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Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford

Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford British politician

British politician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British politician
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Politician Educator
Type Academia Politics
Gender male
Birth 19 November 1870, South Shields
Death 14 November 1949 (aged 79 years)
Children: Steven Runciman
The details

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 between the 1900s and 1930s.


Runciman was the son of the shipping magnate Walter Runciman, 1st Baron Runciman. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated MA in 1895.

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, 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." The following year in the 1900 general election Churchill stood against Runciman again and defeated him.

Runciman soon returned to Parliament for Dewsbury in a by-election in January 1902 and steadily rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party. A progressive, centrist reformer, 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.

He then served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury until 1908. In April of the latter year he was sworn of the Privy Council 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. He was one of the small group, that included Reginald McKenna, who actually believed in sound public finances; they had witnessed the lax administration of the Chief Secretary of Ireland.

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

Walter Runciman, 1913
Walter Runciman

Other policies

Runciman was a personal friend to Mrs 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. He and his allies believed that there would be peace in the long run, as the German Navy was 'a luxury' too expensive for the Reich to maintain. Runciman was also in the McKenna dining group that opposed escalation of the arms race, and in January 1914 opposed 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. 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 outbreak of war, the President of the Board of Trade, John Burns, resigned and Runciman on Sunday 2 August was appointed to succeed him.

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. 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 nationalised 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. Runciman encouraged Kitchener at dinner to remove Sir John French from command of the BEF. They also discussed Asquith's removal, since his wife had called the Prime Minister "brains in aspic". Runciman was against any suggestion of internment of aliens, yet they were nonetheless confined in large numbers.

At Board of Trade

In May 1915, after seeking Grey's counsel at the Foreign Office, Runciman agreed to serve in Asquith's new coalition government, which had been kept from most of the cabinet; a week later he was promoted to President of the Board of Trade. By October the cabinet was in open conflict, with the Conservatives (and 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 January 1916. Like McKenna, Runciman was against total warfare of which Compulsory Service formed a major part. He resented the Tory Army interests pre-eminent in government from spring 1916; General Haig had been convinced they intended to split the cabinet against Asquith. Runciman and his allies continued to argue that conscription would damage the war effort by "depleting industry"; Mrs Asquith had already tried to split up the axis within the Cabinet by inviting Runciman and then McKenna to tea separately. But Runciman continued to enjoy good relations with the Chancellor because they shared the aims of improving trade receipts, reducing debt, and increasing output.

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 party leader in 1926. He lost his seat in 1918, and failed to get elected in the 1920 Edinburgh North by-election but was returned for Swansea West in 1924.


In the 1929 general election, the Liberals emerged with 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. Capt. Sydney Augustus Velden, Liberal Agent for St. Ives was instrumental in Lord Runciman's successful election. Lord and Lady Runciman were the first man and wife to sit in Parliament. 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.

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.

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. 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 holding office, even though he was President of the extra-Parliamentary National Liberal Federation until 1934. He concluded the Roca-Runciman Treaty with Argentina, initiated by this country to avoid the curtailment of Argentine beef imports.

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. In June 1937 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Runciman of Doxford, of Doxford in the County of Northumberland. 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.

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 so the attempts at mediation failed. With international tension rising in Central Europe, Runciman was recalled to London on 16 September 1938. The controversial report on his Mission provided support for British policy towards Czechoslovakia, culminating in the dismembering of the country under the terms of the Munich Agreement. Further controversy arose from Runciman's use of his leisure time in Czechoslovakia spent mostly in the company of Hitler's Jewish spy and erstwhile lover of Lord Rothermere, Princess Stephanie Julianne von Hohenlohe and the pro-SdP aristocracy.

Districts in Czechoslovakia with an ethnic German population of 25% or more (pink), 50% or more (red), and 75% or more (dark red) according to the census of 1930.

The Runciman Report, issued on his return to London recommended the transfer of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany and contained the following:

Czech officials and Czech police, speaking little or no German, were appointed in large numbers to purely German districts; Czech agricultural colonists were encouraged to settle on land confiscated under the Land Reform in the middle of German populations; for the children of these Czech invaders Czech schools were built on a large scale; there is a very general belief that Czech firms were favoured as against German firms in the allocation of State contracts and that the State provided work and relief for Czechs more readily than for Germans. I believe these complaints to be in the main justified. Even as late as the time of my Mission, I could find no readiness on the part of the Czechoslovak Government to remedy them on anything like an adequate scale... the feeling among the Sudeten Germans until about three or four years ago was one of hopelessness. But the rise of Nazi Germany gave them new hope. I regard their turning for help towards their kinsmen and their eventual desire to join the Reich as a natural development in the circumstances.

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


Lord Runciman of Doxford married Hilda, daughter of James Cochran Stevenson, in 1898. They had two sons and three daughters. Their daughter Margaret Fairweather (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 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 by his eldest son, Walter. Lady Runciman died in 1956, aged 87.

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