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Lord Haldane

The Right Honourable
The Viscount Haldane
Lord Haldane.
Secretary of State for War
In office
10 December 1905 – 12 June 1912
Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
H. H. Asquith
Preceded by H. O. Arnold-Forster
Succeeded by J. E. B. Seely
Lord Chancellor
In office
10 June 1912 – 25 May 1915
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by The Earl Loreburn
Succeeded by The Lord Buckmaster
In office
22 January 1924 – 6 November 1924
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Preceded by The Viscount Cave
Succeeded by The Viscount Cave
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
22 January 1924 – 3 November 1924
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Preceded by The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Succeeded by The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston
Personal details
Born (1856-07-30)30 July 1856
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 19 August 1928(1928-08-19) (aged 72)
Auchterarder, Perthshire
Alma mater Göttingen University
University of Edinburgh
Profession Barrister

Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane KT, OM, PC, KC, FRS, FBA, FSA (30 July 1856 – 19 August 1928), was an influential British Liberal Imperialist and later Labour politician, lawyer and philosopher. He was Secretary of State for War between 1905 and 1912 during which time the "Haldane Reforms" were implemented. Raised to the peerage as Viscount Haldane in 1911, he was Lord Chancellor between 1912 and 1915, when he was forced to resign because of his supposed and unproven German sympathies. He later joined the Labour Party and once again served as Lord Chancellor in 1924 in the first ever Labour administration. Apart from his legal and political careers, Haldane was also an influential writer on philosophy, in recognition of which he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1914.

Background and education

Haldane was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Robert Haldane and his wife Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Burdon-Sanderson. He was the grandson of the Scottish evangelist James Alexander Haldane, the brother of respiratory physiologist John Scott Haldane, Sir William Haldane and author Elizabeth Haldane and the uncle of J. B. S. Haldane. He received his first education at the Edinburgh Academy and at the Göttingen University and University of Edinburgh[1] where he received first-class honors in Philosophy and as Gray scholar and Ferguson scholar in philosophy of the four Scottish Universities.

After studying law in London, he was called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn, in 1879,[1] and became a successful lawyer. In 1890 he was made a Queen's Counsel.[2] By 1905 he was earning £20,000 per annum (just over £1.6m at 2010 prices[3]) at the Bar.[4]

Early political career

In 1885 Haldane was elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Haddingtonshire, a seat he held until 1911.[1][5] In 1902 he was admitted to the Privy Council.[6] Haldane was an ally of Herbert Henry Asquith and Sir Edward Grey - on the Liberal Imperialist wing of the party, followers of Lord Rosebery rather than of Sir William Harcourt.

Secretary of State for War

After the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour fell in December 1905 there was some speculation that Herbert Henry Asquith and his allies Haldane and Sir Edward Grey would refuse to serve unless Campbell-Bannerman accepted a peerage, which would have left Asquith as the real leader in the House of Commons. However, the plot (called "The Relugas Compact" after the Scottish lodge where the men met) collapsed when Asquith agreed to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Campbell-Bannerman. Haldane was appointed Secretary of State for War, although he may have been offered the jobs of Attorney-General and Home Secretary.[4] (Grey became Foreign Secretary).[7] The party won a landslide victory in the 1906 general election.

Haldane was persuaded by fellow Liberal Imperialist, Edward Grey, as early as January 1906 to begin planning for a Continental war in support of the French against the Germans. However, Haldane’s first estimates reduced the Army by 16,600 men and reduced expenditure by £2.6m to £28 million, as the Liberals had been elected on a platform of retrenchment.[8] By 1914 Britain spent 3.4% of national income on defence, little more in absolute terms than Austria-Hungary’s 6.1%. Army expenditure was determined according to a formula devised by the Mowatt Committee. In 1900, during the Boer War, army expenditure was £86.8m, by 1910 (a low point, after four years of cuts under the Liberals) it had dropped to £27.6m and by 1914 it had risen back to £29.4m. In March 1914 effective expenditure on the Army, after allowing for increased pensions and £1m set aside for military aviation, was still less than in 1907-8, and £2m less than in 1905-6 (despite a 20% rise in prices since then).[8]

Despite these budgetary constraints, Haldane implemented a wide-ranging set of reforms of the Army, aimed at preparing the army for an Imperial war but with the more likely (and secret) task of a European war. The main element of this was the establishment of the British Expeditionary Force of six infantry divisions and one cavalry division.[9] The Official Historian Brigadier Edmonds later wrote that “in every respect the Expeditionary Force of 1914 was incomparably the best trained, best organised and best equipped British Army ever to leave these shores” [10]

Haldane set up the Imperial General Staff. Before Haldane there was only the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which only met in emergencies, and the Colonial Defence Committee. Esher had recommended the setting up of an Army Council and the abolition of the post of Commander-in-Chief, but few of his recommendations had been implemented before the change of government in December 1905.[11] Haldane's reforms also created the Territorial Force of 14 divisions (the original plan was for 28) and 14 mounted Yeomanry brigades at home,[9] the Officer Training Corps and the Special Reserve.

In all these reforms Haldane worked closely at the War Office with Major-General Haig - by coincidence both men had been born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. J.A.Spender later wrote of how Haldane got the best work out an able but verbally incoherent soldier (thought to refer to Haig) by not scoring verbal points off him as many politicians would have done.[4]

Haldane was also instrumental in the creation the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1909, which provided the fledgling aircraft industry in the United Kingdom with a sound body of science on which to base the development of aircraft for the next seventy years (it was disbanded in 1979). This institution was soon copied by many other major developed countries.

In 1911 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Haldane, of Cloan in the County of Perth.[12]

Lord Chancellor

On Lord Loreburn's retirement in 1912, Haldane succeeded him as Lord Chancellor. That year saw the unsuccessful attempt of the Haldane Mission. In 1913 he was made a Knight of the Thistle.

However, in World War One he was falsely accused of pro-German sympathies. The accusations were widely believed, even being echoed in a popular music hall song ("All dressed up and nowhere to go") in the revue "Mr Manhattan". He was harried in particular by Beaverbrook's “Daily Express”, which gave great publicity to the claim by Professor Onkel of Heidelberg that he had said “Germany was his spiritual home” – he had in fact said this about Professor Loetze’s classroom at Goettingen, at a dinner party given by Mrs Humphrey Ward in April 1913 to enable him to meet some German professors.[4] He was forced to resign in 1915.

As the war progressed, Haldane moved increasingly close to the Labour Party but he was held back by his ties to the Liberal Party and to Asquith. When the Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919, Haldane was one of the first British politicians to argue that the solution lay in compromise rather than force.

It was not until the general election of 1923 that Haldane formally sided with Labour, and made several speeches on behalf of Labour candidates. When the Labour government was formed by Ramsay MacDonald in early 1924, Haldane was recruited to serve once again as Lord Chancellor.[13] He was also joint Leader of the Labour Peers with Lord Parmoor. Haldane was a vital member of the Cabinet as he was one of only three members who had sat in a cabinet before; the other two had sat only briefly and for junior posts..

Contribution to Canadian Constitutional Law

As Lord Chancellor, Haldane was a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, at that time the court of last resort for the Empire. He retained the position even when he was no longer Chancellor. He sat on several cases from Canada dealing with the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments under the Canadian Constitution, particularly the interplay between sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. He gave the decision for the Judicial Committee in several of those cases, and showed a marked tendency to favour the provincial powers at the expense of the federal government. For instance, in the case of In re the Board of Commerce Act, 1919, and the Combines and Fair Prices Act,[14] he gave the decision striking down federal legislation which attempted to regulate the economy. In doing so, he gave very restrictive readings to both the "peace, order and good government" power of the federal government, as well as the federal criminal law power. Similarly, in Toronto Electric Commissioners v. Snider,[15] Lord Haldane struck down a federal statute attempting to regulate industrial disputes, holding that it was not within federal authority under either the peace, order and good government power, nor the federal trade and commerce power. He went so far as to suggest that the trade and commerce power was simply an ancillary federal power, which could not authorise legislation in its own right. The effect of some of these decisions have subsequently been modified by later decisions of the Judicial Committee and the Supreme Court of Canada, but they have had the long-term effect of recognising substantial provincial powers. Haldane's approach to the division of powers was heavily criticised by some academics and lawyers in Canada, such as F.R. Scott[16] and Chief Justice Bora Laskin, as unduly favouring the provinces over the federal government and depriving the federal government of the powers needed to deal with modern economic issues. More recently, one major study has characterised him as "the wicked stepfather" of the Canadian Constitution.[17]

Other public appointments

Haldane was a member of the Coefficients dining club of social reformers set up in 1902 by the Fabian campaigners Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In 1904 he was President of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club and gave the Toast to Sir Walter at the Club's annual dinner. He also served as second Chancellor of the University of Bristol, and was elected Chancellor of the University of St Andrews shortly before his death.

Influence on education

In 1895 Haldane helped found the London School of Economics. He was also involved in the founding of Imperial College in 1907 and in his honour the University contains the Haldane Recreational Library.


Haldane co-translated the first English edition of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, published between 1883 and 1886. He wrote several philosophical works, the best known of which is The Reign of Relativity (1921), which dealt with the philosophical implications of the theory of relativity. Haldane published “The Pathway to Reality”, based on the Gifford Lectures which he had delivered at the University of St Andrews.[18] Some of his public addresses have also been published, including The future of democracy (1918).

From 1907 to 1908 he was president of the Aristotelian Society.

Personal life

Haldane was a large, portly man ("a big, fat man" was Haig's initial impression) of dignified demeanour. Osbert Sitwell described him as “entering a room with the air of a whole procession”. Leo Amery said he looked like “the old-fashioned family butler”.[4]

Haldane remained a lifelong bachelor after his fiancée, Miss Valentine Ferguson, broke off their engagement. He died suddenly of heart disease at his home in Auchterarder, Scotland, on 19 August 1928, aged 72.[19] The viscountcy became extinct on his death.


Lord Birkenhead, the Conservative politician, praised Haldane in November 1923 as an exception to the idealism in Britain before the Great War:

In the welter of sentimentality, amid which Great Britain might easily have mouldered into ruin, my valued colleague, Lord Haldane, presented a figure alike interesting, individual, and arresting. In speech fluent and even infinite he yielded to no living idealist in the easy coinage of sentimental phraseology. Here, indeed, he was a match for those who distributed the chloroform of Berlin. Do we not remember, for instance, that Germany was his spiritual home? But he none the less prepared himself, and the Empire, to talk when the time came with his spiritual friends in language not in the least spiritual. He devised the Territorial Army, which was capable of becoming the easy nucleus of national conscription, and which unquestionably ought to have been used for that purpose at the outbreak of war. He created the Imperial General Staff. He founded the Officers' Training Corps.[20]

On Haldane’s death “The Times” described him as “one of the most powerful, subtle and encyclopaedic intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country”.[4]

The military historian Correlli Barnett claimed Haldane had "all-round personal talents far exceeding those of his predecessors" as Secretary of State for War and was "a man of first-class intellect and wide education".[21]


See also


  • Correlli Barnett, Britain and Her Army (London: Allen Lane, 1970)
  • H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Haldane, Richard Burdon, Viscount Haldane (1856–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011, accessed 28 May 2011.
  • Reid, Walter. Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig (Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, 2006.) ISBN 1-84158-517-3

External links

  • . Oil on millboard, 1928.
  • Project Gutenberg
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Parliament of the United Kingdom
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Member of Parliament for Haddingtonshire
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Political offices
Preceded by
H. O. Arnold-Forster
Secretary of State for War
Succeeded by
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Preceded by
The Earl of Loreburn
Lord Chancellor
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The Viscount Cave
Lord Chancellor
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Leader of the House of Lords
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Rector of the University of Edinburgh
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Preceded by
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Chancellor of the University of St Andrews
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Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Haldane
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