Budgetary boorishness

The Chancellors
January 1, 1999

It is often suggested that the memorable days of government ministers are few: sooner, rather than later, exposure of their blunders in office will obfuscate their achievements. With oblivion beckoning, the now subdued ex-minister manages talk-shows, an occasional memoir, a seat on some quango, and, if Tory (and reasonably affable), a directorship or two. Their Parliamentary correspondence might even be sought after for one of those easily forgettable American PhDs. Thus those days in office were just the prelude to the slide into worthy obscurity.

Roy Jenkins had a different trajectory, managing several reincarnations. With a group of disenchanted and out-of-office Labour politicians, he declared war on their former party; this gave him a favoured position in the establishment politics of the 1980s and a new lease of political life. Then, as the Social Democratic Party and Liberal alliance floundered, Jenkins managed to remain on good terms with important people on all sides, using his term as European Union commissioner to good effect. Finally, in company with Lord Chancellor Irvine, he has emerged as one of the father-figures for Tony Blair, a role that looks set to continue.

In fact, Jenkins's role in the reorganisation of the electoral system may yet prove his most constructive involvement in British political life. As if this is not enough, though not quite on the same level, there is Roy Jenkins, chancellor of Oxford University. I am not sure if this involves work, though his output as biographer, and would-be historians, exceeds that of many of the history dons in his care. While I have never met Jenkins, my image is of someone who has enormous stamina and intellectual range, and who remains clubbable right across the spectrum, a matter that foreigners often fail to understand, but which is so helpful to long-term success in British society.

In The Chancellors , Jenkins writes about all 19 chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill (appointed 1886) to Hugh Dalton (resigned 1947). The British chancellors (overseas readers note, these are not the Lord Chancellors who sit on the Woolsack) occupy a senior position in government, and discussing their lives involves bumping into other really important people at the centre of high politics.

The strong points in these essays emerge in these political lives: especially so in the Parliamentary careers, the political language, the codes of behaviour, friends, wives and tantrums. In these areas the essays are often well-crafted discussions of the milieu in which chancellors operated. Especially before 1914, the reader can feel the ways in which progress was stymied in Parliamentary procedures, in the distortions of reformers' arguments, in exaggeration and ridicule, in attitudes owing much to public schools and debating societies, and fed with the gossip of London clubs. If there is one clear preoccupation here, it is with those boorish traits; while one might have thought the chancellor would be immersed in blue books, these were all too often an afterthought, and thus, sadly, much of the opportunity for rethinking Victorian Britain was postponed.

Jenkins is too modest about the influence on his writing of his own political career. One has the feeling that this book draws from personal experience; and this can be very effective. Take his essay on Philip Snowden who, while chancellor in the second Labour government, 1928-1931, was one of the clearest exponents of the balanced budget, cut-expenditure orthodoxy. Snowden epitomised the I-want-my-money-back school of diplomacy. At the Hague conference of 1929, when serious issues of international debt management were on the table, Snowden pushed the foreign secretary to the back seat, and proceeded to exhibit the full range of xenophobic, anti-French and anti-German attitudes, contributing, in a minor way, suggests Jenkins, to later events. I find myself wondering why some historians are polite about Snowden, his budgets, his dislike of colleagues, disdain for the poor, contempt for foreigners, and his ignorance of the banking system.

These essays are less effective in grappling with the technical questions central to the British financial system; this is especially so with gilts and budgets. Financial matters, and debts, I would quite agree, require a degree of application from students, and are thus not eagerly sought after. But they are absolutely central to the behaviour of the economy and to the interaction of government with business and banking. These issues are unavoidable if you are trying to explain the emergence of modern Britain. Gilts, in particular, have a crucial role as company and trust assets, and there are very serious questions that should be raised about the management of these debts: chancellors, down to 1914, clearly had the vaguest of ideas of how the depreciation of gilts, consequent on the errors in Goschen's National Debt Conversion Act, 1888, were threatening to the banking system.

It took the arrival of Reginald McKenna, replacing Lloyd George as chancellor, to ensure that the second war loan, 1915, put a floor to the depreciation of gilts. This meant that the banks would accept a floor to losses, by converting old stock to new, and new stock would be, in turn, convertible to future loans. McKenna and his civil servants did a real service to the war effort. Jenkins's summary of McKenna's chancellorship as "competent, successful, yet curiously insubstantial" falls short of the target. McKenna was recognised by bankers as one of the sharpest minds in finance, and he went on to an important career in inter-war finance as chairman of the Midland Bank, the world's largest. For those interested in a broader perspective on his role, McKenna is well-aired in the recent history of the bank.

There is a perennial discussion of the value of biography as a guide to historical change. While this collection gives an interesting, and often entertaining, look at the careers of 19 chancellors and many of their associates, it is with political matters and in-fighting that the book shines. For those who need to go into the workings of policy and government finance, and how political processes altered financial behaviour, I am afraid there is still no substitute for many months studying the academic tomes and those government blue books.

Richard Saville is lecturer in economic history, St Andrews University.

The Chancellors

Author - Roy Jenkins
ISBN - 0 333 73057 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £25.00
Pages - 497

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