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R.B. Haldane: a great public servant, much maligned

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain and Canada by John Campbell reviewed

July 23, 2020

8:33 AM

23 July 2020

8:33 AM

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain and Canada John Campbell, with Richard McLauchlan

McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp.616, $49.95

This is a strange but valuable book. The author is a private equity magnate, whose fascination for Richard Burdon Haldane dates back to his childhood. In his acknowledgments he admits he lacked the expertise to write a proper book about his hero, and so enlisted the help of a young scholar, Richard McLauchlan, credited on the title page (but not on the front cover) as having written the book in collaboration with him. The research has been done superlatively. The bibliographies for each chapter are extensive, and some interesting archival material is deployed, such as the diary of Haldane’s sister, to whom he was devoted. And the premise upon which the book is based — that Haldane was a great man who has had a rough deal from history, and of whom we should know more — is correct.

That argument is encapsulated in the subtitle: ‘The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain and Canada.’ Mind you, given the abominable state of history teaching in the UK, the phrase could apply to dozens of dead white men who served with, before and after Haldane. Who now, apart from those who make it their business to read history, knows of Haldane’s friend John Morley, one of the most brilliant men ever to sit in a cabinet? Or could tell you even the most straightforward fact about A.J. Balfour, prime minister, Haldane’s political opponent, fellow philosopher and friend? Campbell’s and McLauchlan’s book reminds us of a time when the men who went into public life (and in those days political life was confined to men) usually did so not to seek aggrandisement but because they could improve their country. Haldane was one such.

In the year after his death in 1928 his sister published his autobiography, a book written with the intelligence and self-confidence that distinguished the man. In 1937-39 a two-volume biography of him appeared by Sir Frederick Maurice, not hagiographical but with the respectfulness usual of the times. And in 1960 Dudley Sommer produced his much acclaimed single-volume life.

So Haldane has been due for a reappraisal. But rather than another straightforward biography, this book is a collection of essays on the various strands of his life, essentially in two parts — one about his preparation for statesmanship, the other about his discharge of that function.

Haldane was Lord Chancellor from 1912 to 1915, and again in 1924: the first time in Asquith’s Liberal administration, the second in Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour one. There is no evidence that Haldane was a socialist, but he was able to sit in the second because he shared the Labour party’s ambitions for social improvement, even if he probably did not always approve of the means by which they would eventually accomplish some of their aims. As the authors put it, he was determined, after MacDonald cleverly sought his advice in late 1923 about forming a government, to be Lord Chancellor again.


This was partly because he knew he would do the job better than anyone else Labour was likely to come up with. But it was also because he realized the House of Lords had to be run properly (which he could do for the Labour party), and that the government would need a serious person in charge of the Committee of Imperial Defence; and Haldane, who according to Earl Haig was the finest war secretary Britain had ever had, was convinced he was that person. MacDonald was putty in his hands.

However, nothing Haldane did while holding that high office had any bearing on the two great achievements of his life. As war secretary, he invented the Territorial Army, and established the notion of a British Expeditionary Force, which in 1914 would hold up the Germans and allow the French army vital breathing space. It was widely believed that by this act of planning he had saved the country.

Then, out of government during the period of the Lloyd George coalition, he led the drive for increased educational opportunities, not just by improving and extending the period of secondary education, but by ensuring the development of universities throughout Britain. He had a strong hand in the foundation of Imperial College and the LSE, as well as of other institutions in the provinces.

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Yet Haldane was also the victim of one of the most disgraceful episodes in 20th-century British political history. In 1912, before he left the War Office, he had been on a ‘secret’ visit to Germany. He was known to be an admirer of German philosophers in particular and of German culture in general. Lord Northcliffe — perhaps the most poisonous man in Britain at the time, and one who refused to allow facts to impede a good story — used his newspapers to hint at collusion between Haldane and the Germans in slowing down Britain’s response to the war. In fact nothing could have been further from the truth, but throughout the winter of 1914–15 Northcliffe’s press campaign rumbled on, on no evidence whatever. Haldane simply ignored it, as did Asquith, the prime minister and his oldest political friend.

However, when in May 1915 Churchill’s debacle in the Dardanelles occasioned the resignation of Admiral Lord Fisher as first sea lord, and Asquith was forced to form a coalition with the Conservatives or face removal from office at a time when such political instability would have been appalling for the country, the Conservatives demanded two conditions: Churchill out of the admiralty and Haldane out of the cabinet. Asquith caved in on Haldane — he had no emotional investment in Churchill — but it apparently reduced the prime minister to tears to have to sack him. Haldane took it with remarkable grace. The treatment of this great public servant remains a stain on the Tory party’s history, albeit as part of a long sequence of treachery towards such people.

Anyone interested in political history who is unacquainted with Haldane will find this book illuminating and informative. Given its odd structure, it might help to read Haldane’s DNB or Wikipedia entry first, to get the lie of the land. But it is to be hoped that the authors achieve their aim, and put this considerable and thoroughly decent man back on the map.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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