Roll Call

Michael Stewart

  • Crowded Hours by Eric Roll
    Faber, 254 pp, £15.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 571 13497 1

Lord Roll is a very distinguished man, who has levitated over a period of 70 years or so from a small village in an obscure corner of Central Europe to the topmost rank of the British Establishment. He has had three separate careers. First he was an academic, writing among other things A History of Economic Thought, a valuable introduction to the subject still in print almost 50 years after its first publication. Then he was a civil servant, deeply involved at one point in the abortive 1961-63 negotiations on British entry into the EEC, and later Permanent Secretary of the 1964-70 Labour Government’s Department of Economic Affairs. Finally he became a power in the City, as Chairman of Warburg’s, Director of the Bank of England, Times Newspapers, and so on and so forth.

Lord Roll’s life – he leaves us in no doubt – has been interesting, influential and satisfying. The take-off from a relatively humble academic existence was, he acknowledges, largely a matter of luck. Early in the war, the British government realised that the key to the country’s survival would be its ability to secure supplies of food and raw materials, for much of which it would not be able to pay. The answer could only lie in assistance from the United States. Roll was one of a number of British economists who happened to be in the US at the time, and who were summoned to the British Embassy in Washington to lend support to the endeavour. Roll started off as a member of the British Food Mission, and never looked back: the inexorable progress to top jobs in Whitehall and the City had begun.

An important element in Roll’s career was obviously great ability: nobody scales successive pinnacles so sure-footedly without it. But there were other ingredients as well. He was clearly exceedingly industrious – his hours were crowded indeed. He tells us, for example, how he produced A History of Economic Thought. He sat writing at one end of the garden of a cottage near Cambridge while Jacob Bronowski sat writing at the other: ‘In this way I finished the first draft in six weeks and it was not much altered afterwards.’ Six weeks? The book is more than 500 pages long. No wonder successive governments found his powers of application so valuable. But in addition to this, he always fitted in – the roundest of pegs in a series of round holes. Wherever he was, he always managed to make himself useful and agreeable to those set in authority over him.

There are some good anecdotes in the book, of which perhaps the best relates to Ernie Bevin’s working-class way with aspirates. We must set up an ad hoc committee, said Bevin at some international meeting, and the delegate from an important fish-producing country insisted that he himself must obviously be a member of any such committee. And – as befits a man who has been at the centre of great events in stirring times – Lord Roll pauses occasionally in his basically chronological narrative to offer us some reflections. He does not believe, for example, that de Gaulle’s January 1963 veto of Britain’s application to join the EEC was inevitable from the start, though his reasons for holding this view are not entirely clear, and indeed the view itself is hedged with qualification. Later on, basing himself in part on the experience of the so-called ‘creative tension’ between the Treasury and the Department of Economic Affairs, he discusses various proposals for improving the machinery of government. And from time to time he presents us with some balanced and judicious opinions about such matters as incomes policies and the difficulty of managing a very open economy. There is little in most of this to quarrel with. He is experienced, he is well-informed, he is wise.

It is, however, reassuring to lesser mortals to observe that even such a great man as Lord Roll does not entirely lack an Achilles heel. Could there be a touch of vanity in his makeup? The photographs chosen to illustrate the book, for example, are instructive. In one of them, Roll is putting David Rockefeller at his ease. In another, he is giving a hearty pep-talk to a sheepish-looking Edward Heath (on his other side Lord Carrington has closed his eyes and appears to be gritting his teeth). In yet another, he is administering a severe ticking-off to an apprehensive Robert Macnamara. And on page 113 of the book there is a paragraph that – rather in the manner of a single human cell, which contains all the genetic information required to construct a complete picture of its owner – tells us a great deal about the subject. The paragraph runs as follows:

I must repeat that personal relations between Bob [Sir Pierson] Dixon and me could not have been better. Often when he came to Brussels we used to dine quietly (and modestly!) together, and during the tedium of some of the negotiating meetings we amused ourselves by passing notes to each other. One such is mentioned in Piers Dixon’s biography of his father. I remember another occasion when we had been speculating whether ‘Europe’ would ever really be born, and had then witnessed a deplorable exhibition by the Six of a complete absence of the Community spirit. He was greatly pleased with my note quoting Virgil’s Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.

One thing the paragraph tells us is that Roll was on intimate terms with Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Paris. This is just one illustration of the fact that he was on intimate terms with nearly everybody who was anybody. The index of the book consists of little but a list of names. With a few signal exceptions – such as Siegmund Warburg – nothing of much interest is said about any of these people: they are referred to – from presidents and prime ministers downwards – because they are representatives of the Great and the Good whom Lord Roll knows or knew. Much else about the book is encapsulated in the paragraph, too, such as the liberal use of exclamation-marks, and the fact that Lord Roll never pats himself on the back, but always gets someone else to do it for him (‘he was greatly pleased with my note’).

Finally, there is the troubling matter of quoting a line from Virgil but offering no translation of it. Either Lord Roll is surprisingly ill-informed about the extent of the population’s knowledge of Latin these days, or he is just showing off. (On the other hand the aptness of the quotation to the problem of creating a European Community cannot be denied if it means – as a little help from Lewis and Short’s Latin Dictionary suggests that it does – What a frightfully laborious business it was, constructing the Roman nation.)

Lord Roll’s memoirs are cool and bland, full of balanced judgments and informed good sense. There is hardly a harsh word about anyone – not even George Brown, who sometimes committed the ultimate sin (though Roll does not mention this) of bawling him out in front of his juniors. What the book lacks is a bit of seasoning, a sense of blood on the floor. One misses the rumbustious ebullience, the fire in the belly, even the occasional passionate malevolence, of other multi-talented imports from Central Europe who made their way up to the House of Lords. But Lord Roll is the archetypical high-flying recruit to the Establishment. Such vulgarity is not for him.