Haldane: the forgotten statesman who shaped modern Britain

by John Campbell (in collaboration with Richard McLauchlan), London, Hurst & Company, 2020, 483 pp., 174 illustrations, £30 (Hbk), ISBN: 978-1-78738-311-1

25 Jan 2021, Intelligence and National Security

The author, a Cambridge graduate in economics, is the joint founder and chair of the equity advisory firm Campbell Lutyens, and is now aged 72 years. He is a very late first time author (and not to be confused with the prolific, well-known biographer of the same name.) He has spent his career in corporate finance and has long been fascinated by studying the life and career of Lord Haldane who, he is convinced, and indeed totally convinces the reader, has bequeathed a great deal to contemporary Britain.

This extensive volume, therefore, represents, many years of intensive research and thoughtful analysis. Anyone interested in British political history who is unacquainted with Haldane will find this book both illuminating and informative, a good read from cover to cover, and a volume that fills a definite gap. And one is immediately struck by the exhaustive, eminently thorough nature of the author’s research. The 349 pages of text generate no fewer than 62 pages of genuinely helpful endnotes and 32 pages of bibliography and a guide to further relevant reading, all linked to each individual chapter in the book. Truly a lifetime’s dedicated work.

Viscount (Richard Burdon) Haldane was undoubtedly one of the greatest British statesmen during the first quarter of the twentieth century whose massive contribution in several spheres has, very sadly, largely fallen into oblivion. As Secretary of State for War from 1905–12 in the administrations of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Henry Asquith, he created an Expeditionary Force able to be in place on the continent in just fourteen days, created the Territorial Army and totally reorganised the British Army. He saved Britain! Yet he was cruelly attacked by the press as a German sympathiser, and in 1915 was sacked by Asquith, although he was a close personal friend, from his position as Lord Chancellor, this being a condition forced upon the Liberal Party by the Conservatives in return for joining in a Coalition Government. Field Marshal Earl Haig described Haldane as the ‘greatest Secretary of State this country had ever had’ – and yet today, he is almost totally forgotten. In this biography, the author sums up Haldane’s career as ‘an example of statesmanship that we so vitally need today. … [A] message of hope for all who despair in our present political climate’ (pp. 3–4).

This book is almost more of a polemic than a biography, but it makes the case splendidly for Haldane’s achievements and his importance to this country. The volume is far from being the conventional political biography, as the author has not adopted a chronological structure at all during the course of constructing the framework of the book. Such was the sheer breadth of Haldane’s interests and responsibilities that this is probably more satisfying for the reader than a purely chronological format. At times, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the thematic structure of the tome can make the analysis a little difficult to pursue. But one only has to memorize or refer back to the timeline at the front of the book should one require chronological context.

The volume is divided into two distinct, discrete parts. The first five chapters are devoted to the family traditions and personal background which guided him throughout his life, his education at the University of Edinburgh (where he studied classics and philosophy), those friends and associates who gave him consistent backing, and the ideas, especially economic thinking, which propelled Haldane on the path to seek sound government. Haldane came from an old aristocratic Scottish family with a notably strong tradition of public service, especially in the field of law.

The analysis dives deeply into his closely-knit family life within Scotland and his remarkably eclectic circle of friends. John Buchan (author of the spy classic The Thirty-Nine Steps) was numbered among them alongside H.H. Asquith (a close companion from boyhood and for whom Haldane stood as best man at his wedding), J.M. Barrie, Albert Einstein, Sir Edward Grey, Edmund Gosse, Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Oscar Wilde (whose unpleasant stint in prison Haldane eased). The book features a splendid array of their photographs, among which we find the love of Haldane’s life, Frances Horner – although he was to remain throughout his life a proud bachelor, possibly one reason to explain his lifelong ability to work indefatigably.

This first part of the book are devoted to the first twenty-nine years of Haldane’s life just before he was elected to the House of Commons at the general election of December 1885 as the Liberal MP for Haddingtonshire (where he was to remain until he was elevated to the Lords in 1911). This was a pivotal moment in British political life as Gladstone was about to split the Liberal Party over Irish home rule the following year. One element that emerges very strongly here is Haldane’s dedication – one might say addiction – to hard work. He worked eleven- or twelve-hour days throughout his life.

The next five chapters, rather longer than the first five, consider his political and public career. The scene for what follows is well sketched out in chapter 6, entitled ‘Brave New World’, which considers the political world in which Haldane operated and made his seminal contribution, notably the character of the Gladstonian and Asquithian Liberal Party. In spite of his privileged, upper crust background, Haldane felt a true commitment to the welfare of the working classes. The freedom of the labouring classes inspired him particularly throughout his political career.

There is something particularly satisfying in the fact that the final political office which he ever held was as Lord Chancellor and Leader of the House of Commons in Ramsay MacDonald’s first ever minority Labour government in 1924. There is no evidence at all that Haldane was ever really a socialist, but he was able to sit in the Labour administration of 1924 because he certainly shared the Labour party’s avid ambitions for social improvement. And so the man who had, rather unfairly it would now seem, been accused of treachery back in 1915 was once again one of the highest officers of state.

In chapter 7, ‘A Man for All Seasons’, Campbell outlines in chronological fashion Haldane’s political and legal careers from his first election to parliament in 1885. This provide a helpful framework for the achievements discussed in the subsequent chapters. These achievements included his immense contribution to the British education system, especially the university sector, which persisted until his dying day. Amongst his great achievements are his work as Secretary of State at the War Office; and the definite contribution that he made in defining Britain, and Canada (where he made very significant contributions to the dominion’s constitutional arrangements) during his political career. Notable amongst his many solid and lasting achievements was laying the foundations for the Royal Flying Corps – the forerunner of today’s Royal Air Force (pp. 287–8).

In the field of higher education (where he worked, apparently amicably, in close tandem with H.A.L. Fisher), the so-called redbrick universities of Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield, together with Imperial College and the London School of Economics are among the institutions owing him a substantial debt. So too those less visible entities MI5 and SIS/MI6 (p.xiii); the Medical Research Council; the Institute for Adult Education; and the University Grants Committee (p. xxvii). In terms of intelligence, Haldane’s legacy is clear. In 1909, he chaired the committee that created the Secret Service Bureau (SSB), the body from which MI5 and SIS/MI6 emerged (pp. 258, pp. 288–90). Haldane’s key role in the setting up of the SSB is of especial lasting significance to us today. Its creation was largely the result of the recommendation of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) chaired by Haldane who soon grew convinced even then that the threat of German invasion was very real and pressed for the systematic gathering of intelligence that proved invaluable on the outbreak of the Great War. Ironically, the activities, even the very existence, of both MI5 and SIS/MI6 were shrouded in secrecy until after the Cold War. Small wonder that earlier works have glossed over Haldane’s significant role as the sources that reveal it were unavailable for research by scholars. Ironically, historians have lavished more attention on the part that he played in the creation of the Boy Scout movement under Robert Baden-Powell, but this worthy objective was rather more in the public eye! (pp. 289–90).

John Campbell’s book is not a pure and simple biography, but rather an act of homage to a man for whom he asserts lifelong admiration: he has been visiting Haldane’s home at Cloan ever since his boyhood. Throughout the text, the parallels drawn by the author between Haldane’s political world and contemporary politics have impressed this reviewer. In Campbell’s view, the sleazy political world of today is sorely in need of a Richard Haldane. The challenges thrown up by the Coronavirus of 2020–21 and the constitution may not compare with the horrors of the early twentieth Century, but one suspects Haldane’s abilities would be much sought after today where political pygmies are at the helm. In Haldane’s obituary, The Times – which had enthusiastically participated in the unfounded slurs against his patriotism during the war – described him as ‘one of the most powerful, subtle, and encyclopaedic intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country’. [Obituary: 20 August 1928] Anyone interested in political history who is unacquainted with Haldane will find this book illuminating and informative, a genuine revelation and worthy of close, careful study. And John Campbell is right: Haldane certainly does deserve a statue in a prominent public place.