Haldane: the Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain

An abridged version of this book review appeared in the print issue of Counsel magazine (January 2021)

14 December 2020, Counsel Magazine

The pen is mightier than the sword, we have been told, but is the pen mightier than the spade? The career of Lord Haldane (1856-1928) makes the reader of John Campbell’s new biography consider this question. He was a distinguished student of philosophy, particularly German idealism. He studied at the University of Gottingen, focusing on Hegel and Schopenhauer, and translated the latter’s The World as Will and Idea into English. He was probably the greatest lawyer of his generation, who was made a QC aged 33, at which time he earnt about £2,500 per year (£300,000 in today’s prices), and by his last year in silk his income was £20,000 (£2,400,000). He appeared in many of the great constitutional cases before the House of Lords and Privy Council, and had a particular influence on the development of Canada’s constitutional arrangements. He served as Lord Chancellor in the Liberal government of HH Asquith, his oldest and closest political ally, from 1912 until 1915, when his friend fired him brutally and with little sentiment in order to form the coalition government. He continued to sit as a judge on appeals to the Privy Council, and returned to the Woolsack in 1924 as Lord Chancellor of the first Labour government. He was a pioneer of several progressive causes – for example, between 1889 and 1892 he sponsored three private members bills 1889-92 that would have given the vote to women who were heads of household, rate payers and property owners.

He worked indefatigably, and regarded it as the remedy to anxiety and loneliness. When not working, he was friends with many of the most glamorous and distinguished figures of the Edwardian world – his weekends were spent in company which ranged from the King, Lord Rothschild and Lady Frances Horner to Albert Einstein and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. His friendship with Oscar Wilde continued after the latter was sent to prison, where Haldane visited him and brought him books and paper which he had been denied until then. Haldane persuaded the Home Secretary to transfer Wilde from the harsh conditions at Pentonville Prison to the relative comfort of Reading. Haldane’s quick wit was never to be underestimated. Winston Churchill met him in the lobby of the House of Commons and mocked his pot belly, asking: 'What is in there Haldane?' Without hesitation he replied: 'If it is a boy, I shall call him John. If it is a girl, I shall call her Mary. But if it is only wind, I shall call it Winston.' Churchill was not often left speechless.

Haldane had few if any equals as a lawyer, politician and thinker. But it is his concrete achievements as the founder of institutions that really marked out his contribution to British national life – it is ultimately as a builder rather than as a speaker and writer that we should remember him. Many of the current British universities did not exist when Haldane was a young man. There were the mediaeval foundations of Oxford and Cambridge, and the Scottish universities set up between 1400 and 1600, and then in the 1830s Durham University and the University of London were established. Through the Committee of the Privy Council and other sponsorship and patronage, Haldane supported the foundation of the Universities of Liverpool and Manchester (1903) and Leeds in 1904. Imperial College followed in 1907, as would several others. The new red brick universities’ emphasis on scientific and technical education reflected Haldane’s agenda, and through his efforts university was no longer to be the preserve of a wealthy elite.

It was not just institutions of learning that he created. As Secretary of State for War from 1905-1912, he set up the Imperial Defence Staff, founded the Territorial Army and established the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was the origin of the British aircraft industry. Because of his army reforms, in August 1914 the country was able to send 120,000 soldiers to France in 15 days. He had a genius for administrative reform, and one wonders whether if he was alive now, he could cure the NHS.

John Campbell’s biography looks at Haldane’s life thematically rather than chronologically. This allows him to relate his subject’s disparate interests, and to explore the influence of his philosophical studies on his approach to law, administration and other work. He makes many unforeseen connections across this varied career. As there are other biographies of Haldane which follow a more conventional cradle to grave narrative, there is much to be said for this approach. But readers who are not already familiar with the world of Edwardian high politics may spend some time in the excellent index reminding themselves of who is who and what happened when.

Campbell throws new light on his subject’s emotional life. Haldane has long been regarded as a man with a great mind but who never married and had little interest in love. HH Asquith’s son Raymond described him as having 'the brain of Socrates and the shape of Nero' when he saw his obese form emerging from a lake. But in the last decade, correspondence between Haldane and Lady Frances Horner has been discovered. They had an intense and intimately romantic friendship, but which appears never to have been sexual, and to have coexisted happily with her devoted and enduring marriage. Their relationship requires the reader to rethink the familiar cliches about those who might appear to us as buttoned up, emotionally repressed Victorians, but to those who knew them were men and women full of passion and life.

Haldane is an extraordinary figure. His disparate achievements, both with pen and spade, will make other lawyers feel intense admiration, and perhaps envy – his life was lived richly and fully. Campbell’s book adds greatly to our understanding of this great man.

John Jolliffe practises public law, and is a member of the Attorney General's A Panel of Counsel. He was formerly a journalist.