Timeless wisdom from a long-forgotten Scotswoman

D.E. Stevenson, born in Edinburgh in 1892, wrote 42 novels in the years between 1923 and 1970.  Most are out of print, so I’ve had the pleasure of reading only the small handful I’ve stumbled across in local libraries over the years.  She writes about the British and Scottish middle class, always with a loving, respectful, sometimes humorous tone.  Those of her books that are my favorites are the ones she wrote during WWII.  Stevenson was intensely patriotic, and believed that the British were in an existential war that must be won in order to preserve their democratic way of life against Nazi totalitarianism.

I was recently lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of Spring Magic, which Stevenson wrote in 1941, when Britain stood alone against the Nazis.  The book is ostensibly a romance, with an innocent, but gallant young woman meeting, and falling in love with, a young officer.  That story-line, however, is just a hook for the book’s real focus, which is to delineate the two things Stevenson believed gave Britain her strength and integrity:  its respect for individuals and its career military.  In book after book, Stevenson refines the theme of the goodness and power of the individual (which means her books are filled with charming, honorable characters), and the necessity of an honest, committed military class.  (Stevenson was herself the wife of a career army officer).

Stevenson’s ruminations about British strengths — and the country’s occasionally dismaying fall into suicidal weakness — make for interesting reading seventy years later.  I’d like to share with you a single passage from her book, one that is as relevant today as it was in 1941.  Just so that we’re on the same page, I’ll mention that the passage below, which has the old Laird explaining things to a young officer, reminds me of the fact that (a) in January, the moratorium on estate taxes ends, with the result that estate taxes will go as high as 55% and (b) that the phrase most often heard on Obama’s lips, in one form or another, is always “it’s someone else’s fault,” a phrase usually coupled with a false statement to the effect that, at the time, Obama knew better:

“. . . but even before the war started we had been living on our capital for years,” Mr. MacDonald was saying earnestly.

“I’ve heard it said before,” admitted Guy. “But I’m no economist, I’m afraid.”

“It is quite easy to understand,” Mr. MacDonald replied. “You know what happens when a man starts to spend his capital, and the same thing is bound to happen when a Government starts spending a nation’s wealth. Death Duties and Succession Duties are capital, but the Government has been spending the proceeds as if they were income. It would not be so bad if the Government raked in the money and invested it and spent the income — but that does not seem to have occurred to them. It does not require an economist to realise that a nation’s wealth lies in the wealth of her citizens. Moneyed people are an asset to a nation; paupers are a liability. Take a man with an income of ten thousand a year; he is a valuable asset. The State can depend upon him for a definite yearly income. Then the man dies and the property — instead of passing to his son and continuing to yield the same yearly income to the State — has to be broken up and sold to pay Death Duties.”

“I see,” said Guy, nodding.

“You see,” continued Mr. MacDonald, “every time a big estate is sold up it is a national investment sold out. No more yearly income will accrue from it to the State. It means that the Government has killed one of its geese, so that goose cannot lay any more golden eggs. In the last fifteen years or so the Government has killed off dozens of geese . . . soon there will be no more geese left, and therefore no more golden eggs.”

“It seems very shortsighted,” said Guy thoughtfully.

“It is shortsighted,” replied Mr. MacDonald. “We have been suffering from shortsighted politicians for years. This dreadful was is due to myopia on the part of our politicians — ”

“That’s true!” exclaimed Guy.

Mr. MacDonald smiled. “They wouldn’t see and they wouldn’t listen,” he declared. “They never listen to people who try to tell them unpalatable truths. Lord Roberts warned them before the last war and they said he was in his dotage. Winston Churchill, Roger Keyes, Nevile Henderson and half a dozen others warned them that Germany was on the warpath again and all they did was to disarm faster and break up our battleships for scrap . . . . I don’t know whether you have noticed,” continued Mr. MacDonald. “It is rather an extraordinary thing. Churchill has never once said ‘I told you so’ or ‘If you had only listened to me.’ He is a big man, there is no doubt of that.”