Richard Burdon Haldane (Viscount Haldane): An Autobiography


Garden City: Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1929. Svo. ix+391 pp. Illus. $5.00.
THIS is a book to place beside the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. It narrates the growth of a great mind among great events. No man in our time has had a more varied career than Haldane — a leader of the English Bar, in the forefront of the Liberal Party and then giving his ability to strengthen the uncertain fortunes of the first Labor Cabinet, a Secretary for War whose service was unparalleled for length and achievement, creator of the British Expeditionary Force, twice Lord Chancellor, a founder of universities and a pioneer in the education of adult workers, a philosopher who translated Schopenhauer and interpreted Einstein. Jefferson alone of American statesmen touched life at so many points.
Haldane tells of the organization of ‘the contemptible little army,’ of his plan to shift to the Admiralty and apply a similar process, which was forestalled by Churchill’s ambition, of his share in the fateful interchange of military information with the French, of which Morley knew more than he afterward recalled, and of his views on relations with Germany. After the successful transportation of the Expeditionary Force. Kitchener failed to make any use of the Territorial organization which Haldane had prepared as the skeleton of a new army, and the campaign against Haldane in the Northeliffe press forced the retirement of the man who had made possible effective British resistance to the invasion of France. At last came unexpected compensation for the long odium. On the day of Haig’s triumphal entry into London, while Haldane sat in his solitary study, an unnamed visitor was shown in. It was Haig, who came to leave a volume of his dispatches, inscribed, ‘To the greatest Secretary of State for War England has ever had.’
Lawyers have plenty of books about trials and examining witnesses. Haldane tells them how to argue cases before appellate courts. His suggestions for handling hostile judges are worth much. Better yet is his statement that his philosophical training developed the habit of ‘seeking for the underlying principles in dealing with facts, however apparently confused and complicated. He gives significant accounts of many important cases which he argued. Members of the American Bar Association who met Haldane as Lord Chancellor at Montreal in 1913 or in London in 1924 will enjoy his recollections of those occasions, and all lawyers in this country can read with profit his account of his share in the reformation English land law and his plans for improving the administration of justice.
Among the personal passages are the delightful account of his youth and student days in Germany. the touching story of his broken engagement, the grateful acknowledgment of his indebtedness to the discoverer of insulin, and the magnificent final chapter of basic reflections on life.
Two features of the book have outstanding importance. The first is the continued emphasis on problems of administration. It is not enough to have good policies. One must laboriously devise workable methods of carrying those policies out in detail through the coöperation of other human beings, who have to be persuaded and often trained. Whether he is telling of his work at the War Office, as head of the judges, as organizer of the great new municipal universities, or as adviser in solving the problems of the coal mines, he continually dwells on methods and trained personnel.
Second and not unrelated is the unification of his life in his philosophy of idealism. Most of us split ourselves into small pieces. Haldane, through all his varied activities, exemplifies Horace’s famous words, ‘Integer vitæ.’ Again and again comes the mention of the resort to first principles. Idealism led him ‘to the belief in the possibility of finding rational principles underlying all forms of experience, and to a strong sense of the endeavor to find such principles as a first duty in every department of public life.’ That is the faith which prevailed with him at the Bar, in the reform of the army, as Lord Chancellor, on the Committee of Imperial Defense. ‘It helps in the endeavor to bring together the apparently diverging views of those with whom one has to deal.