Robert Burdon Haldane
( Originally Published 1907 )
LIFE, it has been said, is a comedy to him who thinks and a tragedy to him who feels. Judged by this axiom, Mr. Haldane is the man who thinks. He bathes the world in wreathed smiles and floods it with infectious good humour. He seems to go through life humming softly to himself. " Toujours bien, jamais mieux," is his motto. What a delightful world it is, he seems to say, and what a capital fellow you are, and what capital fellows we all are! It is like the comfortable purring of a cat on the hearthrug. It fills you with the ecstasy of a quiet content. Every-thing is snug and warm, the kettle is singing on the hob, the fire burns brightly in the grate, and though the wind howls and moans outside, it serves only as a foil to the comfort within. It is the best of all possible worlds.
" He has always been so," his mother, with whom he lives, will tell you. " He is always cheerful, never worries, and works incessantly." This unconquerable good humour is perhaps less the result of philosophy than of a good digestion. He comes of a hardy strain. The Haldanes were fighters in the brave days of old. One fell at Flodden, and others also found immortality on the battlefield. For generations they have been remarkable for their pedestrian powers. Mr. Haldane's grandfather thought little of an eight-mile walk even in his eighty-third year, and there is a story that his grand-uncle, having been prayed for by one of his clerical friends as " Thine aged and infirm servant," suggested a little stroll, from which the clerical friend returned in such a state of exhaustion that he fell into a deep slumber, from which he could hardly be aroused in time for the service he was to perform. Mr. Haldane himself is credited with having frequently walked sixty or seventy miles in a day; while his brothers are said to have established a record of 100 1/2 miles under thirty-one hours. His big, alert frame and his massive neck suggest those physical resources which have made his powers of work and endurance possible. " Nothing in the way of work can be done without a big boiler and a bull-neck," said a sea captain to me long ago. Mr. Haldane has both, and his capacity for work has always been remarkable.
This physical energy is matched by a similar mental energy. He has lived four careers philosopher, lawyer, politician, and man of the world, and has spared himself in none of them. He is an intellectual steam engine. When once he has started talking, there seems no reason why he should ever leave off. There is no end to him. His oratory is like an interminable round of beef you may cut and come again. One feels that the river of his rhetoric will flow on for ever, fed by a thousand inexhaustible rills. The smooth, wooing voice inundates the House with a flood of words. The enemy attempts to dam the torrent in vain. In vain does Mr. Arnold-Forster raise his head above the flood and utter an angry interjection. He is engulfed by a wave from the rhetorical ocean, and the waters flow on in copious unconcern.
He has been known at the end of the second hour of a speech to start afresh with a pleasant remark on these preliminary observations." On one occasion he went to a Volunteer dinner and came away telling his friends that everyone had approved his scheme.
He did not know that the company had come together seething with objections and had been literally talked into silence and surrender.
It was said of Gladstone that when it suited his purpose no one could wander more widely from his subject. It may be said of Mr. Haldane that no one can invest a subject in a more lucid fog. A lucid fog, I know, seems like a contradiction in terms; but no one who has heard Mr. Haldane speak for, say, three hours will deny that there is such a thing. The lucidity of his mind is as conclusive as the fog in yours. The clearer he becomes to himself, the more hopeless is your bewilderment. If only one could feel that he himself was getting a little lost in this amazing labyrinth of locution, one would feel less humiliated. But it is obvious that the less you understand him the more he understands himself. He smiles urbanely upon you, and points the fat didactic finger at you with pleasant intimacy. He does you the honour of pretending that you follow him, and self-respect compels you to accept the delicate tribute to your penetration. It is a comedy which saves him a lot of trouble.
There are some men who seem never to have known a joy in life, and there are few who do not have their variations of temperature and their moments of depression. Mr. Haldane gives the impression that he has never known a sorrow that there was never a moment in which he was not walking on air in sheer exaltation of mind and body. The atmosphere of flagrant enjoyment that he exudes must be an offence to the man of a melancholy habit of mind. He cannot help distrusting such an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of cheerfulness. No man, he feels, can be really so happy as Mr. Haldane seems, and since that is so it is clear that he is playing a part. " As for professional optimists," said a distinguished philosopher of the opposite school to me, " one is always sceptical about them: they wear too much the strained look of the smile on a skull." Nothing could be less true of the optimism of Mr. Haldane. It is simply a huge capacity for enjoyment, fundamentally physical, and having no relation to his conclusions about the universe. It is customary to poke fun at his Hegelianism and to treat his philosophic interests as a disqualification for politics. If Being and Non-Being are identical so runs the quip it obviously does not matter whether we have an Army in Being or an Army in Non-Being. But to Mr. Haldane philosophy is only an intellectual exercise, as chemistry was to the late Lord Salisbury, or as theology and Homer were to Gladstone. It springs from his sympathy with the German genius.
For Mr. Haldane is Teutonic in his love of abstract thinking, and in his enthusiasm for thoroughness and exactness. He turns always to Germany for inspiration. He went thither after graduating at Edinburgh, and his first literary enterprise was his translation of Schopenhauer. His dinner table talk is full of German reminiscences, and he never misses an opportunity of addressing German visitors on the Terrace in their own tongue. He is as great a favourite with the King as Lord Cross used to be with Victoria, but that fact does not exclude the Kaiser from his opulent affections, and the Kaiser returns the feeling, always receives him with enthusiasm, and loves to show him his army. And it is to the German Army that he goes for ideas. On one of his visits to Berlin he said, ' Germany, as all the world knows, has much to teach military students, and I am here simply to avail myself of the opportunity of studying her institutions before engaging in any tinkering of our own." It is from Germany that he brought the idea of a General Staff with which he began his reform of the British Army.
It must be admitted, too, that the type of his Liberalism is German. It is vague and indeterminate. It breathes expediency rather than the compulsion of principle. It approaches politics purely as a business proposition, and seeks to establish national greatness on scientific and material rather than moral foundations. It follows naturally that he was the standard-bearer of Lord Rosebery through the years of disunion, and that during the war he was the chief author and inspirer of the Liberal Imperial schism. His strategy was opposed to the strategy of Mr. Harcourt, and the pair were not unequally matched, though in one memorable struggle for the soul of the Eighty Club I think Mr. Harcourt showed the more masterly tactics. That he is not Lord Chancellor is due less to himself than to the perversity and indecision of his leader. Lord Rosebery played a part similar to that which Eachin played in the great fight on the North Inch described in The Fair Maid of Perth. The Stalwarts of the Clan Quhele surrounded him with loyal devotion. " Death for Hector " (Bas air son Eachin) was the cry as they went into the combat; but at the crisis of the fight, after prodigies of heroism had been performed by others, Hector turned, plunged into the Tay and fled from the battle. And Hal o' th' Wynd, in the person of stout C.-B., was left master of the field. His first act was to appoint Sir Robert Reid to the Woolsack. He did not love the Clan Quhele.
It was a bitter disappointment; but Mr. Haldane bore it with his imperturbable air of enjoyment and took up his task at the War Office with a passion of zeal that suggested that this was the ambition of his life. There had been many new brooms at the War Office; but never such a new broom as this. He swept, as it were, incessantly, and as he swept he talked, now to the public, now to the Army, now to Parliament. His breezy confidence won confidence. The world always believes in a man who believes in himself. It is the first condition of success, and Mr. Haldane's faith in himself amounts to inspiration. The world also loves a man who pays it the compliment of taking it into his confidence. That is largely the secret of Mr. Haldane's popularity. He is always taking you into his confidence. Queen Victoria's objection to Gladstone was that he talked to her as if he were addressing a public meeting. Mr. Haldane talks to you as if you were the British Empire and must be placated at all costs. You may doubt his scheme; but you cannot doubt his enthusiasm. You may dislike his politics; but you cannot help being moved by the deference he pays to your judgment.
It is by these methods that he has conquered the Army. You cannot resist a man who bursts with such enjoyment into the mess, smokes bigger and stronger cigars than anyone else, and obviously enjoys them more, knows as much about explosives as he does about the Westminster Confession, and with all these accomplishments does you the delicate honour of discussing his scheme with you as if your approval were the one thing in the world necessary to his complete happiness. One of his predecessors at the War Office, speaking to me on one occasion about the difficulties of his task, said: " What can you do with these infernal colonels, who know less about war than they know about virtue? " Mr. Haldane knows very well what to do with them. He does not lecture them or hector them. He talks to them as it he were consulting them, and they surrender to his blandishments. He yields on small things with such bonhomie that out of sheer chivalry they can't help yielding to him on big ones," said one who works with him to me. " Moreover, they have had such an experience of War Secretaries in the past, that, by comparison, Haldane is a jewel, and they think that any change would probably be for the worse." There is the reason why Mr. Haldane has got his schemes through with such success. He greases the wheels well. These schemes may be good or bad. Time alone will prove them. But to have got them through with so little resistance and to remain relatively popular with the colonels is an achievement in the art of managing men. Even when he disbanded the 3rd Battalion of the Scots Guards, there were tears, but few reproaches. It was a courageous act, for it brought him into conflict with the King and with his old leader. The King pronounced a funeral oration on the Guards and said he hoped to see them revived, while Lord Rosebery forgetful of all the loyal service of his old lieutenant and remembering only that he dared to be happy without him tore a passion of indignation to tatters and then fell into dramatic silence, to awaken later on in a passion about something else.
I am not sure whether Mr. Haldane invented the word " efficiency," which has become the hardest worked vocable in politics. When Humpty Dumpty explained how much he meant by " Impenetrability," he added, " When I make a word do a lot of work like that I always pay it extra." On that just principle, " efficiency " ought today to be the most prosperous word in the language. It represents the political gospel opposed to the fine old English doctrine of " muddling through," the phrase in which Lord Rosebery summed up the Boer War. But whether he invented it or not, Mr. Haldane is its recognised exponent. "Efficiency, and again efficiency, and always efficiency." It is the German spirit that he opposes to the French spirit of Danton's axiom: efficiency and ideas. " We have won a magnificent victory," he said, after the General Election of 1906. " What is it that we need? What is it that has been wanting in the past? I answer in a word—ideas! We have got the majority. Have we got the ideas? " One sees him pausing for the obvious reply. " Not numbers but efficiency " is his maxim in the making of an army. And he pays himself a modest compliment when he adds, " I have never had a more congenial occupation than this attempt at reorganisation and the introduction of science into the business."
It remains to be seen whether the German doctrine of " thorough " can be engrafted on the English stem of hand-to-mouth practicality, and whether English Liberalism could survive the infusion of bureaucracy which is the basis of Mr. Haldane's clear thinking. But whatever the fate of Mr. Haldane and his Army reforms may be, we may be sure that nothing will ever destroy his indestructible complacency. Ministries may rise and fall, Army schemes come and go, but his exuberance will remain. " Toujours bien, jamais mieux " will be his motto, and through all the cataclysms of politics he will still go his way humming softly to himself in sheer spiritual revelry.