Unmalicious but interesting

Living with the Century
October 1, 1999

The report of the Radcliffe committee on the working of the monetary system, published in 1960, is not much consulted today in the Treasury and the Bank of England. But, as the late Alec Cairncross reminds us, it was an important step in the development of UK monetary policy. Robert Armstrong, who subsequently became a distinguished secretary to the cabinet, was its secretary.

Connoisseurs of civil service behaviour will be amused to discover here that, in his efficient way, Armstrong drafted large sections of the final report very early in the committee's life and helpfully submitted it to them before they had discussed most of the subjects under consideration. Cairncross laconically notes: "We agreed to put this aside."

All over London, committees today are treated in a similar way by their secretariats. In that respect, little has changed in British official life.But ways of thinking about

monetary policy certainly have. In Cairncross's view, for example, "no government can surrender responsibility for the framing of monetary policy, however much ministers may devolve to the Bank of England the responsibility for putting the policy into effect".

And he notes that, in the 1960s, there were proposals for "an advisory council on credit policy, such as now exists in the form of the Monetary Policy Committee". That is not quite the way the MPC sees its current remit, and the balance of power in monetary policy has shifted decisively from the West to the East End of town in the past few years.

These attempts, made just before his death last year, to bring his reminiscences up to date are the least successful features of what is otherwise an engaging and interesting memoir. Most of the text was written "many years ago" and the earlier sections are by far the most rewarding, especially his wartime and postwar reminiscences.

Cairncross gained first-hand experience of central planning at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. And at the end of the war he was dispatched to Berlin, to take part in quadripartite talks on economic reconstruction in Germany. Given the rank of brigadier "because it was supposed that anyone not wearing a uniform would be likely to be attacked and robbed by [the Russians], he spent his time trading statistics on steel-making capacity and oil requirements. Yet while the four powers argued about how much oil and steel Germany would require in peacetime, even by the end of 1945 production was already exceeding most projections, as the Germans got back to work.

But Cairncross's life was shared by officialdom with academia. So we learn, too, of his time building the economics department at Glasgow in the 1950s, and then as master of St Peter's, Oxford.

One university which may feel less warmly about him is the University of Kent. Cairncross recalls, without apparent embarrassment, that in 1967 he was asked to go to the University of Kent as master of Keynes College: "I accepted the invitation verbally." But then, later in the year, he was asked to become master of St Peter's College, Oxford, of which he "had never previously heard". He simply let Kent know that their offer had been trumped.

Pot Hall (as she is known) was an odd college in the 1970s. The driving force behind an effort to drag it from the obscurity that had concealed it from even its own master's notice hitherto was Francis Warner, a tutor in English with a wide range of connections in the artistic world. Warner brought Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to the university, with Taylor famously playing Helen of Troy in the Oxford Playhouse. But Warner's dream was the construction of an underground theatre, beneath one of the courtyards of St Peter's College itself. He obtained a commitment for £100,000 of support from Burton, which was widely trumpeted at the time. But, somehow, no spade was ever wielded in anger in the quad, and Burton's cheque remained firmly stuck in the post.

Cairncross's own recollection of this strange affair is a little sketchy. He notes only that "when it became clear that no other fellow of the college had wished to take on the job of direction of the theatre project, and that Francis stood no chance of being entrusted with the responsibility, I decided to call the whole thing off". But the whole project, he thought, "had served a useful purpose in bringing St Peter's to public attention".

This is rather a kind interpretation of events, and the borderline between being brought "to public attention" and becoming a laughing stock is a fine one, some might think.

But one cannot leave these memoirs without a feeling of warmth towards Cairncross. As Roy Jenkins, in a brief introduction, notes, his was "a quietly remarkable life that shows that you do not have to be flamboyant to achieve great influence, and that you do not have to be malicious in order to be interesting".

Howard Davies is chairman, Financial Services Authority.

Living with the Century

Author - Alec Cairncross
ISBN - 0 9535413 0 4
Publisher - iynx, Countess of Moray's, Aberdeen, Fife KY3 OSZ
Price - £25.00
Pages - 320

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