Forgotten statesman restored

Haldane is a noble undertaking that does much to revive the lamentably neglected legacy of one of Britain’s finest statesmen.

Saturday August 22 2020, Irish Examiner Weekend


British jurist, administrator and philosopher, Richard Burdon Haldane.

RICHARD BURDON HALDANE is one of the most overlooked figures in modern British history. A Liberal MP for the Lowland seat of Haddingtonshire, from 1885 until his elevation to the Lords in 1911, he helped expand higher education in Britain and Ireland, played a central role in shaping the Canadian constitution, and turned the British army into the incredible professional force that helped France stem the German tide in 1914.

Yet there are no statues or grand memorials to the man who Douglas Haig referred to as “the greatest secretary of state for war England has ever had”. John Campbell’s explicit aim in Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain is to revive the public memory of Haldane and bring attention to his legacy. This is a noble undertaking that sparks interest in a complex character who held imperialist and socialist beliefs, helped ease Oscar Wilde’s stint in prison, and pushed for gender equality; a man who was a lawyer, statesman, and philosopher, with grand ideas and an eye for detail.

The problem is that Campbell’s mission to reclaim Haldane’s legacy lends a hagiographical sheen to this biography, which often makes it hard to get a real sense of the man behind these great ideas and works. This isn’t all that surprising given the author’s close personal connections to Haldane’s extended family. As detailed in the preface, a close friendship with Haldane’s greatnephew saw Campbell spend many holidays in Haldane’s family home in Cloan where he “came gradually to understand and, eventually, to love Haldane”. Not that this dismisses the author or his work.

The research in Haldane is incredibly thorough, with a bibliography stretching beyond 30 pages, extensive quotations from primary sources, and enough footnotes to make a PhD blanch. The problem is that the love for Haldane and desire to restore his public image sees Campbell push him to the centre of all accomplishments and considerations. Nowhere is this more evident than the line “was Haldane a Keynesian or was Keynes a Haldanean?”. This fundamental linking of Haldane with the revolutionary economist appears to be based on little more than Haldane’s long presidency of the Royal Economic Society, overlapping with Keynes’s own time there, and some shared opinions on national debt.

This over-amplifying of Haldane’s importance is a disappointing detraction from an otherwise good biography of an amazing life. The fact that Haldane was the man who invited Einstein for his first visit to Britain in 1921 is impressive enough in its own right. However, Campbell overeggs it by claiming the Scotsman was “ahead of the curve” by welcoming the most renowned scientist in the world, German or not, to British shores.

This urge to revive Haldane’s public standing becomes understandable though as Campbell runs through his accomplishments.

Wholly dedicated to education, especially the continued education of adults, Haldane helped expand institutes of higher education in Britain and Ireland. This included the establishment of the London School of Economics, Imperial College London, Queen’s College Belfast, and the National University of Ireland. Despite being a defender of imperialism, Haldane’s vision of empire (at least so far as Ireland and Canada were concerned) was one of devolved power. This vision informed his decisions as he heard 32 appeals from Canada from 1911 to 1928, rendering judgment on 19 of these cases to focus power in the provinces.

Even more radical were his socialist tendencies that raised people and the state above property and private ownership. His belief that “when public interests conflict with private ownership of property, the latter must yield to the former” reflected the feelings of many at the time. However, as a prominent Liberal MP he was able to enact legislative change that helped Britain toward becoming a model social welfare state.

This same philosophy that sought to raise the conditions and education of Britain’s working class saw Haldane champion women’s rights too. A letter to his sister sees Haldane celebrating the inclusion of a “full paragraph in the opening part of the [Haldane Report of 1918 on the Machinery of Government], insisting on the Civil Service being thrown completely open to women & on them being fully employed even in the highest posts”. Despite his strong interest in education, law, and social reform, it was in the army where Haldane would secure his strongest legacy, and suffer his greatest public blow.

The Second Boer War exposed massive failings in the British army. Four years of Conservative reform had failed to correct these ills by the time the Liberals came to power in 1906, and the perceived poisoned chalice of secretary of state for war was passed to Haldane. Laying into the task hammer and tongs, the philosophical Scotsman brought his eye for detail and negotiation skills to bear. Managing the competing politicians, generals, and experts, Haldane trimmed the bloated Victorian behemoth into the most professional fighting force in the world, the British Expeditionary Force.

This meagre force of 90,000 men would prove decisive in 1914 as they stood with France against Germany’s million-man army. As with most areas of historical contention in the book, Campbell does a good job of exploring the complexities of the debate; though always erring on Haldane’s side.

However, even as the First World War would prove the worth of Haldane’s reforms, it would also see him unfairly pilloried for being too close to Germany. In 1915, Haldane’s close friend and leader of the Liberal Party, Herbert Asquith, was forced to form a coalition government; one of the conditions was dropping the Germanophile, Haldane. This was the ignominious end to Haldane’s role as a leading light of the Liberal Party, betrayed by a friend and largely forgotten by his country.

After the war, figures like Haig helped restore Haldane’s reputation, but the damage was done. Today, no public memorials in Britain celebrate the man who, in the words of major general JEB Seely, “saved the state”.

Though the book does a great job of detailing Haldane’s ideas and achievements, especially in these later chapters, the man himself doesn’t always come through the pages.

Not that this is really Campbell’s fault. Having lived such an accomplished life, with most of his time devoted to working and thinking, it’s hard to fit Haldane into a traditional narrative. Instead of trying to weave the myriad threads of Haldane’s life together as we journey through his life, Campbell separates Haldane into chapters by topic, roughly: family; love; friends; philosophy; economics, social views; politics; education; army reform; Canadian law.

The problem with this approach is that we never really get a holistic sense of Haldane. His life simply becomes too compartmentalised and it’s difficult to link the man reforming the British Army with the same who shared socialist beliefs with the Fabian Society. With most of the personal elements to Haldane’s life relegated to the opening chapters, it’s difficult to get a sense of the man behind the military and education reforms that would have such a lasting effect on Britain, Ireland, the rest of Europe, and the world.

Haldane is a noble undertaking that does much to revive the lamentably neglected legacy of one of Britain’s finest statesmen. The later chapters in particular do a good job of exploring the lasting legacy of Haldane’s policies and philosophy. At a time when Britain appears so adrift and bereft of leadership, Haldane stands as an example of the philosopher statesman who not only offers a vision for a better future, but who has the capability and work ethic to build towards such a destination, no matter how distant.