Educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, he worked as a lecturer before joining Conservative Party headquarters as a research assistant in 1930, then returned to lecturing at Christ Church, Oxford. After being forced to resign his 1940 army commission because of ill health, he was personal assistant to Sir William Beveridge (1941-44), and between 1947 and 1965 held office in Labour Governments as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Civil Aviation, First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Privy Seal, and Secretary of State for the Colonies.
In 1964 he became Leader of the House of Lords, and was Lord Privy Seal from 1966 to 1968. His distinguished public and ministerial service over nearly three decades was eclipsed by the famous campaigns against sexual liberalism (which won him the sobriquet 'Lord Porn') and for prison reform that the earl (a Catholic convert) conducted from the 1960s.
He was widely criticized for his attempts to secure the release of the convicted multiple murderess Myra Hindley, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1966. He wrote numerous works on the prison system, politics and religion, and his notable biographies, include works on Abraham Lincoln (1974), John F Kennedy (1976) and Richard Nixon (1980). He also published four volumes of autobiography namely, Born to Believe (1953), Five Lives (1964), The Grain of Wheat (1974) and Avowed Intent (1994).