It Was All Rot About All Souls

Book review of All Souls and the Wider World edited by S.J.D. Green and Peregrine Horden

Andrew Roberts

In 1955 the Tory politician Bob Boothby denounced All Souls College, Oxford, for having been “the intellectual HQ of appeasement”, saying: “It would be difficult to overstate the damage done to this country at that disastrous dining table.” This view might have been shrugged off by the college as the ignorant rant of an outsider had not its ultimate insider, Dr A.L. Rowse, who had dined at that same table more than almost any other fellow in the Thirties, published a book in 1961 entitled All Souls and Appeasement that substantiated Boothby’s accusations.  

By pointing out that All Souls in the 1930s boasted Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir John Simon, the Attorney-General Donald Somervell, the Tory MP Quintin Hogg (elected in the 1938 Munich by-election), the diplomat Con O’Neill, the legal adviser to the Foreign Office Eric Beckett, the Cabinet Secretary Edward Bridges, as well as the pro-appeasement head of Chatham House Lionel Curtis and The Times editor Geoffrey Dawson, Rowse made the case for All Souls having been the academic equivalent of the Cliveden Set, i.e. a group of largely-unelected figures who used their influential positions to push the National Government towards an ignoble accommodation with Nazi Germany. 

The Boothby-Rowse line took hold, and many history books have unquestioningly accepted the premise that All Souls was indeed a powerhouse of the appeasing stance in British foreign affairs, although Sidney Aster’s excellent 2004 book Appeasement and All Souls was an important antidote to the theory.

Now a well-researched, well-written and carefully-argued essay by S.J.D. Green of Leeds University and All Souls has utterly demolished the Boothby-Rowse myth and completely rescued the reputation of the college. Green’s is only one of a series of fine essays about All Souls’ contribution to the history of the 20th century written by distinguished historians, but its hard-hitting 40 pages are worth the price of the book alone. Recent authors such as Lynn Olson and David Faber, who are accused of “merely regurgitating the tired pieties of righteous hindsight”, might be irked by Green’s attack, but won’t be able to find flaws in his argument. 

Green draws heavily (and suitably gratefully) on the 1990 Chichele Lecture of All Souls’ former bursar Charles Wenden, who died in 1992, much missed by his many friends. Green points out that Halifax, Simon and Dawson dined at All Souls together only twice between the Nazis coming to power in 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Using the college’s kitchen books, he shows how in those six-and-a-half years, Halifax visited the college only ten times in total, and Simon 22 times, and Boothby never. Moreover Rowse’s diaries — which he once boasted to me “would blow the lid off the college” — did not in fact, once expertly edited by Richard Ollard, contain the evidence to support any pro-appeasement conspiracy theory.

This is hardly surprising, for, as Green points out, Rowse was in fact not so opposed to appeasement in the Thirties as he later made out; indeed the only references he makes to the word “appeasement” in his contemporaneous notebooks tended to be positive ones. It was only after the war that he crossed the word out and changed it to “peace”. He was Labour candidate for Penryn and Falmouth for the 1931 and 1935 general elections and remained so until 1943. (It’s an interesting thought that if Rowse had remained that seat’s candidate for only two more years, he would have been elected in the 1945 landslide.) Far from being — as he later claimed — a convinced Churchillian, on May 8, 1940, two days before Churchill became Prime Minister, a letter from Rowse appeared in The Times saying that “the Labour movement would serve under Lord Halifax”, and Churchill should be left to get on with fighting the war. Green’s expertly footnoted chapter is a devastating demolition of Rowse, whose stance in the 1930s somehow combined an intellectual commitment to Marxism and apologies for Lenin with a repudiation of the “idiot” people, especially “the bloody fools of the working classes”. Only Gilbert Murray, who said he harboured “no particular bias against Nazi ideology as such”, comes out worse. 

The All Souls membership of anti-appeasement fellows such as Sir Arthur Salter, Robert Brand and Con O’Neill (who resigned from the Foreign Office over it in 1939) underlines how unlikely it was that fellows there were plotting the surrender of the Sudetenland around their dining table. There were no regular guest nights before the war, that high table talk could not have influenced outsiders either. As Dr Wenden also pointed out me, the fact that fellows tended to play post-prandial bridge meant that opportunities to promote appeasement were further curtailed. Even people as undeniably gifted as All Souls fellows can’t play good bridge and discuss foreign policy at the same time.

This book contains many fine essays by distinguished historians such as Adrian Wooldridge, Stephen Cretney, Joe Mordaunt Crook, Sarvepalli Gopal, Jim Davidson, William Roger Louis and John Clarke, on many varied and important aspects of All Souls’ influence on great events in British and world history. During the Thirties about half of the fellows were either directly or indirectly involved in the administration of public affairs, fulfilling Lord Curzon’s dream for them to provide a “flow of eminent public servants to the State”. The Milner Kindergarten, the most selfless, decent, brilliant and committed of all the imperial administrators — indeed, perhaps the most admirably high-minded small group of public servants in the whole of British history — were intimately connected to All Souls, as Sir Michael Howard shows in another excellent chapter. 

Yet Curzon’s dream was to die in 1945, after which, with a very few exceptions — such as Lord Hailsham, Sir Keith Joseph and William Waldegrave — front-line politics bifurcated from All Souls membership, or “Mallardry” as this book puts it, after the college’s duck motif. “The glory days of ‘the exceptional college’ were gone forever,” writes Green. One hopes that the unsubstantiated libels of Bob Boothby and Leslie Rowse weren’t in any way contributory. In the latter’s case, after 72 years as a fellow there, it would be a fulfillment of Wilde’s dictum about each man killing the thing he loves.

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