Architect of Final Victory
HALDANE, THE FORGOTTEN STATESMAN WHO SHAPED MODERN BRITAIN, by John Campbell, Hurst Publishers, ISBN 978-1-78738-311-1, £30, reviewed by ANGELA ELLIS-JONES
He has never featured in popular lists of Great Britons, and no statue of him has been erected. But Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928) could be considered, second only to Churchill, as the Greatest Briton of the C20th. John Campbell’s biography, many years in the making, does full justice to this impressive polymath and public servant.
The book is subtitled The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain, and the prefatory quote reads: ‘si monumentum requiris, circumscpice’. Haldane was the architect of the modern British state, and his work on educational institutions and scientific and medical research continues to benefit us. As someone who was twice unlucky in love, and needed only four hours sleep, he had more time than most to devote to his many interests, and accomplished the work of several lifetimes.
Haldane was born into an upper-middle class Scottish family. His maternal great-great uncles, Lords Eldon and Stowell, were both distinguished lawyers. Eldon was a predecessor of Haldane as Lord Chancellor. Other relatives were distinguished scientists. His brother, a physiologist, became a Companion of Honour – one of the few honours that Haldane himself was not awarded.
A constant in his life was his mother, who lived to be a hundred, dying just three years before Haldane himself, and to whom he wrote every day. Haldane attended Edinburgh University, but took time out to attend the University at Gottingen, where he developed a lifelong interest in philosophy. He wrote several books and many papers on philosophical subjects. Following his Gifford Lectures in 1902-4, he was offered the chair of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University, which he reluctantly turned down.
Haldane’s philosophy informed his approach to life. He believed that one key function of philosophy was to harmonise all the many differing viewpoints in the world. Although he was a confirmed Liberal, he had friends across the political spectrum from Balfour to the Webbs. One of the reasons why he was so successful in his many endeavours was because he was willing to work with Conservatives on issues of national importance. Thus he was the only Liberal who supported Balfour’s 1902 Education Act, which enabled local authorities to provide secondary education: over a thousand new secondary schools were established by 1914. His approach to any task was to consult others; this was particularly important in his time as War Secretary, when he oversaw the reorganisation of the army in close consultation with senior officers.
In a chapter entitled Wealth and the Nation, the author discusses Haldane’s The Life of Adam Smith (1887), the first book Haldane wrote as sole author. In this book, Haldane sought to investigate the economic foundations of state and society. Together with the Webbs and others, Haldane was a founder of the London School of Economics (1895). According to Beatrice Webb, he shared with them, a ‘common faith in a deliberately organised society: our common belief in the application of science to human relations with a view to betterment’. In 1906, within months of his appointment as Secretary of State for War, Haldane was elected president of the Royal Economic Society, a position he held for the rest of his life. He was constantly preoccupied by the interplay of economics with national affairs.
The cross-party movement for National Efficiency, which sought to harness Britain’s economic resources in an organised way in an attempt to maintain her position as an economic superpower, found in Haldane one of its leading champions. He had first-hand experience of German efficiency, and wanted Britain to follow suit. Support for National Efficiency among Liberals tended to be accompanied by support for Liberal Imperialism. Liberal Imperialists believed that the flourishing of the Empire was essential for prosperity at home. Haldane was the Liberal Imperialists’ principal policy-maker.
Unusually among prominent politicians at the time, Haldane, like Lloyd George, represented only one constituency throughout his time in the House of Commons – Haddingtonshire, later renamed East Lothian. He was also very unusual among politicians at this time in having been educated at a university in a country other than Britain. (Austen Chamberlain attended the Sorbonne after Cambridge). His statement that he regarded Germany as his ‘spiritual home’ came back to haunt him during WW1. In 1911, he entertained the Kaiser and several of his generals to lunch in his London home, 28 Queen Anne’s Gate. (The property was put up for sale in 2017). In February 1912, while still Secretary of State for War, Haldane visited Berlin in an attempt to halt the arms race. And in 1921, he hosted Einstein on his first visit to Britain.
Haldane’s affinity for all things German did not prevent him from recognising the threat that Germany posed. No-one did more to prepare Britain for an inevitable war than Haldane, who was War Secretary between 1905 and 1912. He was responsible for the creation of the British Expeditionary Force, the Territorial Army, the Special Reserve, the Officers Training Corps, the Imperial General Staff and the Royal Flying Corps (which later became the RAF). Each of these would play a key role in assisting the French in their successful defence of Paris against the Germans in the early months of war; thus they prevented the Germans from winning the war in its early stages. It was a monstrous injustice that the Conservatives demanded the exclusion from the Cabinet of the Germanophile Haldane (by now Lord Chancellor) as the price for joining a wartime coalition government. The injustice was compounded by Asquith’s failure in the face of a vicious newspaper campaign to support someone who had been his closest friend in politics. However, there was some redress when George V appointed him to the Order of Merit on his resignation as Lord Chancellor. He was also later honoured by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who, following the Victory March on 19 July 1919, during which he rode up the Mall at the head of the troops to receive the salute from the King in front of Buckingham Palace, made his way to Haldane’s house to thank him for his crucial part in the victory.
As Secretary of State for War, Haldane chaired the Committee for Imperial Defence, established by his friend Balfour to ensure the readiness of Britain’s defences. By 1909 it was clear to Haldane that ‘a great deal of reconnaissance work is being conducted by Germans in this country’. He established a subcommittee of the CID, which recommended the creation of a Secret Service Bureau, which soon split into the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service – known today as MI5 and MI6 respectively.
Haldane’s main enthusiasm was for education, at all levels: ‘he knew – from personal experience – that a good education could provide the resources by which one could arise above the troubles and tragedies of the everyday’. He saw education as both ‘the path to a calm, strong, courageous and successful person’ and ‘the path to a nation’s prosperity’. In 1920 Haldane wrote: ‘I have lived for universities. They have been to me more than anything else’. On Haldane’s advice Balfour set up a committee of the Privy Council which led to the granting of royal charters to several redbrick universities. Believing that London deserved a university ‘fit for the metropolis of the Empire’, Haldane chaired the Royal Commission on University Education in London (1909-13) and was instrumental in securing land in Bloomsbury for a ‘university quarter’. He later chaired the RC on University Education in Wales (1916-18), which transformed the structure of the University of Wales. Haldane was instrumental in the foundation of LSE – he acted as legal advisor – and Imperial College, the latter modelled on the Technische Hochschule at Charlottenburg . Although Haldane actively supported the WEA, Campbell considers that ‘Mass higher education on today’s scale would not have appealed to him; he felt that the doors of the university ought to remain narrow portals for the gifted’. He believed in equality of opportunity for able people of all classes and both sexes to attend university.
Although Haldane was not an immediate success at the Bar, by the time he took Silk in 1890 – at the age of 33, the youngest QC for fifty years – he was earning £2500 (£300K in today’s money). In his last year (1905) at the Bar – he gave up legal practice on becoming a Cabinet Minister – Haldane was one of its highest earners, on nearly £20K (£2.4m today). In 1912, he became Lord Chancellor. During this time he laid the foundations for what became the Law of Property Act 1925. As Lord Chancellor, he automatically became eligible to sit as a Judge in both the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which was the Court of Appeal for the countries of the Empire. (It has recently been announced that its court-room in Downing Street, which was open to visitors on Open House weekends, is to be converted into a briefing room for the PM’s press secretary. It should have been retained for its historical value.) In this capacity, Haldane played an important part in shaping the Canadian constitution, towards maximising the autonomy of the provinces. He remained a Judge in the Judicial Committee for the rest of his life.
Haldane’s claim to be the architect of the modern British state lies above all in his chairmanship of the Machinery of Government Committee, which reported to the Ministry of Reconstruction. What became known as the Haldane Report (1918) recommended the way forward for the administration of Britain after WW1. The report insisted on formulating policy based on evidence and research. It also originated research councils, the first of which was the Medical Research Council, established in 1920. The report recommended a Ministry of Justice, which was only created in 2007.
In 1924, Haldane, who had been the last Liberal Lord Chancellor, became Lord Chancellor in the first Labour government. Although he sought to show how ‘socialist principles could be balanced and even brought into harmony with classical Liberal doctrines’, and thereby hoped to avoid the splitting of the left, he was never a socialist, insofar as ‘He was just too practical to believe that a socialist regime could function. The state needed to give free play and incentive to individual initiative and enterprise – to deny this would be to deny a basic and highly potent force within human nature’. I have always felt that the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, the only society that bears his name, was misnamed. But he was certainly a collectivist, and differed from capitalists in wanting to see a greater equality in the distribution of wealth.
This is the author’s first book; he is not to be confused with John Campbell, the author of a two – volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, and biographies of other politicians. As befits its subject, the book is immensely thorough, and contains an unprecedented number of illustrations – 176 – for a biography. The bibliography is substantial. The only area not covered in the book is Haldane’s health. For most of his life he appears to have been robust, until diabetes overtook him. Oddly, there is no mention of his diabetes, and how it was treated.
Unlike so many tomes published these days, this book maintains throughout a high standard of factual accuracy and grammatical and syntactical correctness. There are no misplaced paragraphs. However, there is the occasional lapse, as with the sentence on p 165, ‘With voting now [post 1885] based on rights…’. If voting had really been based on rights, then all men, and women, would have had the right too. Until 1918, when all men and some women were enfranchised, voting was seen as a privilege. A reference to ‘Lord Robin Butler’ (p166) is surprising from such an otherwise well-informed author, although he is correctly described as Baron Butler of Brockwell in the index. The index is not as well-constructed as it might be. Under ‘Kaiser’ there is only reference to Haldane’s dog, despite Haldane’s involvement with the ruler of Germany.
Haldane was showered with honours: Fellow of the British Academy, Fellow of the Royal Society, Knight of the Thistle, Order of Merit, two university chancellorships and ten honorary doctorates. The reason why he is not better known is probably because he was ‘too intellectual’ for the British, although he was far removed from the ivory tower.
Only a few weeks after Haldane… was published, it was followed by the Sasha Swire Diaries. The juxtapositon of the two books makes one realise how far Britain has retrogressed in the near-century since Haldane’s death. Haldane was the most impressive of a group of senior politicians – Asquith, Rosebery, Salisbury, Balfour, and many others – for whom the things of the mind and service to the state were of supreme importance. One reason for the mess we have been in for the past generation is that the highest levels of politics are no longer populated by people of such calibre, as regards both intellect and character.
No-one could be a more worthy candidate to grace the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The author should lead a campaign to secure this before the centenary of Haldane’s death.
ANGELA ELLIS-JONES IS A BARRISTER AND WRITER