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MR. LOWE AS CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER. (1871.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 5 (Historical & Financial Essays; The English Constitution) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 5.
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MR. LOWE AS CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER.
“An oak,” said a great Irish orator,1 who did not succeed so well as he expected in England, “an oak should not be transplanted at fifty.” And we believe that to be the reason why Mr. Lowe—though in many respects he has shown great ability as Finance Minister—upon the whole has not, as yet, succeeded better than many much stupider men, nor as well as his genius deserved. Mr. Lowe, before he began his finance studies, had already “invested” so much mind that most men would have had no more left. His career at Oxford was unusually long; he was not a mere student who took high honours. After that he stayed several years as a working tutor, and has described to a Royal Commission how steadily he worked for ten hours a day as a “coach,” and how little in consequence he accepts the “romance” of tuition. And the inevitable result has been that Mr. Lowe has become a scholar, not only as young students become such, but as men of maturer years, who mean to earn money by it, become scholars. A certain part of the substance of his mind is embarked in that pursuit, and cannot now be transferred to any other. After leaving Oxford, Mr. Lowe made himself not only an excellent English lawyer, but an admirable general jurist. He is acquainted not only with the technicalities of English law, but with the structure of other systems of law, and with the principles of scientific jurisprudence. He has studied what Bentham said law “ought” to be, and what Austin said law “must” be. And this too is a very exhausting study, requiring, if the knowledge is really to be acquired as Mr. Lowe has acquired it, and retained as he retains it, a great “capital” of mind. No one can wonder that when, on the verge of threescore, he was suddenly made Finance Minister, he should not possess or display so much free and applicable mind as some younger men. Great mind he must always display. But he had not displayed proportionate mind—proportioned, we mean, to the immense abilities which every one knows he has. After all, there is only room in even the largest head for a certain number of thoughts, and Mr. Lowe had crowded his, long before he had tried finance, with many dissimilar and occupying ideas.
It is true that under our Parliamentary system, ministers of as mature an age as Mr. Lowe are not unfrequently transferred from post to post, and are placed in charge of offices with whose subjects they have no knowledge. No one supposes that Mr. Cardwell knew much of military business before he was made Secretary for War; and yet unquestionably he has pulled the Army Regulation Bill better through Parliament than the planners who contrived it, or the soldiers who will act on it. But these transferable statesmen commonly belong to a different class from Mr. Lowe. Like Mr. Cardwell, they are trained Parliamentary advocates. They have learned to know the House of Commons, and the way of putting an argument so as to suit the House of Commons, as a long-practised advocate knows the sort of arguments which suit a jury, and the most telling way in which to state them to a jury. Sir Robert Peel was once said to know how to “dress up a case for Parliament” better than any one else. And in this art these are two secrets of which Mr. Cardwell is an eminent master. The first is always to content yourself with the minimum of general maxims which will suit your purpose and prove what you want. By so doing, you offend as few people as possible, you startle as few people as possible, and you expose yourself to as few retorts as possible. And the second secret is to make the whole discussion very uninteresting—to leave an impression that the subject is very dry, that it is very difficult, that the department has attended to the dreary detail of it, and that on the whole it is safer to leave it to the department, and a dangerous responsibility to interfere with the department. The faculty of disheartening adversaries by diffusing on occasion an oppressive atmosphere of business-like dulness is invaluable to a Parliamentary statesman.
But these arts Mr. Lowe does not possess. He cannot help being brilliant. The quality of his mind is to put everything in the most lively, most exciting, and most startling form. He cannot talk that monotonous humdrum which men scarcely listen to, which lulls them to sleep, but which seems to them the “sort of thing you would expect,” which they suppose is “all right”. And Mr. Lowe’s mode of using general principles not only is not that which a Parliamentary tactician would recommend, but is the very reverse of what he would advise. Mr. Lowe always ascends to the widest generalities; the axiomata media, as logicians have called them—the middle principles, in which most minds feel most reality and on which they find it most easy to rest—have no charms for him. He likes to go back to the bone, to the abstract, to the attenuated, and if he left these remote principles in their remote unintelligibility, he would not suffer so much. But he makes the dry bones live. He wraps them in illustrations which Macaulay might envy. And he is all the more effective, because he uses our vernacular tongue. The phrases that “the money market must take care of itself,” and that “it was not the business of the Treasury to cocker up the Bank of England,” will long be remembered, and will longer impair his influence with grave, quiet, and influential persons. Mr. Lowe startles those who do not like to be startled, and does not compose those who wish to be composed—those who need a little commonplace to assure them that they are acting on safe principles—that they are not, according to the saying, “lighting the streets with fireworks”.
These defects would be felt in any new office; but besides these, Mr. Lowe has one—a physical one—to which he has often himself alluded, and which hampers him beyond expression. In our younger days he would have been cited in books of “entertaining knowledge” as a conspicuous instance of the “pursuit of knowledge under difficulties”. Being almost unable to read books with his own eyes, he knows more about books than almost any one who has eyes. A wonderful memory, and an intense wish to know the truth, have filled his head with knowledge; but though great powers may compensate for inherent defects, none, not even the greatest, can annihilate those defects. They are ineradicable, and the consequences of them will come back again to lessen every victory, and to enhance every disaster. It is so with Mr. Lowe in this case. A man who cannot easily read figures for himself, who cannot manipulate them for himself, who cannot throw them into various shapes, as it were, on trial for himself, cannot be a great financier. Our greatest financiers, Pitt, Peel, and Gladstone, have all of them been men who did not take their figures from others, but who spent a great—almost an excessive—labour on the minutiæ of them for themselves. It is from no lack of labour, and no lack of mind, that Mr. Lowe does not do this. By physical constitution he is incapable of it.
Something of this is at the bottom of Mr. Lowe’s occasionally defective dealing with small financial forms, which was the only point that Mr. Disraeli made against him in criticising his Budget. It is hardly possible that a man with such immense disadvantages for business can have his tackle quite as ready and quite as perfect as those who are more fortunate. And Mr. Disraeli is scarcely the man who ought to have made the taunt. No one regards these legal forms with more sublime indifference than he does when it suits his object. “Gentlemen of the long robe,” he used to say when in office, “will attend to these details”; and he would have deemed it absurd that a minister, charged with the fate of Cabinets and the policy of measures, should even consider them. And perhaps he was right; perhaps it would have been absurd. But what is unnecessary for one minister cannot be incumbent on another similar minister. It was not for Mr. Disraeli, who has scarcely seemed to be able to see details and technicalities (so exclusively did he look on them from the most elevated heights of policy), to reproach Mr. Lowe with a few trivial, innocuous, and excusable deficiencies in them.
The result of all this is very plain. It is that Mr. Lowe is under peculiar difficulties in finance—that it is not a region in which his great powers can ever show to the best advantage—that, on the contrary, it is a region in which they will frequently be seen to the greatest disadvantage. But there is a profound truth in the saying that “men of pre-eminent ability are always safe”; not of course that so wide a phrase is to be taken exactly to the letter, but that there is a “reserve fund” in the highest ability which will enable it to pull through scrapes, to remedy errors, to surmount disasters, which would ruin and bury common men. Mr. Lowe will certainly not have an unchequered reign at the Exchequer; but he may reign long, he may do much good, and notwithstanding many failures and defects, may leave the special stamp and impress of his mind on many great Budgets and important measures.
[1 ] Henry Grattan.