Memorial Addresses — H.V. Hodson

Harry Hodson – The Public Man — Memorial Address by Sir Robert Wade-Gery

The life of Harry Hodson was exceptionally long, vigorous and varied. Later in this service you will hear about the Private Man, and about the Mercer. I have been asked to speak briefly about the Public Man.

It is a formidable task. Harry’s public life was unusual at the time for having at least 6 major facets: All Souls; the Round Table; India; the Sunday Times; Ditchley; and the Annual Register. That list alone makes clear that the breadth of his achievements as a human being was no less remarkable than their depth.

Harry was elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls in 1928, after graduating from Balliol. He was the first ever Prize Fellow in economics. Such Fellowships allow the holder to choose between an academic career and a non-academic one. Harry had already decided against academia earlier that year, when he turned down a suggestion from his economics tutor, Lionel Robbins, to succeed him as a Fellow of New College. Despite family connection he also declined to sit for the Indian Civil Service, on the grounds – far sighted in 1928 – that British rule in India had not long to last. He did sit for the Home Civil Service examination and was in process of passing it when he decided to withdraw, to pursue a freer if riskier career as a writer and journalist. Modestly he claimed to have been stimulated to this decision by doing badly in the exam’s English paper. But he must already have been aware of his life-long gift for words and for assembling them elegantly and economically on paper.

Harry fell instantly in love with All Souls, and the flames of that affair were still bright when I last saw him there less than a year ago. It was, to him, a magic garden, where young and old, scholars and men of action, the eminent and the obscure could mingle on terms of equality. His College contemporaries remember his faultless manners, boyish good looks and boundless enthusiasm for College life. Under All Souls’s then rules he was not eligible to be re-elected when his Fellowship expired in 1935. But as a former Prize Fellow he remained, by the College’s amiable convention, a member of the family and a welcome visitor whenever he chose to return. For the rest of his life he was a faithful participant in College functions, not least at the Encaenia Lunch for the great and good of the University each June, where his own welcome was reinforced by Margaret’s habit of always wearing the prettiest hat in sight.

Between 1928 and 1935, with All Souls as his weekend base, he worked in London successively on the Economist, under Walter Layton, and in the Cabinet Office, on Ramsay Macdonald’s Economic Advisory Council, before settling down as Assistant Editor and then Editor of the Round Table. This quarterly journal, devoted to the affairs of (as it then was) the British Empire, was sponsored (and largely written) by a remarkable group of Liberal Imperialist who had been members of – or associated with – Lord Milner’s famous kindergarten in post-Boer-War South Africa. Several of them – Lionel Curtis, Bob Brand, Geoffrey Dawson, Dougie Malcolm – were senior Fellows of All Souls and thus well known to Harry when he went to work there in 1931. Other members of the Round Table Moot (as it is called) included Philip Lothian and Lionel Hichens. Several of them, led by Curtis, were proponents of the doomed doctrine of Imperial Federation. Others, including Harry, could see that the Empire was already evolving in quite other directions, with the Statute of Westminster as the great landmark of that process.

Harry was Editor of the Round Table, and secretary of its Moot, from 1934 until the outbreak of war in 1939. He returned briefly to cover an interregnum in 1946. But in a sense he never left. He remained for the rest of his life a contributor of articles (over 60 in all) and an active member of the Moot. Widely read, courteous in debate yet firm and often challenging in his opinions, he was a deeply loved and respected member of that society; and an invaluable counsellor to successive editors and chairmen of the board.

One consideration which drew him to work for the Round Table in the 1930’s was the requirement to travel widely in the Empire and the provision of splendid introductions to everyone it was interesting to meet there. He travelled slowly, as one had to in those days, with more leisure to digest his experiences (and write thoughtfully about them) than today’s world normally allows. His visits to Canada, India and Australia were of course the highlights; and we shall hear more, later in this service, of one particularly happy outcome of his stay in Sydney. In India his insights, more clearsighted than most of his peer group’s, must have owed something to two unusually progressive Viceroys, Chelmsford and Irwin, whom he knew as colleagues at All Souls.

These insights were a factor in the next major chapter in Harry’s public life; his work in (and on) the Sub-Continent. In 1939 his age (mid-30’s) and his Cabinet office experience pointed him towards war work as a temporary civil servant; and he served with distinction at the Ministries of Information and Supply. But the major event of his war years was his 18 months in India, as Constitutional Adviser to the Viceroy, in 1941-42. He was appointed by the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, whom he knew as an All Souls colleague. Amery’s views on imperial evolution were well to the right of Harry’s. But Harry felt bound to accept the challenge, at what seemed likely to be a critical time for constitutional development. He had been writing perceptively about India since his first Round Table travels there ten years earlier. He was a strong supporter of Dominion Status and thereby full independence. But he had also warned his readers of the two major difficulties: the danger of the rising Muslim demand for separatism; and the problem posed for Britain’s natural allies from the past – the Princes and landowners and the professional and military elites – by the inevitability that power in an independent and democratic India would be held not by them but by the mass political parties whose leaders the British Raj instinctively distrusted. He also realised that these problems had been exacerbated by the botched handling of India’s declaration of war and by the anti-imperial instincts of Britain’s American ally in a conflict in which the fall of Singapore was soon to put India in the front line. But the need to rally Indian opinion behind the war effort seemed to offer a unique opportunity.

It turned out to be a frustrating job. He got on well with the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, but could seldom get him to look further ahead than the immediate priority of contributing to military victory. Harry had many friends among the senior members of the Government of India. But few of them were ready to think radically about India’s constitutional future. It was typical of them to veto his suggestion of a US-type President to replace the Viceroy as a focus for unity after independence – which might have well suited India’s continental size – because they thought it self-evident that the legacy of British rule must be the Westminster model of democracy. The middle-level bureaucracy distrusted him as an outsider, and were able to overturn promises which had been made about his salary and housing. He was also appalled at the lack of understanding between the Delhi Government and the India Office in London, which he blamed for the initial mishandling of the crucial Cripps Mission in early 1942. That Mission offered the one big opportunity for constitutional advance. Harry played an important and constructive role throughout it. But its ultimate failure, which he blamed on Stafford Cripps’s deviousness as a negotiator, led rapidly to the deep-freezing of all constitutional issues for the duration of the war. Harry’s post and department were left in limbo. He wisely resigned, returning to London and a senior position in Whitehall.

But two victories emerged unexpectedly from this defeat. First, he was able to ensure that his successor would be his deputy, the great V.P. Menon, who played such a crucial part in the final independence negotiations. Second, his experiences in 1941-42 were a major factor in Mountbatten’s decision, on V.P. Menon’s advice, to ask Harry in 1963 to write a history of the Transfer of Power in the Sub-Continent and to offer him unfettered access to the enormous Mountbatten archive. “The Great Divide” was published six years later. It is a wonderful book: lapidary, perceptive, dispassionate and scrupulously fair. Its reissue in 1985 gave Harry great pleasure, and enabled him to add an Epilogue, which in 25 incisive pages provides one of the best accounts yet written of the Sub-Continent’s political history since independence.

Harry was 39 when the War ended. He had no wish to stay on at the Ministry of Production. But his wide range of friends, and his skill and diligence in maintaining his friendships in good repair, meant he was not short of other possibilities. From lack of party conviction he declined to run the Conservatives’ new policy research department, which would have been interesting work in the Rab Butler era. Other friends suggested the City. But it was to his first love, journalism, that he chose to turn. His brother-in-law who had been a colleague at the Economist in 1929, was now financial editor of the Sunday Times. Harry became Assistant Editor in 1946 and was Editor from 1950 to 1961.

The Editor’s role in a great national newspaper is a many-sided one. Harry brought to it great strengths and some weaknesses. With the end of wartime restrictions it was a time of opportunity but also competition. Harry was not a commercial buccaneer. In the early 50’s the Sunday Times’s circulation was overtaken by the Observer’s. But this was reversed in 1956 when the Observer lost readers by opposing the Suez adventure. Harry’s attitude to Suez was characteristic; privately he doubted the wisdom and feasibility of Eden’s policy; but in public he believed that the paper’s duty was to support the Government when the country was in effect at war. I suspect he would have taken the same view of Kosovo today.

Harry was also criticised for his patrician detachment. His refusal to stay for the final weekly convulsions on Saturday evening was logically correct, since there was little more an editor could do by that stage. But it was thought psychologically wrong for the captain to be seen leaving the bridge. He also had to endure many passages of arms with Lord Kemsley, who was the proprietor down to 1959 and whose political views were (as they say) well to the right of Genghiz Khan’s. He won some of these battles and lost others. He blocked a demand that the paper should call for an American nuclear strike during the Korean War; and he refused to withdraw a call for the liberalisation of the then draconian laws on homosexuality. On the other side, Fleet Street still relishes the perhaps apocryphal story of a landowner who sued the paper for printing on the front page a photograph of his prize bull with vital parts of its anatomy air-brushed out because they outraged Lady Kemsley’s modesty.

But Harry was brilliant at the more important aspects of the job: the high-level contacts across the globe; the shrewd political judgements; the elegant and incisive editorials; and above all the building up and retaining of a staff of high intellectual quality and cosmopolitan sophistication. By the time he left the Sunday Times its pre-eminence was established and its circulation had doubled to over a million. In a telling tribute the new proprietor Roy Thomson and Harry’s successors as editor encouraged him to continue for many years to contribute editorials and to play an active part in the weekly conference.

It was characteristic of Harry to find time, during his years at the Sunday Times, to raise money to found the Institute of Race Relations. Under its first director, Philip Mason, it fulfilled all Harry’s hopes by orchestrating the objective study of its subject both in Britain and elsewhere. Years later he was saddened when, perhaps inevitably, it abandoned academic analysis and became in effect a political pressure group.

After leaving the Sunday Times Harry became the first director of the Ditchley Foundation. This now world famous Anglo-American conference centre, with its superb James Gibbs house near Woodstock, had recently been founded by David Wills’s generous gift of the house and money to restore it. The first chairman of its governing council, Roger Sherfield, an All Souls near-contemporary of Harry’s, was looking for someone to run it and was delighted to find Harry interested. It was a wonderful opportunity, but a daunting one. Despite its initial benefaction, Ditchley needed to raise a much larger endowment. It had no track record, and there was then no obvious precedent in this country. The director’s salary was not large and his proposed lodgings not yet in being. Harry had always been a Londoner, and living so deep in the country was an unfamiliar prospect. But the challenge was hard for an adventurous man to resist; the beauty of Ditchley itself was decisive; and Harry particularly relished the idea of a job in which Margaret would play a major role.

Harry and Margaret presided at Ditchley for 10 highly successful years. The Foundation was built up and the prestige of its conferences established. The modus operandi which Harry developed is still happily in use today (including the addition, which he pioneered, of participants from countries other than Britain and America). His formula was a simple one: Go for the Best. Conference participants had to include the leading figures in the relevant fields, which ranged from major international issues to culture and trades unionism. To get them to come, the charm of the great house must be matched by impeccable comfort, service, food and drink. And to make the conferences memorable, the host and hostess had to take infinite pains to make everyone feel welcome and to ensure that the chemistry between them was right.

The formula had its dangers. Charges of elitism and of extravagance were inevitable. The grandeur of the arrangements jarred on some palates. The romantic title of Provost, which Harry chose for his post, was discarded after he left. But few people who went to Ditchley in Harry’s time came away other than grateful and admiring.

It must have been hard going for both of them. An average of 2 conferences a month meant over 700 guests a year to be persuaded to come, welcomed and kept in touch with afterwards. There was a gruelling visit to North America each year, to raise funds through the sister-foundation American Ditchley and to keep contact with alumni and other supporters. Relations with the governing Council was not always easy. But the magic of Ditchley is now part of our national life; and much of the credit for that belongs to Harry and to Margaret.

Harry’s final achievement was his twenty years as Editor and later Consultant Editor of the Annual Register, that indispensable reference book and record of world events. He retired only in 1993, at the age of 87.

The Register has been published every year since it was started by Edmund Burke in 1758. Harry enlarged and modernised it, adding an editorial and sections on arms control, the environment, technology and sport, as well as economic statistics. For several years he followed Burke’s example in writing a substantial part of the work himself.

In looking back over such an eventful life, we are left with two question marks. The first is whether Harry’s many and varied achievements were merely an instance of the British establishment looking after its own. The question is a natural one, given the distinction of many of Harry’s friends. But it is easily answered. In the fields where Harry worked, the right connections may sometimes help to place you in a job. They cannot keep you there or make you a success.

Another part of the answer to this charge lies in the more difficult second question. Why did a man who achieved so much, in so many fields, never receive official recognition? My own tentative answer to that question is that in two respects, Harry did not fit into the categories with which British public life is familiar. Temperamentally, he was a scholar who led mainly a life of action; pure scholars thought him a worldling, men of the world thought him too academic. He also upset our notions of political category: he was too radical for conservative tastes and too conservative for radicals. Such men are rare, and to my mind particularly valuable. It is our system which is at fault.

But such questions are for biographers, not memorialists. We meet today to honour the life of a man of great talent and great charm; and to give thanks for the privilege of his friendship. He will be greatly missed.