character, Curtis was instrumental in negotiations and re-draftings that purged the document of offending sections and imposed closer conformity to the provisions of the treaty (May–June 1922). Though suspicious of Collins, in reports to London he commended the fortitude of W. T. Cosgrave (qv) and his ministers in handling the civil war, while deploring the inefficiency of the Free State army. He mediated in such matters as the establishment of the boundary commission, accreditation and functions of Free State diplomatic missions, and the citizenship status of Free State nationals.
Curtis's grand idea of empire federalism was rejected by the 1921 imperial conference. Taking up a research fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1924, he continued to elaborate his ideas on commonwealth and world unity in countless books and polemical pamphlets, most notably the three-volume Civitas Dei (1934–7). He pronounced in messianic terms and turgid prose the unique destiny of the multi-nation, multi-race British commonwealth – the very manifestation of the city of God upon earth – to federate its autonomous units, and thus serve as a sublime model for an international future of ever-expanding federations eventually to coalesce into a single world commonwealth. His other writings include The capital question of China (1932), World war: its cause and its cure (1945), and the memoir With Milner in South Africa (1951).
Among the most influential British public servants and commentators of the first quarter of the twentieth century, Curtis advised a generation of statesmen on imperial and international questions, and intervened significantly at a pivotal moment in Anglo–Irish relations. Thereafter his influence waned, and he cultivated the persona of a prophet scorned. A man of compulsive zeal and vigour, to his disciples he was an inspirational visionary. His detractors included both the critics and champions of empire. To the former (such as Childers) he was a sincere but self-deluding avatar of liberal paternalism and imperial arrogance. Among the latter, Edward Carson (qv) branded him ‘the first among the enemies of Ulster’ (Lavin, 122). Contriving community from the remnants of imperial dissolution, rejecting the right of national self-determination in favour of the principle of freedom within federation on a presumed basis of equality, while effectively ignoring inequalities among social classes and geographical regions, Curtis's federalism in practice would consign smaller and peripheral nations and peoples as subordinate to the interests of metropolitan centres of political, economic, financial, and cultural power. Adumbrating the era of international institutions and federated unions, he produced, in the name of universal democracy, order and peace, a blueprint for the transition from imperial direct rule to globalised neocolonialism.
Curtis married (1920) Gladys Edna (‘Pat’) Scott, his (and formerly Carson's) secretary; they had no children. He died 24 November 1955 at his home near Oxford.