Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman who Shaped Modern Britain

Book review

By John Campbell; reviewed by Trevor James, published 12th August 2020

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman who Shaped Modern Britain,
John Campbell; Hurst and Company, 2020, 482p, £30-00. ISBN 9781787383111

From my years in the sixth form through being a student and teacher, I have referred to what is now a very battered copy of Alan Palmer’s Penguin Dictionary of Modern History. The publication of a modern biography of R. B. Haldane momentarily has taken me back to Palmer’s comment that he had a ‘tendency to obscure practical politics with metaphysical erudition’ an observation which I had noted but had not pursued.

For those of us that understood and celebrated Haldane’s huge political success at the War Office [1905-12] and share with Earl Haig the belief that he enabled the United Kingdom to enter the Great War with the best possible preparation, John Campbell’s biography provides a much wider canvas. This is more than a conventional biography, it is an analysis of the life and contribution of a crucially formative politician.

His academic collaboration with Richard McLaughlan reveals a man, steeped in the philosophical explorations of the late 19th Century, both German but also strongly affected by the influential Balliol scholar, Thomas Hall Green. The latter’s philosophy influenced a great deal of British policy-making in the late 19th Century, producing massive changes in social provision brought about by both major political parties. In the midst of this Haldane, as a Liberal, was a friend of the Conservative A. J. Balfour and collaborated with him.

Out of his philosophy, one of pragmatism based on achieving the best for wider society, we discover Haldane as being a key player in the creation of the London School of Economics and Imperial College, the re-organisation of London University and the eventual re-location of its core to Bloomsbury and the creation of the Workers Education Association. Having assimilated this, we also discover him as a highly regarded figure in the constitutional formation of Canada, and then finally we also learn that he was, in effect, the architect of MI5 and MI6, and also of the beginnings of the Royal Air Force.

The manner in which the Tories refused to serve in Asquith’s Coalition Government in 1915 because of his alleged German sympathies cannot be excused or explained. This generous philosopher, almost in the Platonic role of philosopher-ruler, had so much to offer. He continued to do so and it was his philosophical disposition which led him to serve in the first Labour Government in 1924 as Lord Chancellor. This is so strongly recommended.