Anderson, John (1882–1958), 1st Viscount Waverley , administrator, politician, and under-secretary for Ireland, was born in Edinburgh on 8 July 1882, the eldest of the four children (two sons and two daughters) of David Alexander Pearson Anderson, businessman, and his wife, Janet Kilgour, daughter of Charles Briglemen, of Edinburgh. (Anderson's younger brother died of meningitis in infancy and his younger sister, Janet, drowned at the age of fourteen while swimming.) He was educated at George Watson's College and Edinburgh University, graduating with a B.Sc. and a first-class honours MA in 1903. His school and university careers were marked by a fierce concentration on study to the exclusion of most other student activities; he obtained numerous prizes and certificates (including eleven university medals) but distinguished himself principally in science and mathematics. He then spent a year studying chemistry in Leipzig, taking the opportunity to travel widely in Germany and Bohemia.
On returning to Scotland, Anderson decided to abandon hopes of an academic career and instead enter the civil service (he was engaged to be married and sought financial security). He therefore returned to Edinburgh University for a year's course in economics and political science. In 1905 he entered the Colonial Office, having achieved first place in the civil service examination. (This was unusual: most high-flyers in civil service examinations tended to opt for the better paid Indian civil service.) On 2 April 1907 Anderson married his childhood sweetheart, Christina, the daughter of Andrew Mackenzie, commercial traveller, of Edinburgh, with whom he had one son and one daughter. Having distinguished himself by his work on official commissions dealing with West African land questions and currency matters, he was appointed in 1912 to the National Health Insurance Commission, becoming its secretary the following year. After the outbreak of war he oversaw the analysis and manufacture of medical materials previously imported from Germany. He served as secretary to the Ministry of Shipping (1917), later advising on various aspects of the peace settlement, and for a brief period as second secretary of the Ministry of Health, then just recently established (1919). He was made CB in the New Year's honours list and KCB in June 1919. In October 1919 he was appointed chairman of the board of inland revenue. By this point his wife was suffering from terminal cancer; she died on 6 May 1920. Almost immediately Anderson was recommended by Sir Warren Fisher, head of the British civil service, to fill the offices of joint under-secretary and senior representative of HM Treasury in Ireland. The combination of a desire to escape and a sense of duty led him to accept, and he arrived in Dublin on 16 May.
Anderson had been chosen to oversee a major reworking of British policy in Ireland in response to the rapidly deteriorating political and security situation, and his cadre of Whitehall officials displaced the incompetent hardliners who had dominated Dublin Castle under the chief secretaryship of Ian MacPherson (qv). This appointment made him, in effect, the most powerful figure in the government of Ireland and the most powerful civil servant ever to serve there. Since Hamar Greenwood (qv), the chief secretary, necessarily spent much time in Britain on his parliamentary duties, and the lord lieutenant, John French (qv), was ineffective and discredited (and given to feebly protesting that Anderson and his Whitehall associates had been brainwashed by Dublin Castle moderates such as W. E. Wylie (qv)), Anderson was the principal executive figure in Dublin. Although he was nominally equal in rank to James MacMahon (qv), the latter's functions were mainly diplomatic and the bulk of administrative work was left to Anderson. Even those who disliked the policy which he was called on to implement, such as the loyalist head of the local government board, Sir Henry Robinson (qv), were awed by his ability and industry and thought him an ‘administrative superman’.
Anderson oversaw a comprehensive reorganisation of the Dublin Castle administrative machine, replacing the existing chaotic system of overlapping boards with a centralised one based on Whitehall (as reorganised in response to wartime experience). The powers he received from the Treasury allowed him to settle long-running disputes between the Treasury and the Irish Office, and the administrative system as it operated in the first decades of the newly independent Irish state was essentially Anderson's creation.
Anderson's principal brief was to reestablish law and order and, if possible, to bring about a peaceful settlement. He believed that the British government's policy of repression before discussion was unworkable. With the support of Sir Warren Fisher and his own Dublin Castle colleagues, he advocated to cabinet the cessation of the coercion policy and the introduction of dominion home rule to a united Ireland. To this end he sanctioned the establishment of contact with Sinn Féin by his assistant under-secretary Alfred Cope (qv). Although Cope's activities led to accusations of betrayal from Conservative diehards, Anderson insisted that Cope should inform him in advance of his initiatives and took full responsibility for them. The ‘Dublin Castle initiative’ failed in the short term because it contradicted the cabinet's Ulster policy. Anderson as joint under-secretary was responsible for the reorganisation of the Irish police forces, a reorganisation which, despite his own misgivings, brought into being three coercive police units, namely the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries in southern Ireland and the Special Constabulary in Ulster. As violence intensified, Anderson and his officials were obliged to move into Dublin Castle (having initially established themselves at the Royal Marine Hotel in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire)). It was widely believed that Michael Collins (qv) had identified Anderson as a high-priority target, and in spite of his private moderation he came to be publicly identified with the military crackdown. During a house of lords debate on 10 July 1956, in which he argued that the death penalty was the only effective deterrent for politically motivated murder, Anderson recalled how, when the aged Archbishop William Walsh (qv) had had himself carried into his office to beg a reprieve for Kevin Barry (qv), he had replied that to do so would ‘proclaim the helplessness of the law’ (Wheeler-Bennett, 391).
Anderson was charged with the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, a task which involved the administrative partition of the country and alongside which the central administration of the twenty-six counties was reorganised. At the same time he continued to oversee various diplomatic ‘feelers’ to Sinn Féin through Cope and other third-party intermediaries, involving such risky decisions as the release of Éamon de Valera (qv) after his capture in June 1921; these ultimately brought about a truce. During the negotiations which led to the Anglo–Irish Treaty, Anderson served as a high-level adviser to the British negotiators. Before leaving Ireland he prepared the Irish administration for the transfer of power to the new government. Although in March 1922 he was promoted to the post of permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, he retained responsibility for the administration of Irish policy, most notably the consolidation of the newly established government of Northern Ireland, and he established friendly relations with the first prime minister, James Craig (qv). He participated in the November 1925 negotiations leading to the suppression of the boundary commission report and subsequently devised the scheme which allowed the underfunded Northern Ireland social insurance fund to be topped up from its British counterpart while remaining nominally separate. According to his biographer, Anderson's Irish experience greatly enhanced his political perception and freed him from the narrowness of vision typical of conventional bureaucrats.
Anderson's Home Office position, during which he played a leading role in the government's response to the general strike (1926) and chaired a committee on unemployment (1920–31), represented the highest level to which he could rise in the civil service. His subsequent acceptance of the position of governor of Bengal (1932–7) reflected a desire for new challenges. At the time of his arrival, India was experiencing widespread nationalist agitation, while Bengal had produced a physical-force movement that was modelled on Sinn Féin; Anderson was widely denounced as a ‘Black and Tan governor’, and several attempts were made to assassinate him. He responded with a combination of repression and financial reform (renegotiating the revenue arrangements between Bengal and the central Indian administration) and remained in office just long enough to oversee the transition to an elected provincial government.
Anderson was elected an independent MP for the Scottish universities as a supporter of the national government on 28 February 1938, and on 31 October Neville Chamberlain appointed him lord privy seal with responsibility for civil defence. In this capacity he oversaw the mass production of the prefabricated ‘Anderson shelter’ to provide protection for households during air-raids. On the outbreak of war in September 1939 he became home secretary, a position he retained following Churchill's accession to power. As home secretary he was responsible for the refusal of clemency to two IRA men sentenced to death for participating in a bombing in Coventry which killed five civilians. However, criticism of his reluctance to intern British fascists and his resistance to the provision of deep air-raid shelters led Churchill to replace him with the Labour politician Herbert Morrison, who was better able to arouse popular enthusiasm than the aloof administrator. Anderson became lord president of the council with a seat in the war cabinet, and played a pivotal role in supervising the British economy during wartime. He had an exceptional capacity for work, but was distinctly lacking in the popular touch, and his lukewarm official response to the Beveridge Report attracted much hostility. He became chancellor of the exchequer (1943–5), and was one of the few British ministers privy to the development of the atomic bomb; he continued to participate in the formation of British nuclear policy after 1945 and took a leading role on the committee which led to the establishment of the Windscale nuclear facility in Cumbria (later renamed Sellafield). In January 1945 Churchill told King George VI that, if Churchill and the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, were killed in transit to the Yalta conference, Anderson should be asked to form a government.
After the Labour election victory in 1945 Anderson served on the opposition front bench while remaining an independent. When the university parliamentary seats were abolished in 1950 he turned down several offers of safe Conservative seats, including one from the Ulster unionists, who stated that they wished to honour his contribution to the creation of the Northern Ireland state. In 1951 he accepted a peerage (as Viscount Waverley, 1952) and chose to go into the private sector rather than serving as a minister in the house of lords.
In 1941 Anderson married Ava, the daughter of the late John Edward Courtenay-Bodley, historian, and the widow of Ralph Follett Wigram, of the Foreign Office. Throughout his life he received many honours and decorations, both nationally and internationally. He died in London on 4 January 1958, aged seventy-six, from cancer of the pancreas. His papers are deposited at the National Archives in Kew. His solemn manner led to his being nicknamed ‘Pompous John’. Many of his friends referred to him affectionately as ‘Jonathan’, a fact which it is advisable to remember when perusing such sources as the diaries of his Dublin Castle subordinate Mark Sturgis (qv).