Reproaches from the Past

Peter Clarke

  • The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown by William Keegan
    Wiley, 356 pp, £18.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 470 84697 6

It’s an odd job with an odd title. When the G7 meet there is only one chancellor of the exchequer in the room – other countries make do somehow with a finance minister or a secretary of the treasury – so a nod towards history is plainly needed by way of explanation. It seems that the present definition of the office was established through a process long characterised by ambiguity as well as ambition, with a premium on stealth as well as wealth.

When Nigel, nephew of Roger, bishop of Salisbury, took on the job in 1126 (or thereabouts) he was simply called ‘the treasurer’. He resigned when made bishop of Ely in 1133 – not the sort of career progression to be expected these days. But the bishop of Salisbury, versatile in his nepotism, happily had another nephew, Adelelm. Well-connected but over-promoted, Adelelm was in office if not in power for three years before being dismissed (which is pretty much Norman Lamont’s career in a nutshell). Later in the century, Richard FitzNeal, first as dean of Lincoln and latterly as bishop of London, continued in his day job in the church while moonlighting as treasurer ” for an apparently unbroken forty years. It’s as though Jim Callaghan were now preparing to leave 11 Downing Street after serving continuously since his appointment in 1964, while doubling up all the while as general secretary of the TUC. At any rate, it shows that there was already a mindset that deplored ‘short-termism’ at the 12th-century exchequer.

Next, after four centuries of inflation – job-title inflation anyway – we find the post of treasurer ennobled as lord treasurer or puffed up as far as lord high treasurer. In the 17th century, the office was put into commission, first in an ad hoc way and then permanently. Thus heroic social-climbing was succeeded by backstairs bureaucratisation, and a charismatic man of power replaced by a committee of bean-counters. Admittedly, it was quite a classy committee, chaired by a commissioner now known as the first lord of the treasury.

It was this title that made a gradual migration, by the time of Walpole, to its modern meaning as synonymous with first or ‘prime’ minister. But what about the exchequer meanwhile? There had, since 1558, been a continuous line of chancellors of the exchequer, some of them doing nothing in particular and doing it very well, but by the 18th century they were emerging as, in effect, finance ministers. This development was signalled by the fact that, if the first lord of the treasury was in the House of Commons, he held both posts. True, if he was in the Lords, he had to find someone else to serve as chancellor in the Commons; but Walpole, Pelham and Pitt the Younger – whom we think of as prime ministers – between them served simultaneously as chancellor for more than half the century. Only after the death of Canning in 1827 were the two posts to become clearly separated (and, even so, Gladstone later filled both for a time). In the 18th century, then, given that the prime minister was usually in the Commons, they had a robust answer to the personal and institutional rivalry besetting many subsequent cabinets. There was no problem if the chancellor nourished a not ignoble ambition to serve as prime minister himself – because he was prime minister already.

The literature on these matters has a distinctive flavour. The origins of the exchequer is one of those ripe topics on which generations of medieval historians, as famous in their day as J.H. Round, R.L. Poole and T.F. Tout, lavished their scholarship. They were able to build on such earlier works as Madox’s History of the Exchequer (1712), which, the standard authorities assure us, ‘still retains its value’, just as it earlier helped inspire Palgrave’s three volumes, The Antient Kalendars and Inventories of the Treasury of His Majesty’s Exchequer (1836), not forgetting Hall’s Antiquities and Curiosities of the Exchequer (1891). Standing in such a tradition, the title chosen by William Keegan, The Prudence of Mr Gordon Brown, is entitled to its whimsical flourish, and he duly begins with a monitory epigraph from Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: ‘The Present does well to profit from the Past, lest Future conduct go astray.’ A respected financial journalist with excellent contacts, Keegan not only does a professional job in surveying Brown’s chancellorship, he gives us a witty and humane analysis which untangles many knots. Round, Poole and Tout have found a more accessible but not less perceptive successor.

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