Harold Nicolson
Harold Nicolson; drawing by David Levine

Harold Nicolson entered Parliament in 1935 as a National Labour candidate—one of the small and despised group who supported Ramsay MacDonald when he broke with the Labour Party and formed a “National” Government at the time of the slump four years earlier. After MacDonald’s death the group lost whatever meaning and influence it had ever possessed, and facing in 1944 the prospect of the General Election which would take place after the defeat of Germany, Nicolson asked himself what in fact he stood for in politics. “I am an Asquithian Liberal,” he answered. We all know what an Asquithian Liberal was in the First World War. What was he in the Second?

The answer shows how paradoxical politics is. An Asquithian Liberal in 1939 supported Churchill (the onetime follower of Lloyd George) against Chamberlain and the Tory Establishment. But he was still very much part of the upper-class Establishment. He found himself obsessed by Macbeth’s dilemma. What he would highly that he would holily. He saw the war as a defense of culture against barbarism, and not as a stark confrontation of military power. He wanted to defeat Hitler, but he was not prepared to wage war by totalitarian methods. He wanted to proclaim civilized war aims, to dissociate himself from any suggestion that this was a war to defend the Empire, and to reassure the working classes that at the end of this war there would be homes fit for heroes to live in and all sorts of other social benefits as well. The trouble was that Churchill shared none of these aspirations. The second volume of Nicolson’s diary, which covers the war years, shows the perplexities which a man of his temperament wrestled with.

When Churchill became Prime Minister he made Duff Cooper Minister of Information and asked Nicolson to take the number two job under him. During the first three years of its existence, the Ministry had the thankless task of processing news of almost unbroken Allied defeats, and it is not surprising that none of the ministers who answered for it was voted a success. Nicolson thought that the issue was whether the Ministry was prepared to be “caddish and ignorant enough to tell dynamic lies. At present it is too decent, educated and intellectual to imitate Goebbels…. I am prepared to see the old world of privilege disappear. But as it goes, it will carry with it the old standards of honor.” But much as intellectuals liked to say so, this was not the real issue. The issue was not whether gentlemen should run the Ministry, but whether it should be run by someone with drive and managerial skill. After eighteen months in office, Churchill decided to move Duff Cooper and replace him by Brendan Bracken, his ruthless friend and a natural successor to the buccaneering brigade of the old Lloyd George days. Labour got Nicolson’s post for one of their worthies, and he was given a power-less sinecure and made a Governor of the BBC.

Nicolson understood his own personal failings as a politician. Although he had not been a failure in the job and was liked by all but the old Chamberlain gang, he was too pliable, too keen to please, insufficiently formidable. But here his capacity for self-criticism stopped. For his diary shows that he failed to understand, hardly less than the old-style Tories whom he rightly despised, any of the major political changes which were taking place in the country during the war. Politics for him, as for Halifax, was foreign policy and personalities. In the first volume of his diaries the word “unemployment” hardly ever occurs. In the second there is no reference in detail to any of the wartime legislation which created a social revolution and paved the way for the welfare state. The lower classes appear as a lumbering elephantine mass which will probably trample underfoot everything that makes life worth living for Harold Nicolson. He relied for his information about them on Stephen Spender, at that time serving in the Fire Brigade.

I have always been on the side of the underdog, but I have also believed in the principle of aristocracy. I have hated the rich but loved learning, scholarship, intelligence and the humanities. Suddenly I am faced with the fact that all these lovely things are supposed to be “class privilege.”…When I find that my whole class is being assailed, I feel part of them, a feeling I have never had before.

In 1944 he found scrawled in the lavatory of an RAF station “Winston Churchill is a bastard” and protested to the commanding officer. “Well, you see, if I may say so, the men hate politicians.” Nicolson explodes in his diary: “Winston a politician! Good God!” But Churchill was a politician. No man is a statesman until he dies.


Nicolson realized he would lose his seat in the General Election after the war and recognized how Churchill’s tactics in the election campaign were misjudged. Indeed he several times got into trouble with his great chief during the war for suggesting that afterward there should be a New Deal. But what the New Deal should be, or how it was benevolently to be handed to lower orders by their cultivated superiors, was beyond him. He had no administrative sense—the notion of how to translate ideas into action. When the time came to appoint a new Director-General of the BBC his vote went to a cultivated Etonian civil servant and university administrator of immense charm and ability who had no experience as a news editor nor of journalism and broadcasting. The man appointed was Sir William Haley who had all three. But Nicolson felt that the appointment was letting down culture.

WHAT WAS THIS CULTURE to which he was so devoted? It meant the living of life through literature, the exploration of personality, support for the avant-garde, the whole guided and sustained by devotion to personal relations and the love of friends—what is usually satirized as Bloomsbury culture, which has taken such a pasting in recent years. Harold Nicolson emphasized a curious facet. He loathed public-school manliness, philistinism, and leadership, and praised the sensitivity which he believed they suppressed. He loathed it to such an extent that he could write, “the literary temperament is only tolerable so long as it remains cowardly. Once it becomes courageous it is an unpleasant thing to meet.” When he did meet it in a book by an RAF ace called Richard Hillary, who, having been shot down and appallingly burned, wrote of his experiences before finally meeting his death in action, Nicolson thought that “the man was surely a cad at heart just as T. E. Lawrence was.” He enjoyed pretending to be a milksop—though the diaries show that he endured the bombing of London as coolly as anyone. Culture for him meant opposition to the brutality and lies which are inescapable in war; but it is odd that someone who presumably admired Homer should have been so morbidly suspicious of bravery.

His intimate friends criticized him for wasting his time in public affairs. “But it’s all about politics,” wailed one of them to whom he showed his diary—and indeed it reveals practically nothing of his private life. They failed to realize how habit-forming a drug public life was to Nicolson and to many Englishmen. He was compulsively gregarious. He found dinner parties, Lady Colefax’s salon, and the House of Commons irresistible, while at the same time often admitting to himself that it was all a vain expense of spirit. Vita Sackville-West, his wife, who detested social gatherings and did devote herself to poetry, begged him to drop some of the myriad of engagements and commitments which he contracted, but endearingly enough he admitted in his diary that he curled up with pleasure at the applause of an audience, the word of praise by Churchill or Eden at a lunch party, the notion that by dropping a word here or making an approach there, or by a speech in the House, he was influencing events. If he had given it up he might have written more, but would he have written better?

That question was answered for him. In 1944 Stuart Preston, the most celebrated of all the American sergeants who appeared at every gathering in London during the war, kindly asked him to read a cutting from the New Yorker which he hinted was not entirely favorable. Nicolson records that he did not care a hoot what was said about him in that magazine until he glanced at the signature. Then he felt differently: “I knew I should care very much indeed what Edmund Wilson said.” Edmund Wilson wrote that, with the exception of Some People, Nicolson had been unable to write a good book because he looked “through an Embassy window.” The sheet of glass consisted of his aristocratic prejudices and puritan upbringing. His literary studies were worthless and his diplomatic studies schoolboy fantasies in which England was always in the right.

Harold Nicolson’s reaction to this review was characteristic, and it explains why he has a value above anything he has written or achieved. He acknowledged in his diary that though Edmund Wilson had got some of the symptoms wrong he had diagnosed the illness.

There is something (is it a hatred of emotion or merely a lack of muscles in the mind?) which renders most of my writing superficial…. But when I read the article a third time my irritation disappeared. I felt glad that Wilson should have devoted an article to books which he had clearly read carefully…. But if in truth I have gone through life regarded by the respectable as a Bohemian and by the Bohemians as conventional, there must be something very very wrong.

AND YET there was something also very right about him. It is true that he was soft; it is true that he was sentimental; it is true that he was unable to be rude even to Sir John Simon, whom he rightly described as a toad and a worm. But there is a little corner reserved for Asquithian Liberals in the world of affairs, and it is not dishonorable. Those who sit in it radiate decency and honesty, and sometimes are able to persuade others to follow these virtues. What Nicolson admired so much in Churchill as a war leader was his magnanimity, and he was always recording in his diary the instances when Churchill rose above party, personal, or even national advantage to speak as a figure on the stage of history. These are the diaries of a singularly attractive man. He loved his sons with an almost physical passion and was not ashamed to tell them so. He encouraged and delighted in the company of the young, and felt the death of his friends with anguish. He would not rise with the rest in the House and cheer the news of the sinking of the Bismarck because he could think then only of the plight of those who had gone down in her. His voice whispered sanity, proportion, restraint, in years when ugly and horrible range could all too easily have dictated public policy. That the war leaders were restrained except on a few occasions was due in part to the existence of such potential critics as Nicolson. His sense of humor—a quality not much praised today—was unfailing, and it enveloped himself as well as others. His ironical gaze moved across the situation he was depicting and in the end centered upon himself: there he stood, incongruous, faintly bewildered, faintly feeble and disabled, inescapably part of the social falsities which he satirized, yet capable with a deprecating gesture of indicating the comical pomposities and embarrassments of the scene he observed. It was these arpeggios of comedy and self-criticism, beneath which you could hear a ground bass of respect for decency and sanity, which made Some People a minor classic. They also make this book compellingly readable and confirm him as one of the most spirited literary journalists of his generation.


Perhaps, too, decency and sanity are not such despicable guides in politics as those historians who denigrate Asquithian Liberalism suggest. Throughout his diary of the war Nicolson records his attempts to build bridges between the British Government and De Gaulle and the Free French. It was not a popular role, but the man whom the professional politicians shrugged off as too nice to matter did not mince his words. Just before D Day he followed Churchill in a debate and, reproving him for his treatment of small Powers, went on: “It seems to me that the US Government, and His Majesty’s Government in their train, instead of helping the French and welcoming them, lose no opportunity of administering any snub which ingenuity can devise and ill-manners perpetrate.” If sentiment for France inspired him, decency told him that it was wrong to humiliate the exiles of a humiliated nation, and sanity told him that these exiles ought to be recognized as the legal government; for if they were not, the remnants of the Vichy regime would be swept away by the communists.

When De Gaulle disappeared among the confusions of the Fourth Republic, when Britain opted out of the European community and Americans were confirmed in their view that France did not count as a Power, Nicolson’s decency could have been written off as another example of sentimental Edwardian ineffectiveness. But the modern practitioners of Realpolitik for whom power, and above all military power, is the only reality so often get their sums wrong. Today, nursing with bitter pride every resentment of the war years, De Gaulle stands as the foremost Western opponent of the Vietnam war and of American foreign policy and the implacable enemy of Britain’s entry into the Common Market. In his books and articles on diplomacy Nicolson used to reiterate that, although national self-interest came first, it was unwise to be gratuitously rude or untruthful in dealing with another Power. As the Entente Cordiale which was finally undermined at Suez lies in ruins, Nicolson might grimly reflect that there is something to be said, even in politics, for being urbane and sensitive to the feelings of others.

This Issue

August 3, 1967