Malcolm campbell
How we all owe a debt to ‘half a Newcastle man’

A new biography traces the extraordinary life of a man with Newcastle roots whose reforms prepared Britain for the First World War. Biographer John Campbell’s brother Malcolm Campbell outlines just what we owe to Lord Haldane

July 21 2020, The Journal, North East England

Can you name the man who saved this country from defeat during the First World War? Who, if he had lived 100 years later, would have been the ideal person to devise, organise and implement our national response to COVID-19? And who called himself “half a Newcastle man”?

Lord Haldane of Cloan is largely forgotten by the public at large. But historians remember the man described by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig just after the end of the First World War as the greatest Secretary of State for War we have ever had. Some of us recall learning at law school about cases which he decided as Lord Chancellor. Canadians remember the crucial role he played in shaping their constitution.

Quite a wide range of activities? We haven’t started.

He instigated (or played a key role in the creation of) the British Expeditionary Force, the Territorial Army, the Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF), the Boy Scout movement and a whole range of civic universities in England, Wales and Ireland as well as the London School of Economics and Imperial College London, MI5, MI6 and the Medical Research Council.

Other proposals of his were further ahead of their time. The 1918 Haldane Report focused on the subject (very topical today) of reforming how government should work. In it he called for women to have equal pay and prospects in the Civil Service and for the creation of a Supreme Court. He also advocated a House of Lords with members chosen on merit.

Haldane was a sufficiently close confidant of Edward VII to be asked to spend a quarter of an hour alone with the Queen by his bedside shortly after his death. The Kaiser invited himself to a lunch which he had organised for German generals at his London home. As a friend of King and Kaiser he conducted secret negotiations between the two governments before the First World War.

But Haldane’s extraordinary network went far beyond the conventional great and the good.

He associated a lifelong passion for philosophy with a deep interest in science. It was he who brought Albert Einstein to Britain for the first time, to stay at his home and give lectures. Yet he also found time to befriend Oscar Wilde in prison, bending rules by supplying him with the writing materials which he used for “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks that Haldane should be rescued from “the condescension of posterity”. Former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind wants him recognised as “one of our very greatest 20th century statesmen”. Author Alexander McCall Smith admires his “extraordinary life”.

Ah, you may say, a move is afoot to have a great Scottish (but also British) statesman recognised at long last. Perfectly true. So how was it that, as Secretary of State for War, he told some 3,000 people at a Northumberland Fusiliers’ prizegiving that he felt “at home” as he was “half a Newcastle man”?

The clue is in Haldane’s first names, Richard Burdon. His mother came from the distinguished Burdon Sanderson family of Jesmond. (His sister’s second name was Sanderson.) I recall that, five minutes’ walk from my childhood home there, Burdon Terrace connected with Haldane Terrace.

The mother died, aged 100, only three years before the death of Haldane himself in 1928. It was Haldane’s mother who inspired his wish to aim for the highest legal office. In this he followed the example of her great-uncle Lord Eldon, educated at the Royal Grammar School, who like him became Lord Chancellor.

Haldane admired much that was German including philosophers. But this admiration and his friendships with Germans led to his expulsion from the wartime government as politicians ran scared of elements of the press whipping up populist lies about his loyalties.

The absurdity of a challenge to his patriotism is apparent to us now and was to Haldane’s political colleagues at the time. They professed continuing loyalty and friendship but did not have the courage to stand up to the press. Major General J. E. B. Seely, his successor as Secretary of State for War, described him and the Haldane Reforms to the army, as tested by the First World War, starkly: “He saved the state.”

Haldane had firm principles which inspired his ethic of public service. He worked unremittingly to apply these principles and his brilliant mind to devising and carrying through seminal action in a range of fields which we nowadays find staggering. However, despite invariably being the brightest brains in the room, he always tried to build consensus, frequently across party divides.

In an age of public figures with a fixation on self and the short term the “Sunday Times” describes Haldane as the calibre of politician we need and as the statesman outshining all modern British politicians and putting today’s cabinet to shame. Haldane reminds us that statesmanship requires both deep thinking and the personal skills to translate that thinking into positive action.

Above all however a study of Haldane restores a sense of optimism and hope that the world can be better.

The national debate is just starting as to how the response to COVID-19 could have been handled better. One way of addressing the issue would be to imagine a "dream team" from across the generations with the skills to handle it. At the head we would need a Prime Minister who was widely trusted and able to build a consensus across political parties and the nation as a whole.

The Prime Minister would however need a team to identify, organise and implement the appropriate action and, crucially, the right person to head it up. What might be the skills required for this team leader?

Being a trusted friend and adviser of both monarch and Prime Minister would be a good start. Useful further talents would be consummate political skills and sufficient expertise and contacts in science, economics and finance to be able to co-opt the right people in all relevant fields. Add to this the necessary drive to get the best out of your team but with the tact and inclusivity to create a harmonious working environment and make personal friends out of those who were not that already. The CV of the ideal candidate would round off with a proven track record of organising and implementing a project of the greatest national importance.

We would all have our ideas as to who that Prime Minister should be. But surely the skills required for the team leader could never have come together in a single person?

Not so. I believe that he existed and his name is Haldane. The man who saved his country in the First World War could have helped save countless lives now as well as preserving our reputation abroad through his personal example of competence and his international friendships.

The members of the "dream team" could incidentally well include other people from the Haldane family which, like the Burdon Sandersons, displays outstanding talent in several fields. An example is Lord Haldane’s nephew the renowned scientist JBS (John Burdon Sanderson) Haldane.

Another nephew Graeme Haldane was a partner in Merz and McClellan the distinguished firm of consulting engineers then based in Newcastle and which was perhaps the leading adviser on power stations around the world.

My brother John has tried to put the record straight by writing a biography of Lord Haldane. By doing so he hopes that more people across the country will recognise the crucial benefits which his Newcastle genes have brought to so many aspects of our national life.

There has been widespread praise for the book. Alexander McCall Smith describes it as an “immensely readable” “magisterial biography” and Gordon Brown as a “labour of love” securing Haldane’s “rightful place in history”. The historian Andrew Roberts describes the book as “well-researched and well-written”. His review in “The Critic” mentions that Prime Minister Asquith told King George V privately that Haldane deserved a statue in gold for preparing the country for war. Roberts thinks that he merited a gold statue just for the way in which, as the book relates, he put down Churchill who once prodded Haldane’s vast tummy and asked what was in there. “If it is a boy” replied Haldane “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.”

Haldane by John Campbell is published by Hurst. For further information see