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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 80

Thrift: an address delivered at the annual meeting of the Edinburgh Savings Bank, December 28, 1908

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Edinburgh: David Douglas 1909

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The National Position

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Lord Rosebery said:—

I have great pleasure in moving the adoption of this report, all the more as it marks an unprecedented occurrence in my own life, which is that, reversing a process by which the son is supposed to walk in the footsteps of the father, I am to-day walking in the footsteps of my son, who, I believe, moved this resolution last year. (Laughter.) I hope I may be able to speak as persuasively about thrift as he did on that occasion. (Laughter.) My Lord Provost, I think we must all feel that this is an eminently satisfactory report. The deposits have increased over a million in the last ten years, and we are now, as Mr. Wood has just told us, second only to Glasgow in the amount of the deposits lodged with the Government. Well, there is a traditional jealousy between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which I sometimes think is exaggerated—(hear, hear)—but at any rate we are quite satisfied to be second to Glasgow on this occasion, because we must remember that if Glasgow has saved more than we have, Glasgow has a great deal more to save from than we have. (Hear, hear.) But even if we are satisfied with ourselves, I am not sure that we figure quite favourably in page 4 regard to other nations as regards the proportion of depositors to population, I see from the returns that Sweden, and Norway, and France, and Belgium, and Germany, all exceed us in that proportion, and I think that we ought not to be satisfied as a country until we rank with that little but robust nation of Norway, which stands at the head of the list. (Applause.)

Old Age Pensions

Now, sir, you have expressed a doubt as to whether the new provision for old age pensions is likely to promote thrift in the community. I am not going to follow you on that burning and hazardous ground which approaches too near to party politics for an occasion of this kind, but after all, some of the anomalies might almost point to the fact that the encouragement of thrift in the sense of accumulation is one of the objects of the old age pension scheme, because when you see that those who have saved £800 or even £1000 are rewarded by receiving an old age pension of 5s. a week, no one can feel that the whole scope of this scheme is the discouragement of thrift. (Laughter and applause.) Some people, according to their party, call it a wasteful experiment, and some call it a wise and far-reaching experiment. I shall not take either side, but shall content myself with saying that it is experimental in its nature, and that we shall have to wait some little time before we can pronounce confidently on its operation.

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A Definition of Thrift

Now on these occasions the mover of the report, as I observe my son did last year, is expected to say a few words upon thrift. Thrift is one of these virtues which are, perhaps more than we think, much easier to preach than to practise, and to a Scottish audience, our reputation in the world being what it is, it would seem almost like carrying coals to Newcastle to advocate thrift in any shape or form. Well, I will content myself with repeating, in the words of Shakespeare, what comprehends, after all, the whole root of the matter, that 'thrift is blessing,' not merely because of the accumulation of substance, but because of the foundation and strengthening of character. (Hear, hear.) Now, as regards the financial aspect, I am not anxious to say a great deal on this occasion. From the financial point of view my definition of thrift would be this—getting full value for your money and looking ahead. Of course, the historic definition which has given so much comfort and encouragement to thousands is that of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield. I copied out the words last night that 1 might be perfectly certain that I should have them right this morning, with the disastrous result that I got so interested in David Copperfield that I found it difficult to return to the consideration of thrift, (Laughter and applause.) What did Mr. Micawber say to David Copperfield on a famous occasion? 'Annual income, £20; annual expenditure, £19, 19s. 6d.—result, happiness. page 6 Annual income, £20; annual expenditure, £20, 0s. 6d.—result, misery.' (Laughter.) Well I suppose that is practically true. It means in reality that a man who is beforehand with the world to even a small degree occupies a very different position relatively to the rest of the world as compared to the man who is behindhand with it to as small an extent. Of course, on the financial view of thrift we know it is the foundation of all prosperity, even of those colossal fortunes which we hear of in America, but which we never realise in this country. (Laughter.) It is perfectly true, I think, that Mr. Andrew Carnegie, who began in the very humblest situation in life in the town of Dunfermline, has worked his way up to a fortune which I cannot even attempt to estimate, but which I know, from the beneficent expenditure, must be enormous, mainly by a beginning of thrift. This morning, in the newspapers, we had another example of a lad who landed in South Carolina sixty-three years ago with 12s. in his pocket, and died worth ten millions sterling yesterday. I do not mean to argue—I am not such a fool as to argue—that it was by mere thrift that these immense fortunes have been accumulated; but I am here to argue my profound faith that they were in the commencement founded on thrift, and on nothing but thrift—(hear, hear),—and that when by thrift a small but substantial sum was accumulated, it was so utilised by the genius of speculation as to amount to these enormous fortunes.

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The Generosity of the Thrifty

Now, I want to make an exception before I go any further. Whatever thrift is, it is not avarice, There is a broad distinction between thrift and avarice. Mr. Micawber in his definition expressly, as it seems to me, excludes avarice, because the accumulation of sixpence at the end of the year, which he indicates as amounting to happiness, would certainly not satisfy any dream of avarice. Moreover, avarice is not generous; and, after all, it is the thrifty people who are generous. (Applause.) All true generosity can only proceed from thrift, because it is no generosity to give money which does not belong to you, as is the case with the unthrifty. And I venture to say that among all the great philanthropists, all the great financial benefactors of their species of whom we have any record, the most generous of all must have been thrifty men. (Applause.) Well, now, I pass from the financial value of thrift, which to me is not the greatest, to that which results in the formation of character. I know that many people when they read speeches about thrift say, 'How can the poor be thrifty? They have nothing to be thrifty upon.' But, the exact reverse of the case is the truth. Strangely enough, in your report which you have just read, and which is before us to-day, we have the proof of the contrary, By the experience of Edinburgh and by the experience of Glasgow, and by the experience of Manchester—I think these are the cases you page 8 mention, Mr, Wood—it has been found that periods of stress and not periods of prosperity are the most favourable to thrift, as shown in the deposits in the Savings Bank.

Thrifty Scotsmen and their Funerals

But the case of Scotland, our own country, is a much more emphatic illustration of this than any particular Savings Bank in however large a town it may be situated. In Scotland the eighteenth century, the time of perhaps her direst poverty, at any rate as compared with other countries in the world, was the period of our greatest thrift, A hundred and forty years ago there were probably not more than two or three hundred thousand pounds of current coin in the whole of Scotland; and when you compare that with the fourteen millions of deposits in the two Savings Banks of Edinburgh and Glasgow you may arrive at some computation of what the difference of prosperity is between the Scotland of to-day and the Scotland of that day. But that was the time of Scotland's greatest thrift, this time when her whole current coinage did not amount, as it is calculated, to £300,000—so much so that in these days we read that the one great object of a Scottish peasant was thrift, not for the sake of livelihood but for the sake of his funeral—(laughter)—to amass enough money to obtain a decent funeral, which was calculated at, I think, about £2. This patient and self-denying people page 9 amassed enough for what after all is the most insignificant event in our lives—toiled and spun and spared themselves for that purpose. Much more than that, they maintained their own aged, their own parents, their own relations. They thought it shame to take any money from the public or the State. (Applause.) They had a spirit of independence, which is at least equal to any spirit of independence which we boast of now. They scorned to take assistance, they scorned that any should maintain their families but themselves. They gave a little surplus in charity, for there were plenty of recipients in the beggars and tinkers on the road. But the nation at large was thrifty, independent, self-respecting to a degree perhaps known in no other nation at no other period in the world. (Applause.) Why, sir, when things were in this impoverished state in Scotland the Scottish people were a source of terror to their southern countrymen.

An Old English Caricature

Only yesterday I lit upon a caricature, an English caricature, I need hardly say, of the date of 1780—you see, ten years after the time I am speaking of, when the current coin was so small in number. It represents a Scotsman only half clad—the caricature is quite decorous—(laughter)—with his shoes on his one shoulder, and an essential part of his dress on the other—(laughter) page 10 —barefooted, on his way to England, And underneath it is written:—

Tho' Sawney's breeks are on his shoulders,
So plainly seen by all beholders,
Half-starved, half-naked, but one shoe,
Yet, by and by, he "ll ride o'er you,

Yes, our great-grandfathers—my great-grand-father at any rate was living at that time, and in possession of his estate—our great-grandfathers did great things in those days on a mess of pottage. They had no more. But with it they helped to mould the Empire. They maintained their poor without legal compulsion. They sought nothing from external help, and they laid in their nakedness and their barrenness the foundations of the prosperity which reigns in Scotland at the present moment. (Applause.) I should not care to live, we none of us would care to live, as they did. Some of the poorest in our country would shrink from the manner of life which was endured by some of the noblest in these days. We should not care to share their privations; but we should not be unwilling to be convinced that we possess their independence, their self-reliance, and their self-respect. (Applause.)

Thrift and Independence

And, my Lord Provost, I regard that as the greatest blessing resulting out of thrift—lndependence of character. Whether Scottish pride arises out of Scottish thrift, or whether Scottish page 11 thrift arises out of Scottish pride, I really cannot decide, but they are closely intertwined, so closely that you cannot perhaps separate them; but at any rate the combination produces the character which has governed the country, (Applause,) Again when we talk of thrift producing character, we are at a loss to know whether it is not thrift that is a sign of character. Thrift implies care, foresight, tenderness for those dependent on you. Whether these qualities produce thrift, or whether they are produced by thrift, I will not venture to say; but at any rate of this I am certain, that they are inseparably intertwined. You remember what the last words were of Oliver Goldsmith, one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived in this island. You remember he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield, if I remember aright—that masterpiece which has survived so many masterpieces—to pay off a creditor, his landlady or another,—for he was always in financial difficulties,—and when he lay dying, some one said to him, 'Is your mind at ease?' and he replied, 'No, it is not.' These were his last recorded words. You may be sure that if he had united genius to thrift, his last words would have been something very different.

The Wickedness of Waste

But, ladies and gentlemen, I said a moment ago it was a question, rather, how can the poor be thrifty? Well, I will not go into that question, except to say that, as I think I have demonstrated, page 12 it has been in the power of the poorest to be thrifty in our country in the past But there is, at any rate, one sort of thrift which is in the power of the very poorest, and which is to refrain from waste. If I wanted to train up a child to be thrifty, as I have apparently trained my eldest son—(laughter)—I should teach him to abhor waste. I do not mean the waste of money. That cures itself, because very soon there is no money to waste. But I mean waste of material, waste of something which is useful, which may not represent any money value to the waster. Then there is waste of what does not belong to us, which is a very common form of waste. There is waste of water. Indeed, Edinburgh ought to know something about the waste of water. I am not speaking of the waste caused by the pollution of our rivers, though that, perhaps, is the most criminal form of waste that exists in our midst. There is not a river that flows round Edinburgh, there is not a river that flows through Mid-Lothian, that is not hopelessly polluted, and wantonly polluted, so that it cannot be used for any cleanly purpose. I am not speaking of the waste of water in that way, but the waste in private families, among individuals, who waste that precious element in a way which compels Edinburgh to go seeking every twenty years or so for a new source of supply. I remember being a member of a small municipality in the south of England when this question of waste came before us. We found that water was allowed to run, and that every page 13 form of waste was indulged in, because it cost nothing; and so the result was a water famine when summer came on. Again, let us take the waste of gas and things of that kind, I believe Edinburgh Town Council has recently adopted a stringent measure for the prevention of the waste of gas, but I am not a resident in the city, and so 1 have not experienced its rigour; but at any rate we all of us must see that there is a constant waste of things which cost nothing to waste, but which are in reality an offence against ourselves and against the economy of the world.

The Thrift of Burns, Scott, and Gladstone

Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you wish your children to be thrifty, I would beg of you to impress upon them the criminality of waste. (Applause.) What is the example we learn from great men in this respect? I take three foremost men of their countries. I take Washington, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon—Washington, a thrifty man of business as ever lived; Frederick the Great more than thrifty; Napoleon, thrifty in detail to the utmost possible extent And then I take three other names, three names familiar to Scotsmen—three names of great Scotsmen, and there I find more difficulty. I take Burns, and Walter Scott, and Gladstone. Of course the toughest nut to crack is Burns. We worshippers of Burns are not accustomed to think page 14 of him as thrifty, and, undoubtedly from some points of view he was not thrifty, though he had uncommonly little to be thrifty upon. But no one could see the enormous output of work that Burns did without seeing that he must have had a great thrift of time, which is perhaps the most important form in which we can be thrifty. But I will abandon Burns as a difficult subject (Laughter.) Walter Scott, as we know, died ruined. But Walter Scott was eminently thrifty. The trouble of Walter Scott was that he was ambitious, and endeavoured to found too large a structure on his labour and his thrift, went into business which he did not understand, and, therefore, the whole structure toppled over. Now, of Mr. Gladstone I can speak with personal knowledge. There was no man so careful and thrifty in his expenditure, combined with great generosity, and great liberality. (Applause.) No one who ever saw that great man at work could believe that it was anything but a sin to waste anything, more especially time. (Applause.)

Thrift and the Empire

I do not want to detain you too long; hut I want to take you to a larger sphere of thrift, and that, after all, is the main point on which I want to insist to-day. All great Empires have been thrifty. Take the Roman Empire which in some respects, as a centralised Empire, was the greatest page 15 in history, which lay like an iron clamp on the face of Europe. That was founded on thrift. When it ceased to be thrifty, it degenerated and came to an end. Take the case of Prussia, which began with a little narrow spit of sand in the north of Europe, 'all sting,' as some one said referring to its shape and the fact that almost all its inhabitants were armed men. It began with a narrow spit of sand. It was nurtured by the thrift of Frederick the Great's father, who prepared a vast treasure and a vast army by economy, which we should call sordid, but it was the means by which the greatness of Prussia was founded, from which the present German Empire has arisen. Take the case of France. In my humble belief, France, in spite of the returns I quoted at the beginning of my speech, is in reality the most frugal of all nations. I am not sure that the French always put their money into savings banks, and therefore they do not figure so well in the proportion of depositors to the nation as some others may do. But after the disastrous war of 1870, when France was crushed for the time by a foreign enemy and by a money imposition which it seemed almost impossible that any nation could pay, what happened? The stockings of the French peasantry, in which they had kept the savings of years, were emptied into the chest of the State, and that huge indemnity and cost of war were paid off in a time incredibly short. The other two nations I have spoken of were made by their thrift; and France was saved by her thrift. (Applause.)

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The Government and Thrift

Now we come to our own country. What have we to say of her in the way of thrift? We have a financier who is also a member of Parliament here present, Sir George M'Crae, who would give us more enlightenment on that point than I could, because I sit in a House which is privileged only to pay the taxes and not to vote them. (Laughter.) But I am bound to say that, speaking from that external point of view, I am not quite sure that thrift is a governing consideration of our Parliament at this moment There used to be a very considerable man, who was mocked at in his time—he was a prophet, though a minor prophet—I mean Joseph Hume. He was a very severe and rigid economist, who was a terror to all persons who were guilty of anything like extravagance in the public service. Joseph Hume was so minor a prophet that he does not seem to have left a mantle behind him; at any rate, no portion of its texture has fallen, I am sorry to say, on any present member of the House of Commons. (Laughter.) So much so, to such a degree, has the absence of thrift proceeded, that it is now a subject of joy to economists, when votes are passed under the guillotine, because when any vote comes up for discussion, there is no question of its diminution, but a hundred voices for its increase; and therefore, although I know politicians are apt to complain of so many votes and so much expenditure being passed under the rigid rule of page 17 silence imposed by the guillotine, the economist secretly rejoices that such is the case. I cannot embark upon that topic to-day. Indeed, I have embarked upon enough topics already, but I do think it is incumbent on those who have the governance of our affairs to remember that great nations and great empires only live so long as they are thrifty; that the moment they begin to waste or disperse their resources the day of their end is at hand. That is a fact abundantly proved in history, proved up to the hilt, I think, by two of the examples I have given you, and though I do not pretend to preach thrift from any exalted standpoint, I do beg those who are here present and those outside these walls whom my words may reach to remember that thrift is the surest and the strongest foundation of an Empire—so sure, so strong, and so necessary that no great empire can long exist that disregards it (Applause.)

Primed by T. and A. Constable, Printers to His Majesty at the Edinburgh University Press