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Wykehamist Chancellors and misery distributors
Of all the Prime Minister’s broken promises, a candidate for least surprising must be virtually the first, made and broken almost exactly a year ago: to appoint a Cabinet “that truly reflects modern Britain”.
According to The Sutton Trust, the social mobility charity, 64% of Cabinet-attending ministers in the first Johnson Cabinet received a private/independent school education and 65% of the current one. While way down on the 91% in Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 Cabinet, and closely matching the current England cricket team’s top batting order, it is hardly a “true reflection” of the just seven per cent of the general population.
Ancient news, though, and I raise it only because one of the 17 is Rishi Sunak, current Cabinet star and no less than the sixth Chancellor of the Exchequer educated at Winchester School (annual fees: £41,700+, if you were wondering). Adrift – on both measures – of Eton, which has also provided over a third of our Prime Ministers, but not bad going.
And mildly interesting, but much less so, I felt, than that, of the five pre-Sunak Wykehamist Chancellors – after the school’s 14th Century founder and Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham – more were Labour than Conservative, technically anyway. I’ll name-check them in more or less reverse chronological order.
Sunak’s immediate Wykehamist predecessor was Lord (then Sir Geoffrey) Howe –Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving, and possibly longest-suffering, Cabinet minister, who presented her Government’s first five Budgets. Of which easily most dramatic was the March 1981 ‘Austerity Budget’, which seriously challenged George Bernard Shaw’s famous assertion that, if all economists were laid end to end, they would still not reach a conclusion.
The Government’s monetarist policy involved further deflating an economy already in severe recession – raising effectively personal taxation and actually excise duties on petrol, alcohol and tobacco – with a severity that upset even its own MPs, with several walking out of the Commons during the actual speech and one going to the lengths of joining the newly founded Social Democratic Party.
Outraged, though not actually prostrated, some 364 academic economists did manage to reach an agreed conclusion and wrote a letter to the Times disagreeing profoundly. Howe’s policy had “no basis in economic theory” and would “deepen the depression and erode the industrial base of our economy”.
They then squabbled about it for years – while unemployment rose to a 50-year high, the country’s industrial base did collapse, but eventually that recession did end, though at economic and social costs we are arguably still paying.
Before Howe in the Wykehamist list were Labour’s pair: chronologically Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell. Sir Stifford Crapps, as the BBC once introduced him (Beware, Sishi Runak!), had a remarkable career: son of a Conservative MP, a rich barrister, expelled by Labour as a Communist sympathiser, wartime Ambassador to the USSR, then re-joined Labour and the post-war Attlee Government as President of the Board of Trade.
Succeeded there in 1947 by a young Harold Wilson, Cripps had the relatively good fortune of becoming Chancellor just as, thanks largely to US grants and loans, the war-crippled economy was very gradually improving.
Instinctively and religiously austere himself, Cripps retained an extensive rationing system and raised taxes. But this enabled him also to prioritise education and social services spending, oversee the development of the national insurance system and NHS, and restore the housebuilding programme.
His place in history was ensured, as perhaps the principal political architect of the 1950s’ growing economic affluence. Sadly, he saw none of it, dying of cancer in 1952.
Cripps’ successor as Chancellor for the final year of the 1945-51 Labour Government was Hugh Gaitskell, eventually his party’s next Leader and – description, not conjecture – in some ways Sunak’s most comparable predecessor. Gaitskell, at 44, was the slightly older, but both were unusually young for their first full Cabinet appointment to be to this most senior of posts.
Sunak’s sequence of full and quasi-Budgets is obviously unique, but Gaitskell’s single April 1951 Budget presented the particular problem for a Labour Chancellor of somehow increasing arms expenditure, including on nuclear weapons, following the ending of the US Marshall Aid programme.
Gaitskell’s provocative solution was to introduce prescription charges for NHS-supplied glasses and dentures, prompting senior ministerial resignations, including party leadership rival, Aneurin Bevan, and Harold Wilson.
Fourth in this reverse list of Sunak’s Wykehamist predecessors is Robert Lowe (1868-73). His incumbency in the post was actually the longest of the five, and he produced one of the better job descriptions: “more or less a taxing machine – entrusted with a certain amount of misery which it is his duty to distribute as fairly as he can”. But for contrasting reasons his financial record is not what he is chiefly remembered for.
The positive reason is that a decade earlier, as Vice President of the Board of Trade, he had overseen the passage of the historic 1856 Joint Stock Companies Act, the first nationwide codification of company law in the world, thereby earning himself the lasting sobriquet of “father of modern company law”.
Less positive was that the Prime Minister who appointed him was one William Gladstone, who had held the office himself for ten of the preceding 16 years, and indeed would take it on again in 1873, combining it with the Premiership, when he deemed Lowe “wretchedly deficient” in controlling public spending to the extent he judged was required.
Which leaves the ‘not technically’ Conservative Chancellor referenced near the beginning: Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth - perhaps best known today as the Home Secretary (Lord Sidmouth) whose crackdown on radical politics and suspension of Habeas corpus led directly to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, and who was played in the Mike Leigh film by Welsh actor, Karl Johnson.
Addington/Sidmouth’s career exemplifies just how different an era of parliamentary politics this was. Elected in 1784, his first post of note, within just five years, was as Speaker of the House, in the days long before the role became supposedly apolitical.
In 1801, when King George III and PM William Pitt the Younger fell out over Catholic Emancipation, Addington with some reluctance took over from Pitt as both PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer. After three years of proving more successful at improving the efficiency of the then new Income Tax than fighting Napoleon, he was succeeded in both roles by Pitt – the point here, though, being that, with the Conservative Party uninvented for another 30 years, both were technically Tories … and Rishi Sunak only our second Conservative Wykehamist Chancellor.
Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.