Max Nicholson

Obituary in The Daily Telegraph 29th April 2003

Max Nicholson

Environmentalist who established the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund

Max Nicholson, the ornithologist, writer and civil servant who died on Saturday aged 98, made some of the greatest - many would say the greatest - contributions to nature conservation and to the emerging environmental movement in Britain in the 20th century.

In 1949, as the senior civil servant in charge of the office of Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister in the post-war Labour government, Nicholson persuaded Morrison to devote government time to setting up the world's first statutory nature conservation body, the Nature Conservancy, which Nicholson was later to run for 14 years as director-general.

In 1960 Nicholson chaired the committee which set up the World Wildlife Fund, the first global conservation pressure group. He had already founded, in 1933, the British Trust for Ornithology, a body which provided scientific evidence for the devastating effect of modern agriculture on the countryside. His flair for organisation was tested to the full when he was appointed to lead the division of the civil service that allocated tonnage to convoys from 1942 to 1945, and again when he was secretary of the committee which organised the Festival of Britain in 1950-51.

At the end of his career Nicholson was the author of two best-selling and influential books: The System (1967), a devastating critique of the British system of government, its love of secrecy, and its stifling of innovation; and The Environmental Revolution (1970), an account of the post-war transformation of public life and thought which he had partly helped to lead. He was also editor of the most authoritative book on European birds, the nine-volume Birds of the Western Palearctic.

Edward Max Nicholson was born on July 12 1904 of English parents at Kilternan, near Dublin; his father was a photographer. Max was sent to school at Sedbergh, then briefly became a journalist before going up to Hertford College, Oxford, where he read History.

He wrote his first book, Birds in England (1926), before arriving at Oxford and his second, How Birds Live (1927), while studying there. During his ornithological research, Nicholson carried out the first complete census of the birds of Kensington Gardens, the westward extension of Hyde Park, in 1925. This survey was used by conservationists 75 years later to demonstrate the steep and unexplained decline of the house sparrow.

After coming down he went to work as a journalist for a new periodical, the Weekly Review, later absorbed into the New Statesman. In 1931, in keeping with the fashion for Soviet-style planning, Nicholson was asked to write the magazine's version of a National Plan, calling on a high-powered group of advisers from industry, commerce and the Bank of England.

This led, in 1933, to the post of second secretary in the original think tank, Political and Economic Planning (PEP), an astonishingly prolific group which produced hundreds of policy studies, on subjects such as the provision of a state health service, the education system, and, as war began to look inevitable, air-raid precautions.

When war began Nicholson took up the post of Controller of Literature at the Ministry of Information; but the slow pace of the ministry in its early days (press releases would be passed round for 10 days before being issued) frustrated him, and he returned to PEP after only seven weeks. At night he worked as an air-raid warden, but this did not prevent him recording birds, such as the redshank he heard calling over Chelsea during the Blitz. Nicholson next joined the Ministry of Shipping as head of the Allocation of Tonnage Division, ensuring that ships on the Atlantic convoys wasted no precious space in their holds and, later, ensuring that parts of the Mediterranean which might otherwise have revolted against the Allies late in the war were fed. His job involved regular Atlantic crossings; Nicholson took his binoculars and recorded the birds.

From a month after the outbreak of war, when he became a member of the Post-War Aims Group, Nicholson was involved in planning for post-war reconstruction. He attended the conferences on the reconstruction of Europe at Cairo, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam - where he recorded the birds to be seen amid the ruins of Berlin. As a rising star in the civil service, Nicholson came to the attention of Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee's deputy when Labour was elected in 1945. There began a hectic six years during which, as Morrison's right-hand man, Nicholson was responsible for steering through the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which set up the modern planning system; the 1947 Agriculture Act, which consolidated the wartime system of agriculture subsidies; and the 1949 Act which set up the national parks and the Nature Conservancy - a recommendation of a committee, chaired by Julian Huxley, of which Nicholson had himself been a member.

As principal adviser to Morrison, a Londoner who knew little about nature but who had pioneered the Green Belt, Nicholson was outstandingly well placed to argue the case for nature conservation and to see through the resulting legislation, which attracted little controversy at the time, even though it included sweeping powers of compulsory purchase. He single-handedly wrote the clauses setting up sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs).

Looking back to that time 50 years later, Nicholson was among the first to criticise his own legacy. No one in the 1940s, he said, had understood the damage that subsidised farming and forestry would do to the countryside. Nicholson's insistence, along with the rest of the Huxley committee, that nature conservation should fall within the scientific, rather than the planning, responsibilities of government, did make the new system of nature sites established by the Act more remote from the general public and more difficult to defend, for many years, than, for example, listed buildings.

But at the time Nicholson realised astutely that keeping nature conservation as scientific would prevent the Treasury seeing it as imposing an excessive financial burden on a bankrupt nation. Focus on science would avoid intimidating landowners with the Conservancy's new powers. In 1952, when still only 48, and one rung from the top of the civil service ladder, Nicholson gave it up to become the second director-general of the Nature Conservancy.

The new Conservative government looked at the Conservancy, like many of the creations of "corporatist" Labour, as something to cut in its quest to lower taxes. Nicholson was told that either he took the job, or the Conservancy might well be wound up. As a civil servant himself, Nicholson knew how to play the Treasury's game; he was also aware of the need to respect the sensitivities of the Agricultural Research Council, which was jealous of the Conservancy's role as a research council in its own right.

He kept the Conservancy to research in its own field and its task of acquiring and managing national nature reserves, about which he wrote in Britain's Nature Reserves (1957). But he was inevitably drawn to oppose - unsuccessfully - the Central Electricity Generating Board's application to build a nuclear power station at Dungeness, which the Conservancy thought should have been declared a national nature reserve.

Nicholson's work at the Conservancy led him, along with Julian Huxley and Peter Scott, to realise that government conservationists needed the support of powerful, fund-raising pressure groups. He played a central role in the formation of the World Wildlife Fund, encouraged the county wildlife trusts, and urged both the BBC and ITV to develop nature programmes. An unusual mixture of clubbable, Oxbridge committee man and radical, Nicholson was also unusual among senior civil servants in being an author as well as combining a knowledge and aptitude for government with a respect for the voluntary sector. In the environmental field, no one rivalled his record as a founder of institutions.

During a very active retirement, in the 1970s he helped to found the Ends Report, the authoritative journal for environmental managers in industry, of which he was managing editor. He also helped to found, and chaired, the first ecological consultancy, Land Use Consultants.

In his nineties Nicholson set up another think tank, the New Renaissance Group. From 1980 to 1985 he was president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; he was also chairman of the Trust for Urban Ecology in 1987-88. As an author, though not always an elegant writer, Nicholson was remarkable for chronicling in The Environmental Revolution how the long struggle by a small number of advocates of nature conservation, like him, had been overtaken by a broad public movement disgusted by the mistreatment of the world; it was published in 1970, the year the Department of the Environment came into being. Least forgiven, in Establishment circles, was The System, subtitled "The Misgovernment of Modern Britain". Nicholson identified in the civil service and British public life a system bound together by fear - "fear of facing new facts, fear of facing the people and fear of facing the future".

That book was often blamed for Nicholson's being rewarded with no more than a CB (1948) and CVO (1970). In later life, however, he revealed that he had several times turned down a knighthood, once when offered one by Margaret Thatcher. Nicholson admitted to no political affiliation after becoming disillusioned with the Conservative party in the 1920s. That may be why no government invited him to join the House of Lords.

In 1934 Max Nicholson married Eleanor Mary Crawford, with whom he had two sons; the marriage was dissolved in 1964. He then married Marie Antoinette Mauerhofer, with whom he had another son; she died last year.

This obituary was published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 29th April 2003.
On 1 May 2003, they published an obituary of Max's friend Guy Mountfort