Lord Halifax, 1938-40
Conservative, in the National Government under Chamberlain, and the wartime National Government under Churchill
Rather like his master, Neville Chamberlain, or his predecessor, Eden, Edward Wood had a long and often distinguished political career, which was entirely overshadowed by one thing: like Chamberlain, by appeasement. He was a genuine toff: son of a viscount, son of a Courtenay and a great-grandson of the great Earl Grey of 1832 (and for us, Grey’s monument). Wood lost three brothers, and thus inherited the family title. Having endured rather than enjoyed Eton, he came into his own at Christchurch, Oxford, where he ditched classics in favour of History, and won a first class degree. Having travelled, he then wrote a biography of the churchman, John Keble. Keble was an Anglo-Catholic; Wood inherited his father’s deeply held Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism. His other great love was hunting, hence his lifelong nickname: the Holy Fox.
If his passions were confined to the field and the altar, politics was business. As one of the great Yorkshire landowners, Ripon was a natural seat: he entered parliament in 1910. He made little mark, and went to his regiment in 1914; in 1916, he was mentioned in despatches. In 1918, he was given a desk job in the ministry of national service. In 1921, he was under-secretary for the colonies; ironically, as it would turn out, under Churchill. When Lloyd George fell in 1922, Halifax was president of the board of education; in 1924, Baldwin made him minister of agriculture. He achieved little in either.
In 1926, he was made viceroy of India, as Lord Irwin. He certainly looked the part: he was well over six foot, with a princely bearing. In fact, he was broadly sympathetic to the aspirations of Indian nationalism. He pushed the Simon Commission towards reform, and took advantage of the Labour victory in 1929 to state that the government supported the idea of eventual dominion status for India. He also promoted the idea of the round table conferences under Ramsay MacDonald’s auspices. In 1929, Gandhi’s salt marches had led to his arrest. Irwin now released him, and would meet with him 18 times thereafter. As a result, Gandhi agreed to abandon civil disobedience. His tenure in India showed statesmanship and poise. However, it earned him the enduring distrust of the Tory right (and to some extent, of Churchill).
That distrust led him to turn down the Foreign Office in 1931. Instead, after an interval, he returned to the Board of Education, in 1932. In his day job he again achieved little; instead, he took a leading role in helping Sir Samuel Hoare pilot the Government of India Act, 1935, through parliament. Now Viscount Halifax, it was also in 1935 that he was made minister of war, when Baldwin replaced MacDonald; after the general election of the same year, he became lord privy seal and leader of the House of Lords. As such, he became intimately involved in foreign policy, as a de facto minder to Eden (as Eden had been for Simon). When Chamberlain became prime minister Halifax, now lord president of the council and leader of the Lords, was invited, as a keen huntsman, to visit Göring in Berlin (above, also see video below); soon added was a trip to see Hitler at his Bavarian retreat, the Berchtesgaden.
It was not without its blackly comic moments. The lordly Halifax almost mistook Hitler for a doorman; Hitler was also in one of his fouler moods. Over lunch, Hitler railed against weather forecasters, air travel and hunting; he then suggested shooting Gandhi. In the process, Halifax had managed to give the impression that Germany’s eastern borders were negotiable. Halifax came away speechless, but still believing that Hitler was reasonable, an assertion Chamberlain held on to all too readily and Halifax clung on to for far too long.
When Eden went in February 1938, Halifax was the obvious choice for the Foreign Office. He certainly had no chance to settle in: the following month came Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria. Halifax quickly saw the implications for Czechoslovakia, but agreed with Chamberlain that there was little Britain could do expect push the Czechs to make concessions. The real danger was the French dragging Britain into a war with Germany on the coat tails of the Franco-Soviet Pact. It is in that context that renewed talks with the Italians are best understood. In later years, Halifax depicted his role in the Sudeten crisis as secondary, and it is certainly true that he didn’t accompany Chamberlain on his three trips to Germany. In fact, when Chamberlain returned from Bad Godesberg (his second meeting with Hitler), it was Halifax that persuaded the cabinet to reject Hitler’s terms. Halifax was no peacenik. Nor was he Chamberlain’s stooge: Halifax’s rejection of the terms were, according to Cadogan, his permanent secretary, ‘a horrible blow’ to the prime minister. Arguably, Chamberlain’s position was never so strong after.
Halifax had a strong suspicion, well ahead of his master, that Nazi Germany was not going to stop with the Sudetenland. Like many, Kristallnacht appalled him. After a visit to Rome, with Chamberlain, in January 1939, and with intelligence reports signalling dark German intentions, Halifax was already pressing for Britain to prepare. When the rest of Czechoslovakia fell in March, he was instrumental in the formulation of the Polish Guarantee. He felt no less a disgust for atheist Communism than Chamberlain, but he knew the time had come to talk with the Soviets. Unfortunately, this was not a time for measured diplomacy, and it was too little, too late and too slow (though it was also probably doomed to fail in any case).
His languid air could mislead, but his faith in cool reason could also fail him. When Chamberlain looked as if he might falter after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Halifax stood by him. Other members of the cabinet, led by Sir John Simon, pushed both men into making the decision. Once the decision was made, though, Halifax was committed to seeing it through; he served in Chamberlain’s war cabinet (below).
The crucial moment came when, after the Norway debate, Chamberlain was forced to resign. In many ways, and despite being a peer, Halifax was the logical choice to succeed him: he had the support of most Conservatives, Labour were happy to serve under him, and he had the king’s favour. In the end, it seems Halifax didn’t really want the job. Had he done so, he would probably have got it.
How differently things might have turned out had that been so might best be shown by the arguments that permeated the nine war cabinet meetings of 26th, 27th and 28th of May 1940. Churchill was determined to fight on. Halifax was not so sure. Once again, Halifax was no peacenik. His belief was that if Britain were to fight on, then its position would only get weaker. Better, at least, to see if peace on acceptable terms was possible. Nor should it be forgotten quite how bad things were. France had, in effect, fallen; the Dunkirk evacuation began on the 26th. The United States remained aloof. Halifax had been against peace feelers before, but the facts had changed. It was his view that policy needed to change to reflect that fact.
Halifax lost. In doing so, he probably sealed his own political fate, and saved Churchill’s. If he had resigned, as he threatened to do, such was his support on the Conservative backbenches (and so weak was Churchill’s) that the government would have fallen. Churchill successfully appealed over Halifax’s head to the wider government, and he also had Chamberlain’s support. Britain fought on.
For most, it fought on for the good. It has been argued, notably by John Charmley, that Halifax was broadly correct in his analysis. From a narrowly British perspective, there is something in that: peace may well have left Britain in a stronger position than the outcome of the Second World War did. From a global, or European, perspective Churchill’s decision would have a decisive impact on that outcome: from it, we got a western front, and a Western Europe.
Halifax lingered, but Churchill was now looking to move him on. Halifax thwarted an attempt to make him de facto deputy prime minister. If the attempt to kick him upstairs failed, the one to kick him across the Atlantic worked: Halifax was browbeaten into accepting the Washington embassy. It was a vital job, but it marked the end of his political career.
More than once, notably when one of his sons was killed in action and another seriously wounded, he asked to come home. After an uncertain start, though, he stayed on until May 1946, developing good working relations with Roosevelt and his adviser, Harry Hopkins. The archetypal English aristocrat and former viceroy even became a popular figure in American national life. He also played an important part in the negotiations for the American loan, led by Keynes in 1946. He was in the audience for Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech.
When he returned home, he retired from active politics, though not national life. One of his final contributions was to criticise Eden over Suez, a criticism entirely in keeping with his belief in reason, restraint and caution. For a foreign secretary in more normal times, those qualities are ones to be highly valued: Chamberlain certainly valued them. The years 1938-40 were not, however, normal times and, for all his qualities, the feeling persists that Halifax was not quite the man for them.