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All Souls and the Wider World: Statesmen, Scholars and Adventurers, c.1850-1950

All Souls and the Wider World: Statesmen, Scholars and Adventurers, c.1850-1950
Edited by S J D Green & Peregrine Horden
Oxford University Press, 326pp, £70

All Souls is Oxford's most prestigious college and the only one without students. It is perhaps best known for its prize fellowship examination, said to be the most demanding in the country. But its main distinctive feature is - or rather was - its connection with public life. The college considers its purpose as supplying, in the words of Lord Curzon in 1914, "a flow of eminent public servants to the state" and former fellows who have attained distinction in the world outside have always served on its governing body.

In 1939, as Britain slid, unprepared, towards war, its fellows included the foreign secretary, the chancellor of the Exchequer, the archbishop of Canterbury, the editor of the Times and the cabinet secretary. The journalist Anthony Sampson wrote that the college could, then, "lay some claim to be governing Britain - with disastrous results". More recently, however, the flow seems to have dried up. There are now only two fellows from public life, the Conservative ex-ministers John Redwood and William Wal­degrave. The college counts for more in the world of scholarship than it did before the war but less in the world of public affairs.

All Souls and the Wider World seeks to estimate the public impact of the college. Compiled by fellows and former fellows, it could easily have degenerated into a work of piety. It is far from that. The contributors are quite ruthless in attacking, with merciless scholarly precision, the idea that the college was the headquarters of an establishment that governed Britain or its empire in the first half of
the 20th century.

If there is a weakness, it is that good scho­larship is deployed on unimportant subjects. There is a chapter on Keith Hancock, no doubt a considerable figure in his time but now remembered, if at all, primarily for his biography of the South African statesman Jan Smuts. And was it necessary to include a chapter dis­interring G M Young, a historian of no great distinction and a man with just a single good
book to his name?

However, most of the essays do deal with matters of importance. There is, for example, a fine exercise in revisionism by Stephen Cretney in his chapter on John Simon. It has long been the custom to excoriate Simon as a man of Munich but Cretney shows that he had great achievements to his credit as a humane home secretary and reforming lord chancellor. There is also a penetrating analysis of appeasement by one of the editors, Simon Green. No student who reads it will ever feel confident in employing the concept again.

Naturally, if the idea of the "establishment" is a crude journalistic simplification and if, as Green insists, the notion of appeasement has little application, since most politicians of the 1930s were in favour of conciliating at least one of Britain's opponents at some time or other, then all can be acquitted and no one is to blame - a comforting verdict. And yet, perhaps Green's pointillist, Namierite history - incidentally, Lewis Namier was twice rejected by the college, largely, it seems, on anti-Semitic grounds - distorts by ignoring the ideological atmosphere of the period. That atmosphere was created by Lord Milner, not a fellow but an im­perial proconsul whose "religio Milneriana" profoundly influenced All Souls.

This religion entailed that empire mattered more than Europe. In the First World War, Milner had sought a negotiated peace with Germany at the expense of Russia to create a barrier against Bolshevism. He was perfectly prepared to write off central and eastern Europe. "We did not," Milner insisted, "go to war for Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romanians or Poles" - faraway countries of which we knew nothing. Imperialists should not worry about who controlled such unimportant places, so long as they continued to rule a worldwide empire. Here, surely, is to be found the ideo­logical origins of British foreign policy in the 1930s and some of the fellows of All Souls were highly complicit in it.

Lord Halifax, foreign secretary at the time of Munich, was a fellow of the college. A former viceroy of India, he was a Knight of the Garter and would become a member of the Order of Merit. Yet he was profoundly ignorant of Europe. At a time when the man in the street felt instinctively that Hitler was a thoroughly nasty piece of work, Halifax judged him "a militant Mahatma Gandhi" and "an oriental mystic", while he found Hermann Göring "a perfect pet". Halifax was ignorant of England, too, except for his college, London clubs and the grouse moors. "We need a new church school here," he declared of his Yorkshire village in the 1930s. "We want a school to train them for servants and butlers."

I used to think that public life would be improved if the universities had more influence. The history of All Souls as recounted here makes me think again.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute for Contemporary History, King's College, London, and was for many years professor of government at Oxford University

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible