September 20, 2011

Gladstone's books

When did you last buy a book? How often do you buy books? How often do you go to libraries- I spent the weekend in the British library thumbing through newly published works about the seventeenth century- when did you last go? How often do you read a book- on the train to work, at dinner, in a captured moment in a lift, for work? I'm not turning into Italo Calvino here but if any of the answers to those questions are yes or I frequently read or buy books, then you fall into a category that Gladstone defines in his essay on books. The nineteenth century statesman stated in an essay that 'I shall assume that the book buyer is a book lover, that his love is a tenacious not a transitory love and that for him the question is how to keep his books'. Gladstone's essay is about how to build a library- what sort of room should it be, how should the shelves be positioned. Its not a thought we all have all the time- but as someone who loves books it might be one you have had. I've definitely wondered about it- all my life- the dream library has filled my imagination. It would be cosy, have plenty of alcoves and niches, an endless supply of tea which would never spill and include plenty of writing materials and be indexed (by magic).

What's interesting about Gladstone's essay isn't his invocation of an ideal library. He talks of a library of 10,000 volumes sorted under the major headings- philosophy, history et al. That might be possible at Hawarden but in crowded central London, Manhatten or Moscow its probably out of the ken of most ordinary mortals. No its not the explicit subject that I loved about Gladstone's essay: its the fact that he loved books and what he writes about he writes with a sense of why he loves books. Firstly take this passage,


books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of comunion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man. They are in a certain sense at enmity with the world. Their work is, at least, in the two higher components of our threefold life. In a room well equipped with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary. Second to none as friends to the individual, they are first and formost among the compages, the bonds and rivets of the race onward form that time when they were first written on the tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, the rocks of Asia Minor and the monuments of Egypt, down to the diamond editions of Mr Pickering and Mr Froude.
There is a lot of hyperbole in this first passage. I'll quite freely admit I have felt alone in a room filled with books. I'll also quite freely admit that there are times when I'd prefer they offered some consolation bar a wall of letters. But in the moments when I truly love books, I think Gladstone is right. My fairly squat Everyman edition of Gibbon for example carries with it real affection. It is the writers of the books, the spirits which live in the pages which I care about and am linked to as I read.

Gladstone gets to this when he talks about the differing characters of books. Some he says can never be stored in the back of a shelf (Gibbon for example) but as he comments 'neither all men nor all books are equally sociable. For my part I find but little sociability in a huge wall of Hansards or (though a great improvement) in the Gentleman's magazine, in the Annual Registers, in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Review or in the vast range of volumes which present pamphlets innumerable'. The point he is making is that we relate to books in different ways- the sign of a true lover of books in a way is the sense that she relates to the books she owns and she reads in a different way. So Hansards or old copies of the Gentleman's Magazine (a serious journal) deserve different treatment from old friends like Austen and Bronte- one is written for ephemera, the other for eternity. You don't have to agree with Gladstone about his library or even be able to maintain it to understand that central point. And ultimately having understood that, it really doesn't matter how or what you read- just that you feel what Gladstone self evidently felt. That the printed page is a door from your mind into other minds, from your world into other worlds.

September 18, 2011

Fiscal Constitutions and the Coming of Dark Times

Ira Katnelson's formidable book "Desolation and Enlightenment" studies the reaction to the second world war. Katznelson is interested in those thinkers who responded to the destruction wreaked by Europe's thirty years war and genocide, not by abandoning the enlightenment and its analysis of society (as did say Leo Strauss) but by seeking to buttress it and reconstruct it. Katznelson identifies in particular one diagnosis of the mid century crisis: he argues that Karl Polanyi in particular identified the institutional framework of 19th century liberalism as one of the safeguards for that period against crisis. When that institutional structure collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s, fascist and communist competitors rose to challenge not merely the structures of liberalism, but also its very essence- the idea of personal freedom. This aside in Katznelson's book prompts a reflection- what were those institutions of freedom in the 19th Century which supported and sustained liberal democracy. In this post I want to reflect on one such institution- the fiscal constitution drafted by the Earl of Liverpool (PM 1812-27), Sir Robert Peel (PM 1841-6) and William Gladstone (PM 1868, 1868-74, 1880-86, 1892-4).

At the end of the Napoloeonic war, the UK's public sector debt was over 250% of GDP, the UK's politicians were accused of massive corruption and the UK itself ceased in 1828 to be a confessional state. These three massive factors drove the creation of this fiscal constitution. The fiscal constitution depended on three innovations: the creation of the consolidated fund, the creation of the virement system and the introduction of annual expenditure targets. The creation of a central fund into which all revenues were paid and from which all expenditure came, took power from the Departments to the Treasury. This meant as well that Parliament had a simple view of what the government was spending and what it was not. Virement meant that Departments were voted money from that central fund to specific heads of expenditure- its still true within the UK that Departments have to stay within their allocated levels for each budget they are voted and have to apply to Treasury to vire money from one head to another. Lastly the idea that expenditure was always annual meant that a surplus could not be reallocated for a politician's pet project: instead a surplus went straight to the sinking fund. These three rules meant that the Treasury was in full control of public expenditure and through them so was Parliament. They created an environment in which debt was cut from 250% of GDP to 25% by the end of the century. They fortified a Gladstonian sense of how politicians should behave.

Polanyi said that institutions and institutional behaviours protected liberalism (at least that's what Katznelson argues he said). The institutions described here survived the nineteenth century. Daunton suggests that they assisted in the development of the welfare state- noone in British politics in the 1910s or 1940s criticised the expansion of government because it would create jobs for MPs and not go towards the purposes that it was voted. The Gladstonian system worked. More importantly towards Polanyi's point: it also worked in that British politicians were able to pay for both the First and Second World War. The Gladstonian financial state financed the wars which assisted in the protection of liberalism: in that sense they support an argument which says that the institutions created by the nineteenth century and their survivial were key to the survival of that characteristic ideology of the nineteenth century- liberalism.