We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (1881–1959), by Sir Oswald Birley, 1932 Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (1881–1959), by Sir Oswald Birley, 1932
Wood, Edward Frederick Lindley, first earl of Halifax (1881–1959), politician and diplomat, was born on 16 April 1881 at Powderham Castle in Devon, the home of his maternal grandfather, the eleventh earl of Devon. He was the sixth child and fourth son of , who later became the second Viscount Halifax, and his wife, Lady Agnes Elizabeth Courtenay (1838–1919). His great-grandfather was Earl Grey of the Reform Bill of 1832. The Woods had emerged from among the gentry of Yorkshire to become one of the great landowning houses of northern England, but with three elder brothers Edward seemed to have little prospect of inheriting his father's title. Between 1886 and 1890, however, each of his brothers fell victim to one of the Victorian child-killing diseases, leaving him heir to the family viscountcy. These bereavements help to explain the extraordinarily close bond which developed between Wood and his father, despite the latter's somewhat macabre sense of humour. The world into which he was born was dominated by religion and hunting, and these remained the great passions of Wood's life, notwithstanding his distinguished political career. In later life he was sometimes known as the Holy Fox, a play upon the title which he inherited. Wood's father had accepted the presidency of the English Church Union in 1868 at the age of twenty-nine and retained this position until 1919. Thereafter he devoted himself to the cause of the reunion of the Christian churches and provided a spiritual commitment from which his son never deviated. He was president of the union again from 1927 until his death in 1934; his influence upon his surviving son was immense.

Early career

Wood was born with an atrophied left arm, but shrugged off its effects and learned as a child to shoot and ride to hounds. He went to St David's preparatory school in Reigate in September 1892 at the age of eleven. He was not at all happy there and he found Eton College, to which he transferred in September 1894, only marginally more congenial. Its emphasis on the classics and sports failed to arouse his enthusiasm. Only at Oxford did Wood's academic talents begin to blossom. He arrived at Christ Church, his father's old college, in October 1899. There he concentrated on his historical studies and took no part in the debates of the union. His reward was a first-class degree in modern history and election to a fellowship at All Souls in November 1903 which he held until 1910. As junior fellow, Wood's duties included the preparation of a mayonnaise sauce for Sunday dinner and decanting the college's vintage port, but he enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere and began an association which lasted for the rest of his life.

Upon the completion of his probationary year at All Souls Wood embarked upon an eighteenth-century-style grand tour with his Oxford friend Ludovic Heathcoat Amory. This took him to South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand and gave him the chance to study what became known as the dominions at a time of transition. Wood returned to England in 1905, but was not immediately tempted to enter politics at a difficult moment in the history of the Conservative Party. Instead, he returned to All Souls and devoted himself over the next two years to further academic study, which led to the publication of a short biography of John Keble. On 21 September 1909 he married Lady Dorothy Evelyn Augusta Onslow (1885–1976), daughter of the fourth earl of Onslow, who had held government office on four occasions and had also been governor-general of New Zealand. Lady Dorothy introduced a lightness and informality into her husband's life, which did something to lessen the natural aloofness for which Wood was already noted. It was a happy marriage, broken only by Wood's death fifty years later. The couple's first child, Anne, was born in July 1910, followed by a son, Charles, in October 1912. Two further sons, Peter and Richard, were born in 1916 and 1920 respectively.

By the time of his marriage, Wood had decided to stand for parliament. Ripon was a natural Conservative seat, although the sitting tory member had, like so many of his colleagues, gone down to defeat in the Liberal landslide of 1906. With Conservative fortunes recovering, though not to the extent of producing a change of government, Wood was victorious in the general election of January 1910, securing a comfortable majority of more than 1000 over his Liberal opponent. Though he sat in the Commons until 1925, it was never his natural milieu, especially in the torrid atmosphere which characterized party politics in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. His own inclinations were towards reason, compromise, and conciliation, but these seemed to have little place in the parliamentary affairs of the day. He successfully defended his seat in the second general election of 1910—though with a reduced majority—but it was probably to his relief, as someone for whom the hustings offered little attraction, that this was the last occasion upon which Wood fought a contested parliamentary election. At the elections of 1918, 1922, 1923, and 1924 he was returned unopposed. Wood made little impact in the Commons before 1914. Over the Parliament Bill of 1911 he found himself, somewhat surprisingly, in the ditcher camp of outright resistance to the Liberal government's proposals, but he was more stirred by the bill to disestablish the Welsh church, which he opposed vigorously in debate.

The First World War and its aftermath

As captain in the Queen's Own Yorkshire dragoons, a yeomanry regiment recruited around his home at Hickleton in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Wood found his fate largely determined for him with the outbreak of European war in August 1914. His parliamentary appearances were inevitably rare during this period, but he did on one occasion manage to urge the immediate introduction of conscription. His division was not involved at the front line until 1916. Somewhat to his surprise he was mentioned in dispatches in January 1917—‘Heaven knows what for!’—and, believing that he would be more usefully employed in England, he was relieved to be offered the post of deputy director of the labour supply department in the Ministry of National Service. There he served from November 1917 until the end of 1918. Later in his career Wood became closely associated with policies designed to avoid war if this was at all possible. In the First World War, however, while initially showing some sympathy for Lord Lansdowne's call for a compromise settlement, he emerged among those Conservative hardliners who demanded all-out victory and a punitive peace with Germany, putting his name to the Lowther petition in April 1919 which encouraged Lloyd George to take up an intransigent position at the Paris conference.

In the post-war parliament Wood became a member of a small group of MPs which included Samuel Hoare, Philip Lloyd-Graeme, and Walter Elliot, whose aim was to espouse progressive policies. With his friend George Lloyd he produced a 100-page political pamphlet entitled The Great Opportunity (1918), which argued that the Conservative Party should focus on the welfare of the community rather than the advantage of the individual. It also advocated a federal solution to the Irish question. Ireland, indeed, was one of Wood's main political interests at this time along with housing and agriculture. But his parliamentary career seemed likely to come to an early end when, in May 1920, he was offered and accepted the governor-generalship of South Africa. The offer, however, was withdrawn when it became clear that the South Africans expected someone of cabinet rank or a member of the royal family to fill this post. Soon afterwards Wood got his first foot on the ministerial ladder when appointed under-secretary for the colonies in April 1921. It was not an auspicious beginning, since the secretary of state, Winston Churchill, seemed reluctant at first even to meet his new assistant. Matters eventually improved, and in winter 1921–2 Wood toured the British West Indies in order to report to Churchill on the political and social situation there.

Like several others Wood's political prospects were transformed by the ending of Lloyd George's coalition government in October 1922. He had become increasingly disillusioned with the latter's premiership, attended a meeting of junior ministers on 16 October at which the extent of disquiet about the prime minister became apparent, and was among the majority who voted at the Carlton Club on 23 October that the Conservative Party should contest the next general election as an independent force. With many leading Conservatives remaining loyal to Lloyd George, Wood was elevated from the obscurity of junior office to the ranks of the cabinet as president of the Board of Education on 24 October 1922. His appointment did not arouse much excitement, though some saw his elevation as evidence of an improvement in the moral character of the administration. In the climate of post-war austerity education was not a position offering many opportunities for constructive action, and Wood inevitably regarded it as little more than a stepping stone to higher office. It was indicative of his priorities that he made sure that his ministerial schedule left time for two days' hunting each week. This first experience of cabinet government ended when Baldwin called a surprise general election in December 1923 on the question of tariffs, a decision about which Wood felt considerable misgivings.

After a brief interlude of Labour government, Wood returned to office as minister of agriculture on 6 November 1924. It was an appointment for which his landowning background equipped him well but, as was the case at education, it was not a post which then offered much scope for constructive initiatives. He was responsible for getting the agricultural returns and tithe bills through the House of Commons and found himself devoting far more of his time to his ministerial duties than at the Board of Education. But in October 1925 Wood was approached by the secretary of state for India, Lord Birkenhead, with the offer of the viceroyalty and governor-generalship in succession to Lord Reading, the Liberal lawyer. He had a family interest in India, as his paternal grandfather, Sir Charles Wood, had been the second holder of the secretaryship of state between 1859 and 1866. Nevertheless, his first inclination was to decline the offer on family grounds. With his sons of school age and, more importantly, with his 86-year-old father unlikely to survive a five-year viceroyalty, Wood was reluctant to leave Britain at this time. Only when his father recommended acceptance did he acquiesce. He now gave up his Commons seat, taking the title of Baron Irwin of Kirby Underdale, and left for India on 17 March 1926.

Viceroy of India

In many ways Irwin was well fitted for his new post. He relished the pomp which was inseparable from it. Physically, he cut an impressive figure, and was an accomplished horseman. Six feet five inches tall, he easily gave an impression of aristocratic self-confidence which set him apart from lesser men. As a contemporary recorded: ‘He has a magnificent head, and his tall figure and Cecilian stoop and sympathetic kindly eyes give more the impression of a Prince of the Church than a politician’ (R. Bernays, Naked Fakir, 1931, 51). Yet at the same time he showed a sympathy for the Indian point of view unmatched by many of his predecessors. He also displayed considerable physical bravery in the face of more than one attempt to assassinate him during his time in the subcontinent. His viceroyalty was characterized by a patient commitment to ensuring that a contented India should remain inside the British Commonwealth for the foreseeable future. He set out to win Indian goodwill and co-operation, but could be firm when necessary, and stressed that it would be difficult to meet Indian wishes while Indians remained divided among themselves. In his first major speech as viceroy he appealed for an end to the endemic communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, and returned to this theme at intervals throughout his time in India. Towards terrorism he was uncompromising and, despite his Christian beliefs, felt no hesitation or remorse when signing death warrants which he considered justified.

Many of the parameters of Irwin's viceroyalty had already been drawn when he assumed the reins of office. An important provision of the Government of India Act of 1919, embodying the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms, had been that after an interval of ten years a commission should be appointed to inquire into the working of the new constitution and to advise on whether further reforms were needed. In the intervening period Indian national aspirations had grown apace, and Irwin fully accepted that eventual Indian self-government was inevitable and that Britain must steer the country in that direction in the medium-term future. Birkenhead decided to bring forward the appointment of the statutory commission, placing it under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon, but the fatal decision was that it should consist entirely of British members of parliament. Irwin, calculating that a mixed commission would have little chance of producing an agreed report and wrongly anticipating that Indians would, after suitable protest, fall into line with the British government's approach, had advised Birkenhead in this sense. It was the most fateful mistake of his viceroyalty, and one he came bitterly to regret. Once the composition of the commission was announced in November 1927, it became apparent that all the leading parties in India, including Congress, whose co-operation would be vital to any progress, would boycott Simon's mission. Irwin reassured Birkenhead that once Simon had arrived in India he would be able to win over moderate opinion, but the auguries were not good. In fact the Indian leaders treated the commission, which landed at Bombay on 3 February 1928, as if it had never arrived. Over the months which followed matters improved somewhat and Simon achieved some limited success, but his task was almost impossible, and Irwin became convinced that some new gesture would be necessary if real progress was to be made. Ironically, the viceroy's way ahead became easier following a change of government in Britain which saw Ramsay MacDonald form his second administration in June 1929, in which William Wedgwood Benn, a former Liberal, took the Indian portfolio.

Irwin arrived on leave in Britain on 13 July, bringing with him a suggested exchange of letters between Simon and the new prime minister. The idea was that Simon would propose a round-table conference to discuss the eventual findings of his commission. MacDonald would reply by agreeing to the conference while stating that the Montagu declaration of 1917 had contained an implicit commitment to the ultimate attainment by India of dominion status. The drafts were shown to Simon, who had serious misgivings about a round-table conference. On the question of dominion status, however, Irwin got the impression that Simon at this stage had no such objections. Simon's fellow commissioners took almost exactly the opposite view, with the result that the exchange of letters went ahead with the dominion status statement omitted. But Simon failed to convey his colleagues' strength of feeling against the proposed declaration. Their belief—which Simon soon came to share—was that such an announcement would cut the ground from beneath the commission's forthcoming report. Indeed, it is curious that Irwin, too, did not seem to understand this. Dominion status would inevitably become a minimum demand rather than a maximum goal. The viceroy went ahead, and in October made a public declaration that the British government viewed dominion status as the natural issue of India's constitutional progress.

This announcement had a dramatic impact in both Britain and India. Irwin's initiative was roundly denounced by much of the Conservative Party, even though he was only spelling out what had been implicit in British policy for more than a decade. His predecessor as viceroy, Lord Reading, joined in the condemnation while Simon also made his displeasure apparent. In India there was briefly renewed hope that British policy might yet satisfy national aspirations, but a conference in December 1929 between Irwin and Indian political leaders in New Delhi failed to produce agreement. Gandhi now withdrew to plan a campaign of civil disobedience with a view to securing complete independence from Britain. In a calculated gesture of defiance he walked for twenty-four days to the sea, where he picked up a handful of salt. This symbolic gesture broke a law which made it a punishable offence for Indians to own salt which had not been obtained through the government's monopoly. Irwin had little option but to order his arrest. He realized, however, that without Gandhi's co-operation there could be no real progress. George V had already opened the first round-table conference in November 1930, boycotted by Congress because of Gandhi's imprisonment. So in January 1931 the Indian leader was released, and on his initiative a series of eight meetings now took place between the viceroy and the mahatma. The contrast between the two men could hardly have been more stark, and Irwin never fully understood the Indian and his ways. As he once explained to his father,
it was rather like talking to someone who had stepped off another planet on to this for a short visit of a fortnight and whose whole mental outlook was quite other to that which was regulating most of the affairs on the planet to which he had descended. (Birkenhead, 247)
But there developed a feeling of mutual respect in which the common strand of religious commitment and motivation was certainly important. Irwin showed a steely side to his character in these negotiations which led to the so-called Delhi pact of March 1931. Gandhi's concessions were substantial. Civil disobedience would be abandoned and Congress agreed to be represented at future sessions of the round-table conference.

Return to domestic politics

Irwin returned to England at the end of his five-year appointment on 3 May 1931. Already appointed GCSI and GCIE in 1926, he now received a knighthood of the Garter, an order of which he was to become chancellor in 1943. The Labour government whose Indian policy he had served so well collapsed in August 1931, and Baldwin was keen to make use of his talents as one of the quota of Conservative ministers in the newly constituted National Government which replaced it. But Irwin declined the offer of the foreign secretaryship, preferring for the time being at least to return to his estates in Yorkshire. He was also concerned that this appointment would not go down well with the right wing of the Conservative Party who resented his attitude towards Indian self-government. Instead, he took advantage of his relative leisure to accept an invitation from Vincent Massey to travel to Canada to deliver the inaugural Massey lecture at Toronto University. But the Conservative leader was not to be denied: in June 1932, after the sudden death of Sir Donald Maclean, Irwin agreed with some genuine reluctance to return to his former position as president of the Board of Education. As in the 1920s, however, the prevailing economic climate offered little scope for policy initiatives. In any case Irwin's views on education were becoming dated. On a visit to Hickleton he announced, ‘We want a school to train them up for servants and butlers’ (Birkenhead, 326). Though this lay outside his strictly departmental responsibilities, he was also enlisted to help Samuel Hoare in preparing the government's largest single piece of legislation, the Government of India Bill, which finally worked its way onto the statute book in 1935. In the mean time Irwin succeeded Viscount Grey as chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1933 and, upon the death of his 94-year-old father in January 1934, became Viscount Halifax. When Baldwin and the ageing prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, exchanged positions in June 1935, Halifax, with some feeling of relief, moved from education to the War Office. Though he was secretary of state for only a few months, this move marked the beginning of his close association with the foreign and diplomatic affairs of the decade which would dominate the remainder of his ministerial career. The experience quickly convinced him that the country was unprepared for war, though at the committee of imperial defence he challenged the assertion of the chiefs of staff that the country's paramount need was to step up the pace of rearmament. It was a weakness in his understanding of the international situation that he never fully grasped, until it was too late, the enormity of Hitler's capacity for evil. Like Neville Chamberlain, Halifax retained a misplaced confidence that negotiation and the application of human reason were the best ways to ameliorate the threatening European scene.

After the general election in November 1935 Halifax became lord privy seal and leader of the House of Lords. Then, when Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in May 1937, he was moved to be lord president of the council while still leading the Lords. In these non-departmental posts Halifax was free to range across the whole spectrum of government business, but both Baldwin and Chamberlain made especial use of his talents in the field of foreign affairs, where his interventions became increasingly important. During the cabinet discussion of the crisis created by the premature disclosure of the Hoare–Laval pact in December 1935 it was Halifax who warned that, if the foreign secretary was not dismissed, the situation might become so serious as to bring down the whole government. With Anthony Eden as foreign secretary Halifax was almost deputy foreign minister in the Lords, though this formal title was avoided probably out of sensitivity to Eden's position. In general the two men worked well together, though a legend later grew up surrounding the circumstances in which Halifax, as master of the Middleton hunt, accepted an invitation from the Reichsmarschall, Hermann Göring, to visit a hunting exhibition in Berlin in November 1937 and to shoot foxes in Pomerania [see ]. In later years this episode was presented, not least by Eden himself, as an illustration of Chamberlain's efforts to circumvent the Foreign Office in order to pursue his policy of appeasement in defiance of his professional advisers. In the circumstances Halifax was careful, after the Second World War, to place his own version of events on the record. According to this, Eden was himself instrumental in pressing Halifax to accept the invitation. The foreign secretary's later misgivings were partly the result of the promptings of his staff and partly a consequence of the way the visit was arranged, especially when it became clear that Halifax would be going to Berchtesgaden to meet Hitler. At this encounter, where the English aristocrat nearly mistook the Führer for a footman, he failed to give any indication of British objections to German ambitions in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, he spoke of ‘possible alterations in the European order which might be destined to come about with the passage of time’. In general, the visit did little to open his eyes to the true nature of the Nazi regime.

The foreign secretary and appeasement

By February 1938 Eden's relations with Chamberlain had reached breaking point. Halifax warned the prime minister of the growing strains within the cabinet and, when the crisis came, did his best, but without success, to effect a reconciliation between the two men. Eden duly resigned on 20 February, exasperated above all by Chamberlain's increasing interference in the diplomatic arena and unwilling to make further concessions to Italy without corresponding gestures of good faith from Mussolini. Chamberlain appointed Halifax to the vacant ministry on 21 February. Despite criticism from the Labour Party and elsewhere that it was inappropriate to appoint a peer to so senior an office, he was the logical successor. He had emerged as one of Chamberlain's most trusted lieutenants and had been deeply involved in foreign affairs for the past two years.

Halifax's foreign secretaryship was the pivot of his career, and it remains the period upon which his historical reputation ultimately depends. Just as Eden did much to save his standing at the bar of history by his timely resignation, so Halifax did much to compromise his when he stepped into Eden's shoes. It was once usual to dismiss him as a mere cipher of his prime minister, one of the ‘’ collectively responsible for bringing Britain to the very brink of disaster in the summer of 1940 through the pursuit of the disastrous policy of appeasement. Chamberlain, as he testified in his private correspondence, certainly found Halifax a more congenial colleague than Eden—‘I thank God for a steady unruffled Foreign Secretary’ (Roberts, 102). Furthermore, Halifax's own memoirs did nothing to dispel the image that he was little more than a faithful subordinate, loyally carrying out the policies of his master in Downing Street. More recently, however, historians have used the documentary record to draw a more subtle picture, in which Halifax played a critical role in modifying Chamberlain's designs, emerging in the opinion of some as the dominant force in the making of British foreign policy by the spring of 1939. Halifax gave few indications of this independence of judgement during the early months of his foreign secretaryship. Indeed, he accepted the logic of Chamberlain's policies and had told the cabinet in December 1937 that
in spite of all the efforts of the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others, we had arrived at a position which above all we had wished to avoid and in which we were faced with the possibility of three enemies at once. The conclusion which [Halifax] drew was … that this threw an immensely heavy burden on diplomacy and that we ought to get on good terms with Germany. (Roberts, 82)
Halifax had been in his new office just three weeks when Hitler incorporated Austria into the Reich. By this time Halifax was becoming more committed to a policy of rearmament, but the Anschluss left him under few illusions about the vulnerability of Czechoslovakia to the next initiative of Hitler's foreign policy. Indeed, he saw Britain's task in the summer of 1938 in terms of making the disagreeable task of forcing concessions on the Czechs as painless as possible.

Halifax's exclusion from Chamberlain's party on the latter's three visits to Germany in September 1938 seemed merely to confirm the ascendancy of the prime minister and the fact that Eden's replacement had removed the final brake upon the pursuit of Chamberlain's personal diplomacy. But it is now clear that it was Halifax, influenced by his permanent under-secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, who persuaded the cabinet to reject the terms which the prime minister brought back from his second meeting with Hitler at Godesberg. This brought the country to the brink of war, a situation averted only by Chamberlain's dramatic flight to the conference at Munich, which determined the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on terms marginally more favourable than those put forward at Godesberg. More importantly, however, Chamberlain's authority had been successfully challenged. His ascendancy within the cabinet was never as strong again. Thus a growing appreciation of Halifax's weight within the government—and his position was always going to be strong, as Chamberlain could scarcely afford to lose a second foreign secretary—has helped to modify perceptions of the all-powerful position of the prime minister.

Halifax's mounting influence

In the wake of Munich, Halifax urged Chamberlain not to use the popular mood of relief that war had been averted as an excuse to call a snap general election, but rather to seize the opportunity to broaden the basis of his government by the inclusion of Conservative critics such as Eden and Churchill and, if possible, Labour and Liberal opponents. Chamberlain took the first part of this advice but not the second. No general election was held, but the government remained essentially unchanged. It also fell to the foreign secretary to defend the settlement reached at Munich in the House of Lords on 3 October. He did so in more measured terms than had the prime minister in his notorious ‘peace for our time’ remark from the window of 10 Downing Street. Halifax argued that Munich was not a triumph but the lesser of evils, the best solution to an almost intolerable dilemma which offered no easy or entirely acceptable solution. In the weeks after Munich, Halifax was deeply affected by mounting evidence of Nazi barbarism, especially the anti-Jewish pogrom of 10 November, Kristallnacht. He now argued that a German expansion into eastern Europe would not help the cause of peace, but would simply draw the countries concerned into Germany's economic orbit. He advocated the use of British capital to lessen their dependence on Germany.

After accompanying Chamberlain on his visit to Rome in January 1939, Halifax seems to have been instrumental in bringing about a distinct change of emphasis in British policy that spring. As early as January he proposed that full staff talks should be held with the French with a view to preparing for a possible war with both Germany and Italy. The stiffening in Chamberlain's line after the Prague coup, evident in his Birmingham speech on 17 March, which culminated in the issuing of a guarantee of Polish independence at the end of the month, owed much to Halifax's influence. ‘The Polish guarantee was his pet scheme and his favourite god-child’, noted Henry Channon (R. R. James, ed., Chips, 1967, 209). Despite his natural reluctance to embrace the atheistic regime of Joseph Stalin, he was quicker than Chamberlain to appreciate that only an alliance with the Soviet Union could give military reality to the Polish guarantee. The ensuing negotiations with the Soviets were perhaps doomed to failure, but Halifax did little to instil a sense of urgency into the proceedings and has been criticized for not convincing the Russians of Britain's earnestness by leading the negotiating team in person. He was once again with Chamberlain in the crisis of September 1939 and as much as him the object of the cabinet revolt which put a stop to any further delay in the British declaration of war, which duly came on 3 September. He was at least adamant that there could be no further negotiations with Hitler while German troops remained on Polish soil.

Halifax remained foreign secretary in Chamberlain's reorganized war cabinet, though the role of diplomacy was inevitably transformed in the context of a European war. The main aim of his foreign policy was now to prevent the Soviet Union joining the ranks of Britain's military opponents. He favoured a cautious strategic approach, believing that the bombing of Germany at this stage of the conflict would merely provoke a retaliation which Britain was as yet ill-placed to resist. The fact that he alone among the four leading ministers who were regarded as the architects of appeasement—Chamberlain, Simon, Hoare, and himself—was not the object of vehement criticism in the crisis of May 1940 is striking. Indeed, there is evidence that many Labour leaders as well as the king and the majority of the Conservative Party would have preferred him to Churchill as Chamberlain's successor. As it was, it was Churchill who seized the initiative, welcoming a supreme challenge from which Halifax evidently drew back. Though the latter stressed the difficulties created by his position as a peer, there is little doubt that these could have been overcome had Halifax had the will to press his own claims. The crisis revealed inner self-doubts on the part of a man for whom political ambition had never been the most compelling motivation. A psychosomatic stomach-ache perhaps helped to confirm his misgivings. He may also have believed that he could, by remaining in his present position, exercise an influence over Churchill greater than he would have enjoyed as a prime minister with little grasp of military strategy. More importantly, Halifax's act of self-denial, by opening the way to Churchill's wartime premiership, was probably the most significant act of his long career.

Churchill's foreign secretary

Though widely seen as a Chamberlain loyalist Halifax retained his position as foreign secretary in the new government. By now the war had reached a critical stage. Behind Churchill's rhetoric of unwavering resistance, the British government had to consider whether, with France collapsing and a German invasion perhaps imminent, the country could realistically hope to continue the struggle. Like many others, Halifax had serious doubts about Churchill's judgement and saw his own most important role as being to restrain the new prime minister's more romantic excesses. During the ‘Phoney War’ Halifax, confident that victory could be secured at a reasonable cost, had set his face against talk of a compromise peace. But as Britain faced the prospect of being left alone to confront Hitler's menace and with the fate of the army in doubt, he began to wonder whether the war could be won and to regard peace negotiations with the Nazis as a necessary development. Indeed, he believed that any peace terms which the Germans might offer would be more acceptable if Britain did not wait until her own position in the war had become absolutely desperate. Matters came to a head at meetings of the war cabinet on 26, 27, and 28 May, at which the debate became increasingly polarized between Churchill and Halifax. The latter argued that ‘we had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany, but of safeguarding the independence of our own Empire and if possible that of France’ (Charmley, 403). At one point Halifax came near to resignation, an outcome which at that stage of the war might have been fatal to Churchill's government. But the prime minister successfully appealed over the head of his foreign secretary to the government's junior ministers. With their backing, and with Chamberlain now lining up behind him, Churchill was able to secure a majority in the war cabinet to thwart Halifax.

These events may well have sealed Halifax's ultimate fate. As the country survived the battle of Britain, Churchill's defiance seemed to have been justified—even though, on rational grounds, there had been much to be said for the foreign secretary's line that Britain should at least have investigated what peace terms were on offer. In the reshuffle which followed Chamberlain's final resignation from the government, Churchill tried hard to ease Halifax out of the Foreign Office. The latter was offered the lord presidency of the council, occupancy of 11 Downing Street, the leadership of the House of Lords, and a position which seemed to approximate to the deputy premiership. Halifax, however, preferred to stay where he was, although he did consent to resume the leadership of the Lords. Churchill was soon able to renew his efforts. When Lord Lothian, the popular and successful British ambassador in Washington, died suddenly in December, the prime minister invited Halifax to fill the vacancy. It was undoubtedly a post of great significance. Ultimate victory probably depended upon increasingly close American co-operation in the war effort, but Halifax was by no means a natural candidate for the post and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Churchill was now determined to remove him from the higher reaches of the British government, even though the departing foreign secretary was assured that he could resume his place at the war cabinet table whenever he was on leave in London. Churchill's real motives are recorded in the diary of his private secretary. Halifax ‘would never live down the reputation for appeasement which he and the F. O. had won themselves here. He had no future in this country’ (J. Colville, The Fringes of Power, 1985, 321). Halifax's first reaction to Churchill's suggestion was one of horror. He and Lady Halifax tried desperately to persuade Eden, whom the prime minister had clearly pencilled in for the impending Foreign Office vacancy, to go in his stead. When, however, Churchill pressed the point, invoking the compelling dictates of duty in wartime, he had little alternative but to accept. The Halifaxes set sail in January 1941.

Ambassador in Washington

An English aristocrat with a reputation for aloofness had few obvious qualifications for his new assignment in the most egalitarian of all societies. Though Roosevelt took the unusual step of welcoming the new ambassador in person as he stepped onto American soil, Halifax's first months in the United States were far from easy. He was guilty of a series of public relations disasters. He never really understood how the American government managed to function, once likening it to a disorderly day's rabbit-shooting. Gradually, however, he found his feet, aided by the tact of his cousin Angus McDonnell, who acted as a sort of stage manager for the new ambassador, and by his own readiness to throw himself tirelessly into his duties. From 1941 onwards Halifax became part of an increasingly professional propaganda effort in the United States. An incident in the autumn when he was pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes by angry isolationists did his reputation much good in the longer term. His tours across the country brought him into contact with more ordinary American citizens than any of his predecessors had ever encountered. Halifax formed a good working relationship with the American president, while recognizing that he must necessarily take a back seat in the fostering of Anglo-American relations whenever Churchill was in the United States. He also won the confidence of the influential Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's closest adviser. But Halifax's position was really transformed by America's entry into the war in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thereafter he enjoyed a widespread popularity throughout the United States. It was a considerable act of transformation on Halifax's part, which allowed the man who had gloried in the imperial pomp of New Delhi to be seen eating a hot dog at a Baltimore ball game.

In March 1943, arguing that his most important work was now done, Halifax indicated to Eden that he would like to return home. He had been marked by family tragedy. In November 1942 he heard that his second son, Peter, had been killed in action in north Africa. Only two months later he learned that his youngest son, Richard, had been severely wounded. Halifax remained a somewhat reluctant ambassador over the following months. In May 1944 he was consoled by the news that Churchill had put his name forward for an earldom. In the event he was still in post when the war came to an end and he agreed to the request of the new Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that he should carry on until May 1946. This extension enabled him to play an important part in the negotiations led by Lord Keynes to secure an American loan after the abrupt termination of lend-lease, and he was still in the United States when Churchill delivered his celebrated iron curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, of whose tone he was somewhat critical.

Final years

On his return to Britain, Halifax was invited to join Churchill's shadow cabinet, but he declined the offer. He was now sixty-five, and in any case believed that his recent service under a Labour administration made his immediate return to the front rank of Conservative politics inappropriate. He preferred to go back to his Yorkshire estates, though he continued to play an active role in the House of Lords. One of his most telling interventions in the upper chamber came in a debate on a motion by Lord Templewood, the former Samuel Hoare, criticizing the decision of the Labour cabinet to hand over India to an Indian government by June 1948 at the latest ‘without any provision for the protection of minorities or the discharge of their obligations’. In a measured speech which persuaded many wavering peers to support the government, Halifax concluded that he was not prepared to condemn what the government was doing unless he could honestly and confidently recommend a better solution, which he could not. One of his last important interventions in the Lords (11 December 1956) was to criticize the way in which Eden's government had mishandled the Suez crisis. He was particularly concerned about the damage done to Anglo-American relations.

Halifax's final years were characterized by a combination of honours, good works, leisure, and travel. He gave much time to the governing body of Eton, to the chancellorship of Oxford University, and to All Souls, of which he was an honorary fellow after 1934. Soon after his return from the United States he succeeded Lord Harewood as chancellor of the University of Sheffield and he derived considerable satisfaction from his appointment as high steward of Westminster. He received honorary degrees from more than a dozen British, Canadian, and American universities. As president of the Pilgrims he was able to renew his work for Anglo-American friendship and co-operation, and in 1947 he became chairman of the General Advisory Council of the BBC. He resumed his duties as master of the Middleton hunt, and devoted himself to his estates and the affairs of the local church. In July 1957 he was appointed grand master of the Order of St Michael and St George. He found time to write a slim volume of memoirs entitled Fulness of Days, published in 1957. It was an extremely reticent book which added little to the historical record. In particular he made few efforts to challenge what had by then become the orthodox view of appeasement as a short-sighted and mistaken policy. By the mid-1950s Halifax's health had begun to fail, though he lived long enough to celebrate his golden wedding anniversary on 21 September 1959. He also had the satisfaction of seeing his youngest son, Richard, who had been elected to parliament in 1950, secure junior office in 1955. He died at Garrowby Hall, Garrowby, Yorkshire, on 23 December 1959 after a heart attack, and was buried on 28 December in the churchyard at Kirby Underdale. His titles passed to his eldest son, Charles Ingram Courtenay Wood. His widow lived on until 1976.

Assessment

Halifax's public career has three main component parts. He was a noteworthy viceroy of India, who played a key role in steering that country towards independence within the Commonwealth in the face of many siren voices of protest from within his own party. His period near the centre of power in the making of British foreign policy is now less roundly condemned than it once was. Though his background and character did not equip him to deal with the European dictators, he deserves some credit for abandoning, or at least for decisively modifying, the policy of appeasement. By March 1939 one prominent critic of the government's foreign policy had concluded that, thanks to Halifax's mounting influence, the government was ‘now doing what we would wish’ (Dutton, Eden, 135). After failing to become prime minister in May 1940, his role later that month in trying to persuade Winston Churchill of the need to consider a possible compromise peace shows not that he was a potential Quisling within the British cabinet, but rather that he was not taken in by the prime minister's sublime confidence in victory in the face of the weight of available evidence to the contrary. Exiled to the United States, he none the less made his most important contribution to public life, helping to lubricate the Anglo-American relationship which was often more fraught than early interpretations of the Churchill–Roosevelt partnership tended to suggest.

Halifax belonged to an age and a class for whom political affairs were never an all-consuming activity. ‘It is well known’, noted one contemporary in 1936, ‘that Halifax is only too anxious to retire from public life as he invariably tells everyone that his one object is to give up politics and go back and live at his home’ (Neville Chamberlain MSS, NC7/11/29/37, University of Birmingham). To a later generation his passion for the chase sits somewhat uncomfortably beside his deep spirituality. Indeed, he once admitted that
it surely shows how deeply rooted we are in the elemental instinct that steeplechasing and clay pigeon shooting, in which the fact of killing is absent, does not make nearly such an appeal to us as hunting something for its life. (Birkenhead, 197)
But Halifax was not encumbered by any particular intellectual subtlety. He placed a strong faith in his own judgement and, having reached a decision, was not easily deflected from it. In each of the posts he occupied he exuded an old-fashioned aristocratic authority, accentuated by a speech impediment which prevented him pronouncing the letter ‘r’. ‘My withers are completely unwung’, he told John Wheeler-Bennett in response to criticism of the Munich settlement (ibid., 464). He was not an easy man to know. Most of those who met him were confronted by a form of professional charm which came easily to him, and with only a few close friends did he find it possible to relax his guard. Despite considerable inherited wealth he had a horror of waste and was extremely careful about money. R. A. Butler, who served as his junior minister at the Foreign Office, recalled an occasion at which an official brought in two cups of tea and four biscuits. Pushing aside the biscuits, Halifax insisted, ‘Mr. Butler does not want these. Nor do I. Do not charge me’ (Butler, 38).

D. J. Dutton

Sources  

A. Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: a biography of Lord Halifax (1991) · Earl of Birkenhead, Halifax: the life of Lord Halifax (1965) · Borth. Inst., Halifax MSS · A. Campbell-Johnson, Viscount Halifax (1941) · Earl of Halifax [E. F. L. Wood], Fulness of days (1957) · J. G. Lockhart, Viscount Halifax, 1839–85 (1935) · S. Gopal, The viceroyalty of Lord Irwin, 1926–1931 (1957) · J. Charmley, Churchill: the end of glory (1993) · R. A. Butler, The art of memory (1982), 30–44 · D. Dutton, Simon: a political biography of Sir John Simon (1992) · D. Dutton, Anthony Eden: a life and reputation (1997) · DNB · The Times (24 Dec 1959) · M. Cowling, The impact of Hitler: British politics and British policy, 1933–1940 (1975) · D. C. Watt, How war came (1989) · R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and appeasement: British policy and the coming of the Second World War (1993) · WW

Archives  

BL OIOC, corresp. and papers relating to India, MS Eur. C 152 · Borth. Inst., corresp. and papers · priv. coll., MSS · TNA: PRO, corresp., FO 800/309–328 |  BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51084 · BL, letters to Albert Mansbridge, Add. MS 65253 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Goschen, MS Eur. D 595 · BL OIOC, letters from Lord Hailey, MS Eur. E 220 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir Terence Keyes, MS Eur. F 131 · BL OIOC, letters from George Ambrose Lloyd, MS Eur. B 158 · BL OIOC, corresp. with earl of Lytton, MS Eur. F 160 · BL OIOC, corresp. with John Simon, MS Eur. F 77 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with earl of Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Croft · CAC Cam., corresp. with M. P. A. Hankey · CAC Cam., corresp. with A. V. Hill · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Eric Phipps · CAC Cam., corresp. incl. speech notes with C. E. M. Roberts · CUL, Baldwin MSS · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · CUL, corresp. with Lord and Lady Kennet · CUL, Templewood MSS · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C. · LPL, letters to Athelstan Riley · Lpool RO, corresp. with Lord Derby · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · News Int. RO, letters to Geoffrey Dawson · NL Aus., corresp. with Lord Stonehaven · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with William Wedgwood Benn · Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., letters to Lord Samuel · PRONI, corresp. with Lord Dufferin · PRONI, letters to Lord Londonderry · RIBA BAL, corresp. with Goodhart-Rendel and Lewis, architects · Staffs. RO, letters to Francis Meynell · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Chatfield, CAB 127/130 · U. Birm., Chamberlain MSS · University of York, countess of Halifax MSS  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, current affairs recordings


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photographs, 1923–48, NPG · photographs, 1926–c.1946, Hult. Arch. · J. Kramer, pastel drawing, 1931, Harrogate Corporation Art Gallery · photograph, 1931, NPG · S. Anderson, chalk drawing, 1932, NPG · O. Birley, oils, 1932, Viceroy's House, New Delhi · O. Birley, oils, 1932, priv. coll. [see illus.] · L. Edwards, group portrait, oils, c.1933, priv. coll. · E. Kennington, pastel drawing, 1940, IWM · O. Birley, oils, c.1947, All Souls Oxf. · L. Gowing, oils, c.1952, Christ Church Oxf. · C. Beaton, photograph, Gov. Art Coll. · C. Beaton, photograph, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, NPG

Wealth at death  

£338,800 10s. 8d.: probate save and except settled land, 31 March 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £12,481 6s. 4d.: probate limited to settled land, 2 Aug 1960, CGPLA Eng. & Wales