Richard Burton Haldane, the second son (but first surviving infancy) of Robert Haldane (1805–1877) and Mary Burdon-Sanderson (1825–1925), was born at 17 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh on 30th July, 1856.
Haldane went to Edinburgh Academy and at the age of sixteen attended Edinburgh University, studying the classics and philosophy. He came under the influence of Professor James Stuart Blackie and he suggested that Haldane completed his education at Göttingen in Germany, where he studied philosophy, and geology. According to his biographer, Colin Mathew: "Göttingen was a formative six months for Haldane and affected in a variety of ways his public career: he returned a convinced idealist, influenced by Berkeley and Fichte, a view of philosophy to which he remained constant, even after it ceased to be fashionable among British philosophers. He also returned a competent German speaker, a very unusual attribute in British political life. Haldane took a first in arts at Edinburgh, winning many of the academic prizes available, including the Bruce of Grangehill prize and the Gray and Ferguson scholarships, all for philosophy."
In 1877 Haldane moved to London to read for the bar at Lincoln's Inn. He qualified as a lawyer in 1879 and specialized initially in conveyancing. In 1882 he was taken on by Horace Davey as a junior. The following year he published Essays in Philosophical Criticism. He developed a keen interest in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, and produced an important translation The World as Will and Idea in 1883. Haldane, remained very interested in German cultural and normally made an annual visit to the country.
A member of the Liberal Party, Haldane developed a close friendship with Herbert Henry Asquith. He was elected to represent the Scottish seat of East Lothian in the 1885 General Election. The party leader, William Gladstone, soon saw Haldane's potential and recruited him to draft future legislation. He also worked closely with Sir Edward Grey, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs.
Haldane was a supporter of women's suffrage and attended meetings of the Fabian Society. During this period Haldane favoured wide-ranging improvements to welfare, housing, and employment law. in May, 1891, Haldane organised a meeting with radicals in the Liberal Party, Asquith, Grey, Sydney Buxton and Arthur Acland Allen, with leaders of the Fabians, Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, William Clarke, Henry Massingham and Sydney Olivier. Webb afterwards commented that he feared that the Liberals were unwilling to change direction.
Lord Rosebery became prime minister after the 1892 General Election but Haldane was considered to be too left-wing and was not offered a place in the government. In 1894 Rosebery also rejected the suggestion that he should be appointed as the solicitor-general. Beatrice Webb recorded in her diary: "Difficult to estimate what amount of influence that man exercises in public affairs. He has never held office, but during the last Liberal government he was the chief instigator of their collectivist policy... He was also responsible for many of their appointments. In this parliament he is in constant confidential intercourse with Balfour and other Conservatives over the many non-party questions dealt with by a government, and even in some purely political questions his advice is asked. He attracts confidence where he is at all liked; once on friendly terms, you feel absolutely secure that he will never use personal knowledge to advance his own public career to the detriment of any friend. The rank and file of his own party dislike him intensely, partly because he detaches himself from party discipline."
In 1895 Haldane helped Sidney Webb establish the London School of Economics. As Webb pointed out, the intention of the institution was to "teach political economy on more modern and more socialist lines than those on which it had been taught hitherto, and to serve at the same time as a school of higher commercial education". Haldane continued to encourage progressivist developments in the Liberal Party. He developed his views in speeches and in periodical articles in The Contemporary Review. However, he disillusioned the radicals in the party by supporting the Boer War.
Haldane was briefly romantically involved with Emma Ferguson, the sister of his friend, Ronald Munro Ferguson, a fellow MP, but she died insane in 1897. He remained unmarried and Beatrice Webb recorded in her diary on 3rd May, 1897 that: "His bulky awkward form and pompous ways, his absolute lack of masculine vices and manly tastes (beyond a good dinner), his intense superiority and constant attitude of a teacher, his curiously woolly mind would make him an unattractive figure if it were not for the beaming kindliness of his nature, warm appreciation of friends and a certain pawky humour with which he surveys the world. And there is pathos in his personality. In spite of the successful professional life.... he is a restless lonely man - in his heart still worshipping the woman who jilted him seven years ago... He was made to be husband, father and close comrade. He has to put up with pleasant intercourse with political friends and political foes."
Haldane joined the government of Henry Campbell-Bannerman on 8th December 1905 as Secretary of State for War. He took a large cut in income as a cabinet minister, having earned over £20,000 in his last year at the bar. In 1906 he created the Imperial General Staff under the leadership of Sir Douglas Haig. The following year he said "the basis of our whole military fabric must be the development of the idea of a real national army, formed by the people." This became known as the Territorial Army. Haldane campaigned strenuously for both the territorials and the officer training corps and gained the important support of Edward VII for these measures.
According to his biographer, Colin Mathew: "Within a year there were 9,313 officers and 259,463 other ranks in the Territorial Force... His hopes that the officer training corps would act as a catalyst for a greater union between army and society were improbable, but in the officer training corps (later, in schools, the combined cadet force) he created an organization of profound significance to the ethos of British public school education for much of the twentieth century. By 1914 it had over 27,000 members." Colonel Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times, and a staunch critic of the Liberal Party, described Haldane as "the best Secretary of State we have had at the War Office so far as brain and ability are concerned" and generally supported his military reforms.
In 1909 a press campaign led by Lord Northcliffe warned that Germany was developing military air power. Haldane responded by establishing an advisory committee for aeronautics, chaired by Lord Rayleigh. On 18th May Haldane reported: "The Naval and Military experts have demonstrated to the Defence Committee (of the Committee of Imperial Defence) that dirigibles and still more aeroplanes are a very long way off being the slightest practical use in war… The scientific problems are not worked out."
During this period Haldane's health had seriously deteriorated and he was badly affected by rheumatism. In 1910 he was diagnosed as a diabetic, a condition that was very serious at this time. In March 1911 Haldane accepted a peerage, as Viscount Haldane of Cloan, and became leader of the Liberal peers in the House of Lords.
In June 1912, Herbert Henry Asquith appointed him as Lord Chancellor. He wrote in his autobiography: "I never considered that I was equipped by nature for the part of a great judge. It was not that I did not know the law. I knew it pretty thoroughly; I had had a long experience at the Bar of the most difficult and miscellaneous kinds of work; and memory had preserved the bulk of my knowledge, notwithstanding absence for over six years at the War Office. But the judicial temperament of the highest order is a very rare gift."
On the outbreak of the First World War Asquith took over the post of Secretary of State for War. In reality, the job was done by Haldane. On 3rd August, 1914, Asquith asked Haldane to organize mobilization. Haldane favoured sending all six divisions of the British Expeditionary Army to France immediately, but others, led by Lord Kitchener, thought that two divisions should be kept back to defend Britain.
Haldane came under attack from the press. Led by the Daily Express, he was accused of being pro-German. The newspapers quoted people who claimed that Haldane had told them that Germany was "his spiritual home". In September 1914, Haldane's offer of resignation was declined by Asquith. A further offer was also rejected, but when Asquith formed his coalition government in May 1915, Haldane was not included. It was Arthur Balfour who insisted that Haldane should go. Asquith had argued that Haldane had been "subjected to a Press campaign led by the Morning Post etc of the foulest, lowest, most mendacious character fostered by the anti-German mania".
Charles Trevelyan, a fellow Liberal MP wrote: "The throwing over of Haldane by Asquith and Grey to the Tory wolves is the dirtiest political thing that has occurred in my political life, except the lie which those two same gentlemen told the nation that we were bound to fight for France when we were in fact bound in their opinions."
Colin Mathew has pointed out: "The xenophobic campaign against him in the Unionist press was utterly misplaced. No minister bore greater responsibility for Britain's capacity to engage Germany in 1914 - almost non-existent when Haldane went to the War Office in December 1905 - but Haldane's reputation as an intriguer, his writing of philosophical books, his often opaque statements, the fact that he spoke fluent German (uniquely among the class of executive politicians) made him, in the foetid domestic political atmosphere of the time, an unsurprising target for a frustrated press and party, for whom 'patriotism’ had become almost the only card left to play. Asquith and Grey, his closest political friends, could have done more to protect him, but they may have felt the gale too strong to do anything but let Haldane swing in it."
Colin Clifford, the author of The Asquiths (2002) has argued: "A myth has grown up, based on nothing more than constant repetition by historians, that Asquith neither fought very hard for his oldest friend nor properly thanked him for his years of service. Both allegations are nonsense. On the evening of 22 May, Asquith joined Margot at the Wharf, and she recorded in her diary that he told her how he had pleaded with Bonar Law and Balfour to be allowed to retain Haldane in the Government, telling them that he was his oldest friend."
Herbert Henry Asquith continued to use Haldane as an unofficial adviser but when David Lloyd George became prime minister in December 1916, he ceased to play a role in government. However, he did ask him "to chair a committee on the machinery of government, which reported in December 1918, one of the very few official attempts to consider the overall purpose, character, and composition of British government; however, it was published during the general election just after the armistice and made little immediate impact." Haldane was not a Lloyd George supporter and once described him as "an illiterate with an unbalanced mind".
After the war Haldane was sympathetic to the policies of the Labour Party. In the House of Lords he supported coal nationalization and for the Labour Party's educational policy. During the 1923 General Election campaign he spoke at several meetings for Labour candidates. In January 1924, the new prime-minister, Ramsay MacDonald, appointed him as his lord chancellor. Haldane, who was the only member of government with previous experience of being in the cabinet, became an important figure in the country's first Labour government until it was defeated in October 1924.
In 1926 Haldane wrote his autobiography that was to be published after his death. During the General Strike he argued in favour of the miners. In June, 1928, he was elected as chancellor of St Andrews University.
Richard Haldane died at his home on 19th August 1928 and was buried at Gleneagles.