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Encyclopedia > Lord Halifax

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, known as Lord Irwin from 1926 until 1934, (1881-1959) 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. He succeeded Lord Reading as Governor General and Viceroy of India on April 1926, a post he held till 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.

He was son of the second Viscount Halifax. He was educated at Eton College and served as a Member of Parliament from 1910 to 1925 when he was elevated to the peerage. As a young officer in the Yorkshire Dragoons he saw some active service in World War I but remained mostly behind the lines, being moved to a desk job in 1917.

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, a balked Wood voted for the downfall of David 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

He was Viceroy of India from 1926 to 1931. In 1925 he had been proposed at the suggestion of 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 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 he was appointed 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 put all the Congress leaders behind the 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 a pact called 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 offenses 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 tributes 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 to join his new post as British ambassador to the USA. 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 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 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 in so far 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 also forced to listen politely to Hitler's hair-raising advice on how he should have handled difficulties in India and the meetings were generally uncomfortable.

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 of Benito Mussolini, whom Eden regarded as an untrustworthy gangster. Halifax got his job in February 1938. Three weeks later Hitler annexed Austria; Czechoslavakia 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 throghout the continent. All three of these posits turned out to be false. The main result of this severe error of judgement was the loss of Czechoslavakia, 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 it was too late. 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 feckless handling of what is usually called the Phony 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, fearing he was not up to the challenge.

Ambassador to the United States and Later Life

Winston Churchill maintained him as foreign minister for about nine months to present the Conservative Party as a unified front but the two men did not enjoy a particularly close relationship and 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. 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 going to be 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 Truman and Clement Attlee back in Britain. The appointment continued to be dogged by failure however as the Americans abruply cancelled lend-lease, upon which the British economy depended and 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 1930's 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 Sheffield University and the Order of the Garter and Chairman of the BBC. He died at his estate at Garrowby shortly before Christmas 1959.

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.

Further reading

  • The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax (1997) Andrew Roberts

His autobiography was Fullness of Days (1957); earlier biographies were written by A. Johnson (1941) and the Earl of Birkenhead (1965). Halifax is still a somewhat controversial figure, and none of these books can be safely categorised as free of some agenda. The Roberts book had access to more documents.

External link

  • Lord Irwin (http://www.indhistory.com/lord-irwin.html/)
Preceded by:
H.A.L. Fisher
President of the Board of Education
Followed by:
Charles Philips Trevelyan
Preceded by:
Noel Buxton
Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries
Followed by:
Walter Guinness
Preceded by:
The Earl of Reading
Governor-General of India
Followed by:
The Earl of Willingdon
Preceded by:
Sir Donald Maclean
President of the Board of Education
Followed by:
Oliver Stanley
Preceded by:
The Viscount Hailsham
Secretary of State for War
Followed by:
Duff Cooper
Preceded by:
The Marquess of Londonderry
Lord Privy Seal
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The Earl De La Warr
Preceded by:
The Marquess of Londonderry
Leader of the House of Lords
Followed by:
The Earl Stanhope
Preceded by:
Ramsay Macdonald
Lord President of the Council
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The Viscount Hailsham
Preceded by:
Anthony Eden
Foreign Secretary
Followed by:
Anthony Eden
Preceded by:
The Viscount Caldecote
Leader of the House of Lords
Followed by:
The Lord Lloyd
Preceded by:
The Marquess of Lothian
British Ambassador to the United States
Followed by:
The Lord Inverchapel
Preceded by:
New Creation
Earl of Halifax Followed by:
Charles Wood
Preceded by:
Charles Wood
Viscount Halifax

  Results from FactBites:
E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2094 words)
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.
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.
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.
Lord Halifax (1809 words)
In an attempt to to solve the crisis, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain and the heads of the governments of Germany, France and Italy met in Munich in September, 1938.
Lord Halifax was the British delegate to the San Francisco Conference in March 1945, and attended the first session of the United Nations in 1945.
Halifax and Chamberlain are doubtless very great men, who dwarf their colleagues; they are the greatest Englishmen alive, certainly; but aside from them we have a mediocre crew; I fear that England is on the decline, and that we shall dwindle for a generation or so.
  More results at FactBites »



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