Dean Swift and 18thC Economic Thought
October 16-17 2010 in St Patrick's Deanery, Dublin
Address by Dr Don Thornhill, Chairman, National Competitiveness Council
St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, 17 October, 2010
I would like to thank my friend and neighbour from Co Waterford, the Very Reverend Dr Robert McCarthy for giving me the honour and pleasure of speaking here this afternoon.
But some caveats and acknowledgements are in order.
As regards the caveats I hope that in inviting me here, as the Dean himself wrote, to speak, and I quote, "on any aspect of Swift", the Dean was not, like his predecessor, being ironic. I am not a historian or a literary scholar. My interests are some distance away in economic policy, taxation and competitiveness, public sector reform and education policy. In the arenas where these topics are discussed I and other have preached from time to time - but never before from a pulpit!
But I was helped by the patience, support and critical contributions (critical in both senses of the word!) of my family, particularly Maura, and of my friends during the past few months. I would like to thank Dr Ronan Kelly, author of Bard of Erin, a much acclaimed biography of Thomas Moore, who gave me essential advice and guidance.
In our current economic circumstances it would, of course be tempting in response to the Dean's invitation by quoting liberally from Swift's commentaries on human foolishness and injustices. His saeva indignatio/savage indignation, some of which he directed at bankers, undoubtedly has a contemporary resonance(1). A "What would Swift say if he were alive today" exercise could be entertaining and maybe cause some bitter amusement but others are better equipped to do it.
What I would like to do instead is to reflect on one of the issues which had an important influence on Swift's political writings - his ideas on the relationship between Ireland and England - including touching briefly on how the ideas relating to this important relationship evolved over time.
Ideas being the operative word.
Ideas are the tools we use to order our behaviour, our societies and to address challenges. John Maynard Keynes wrote that the world is ruled by little else other than ideas - both when they are right and they are wrong. He also wrote that one of the great difficulties is not in developing new ideas but in escaping old ones(2). Ideas must evolve if they are to retain their power and usefulness.
We are living at a time, both in Ireland and in the West, where we are seeing an urgent search for new or evolved informing ideas for economic and social policy. Against the broad sweep of history our time has been one where we have seen rapid and major developments in the prevailing ideas and ideologies. We have seen the fall of Communism, the impact this had on the policies of the democratic socialist parties in the West and the resurgence of liberal capitalism and the emphasis on individualism - to the point where one historian could confidently write about, and I quote "The end of History"(3). However, this triumph was relatively short lived. Governments in Europe and in the US had to step in to save their banking systems, and in the process ended up as owners of surprising parts of national economies. Further thinking is needed.
However on to Swift!
Like us all Swift's ideas were formed by his experiences, they evolved over time - and set backs and successes played a part. After education at Kilkenny College and Trinity, Swift moved to England where he spent a period at Moor Park in Surrey as secretary to Sir William Temple, a distinguished retired English diplomat. This experience helped to shape his view of himself as a public servant. The Church also called. He returned to Dublin after 6 years and was ordained as a priest in 1695. An unhappy assignment in the parish of Kilroot in Co Antrim followed.
Kilroot at the time has been described as (quote) 'an isolated and neglected outpost of Anglicanism surrounded by a thriving settler community of Scottish Presbyterians'(4); and scholars have argued, and (quote), 'Swift's lifelong fear and hatred of non-conformists was born directly out of his experience in the North of Ireland.'(5) He was throughout his life a firm believer not only in the need for a preeminent position for his church, the Church of Ireland, but favoured penal legislation against Dissenters and against the Roman Catholic majority. His defence and loyalty to the Church of Ireland was according to one scholar (quote), 'a touchstone for his outlook on most issues'.(6)
Kilroot was in the short run a wrong turning for Swift but it appears to have left an abiding impact on his thinking. He did not stay very long ,returning with relief to Temple and Moor Park. After Temple's death three years later, Swift remained in England as literary executor and editor of his patron's memoirs and correspondence and also used this time to make his own name better known. He returned to Ireland in 1700 and was appointed as Vicar of Laracor near Trim and a prebendary of St Patrick's Cathedral. Building on his connections in London, Swift seems to have gained the confidence of Archbishop King of Dublin - who entrusted him with the task of negotiating the remission, or payment to the Church, of a tax called the First Fruits. This was an ancient and arcane tax. Its importance for the Church of Ireland was that it was levied on clerical livings and the revenues were remitted to the Crown. The Church of England had succeeded in securing that the English revenues be paid to the Church to support poor livings in England. The Irish Church set out to seek a similar arrangement.
Swift was sent to London as negotiator.
The Whig government offered remission but Swift refused, supported by his superiors, to accept the quid pro quo insisted on by the government that the Church of Ireland support a greater degree of legal toleration in Ireland for non- conformists. This was a critical stage in Swift's transition from being a Whig to a Tory. It also seems to have prompted the first of his so- called "patriotic" writings, The Story of The Injured Lady in which he attacked England's colonial behaviour towards Ireland. Swift felt that the then recent constitutional union between Presbyterian Scotland and Anglican England represented a betrayal of loyal Protestant, Anglican Ireland - presenting his allegory in the form of a letter from the Injured Lady to her friend with an opening paragraph, of perhaps enduring sentiment, which might not be out of place in a potboiler romantic novel:
"Sir: Being ruined by the Inconstancy and Unkindness of a Lover, I hope that a true and plain relation of my Misfortunes may be of Use and Warning to credulous Maids, never to put too much Trust in deceitful Men ......."(7)
The Whig administration was replaced by a Tory one in 1709. Swift returned to England and got a much better reception. The Tories offered to remit the First Fruits in return for Swift taking on the role as chief propagandist for their party. Swift remained in England and soon progressed to being part of the inner circle of the Tory administration as well as becoming a leading figure in English literary circles. He seemed fairly set to prosper in England.
However, this was not to be. The Tory administration began to fracture. Swift hoped that before it fell he would gain a suitable clerical promotion in the form of what his correspondent Lord Peterborough described as a "Lean bishopric or a fat deanery"(8) in England. But Queen Anne had been upset by some of his writings and decided that he was not a suitable person to grace an English bishopric. Instead, Swift was offered, and accepted, the Deanship of St Patrick's Cathedral.
On the day of his appointment as Dean in 1713, these lines are said to have been posted on the Cathedral gate:
Look down St Patrick, look we pray,
This prayer for the conversion of Swift may have been political rather than religious. The rumoured author, Jonathan Smedley, was a Whig opponent of Swift who like many of his party appeared not to have forgiven Swift's shift from allegiance to their party. But perhaps worse was to come?
Mind you, the quality of Smedley's verse does not compare with Swift's. Contrast Smedley with Swift's own famous verse on his foundation bequest to St Patrick's Hospital:
"He gave what little wealth he had
The last two lines might be an appropriate commentary on some of the aspects of the conduct of banking and economic policy during the height of the property boom.
Scholars differ on the extent of his enthusiasm for his appointment as Dean. Some think that his subsequent hammering of English governance of Ireland had its origin in what he might have seen as rejection by London. But this view is disputed(9). In Dublin he formed an extensive circle of friends and immersed himself in his role. He carried out improvements to the Cathedral and his home and he created a new enclosed garden.
He was also much moved by the plight of the weavers in his parish, which seems to have prompted a return to political writing. In 1720 he published A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (published 290 years ago) in which he advocated an economic boycott of English goods. We also see here his developing sense of the injustices arising from England's unequal treatment of Ireland (he was particularly angered by the prohibition under English law on woollen exports from Ireland). In language which to some extent anticipates the later revolt of the American colonists, he rails against a "Law to bind men without their own Consent". The proto-nationalist strain in Swift's writings now begins to emerge - and does so with even greater force in his famous Drapier's Letters.
These attack what Swift saw as a high-handed English attempt to impose a new copper coinage for Ireland - the infamous "Wood's halfpence". By now Swift was at loggerheads with the representatives of English authority in Ireland, particularly the Castle government and the Lord Lieutenant. The fourth Drapier letter asserts very explicitly a doctrine of freedom from England and equality for Ireland under the Crown. Swift wrote:
"I have looked over all the English and Irish Statutes, without finding any Law which makes Ireland depend on England; any more than England doth on Ireland"(10).
He goes on to state that if the English should ever rebel against his Sovereign he would take up arms against them, making every effort to hinder the pretender from "being King of Ireland".
We could perhaps read Swift as developing a variant of the idea of a dual monarchy with the same monarch reigning over two self governing kingdoms. This idea was taken up much later by people such as Gladstone as a potential solution to the so -called "Irish Problem". It was most notably taken up in 1904 by Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin in his book "The Resurrection of Hungary". Interestingly it reemerged in a diluted form after Irish independence in the form of residual functions where the Monarch, acting on the advice of the Irish Government, adhered to international treaties and signed the letters of credence of Irish diplomats. This arrangement ended in 1949 after the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act.
But back again to Swift!
Wood's scheme was abandoned and Swift was declared to be a Hibernian Patriot and proclaimed a freeman of Dublin and, later, of Cork.
We can, I think, see Swift as having contributed to laying some groundwork for the development of Irish nationalism. For him, and for some time afterwards, this nationalism, or patriotism, was focused around a concept of a Protestant (indeed Anglican) and English-speaking nation. In this sense if Swift was a nationalist he was a Protestant nationalist - not a nationalist who was a Protestant.
But the informing ideas of Irish nationalism evolved in directions which would probably have pained him given the centrality of Anglicanism in his thinking.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, fifty years after Swift's death, the idea of Irish nationalism had broadened, particularly in the ideology of the United Irishmen and the rhetoric of Wolfe Tone, "to break the connection with England" .... "To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter".
But by the nineteenth century Irish nationalism had become increasingly identified with the cause of the Roman Catholic majority in the population. Nationalists were predominantly, but not of course, exclusively Catholic, and Unionism, particularly in the North of Ireland, was strongly identified with Protestantism.
In the economic domain, protectionist policies (which Swift might well have approved of) became an important part of the nationalist outlook. We can perhaps see a continuity between Swift and Arthur Griffith not just in relation to the idea of a dual monarchy but also in the espousal of economic protectionism - a policy which was enthusiastically applied by the new Irish State from the 1930s onwards.
But again in this area of economic policy, the informing ideas had to change. By the 1950s the pursuit of protectionist policies risked leading to the failure of the Irish state as a political and economic entity.
Drawing on the advice of Dr T K Whitaker, Seán Lemass, one of the revolutionary republican and separatist generation, reversed the protectionist policies and led the country into much greater international economic engagement and ultimately membership of the European Union.
Society was also changing in other ways. The previous identification of national thinking with Roman Catholicism also began to weaken. Society in the Republic began to develop a more open and pluralist character. We have seen, particularly since the 1980s, an increasing distance developing between the political leadership class and the institutional Roman Catholic Church.
And of course in Northern Ireland we now have the encouraging evidence of the leaders of the divided communities beginning to learn to work together, not without difficulty, in the common interest of Northern Ireland.
But of course there is no room for complacency - particularly in regard to the challenges facing the economy, the public finances and their wider social impact.
The debates around the so-called "national question" are now, we hope, on a peaceful and political road but in this country, and particularly in this State, we are now living with the consequence of what we can see was a major failure of an idea that property speculation, building and construction and retail activity could make a substantial contribution to creating enduring national prosperity.
We can, I think, plausibly argue that due to our collective obsession with property, the collapse in property values has contributed to what now seems to be a widespread sense of despondency and gloom. This is added to by a sense of distrust in the moral direction of the conduct of public and business affairs.
Our popular culture had become increasingly materialistic and with the collapse of an idea of personal fulfilment through property and wealth, are we now searching for new sources of hope?
Does this signal a challenge and opportunity for religious leaders on this island - and particularly the leaderships of the Christian churches?
Optimism and hope are at the core of the Christian message. And we clearly need optimism and hope. Religious faith is not disconnected from our worldly concerns - despite some contrary impressions given from time to time. The late Tony Judt recently wrote about the essential role of the religiously inspired habits of restraint, honesty and moderation in underpinning the trust and confidence essential to the workings of the market economy(11). These qualities if they are pervasive are much more effective than regulation in ensuring that the economy works well. Regulation, though necessary, is not sufficient.
But one could argue that in their recent history the Churches have been perceived, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps unfairly, to have conveyed messages and impressions other than those of optimism, hope and trust - the courageous parts played by many Church leaders and individual clergy in relation to Northern Ireland being an honourable exception. Leadership figures in the Roman Catholic Church, my church, in their engagements in the public domain, have been perceived until relatively recently as being mainly concerned by issues of social control and authority while the leaderships of the Church of Ireland and other Protestant churches have been perceived as being particularly concerned (defensively at times) about issues of particular concern to their own communities. These perceptions may be unfair, or at least incomplete, but perceptions do matter.
Some recalibration of communications is called for. But this has to be accompanied by convincing practical actions. Our Churches now enjoy fraternal and ecumenical relationships - a vast improvement since Swift's time. But interestingly, I understand that there is only one public place of worship in Ireland, Trinity Chapel, which is jointly used by the Christian faiths in Ireland. We are, I am told, relatively unique in this regard in Western Europe, where joint use of public church buildings is more prevalent.
I understand that the Dean has offered to make St Patrick's Cathedral available to the Roman Catholic Church for the celebration of Mass - an offer which has not as yet been taken up but which I hope will be. St Patrick's Cathedral is a historic building, an important part of our collective consciousness, particularly in Dublin, and deemed by the Church of Ireland to be a National Cathedral.
We are living in a time when we need symbols of hope in our lives and in our public spaces. Would it not be appropriate to position this great space, with its powerful memories of the first Hibernian Patriot, as a symbol of generosity in the relationship between religions - particularly between those religions whose members profess their belief in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church? Could we encourage this sharing now -at a time in Irish life when religion and religious symbolism may be at greater risk than ever before- but perhaps never more needed?
Notes and References1. Language and style; Ian Higgins. from The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, Christopher Fox Ed, Cambridge University Press 2003, p157.
2. "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money", John Maynard Keynes, Macmillan Cambridge University Press, for Royal Economic Society (1936).
3. "The End of History and the Last Man"; Francis Fukuyama, Free Press, (1992), ISBN 0029109752.
4. "Swift's life; Joseph McKinn, from The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, Christopher Fox Ed, Cambridge University Press 2003, p18.
5, 6. ibid.
7. The Story of the Injured Lady, Jonathan Swift, Swift's Irish Pamphlets, edited by Joseph McMinn, pp23-28, published 1991, reprinted 2009.
8. Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, Ed. Harold Williams, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963-1965, Volume 1, p219.
9. Carole Fabricant, from "The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift", Christopher Fox Ed, Cambridge University Press 2003, p51.
10. See Swift's Irish Pamphlets (Ed: Joseph McKinn). Colin Smythe Ltd, 1991, p79.
11. "Ill fares the Land": Tony Judt, Allen Lane, 2010. p38.
During his career in the public service he was centrally involved in many of the policy developments which transformed the Irish economy and society, particularly education and research. He played the key role in the development and roll out of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI).
He completed a seven year term as Executive Chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in January 2005. Prior to his appointment to the HEA he was Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science from 1993 to 1998. He also worked in the Irish Revenue organisation, the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Finance and in the Unilever group of companies.
He is a graduate of University College Dublin (B.Sc. and Ph.D. (Chemistry)) and Trinity College Dublin (M.Sc. (Econ). He has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland. During 1987 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy and an honorary life member of the Royal Dublin Society.
(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and (Dr Roy Johnston 2003, whoever subsequently); copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.