By Parson Thru
World War 1 occurred because of an unquestionable belief in naked greed as the one and only way - the flag following private wealth wherever it went and the monarchies symbolising belief in that God-given system of human affairs. France had, at least, dispensed with its monarch, but retained the old belief in its “destiny”. World War 1 was a disaster, without doubt. But, crucially, it was an unresolved one. The societies that paid so dearly appeared to learn nothing from it, and so the peace was a disaster, too.
World War 2 in Europe occurred because the same elites that had brought about the conditions for a World War were left to secure the peace. Nothing had changed. Russia had turned in on itself after abandoning the southern expansionist dream of its overthrown elite, but the Treaty of Versailles reflected the chauvinism and elitism of Franco-Prussian antagonism in an atmosphere still dominated by the ambitions of private wealth. Britain was still protecting the interests of its own wealthy. Within twenty years, Europe would plunge into another, more catastrophic war between the same protagonists.
“Hi Seamus! How’re you doin’?”
“Oh, hi! Not so bad, you know. Can’t grumble. How’s yourself?”
“Fine. Fine. Still batting on.”
“Yes thanks. Finally getting some hours in.”
“More than ever. What are you up to?”
“Oh, same old, same old. Bit of coaching. Contract work. It keeps me going.”
“Well it’s nice to see you. How’s Alistair?”
“No idea. Haven’t clapped eyes on him. Same as ever I suppose.... Anyway.”
“Yes. Best dash.”
“Nice seeing you.”
“You, too Seamus. Take care.”
It’s now 73 years since the end of World War 2. Why has the peace lasted? Principally, because the old order burned itself out in the fight. Private wealth and national resources were exhausted. In almost the whole of continental Europe, monarchies and systems of government were overwhelmed and collapsed – except in Britain, where the monarchy flourished as the image of national cohesion, and a National Government steered the country through the war. But Britain entered the post war era with the largest national debt in history. Its principal creditor, the USA.
The USA, drawn reluctantly and incrementally from its position of isolationism, had endured enormous loss of life among its young men, but had not experienced the horrors of war in its towns and cities. It had, instead, become manufacturer and chief lender to Britain and its empire. The war in Europe was ultimately won by the commitment of US resources: men, materiel and finance. Russia, fighting first for survival, and then for victory in the east, was also a recipient of vast amounts of US aid. Britain had hocked everything to the US in order to survive: overseas territories, financial debt and R&D. It had paid with its future prosperity. Arguably, the United States was the sole victor of WW2. It ended the war with expansion, a strong economy, creditors and new technologies, including the jet engine, the rocket engine and atomic science. For Britain, the war was a disaster.
At the point where the rubble of continental Europe was being bulldozed with machinery financed by the Marshall Plan, Britain was surveying the extent of its debt to the USA. The post-war General Election returned a landslide Labour government with an ambitious programme of social reform, really a progression of the earlier Liberal reforms through Social Security – mandatory insurance contributions.
The great Labour nationalisation of strategic industries was actually a continuation of the wartime situation where those industries had been nationalised for the war effort. Like so many private enterprises turned over to wartime production, they had fallen into disrepair – exhausted by six years of effort. Many private enterprises were also brought into public ownership to ensure their survival. With investment capital in short supply due to the financing of the war and post war debt, there was no option. As with the banks during the credit crunch, the taxpayer kept them alive. As new infrastructure - modern electric railways, for example - was built across Europe, Britain struggled to repair its worn-out railway and re-equip it with a new generation of steam-powered locomotives.
Europe (including Britain) was on its knees. The United States, as benefactor and creditor, was dictating terms. With the old order gone or ruined and its value system defunct, the US enforced collaboration between the old competitors, particularly Germany and France. Britain, meanwhile, rather like a traditional family whose dysfunctional private life must never be aired publicly, continued to give an impression of its greatness to the outside world. Monarchy, pomp and circumstance and military adventurism (with France) at Suez. Whilst Europe moved ever closer to collaboration, Britain strove to maintain the image of its past. De Gaulle was happy to keep Britain outside the fledgeling European Community, whether through strategic necessity or personal enmity, who knows? His relationship with Churchill during the war had been a disaster, but he also knew from his war years how Britain really functioned.
“Where are you? I’ve been here since six thirty.”
“I think I’ve fucked up. Were we meeting in El Tigre?”
“No no no no! La Sierra!”
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. My lesson overran as well. Sorry Pablo.”
“Where are you now?”
“I’ve just crossed Bravo Murrillo. I’m on Fernández de los Ríos. No hang on. It’s changed.”
“You’re going the wrong way. Come back the way you’ve gone. You want to be on Fernando el Católico. Corner of there and Galileo, near the mercado.”
“Oh, you’re fucking kidding. I’ve just come from there. I’ve been following Google Maps to El Tigre.”
“It’s kilometers away. Tranquilo. I have a beer and a tapa. Take your time.”
“God, I’m sorry.”
“Hey. Tranquilo. Nos vemos.”
Britain’s Post War Boom, when it came, began against a background of austerity and rationing, spurred by a national programme of house building and increasing investment in roads and infrastructure, plus a period of full employment led by the public services and industries, which the Conservatives, after winning the 1951 General Election pledged not to dismantle – why would they? An era of full-employment and growing prosperity followed, with workers being recruited from around the former Empire to fill vacancies. Harold MacMillan famously told the nation “You’ve never had it so good.” Inflation eroded Britain’s indebtedness from its historic post-war level but the country remained heavily indebted to domestic and foreign creditors.
British manufacturers – state and private – found it difficult to innovate and compete against the rising stars of Germany and Japan in the consumer goods and car markets. British firms were undercapitalised and marred by poor industrial relations. Plants were old and inefficient. Quality and productivity were poor. Products lacked the sophistication of German and Japanese imports. Growth faltered, whilst inflationary pressure continued, giving rise to the term “stagflation”. By the 1970s, successive weak governments failed to make any political headway with the crisis.
“I’m gonna be the last man standing.”
“You are, mam.”
“Youngest of six girls. Four brothers. What’s happened to them all? Don’t they have any staying power?”
“Well you’ve still got a sister.”
“But she’s got dementia. She’s in a home.”
“I know. Are you alright?”
“Fine. Fine. I just get a bit sad when I look over at her house and see all the building work going on.”
“That’s life, mam. A new generation. Young people.”
“Why do they have to build all them big extensions? These houses were big enough for us.”
“I don’t know. It’s just what they do now.”
“Well I’m not moving out of here.”
“Why did you have to go and live all the way over there? When are you going to come back?”
“I don’t know, mam.”
In 1979, the Conservatives were elected under Margaret Thatcher, who’d earlier deposed Edward Heath’s Post-War-Consensus leadership and replaced it with the zeal of economic orthodoxy and monetary control. The buzz-word became “privatisation”: return of state industries to the rigours of the marketplace. In effect, this brought an end to the era of post war state support to exhausted industries that never succeeded in renewing their capital. The market was allowed to cherry-pick anything that was of value, leaving the remainder to perish.
The “Thatcher revolution” freed the money markets from their obligation of lending vast amounts to the state, and deregulation allowed them to exploit investment opportunities they previously had no access to. It re-introduced a culture of risk-taking in pursuit of higher returns and brought the entrepreneur back into the national psyche. But the cost was heavy in the old industrial heartlands that had helped build modern Britain and had sustained the war effort only decades before. It was borne disproportionately among those who’d gone straight from military service into industrial life and among the young, who were pouring out of what were still essentially low-expectation secondary modern schools into years of hopelessness in depressed provincial communities.
Several years earlier – at its second attempt, following the death of de Gaulle – Britain had joined the European Economic Community, at long last following its neighbours into an era of economic cooperation and collaboration. It entered during the darkest period of its political and economic crisis – one of strikes, power-cuts and the three-day-week. Britain had belatedly taken the step from naked greed and ruthless competition, towards the spirit of collaboration ushered in by the Marshall Plan in 1945.
Many arguments could be had over how much of Britain’s economic recovery can be attributed to the availability of new markets on the doorstep and economic cooperation with neighbours and how much to Thatcher’s market reforms. Certainly, a large proportion of Britain’s trade – around half – is with the EU and what developed into the Single Market. From 1979, Conservative governments began once again to preach the “greed is good” narrative – though Thatcher and her successor, John Major were supporters of European cooperation, albeit critical of some institutions.
The legacy of Margaret Thatcher is a disputed one, as with many legacies, but a kernel of hard-core libertarians, funded by winners (domestic and foreign) in the post-Thatcher/post-Blair “winner-takes-all” society, have driven the old ideas of the pre-World War age back into the public imagination. For complex reasons, including nostalgia, chauvinism and a fear that the EU will implement a regime hostile to tax avoidance, these libertarians managed to raise to the Conservative manifesto a referendum aimed at taking Britain out of the EU. Politics is a universally dirty game and one can only wonder at the funding promises and the deals done.
What followed was a highly organised and well-funded campaign, short on facts but long on chauvinism, aimed at the people who responded so well to an earlier patriotic call to pack their sons off to the trenches for the war of European elites. Interesting to note that the vast majority of funding for the Leave campaign came from very few donors.
“What are you going to do?”
“Wait and see.”
“Will you have to go home?”
“I don’t know. The Spanish government seems to be saying we can stay, but who knows what’ll happen? If there’s no agreement, it might all change.”
“My sobrino – how do you say that? The son of my brother?”
"Ah, thank you. My nephew is living in Manchester. He has a job there and an English girlfriend. They are worried.”
“We all are.”
“It’s a mess. I don’t understand it. Britain has a good deal with the EU. A lot of trade.”
“I don’t know, José. I think there’s more to it.”
“It’s a shame.”
And so it seems we’ve entered into a new period of enmity, competition and hostility towards our neighbours, fuelled, as ever, by mass media – the press – who seem to have their own motives for sowing seeds of malevolence. A large section of the public have once again fallen in step behind the marching bands but can’t give concrete reasons why, when asked. Just as, no doubt, my great grandparents couldn’t say why it was a good idea to wave Jack and Tommy off to war.
Again, the benefits, such as they are, seem to accrue only to a few hundred, or perhaps a few thousand families among the tens of millions. Again, it seems we are moving from economic cooperation towards a private casino game that enriches only the few. Let’s hope that we’re not being steered onto a trajectory whose destination is a re-run of the 20th Century disaster.