Too much of a maverick
Why have we not all heard of Richard, Viscount Haldane? The list of his achievements is extraordinarily long, yet beyond a blue plaque outside his home in Queen Anne’s Gate there is no memorial to him. As this well-researched and well-written 350-page love-letter to him proves, he was indeed, as the subtitle argues, “the forgotten statesman who shaped modern Britain”. Indeed, not just Britain — much of today’s Canadian constitutional arrangements between the provinces and federal government were his work too. So why was Haldane forgotten?
July/August 2020, The Critic
First, let’s canter through the achievements of this podgy Scottish paragon and philosopher-statesman, for he was instrumental in founding so many of Britain’s institutions that it is hard to imagine what our country would be like without them today. Most are so well-known that they only need three-digit acronyms — such as the LSE, the OTC, the RAF, the BEF, MI5 and MI6 — but there are others such as the Imperial General Staff, the Territorial Army, Imperial College London, the Medical Research Council, and the Committee of Imperial Defence.
As well as being instrumental in the founding of all of them, Haldane was also the finest secretary for war in British history (admittedly out of a pretty open field), and the reason that the British Expeditionary Force was able to get 120,000 men over the Channel in 15 days in August 1914 to help save Paris from the Germans.
Under normal circumstances, therefore, there ought to be at least ten memorials to Haldane, instead of one measly blue plaque. I sense the reason. The problem is that he was a Liberal imperialist. Tories do not like him because he was a Liberal, Liberals do not like him because he was an imperialist, and even though he joined the Labour Party as its first lord chancellor, socialists do not like him because, for all his friendship with fellow intellectuals Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he never embraced socialism.
As this biography shows, he was too much of a maverick to fit happily in any one party, yet not quite enough of a magnetic personality to form a group of admirers who would revere him after his death. Yet on top of all his significant and lasting organisational and reforming achievements, Haldane also deserves to be remembered as a warning of the eternal truth that there is no such thing as genuine friendship at the apex of politics. One of the books not listed* in Campbell’s otherwise comprehensive bibliography is Graham Stewart’s Friendship and Betrayal (2007) — full disclosure: Graham is political editor of The Critic — the last third of which explores in detail the three-decades-long friendship between Haldane and Henry Herbert Asquith, the prime minister who took Britain into the Great War. *Ed. Actually, this book is listed under 'Further Reading' on page 443
Haldane had been Asquith’s best friend since the early 1880s and the best man at his wedding; he helped find him his East Fife seat in the House of Commons; he loyally collaborated with Asquith as they reformed the Liberal Party; he served him with distinction as war secretary and lord chancellor, lending great intellectual heft to his ministry. Yet when Asquith needed the Unionists to join a national government during the simultaneous crises thrown up by a shells shortage, defeat in the Dardanelles and Admiral Lord “Jackie” Fisher’s shock resignation from the Admiralty in May 1915, Asquith immediately and ruthlessly knifed Haldane in order to stay in power.
What Stewart’s book proved was that the Unionist leader Andrew Bonar Law had not even actually demanded that Haldane be sacked, and seems to have been quite content with merely forcing Winston Churchill to resign, but that Asquith simply gave up Haldane without having been asked. Asquith sent Haldane not a word of thanks, regret or even explanation, merely dropping him a hastily scribbled note saying, “We must put aside everything for which we care personally.”
Then with almost Trumpian levels of narcissism, Asquith told Herbert Samuel, a minister he had demoted in the reshuffle, “No one knows how much I have suffered . . . No one has made a greater sacrifice than I have.” True ruthlessness always goes better with a good garnishing of self-pity. (It is staggering to find Asquith listed under “friends, supportive” in the index.)
Haldane was not even replaced as chancellor by one of the Unionist big beasts such as Sir Edward Carson, but instead by the relatively unknown Liberal former solicitor-general Sir Stanley Buckmaster, making his humiliation that much worse. Asquith’s behaviour was all the more despicable because he believed the Unionists wanted Haldane removed because of a chauvinistic press campaign by the Northcliffe and Beaverbrook newspapers accusing Haldane — with no evidence whatever — of being a German sympathiser, even though he had been the man who, in the words of the secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence in May 1915, had ensured “that the allied cause, and with it the British Empire, did not collapse last August”.
The Tory press hated that Haldane had been educated at Göttingen University as well as his birthplace, Edinburgh; he spoke German fluently; he admired Goethe and Hegel and translated Schopenhauer; he had negotiated twice with Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1907 at Windsor Castle and 1909, and led the Haldane Mission to Germany to try to ward off the Great War.
Disastrously, he was also once overheard telling a group of visiting German artists and writers that Germany was his “spiritual home”. That was quite enough for the yellow press and The Times — at a time when dachsunds were reputedly being attacked in the street for their nationality — to label Haldane pro-German and to imply that he was a traitor, even if he was no such thing.
Modern politicians often complain of their rough handling by the press, but it is as nothing compared to what was meted out to Haldane during the first nine months of the Great War. It was alleged he was a German spy; that the Kaiser was his illegitimate half-brother; that he had a secret wife in Germany; that the Haldane Mission had been intended to surrender the Empire to Germany, and so on. After one attack in the Daily Express, Haldane received 2,600 hate-letters at the House of Lords. He was nicknamed “the Member for Germany” and had to have a bodyguard until the armistice because of the number of death threats. What is not explained in this book, or any other that I’ve read, is why Haldane did not simply sue Beaverbrook and Northcliffe for their repeated libels and force the press barons to try to defend them in open court.
By May 1915, Haldane had become a serious liability to the Liberal government, but instead of doing the honourable thing and facing down Fleet Street — as the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, wanted — Asquith offered up his old and close friend as a scapegoat, along with Churchill. Pleasingly, it failed to work even on the political plane, since with Haldane and Churchill now gone, the jingo press then concentrated its fire on Asquith himself, who was forced to resign in December 1916. Although Asquith told King George V privately that Haldane should have “a statue in gold for preparing the nation for the war”, he had said nothing to defend his friend in public.
“Philosophy was fundamental to every aspect of Haldane’s life,” Campbell tells us, and Haldane certainly took his dismissal philosophically, although his friendship with Asquith was ruptured beyond repair. Nor did Haldane relinquish his love for German science and culture as a result of his treatment by Fleet Street: when Albert Einstein first visited Britain 1921, he stayed at Queen Anne’s Gate.
Mention of Winston Churchill encourages me to tell the best anecdote in the book, one of the few times he came off worse in a battle of wits. Churchill walked up to Haldane in the Commons lobby, tapped him on his huge tummy, and asked, “What’s in there, Haldane?” “If it is a boy”, Haldane replied, “I shall call him John. If it is a girl, I shall call her Mary. But if it is wind, I shall call it Winston.” He deserves a golden statue just for that.
Richard Haldane is in a sense the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that explains why so many British institutions are what they are. A fellow of the Royal Society and British Academy, President of the Aristotelian Society, he presided over the AGM of the London Library a few days before he died aged 72 in August 1928. In his 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 encyclopaediac intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country”.
It was true, but much too late.