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Lindsay, Alexander Dunlop, first Baron Lindsay of Birkerlocked

  • Gary McCulloch

Alexander Dunlop Lindsay, first Baron Lindsay of Birker (1879–1952)

by Howard Coster, 1938

Lindsay, Alexander Dunlop, first Baron Lindsay of Birker (1879–1952), educationist, was born at 37 Westbourne Gardens, Glasgow, on 14 May 1879, the third of five children (with two older sisters and two younger brothers) of the Revd Thomas Martin Lindsay (1843–1914) and his wife, Anna Dunlop (1845–1903) [see Lindsay, Anna]. Lindsay's grandfather, the Revd Alexander Lindsay, had been a minister in the Free Church of Scotland which broke away from the established church in the Disruption of 1843. His father, Thomas Lindsay, was principal of the United Free Church College in Glasgow as well as a notable historian of the Reformation. Anna Dunlop, his mother, was an active campaigner on behalf of women's higher education and for a wide range of social and political causes. Lindsay carried on this characteristic family tradition of educational idealism, reforming passion, and unconventional politics throughout his distinguished career.

Lindsay showed high academic promise from an early age. After entering Glasgow Academy at the age of eight in 1887 he was soon awarded the top prize in his class in English, history, geography, arithmetic, Bible, and writing. He later received the Academical Club prize which was awarded to the dux of the classical section of the school for excellence in Latin, Greek, mathematics, French, and English. Before leaving in 1895 he was dux of the academy, and in the Glasgow University bursary competition of 1895 he gained fourth place and was awarded a Clark bursary. After proceeding to Glasgow University he gained an MA degree in 1899, with second-class honours in classics, having been second prizeman in the classes of logic and moral philosophy. Although he failed to win a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, as he had hoped, he was a scholar of University College, Oxford, from 1898 to 1902, and became president of the Oxford Union Society in 1902. He took a first class in honour moderations (classical) in 1900 and in Greats in 1902. In 1901 he was awarded the Ferguson scholarship in mental philosophy, and in 1902 he obtained the George Clark fellowship in philosophy at Glasgow University.

College tutor, marriage, and First World War

Lindsay had expected to go into the church, and studied Hebrew at Corsock Inn in Galloway to prepare for training at the Glasgow United Free Church College, but he decided instead on an academic career. In the following year, 1903, he won the Shaw fellowship in moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, emulating the achievement of his father, who had been the first recipient of this award. In this capacity Lindsay gave the Shaw lectures on the philosophy of Kant, viewed from the standpoint of the critique of judgement. He was assistant lecturer in philosophy at the Victoria University of Manchester from 1904 until 1906, when he was elected a fellow and tutor in philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. In December 1907 he married Erica Violet Storr (d. 1962), a student at Somerville College. Erica, artistic and devoted to poetry, was the third daughter of Francis Storr, a schoolmaster with strong Church of England connections and editor of the Journal of Education. The Lindsays settled in north Oxford and had three children: Michael, born in 1909, Anna in 1911, and Thomas in 1915. In his early thirties, with a young family, Lindsay was tall and broad-shouldered, with a large head, high forehead, and blue-grey eyes, and was regarded by a pupil and later colleague, Alice Cameron of Somerville College, as being simple and unworldly in his approach to life (Scott, 53–4).

In 1914 Lindsay contributed to the series of pamphlets Why we are at War, arguing for the importance of upholding international law. He volunteered for commissioned service in the army. He served in France, was mentioned twice in dispatches, and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He also had an opportunity to discover his skills in administration and the exercise of power, becoming deputy controller of labour. In 1919 he was appointed CBE. After returning to Oxford after the war, he took a new interest in the business of the university. He was one of a group of twenty college tutors who drafted proposals for reform and submitted them to the royal commission on Oxford and Cambridge universities which reported in 1922. He was also involved in the successful campaign for an honours school of modern humanities—philosophy, politics, and economics, or modern Greats, as it was known—created in 1920, and himself taught and lectured for the new school. Also in 1920 he seconded the preamble for the statute which admitted women to full membership of the university and in particular opened its degrees to them. He was drawn into the major developments taking place in Ireland, and in 1921 he visited Dublin as a member of a small group of observers, staying at the house of the president of the Irish Dominion League, Horace Plunkett. In 1922 his growing reputation was recognized when he was appointed to the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow University. Only two years later, however, he was attracted back to Oxford after the death of A. L. Smith to become master of Balliol College at the early age of forty-five. He held this prominent position for a quarter of a century.

Master of Balliol and university vice-chancellor

As master of Balliol, Lindsay's qualities of leadership began to come to the fore. He established remarkably close relations with undergraduates, delivering ‘lay sermons’ after dinner in hall and holding more informal gatherings in his lodgings, where he inculcated through wide-ranging discussion a faith in democracy, a distrust of ideology, and an ideal of meritocracy. Among those who acknowledged his influence were Denis Healey, Edward Heath, and Roy Jenkins. Lindsay's relations were not so easy with some of the fellows, who regarded his beliefs as a form of anti-intellectualism: he 'could not believe that it was possible for a man to have convictions on which he did not act', and regarded research 'as a form of self-indulgence' (DNB).

There were many even in Lindsay's own college who were suspicious of his unpredictable and unconventional approach to solving problems, as also of his left-leaning political views. He urged conciliation during the general strike of 1926, and was sympathetic to the Labour Party during inter-war political conflicts. In October 1938, following the Munich agreement, he stood as an Independent Progressive candidate (albeit still a member of the Labour Party) in a famous by-election in Oxford City, representing the ‘stage army of the good’—the popular front of all progressive forces opposed to the appeasement of fascism. The Labour and Liberal parties did not field rival candidates, and so the Conservative Party provided his only opponent in the election, Quintin Hogg, a fellow of All Souls College and son of Lord Hailsham, then the lord president of the council. Following a short but passionate campaign that attracted widespread attention, Hogg emerged as the winner but Lindsay performed creditably, gaining 12,363 votes to Hogg's 15,797. He shared the plight of progressive intellectuals in the period when Labour superseded the Liberals. Speaking at a Liberal summer school in August 1939, he regarded Labour on its own as 'a party with no leaders worth mentioning' and the Liberals as 'leaders with no party worth mentioning', and urged that doctrinaire attitudes needed to be avoided if anti-Conservative forces were to be marshalled with maximum effect (Manchester Guardian, 7 Aug 1939).

Lindsay involved himself in the reform of the university's governmental structure and institutions. In 1929 he was a member of a group of prominent Oxford teachers and administrators which set out a detailed exposition of the government of the university for a broad readership (The Government of Oxford, 1931). In 1935 it was Lindsay's turn as a senior head of college to become vice-chancellor of the university for a three-year period, and this proved to be highly significant for Oxford's further development. He forged a strong partnership with the university registrar, Douglas Veale, to pursue new facilities for the university with an appeal for funds and the aid of outside sponsors. The most striking progress at this time was made through Lord Nuffield, the motor manufacturer and philanthropist, who offered some £1 million to the university for a college of engineering and accountancy. Lindsay and Veale controversially prevailed on Nuffield to fund instead a new physical chemistry laboratory and a postgraduate college for social studies, Nuffield College. The establishment of Nuffield College, indeed, was a practical realization of Lindsay's long-held ambitions on behalf of the systematic study of society, although Nuffield came to feel that he had been misled as to the true nature of the project. Nuffield and Lindsay did successfully collaborate to bring doctors and scientists together in order to get clinical medicine properly launched in Oxford.

Adult education

Lindsay's broader educational ideals were vividly reflected in his active support for adult education. He had known William Temple and R. H. Tawney when they were all undergraduates at Oxford, and he was imbued with the same zeal on behalf of the higher education of working people. He became closely involved in tutorial classes and the Workers' Educational Association, and especially after the First World War he took part in their work assiduously. Alice Cameron of Somerville College admired his contribution to the Balliol summer school of 1920, and especially 'the respect for the workers which marked his attitude in all he said and did', which she felt was rooted in his respect for the skill and craftsmanship of the artisan. According to Cameron 'Lindsay's respect seemed to have a personal quality which made his style of approach infinitely winning to the shy and awkward men who filled the Balliol Common Room those summer days' (Cameron, undated, Lindsay papers, Keele University, L113). Lindsay's enthusiasm for university extension was also noted, if a little sourly, in John Betjeman's Summoned by Bells (1960):

While Sandy Lindsay from his lodge looks downDreaming of Adult Education whereThe pottery chimneys flareOn lost potential firsts in some less favoured town.

During his Glasgow professorship he lectured to the Clydesiders and helped to set up a joint committee of the university and labour along the lines of the Oxford tutorial classes committee; he was also a founder of the Scottish Institute of Adult Education.

On returning to Oxford Lindsay became a leading figure in the adult education movement as a whole, his significance later emphasized by Sir Charles Morris, who saw him as inspirational and, 'except of course for Tawney, its greatest philosopher' (Morris). One event helps to evoke the importance that Lindsay himself attached to this area of his work. John Elkin, a miner at Longton, had joined the Longton tutorial class in 1909 and was still an active member in 1930. Lindsay's class decided to present Lindsay with a portrait of Elkin, painted by a local artist, J. A. Lovatt. According to another colleague, Lindsay 'came down to receive it and spent all the night travelling back to Oxford with Mrs Lindsay through the fog, both of them proud of the honour which had been done them' (H. P. Smith, A Tutorial Class Celebrates, [1958]). Elkin's portrait hung for many years in the master's lodgings at Balliol College.

Lindsay's other outside activities included the National Council of Social Service, through which he was involved in co-ordinating voluntary work for the unemployed. He was connected with the running of clubs for the unemployed and with the survey sponsored by the Pilgrim Trust which produced the report Men without Work (1938). He was adviser to the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress on educational matters. In 1930 he visited India as chairman of a committee set up by the International Missionary Council to survey the work of protestant colleges in India. He met Gandhi, who stayed with him in Balliol while taking part in the second Round Table conference.

Philosophy and political thought

As a philosopher Lindsay was perhaps more successful as an expositor of ideas rather than as an original thinker. He lectured frequently on Plato and Kant, and his early publications especially reflected their influence on him. In 1907 he published a translation and introduction of Plato's Republic for an Everyman edition; this was followed by further introductions to works by other philosophers including Berkeley, Descartes, T. H. Green, Hobbes, Hume, and Kant. In 1911 he produced a substantial study of the philosophy of Bergson which his father greeted with the accolade that he had his 'mother's gift' of 'putting profound things in simple plain language' (Scott, 51). Between the wars he tried to use this gift to make sense of contemporary global dilemmas, for example concerning the role of the state, the problems of international relations, the future of Christianity, solutions to unemployment, and the nature of democracy. Although he produced a substantial volume of scholarly work, his output was summed up as that of 'a fully-occupied teacher and administrator who read widely and assimilated new materials, but who did not depend on sustained critical study for his motive power' (Oxford Magazine, 304).

Lindsay's best known work, The Modern Democratic State (1943), traced the guiding ideals of the modern democratic state in the development of Western civilization, and discussed the social and political implications of democracy. The modern democratic state, he claimed, came into being in western Europe, North America, and the British dominions during the nineteenth century; Bolshevism, fascism, and national socialism were conscious reactions against it. This view had obvious contemporary resonance, especially in the middle of the Second World War. He was also suspicious of the potential power of the state to undermine democracy, and emphasized the countervailing role provided by voluntary associations of individuals. The puritan congregation with which he was deeply familiar gave him his model of a democratic group-association (Maddox, The Christian democracy of A. D. Lindsay and Skirmishes in advance). He intended to write a second volume of The Modern Democratic State to discuss the problem of democratic control and how a democratic government could make a community 'more truly a community' (A. D. Lindsay, The Modern Democratic State, 1943, 286), but this second volume never materialized.

Peerage and Keele

During the Second World War Lindsay took up the cause of education in the army, while also helping to organize supplies of books and courses of study to prisoner-of-war camps. In 1940 he became director of the educational books section of the Red Cross and St John's Ambulance Association. He also supported the idea of education for citizenship, and stressed the need to avoid returning to high unemployment in a post-war society. After the war, he led a commission in Germany on the reform of the universities in the British zone, seeking to reinvigorate the spirit of a university in a democratic community. In November 1945 he was rewarded for his continuing efforts with the award of a peerage by the incoming Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, who had been two years his junior as an undergraduate at Oxford. He took the title of Lord Lindsay of Birker, after Birker Moor in the Lake District where he and Erica had bought a house, Low Ground, in 1926, and which had become a favoured retreat.

In 1949 Lindsay, who was approaching retirement from the mastership of Balliol at the age of seventy, agreed to become the first principal of the new University College of North Staffordshire, later the University of Keele. He knew the location for this new institution well from his extramural work, and was attracted to it as a way of realizing his educational ideals. It was designed to offer a new kind of curriculum, bridging the arts and the humanities, based on a tutorial system in a democratic residential college for both sexes. He envisaged a constitution that would enable the university college to take control over its own degree examinations, but with a guarantee of standards through the academic council which would have a majority of representatives from the older universities. Overall, as he declared, this promised 'a fulfilment of hopes that go back a long way, as far as Tawney's original Longton class at any rate' (A. D. Lindsay, The University College of North Staffordshire, The Highway, 42, 1951, 102). But his health had already begun to fail, and in summer 1950 he suffered a cerebral thrombosis. Although he recovered to take charge of the opening of the college in October 1950, and continued to be active in its leadership, he died suddenly at Keele from a blood clot in the brain on 18 March 1952. He was buried in Cumberland, and was succeeded as second baron by his elder son, Michael Francis Morris Lindsay (1909–1994).

In his long educational career, Lindsay never lost the religious and social faith with which he had been imbued from his childhood. Yet he found his true vocation outside the church to which his father had devoted himself. He learned to adapt to the great changes of the time so as to become one of the outstanding educators of his generation. In the end his contribution to public life was as substantial as it was paradoxical. Unworldly and wily in equal measure, comfortable with both abstract ideas and pragmatic calculation, he could converse with leaders but always retained and cherished a common touch, and as a public intellectual he had few peers.



  • Keele University Library, personal and family corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lionel Curtis
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to the Round Table
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to the Society for Protection of Science and Learning
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones
  • Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell
  • TCD, corresp. with Mary Alden Childers


  • H. Coster, photograph, 1938, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Epstein, bronze bust, Balliol Oxf.
  • R. Goodwin, oils, Keele University
  • L. Gowing, oils, Balliol Oxf.

Wealth at Death

£5362 1s.: probate, 23 July 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)