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Hugh Dalton – Economist & Politician

Hugh Dalton was an economist and politician who rose to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in Clement Attlee’s  post-war Labour government.

Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he initially help an academic post at the LSE where he made important contributions to the theory and measurement of income distribution. During WWI he served as a lieutenant, winning a medal for bravery in Italy. He became an MP in 1924, and then shadow foreign secretary from 1935 to 1940, steering the Labour Party away from its traditional pacifism and opposing Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. During the wartime coalition government under Churchill he was firstly Minister of Economic Warfare – where he set up, and became the first political head, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – and then President of the Board of Trade. After the Labour election victory of July 1945, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer by Attlee. In the difficult years for the economy after the war, Dalton pursued low interest rates and expansionary tax and expenditure policies, introducing the universal family allowance scheme, and providing greater assistance to rural communities and Development Areas. He also increased spending on education – which included the introduction of free school milk, abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1971 – and nationalised the Bank of England.

Dalton was forced to resign as Chancellor in autumn 1947, when he unwisely spoke to a journalist before giving his budget speech and some of his proposed tax changes were printed in the evening papers before he had finished speaking, and while the stock market was still open. However, he returned to the Cabinet in 1948 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then in 1950 became minister for Town and Country Planning.

In 1930, Dalton and his wife Ruth had their Aldbourne House, West Leaze built for them by Sir John Burnet and Partners, at a cost of £2500. This was one of the very earliest modernist houses in England, inspired by the work of the visionary architect Le Corbusier, and making considerable use of reinforced concrete and steel. (The house is about a mile from the village along the Ogborne Road.) In the early years, it had no telephone – a disadvantage for an ambitious politician – as well as no electricity and no mains water. Many of his political colleagues, such as Herbert Morrison and Anthony Crosland, came to West Leaze and would often be taken on long walks from the house. Dalton himself was an avid walker, thinking nothing of walking from Aldbourne to Avebury and back, or from Hungerford to Aldbourne following a train journey from London.

Dalton was an environmentalist and conservationist long before those terms became popular. As Chancellor in 1946, he created the National Land Fund – which later became the National Heritage Memorial Fund – and from 1948 to 1950, he was President of the Ramblers Association. He steered through the National Parks Act in 1949, and in 1951 approved the designation not only of the Pennine Way as the first long distance footpath in the UK but also of the Peak District, the lake District and Snowdonia as the first UK National Parks. He had a considerable interest in trees, planting a few hundred in the grounds of West Leaze.

He became a life peer in 1960 as Baron Dalton, and died in 1962. Ruth sold the house in 1964 and moved to London. She died in 1966.