Mention the war at your peril

In: Uncategorized

10 Dec 2012

This is my Perspective column from last week. Apologies for the delay in posting it but I have had severe technical problems.

The prime minister seems to have a new approach to dealing with Britain’s economic crisis: Do Mention the War. David Cameron recently told the Confederation of British Industry annual conference that recreating the spirit of the second world war would help Britain overcome its current economic challenges. It is worth quoting his speech at length:

“When this country was at war in the 40s, Whitehall underwent a revolution.

“Normal rules were circumvented. Convention was thrown out. As one historian put it, everything was thrown at the overriding purpose of beating Hitler.

“Well, this country is in the economic equivalent of war today–and we need the same spirit. We need to forget about crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ and we need to throw everything we’ve got at winning in this global race.”

It is hard to imagine many other European leaders making a similar call. No matter how bad the economy gets it is unthinkable that the French or Polish presidents let alone the German chancellor would demand a return to wartime attitudes.

Of course Cameron’s willingness to summon up the Blitz spirit partly reflects the fact that there was no land war within Britain. It also helps that Britain was on the winning side.

For many Britons the war summons a Dad’s Army image of a warm if eccentric community pulling together in adverse circumstances. The military conflict is sometimes referred to but it is always in the background and there is never talk of mass carnage or genocide.

In reality of course it is almost impossible to separate the home front and the terrible consequences of war. World war and mass slaughter go together even if it is not immediately apparent to all those involved. Indeed Britain suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths including soldiers as well as many civilians killed by German air raids.

There was also enormous hardship even for those who were lucky enough not to witness any killing. There was strict rationing including food, clothes and petrol. For example, the standard ration in 1941 was one egg a week per person. Some foods that were available before the war, such as bananas, disappeared from the shelves. Rationing was not fully phased out until 1954; nine years after the war ended.

No doubt Cameron would deny he wants a return to rationing let alone to mass bloodshed. He would opt for the positive elements of the war without the negative ones.

But even assuming such a separation is possible it begs the question of what happened to the economy during the war. Public spending surged from about 29% of GDP in 1939 to over 70% in 1945 (see graph). Yet Cameron’s stated goal is to reduce such spending.

A similar trend was apparent in debt levels. According to the website the national debt rose from 110% of GDP to 238% in 1947. In comparison the current level of about 60%is relatively modest even compared with the start of the war. Once again the war experience runs counter to the prime minister’s warning against high debt levels.

Nor was the economy organised in a way that Cameron would like to emulate. During the war it was virtually transformed into a command economy. It was in this respect, to use the prime minister’s words, that the normal rules of the market economy were circumvented and convention was thrown out.

The government played a central role in deciding which sectors of production should be prioritised and directly controlled the manufacture of munitions. It also directed a transformed of agriculture to bolster domestic food production. The railways, ports and long distance road haulage were all nationalised.

The coalition government also played a central role in directing labour from non-essential to essential industries. It helped that Ernest Bevin had the key role of Minister of Labour. Before the war he was co-founder and general secretary of the then powerful Transport and General Workers’ Union. Tens of thousands of men who were conscripted to work in coal mines, rather than joining the armed forces, were nicknamed “Bevin Boys” after him.

Whether or not such extreme measures are viewed as necessary during wartime they most run directly counter to what the government professes today. Most contemporary Conservatives would support a predominant role for market forces but during the war the state was pre-eminent.

The closest the present day gets to the wartime experience is the curbing of personal consumption. No doubt Cameron would reject a return of ration books but the rhetoric of green consumption and sustainability is designed to encourage people to consume less.

Cameron’s call to replicate the spirit of the Second World War is historically illiterate. Essentially he is imploring people to work harder and to be prepared to make sacrifices to help create the conditions for economic recovery.

The call to relive the war shows that government has no coherent strategy to achieve economic growth in the present. Cameron’s appeal to a mythical wartime past, which ignores what a traumatic period it was in reality, only underlines its intellectual bankruptcy.