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Obituary: H. V. Hodson

H. V. HODSON was a distinguished editor of the Sunday Times not of the previous dispensation, but of the one before that. Before Rupert Murdoch acquired the paper and installed Andrew Neil to make it what it is today, it enjoyed under Denis Hamilton and then Harry Evans what many recall as a golden age, characterised by aggressive investigative journalism, uninhibited cultural reporting and irrepressible features.

Harry Hodson's Sunday Times was very different but in its way equally successful. Under his editorship, which lasted from 1950 to 1961, the circulation roughly doubled and passed one million, then a prodigious figure for a serious newspaper. Hodson found its proprietor, the first Viscount Kemsley, so difficult that on at least one occasion he came close to resignation. For, where Kemsley was a crusty conservative on social as well as political and economic issues, Hodson was a liberal conservative, in favour, for example, of liberalisation of the laws concerning homosexuality.

Hodson's intellectual pedigree, in fact, was that of liberal imperialism in general, and of the brand associated with the group known as Milner's Kindergarten in particular. The Kindergarten came together as a group of very able young men, including the politician and novelist John Buchan, the constitutional scholar Lionel Curtis, the banker Robert Brand and many others, who were determined to create a liberal regime in South Africa that would reconcile the Afrikaner and British South Africans; their interest in Africans was limited to vague paternalistic goodwill.

There was a close link between the Kindergarten and All Souls College, Oxford, to which Harry Hodson was elected, from Balliol, in 1928. As a young academic, Hodson's interest was in the British Empire, and his standpoint was that of a liberal imperialist, concerned to devise structures that would allow gradual progress in the direction of self- government. It is fair to say that he and his colleagues were so aware of opposition from blimps and business interests alike that they were cautious to the verge of immobilism.

Hodson took on first the assistant editorship, then from 1934 the editorship, of the Kindergarten's house journal, The Round Table. He also carried out with probity and intellectual clarity a number of assignments on behalf of what would now be called the Establishment, of which he was a card- carrying member. With his elegant bowler hat and rolled umbrella, and fastidious good manners, not to mention his membership of Brooks's Club and his Mastership of the Mercers' Company, one of the wealthiest and most influential City livery companies, he both looked the part and clearly enjoyed playing it. As a young don he published a number of books about the world economic crisis and about imperial problems, from the point of view of benevolent rulers, rather than from that of the ruled.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he became head of what was called the Empire Division of the Ministry of Information. In 1941 he was sent to India as the "Reforms Commissioner" in New Delhi. Those experiences informed a series of books about the future of empire, of which the most notable was perhaps The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan, published in 1969. By that time, in a way that seems quaint today, he had become the assistant editor and later the editor of one of the most influential newspapers in the country with virtually no previous journalistic experience.

Even more quaint, to those who have worked on Sunday newspapers in less leisurely times, was the clause in his contract that allowed him not to have to come into the office on Saturdays except in times of dire emergency. Although Hodson had good personal relations with Roy Thomson and indeed with the brasher, very non-All Souls journalists brought into the paper by the new regime, it was clear that the new journalism was not for him.

Instead he found an ideal niche from which to contribute his knowledge of high politics and international affairs as Director - he preferred to call it "Provost" - of the Anglo-American "think-tank" (not a term that would have appealed to Harry Hodson) at Ditchley Park, the Palladian mansion of Ronald and Marietta Tree in the north Oxfordshire woods. There he presided over conferences that encouraged high-minded thinking of what came to be called an "Atlanticist" tone. Alternative visions were discouraged in a civilised manner, and the prevailing idea was the special relationship Britain might have as the ally of the United States.

In later years Hodson served as the editor of the Annual Register and as a consultant, and for a long time continued to attend weekly leader conferences at the Sunday Times. As an Anglican layman he also took an active part in Old Chelsea Church.

It is hard to recall Harry Hodson's life without the feeling that he was a devoted and civilised servant of a number of lost causes, among them the British Empire, the ideal of a gentlemanly journalism, and a special relationship between a rampantly self-confident America and a diminished Britain.Henry Vincent Hodson, journalist: born London 12 May 1906; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1928-35; Assistant Editor, The Round Table 1931-34, Editor 1934-39; Director, Empire Division, Ministry of Information 1939-41; Reforms Commissioner, Government of India 1941- 42; Principal Assistant Secretary/head of Non-Munitions Division, Ministry of Production 1942-45; Assistant Editor, Sunday Times 1946-50, Editor 1950-61; Provost of Ditchley 1961-71; Master, Mercers' Company 1964-65; Editor, Annual Register 1973-88; married 1933 Margaret Honey (four sons); died London 27 March 1999.