Books: Veterans of a taxing occupation

John Biffen tests the mettle of the Treasury's men of iron through the ages; The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins Macmillan, pounds 25, 352pp
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The Independent Culture
Once again, Roy Jenkins has matched his experience as a major politician with his enviable skill as a historian. The Chancellors is an intriguing collection of pen-portraits of the Treasury politicians who have presided over fiscal policy, from Gladstone until just after the Second World War. They are a varied lot, whose character ranges from the partisanship of William Harcourt to the fanaticism of Philip Snowden.

Roy Jenkins resists the temptation to group his chancellors by ideology. The Tory Protectionists who emerged after the First World War get no collective analysis, and neither do the embryonic Keynesian economic managers who were coming into fashion after the mid-1930s. He concludes that "the attempt to draw patterns out of these disparate lives is a tenuous and even sterile exercise. It is like trying to break a cypher from an imperfect text." His book tells us about the impact of chancellors upon their political world, rather than the evolution of Treasury policy.

It is a shrewd move. This is not a slender volume, at around 500 pages, but it is an excellent bedside companion. It is impressively written, rather than an easy read. I could take no more than two Chancellors at a time.

Today's politicians may not have the stamina of their forebears, but it is also true that modern communications have rendered quite impossible the budget marathons that were once commonplace. Lloyd George, who delivered a four-and-a-half hour budget in 1909, collapsed and required a 30-minute break. It would have taken more than a spin doctor to have got him to his feet.

The chapter devoted to Philip Snowden, Labour's Iron Chancellor of the Depression era, is only a foretaste of what might be delivered in a future Jenkins biography. It would, of course, be a work in which author and subject were totally opposed. There is something acrid and compulsive about Snowden. I cannot understand why a public figure so passionately in favour of free trade and orthodox finance should have risen to such eminence in the Labour Party.

He hardly disguised his political preferences, or his contempt for Labour colleagues who did not share them. It seemed that his membership of the National Government in 1931 was a cathartic release from his Labour loyalties.

Jenkins springs many surprises. I was taken aback by his comments about "Men of Munich". I had thought that the appeasement of Germany was inglorious behaviour by Neville Chamberlain and his ministers. Yet Jenkins writes, disarmingly, that "Chamberlain's mind was naturally attuned to a strong defence policy. It was in line with his father's latter-day imperialism and with his own Midlands arms manufacturing background."

Another man of Munich, Sir John Simon, is credited with "a level of peacetime expenditure which had previously been unimaginable." Finally, Sir Kingsley Wood, a Chamberlain supporter, raised monthly production at the Air Ministry from 80 aircraft in March 1938 to 546 in April 1940. These observations do not reopen the issue of Munich, but they do tug at long-held prejudices.

Jenkins can recreate the past with such consummate skill that it is perplexing that he should be so coy about assessing recent Chancellors. The obvious absentee is Denis Healey. His career and courage are beyond question, and he is one of the few politicians whose intellect can match Jenkins's. Perhaps Healey must await another volume.

The characters here stretch from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton, as contrasting a pair as is possible. For all the differences of these 19 chancellors, however, they do have a common thread - namely, the departmental support they all received from the Treasury. Perhaps that common bond has been as politically important as their individuality. Let us hope that the links between mandarins and ministers will provide rich scope for further Jenkins scholarship.