Saturday, December 04, 2010

The do-gooders

Ian Hislop is a funny guy. Britishers will know him as the editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, and team captain of one side on the comedy quiz show, Have I got news for you. He is also a Christian and a Liberal Democrat, so I was not surprised to find that he had made a TV program about the Victorian do-gooders.

He began with William Wiberforce, the godfather of all do-goodery, and not strictly a Victorian, but then related the stories of many other characters, several of whom, though not all, were, like Wilberforce, Evangelical Christians.

One story that stood out for me was about the English Civil Service. Before the 1850s it was taken as read that the purpose of seeking Office Under The Crown was to feather your own nest. Any Tudor drama you may have seen will have courtiers fluttering around the monarch seeking favors. These would often be in the form of an office with a strange name like Guardian of the King's Chamber Pot or Lady of the Queen's Bedchamber, and would usually carry some land, servants and a stipend with them.

By the Eighteenth Century, these would have more believable names, but would be equally simple sinecures. I don't suppose the Warden of the Cinque Ports would have to do much wardening. (Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, was the last to hold that office and was not often seen in Rye and Winchelsea).

One must, of course, provide for one's own and if you are rich enough you can do that from your own resources. We don't see Mr D'Arcy getting much involved with Hoi Polloi in Pride and Prejudice. Pembury was self contained. If you were very kindly you might show some concern for you servants (like keeping them on when your son got them pregnant), but you showed no concern for the factory workers in your mill in Manchester, nor for your slaves in Jamaica.

The French Revolution served as a wake up call. It wasn't the Scarlet Pimpernel that saved the English aristocracy, but John Wesley. Working men turned to Christ rather than Mme Guillotine. But with the writing on the wall more of the Landed Gentry got involved in politics. The English aristocracy took great pains to preserve the status quo and one of their strategies was to place duffers from their own families in The Civil Service. If you have read or watched the TV adaptation of Little Dorritt (and if you haven't, get the DVD) you will see the inertia created by duffers in the "Circumlocution Office" - code for the Treasury.

Another example cropped up in an episode of Garrow's Law (yet another BBC period drama worth watching). In this there was concern about the conditions at Greenwich Hospital, the home for retired and disabled naval officers. Food and provisions had become so poor because the Commissioners of the Hospital were sequestering the money that should have been adequate to provide all that was needed for the gallant officers, to their own accounts. It turned out that the Commissioners were all from the small town of Huntington, which just happened to be the constituency of the Earl of Sandwich, the First Sea Lord, in whose gift was the office. A 1911 report said, "It was through his [Sandwich’s] habit, already noticed, of appointing officials not for their capacity but in return for their votes that affairs had sunk into such a deplorable state. Stores supplied to the army and navy have a queer little knack of being above the market price and below the market value.”

The idea that one should seek public office for the good of the public rather than oneself was a novel one and one that has not reached many nations in the world so far - about nine out of 200 by my calculations. The recent scandals about MP's expenses indicate that the idea has not fully taken hold in the UK. The man behind the idea was Charles Trevelyan, then Permanent Secretary at the Treasury who was commissioned by Gladstone in 1853 to look into the operation and organisation of the entire Civil Service. He made 4 recommendations:

Recruitment should be entirely on the basis of merit by open, competitive examinations

Entrants should have a good ‘generalist’ education and should be recruited to a unified Civil Service and not a specific department, to allow inter-departmental transfers.

Recruits should be placed into a hierarchical structure of classes and grades

Promotion would be on the basis of merit not on the grounds of ‘preferment, patronage or purchase’

The result was a permanent impartial Civil Service, that is able to serve political parties of either or any hue, without fear of favor.

Initial reaction to the Trevelyan report was hostile and even Queen Victoria declared herself ‘horrified’ that the running of the country might be handed to ‘professional bureaucrats’. The independent Civil Service Commissioners were established in 1855, but it wasn’t until 1870 that the main recommendations of the report were put in place and that success in a competitive examination became the primary means of entry to the Service.

Charles Edward Trevelyan was born on 2 April 1807 in Taunton where his father was a clergyman. His ability to learn foreign languages resulted in his posting as a writer to the East India Company's civil service in Bengal in 1826. A year later he was named assistant to the English commissioner at Delhi. For the next four years he made it his special work to improve the living conditions of the local population and to modernise trade, by eliminating duties on internal trade.

He was assistant secretary to HM Treasury from 1840–1859, during both the Irish famine and the Highland Potato Famine of 1846-1857. In Ireland he was responsible for administering famine relief, whilst in Scotland he was closely associated with the work of the Central Board for Highland Relief. His inaction and personal attitude towards the Irish are widely believed to have worsened the Famine. To Irishmen he is thought of as the greatest villain since Cromwell. As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury he was placed in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a "mechanism for reducing surplus population". He described the famine as "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people". While these views appeared to be mitigated in another letter dated 29 April 1846 when Trevelyan wrote: "Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, coûte que coûte, the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve."

One wonders whether his Evangelical Christianity, some versions of which regarded the Pope as the Antichrist, led him to such a harsh judgement, for in many other ways he showed himself to be a caring man with a warm heart for the poor.

In 1858, after the Indian Mutiny, Trevelyan returned to India as governor of Madras. He was recalled after he released some government information that was deemed an act 'subversive to all authority', but he was vindicated and returned to India as finance minister from 1862 to 1865. In his later years in England, he was involved in various charitable enterprises and supported other important reforms regarding the purchase of army commissions and advancements, as well as the organisation of the army. He died on 19 June 1886.

Lesson for do-gooders: keep your mouth shut about your opinions and let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Good works are nothing to boast about.

Lesson for us: don't judge the activities of the nineteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first.

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