No Minister

The Reading List: Too much of a maverick

That’s the title of an article from a website called The Critic, in its review of a new biography of a British politician I’d never heard of.

The review, and the book, makes some good arguments as to why attention should be paid.

… he was instrumental in founding so many of Britain’s institutions that it is hard to imagine what our country would be like without them today. Most are so well-known that they only need three-digit acronyms — such as the LSE, the OTC, the RAF, the BEF, MI5 and MI6 — but there are others such as the Imperial General Staff, the Territorial Army, Imperial College London, the Medical Research Council, and the Committee of Imperial Defence.

The reason I’ve never heard of him, despite reading more than a few histories of WWI, is that he got dumped early on by Prime Minister Asquith as a sacrificial pawn, along with Winston Churchill but unlike Winston he had no one to defend him nor did much to defend himself.

Haldane’s treatment was worse given that what he had done for the war was successful, as Asquith later admitted , and also the fact that the two men had been friends since the 1880’s. The old rule applies, that there are no friends in politics. The dismissal was curt with not a word of thanks and destroyed that friendship.

But as the title implies it was also because he didn’t fit in:

The problem is that he was a Liberal imperialist. Tories do not like him because he was a Liberal, Liberals do not like him because he was an imperialist, and even though he joined the Labour Party as its first lord chancellor, socialists do not like him because, for all his friendship with fellow intellectuals Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he never embraced socialism.

He also got treated like shit by the Fleet Street press during the first nine months of the war:

It was alleged he was a German spy; that the Kaiser was his illegitimate half-brother; that he had a secret wife in Germany; that the Haldane Mission had been intended to surrender the Empire to Germany, and so on.

And I thought Trump had it bad! Haldane got so much hate mail as a result of these that was given a armed bodyguard. All this despite the following:

Haldane was also the finest secretary for war in British history (admittedly out of a pretty open field), and the reason that the British Expeditionary Force was able to get 120,000 men over the Channel in 15 days in August 1914 to help save Paris from the Germans.

There’s also a lovely little anecdote about him besting Winston in wit on one occasion.

A article worth reading and a book worth getting.

Written by Tom Hunter

September 14, 2020 at 9:43 am

9 Responses

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  1. I’m amazed that Haldane didn’t get the statue of gold. His military reforms saved thousands of lives and much more. A giant of U.K. politics. The put down of Churchill is legendary: Churchill tapped Haldane’s huge tummy. “What’s in there?” “If it’s a boy I’ll call it John. If it’s wind I’ll call it Winston”. Priceless.

    Max Ritchie

    September 14, 2020 at 10:41 am

  2. So Haldane was one the the relatively small British cabinet that made the fateful – and right imho – decision to go to war against the Kaiser’s Germany when they violated Belgian neutrality as per the dictates of the Schlieffen Plan’s route to invade France. Until that point Lloyd George, for instance, was strongly opposed to getting involved in the Austrian-Hungarian/Russian/German entanglement in the Balkans, even if France was dragged in too.

    Apparently the action of the BEF moving into the famous gap that opened up between the German First and Second Armies at the Battle of the Marne a month later is a bit exaggerated and it was Joffre’s French who were the primary counterstrike. As per the Kaiser’s famous dismissal of their size, the British forces were, comparatively, “a contemptible little army”.

    Nonetheless without Britain in the war, Germany would likely have won, and probably relatively quickly…which means the 20th Century, with the succeeding following tragedies of the Bolsheviks and other Communist regimes, World War II and the Cold War may never have occurred. On such important decisions are the vagaries of history determined.


    September 14, 2020 at 4:06 pm

  3. Breathless speculation from Kimbo our resident sage of all things military. Asked when WW2 started a Kiwi will say 1939, an American 1941 and a German 1919. The moment the first German military boot trod on Belgium soil Britain was involved. You seem to suggest Britain had a choice and was doing the French a favor by declaring war. This was time when Britain set huge store in treaty’s and when it’s word was it’s bond.

    Sadly those days are gone now that the hard right are in power and think they can tear up international agreements with impunity.


    September 14, 2020 at 10:46 pm

    • @ Quidam

      You overlook that Britain did not have an alliance with France before 4 August 1914, but rather an Entente.

      Yes there were voices such as Foreign Secretary Edward Grey in that British cabinet who wanted to ally with France right from the moment the Germans declared war on them on 1 August. However, as per the opposition of Lloyd George that I mentioned there were also some who were strongly opposed to Britain forsaking “splendid isolation”. After all, they stayed out of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War between the same two belligerents. The thing that swung the balance was that this time the neutrality of Belgium was violated, whose territorial integrity had been guaranteed in 1839 by Prussia, France and Britain among others, in what the German Chancellor of 1914 described as “a scrap of paper”. As the Belgian ports were vital to British security, they had a just and vital cassus belli.

      It is moot whether they would have stayed out anyway as traditional British policy towards Europe was the aforesaid splendid isolation, but intervention if one power like a Louis XIV or Napoleon threatened to dominate.

      However, as Britain was now in the fight, she brought with her the one asset that four years later condemned the Germans to long slow defeat by blockade and starvation, the Royal Navy. Without that and Kitchener’s million man army hitting the battlefields in 1916. Germany would have probably defeated both France and Russia by 1916, maybe even 1915 – before the first Russian Revolution let alone the second, or the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of the Nazis…


      September 15, 2020 at 8:26 am

    • Sadly those days are gone now that the hard right are in power and think they can tear up international agreements with impunity

      Heh! Reading that makes a change to decades of reading Leftist analysis of WWI that decried the Capitalist Rulers and Militaristic Imperials (the “Hard Right” of the early 21st century I was informed) feeding youth into yet another war for profit.

      I guess we can mark Quidam down as a Liberal Imperialist like Haldane.

      Tom Hunter

      September 15, 2020 at 9:58 am

  4. KImbo. stop sing the word probably, it is meaningless in the context of this discussion. It was the French at the first battle of the Marne that stopped the German army and in 1918 it was the French at the second, some say third, battle of the Marne that broke the German armies.


    September 15, 2020 at 7:10 pm

    • Why not. We cannot know for sure, instead we are dealing with probability and calculation.

      Yes, as I posted originally, it was the French, not the BEF at the first battle of the Marne who played the crucial role. And yes, you are also right that the second battle in 1918 showed that the Germans has shot their bolt after the Ludendorff Offensives from March 21.

      However, you’ve omitted the fact that after the disastrous failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April-May 1917 the French ceased offensive operations for over a year, after the mutinies in their army. During which time the British had taken up much of the slack at Passchendaele. Just as they had relieved the French being bled white at Verdun with the Somme Offensive beginning on July 1 1916.

      Yes, the French were a crucial part of the equation that beat the Germans on the Western Front, and yes, you could argue that the first month and that miracle at the Marne was the crucial event. But so over the long haul was Britain and her Empire, and also, due to the millions of troops the Americans were shipping over the Atlantic in 1918, with millions more scheduled for 1919.

      But then if you take the British with their naval blockade out of the equation, which meant that Germany could trade freely its the USA, which meant their population could be adequately fed, which meant no need for unrestricted Uboat warfare, which meant no American declaration of war, which also meant no effective ally to relieve the pressure on France at Verdun…and we know the Russians collapsed by 1917.

      On balance, then, probably a win to the Kaiser by 1916…as long as Britain decided to stay in splendid isolation, and didn’t think the balance of power would be dangerously upset if Wilhelmine Germany defeated France and Russia.


      September 15, 2020 at 7:28 pm

  5. … stop sing[ing-sic] the word probably, it is meaningless in the context of this discussion.

    Wait! What? Any conversation about historic events will involve “what if” examples, if only for the sake of argument. It’s not like even a statement such as It was the French at the first battle of the Marne that stopped the German army, can be treated as fact without considering the role the BEF had in enabling the re-focus of the French Army as the BEF entered the field.

    Tom Hunter

    September 15, 2020 at 9:45 pm

    • Nah. It’s just far easier emotionally and mentally for Quidam to issue missives and commands from the throne on his mountain top that commence with the non-negotiable imperative, “Stop…”.


      September 16, 2020 at 9:31 am

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