Dark Days at the DEA

I must start by declaring an interest. Samuel Brittan joined the editorial staff of the Financial Times in 1955, straight after taking a brilliant first in economics at Cambridge. I joined it the following year, 1956, after doing National Service with the Royal Navy. (I had previously read PPE at Oxford, where my special subject was not economics but philosophy.) We became friends then, and have remained so, well over half a century later.

Samuel was to become the leading, and arguably most influential, economic journalist of his generation, almost all the time with the Financial Times. This was a more important role than might otherwise have been the case, since academic economics (particularly in the UK) has gradually morphed into a dismal branch of applied mathematics, of little if any relevance to the real world and to the difficult economic decisions that have to be taken.

That is not to say that it has had no influence on events. Hired academic economists and their mathematical models undoubtedly played a part in persuading bankers that the inordinate risks they were taking during the years leading up to the 2008 banking meltdown were perfectly manageable and quantifiable, so they clearly made a contribution to the mess we are all now in.  But, that aside, it has increasingly been serious economic journalists, of whom Samuel Brittan is the doyen, who have significantly shaped the economic debate.

I, for my part, after a few years as an economic journalist, and a few more as Editor of the Spectator, left the critics’ bench and got out on the field to play. But there was a brief period, while I was still a journalist, when it was Samuel who decided to don his playing shorts — if a Whitehall existence can be so described. This book is his diary of those 15 months, from the beginning of November 1964, when, following the victory of Labour led by Harold Wilson in the general election of the previous month (after 13 years of Conservative rule), he joined the newly created Department of Economic Affairs as a temporary civil servant (to be precise, as Assistant to the Chief Information Officer), until the end of January 1966 when he left it.

At a little over 200 pages, the book is admirably brief — and indeed the diaries themselves make up less than half of it. The remainder is a very full commentary by the editor, Roger Middleton, plus copious notes and other paraphernalia and marginalia. Professor Middleton is to be commended for the diligence with which he has edited the book — not least the work of deciphering Samuel’s typing, which has to be seen to be believed, not to mention his manuscript annotations, which even I, after all these years, frequently find impossible. But the reader can safely skip Middleton’s commentary itself. This is not principally because of the questionable economic opinions the editor ventures from time to time, but rather because of his delusion that, during its short life (it was to disappear, unlamented and without trace, in 1969, having been greatly diminished within months of Brittan’s departure in 1966) the Department of Economic Affairs was an important experiment, and even perhaps of some merit.  

This was a delusion not shared by Brittan himself, nor indeed by many within the DEA. Ostensibly, its purpose was to improve Britain’s economic performance (which badly needed improving) by releasing the real economy from a Treasury allegedly obsessed with the constraints of money and finance. So money and finance would be left with the Treasury, while the real economy was to be under the care of the DEA, whose most important contribution was to be the creation and publication of a five-year National Plan (the capital letters were de rigueur), positing overall economic growth of 3.8 per cent a year and showing how this would affect every part of the economy, down to the projected output of socks and stockings five years hence.

It was, in short, simply a joke — and a bad joke at that. The projections were meaningless and the separation of economics from finance wholly mistaken. But its creation was, inevitably, a challenge to the authority of the Treasury, which that great department of state was determined to see off, and duly did so.

Harold Wilson had of course a political, as well as an economic, motive in creating the DEA — or, rather, two political motives. Being himself conspicuously untrustworthy, he never trusted anyone else. In particular, he didn’t trust the Treasury. So the prospect of splitting it in two so that he could divide and rule was attractive. Even more compelling was the need to find a suitably grandiloquent role for his erstwhile rival, George Brown, without giving him any of the major offices of state. First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Economic Affairs seemed to fit the bill.

When the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, had died suddenly and prematurely in 1963, the succession was seen as a choice between George Brown, whose support was largely on the right of the party, and Harold Wilson, whose support was largely on the left. When I asked Tony Crosland, the shadow Cabinet’s leading intellectual, why he himself was backing Jim Callaghan, who (at that time) didn’t stand a chance, he told me that otherwise the party would have to choose between a drunk and a shit. In the event he told me that not a single member of the shadow Cabinet had voted for Wilson. So, initially, Wilson had to be careful to find a good home for Brown, and the DEA was it. By the time the department had been thoroughly neutered in 1966, and George Brown had been moved to be Foreign Secretary, Brown’s notorious lack of sobriety (he was customarily described as being “tired and emotional”) ensured that he was no longer a serious  rival.

Samuel’s diary of life in the DEA in those days is, as one would expect, both perceptive and well-written. It is also suitably irreverent. However, it belongs not just to a completely different era which has no lessons for us today, but it was also a time of such unrelieved national disaster that it puts even the troubles of today — which, being global, are both more serious but less sapping of national self-respect — in the shade. Its principal value is as a record of a formative period in the life of one of our greatest economic journalists, many of whose books are of enduring value.

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