Richard Haldane hosted Albert Einstein on his first visit to Britain in June 1921 © Alamy

Watching today’s politicians fall over their own mistakes as they fumble with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to forget that securing high office once required more than a few years of dashing off political columns for a national newspaper. So the life and political times of Richard Haldane, the subject of John Campbell’s engaging biography, offers a fitting rebuke to the trivial mendacity and downright incompetence of the nation’s present administration.

Haldane, an Edinburgh lawyer and philosopher-politician before becoming a minister in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal administrations, was an important champion of universal education and one of the founding fathers of the UK university system. As Asquith’s minister for war, he created the expeditionary force that saved Britain from defeat in the opening stages of the first world war. As Lord Chancellor, his judgments did much to set in place the federalist tilt of the Canadian constitution.

He also found time to create the Territorial Army, and to have a hand in the foundation of the London School of Economics, the Medical Research Council and the Secret Intelligence Service.

Haldane is not a standard biography. The author admits to a fascination with, and admiration for, his subject since school days spent as a frequent visitor to what had once been Haldane’s home in the Scottish Grampians. As Campbell acknowledges, his overriding purpose in writing the book was to right a wrong — to illuminate the achievements of a politician largely forgotten by history. Haldane, as a consequence, always gets the benefit of the doubt.

A labour of admiration if not love, the book leaves the reader as richly informed about his subject’s personal as his political life. Entering parliament at the age of 29 in 1885 he would become one of the troika of rising young Liberals that included the future foreign secretary Edward Grey as well as Asquith. He was less successful in affairs of the heart, never quite recovering from rejection by the woman on whom he had first set his sights.

Haldane’s range was remarkable, embracing social and political connections spanning just about every network that mattered. During the 1890s he was a visitor to Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in Pentonville prison.

Later he played matchmaker for Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the Fabian power couple, and in the 1920s hosted Albert Einstein on his first visit to Britain. The great scientist later remarked of Haldane that: “I never had the feeling that there was anything worthwhile for which he would not easily find the necessary time and strength.”

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There is the key. Haldane is a reminder of the seriousness of politics — proof that when intelligent politicians put their minds to it they really can improve the lot of the citizens. The contrast with the epic shallowness of the present lot could scarcely be greater. Haldane’s habit was to approach each policy issue from first principles. Today’s ministers start with the latest opinion polling.

Haldane, though, had his weakness. His intellectual stature was not matched by his political weight. When misfortune struck there was no Haldane “gang” to protect him. The misfortune sprang from his love of Germany. Fluent in the language and great admirer of German literature and culture, in the years before the outbreak of war Haldane overestimated the chances of a peace agreement with the Kaiser. Once hostilities began he was branded on the right of the Conservative party as an appeaser. The charge was unfair, but when Asquith was obliged to go into coalition with the Tories in 1915, Haldane’s was one of the heads demanded by the Tories’ friends in the press.

His old friend Asquith duly sacrificed him. By the war’s end, the Liberals were anyway heading for political exile. Haldane switched his allegiance to Labour. But his work was done. And Campbell is right. He does deserve a statue.

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain, by John Campbell (in collaboration with Richard McLauchlan), Hurst, RRP£30, 484 pages

Philip Stephens is an FT columnist

Letters in response to this column:

Still time for ministers to make their mark / From John Webster, London SW1, UK

Churchill eclipsed / From Clark McGinn, London HA1, UK

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