The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax by Andrew Roberts

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The Holy Fox: The Life of Lord Halifax by Andrew Roberts

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, senior government minister and foreign secretary who was nearly appointed Prime Minister in May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. First published in 1991, this edition contains a new author's introduction.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781781856970

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Of all the British nearly-Prime Ministers Edward Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, must be unique. He was the one who came closest to assuming the mantle only to find the job denied him, and had he done so, on him Britain’s destiny would have depended. For he was the man whom several confidently expected, and many wanted, to take over after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain during the dark days of May 1940.

The jury is still out to a large extent on Halifax, whose name lent itself so well to the pun which gives this biography its title. Was he an arch-appeaser, almost a traitor, a disastrous secretary of state for foreign affairs? Or was he the minister who strove against the odds to do his best, yet who had the misfortune to be up against one of the most devious and evil men in history?

Considering his difficult start in life and unpromising background, it sometimes seems remarkable that he came so far. He was born with a withered left arm (like Kaiser Wilhelm II) and no hand, the latter being replaced by a false one, and a slight lisp. Even so, he survived childhood while his three elder brothers all died in infancy or not long after within a period of four years, leaving him the heir to their father’s title of Viscount. He represented Ripon in Parliament from 1910 to 1925 when he was elevated to the peerage. As Viceroy of India for five years, a time of great political unrest, his fortunes were mixed, but he concluded his term of office by reaching a rapprochement with the Indian leader Gandhi.

On returning to Britain and inheriting the title of Viscount Halifax from his father, he held a succession of government posts under two successive Prime Ministers, Stanley Baldwin and then Chamberlain. As a senior minister and partly responsible for maintaining a dialogue with Hitler and the German government, he went to Germany in 1937 and on his arrival almost caused an international incident by trying to hand his coat to a rather short character whom he believed to be a footman. Just in time, he was warned that this was no footman, but ‘Die Führer’ himself. A few months later the foreign secretary Anthony Eden, increasingly irritated by what he saw as Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement as well as his interference in foreign affairs, resigned and was succeeded by Halifax.

The next few years were the most important, and interesting, of his life. His reputation has never recovered from having been associated so closely with Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Roberts has done him a service by demonstrating that this is rather a black and white judgment. He demonstrates that Halifax was not so completely taken in by Hitler at the time of the Bad Godesberg meetings and the period leading up to the much-feted but now notorious ‘Munich agreement’ as has been supposed, given that both men were strangers and handicapped by the language barrier. Having summed up Hitler to some degree, he made valiant if ultimately unsuccessful efforts to understand the German dictator’s aims and accommodate them without giving too much away at first, and then, having seen through his intentions, committed himself to the necessary evils of rearmament and conscription. After the ‘Norway debate’ in May 1940 which left an already seriously ill Chamberlain too weakened by loss of parliamentary support to continue in power, Halifax was the first choice of several to succeed him. Winston Churchill, nicknamed ‘the rogue elephant’, was distrusted because of his sometimes flawed judgment, chequered past track record (he had crossed the floor of the house not once but twice) and above all, by the King, for his having supported Edward VIII during the abdication crisis (a major mistake, as he would later freely admit). Ironically, he was the first choice of the Liberal and Labour parties if not his own, and he became the anointed if not unanimously welcomed successor.

Halifax admitted he was not the stuff of which war leaders were made, and was therefore the most magnanimous of losers. Nevertheless his confrontation with Churchill on plans to negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler, using Mussolini as an intermediary, effectively sealed his parliamentary career. Churchill was adamant that Hitler could not be trusted, and was convinced that he had the vast majority of the British people behind him. When a new ambassador in Washington was required later that year, Halifax was appointed to the post and went reluctantly. Churchill, it appears, chose him to get the one cabinet minister prepared to stand up to him out of the way.

Thereafter the rest of his career was bound to be something of an anti-climax, though he played some part in the negotiations for a loan from the US to cash-strapped Britain, in severe financial straits at the end of the war. When he heard that the Conservative party had abstained in the parliamentary vote on the loan he was furious, telling a friend that he would soon be turning towards Labour if that was his old party’s attitude. Eleven years later, the debacle that was Suez also shocked him.

As a biography, this book is a very good read. It inevitably becomes history more than biography in places, but in doing so paints a thoroughly researched picture of political wheelings and dealings in the immediate pre-war period, as well as of Churchill’s dealings and reputation with his colleagues, political attitudes in Britain towards Hitler, relations with Vichy France, the continuation of war and the refusal to fight on to the end rather than negotiate peace with an enemy who could not be trusted. Halifax was undoubtedly a flawed figure, as was Churchill, but fortunate is the senior politician and minister who never makes a few mistakes.

If these books appeal then we can also recommend:

Churchill's Bunker: The Secret Headquarters at the Heart of Britain's Victory by Richard Holmes

Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing

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