To hold the purse-strings, sport your top hat

The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins Macmillan pounds 25: From a `Scots cad' to the originator of the Anderson shelter, the pre-1945 Chancellors were a colourful bunch
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Margaret Thatcher thought Roy Jenkins the best Chancellor of the Exchequer since the war. That was early in her premiership. Even so, it is doubtful whether she ever revised her opinion to give Sir Geoffrey Howe top of the bill. This was the position Sir Geoffrey occupied in the book on post-1945 Chancellors by Edmund Dell, a former Labour minister, though never Chancellor himself.

I had thought Lord Jenkins's most recent work would cover the same territory. But the only overlapping Chancellor is Hugh Dalton. He stands outside Jenkins' plan: to write about Chancellors before 1945, from Lord Randolph Churchill to Sir John Anderson, a formidable but tedious public servant now remembered, if at all, from his period as Home Secretary as the originator of the Anderson air-raid shelter. Dalton is included, Jenkins explains somewhat defiantly, because he knew him and, oddly enough, had never written anything substantial about him before.

Jenkins is a skilled hand at writing lengthy biographical book reviews and then assembling them in a book. Nothing wrong with that. After all, one of the greatest works in the English language, Macaulay's Essays, is a collection of book reviews. My assumption was that Jenkins' Chancellors would be of this kind. Not so. It consists of 19 new essays. In every one I found something I did not know before, such as that Stanley Baldwin described Sir Robert Horne (with G J Goschen, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach and C T Ritchie, one of the forgotten Chancellors) as "that rare thing, a Scots cad".

Of the better known occupants of the Treasury, such as H H Asquith, he understandably writes about their period there rather than their career as a whole. Indeed, in writing anything further about Asquith, Jenkins must feel much as Tintoretto on being asked to paint yet another Last Supper. He is fair to everybody, lively about all, though he finds Reginald McKenna unsympathetic, even inexplicable, and can no more than anybody else manage to warm to Sir John Simon, who did nevertheless resign from Asquith's cabinet on an issue of principle - conscription.

If the book has a hero, it is Sir William Harcourt, who could have led a Lib-Lab party. He invented death duties; said "we are all socialists now"; and was the model for the Home Secretary in Conrad's The Secret Agent, having - as many liberals continue to have - an obsession with secret policemen and spies.

Jenkins knows as much political history as anyone: the consequences not of his education or even his background, born as he was into the Labour aristocracy of South East Wales, but rather of his war service as Bletchley Park, where he found himself with nothing much to do but with a library of solid biographies at his disposal.

Occasionally however, he is mistaken. He writes that "once war had come, Dalton was in favour of the labour Party entering the government, provided it was under almost any prime minister other than Chamberlain." This is not quite right. Dalton and Herbert Morrison both wanted Lord Halifax to succeed Chamberlain. Indeed, Dalton went so far as to say that he saw no difficulty in Halifax's peerage.

C R Atlee, the Labour leader, and Arthur Greenwood, his deputy, would have accepted either Halifax or Winston Churchill. But, with Dalton, they were not prepared to serve under Chamberlain. This was the message they delivered to Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax gathered together at No 10 on 9 May 1940. That it was Churchill rather than Halifax who succeeded Chamberlain had - contrary to Labour mythology - nothing to do with them.

The only other mistake I can detect is that Jenkins several times refers to the 1923 election which Baldwin called and lost as having occurred in the Autumn. In fact it took place on December 6, though the various complicated comings and goings preceding it had started weeks beforehand.

I enjoyed this book as much as any of Jenkins' previous productions, except his biographies of Asquith and Sir Charles Dilke. He has the gift, which cannot be taught or learnt, of imparting life to what he writes. Thus:

"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 like 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 - and the others were not serious politicians ... The somewhat waxwork quality which this formality of dress combined with a stiff and shy manner gave him suggested that if one had ordered a statesman from Harrods it would have been a copy of Austen that arrived."

But though Jenkins' fresh shoots of humour, simile and even fantasy spring from the most unpromising soil, there are still a few weeds which, given some trouble, could be pulled up and consigned to the compost heap. They include politicians who go in for networking; are recipients of high prestige or prestigious offers; suffer from insurance fund bombshells or double whammy speeches on key nights; or worst of all, lose their social-reform drive.

Still, Lord Jenkins has a good deal on his mind, what with one thing and another. His admirers must be grateful that he can find time and energy for a spot of digging in the garden of political history.