Right-hand men with the power to change destiny

Second Amongst Equals
January 25, 2002

Chancellors of the Exchequer are second in command among ministers. This was not the case before the 1960s, but wider changes in government, notably the decline of the Foreign Office and the weakening of domestic spending departments, saw the Treasury emerge supreme. The everyday turns of political life may disguise this, but the long-term trend is emphatic.

Richard Holt assesses the 20 chancellors and their work since 1945. What sort of person does the Exchequer require? How good were relations with the prime minister and colleagues? Did incumbents hold to a recognisable philosophy? There are four chapters on results. A short bibliographical essay focuses on memoirs, biographies and a selection of the academic literature.

Written by a businessman, this book includes much on the economy, although it is not an economic or financial history. The depth of biographical assessment varies. The book starts with Hugh Dalton (1945-47) and closes with Gordon Brown, but there are numerous pointers to wartime and earlier. Holt writes in an attractive though sometimes overly jaunty style, accessible to non-specialists, and he raises a host of interesting political and administrative matters.

The author recognises some basic "great man" questions that writers on the Treasury must address: whether chancellors can alter the underlying financial and economic trends; and whether these powerful men have shaped other aspects of the British destiny. Among chancellors (and many of their colleagues), there have been formidable intellects, some with a genuine sense of obligation to society as a whole, although several, in more recent times, have had a more restricted focus. It is the former group, the chancellors who wished to mitigate the poverty and regional inequalities that marred modern British history, who are usually seen as widening the vision of what politics could entail. Dalton, Stafford Cripps and Harold Macmillan at least shared this humanitarian vein and found ways to enact this philosophy. This commitment faded only slowly.

Two chapters on chancellors' philosophies offer some interesting insights into why and how the shifts in attitude took place. As historians are apt to notice, political thinkers have social roots. The early postwar chancellors were steeped in the political failures of the interwar years. They took part in the reassessment of the 1930s and helped form the postwar consensus. The intellectual range required for this senior office was thus wider in the postwar years than in most earlier eras. It might also be added that all these early postwar ministers had in-depth wartime administrative experience. This gave them the confidence to cut out the unnecessary and focus on production and results.

As the postwar era receded, the Treasury assumed a central place in modern British government, and the chancellor became the regular serious confidant of the prime minister. Until recently the Treasury was responsible for interest rates; it negotiated with spending departments, had a varied say in drafting bills, and oversaw the Inland Revenue. Workload and staff increased, certainly up to 1979. The author is right to point to "a general process of accumulation of both aims and means" before this date, succeeded by an "agenda of simplification" that set in with the Conservatives. The new agenda resulted in struggles inconceivable in the aftermath of war, which adversely affected numerous industries and most regions. This was twinned with changes in the tax structure that favoured higher earners and recipients of bonuses. The consequences of both policies are still unfolding.

How well does this text fit into the literature? The choice of topics and personalities is apposite, and some of the text is lively and thought-provoking. But parts, especially those that touch on the political and economic history of Britain, will raise questions among teachers and specialists. Time and again readers will be irritated by remarks that lack substantive support. And some comments are frankly odd. For example, and this is the worst example, to refer to Oswald Mosley as an important political figure is, of course, wholly mistaken.

More generally, it is difficult to assess careers before all archives are open. We have most of the materials for the 1960s and before, but this is not the case for the past 30 years. The author's comments on careers, and particularly those in his final "perspective" chapter, are likely to be overtaken in years to come.

Richard Saville is historian of Coutts and Co.

Second Amongst Equals: Chancellors of the Exchequer and the British Economy

Author - Richard Holt
ISBN - 1 86197 028 5
Publisher - Profile
Price - £20.00
Pages - 340

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