The way we were

Ian Burdon reflects on the article in The Northumbrian issue 181 focusing on Lord Haldane and his Newcastle roots. The article was written by Malcolm Campbell, based on the book Haldane, by John Campbell.

Ian Burdon writes: I was particularly interested in the article in the current issue on Haldane as I was a member of the staff of Merz and McLellan, mentioned in the article, for over 40 years. His nephew, Graeme Haldane, became a Partner in the Consultancy after the death of Charles Merz in 1940. On discovering a small autobiography of the latter named, I wrote a short article for the Firm’s staff magazine, which follows:

Searching the library at the Newcastle office recently, I came across a small book which had been placed in the archives of Merz and McLellan in 1994.  It contained some recollections and reflections by TGN Haldane, who became a partner of M&M in 1940 after the death of Charles Merz.  Haldane was a nephew of Viscount Haldane, the great Liberal politician and Lord Chancellor, who was a contemporary of Charles Merz – both in period and in philosophy.  He was a cousin also of JBS Haldane, who was described as ‘one of the most brilliant of British scientists and one of the most controversial’ as well as being a leading geneticist of the inter-war years.

TGN Haldane achieved notoriety in 1930s when the Fabian Society anonymously published a pamphlet of his in which he, as a member of Merz’s staff, advocated public ownership of the British electricity supply industry.  His radical views were to cause some embarrassment to Charles Merz who almost lost some very important private-sector clients when the author’s professional allegiances were discovered!

He took issue also with the Central Electricity Board in the late 1940s when they proposed division and extensive reinforcement of the 132 kV grid rather than the superposition of an EHV system.  His views were expressed in his Presidential address to the IEE in 1948.  In his address he promoted the concept of ‘coal by wire’ on which the fundamental topographies of the 275 kV and 400 kV systems were based.

His responsibilities within the firm included the major post-war hydro-electric developments in Scotland, including the first UK pumped-storage schemes, the Wairakei geothermal scheme in New Zealand which, he points out in his recollections, was developed originally to make heavy water for the UK nuclear programme.  When heavy water was no longer required, because of the decision to build gas-cooled ‘Magnox’ reactors rather than heavy-water reactors, the New Zealand project became power only.

My attention was caught particularly when leafing through the volume by the resonances that his recollections had with the present day.  For example, on wind power: ‘The shortage of energy after the war had encouraged research into all possible energy sources.  I was chairman of the Electrical Research Association Wind-power Committee, and research went on for a good many year.  We erected a 100 KW experimental plant on a particularly windy site in the Orkneys (Costa Head) where the measured wind velocity once reached 125 mph.  The technical difficulties were considerable, but I dare say could, in the long run, have been overcome.  However, what really terminated the work was my conclusion that the scale of wind power plant was too small.  1,000/2,000 KW seemed about the largest size possible and as time went on such a size was far too small for the country’s rapidly growing requirements.’

And again on nuclear power: ‘I think it very important to realise that the chief physical basis of civilisation is the availability of energy in its various forms; also that man’s future requirements will be so vast as to make present demands quite insignificant.  So North Sea oil and gas, coal and all the world’s fossil fuel, waterpower and other resources can be only a relatively short-term answer to the energy problems.  If we look for a long-term answer, it can only be found in nuclear fuels.  Other sources, such as waterpower, may help but we shall not be permanently rid of recurring crisis until ‘fusion’ becomes possible.  Fusion means the conversion of hydrogen to helium at enormously high temperatures and is the process by which the sun has produced its energy for many billions of years.  Much research and effort is now being concentrated on solving the ‘fusion’ problems; they are fundamentally difficult problems, but I have very little doubt they will be overcome in the next 30 or so years.’

A most interesting piece, which relates closely to recent events like 9/11 and 7/7, describes a 1938 visit to the US and dinner at the White House with the then President of the US, FD Roosevelt.  As Haldane arrived, the President was about to make a broadcast to the Nation.  He was spellbound as he watched and listened to the great man get in his stride:

‘I must admit to having been more carried away by what he had said than I had ever been by any speech that I had heard before…  It was in the main, a great exposition of a positive democratic creed; a call for action, for experiment and for the removal of those social evils which impoverish democracy and freedom.

Haldane quotes an extract from the speech:

‘In other lands across the water the flares of militarism and conquest, terrorism and intolerance, have vividly revealed to Americans for the first time since the revolution how precious and extraordinary it is to be allowed this free choice of free leaders for free men.  No one will order us how to vote, and the only watchers we shall find at the polls are the watchers who guarantee that our ballot is secret.  Think how few places are left where this can happen.  But we cannot carelessly assume that a nation is strong and great merely because it has a democratic form of government.  We have learned that a democracy weakened by internal dissension, by mutual suspicion born of social injustice, is no match for autocracies which are ruthless enough to repress internal dissension.’

He was, to quote the words of his son:

‘…an unassuming man, who talked little of his success.  His interests lay in intellectual ideas and the practical achievement of them.  He was a man much interested in social welfare and its implications, and in all matters of progress – a word which was to him synonymous with evolution, a driving force behind all that he did.  He had a strong social conscience, and he devoted his life to repaying to his country the benefits of his birth and of intellect with which she and nature had endowed him.  This he achieved.’

Haldane was a great thinker who held deep, passionate, beliefs just like his uncle, Richard Burdon Sanderson Haldane, later Viscount Haldane, of whom it was said: ‘His was a life which was at least one of constant strenuous endeavour’.

In this new century, and age of rapid progress and technical development, we do well to remember the words of Sir Isaac Newton in 1676: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.  Haldane died in 1981 at the age of 83 but would have been fascinated to follow the progress of, and read the final communiqué from, the world leaders gathered at the G8 Summit at Gleneagles earlier this year including, as it does, agreements to act upon the effects of man’s insatiable demands for energy and the inequity of the north-south poverty divide, for Gleneagles, or Cloan in Perthshire, was the old family home for many centuries and his final resting place.

Haldane, by John Campbell, is published by Hurst and available in bookshops priced £25. Further information is at including a synopsis of the book, reviews and endorsements