This book tells the story of a great but forgotten statesman, in whose exemplary life and leadership lie the answers to some of today’s most pressing political and societal questions. It is a story of success, tragedy, and vindication that demands retelling in an age dogged by political despair.
Richard Burdon Haldane was born in Edinburgh in 1856. Hailing from an ancient family of public servants, Haldane was educated in his home city and for a few months in Göttingen, Germany. Haldane’s early, prize-winning studies in philosophy laid the bedrock for a career marked by wide horizons and firm principles. He astonished his peers by the rapidity of his success – MP by twenty-nine, QC five years later, appointed a Privy Councillor without having served in government. He soon established himself not only as the pre-eminent legal mind of his generation but also as the brains of a Liberal party desperately in need of ideas which would address the social, political and economic changes of his time.
But beyond his legal career and his political responsibilities, Haldane all the while worked quietly but relentlessly for a reformation in British education. By the end of his life, the “Civic” Universities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Nottingham, and of Sheffield, the London School of Economics and Imperial College London could all trace their beginnings back to his extraordinary efforts to promote wider access to tertiary education. As Chairman of two Royal Commissions on University education, Haldane would transform the University of London into an integral whole and bring a devolutionary structure to the University of Wales, whilst having earlier negotiated the blueprint for reform of the Irish University system.
In December 1905, Haldane first took ministerial office. As Secretary of State for War in the reforming Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, Haldane put in motion the most revolutionary transformation of the British Army that the country had seen since Cardwell: the British Expeditionary Force, the Territorial Army, the Officers’ Training Corps, the Imperial General Staff, and the Royal Flying Corps all stemmed from his foundational thinking. When the country went to war with Germany in 1914, it was thanks to this transformation – as many authorities subsequently acknowledged – that Britain was able to provide the critical assistance to her French allies in the defence of Paris. The Haldane Reforms therefore played a key role in resisting German hegemony over Europe.
By that time, Haldane had sat for two years on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor, entitled, with such a past behind him, to national applause. It was not to be. In the febrile atmosphere of war, his few months at Göttingen University; his pre-war holidays in the footsteps of Goethe; his speeches in praise of German scientific and educational advancement; and the mysterious ‘Haldane Mission’ to Berlin in 1912 to discuss with Kaiser Wilhelm II the possibility of Anglo-German rapprochement were to excite the hatred of a vitriolic Northcliffe press and of his political opponents. When Asquith, who had called Haldane his oldest political friend, formed a Coalition Government in May 1915, a new Lord Chancellor was placed upon the Woolsack. Under this pressure of misplaced public opinion, Haldane, the architect of Britain’s preparation for war, had been dropped. Asquith didn’t even write to say sorry.
Haldane, drawing on his immense reserves of physical and mental energy, plunged into a demanding routine of judicial duties, philosophic thinking and literary production. He redoubled his endeavours to create a new, less centralised Canadian state. The Canadian Provinces had flooded the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with appeals, chafing under the centralist tendencies of the British North America Act 1867. Haldane – ever in favour of letting citizens build their structures of society from the bottom up - responded just as they had hoped. In a series of often controversial judgements spread over 16 years, a new interpretation of the Act was born, leaving an indelible mark on Canada to this day.
Haldane’s philosophic and scientific predispositions made him an early traveller in the new and strange land of Einstein’s Relativity. Recognising the importance of this theory, with the war over Haldane invited Einstein in 1921 to make his first visit to the UK to lecture and to stay in his home; an extraordinarily courageous act when one considers the hatred he had endured for his pre-war German friendships. Haldane wrote several demanding books which explored his own reactions to Relativity and maintained a correspondence with Einstein until his death.
By the early 1920s Haldane was once again back in the limelight. A visit from Field Marshal Haig helped to precipitate his resurgence. It was 19 July 1919, the day of the Victory Parade celebrating the Allied achievement, when Haig rode up the Mall at the head of the troops to be received by the King at Buckingham Palace. Thick with a headcold, Haig nevertheless insisted, once the Parade was complete, that he make one final journey that day. Haldane sat alone at 28 Queen Anne’s Gate, his London home, while the crowds celebrated outside. Knowing that without Haldane victory would never have come, Haig made his way to Haldane’s door to offer the thanks that had been so lacking from the nation at large.
Four months later Haldane received from Haig an inscribed copy of his published Despatches; it was the moment of vindication for which he had waited so patiently. Turning to the opening page he read the inscription: ‘To Viscount Haldane of Cloan – the greatest Secretary of State for War England has ever had.’ Colonel Seely, his successor at the War Office, was to put Haldane’s contribution even more starkly and simply when he wrote “He saved the State”.
Haldane’s passion for education had remained constant throughout this time. It was principally for this reason that he chose, in 1924, to switch his traditional Liberal allegiances – a party which he felt had not yet fully grasped the importance of an educated public – and become Lord Chancellor in MacDonald’s first Labour minority cabinet. That Government fell some eleven months later, but Haldane, unperturbed, continued his exhausting round of commitments legal, literary and educational. Haldane died at Cloan, Perthshire, in 1928. He is today largely unknown.
This book, the first all-embracing biography of Haldane for nearly 50 years, seeks to catalyse a reappraisal and reawakening of the role of this statesman. It aims to draw attention to the remarkable fact that his fingerprints are still to be found on almost every level of British society, particularly in the institutions which he instigated (though some have since been renamed) and which continue to influence our daily lives. Quite apart from the Army and the modern university system, his influence stands behind the creation of MI5 and MI6, the University Grants Committee, the Medical Research Council, and the British Institute for Adult Education, to name just a few notable examples.
Haldane was astonishingly ahead of his time. The recommendations, for instance, from his 1918 Report of the Machinery of Government Committee relating to a division of the Lord Chancellor’s conflicting duties through the establishment of a Supreme Court, an independent speaker of the House of Lords, and a Minister of Justice took almost a century before they were implemented. Its proposals on the structure of cabinet government retain an unimplemented relevance today.
But Haldane was so much more than a savvy political operator. He was offered the chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews, and was in constant touch with the leading philosophers and scientists of the age; he found time to act as Rector of Edinburgh, Chancellor of St Andrews and of Bristol, and President of Birkbeck College; he set up the Army Class at LSE, the earliest forerunner in the U.K. of the practical teaching of the modern business school. He chaired or played an influential role in the Aristotelian Society, the British Academy, the Royal Economic Society, the Workers’ Education Authority and the Royal Society of International Affairs (Chatham House). Deeply interested in literature and poetry as an alternative non-philosophical approach to human understanding, he worked with the literary critic Edmund Gosse to form the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature. Haldane chaired the Brontë and Goethe Societies and completed and published his friend Professor Hume Brown’s ‘Life of Goethe’ following his death. He even visited Oscar Wilde in prison, facilitating the provision of books and writing materials for him. To appreciate this ubiquity is to realise that Haldane was more than just a great statesman. Haldane was a great man.
Whilst the principal purpose of the present book is to remember this great man, it importantly poses the question: just how did he do it? In answering that question, the book elucidates the foundational principles and techniques that Haldane applied to every task he undertook, with a view to demonstrating their startling relevance for addressing the great issues of today. What, for example, could Haldane’s empowering of communities at a more local level teach us about a healthy balance of power within today’s United Kingdom and within broader international unions? What has Haldane’s example at the War Office – where he sought to understand and articulate the purpose of the institution first, before setting about its improvement – to say to those dealing with a fractured NHS, designed for a model of society that has significantly changed since its inception, yet considered by many, as was the Army in 1906, to be incapable of fundamental reform?
Can Haldane’s insistence on cross-party, cross-sector, co-operation inform our attempt to achieve more harmonious political and societal relations as we work towards a better future? In an age where “politician” has become a pejorative term, Haldane reminds us that there is another, better way to govern the country: statesmanship. Without claiming that Haldane’s approach will guarantee answers to contemporary conundrums, the book will demonstrate that there are few better reference points within the political constellation of the past for helping us elucidate and address the problems of the present.
But Haldane was more than an extraordinary exemplar of deep and fulfilled public service. It is important that the intimate, human side of Haldane is brought to the fore - something overlooked in previous studies. New material has become available since those studies which reveal a radically expanded perspective on a man who, on the personal front, has – until this book – been principally known for his tragically short engagement, his subsequent lifelong bachelorhood and an almost unsettling devotion to his mother.
The present Earl of Oxford and Asquith discovered and has made available a series of love-letters from Haldane to Lady Horner, a well-known society figure of the day and the Earl’s great-grandmother. These letters are revealing and important because, in them, Haldane – who appears in almost every other portrait to be an almost superhuman, inviolable character – at last emerges as a mortal man of flesh and blood. Thanks to these letters, the book resists the temptation to present Haldane’s untiring example of service to the state as being something which we, mere mortals, feel to be fundamentally unrelatable. Behind it all, there stands a man full of vulnerability, passion, and love. As Margot Asquith wrote on Haldane’s death, ‘for sweetness of temper, loyalty to friends, acquiescence with life, courage, good heartedness and power of love he was unique’. It is that humanity, as this book reveals, that stands at the beating heart of his achievements.