Max Nicholson

Obituary for ECOS - A Review of Conservation

The tallest tree in the forest

Max Nicholson's influence on what is often referred to as 'the environmental movement' was and remains profound, and the biography which would do this justice has yet to appear. He does put in appearances in a number of other people's biographies: for example in Anthony Howard's biography of Max's friend Richard Crossman, in Donoughue and Jones' biography of Herbert Morrison and in Julian Huxley's 'Memories'. Huxley, along with Sir Arthur Tansley, and Charles Rothschild, were among those whose 'devotion, leadership and vision' he admired. These are the very qualities for which we should now celebrate him.

I joined the Nature Conservancy Council long after his retirement, but his presence was evident in many ways, for example in the quality of the Council's annual reports. When he took the helm of the Conservancy in 1952, no reports of its work had been written. His response was to do the job himself. With their publication, Professor Cragg wrote in Journal of the Institute of Biology, 'the Nature Conservancy ceases to be a burrowing organism of secretive habits and comes out into the open for all to see...' He continued to write the annual reports during his long period at the head of the Conservancy, and the standard he set continued during the 'Council' era from 1973 to 1991.

Those BANC members lucky enough to possess the primitive but arresting first issue of ECOS will find plenty of food for thought in the interview Max gave to Charlie Pie-Smith and Philip Lowe. 'Ecologists', he remarks, 'must get into politics but they must also realise that the politicisation of ecology is potentially the kiss of death to environmentalism'. His grasp of the big picture is awesome; all credit too to his perceptive interviewers, who kick the fledgling ECOS off to an excellent start.

Max was the driving force behind the UK's response to the World Conservation Strategy, which is how I came to know him, as I provided the secretariat for this ambitious enterprise. To help him, he assembled a remarkable coalition of individuals and organisations. The standing committee had more titles than you could shake a stick at. The 'industry' group was chaired by a Conservative MEP with strong animal rights concerns, Stanley Johnson, whose son Boris has become something of a political pin-up, not least for his delightful performances on Have I Got News for You. Sir John Harvey Jones was pulled into the frame for an industry conference, before his television career took off and he became the nation's favourite industrialist; and so on.

How did we get all these big names to come on board a radical enterprise, which aspired to change the way society conducts its business? I have no doubt that many of the great and the good who said 'yes' did so because they saw Max's name at the head of the notepaper. No doubt a number said no for the same reason.

For Max had made ruffling feathers into an art form, notably in the Treasury, and in the Civil Service generally, where his book 'The System', subtitled 'The Misgovernment of Modern Britain', did not go down well at all. His name did not light smiles on the faces of nervous civil servants in the corridors of power.

Ten years after the publication of the Conservation and Development Programme for the UK, it looked as though an elephant had delivered a mouse. It is now twenty years since this doorstop of a book was published, the concept of sustainable development is taken for granted, and much of what the tome advocated has now happened. Max Nicholson's bold vision has been vindicated.

While the scope of his ambition was huge, I think he was possessed of a very unfashionable commodity: idealism. It made him believe that he could change the world for the better, which is what he did. The sensibility which gave rise to his idealism can be traced back to his teens. There is a telling moment on Desert Island Disks when he describes witnessing the troops returning from the First World War, and is unable to hold back the tears. At the end of a long life, the memory of the Great War, which consumed the flower of Britain's youth, still cuts to the quick.

I only found out about Max's extraordinary career when I came to write the history of the Conservancy, 'The Thin Green Line'. In meetings and correspondence he gave me a wonderfully eloquent account of the story of the Conservancy, especially its pioneering early days, when no-one knew quite what 'conservation' was all about. I also detected his frustrations with none too able colleagues, and found out from some of them the challenges they laboured under.

Max Nicholson was a difficult man in at least one respect. He was difficult to keep up with. His colleagues found him exhausting. He was everywhere. His whirlwind of ideas and demands taxed all around him, and he heaped work onto anyone who could take it. His ability to absorb information was legendary. Colleagues assumed that he worked all night every night, as he always seemed to know as much about their subjects as they did. He could appear impatient - a man in a hurry, who lived as if every moment were his last.

Then there was his enthusiasm for the natural world. One colleague remembers collecting Max Nicholson, Sir Dudley Stamp and Lord Hurcomb from Crewe station. As they drove away, he recalls Max peering at his one-inch ordnance survey map and saying excitedly 'Look Stamp! There's the railway line we have just come along!' This was not the conversation you expected to hear with the most eminent geographer of the time.

I have my own story which illustrates this side of Max. I once answered the telephone to find him on the line. 'I've just been listening to a nightingale singing', he told me, 'and it may be the last one I ever hear'. He terminated the call in his usual abrupt way, leaving me pondering the mix of emotions which had impelled him to make that call.

To use a metaphor from nature, he was the tallest tree in the forest, no doubt full of birdsong. His roots went deep below the surface, his branches spread far and wide. Like an oak, he had a tough exterior and was no stranger to storms, but he did have the effect of drawing those around him up to the light.

This obituary by James Robertson will appear in ECOS 24 (2), due out in July. ECOS is the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists. For subscription details, see www.banc.org.uk

James Robertson edits the Welsh environmental magazine Natur Cymru - a Review of Wildlife in Wales. For subscription details, see www.naturcymru.org.uk