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Holy Fox

E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, KG, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, PC (16 April 188123 December 1959), known as The Lord Irwin from 1925 until 1934 and as The Viscount Halifax from 1934 until 1944, was a British Conservative politician. He is often regarded as one of the architects of appeasement prior to World War II. During the period he held several ministerial posts in the cabinet, most notably as Foreign Secretary at the time of Munich Agreement in 1938. He succeeded Lord Reading as Viceroy of India in April 1926, a post he held until 1931.

Early career

He was born into a rather sickly west country family: Halifax's three older brothers all died in infancy leaving him the heir to his father's viscountcy. Halifax himself was born with a withered left arm with no hand, a disability that in no way affected his riding, hunting or shooting. He was nicknamed the "Holy Fox" by Winston Churchill in reference to these pursuits, his title and also his religiosity for like his father he was a devout Anglo-Catholic.

He was son of the 2nd Viscount Halifax. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, subsequently becoming a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and served as Member of Parliament for Ripon from 1910 to 1925 when he was elevated to the peerage. He saw some active service in World War I as a major in the Yorkshire Dragoons but remained mostly behind the lines, being moved to a desk job in 1917. In 1918 he wrote in cooperation with George Ambrose Lloyd (later The Lord Lloyd) "The Great Opportunity" aiming to set an agenda for a revived Conservative Party separate from the Lloyd George coalition.

Turned down by South Africa for the post of Governor General (the country was holding out for a cabinet minister or member of the royal family) and snubbed by Winston Churchill on his assumption of the post of Under-Secretary for the Colonies - on one occasion he stormed into Churchill's office and told him that he "expected to be treated like a gentleman" - a balked Wood voted for the downfall of Lloyd George's government and became President of the Board of Education under Andrew Bonar Law in 1922. He held this position (in which he was neither interested nor particularly effective) until 1924 when he was apparently equally undistinguished as Minister for Agriculture under Stanley Baldwin. His career had seemingly become bogged down.

Viceroy of India

Wood was Viceroy of India from 1926 to 1931. In 1925 he had been proposed at the suggestion of King George V, no doubt mindful of his immediate family background (his grandfather had been Secretary of State for India) and immaculate pedigree. Created Baron Irwin, he arrived in Bombay on 1 April 1926 hoping to improve Anglo-Indian relations and calm interfaith tensions in the country. A deeply religious man, he was considered the right choice to deal with Mahatma Gandhi. After his appointment he ignored Gandhi for nineteen months.

Irwin's rule was marked by a period of great political turmoil. The exclusion of Indians from the Simon Commission examining the country's readiness for self-government, provoked serious violence and Irwin was forced into concessions which were poorly received - in London as excessive and in India as half-hearted. Incidents included: the protests against the Simon Commission Report; the Nehru Report; the All-Parties Conference; the Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah's 14 points; the Civil Disobedience Movement launched by the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi; and the Round Table Conferences.

As a strategy Irwin had all the Congress leaders put behind bars; and then had opened negotiations with Gandhi. Criticism of Irwin was largely unfair, but he had made an error and the consequences were serious and unrest grew. Irwin's attempts to mediate with Indian leaders were stymied by London's refusal to make concessions, or clarify the position on dominion status.

With little room for manoeuvre, Irwin resorted to repression using his emergency powers to arrest Gandhi, ban public gatherings and crush rebellious opposition. Gandhi's detention, however, only made matters worse. Irwin ultimately opted to negotiate, signing the Delhi Pact in January 1931 which ended civil disobedience and the boycott of British goods in exchange for a Round Table Conference which represented all interests. The fortnight-long discussions resulted in the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, after which the Civil Disobedience Movement was suspended.

The agreement between Gandhi and Irwin was signed on March 5, 1931. The salient points were:

  • The Congress would discontinue the Civil Disobedience Movement.
  • The Congress would participate in the Round Table Conference.
  • The Government would withdraw all ordinances issued to curb the Congress.
  • The Government would withdraw all prosecutions relating to offences not involving violence.
  • The Government would release all persons serving sentences of imprisonment for their activities in the civil disobedience movement.

It was also agreed that Gandhi would join the Second Round Table Conference as the sole representative of the Congress.

On March 20, 1931, Lord Irwin paid tribute to Gandhi's honesty, sincerity and patriotism at a dinner given by ruling princes. A month following the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Lord Irwin retired and left India. On Irwin's return to England in April 1931, the situation was calm, but within a year the conference collapsed and Gandhi was again arrested.

Halifax and policy of Appeasement

The same year Irwin turned down the position of Foreign Secretary in favour of some time at home but inexplicably followed this up with a return to Education in 1932, a position enlivened only by his continuing (now backroom) role in Indian politics and law, his attainment of the position of Master of the Middleton Hunt in 1932 and his election as Chancellor of Oxford University in 1933. In 1934 he inherited the title Viscount Halifax from his father. In the period that followed he held a succession of government posts - Secretary of State for War for five months in 1935, Lord Privy Seal (1935-1937) and Lord President of the Council (1937-1938) under Stanley Baldwin and, after 1937, Neville Chamberlain.

The appointment of Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary in 1935 seemed initially to tie in well with Halifax's feelings about the direction of foreign policy over which he increasingly began to advise. The two were in agreement (and in line with prevailing opinion throughout Britain) that Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland - its "own backyard" - constituted no serious threat and should be welcomed insofar as it continued Germany's seeming progress towards returning to normality after the tribulations of the post-World War I settlement. However, after Chamberlain succeeded Baldwin in 1937, the new prime minister began increasingly to use back channels - including Halifax himself - for foreign diplomacy.

In November 1937 Halifax went to Germany at the invitation of Hermann Göring. The pretext was a hunting exhibition but Halifax was given strict instructions from the Foreign Office in preparation for a meeting with Adolf Hitler.

On meeting the Führer, Halifax almost created an international incident by almost handing his coat to the diminutive dictator believing him to be a footman. In subsequent discussions Halifax ignored Eden's directive to pass on warnings against possible German designs on Austria and Czechoslovakia. He was given the nickname Halalifax by Hermann Göring, after Halali!, the German equivalent of mort of hunters (Göring himself was a passionate hunter).

The following year Eden resigned, exasperated by the continued interference of the Prime Minister in foreign affairs and his persistence - with Halifax - in appeasement, particularly that in association with Benito Mussolini, whom Eden regarded as an untrustworthy gangster. Halifax got his job in February 1938. Three weeks later Hitler annexed (Anschluss) Austria; Czechoslovakia was now seriously at risk.

It is Halifax's handling of this crisis that usually gains him the most criticism. British foreign policy was predicated on the notion that the dictators in Europe were essentially honourable, reasonable and were disinclined to general warfare throughout the continent.

All three of these positions turned out to be false. The main result of this severe error of judgement was the loss of Czechoslovakia, its industry and military to the Reich without a shot being fired. Halifax had severe doubts during the lead up to the complete occupation in March 1939 but he made little effort to alter British policy fearing Britain's military unpreparedness to meet the Nazi threat and allowed himself to be sidelined as Chamberlain attended fruitless conferences in Germany (Berchtesgaden, Godesberg and Munich) without him.

From here things stumbled from bad to worse. Halifax failed to realise how close relations had become between Moscow and Berlin until the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had already occurred. Italy invaded Albania and on 1 September 1939 Halifax had to watch as the international order he had sought to preserve fell to bits as Hitler invaded Poland. Chamberlain's mishandling of the peace and his equally reckless handling of what is usually called the Phoney War led to his departure from 10 Downing Street. Halifax was a relatively popular candidate for the post of Prime Minister, but hurriedly ruled himself out, arguing that he would not be able to direct the war from the House of Lords.

Despite his reputation as an appeaser, once war broke out Halifax was opposed to any unofficial dealings with Germany, even with the German resistance, with a view to negotiating an end to the war. His desire for peace was overrriden by his distrust of Hitler, so that he was largely immune to peace offers of any kind from Germany. In January 1940, Halifax said, in a meeting with an emissary of Ulrich von Hassell, a leading member of the German resistance, that "he personally would be against the Allies taking advantage of a revolution in Germany to attack the Siegfried Line." In July 1940 Halifax rejected German peace feelers from the Papal Nuncio in Berne and the Portuguese and Finnish prime ministers.

German Alliance Pact documents

In August 2008, under the freedom of information act the MI5 released documents revealing amateur diplomat James Lonsdale-Bryans attempts to foster a allegiance between Britain and Germany, and implicated Halifax as James Lonsdale-Bryans strongest proponent in Parliament.

Ambassador to the United States and later life

Winston Churchill maintained him as Foreign Secretary for about nine months to present the Conservative Party as a unified front, but the two men did not enjoy a particularly close relationship. Halifax soon found himself packed off to Washington - a common recourse of Churchill with men he suspected might be able but with whom he did not get on (for example, Churchill did the same with Field Marshal Sir John Dill). Halifax did not at first appear a particularly deft diplomat and made a number of widely publicised gaffes including some poorly received jokes about baseball. To the American public he came across as the distant, out of touch British aristocrat that arguably he was. Gradually relations improved, particularly with President Roosevelt, but Halifax was always on the margins in America because of Winston Churchill's tight personal control of contact with the United States. Once again Halifax was sidelined by his own prime minister and he was often excluded from sensitive discussions. Now an old man and mourning the death of his middle son in combat in 1942, Halifax wearied of Washington and asked Anthony Eden to have him replaced, but ultimately he stuck out the position under both Harry S. Truman and Clement Attlee back in Britain. The appointment continued to be dogged by failure, however, as the Americans abruptly cancelled Lend-Lease, upon which the British economy depended. The subsequent loan negotiations were fraught and unsatisfying to the UK.

More successfully he took part in a plethora of international conferences over the UN and Russia (memorably describing Molotov, the Russian foreign minister, as "smiling granite") though here again he believed that Churchill's view of the Russian threat was exaggerated and urged him to be more conciliatory, perhaps indicating the reluctance to learn the lessons of the 1930s so obvious in his 1957 autobiography The Fulness of Days, a book politely dubbed "gently evasive".

In retirement from 1946 he returned to largely honorary pursuits as Chancellor of the University of Sheffield and the Order of the Garter and Chairman of the BBC. He died at his estate at Garrowby shortly before Christmas 1959, aged 87.

Cultural references

Lord Halifax features in the novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and also the 1993 film of the same name in which he is portrayed by the actor Peter Eyre. Halifax also appears in the film Gandhi, where he is portrayed by Sir John Gielgud. Halifax also makes an appearance as Lord Irwin in the film The Legend of Bhagat Singh, where he is played by the Israeli actor Gil Alon.

He is also mentioned in the novel 'The Big One' by Stuart Slade, in which he led a coup against Churchill and became Prime Minister in 1940 with the objective of peace with Nazi Germany but which actually led to German occupation of Britain. This event is the cause of a different and longer World War 2 in which Atomic weapons are used to finally end the war in 1947.

Halifax College at the University of York is named after Lord Halifax.

Further reading

Halifax is still a somewhat controversial figure, and his autobiography as well as many of the books about, or discussing, him have their own agendas.

  • Autobiography - Fulness of Days, Collins, 1957
  • Viscount Halifax: A Biography by Alan Campbell-Johnson, R. Hale, 1941
  • Earl of Halifax: the Life of Lord Halifax by Earl of Birkenhead, Hamilton, 1965.
  • The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax (1997) by Andrew Roberts.

References

External links

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