Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford

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The Viscount Runciman
of Doxford
Portrait of Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford.jpg
President of the Board of Education
In office
12 April 1908 23 October 1911

Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford, PC (19 November 1870 – 14 November 1949) was a prominent Liberal and later National Liberal politician in the United Kingdom. His 1938 diplomatic mission to Czechoslovakia was key to the enactment of the British policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany preceding the Second World War.



Runciman was the son of the shipping magnate Walter Runciman, 1st Baron Runciman. He was educated at South Shields High School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with an MA degree in history in 1892. [1]

Political career


Runciman unsuccessfully contested Gravesend in a by-election in 1898, but was elected as a member of parliament (MP) in a two-member by-election for Oldham in 1899, [2] defeating the Conservative candidates, James Mawdsley and Winston Churchill. After winning, Runciman is reported to have commented to Churchill: "Don't worry, I don't think this is the last the country has heard of either of us."[ citation needed ] The following year in the 1900 general election Churchill stood against Runciman again and defeated him. [2]

Runciman soon returned to Parliament for Dewsbury in a by-election in January 1902 [3] [4] and steadily rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party. A progressive, [5] centrist reformer, [6] he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905, a post he held until 1907. Runciman's friends in Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet were Sydney Buxton, Charles Hobhouse and John Morley, all on the left.[ citation needed ]

He then served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury until 1908. In April of the latter year he was sworn of the Privy Council [7] and appointed to his first Cabinet post, President of the Board of Education, by the new prime minister, H. H. Asquith, which position he retained for three years. Runciman approved of financing the purchase of land in Ireland, but the policy was becoming prohibitively expensive. [8] He was one of the small group, that included Reginald McKenna, who believed in sound public finances;[ citation needed ] they had witnessed the lax administration of the Chief Secretary for Ireland.[ clarification needed ]

Runciman, along with McKenna and Lord Haldane, pressured Prime Minister H. H. Asquith to reject Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George's 1910 People's Budget raising taxes on the landed aristocracy and upper class to pay for welfare programs. [9]

He then served another three years as President of the Board of Agriculture. Runciman did not want war with the German Empire and favoured an understanding with her, but like others in the Cabinet was not able to exert much influence over foreign policy. [10]

Other policies

Runciman was a personal friend of Margot Asquith, and a highly valued colleague in Cabinet. He supported the Haldane Mission of 1912, in a purged cabinet dominated by like-minded Liberal Leaguers. [11] He and his allies believed that there would be peace in the long run, as the Imperial German Navy was 'a luxury' too expensive for the Reich to maintain. [12] [13] Runciman was also in the McKenna dining group that opposed escalation of the Anglo-German naval arms race, and in January 1914 opposed First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill's high naval estimates. The left-wing cabinet members desired specificity to Admiralty reductions, but the admirals themselves opposed them.

Runciman joined Lloyd George's "Council of War" on 13 June, which was mainly designed to exculpate Lloyd George of any involvement in the Marconi scandal. Runciman had done much to encourage Lloyd George as Chancellor in increasing levels of trade.

Runciman encouraged political dialogue, socialism, and James Larkin's movement in Ireland, which the cabinet swiftly sought to decriminalise. [14] Runciman was one of those who agreed to fight the Larne gun-running incident by seizure of weapons. The cabinet banned all arms shipments to Ireland on 25 November.

Opposing total war

In 1914, on the British entry into World War I, the President of the Board of Trade, John Burns, resigned and on Sunday 2 August Runciman was appointed to succeed him. [lower-alpha 1]

The Board of Trade reported in October 1914 a build-up of German shipping at Hamburg; a record 187 ships entered British ports on 15 October, meaning the war seemed to be good for business. He approved food for Belgian refugees. On 12 January 1915, he agreed to send a memo to the US government to ban all copper imports to Ireland. [15] Runciman was wholly sympathetic to Lloyd George's proposal to actively intervene in union wage disputes since "men were not malingering, but worn out..."; a statement that preceded the mass employment of women in factories. Runciman proposed a bill "commandeering" the armaments factories for the national war effort. Sitting between McKenna and Hobhouse, he announced an industrial agreement to pay a guaranteed 15% dividend plus depreciation. They discussed bringing German-owned dye industries into British ownership and a prohibition of coal exports. [16] Runciman encouraged Kitchener at dinner to remove Sir John French from command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). They also discussed Asquith's removal, since his wife, Hilda Runciman, had called the Prime Minister "brains in aspic". [17] Runciman was against any suggestion of internment of aliens, yet they were nonetheless confined in large numbers.

At Board of Trade

Runciman in circa 1916 Walter Runciman.jpg
Runciman in circa 1916

In May 1915, after seeking Sir Edward Grey's counsel at the Foreign Office, Runciman agreed to serve in Asquith's new coalition government. Asquith had formed this without consulting most of the outgoing Liberal cabinet; a week later he was promoted to President of the Board of Trade. [18] By October, the cabinet was in open conflict, with the Conservatives (and the Chancellor, Lloyd George) demanding the introduction of conscription. He threatened to resign over the issue, but in the end did not do so when it was carried into law in the Military Service Act 1916.[ citation needed ] Like McKenna, Runciman was against total warfare of which Compulsory Service formed a major part. He resented the Conservative Army interests pre-eminent in government from spring 1916; General Haig had been convinced they intended to split the cabinet against Asquith. [19] Runciman and his allies continued to argue that conscription would damage the war effort by "depleting industry"; Margot Asquith had already tried to split up the axis within the Cabinet by inviting Runciman and then McKenna to tea separately. However, Runciman continued to enjoy good relations with the Chancellor because they shared the aims of improving trade receipts, reducing debt, and increasing output. [20]

Runciman resigned along with the rest of Asquith's government in December 1916. He did not serve in the new coalition headed by David Lloyd George. In the splits that were to rage in the Liberal Party for the next seven years, Runciman remained prominent in opposition to Lloyd George, especially when the latter became Leader of the Liberal Party in 1926. He lost his seat in the 1918 general election, [4] and failed to get elected in the 1920 Edinburgh North by-election, but was returned for Swansea West in the 1924 general election. [21]


Walter Runciman, etching by William Strang, 1913 Viscount Runciman of Doxford.JPG
Walter Runciman, etching by William Strang, 1913

In the 1929 general election, the Liberals emerged holding the balance of power between the Conservatives and Labour. Runciman took the seat of St Ives, which his wife Hilda had won in a by-election the previous year. [22] Capt. Sydney Augustus Velden, Liberal Agent for St. Ives was instrumental in Runciman's successful election. The Runcimans were the first man and wife to sit concurrently in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. [23] The Liberals soon found themselves heavily divided over how to respond to the Great Depression, whether or not to continue supporting the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald and even over the basic direction of the party.[ citation needed ]

In 1931, the cause of the strife was seemingly removed when the Labour government was succeeded by an all-party National Government. Further division emerged, however, when it was proposed that the National Government call a general election to seek a mandate to introduce protective tariffs, a policy that was anathema to Runciman and many other Liberals. Officially, the Liberals threatened to withdraw from the government, but a group led by Sir John Simon emerged as the Liberal Nationals, mainly composed of those who had been opposed to Lloyd George's leadership and who were prepared to continue to support the National Government. A compromise was worked out whereby each party in the National Government campaigned on its own manifesto.[ citation needed ]

After the National Government won a massive majority in the 1931 general election, the Cabinet was reconstructed. It was felt prudent to balance the key Cabinet committee that would take the decisions on tariffs; and so Runciman was appointed President of the Board of Trade once more, in the belief that he would serve as a counterbalance to the protectionist Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain. However, like the other Liberal Nationals, Runciman came to accept the principle of tariffs, amended in November 1931 to 10% in favour of a balance of trade recommended by a Tariff Board. [24] When in late 1932 the official Liberals (the Samuelites) resigned their ministerial posts, Runciman very nearly resigned with them. In 1933 the official Liberals withdrew completely their support for the National Government but Runciman remained in office, despite hoding the presidency of the extra-Parliamentary National Liberal Federation until 1934. He concluded the Roca-Runciman Treaty with Argentina (one of the events of the Infamous Decade), initiated by that country to avoid the curtailment of Argentine beef imports.

In a 1934 speech Runciman defended the record of the National Government, citing measures such as a town and country planning country act, “the opening of the greatest crusades against slums ever attempted in any country,” and an upcoming unemployment insurance bill. [25]

Runciman remained as President of the Board of Trade until May 1937 when Stanley Baldwin retired and his successor, Neville Chamberlain, only offered Runciman the sinecure position of Lord Privy Seal, an offer Runciman declined. [26] In June 1937 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Runciman of Doxford, of Doxford in the County of Northumberland. [27] Four years earlier his father had been created Baron Runciman and "of Doxford" was consequently used to differentiate from his father's title. This was a rare case of a father and son sitting in the House of Lords at the same time, with the son holding a superior title. A few months later his father died, and he inherited both the barony and his father's shipping business.[ citation needed ]

Mission to Czechoslovakia

Runciman returned to public life when, at the beginning of August 1938, the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, sent him on a mission to Czechoslovakia to mediate in a dispute between the Government of Czechoslovakia and the Sudeten German Party (SdP), representing the ethnic German population of the border regions, known as the Sudetenland. Unknown to Runciman, the SdP, although ostensibly calling for autonomy for the Sudetenland, had instructions from Nazi Germany not to reach any agreement on the matter, and thus attempts at mediation failed. With international tension rising in Central and Eastern Europe, Runciman was recalled to London on 16 September 1938. [28]

Districts in Czechoslovakia with an ethnic German population of 20% or more (pink), 50% or more (red), and 80% or more (dark red) according to the census of 1930. Sudetendeutsche.png
Districts in Czechoslovakia with an ethnic German population of 20% or more (pink), 50% or more (red), and 80% or more (dark red) according to the census of 1930.

The published outcome of the mission - known as the Runciman Report - was issued by the mediator on 21 September 1938 in the form of letters addressed to Neville Chamberlain and Edvard Beneš, the President of Czechoslovakia. The report held the SdP responsible for breaking off the negotiations with the Czechoslovak government despite the fact that revised government proposals met "almost all the requirements" of the SdP. Runciman considered the actions of the Czechoslovak authorities to be "not actively oppressive, and certainly not 'terroristic'" but "marked by tactlessness, lack of understanding, petty intolerance and discrimination". The multiple complaints of economic and political discrimination voiced by the Sudeten Germans were, he believed, "in the main justified" and gave rise to a feeling of "hopelessness" – but "the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope". Runciman, therefore, considered "their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in the circumstances". This led him to conclude "that these frontier districts should at once be transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany". [30]

Neville Chamberlain agreed to the transfer of the border regions of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany at the Munich Conference on 30 September 1938. Archival evidence suggests that the recommendations of the Runciman Report were amended at a late stage of the drafting In order to provide justification for Chamberlain's policy of territorial transfer. [31]

Further controversy arose from Runciman's use of his weekend leisure time in Czechoslovakia. This was spent mostly, but not entirely, on the country estates of members of the SdP-supporting Sudeten German aristocracy, in a social and political environment hostile to the Czechoslovak government. [32]

In October 1938, following the Munich Agreement, Chamberlain reshuffled his Cabinet and appointed Runciman as Lord President of the Council. He held that post until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.


Lord Runciman of Doxford married Hilda, daughter of James Cochran Stevenson, in 1898. They had two sons and three daughters. Their daughter Margaret Fairweather [33] (married Douglas Fairweather who established the Air Movements Flight in 1942, later joined by Margaret) was the first woman to fly a Spitfire and was one of the original eight female pilots selected by Pauline Gower to join the Air Transport Auxiliary. Margaret was killed in 1944 whilst landing a Proctor. Their second son, the Honourable Sir Steven Runciman, was a historian. Lord Runciman of Doxford died in November 1949, aged 78, and was succeeded in the viscountcy by his eldest son, Leslie. Lady Runciman died in 1956, aged 87.


  1. On 3 August, Beauchamp joined Burns and Morley who had all stepped down.

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  1. Pugh, Martin, "Runciman, Walter, first Viscount Runciman of Doxford (1870–1949)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2011. Retrieved 28 September 2017 (subscription required)
  2. 1 2 Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "O"
  3. "No. 27402". The London Gazette . 31 January 1902. p. 646.
  4. 1 2 House of Commons: Devizes to Dorset West [Usurped!]
  5. Cott, Nick (Winter 1999–2000). "Tory cuckoos in the Liberal nest? The case of the Liberal Nationals: a re-evaluation" (PDF). Journal of Liberal Democrat History. Liberal Democrat History Group (25): 24–30, 51. However, since he and other Liberal Council members were able to go into the 1929 election supporting the Lloyd George programme (at least in public), it is unclear how seriously the criticisms should be taken. Sheer spite, rather than real policy disagreements, may have had more to do with it, particularly since before the war Runciman had been broadly progressive and in favour of state intervention in the economy.
  6. Tanner, Duncan (2002). "2: Ideas and Politics, 1906-1914". Political Change and the Labour Party 1900-1918 (paperback ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 45. More moderate, Centrist, reformers included W. S. Churchill (Under Sec., Colonies), Walter Runciman (Parl. Sec., Education), and A. Ure, (Solicitor-General, Scotland).
  7. "No. 28129". The London Gazette . 17 April 1908. p. 2935.
  8. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. p. 74. ISBN   0719533872.
  9. Campbell, John (2010). Pistols at Dawn: Two Hundred Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown. Internet Archive. London: Vintage. p. 149. ISBN   978-1-84595-091-0.
  10. David Owen, The Hidden Perspectives: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914, p. 153.
  11. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. p. 134. ISBN   0719533872.
  12. David Owen, The Hidden Perspectives: The Military Conversations of 1906-1914, p. 185.
  13. see also: Winston Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918 (London, 1938), pp. i, 113.
  14. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. pp. 148–149. ISBN   0719533872.
  15. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. pp. 202, 216. ISBN   0719533872.
  16. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. pp. 224–225, 228, 232. ISBN   0719533872.
  17. Hobhouse, Charles (1977). Edward David (ed.). Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. John Murray. p. 238. ISBN   0719533872.
  18. 19 May 1915, Runciman to Reginald McKenna, McKenna Papers; Wilson (ed.), Scott's Diaries, p.122
  19. 12 February 1916, Haig, Diary, pp. 179–80.
  20. Roy Jenkins, The Chancellors, pp. 202–3.
  21. House of Commons: Sudbury to Swindon South [Usurped!]
  22. House of Commons: Saffron Walden to Salford West [Usurped!]
  23. Hill, Rosemary (20 October 2016). "Herberts & Herbertinas". London Review of Books . Retrieved 22 October 2016.
  24. Roy Jenkins, The Chancellors, p. 346.
  25. The Telegraph (Queenland) April 30, 1934, P.1
  26. Vyšný, Paul, The Runciman Mission to Czechoslovakia, 1938: Prelude to Munich, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2003, p. 88. ISBN   0-333-73136-0.
  27. "No. 34407". The London Gazette . 11 June 1937. p. 3750.
  28. Vyšný, Paul, The Runciman Mission to Czechoslovakia, 1938: Prelude to Munich, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2003, ISBN   0-333-73136-0.
  29. Statistický lexikon obcí v Republice československé I. Země česká, Prague, 1934, and Statistický lexikon obcí v Republice československé II. Země moravskoslezská, Prague, 1935.
  30. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919–1939, Third Series, vol. 2, London, 1949, appendix II, pp. 675-679.
  31. Bruegel, J.W., Czechoslovakia Before Munich: The German Minority Problem and British Appeasement Policy, Cambridge, 1973, pp. 272–278.
  32. Glassheim, Eagle, Noble Nationalists: The Transformation of the Bohemian Aristocracy, Cambridge, MA, 2005, pp. 178–186
  33. "Runciman [née Stevenson], Hilda, Viscountess Runciman of Doxford (1869–1956), politician" . Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/48691 . Retrieved 2 March 2020.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Oldham
With: Alfred Emmott
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Dewsbury
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Swansea West
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for St Ives
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board
Succeeded by
Preceded by Financial Secretary to the Treasury
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the Board of Education
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the Board of Agriculture
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the Board of Trade
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the Board of Trade
Succeeded by
Preceded by Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Runciman of Doxford
June 1937 – 1949
Succeeded by
Preceded by Baron Runciman
August 1937 – 1949