Troppodillians have seen some of this week’s Courier Mail column coming in an earlier post. This week’s column is about the strange way in which Great Britain snapped out of the ‘low dishonest decade’ of appeasement. It seems to me that there is something remarkable about the way in which it turned to the right people, despite their transgressions against the establishment.
In some ways it was the very cosiness of the establishment that meant that when the chips were down the right ‘chaps’ could be turned to and the formalities could be dispensed with. If Keynes wanted a word with Churchill he could meet him at the Other Club.
I wonder whether someone like Keynes would have been as influential in a more formally meritocratic system. Apart from being an ‘outsider’ he was also extremely forthright in his criticism of the establishment, and I can’t see that being taken too kindly to within the modern Australian bureaucracy. But who knows?
I’m afraid I can’t help but quote the incantation “we shall fight on the beaches” again. I expect its unfashionable but I just love great rhetoric. Maybe I wouldn’t be so smitten if I had been brought up within an organised religion – because religious texts appeal to something similar – they become more powerful -not less – for being repeated. The words resonate with meaning.
Churchill could do rhetoric – he really could. Abe Lincoln even more so. One of the big fakers of rhetoric in my opinion was JFK – but I digress. . . .
Three men who saved the world
We’ve been celebrating the 60th anniversary of various milestones of the dying days of WWII lately, like V(E) day and the liberation of Auschwitz-Burkenau humanity’s most concerted attempt to descend into the bowels of Hell itself. I’m not sure why we’ve given less attention to the 65th anniversary of the early landmarks of the war, but one passed last Saturday.
On the 4th June new Prime Minister Winston Churchill steeled his nation to fight. To fight in France, and on the seas and oceans, and in the air.
We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The British are often thought of – perhaps think of themselves – as a crusty, hidebound lot with a monolithic ‘establishment’. Yet when it mattered in 1940, Great Britain turned to people of greatness and genius, whatever offence they may have caused the establishment. Here’s the story of three such figures whose mental feats helped save our world.
Churchill spent most of the 1930s in the political wilderness opposing the disastrous appeasement of Hitler. Right up to the royal family, the establishment feared him as passionate and unpredictable – a loose cannon. Winston wasn’t a ‘sound chap’. Churchill brought resolution indeed sheer physical courage to his office. He was foolhardily courageous himself. With others in the bunker, he would take those who dared onto the roof of Number 10 to take in the Luftwaffe’s fireworks during the blitz.
Then there was John Maynard Keynes, polymath, gadfly, high minded aesthete and economist of the century. He resigned his Treasury post in 1919 to protest the looming catastrophe of the Versailles treaty in which the victors avenged themselves against the defeated Germany with crippling war reparations. “Vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp” prophesied Keynes. Nor did it.
Thereafter Keynes lambasted the financial and economic policy establishment for needlessly contracting the economy with their eyes on a long run in which Keynes famously said we would all be dead. On 4th February 1936 he published the culmination of his own thought. Hubristically titled after Einstein’s revolutionary physics, Keynes’ General Theory founded modern macroeconomics.
The night before, he attended the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre, the construction of which he had conceived, supervised and financed.
Despite the vigor of his attacks, indeed the ridicule to which he had subjected those in power (not least Churchill!), June 1940 saw Keynes become consultant to the Treasury. Without any official position within Treasury’s hierarchy he became in Lord Salter’s words “the strangest civil servant Whitehall has ever seen, less the servant and more the master of those he served”.
He ran British economic policy from a little corner office and used his new macroeconomics to engineer the greatest proportional switch of resources towards war production of any of the belligerents. He then directed Britain’s negotiation of the post-war financial architecture which did so much to avoid the mistakes of Versailles and instead to deliver the biggest boom the world had ever known.
Then there was Alan Turing whose mathematical genius was pivotal to unlocking the German Enigma code and so, turning the tide against the German U-boats in the Atlantic.
Once war was won how quickly things changed.
The computers and other gizmos Turing helped design at Bletchley Park were smashed to pieces, their work (and Turing’s hand in it) kept secret until the 1970s.
Churchill was turfed out of office by an electorate that was keen to get on with building the welfare state. Responding to his wife Clementine’s suggestion that, at his age, it might be a blessing in disguise, a shattered Churchill responded that it was certainly a very good disguise!
Keynes’ health had been failing for years whilst an eccentric doctor he called ‘the Ogre’ kept his heart going with a regimen of sulpha drugs and bed rest with ice bags on his chest. (This regiment got him through the negotiations on the international financial architecture at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944.) Exhausted by his labours Keynes’ died in 1946.
In 1952 Turing’s life was ruined by prosecution for “gross indecency and sexual perversion”. Unapologetic, about his homosexuality, Turing offered no defence and was given the choice between incarceration and hormone therapy. Growing breasts as a result of his choice, he died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, presumably by his own hand.
By then Churchill was nearing eighty in his second term as Prime Minister. While some of his concerns remained typically visionary and ahead of their time – for instance his championing of nuclear disarmament and his (then) unfashionable hostility to communism and decolonisation – he was too old to do his job well.
He remained nostalgic then as he did for the rest of his long life for those days of 1940 when, as he put it, “there was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end”.
Cometh the hour; cometh the men.
And then they went from hence, and were seen no more.