Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gladstone's influence

On another blog I shall be reviewing Dick Leonard's interesting but not entirely adequate double biography of those two Victorian political titans, Disraeli and Gladstone, The Great Rivalry. It is generally accepted that they created modern British politics though the party Gladstone left behind lasted a considerably shorter time than did the one Disraeli left.

There is one other aspect of Gladstone's political activity that, perhaps, is not emphasised often enough and that is his long service as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is what Dick Leonard says:

There are many who consider Gladstone to be the greatest man ever to have held the premiership ...... Few, however, would challenge his pre-eminence as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the post for far longer than any of his successors, serving four times, twice in conjunction with the premiership, for a total of 12 and a half years. He effectively created the post as it exists in modern times, and none of his successors has rivalled the impact which he made.

Before his time, the Prime Minister still wielded substantial financial powers in his function as First Lord of the Treasury, and the Chancellor played only a secondary role, comparable to that of the chief Secretary to the Treasury today. Gladstone subsumed to his office all the financial powers formerly wielded by the Prime Minister and clearly established that the Chancellor should normally be seen as the second person in the government, even though the office remained - in formal terms - junior to those of the sercretaries of state.

In the words of [Roy] Jenkins, one of his most successful followers in the office, he gave his annual budgets 'such a sweep and force that their presentation became a fixture of the national life to Derby Day or the State Opening of Parliament'.
There is some incoherence in that: what exactly does he mean by describing Gladstone (and subsequently Churchill) as being the "greatest man ever to have held the premiership"? Were they the greatest Prime Ministers? In what way were they the greatest men?

Furthermore, I beg leave to disagree with the judgement that Roy Jenkins was one of the successful post-Gladstone Chancellors.

However, the main point here is what the effect of Gladstone's undoubtedly highly influential chancellorship has been and that, alas, one cannot call healthy. Budget Day has, indeed, become one of the great events in the political calendar but the most obvious result of that is the budget is not seriously discussed in any detail. Disraeli's budget of 1852 was voted out and the government fell. Can anyone seriously imagine something like that happening nowadays?

Not only is the Budget always voted through but it is always voted through as a whole - the many different sections are not separated out either for serious debating or voting purposes. Or, in other words, thanks to Mr Gladstone's activity and influence, Parliament or, to be precise, the House of Commons lost its power over the finances that the Executive needs, the very issue over which battles of various kinds were fought between the Legislative and the Executive or between Parliament and the Crown. Ironic, is it not that it should be a great leader of the Liberal Party who should be responsible for that development.

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