War and peace: Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax differed on appeasement but All Souls played no part
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.