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Chapter VIII.: THE GOVERNMENT OF THE BANK OF ENGLAND. - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 6 (Lombard Street, Essays on Guizot & Cairnes, The Depreciation of Silver) 
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. 6.
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THE GOVERNMENT OF THE BANK OF ENGLAND.
The Bank of England is governed by a board of directors, a Governor, and a Deputy-Governor; and the mode in which these are chosen, and the time for which they hold office, affect the whole of its business. The board of directors is in fact self-electing. In theory a certain portion go out annually, remain out for a year, and are subject to re-election by the proprietors. But in fact they are nearly always, and always if the other directors wish it, re-elected after a year. Such has been the unbroken practice of many years, and it would be hardly possible now to break it. When a vacancy occurs by death or resignation, the whole board chooses the new member, and they do it, as I am told, with great care. For a peculiar reason, it is important that the directors should be young when they begin; and accordingly the board run over the names of the most attentive and promising young men in the old-established firms of London, and select the one who, they think, will be most suitable for a Bank director. There is a considerable ambition to fill the office. The status which is given by it, both to the individual who fills it and to the firm of merchants to which he belongs, is considerable. There is surprisingly little favour shown in the selection; there is a great wish on the part of the Bank directors for the time being to provide, to the best of their ability, for the future good government of the Bank. Very few selections in the world are made with nearly equal purity. There is a sincere desire to do the best for the Bank, and to appoint a well-conducted young man who has begun to attend to business, and who seems likely to be fairly sensible and fairly efficient twenty years later.
The age is a primary matter. The offices of Governor and Deputy-Governor are given in rotation. The Deputy-Governor always succeeds the Governor, and usually the oldest director who has not been in office becomes Deputy-Governor. Sometimes, from personal reasons such as ill-health or special temporary occupation, the time at which a director becomes Deputy-Governor may be a little deferred, and, in some few cases, merchants in the greatest business have been permitted to decline entirely. But for all general purposes, the rule may be taken as absolute. Save in rare cases, a director must serve his time as Governor and Deputy-Governor nearly when his turn comes, and he will not be asked to serve much before his turn. It is usually about twenty years from the time of a man’s first election that he arrives, as it is called, at the chair. And as the offices of Governor and Deputy-Governor are very important, a man who fills them should be still in the vigour of life. Accordingly, Bank directors, when first chosen by the board, are always young men.
At first this has rather a singular effect; a stranger hardly knows what to make of it. Many years since, I remember seeing a very fresh and nice-looking young gentleman, and being struck with astonishment at being told that he was a director of the Bank of England. I had always imagined such directors to be men of tried sagacity and long experience, and I was amazed that a cheerful young man should be one of them. I believe I thought it was a little dangerous. I thought such young men could not manage the Bank well. I feared they had the power to do mischief.
Further inquiry, however, soon convinced me that they had not the power. Naturally, young men have not much influence at a board where there are many older members. And in the Bank of England there is a special provision for depriving them of it if they get it. Some of the directors, as I have said, retire annually, but by courtesy it is always the young ones. Those who have passed the chair—that is, who have served the office of Governor—always remain. The young part of the board is the fluctuating part, and the old part is the permanent part; and therefore it is not surprising that the young part has little influence. The Bank directors may be blamed for many things, but they cannot be blamed for the changeableness and excitability of a neocracy.
Indeed, still better to prevent it, the elder members of the board—that is, those who have passed the chair—form a standing committee of indefinite powers, which is called the Committee of Treasury. I say “indefinite powers,” for I am not aware that any precise description has ever been given of them, and I doubt if they can be precisely described. They are sometimes said to exercise a particular control over the relations and negotiations between the Bank and the Government. But I confess that I believe that this varies very much with the character of the Governor for the time being. A strong Governor does much mainly upon his own responsibility, and a weak Governor does little. Still the influence of the Committee of Treasury is always considerable, though not always the same. They form a cabinet of mature, declining, and old men, just close to the executive; and for good or evil such a cabinet must have much power.
By old usage, the directors of the Bank of England cannot be themselves by trade bankers. This is a relic of old times. Every bank was supposed to be necessarily, more or less, in opposition to every other bank—banks in the same place to be especially in opposition. In consequence, in London, no banker has a chance of being a Bank director, or would ever think of attempting to be one. I am here speaking of bankers in the English sense, and in the sense that would surprise a foreigner. One of the Rothschilds is on the Bank direction, and a foreigner would be apt to think that they were bankers if anyone was. But this only illustrates the essential difference between our English notions of banking and the continental. Ours have attained a much fuller development than theirs. Messrs. Rothschild are immense capitalists, having, doubtless, much borrowed money in their hands. But they do not take £100 payable on demand, and pay it back in cheques of £5 each, and that is our English banking. The borrowed money which they have is in large sums, borrowed for terms more or less long. English bankers deal with an aggregate of small sums, all of which are repayable on short notice, or on demand. And the way the two employ their money is different also. A foreigner thinks “an exchange business”—that is, the buying and selling bills on foreign countries—a main part of banking. As I have explained, remittance is one of the subsidiary conveniences which early banks subserve before deposit banking begins. But the mass of English country bankers only give bills on places in England or on London, and in London the principal remittance business has escaped out of the hands of the bankers. Most of them would not know how to carry through a great “exchange operation,” or to “bring home the returns”. They would as soon think of turning silk merchants. The exchange trade is carried on by a small and special body of foreign bill brokers, of whom Messrs. Rothschild are the greatest. One of that firm may, therefore, well be on the Bank direction, notwithstanding the rule forbidding bankers to be there, for he and his family are not English bankers, either by the terms on which they borrow money, or the mode in which they employ it. But as to bankers in the English sense of the word, the rule is rigid and absolute. Not only no private banker is a director of the Bank of England, but no director of any joint stock bank would be allowed to become such. The two situations would be taken to be incompatible.
The mass of the Bank directors are merchants of experience, employing a considerable capital in trades in which they have been brought up, and with which they are well acquainted. Many of them have information as to the present course of trade, and as to the character and wealth of merchants, which is most valuable, or rather is all but invaluable, to the Bank. Many of them, too, are quiet, serious men, who, by habit and nature, watch with some kind of care every kind of business in which they are engaged, and give an anxious opinion on it. Most of them have a good deal of leisure; for the life of a man of business who employs only his own capital, and employs it nearly always in the same way, is by no means fully employed. Hardly any capital is enough to employ the principal partner’s time, and, if such a man is very busy, it is a sign of something wrong. Either he is working at detail, which subordinates would do better, and which he had better leave alone, or he is engaged in too many speculations, is incurring more liabilities than his capital will bear, and so may be ruined. In consequence, every commercial city abounds in men who have great business ability and experience, who are not fully occupied, who wish to be occupied, and who are very glad to become directors of public companies in order to be occupied. The direction of the Bank of England has, for many generations, been composed of such men.
Such a government for a joint stock company is very good if its essential nature be attended to, and very bad if that nature be not attended to. That government is composed of men with a high average of general good sense, with an excellent knowledge of business in general, but without any special knowledge of the particular business in which they are engaged. Ordinarily, in joint stock banks and companies this deficiency is cured by the selection of a manager of the company, who has been specially trained to that particular trade, and who engages to devote all his experience and all his ability to the affairs of the company. The directors, and often a select committee of them more especially, consult with the manager, and, after hearing what he has to say, decide on the affairs of the company. There is in all ordinary joint stock companies a fixed executive specially skilled, and a somewhat varying council not specially skilled. The fixed manager ensures continuity and experience in the management, and a good board of directors ensures general wisdom.
But in the Bank of England there is no fixed executive. The Governor and Deputy-Governor, who form that executive, change every two years. I believe, indeed, that such was not the original intention of the founders. In the old days of few and great privileged companies, the chairman, though periodically elected, was practically permanent so long as his policy was popular. He was the head of the Ministry, and ordinarily did not change unless the Opposition came in. But this idea has no present relation to the constitution of the Bank of England. At present, the Governor and Deputy-Governor almost always change at the end of two years; the case of any longer occupation of the chair is so very rare, that it need not be taken account of. And the Governor and Deputy-Governor of the Bank cannot well be shadows. They are expected to be constantly present; to see all applicants for advances out of the ordinary routine; to carry on the almost continuous correspondence between the Bank and its largest customer—the Government; to bring all necessary matters before the board of directors or the Committee of Treasury,—in a word, to do very much of what falls to the lot of the manager in most companies. Under this shifting chief executive, there are indeed very valuable heads of departments. The head of the Discount Department is especially required to be a man of ability and experience. But these officers are essentially subordinate; no one of them is like the general manager of an ordinary bank—the head of all action. The perpetually present executive—the Governor and Deputy-Governor—make it impossible that any subordinate should have that position. A really able and active-minded Governor, being required to sit all day in the Bank, in fact does, and can hardly help doing, its principal business.
In theory, nothing can be worse than this government for a bank—a shifting executive; a board of directors chosen too young for it to be known whether they are able; a committee of management, in which seniority is the necessary qualification, and old age the common result; and no trained bankers anywhere.
Even if the Bank of England were an ordinary bank, such a constitution would be insufficient; but its inadequacy is greater, and the consequences of that inadequacy far worse, because of its greater functions. The Bank of England has to keep the sole banking reserve of the country; has to keep it through all changes of the Money Market, and all turns of the exchanges; has to decide on the instant in a panic what sort of advances should be made, to what amounts, and for what dates;—and yet it has a constitution plainly defective. So far from the government of the Bank of England being better than that of any other bank—as it ought to be, considering that its functions are much harder and graver—anyone would be laughed at who proposed it as a model for the government of a new bank; and that government, if it were so proposed, would on all hands be called old-fashioned and curious.
As was natural, the effects—good and evil—of its constitution are to be seen in every part of the Bank’s history. On one vital point the Bank’s management has been excellent. It has done perhaps less “bad business,” certainly less very bad business, than any bank of the same size and the same age. In all its history I do not know that its name has ever been connected with a single large and discreditable bad debt. There has never been a suspicion that it was “worked” for the benefit of any one man, or any combination of men. The great respectability of the directors, and the steady attention many of them have always given the business of the Bank, have kept it entirely free from anything dishonourable and discreditable. Steady merchants collected in council are an admirable judge of bills and securities. They always know the questionable standing of dangerous persons; they are quick to note the smallest signs of corrupt transactions; and no sophistry will persuade the best of them out of their good instincts. You could not have made the directors of the Bank of England do the sort of business which “Overends” at last did, except by a moral miracle—except by changing their nature. And the fatal career of the Bank of the United States would, under their management, have been equally impossible. Of the ultimate solvency of the Bank of England, or of the eventual safety of its vast capital, even at the worst periods of its history, there has not been the least doubt.
But nevertheless, as we have seen, the policy of the Bank has frequently been deplorable, and at such times the defects of its government have aggravated if not caused its calamities.
In truth, the executive of the Bank of England is now much such as the executive of a public department of the Foreign Office or the Home Office would be in which there was no responsible permanent head. In these departments of Government, the actual chief changes nearly, though not quite, as often as the Governor of the Bank of England. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary—the Deputy-Governor, so to speak, of that office—changes nearly as often. And if the administration solely, or in its details, depended on these two, it would stop. New men could not carry it on with vigour and efficiency; indeed they could not carry it on at all. But, in fact, they are assisted by a permanent Under-Secretary, who manages all the routine business, who is the depositary of the secrets of the office, who embodies its traditions, who is the hyphen between changing administrations. In consequence of this assistance, the continuous business of the department is, for the most part, managed sufficiently well, notwithstanding frequent changes in the heads of administration. And it is only by such assistance that such business could be so managed. The present administration of the Bank is an attempt to manage a great, a growing, and a permanently continuous business without an adequate permanent element, and a competent connecting link.
In answer, it may be said that the duties which press on the Governor and Deputy-Governor of the Bank are not so great or so urgent as those which press upon the heads of official departments. And perhaps, in point of mere labour, the Governor of the Bank has the advantage. Banking never ought to be an exceedingly laborious trade. There must be a great want of system and a great deficiency in skilled assistance if extreme labour is thrown upon the chief. But in importance, the functions of the head of the Bank rank as high as those of any department. The cash reserve of the country is as precious a deposit as any set of men can have the care of. And the difficulty of dealing with a panic (as the administration of the Bank is forced to deal with it) is perhaps a more formidable instant difficulty than presses upon any single Minister. At any rate, it comes more suddenly, and must be dealt with more immediately, than most comparable difficulties; and the judgment, the nerve, and the vigour needful to deal with it are plainly rare and great.
The natural remedy would be to appoint a permanent Governor of the Bank. Nor, as I have said, can there be much doubt that such was the intention of its founders. All the old companies which have their beginning in the seventeenth century had the same constitution, and those of them which have lingered down to our time retain it. The Hudson’s Bay Company, the South Sea Company, the East India Company, were all founded with a sort of sovereign executive, intended to be permanent, and intended to be efficient. This is, indeed, the most natural mode of forming a company in the minds of those to whom companies are new. Such persons will have always seen business transacted a good deal despotically; they will have learnt the value of prompt decision and of consistent policy; they will have often seen that business is best managed when those who are conducting it could scarcely justify the course they are pursuing by distinct argument which others could understand. All “City” people make their money by investments, for which there are often good argumentative reasons; but they would hardly ever be able, if required before a Parliamentary committee, to state those reasons. They have become used to act on them without distinctly analysing them, and, in a monarchical way, with continued success only as a test of their goodness. Naturally such persons, when proceeding to form a company, make it upon the model of that which they have been used to see successful. They provide for the executive first and above all things. How much this was in the minds of the founders of the Bank of England may be judged of by the name which they gave it. Its corporate name is the “Governor and Company of the Bank of England”. So important did the founders think the executive that they mentioned it distinctly, and mentioned it first.
And not only is this constitution of a company the most natural in the early days when companies were new, it is also that which experience has shown to be the most efficient now that companies have long been tried. Great railway companies are managed upon no other. Scarcely any instance of great success in a railway can be mentioned in which the chairman has not been an active and judicious man of business, constantly attending to the affairs of the company. A thousand instances of railway disaster can be easily found in which the chairman was only a nominal head—a nobleman, or something of that sort—chosen for show. “Railway chairmanship” has become a profession, so much is efficiency valued in it, and so indispensable has ability been found to be. The plan of appointing a permanent “chairman” at the Bank of England is strongly supported by much modern experience.
Nevertheless, I hesitate as to its expediency; at any rate, there are other plans, which, for several reasons, should, I think, first be tried in preference.
First. This plan would be exceedingly unpopular. A permanent Governor of the Bank of England would be one of the greatest men in England. He would be a little “monarch” in the City; he would be far greater than the “Lord Mayor”. He would be the personal embodiment of the Bank of England; he would be constantly clothed with an almost indefinite prestige. Everybody in business would bow down before him and try to stand well with him, for he might in a panic be able to save almost anyone he liked, and to ruin almost anyone he liked. A day might come when his favour might mean prosperity, and his distrust might mean ruin. A position with so much real power and so much apparent dignity would be intensely coveted. Practical men would be apt to say that it was better than the Prime Ministership, for it would last much longer, and would have a greater jurisdiction over that which practical men would most value—over money. At all events, such a Governor, if he understood his business, might make the fortunes of fifty men where the Prime Minister can make that of one. Scarcely anything could be more unpopular in the City than the appointment of a little king to reign over them.
Secondly. I do not believe that we should always get the best man for the post; often I fear that we should not even get a tolerable man. There are many cases in which the offer of too high a pay would prevent our obtaining the man we wish for, and this is one of them. A very high pay of prestige is almost always very dangerous. It causes the post to be desired by vain men, by lazy men, by men of rank; and when that post is one of real and technical business, and when, therefore, it requires much previous training, much continuous labour, and much patient and quick judgment, all such men are dangerous. But they are sure to covet all posts of splendid dignity, and can only be kept out of them with the greatest difficulty. Probably, in every Cabinet there are still some members (in the days of the old close boroughs there were many) whose posts have come to them not from personal ability or inherent merit, but from their rank, their wealth, or even their imposing exterior. The highest political offices are, indeed, kept clear of such people, for in them serious and important duties must constantly be performed in the face of the world. A Prime Minister, or a Chancellor of the Exchequer, or a Secretary of State must explain his policy and defend his actions in Parliament, and the discriminating tact of a critical assembly—abounding in experience, and guided by tradition—will soon discover what he is. But the Governor of the Bank would only perform quiet functions, which look like routine, though they are not, in which there is no immediate risk of success or failure; which years hence may indeed issue in a crop of bad debts, but which any grave persons may make at the time to look fair and plausible. A large bank is exactly the place where a vain and shallow person in authority, if he be a man of gravity and method, as such men often are, may do infinite evil in no long time, and before he is detected. If he is lucky enough to begin at a time of expansion in trade, he is nearly sure not to be found out till the time of contraction has arrived, and then very large figures will be required to reckon the evil he has done.
And thirdly. I fear that the possession of such patronage would ruin any set of persons in whose gift it was. The election of the Chairman must be placed either in the court of proprietors or that of the directors. If the proprietors choose, there will be something like the evils of an American presidential election. Bank stock will be bought in order to confer the qualification of voting at the election of the “chief of the City”. The Chairman, when elected, may well find that his most active supporters are large borrowers of the Bank, and he may well be puzzled to decide between his duty to the Bank and his gratitude to those who chose him. Probably, if he be a cautious man of average ability, he will combine both evils; he will not lend so much money as he is asked for, and so will offend his own supporters; but will lend some which will be lost, and so the profits of the Bank will be reduced. A large body of Bank proprietors would make but a bad elective body for an office of great prestige; they would not commonly choose a good person, and the person they did choose would be bound by promises that would make him less good.
The court of directors would choose better; a small body of men of business would not easily be persuaded to choose an extremely unfit man. But they would not often choose an extremely good man. The really best man would probably not be so rich as the majority of the directors, nor of so much standing, and not unnaturally they would much dislike to elevate to the headship of the City one who was much less in the estimation of the City than themselves. And they would be canvassed in every way and on every side to appoint a man of mercantile dignity or mercantile influence. Many people of the greatest prestige and rank in the City would covet so great a dignity, if not for themselves, at least for some friend, or some relative, and so the directors would be set upon from every side.
An election so liable to be disturbed by powerful vitiating causes would rarely end in a good choice. The best candidate would almost never be chosen; often, I fear, one would be chosen altogether unfit for a post so important. And the excitement of so keen an election would altogether disturb the quiet of the Bank. The good and efficient working of a board of Bank directors depends on its internal harmony, and that harmony would be broken for ever by the excitement, the sayings, and the acts of a great election. The board of directors would almost certainly be demoralised by having to choose a sovereign, and there is no certainty, nor any great likelihood, indeed, that they would choose a good one.
In France the difficulty of finding a good body to choose the Governor of the Bank has been met characteristically. The Bank of France keeps the money of the State, and the State appoints its Governor. The French have generally a logical reason to give for all they do, though perhaps the results of their actions are not always so good as the reasons for them. The Governor of the Bank of France has not always, I am told, been a very competent person; the Sub-Governor, whom the State also appoints, is, as we might expect, usually better. But for our English purposes it would be useless to inquire minutely into this. No English statesman would consent to be responsible for the choice of the Governor of the Bank of England. After every panic, the Opposition would say in Parliament that the calamity had been “grievously aggravated,” if not wholly caused, by the “gross misconduct” of the Governor appointed by the Ministry. Or, possibly, offices may have changed occupants and the Ministry in power at the panic would be the opponents of the Ministry which at a former time appointed the Governor. In that case they would be apt to feel, and to intimate, a “grave regret” at the course which the nominee of their adversaries had “thought it desirable to pursue”. They would not much mind hurting his feelings, and if he resigned they would have themselves a valuable piece of patronage to confer on one of their own friends. No result could be worse than that the conduct of the Bank and the management should be made a matter of party politics, and men of all parties would agree in this, even if they agreed in almost nothing else.
I am therefore afraid that we must abandon the plan of improving the government of the Bank of England by the appointment of a permanent Governor, because we should not be sure of choosing a good Governor, and should indeed run a great risk, for the most part, of choosing a bad one.
I think, however, that much of the advantage, with little of the risk, might be secured by a humbler scheme. In English political offices, as was observed before, the evil of a changing head is made possible by the permanence of a dignified subordinate. Though the Parliamentary Secretary of State and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary go in and out with each administration, another Under-Secretary remains through all such changes, and is on that account called “permanent”. Now this system seems to me in its principle perfectly applicable to the administration of the Bank of England. For the reasons which have just been given, a permanent ruler of the Bank of England cannot be appointed; for other reasons, which were just before given, some most influential permanent functionary is essential in the proper conduct of the business of the Bank; and, mutatis mutandis, these are the very difficulties, and the very advantages, which have led us to frame our principal offices of State in the present fashion.
Such a Deputy-Governor would not be at all a “king” in the City. There would be no mischievous prestige about the office; there would be no attraction in it for a vain man; and there would be nothing to make it an object of a violent canvass or of unscrupulous electioneering. The office would be essentially subordinate in its character, just like the permanent secretary in a political office. The pay should be high, for good ability is wanted—but no pay would attract the most dangerous class of people. The very influential, but not very wise, City dignitary who would be so very dangerous is usually very opulent; he would hardly have such influence if he were not opulent: what he wants is not money, but “position”. A Governorship of the Bank of England he would take almost without salary; perhaps he would even pay to get it: but a minor office of essential subordination would not attract him at all. We may augment the pay enough to get a good man, without fearing that by such pay we may tempt—as by social privilege we should tempt—exactly the sort of man we do not want.
Undoubtedly such a permanent official should be a trained banker. There is a cardinal difference between banking and other kinds of commerce; you can afford to run much less risk in banking than in commerce; and you must take much greater precautions. In common business, the trader can add to the cost price of goods he sells a large mercantile profit, say 10 to 15 per cent.; but the banker has to be content with the interest of money, which in England is not so much as 5 per cent. upon the average. The business of a banker therefore cannot bear so many bad debts as that of a merchant, and he must be much more cautious to whom he gives credit. Real money is a commodity much more coveted than common goods: for one deceit which is attempted on a manufacturer or a merchant, twenty and more are attempted on a banker. And besides, a banker, dealing with the money of others, and money payable on demand, must be always, as it were, looking behind him and seeing that he has reserve enough in store if payment should be asked for, which a merchant dealing mostly with his own capital need not think of. Adventure is the life of commerce, but caution, I had almost said timidity, is the life of banking; and I cannot imagine that the long series of great errors made by the Bank of England in the management of its reserve till after 1857, would have been possible if the merchants in the Bank court had not erroneously taken the same view of the Bank’s business that they must properly take of their own mercantile business. The Bank directors have almost always been too cheerful as to the Bank’s business, and too little disposed to take alarm. What we want to introduce into the Bank court is a wise apprehensiveness, and this every trained banker is taught by the habits of his trade, and the atmosphere of his life.
The permanent Governor ought to give his whole time to the business of the Bank. He ought to be forbidden to engage in any other concern. All the present directors, including the Governor and Deputy-Governor, are engaged in their own business, and it is very possible, indeed it must perpetually have happened, that their own business as merchants most occupied the minds of most of them just when it was most important that the business of the Bank should occupy them. It is at a panic and just before a panic that the business of the Bank is most exacting and most engrossing. But just at that time the business of most merchants must be unusually occupying and may be exceedingly critical. By the present constitution of the Bank, the attention of its sole rulers is most apt to be diverted from the Bank’s affairs just when those affairs require that attention the most. And the only remedy is the appointment of a permanent and influential man, who will have no business save that of the Bank, and who therefore presumably will attend most to it at the critical instant when attention is most required. His mind, at any rate, will in a panic be free from pecuniary anxiety, whereas many, if not all, of the present directors must be incessantly thinking of their own affairs and unable to banish them from their minds.
The permanent Deputy-Governor must be a director and a man of fair position. He must not have to say “Sir” to the Governor. There is no fair argument between an inferior who has to exhibit respect and a superior who has to receive respect. The superior can always, and does mostly, refute the bad arguments of his inferior; but the inferior rarely ventures to try to refute the bad arguments of his superior. And he still more rarely states his case effectually; he pauses, hesitates, does not use the best word or the most apt illustration, perhaps he uses a faulty illustration or a wrong word, and so fails because the superior immediately exposes him. Important business can only be sufficiently discussed by persons who can say very much what they like very much as they like to one another. The thought of the speaker should come out as it was in his mind, and not be hidden in respectful expressions or enfeebled by affected doubt. What is wanted at the Bank is not a new clerk to the directors—they have excellent clerks of great experience now—but a permanent equal to the directors, who shall be able to discuss on equal terms with them the business of the Bank, and have this advantage over them in discussion, that he has no other business than that of the Bank to think of.
The formal duties of such a permanent officer could only be defined by some one conversant with the business of the Bank, and could scarcely be intelligibly discussed before the public. Nor are the precise duties of the least importance. Such an officer, if sound, able, and industrious, would soon rule the affairs of the Bank. He would be acquainted better than anyone else, both with the traditions of the past and with the facts of the present; he would have a great experience; he would have seen many anxious times; he would always be on the watch for their recurrence. And he would have a peculiar power of guidance at such moments from the nature of the men with whom he has most to deal. Most Governors of the Bank of England are cautious merchants, not profoundly skilled in banking, but most anxious that their period of office should be prosperous and that they should themselves escape censure. If a “safe” course is pressed upon them they are likely to take that course. Now it would almost always be “safe” to follow the advice of the great standing “authority”; it would always be most “unsafe” not to follow it. If the changing Governor act on the advice of the permanent Deputy-Governor, most of the blame in case of mischance would fall on the latter; it would be said that a shifting officer like the Governor might very likely not know what should be done, but that the permanent official was put there to know it and paid to know it. But if, on the other hand, the changing Governor should disregard the advice of his permanent colleague, and the consequence should be bad, he would be blamed exceedingly. It would be said that, “being without experience, he had taken upon him to overrule men who had much experience; that when the constitution of the Bank had provided them with skilled counsel, he had taken on himself to act of his own head, and to disregard that counsel:” and so on ad infinitum. And there could be no sort of conversation more injurious to a man in the City; the world there would say, rightly or wrongly, “We must never be too severe on errors of judgment; we are all making them every day; if responsible persons do their best we can expect no more. But this case is different: the Governor acted on a wrong system; he took upon himself an unnecessary responsibility:” and so a Governor who incurred disaster by disregarding his skilled counsellor would be thought a fool in the City for ever. In consequence, the one skilled counsellor would in fact rule the Bank.
I believe that the appointment of the new permanent and skilled authority at the Bank is the greatest reform which can be made there, and that which is most wanted. I believe that such a person would give to the decisions of the Bank that foresight, that quickness, and that consistency in which those decisions are undeniably now deficient. As far as I can judge, this change in the constitution of the Bank is by far the most necessary, and is perhaps more important even than all other changes. But nevertheless we should reform the other points which we have seen to be defective.
First. The London bankers should not be altogether excluded from the court of directors. The old idea, as I have explained, was that the London bankers were the competitors of the Bank of England, and would hurt it if they could. But now the London bankers have another relation to the Bank which did not then exist, and was not then imagined. Among private people they are the principal depositors in the Bank; they are therefore particularly interested in its stability; they are especially interested in the maintenance of a good banking reserve, for their own credit and the safety of their large deposits depend on it. And they can bring to the court of directors an experience of banking itself, got outside the Bank of England, which none of the present directors possess, for they have learned all they know of banking at the Bank itself. There was also an old notion that the secrets of the Bank would be divulged if they were imparted to bankers. But probably bankers are better trained to silence and secrecy than most people. And there is only a thin partition now between the bankers and the secrets of the Bank. Only lately a firm failed of which one partner was a director of the London and Westminster Bank, and another a director of the Bank of England. Who can define or class the confidential communications of such persons under such circumstances?
As I observed before, the line drawn at present against bankers is very technical and exclusively English. According to continental ideas, Messrs. Rothschild are bankers, if anyone is a banker. But the house of Rothschild is represented on the Bank direction. And it is most desirable that it should be represented, for members of that firm can give if they choose confidential information of great value to the Bank. But, nevertheless, the objection which is urged against English bankers is at least equally applicable to these foreign bankers. They have, or may have, at certain periods an interest opposite to the policy of the Bank. As the greatest exchange dealers they may wish to export gold just when the Bank of England is raising its rate of interest to prevent anyone from exporting gold. The vote of a great exchange dealer might be objected to for plausible reasons of contrary interest, if any such reasons were worth regarding. But in fact the particular interest of single directors is not to be regarded; almost all directors who bring special information labour under a suspicion of interest; they can only have acquired that information in present business, and such business may very possibly be affected for good or evil by the policy of the Bank. But you must not on this account seal up the Bank hermetically against living information; you must make a fair body of directors upon the whole, and trust that the bias of some individual interests will disappear and be lost in the whole. And if this is to be the guiding principle, it is not consistent to exclude English bankers from the court.
Objection is often also taken to the constitution of the Committee of Treasury. That body is composed of the Governor and Deputy-Governor and all the directors who have held those offices; but as those offices in the main pass in rotation, this mode of election very much comes to an election by seniority, and there are obvious objections to giving, not only a preponderance to age, but a monopoly to age. In some cases, indeed, this monopoly I believe has already been infringed. When directors have on account of the magnitude of their transactions, and the consequent engrossing nature of their business, declined to fill the chair, in some cases they have been asked to be members of the Committee of Treasury notwithstanding. And it would certainly upon principle seem wiser to choose a committee which for some purposes approximates to a committee of management by competence rather than by seniority.
An objection is also taken to the large number of Bank directors. There are twenty-four directors, a Governor and a Deputy-Governor, making a total court of twenty-six persons, which is obviously too large for the real discussion of any difficult business. And the case is worse because the court only meets once a week, and only sits a very short time. It has been said, with exaggeration, but not without a basis of truth, that if the Bank directors were to sit for four hours, there would be “a panic solely from that”. “The Court,” says Mr. Tooke, “meets at half-past eleven or twelve; and, if the sitting be prolonged beyond half-past one, the Stock Exchange and the Money Market become excited, under the idea that a change of importance is under discussion; and persons congregate about the doors of the Bank parlour to obtain the earliest intimation of the decision.” And he proceeds to conjecture that the knowledge of the impatience without must cause haste, if not impatience, within. That the decisions of such a court should be of incalculable importance is plainly very strange.
There should be no delicacy as to altering the constitution of the Bank of England. The existing constitution was framed in times that have passed away, and was intended to be used for purposes very different from the present. The founders may have considered that it would lend money to the Government, that it would keep the money of the Government, that it would issue notes payable to bearer, but that it would keep the “banking reserve” of a great nation no one in the seventeenth century imagined. And when the use to which we are putting an old thing is a new use, in common sense we should think whether the old thing is quite fit for the use to which we are setting it. “Putting new wine into old bottles” is safe only when you watch the condition of the bottle, and adapt its structure most carefully.