Remembering Haldane, one of Britain’s greatest public servants

BY Malcolm Rifkind   /  27 June 2020

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain. By John Campbell. Hurst Publishers. £30.

There are few politicians who deserve a biography or indeed would get one, almost 100 years later. Lord Curzon and Ernest Bevin are amongst that number, and now Lord Haldane has deservingly joined that pantheon.

As John Campbell’s excellent new book makes clear, Haldane was a statesman whose reform of our Armed Forces helped win the First World War. He created the Territorial Army and laid the foundations for the British Expeditionary Force. Field Marshall Haig described him as “the greatest Secretary of State for War England ever had.”

Edinburgh University was his alma mater and mine. As Honorary Colonel of the University’s Officer Training Corps, first created by Haldane, I attended the Haldane Dinners that were annually held in his honour.

But he was also the spirit behind the growth of “redbrick” universities and both the London School of Economics and Imperial College are indebted to him. The Medical Research Council, the precursors of MI6 and MI5, as well as Adult Education, were all also beneficiaries of his creative mind.

He was a statesman and a Cabinet Minister, but he also had a breadth of interest and knowledge that few politicians can claim today. He knew Oscar Wilde and visited him in prison. He hosted Albert Einstein during his first visit to London and many times thereafter. He immersed himself in German philosophy. In 1907 he claimed to be “the only Englishman who has ever been [at a meeting of] the German Cabinet” which occurred at Windsor during Kaiser Wilhelm’s State Visit.

John Campbell’s biography, the first for 50 years, is timely, well researched and reminds us what we owe to a great statesman. He not only ascended to triumphant heights but was also driven out of the Cabinet and, for several years, suffered from the ill-informed hostility and insults of the nation he served. Haldane saw both triumph and disaster; to his credit, he treated those two impostors just the same.

Haldane’s fall in 1915 was because the Tories refused to join the new Coalition under Asquith unless Winston Churchill and Haldane were excluded. Haldane was Lord Chancellor at the time but was the subject of a vitriolic Press campaign because of his alleged pro-German sympathies. Haldane knew Germany well and had a great love for German culture but, for the duration of the War, he was as patriotic as anyone in Britain. Roy Jenkins, in his biography of Asquith, concludes that the charges against Haldane were “absolute nonsense.”

It is ironic that Haldane, of all people, should have been alleged to be unpatriotic. As Secretary of State for War from 1905-1912, he had laid the foundations for the most radical reforms the British Army had experienced for a generation. He was also instrumental in creating an Imperial General Staff to ensure the strategic co-ordination of all the British Empire forces committed to the conflict.

Campbell’s book is very readable. By eschewing the conventional chronological style, from birth to death, the reader is given the ability to understand Haldane, his personality and his achievements, before coming to those chapters that provide the detail. Such was the breadth of Haldane’s interests and responsibilities that this is more satisfying for the reader than a purely chronological format.

The author is, by his own admission, a great admirer of Haldane. There is a tendency to present Haldane not only as a great statesman, which he was but, also, as a politician so rational, logical and free from the defects of other politicians, as to make one a little sceptical that so admirable a politician could exist in our imperfect world.

Fortunately, this is balanced by less adulatory comment. There is recognition of Haldane’s persistent ambivalence on the justification for the Boer War and extensive coverage of the fierce criticism Haldane received from the Canadian Chief Justice over his constitutional judgements in 1913. As Lord Chancellor, he chaired the Privy Council when it heard appeals from the Canadian courts and, on that occasion, he was reprimanded by the Chief Justice for perfunctory and cavalier judgments.

Notwithstanding these occasional lapses, there have been few Cabinet Ministers who have been in office for a long number of years, but whose record of success and failure is so weighted to the former. Churchill’s mistakes on the Dardanelles, on the Abdication and in India were legend. Though, of course, his supreme achievements far outstripped those of Haldane and everyone else.

Haldane needed, and has now received, a biography that shows the man and his career as being of the highest order. I doubt that Haldane ever expected or even wanted a statue erected in his honour. He would have deserved one, but perhaps it is just as well that it never happened.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Defence Secretary and, then, Foreign Secretary between 1992-97


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