The Chancellors (6): Sir Robert Horne

800px-Robert_Horne_croppedSir Robert Horne, 1921-22

Conservative (in Lloyd George’s National Government)

Horne was the son of a Church of Scotland Minister, who went to George Watson’s (like Sir John Anderson) and Glasgow University, before becoming an academic and lawyer. He came to prominence working for Sir Eric Geddes in the war. He only became an MP in the Coupon Election and holds the distinction of going straight into the cabinet, first as minister of labour, then at the Board of Trade.

As such, he was both a surprise choice to succeed Chamberlain, but also a logical one. In the teeth of the 1920 recession and Anti-Waste Campaign, Horne oversaw the formation of Sir Eric Geddes’ economy committee: the Treasury had originally wanted cuts of £113m, later Horne would increase that figure to £175m, an overall cut of 29% in government expenditure. Thus, he brought about the end of the Addison housing scheme, stymied education reform and cut overall defence expenditure by 49%; he was thwarted in plans to cut the unemployment insurance scheme he had extended as minister of labour. Horne was, therefore, the true wielder of the Geddes Axe.

Very much a Chamberlainite, and in the coalition’s inner circle, he wanted to fight as a coalition in 1922. Thus, he refused to serve in Bonar Law’s 2nd XI cabinet and would never hold high office again: when Chamberlain came back in 1924 he returned to the opposition front bench, but declined to return to the ministry of labour after the 1924 election. He would take a series of highly paid directorships, of which Baldwin disapproved. In turn, he plotted against Baldwin in 1929, but ultimately supported him against Beaverbrook and Rothermere’s Empire Crusade in 1930. He became associated with Churchill’s views on rearmament in the later ‘30s. He was also a bachelor, party animal and ladies’ man, taking ‘20s high society by storm after he left office.

His time as chancellor was brief, but arguably important. The cuts in expenditure of 1921-22 saw government finances recover, but might also have had something to do with the long-lasting aftermath of the recession, in the form of the intractable million (the structural unemployment that bedeviled 1920s). Ironically, given his later views, Horne’s defence cuts, whilst seeming appropriate at the time, severely exacerbated the reorientation of British defence policy, enshrined in the ten year rule, that would leave Britain ill-prepared for the very different world of the ‘thirties.

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