Great statesman who would have beaten pandemic

Viscount Haldane was driven from office but now has a biography worthy of his memory. Haldane had an ability most modern politicians lack—to understand and hold his own with scientists.

Thursday July 16 2020, The Times


He has been described as one of the most influential statesmen of the 20th century — a Scottish-born politician whose innovations shaped modern Britain. Yet his name has been largely forgotten, and his reputation has never fully recovered from a savage newspaper onslaught which drove him from office at the height of the First World War.

The legacy of Richard Burdon, Viscount Haldane, born in Edinburgh and brought up in Perthshire, has been laid out for the first time in a new book which charts the remarkable life of a man who was scientist and philosopher as well as politician.

As “the greatest minister of war Britain ever had”, from 1905 to 1912, Haldane was responsible for creating the British Expeditionary Force which defeated the Germans, and, as his successor put it, “saved the state”. He laid the foundations of the Royal Flying Corps, later the RAF, and invented the idea of a territorial army, which, with the King’s backing, came into being in 1907. He gave the secret services the structure from which MI5 and MI6 emerged.


He formed a lifelong friendship with Albert Einstein, who stayed with him on several occasions

An educationalist before his time, he founded Imperial College, London, and, along with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, created the London School of Economics, where his portrait now hangs alongside theirs. He pioneered the redbrick universities and the Medical Research Council. He is hailed in Canada as a key figure in the development of that country’s constitution.

Yet, in 1915, when he was lord high chancellor as the war reached its climax, he was dropped from the cabinet by HH Asquith, the prime minister, following a media campaign of hatred, waged against him for allegedly harbouring pro-German sympathies. In attacks reminiscent of today’s social media trolls, he was accused by the Northcliffe press of being “an enemy of the state,” while a columnist for the Daily Express, describing him as “the Member for Germany”, suggested his body should “swing in the wind between two lamp posts”.

John Campbell, a leading financier and lifelong admirer of the statesman, whose 480-page book traces his career, admits that Haldane was probably naive in not realising that his self-confessed admiration of German literature and philosophy might get him into trouble.


Haldane never married but was engaged briefly in 1890 to Val Munro Ferguson

He said: “He never quite saw how others would see it. He was optimistic that we would never really go to war with Germany, and if it did happen, he wanted it to be known what he thought about their approach to education and the development of business. He delivered the Gifford lectures at St Andrews university, where he attributed everything of merit to [the German philosopher] Hegel. And then he calls his dog Kaiser!”

The outcome was that a politician whom Mr Campbell calls “the cleverest man in government” was thrown out of the cabinet, and never quite regained the confidence of the nation. “People tend to have very little recollection of those events, apart from some German scandal,” says Mr Campbell. “It stirred the pot. At the end of the war, with millions of dead, the nation wanted to move on and face the future rather than recollecting things that were rather miserable to remember.”

Haldane never married, but had a close relationship with two women: Val Munro Ferguson, who died young, and Frances Horner, who was famously painted by Edward Burne-Jones. The author has unearthed letters which reveal the extent of Haldane’s friendship with Lady Horner, which, though never physical, was intense.

“Here is an undeniable shared passion and tenderness between two people,” writes Mr Campbell. “In these letters, where mind and heart seem so exquisitely balanced, Haldane finally emerges as the rounded man.”

Haldane had an ability most modern politicians lack — to understand and hold his own with scientists. He formed a lifelong friendship with Albert Einstein, who stayed with him on several occasions, and with whom he discussed his theory of relativity. Introducing him to a lecture at King’s College London, he told the audience: “You are in the presence of the Newton of the 20th century, of a man who has effected a greater revolution in thought than that of Copernicus, Galileo, and even Newton himself.” Haldane himself had already published a book of his own called The Reign of Relativity which went into three editions.

So, as scientist and statesman, how would Haldane have dealt with a health crisis as great as the coronavirus epidemic?

“The point is that Haldane always looked ahead, and his judgment on the whole was extraordinary,” says Mr Campbell. “When he ran the army department, he was responsible for 20 per cent of government expenditure. If he had been running the health service, we would be in a different place. He would have said ‘what is the purpose of the NHS and how do we make it fit for purpose?’ It would have been to maximise the health of the state — to prevent people getting ill.

“On coronavirus I am convinced that he would have prepared for a pandemic, stockpiled all the things you would need and kept them refreshed. He was a man who always looked to the future. Today is good, he would say, but tomorrow is better.”