IRWIN, LORD (1881–1959), the first baron Irwin, first earl of Halifax, viceroy and governor-general of India (1926–1931). Edward Frederick Lindley Wood was a respected Conservative member of Parliament (1910–1925) who served as president of the Board of Education (1922) and minister of Agriculture (1923) before being raised to the peerage as Lord Irwin and named to succeed Lord Reading as viceroy of India. From the outset of his viceroyalty, Irwin was not unsympathetic to Indian political aspirations, and he admired the religious spirit that animated Mahatma Gandhi's politics: that both men were devout helped smooth their subsequent face-to-face negotiations.
On 31 October 1929, with the tacit approval of the home government and over some resistance from of his own council, Irwin announced that "the natural issue of India's constitutional progress was the attainment of Dominion status," and that a Round Table Conference in London would follow the Report of the Simon Commission to lay the groundwork for further political devolution of power to Indians. Without Indian representation, however, the Simon Commission was greeted with black flags and boycott wherever it went in India. India's National Congress responded by boycotting the first Round Table Conference, calling for purna swaraj (complete independence) on 30 January 1930. On 6 April at Dandi, Gandhi launched his famous march to the sea against the salt tax, which turned world opinion against the Raj. That action had been preceded on 2 March by Gandhi's direct appeal to Irwin, announcing his intention to resist the salt tax and urging the viceroy to act to remove the manifold inequities of British rule that left Indians no choice but civil disobedience. Irwin, however, would not countenance violations of the law, even in the furtherance of a cause he respected. His arrest of Gandhi, the Congress's entire Working Committee, and over ninety thousand Indians during the subsequent satyagraha (nonviolent resistance campaign) led to widespread violence and brutal police atrocities.
British prime minister J. Ramsay MacDonald, recoiling from the damage the satyagraha and its subsequent repression had done to British prestige, expressed the hope that Congress would attend a second "all-party" conference in London, something Congress leaders could hardly do from prison. Accordingly, Irwin released Gandhi, and the two met eight times beginning on 17 February 1930. Winston Churchill decried the "nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this once inner-temple lawyer [Gandhi], now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceroy's palace there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor." But the meeting of "the two Mahatmas," as Sarojini Naidu, the Indian poet and nationalist, referred to these encounters, proved amicable. The resultant Gandhi-Irwin Pact, agreed to on 5 March 1931, was the subject of much debate. It ended the civil disobedience campaign in return for minor British political concessions, but it did allow Gandhi to attend the Second London Round Table Conference. His insistence on serving as the sole representative of India's National Congress, however, proved to be a serious strategic mistake.
Irwin left India in April 1931 and held increasingly responsible posts, culminating in 1938 with his appointment as foreign secretary. His association with Britain's failed policy of appeasement toward Hitler's Nazi regime, however, damaged his reputation. He ultimately accepted appointment as ambassador to the United States, and his wartime service there earned him an earldom in 1944.
Marc Jason Gilbert
Birkenhead, Earl of. The Life of Lord Halifax. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1965.
Gopal, Sarvepalli. The Vice-Royalty of Lord Irwin: 1926–1931. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.
Halifax, Earl of. Fulness of Days. London: Collins, 1957.