Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Chancellors

Edmund Dell, The Chancellors (HarperCollins, 1996)
Roy Jenkins, The Chancellors (Macmillan, 1998)

On the used book shelves in the back of Heffers, in Cambridge, last November I found two books with the same title on, essentially, the same topic, by authors with similar qualifications, but which were otherwise entirely different. I've been slowly reading through both.

Each is a history of the Chancellors of the Exchequer for a specified chunk of modern British history, covering all of them, the famous and the obscure, even the one who died only a month after taking office. Both authors were themselves economics ministers in the 1960s and 70s Labour governments, and both are lucid, entertaining writers. But that about covers the similarities.

Jenkins, who was Chancellor himself in 1967-70, covers 1885-1947, including such figures as Lloyd George, the Churchills (father and son), and the Chamberlain brothers. A couple Chancellors near the end of his period Jenkins knew personally, and he doesn't shy away from turning the book into personal recollections. Dell's period is 1945-1990, and he thus includes Jenkins among his mostly less-renowned subjects. Dell served in government with, and occasionally under, three of his Chancellors, but he erases himself from his impersonal narrative as much as possible.

The two-year overlap covers the term of Hugh Dalton, and his differing treatment in the two illustrates their dissimilarity. Jenkins includes Dalton, rather than ceasing at the obvious stopping point of 1945, in part because he views Dalton as primarily a pre-1945 politician. Which makes the point that, saving three cases where Jenkins has written full biographies elsewhere, he's interested in the man's whole career, not just his Chancellorship.

Jenkins does no original research, but draws mostly on biographies and secondary sources - extraordinarily skilfully in the case of a couple minor figures about whom little has been written. What he contributes is mostly his judgment as a biographer and an experienced politician on how these other politicians managed their careers. Perhaps his most penetrating view is of Austen Chamberlain, Neville's elder, and once far more prominent, half-brother. Of his personal style, Jenkins writes
Austen Chamberlain, who as a young man faithfully copied the eyeglass, the orchid buttonhole, the wing collar, the stiff cuffs, the frock coat and even the hair parting of his father, then felt that he had to stick to it, and became like a beached whale of Edwardian formality in the 1920s and 1930s. He was one of the last three or four members habitually to sit in the House of Commons with his top hat on his head ... Typically also he assuaged any forbidding barrier ... by always raising this silken anachronism in acknowledgment of any reference to himself, friendly or hostile, in the speeches of others.
I just have to say - beached whale of Edwardian formality ... silken anachronism - that biographical stilettos don't come any sharper than this. There's also a personal anecdote about Dalton that's pricelessly funny and worth the cost of the book.

It's actually a good thing that Jenkins is interested in the whole of his subject's careers, because the sections on the actual Chancellorships are the least interesting part of the book. They consist mostly of what Jenkins calls "turning over the leaves of dead Budgets," recounting the annual juggling of various tax rates with the goal of producing a desired level of government income. In his account, there wasn't much more to being Chancellor, at least in those days, than that. Despite his catty remarks and funny anecdotes, he's sympathetic to his subjects, even the politically disastrous and personally appalling Philip Snowden. Dalton's woes as Chancellor, which led to his humiliating resignation, are brushed aside in favor of a warm-hearted view of a loud and boisterous man.

Dell, by contrast, excoriates Dalton for general mismanagement of the economy. He has little to say about the Chancellors outside their period in office, and no interest in personality apart from how it affected their decisions in office (which he says it did a lot). This is an analytical history of the Chancellorship, not biographies of the individual Chancellors. It quickly becomes clear that Dell is going to be excoriating on all the Chancellors. General management of the economy, which Jenkins says was pretty much ignored by Chancellors in his period, is in Dell's view of his own period a series of one crashing mismanagement after another, with Chancellors either economically illiterate or still making unwise decisions if they're not. Either the Chancellors don't take the right advice, or the Treasury officials fail to give it.

Concentrating on the large view does keep Dell from getting tedious: he's amazingly lucid on some highly technical topics, and even occasionally funny. And considering the state of the British economy over the years, one cannot say that Dell is likely to be wrong in most of his criticisms. Yet the endless critique began to make me feel uneasy. Of Jenkins' turn in office, Dell says he was actually one of the better Chancellors of the period, but criticizes Jenkins for not being better still, on the grounds of the "arrogant assumption of superiority in economic debates" he had always previously shown. In other words, Jenkins was better as a sideline critic than he proved in office. It doesn't seem to occur to Dell that his own assumption of smug superiority of judgment over 17 successive holders of a job he never had to do himself is as arrogant as anything he attributes to Jenkins.

I knew there was something wrong with Dell when I read his summations of two successive 1950s Tory Chancellors. He criticizes R.A. Butler for being indecisive, and writes of Butler's colleagues rejecting him for the Prime Ministership, "It was an unkind, but probably an accurate, judgement." But then, of the more decisive but more wrong Harold Macmillan, who became PM instead, Dell writes, "It was a poor choice for the Conservative Party, but, more importantly, for the country." I think Dell means the choice between the two, rather than the choice of Macmillan over Butler, but still, it gives the impression that Dell thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence no matter which side you're on.

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