After the War— What?
Rt. Hon. Herbert Morrison
This challenging article on postwar problems by Rt. Hon. Herbert Morrison, Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security in the British Government, has been abstracted from a collection of Mr. Morrison’s wartime speeches to be published on this continent this spring. Its prior appearance in Maclean’s is by arrangement with the Minister.—The Editors.
WHEN we look forward to the world after the war, what do we see? I have noticed two different and, indeed, opposite fallacies in the thinking and talking, private and public, that goes on about this all-important subject. It is worth-while considering these two fallacies because each of them in its way is extremely dangerous.
There is, to begin with, the idea that after the war we can look forward to enormous improvements all round, which some Government is going to produce for us by waving a wand or passing an act or pronouncing some magic spell. I am not a pessimist about the future—far from it; but I do take a gloomy view of the idea that things are likely to get very much better automatically and without a great deal of hard thinking, hard work, patience and self-discipline. Wars don’t of themselves make anything better. The most they do is to show up the weakness and falsity of many old habits, ideas and institutions; to teach people lessons; to give them an opportunity of profiting from bitter experience.
But it is up to people themselves to learn the lesson and to take the action. One of the lessons I hope they will have learned is that there are no short cuts and no easy solutions. Nothing is made better by pronouncing curses on the older generation or the Government or any other cheap and easy scapegoat. The place to begin any necessary overhaul is in our own minds— ideas we have about our own interests and the interests of other people, the feelings we entertain toward other people, other groups and other countries.
In the war we have on the whole risen to very great heights of unselfish unity. All of us in all classes have shown readiness to accept sacrifices and hardships in the interest of our country, and of a cause wider than our country in which we all profoundly believe. If we can keep up to that standard when peace comes there is good hope of the better world to which we all look forward. If we can’t then we shall get ourselves into trouble through our own folly, shortsightedness and selfishness, just as men have so often done in the past.
This is the first fallacy. Don’t let us look for any free and easy Utopias; don’t let us expect that heaven on earth will come all of itself if only the bad old men or the stupid Government or some other villain of the piece will let it. In short, don’t be lazy.
The second and opposite fallacy is to expect to get back as quickly as possible to the kind of world that existed before the war. Now you may say that I am putting up an Aunt Sally simply to knock it down— that no one expects or wants to get back to the world as it was before the war. Don’t be too sure about that.
A forthright and provocative analysis of vital postwar issues by one of Britain's outstanding labor statesmen
A lot of people want it. If you’re not careful you may surprise yourself very much when the time comes by finding that you want it too.
After the war there will be plenty of people coming to parade before you the old ideas dressed up as attractively as possible. There will be people who misuse the word freedom. They will tell you that we have fought the war for freedom and that the irksome restrictions and regulations and control that the war has brought should he completely done away with the moment the war is over. There will be talk about interference with our lives and our privacy—there will be talk about bureaucracy and about too much government. Quite a campaign will be worked up to persuade us that the thing to do is get rid of controls of every kind.
It’s a crazy idea when you come to think of it. If what we want is to get back to the world before the war, what we are really doing is to get back to a world in which the causes of war are bred, just as they were this last time. After the last war the country set about getting back to normal as fast as possible. People turned their backs on everything the war had brought with it. All Government controls were taken off. The result was a great boom and then a great slump, a wild disorderly time which ruined millions of people and left us with a mass of unemployment from which we never recovered until very recent years.
It is of the greatest importance that we should all realize one thing clearly. The end of the war, whenever and however it comes, will not be the end of abnormal conditions. On the day after the last of our enemies is finally beaten we shall move on into a world in which many of the problems will be very like those of wartime. Some other problems will vanish with the end of the actual fighting, but their place will be taken by new ones. For a period of time which no man today can estimate—one year, perhaps, or two, or three, or even longer, depending upon many things that cannot now be foreseen— we shall be living in a world of strains and stresses, shortages and bottlenecks. Ministers of that peacetime who were Ministers in wartime may well wish they were back following “the straight and simple task of running a war.”
Short of Everything
LET me take some concrete examples. The world à will be short of almost everything men need—• food, clothing, metals, timber, bricks and mortar, and many more. The only things of which we shall have enough will be things of which there will be a lot too many—guns and tanks and airplanes.
Side by side with this shortage of every peacetime need there will be the most tremendous demand. All the world will want more food, and, we know well, there will be parts of the world where the need of it will be very much greater than our own, though we ourselves will need it too. You and I will want more clothes. We shall want to make up all the arrears of buying that the war has imposed on us. Everybody at once will want to get the house painted and the roof mended and the new carpet and crockery. All the women will want new dresses and all the men new suits. A lot of people will start thinking about motor cars and vacuum cleaners and radio sets.
At the same time industry will be clamoring for all the new machinery and buildings it will need after so many years of patching up and making do. The Government, we all hope, will be wanting to get on with replacing war damage, launching a great housing program, building new schools and hospitals, and a lot of other things.
Now if money could produce all these things there’d be no trouble at all. After the war there’ll be money about. Haven’t we all been saving for years—war loan and savings certificates and deferred income tax credits and all the rest of it? So there we shall be with our shortages and our money to make them good.
Now what do you think would happen if we took off all the controls, let all the men and women out of the Army as fast as we could, and left everybody free to make good their shortages the best way they could? There would be a mad scramble, with everyone competing against everyone else for a quantity of goods less than people’s requirements. Prices would go skyrocketing up; the man with the long purse would do the best for himself; the rich man would get his motor car before the poor housewife got her new pots and pans; the millionaire would get his mansion before the bombed-out docker got his new house; some of the key requirements of government and industry would be delayed far longer than they ought to be. Instead of taking deliberate steps to give the necessary priority to our export trades so that we could pay for the goods we need from abroad, we would let the export trades take their turn in the queue, and miss our chance in many overseas markets.
This is a perfectly fantastic picture. Nothing of the sort is going to happen—when the time comes we won’t let it. But stopping it means that the Government will for some time be running the country on lines very like those of war. In wartime the Government says that certain needs must come first—airplanes are more important than hair curlers. In the first years
of peace the Government may have to say (f0r instance) that the export trade is more important than certain things at home. If there are not enough machine tools, raw materials and other things to g0 round—and for some purposes there certainly will not be—then export may have to come first. In the same way the Government will have to pick and choose among home needs. If we are short of timber the needs of the national housing program must come before those of, say, amusement parks or luxury buildings. There will have to be control of prices and supplies just as there is in wartime. That is going to mean a good deal of Government regulation, a good deal of what some people will recklessly call red tape and bureaucracy. Control has helped to get maximum production in war. It has helped us to solve problems of prices and wages in a way which is the envy of some other countries. It will have to help solve many of the very similar problems that will face us after the war. The choice will be between control and chaos. There is no escape from that.
How long it will be before those abnormal postwar years come to an end no one can say. What sort of problems they in their turn will leave on our hands cannot yet be foreseen. All that we can say for certain now is that anyone who seriously expects or leads others to expect that we can get back to pre-war ways soon after the end of the war is either a fool or a knave. We’ve just got to make a good job of the postwar transition.
This is a point that we are all of us perhaps a little readier to see when it applies to the other fellow than when it applies to ourselves. Yet it applies in practice to every single one of us—yes, even to politicians. I don’t know what the political situation will be at the end of the war and afterward. Let the dogmatists burn their fingers with sweeping premature assertions if they will—I will not. But I do know that whatever plans and decisions we politicians make have got to be made in the light of a situation as difficult and dangerous to our country and to the world as war itself. I am not trying to suggest any particular course of action or to insinuate that some particular answer is the right one. I have said before now that it’s too early to make up our minds about the right thing to do. My Party has declared its entire freedom of action to make its own decision when the time comes—a declaration in which I fully concur. All that I want to do is to make sure that in thinking about the problems that will face us at the end of the war we shall be thinking about realities and not about some dream world of our own which is a mixture of pre-war recollections and wishful thinking about the future.
ÍET me try to give a concrete example of what I J mean. A fundamental question is how the community is to get its living—the question of production, the question of the relation between the State and industry.
After the war we shall have to solve this problem in all of its three parts—how to get full employment, how to increase the productive efficiency of industry, and how to spread the increased product widely and fairly.
There is one crucial matter which affects all the three parts of the problem—the matter of monopolies, their place in society, and the way in which society must deal with them.
One group of these monopolies are the so-called “natural” monopolies, like gas, electricity and (m eflect) transport, which are also, like coal, common service industries and, like it, are ripe—or overripe— for public ownership and management. Another group consists of fully fledged trusts, of most of which the same thing might be said. But today I want to deal more fully with monopolies of another and very important kind, presenting all the characteristic dangers and evils without necessarily being in an appropriate state for full public ownership in the early postwar period.
I refer to the great assortment of cartels, price rings, federations, price-fixing combines and so forth. Monopolies they are, in the sense that they have monopolized the control of their industry and its market and are in a position to impose their terms of trade on their customers and the community. While there is, of course, a place for the legitimate trade association, so long as it is not restrictive in spirit and tendency, many of these other organizations were, in their pre-war form, a national danger.
Take an imaginary case: an industry producing essential goods. Up to the boom after the last war the industry was a highly competitive and highly profitable affair with falling costs and expanding markets.
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Then came the big slump and the change in world conditions. By 1929 (if not earlier) the industry found itself unable to compete or, at any rate, unable to compete without drastic overhauls, re-equipment and changes at the top, which it did not occur to it to undertake. Instead, the different competing members of the industry got together to protect themselves as far as they could from the consequences of competition. They formed a ring—the Essential Goods Association. Possibly they got a tariff. They arranged a minimum price below which none of their membership was allowed to sell essential goods, even if his costs of production would have permitted him to do so profitably. They raised a fund to deal with what they regarded as their surplus productive plant and bought it up. They allocated orders for essential goods in case their minimum price level might be threatened. It might happen that one or two of the most modern and efficient plants among them were deliberately prevented from operating at full capacity, let alone expanding, in order that the position of the remainder might be preserved and the agreed price of essential goods maintained.
Behind their tariff wall the Essential Goods Association enjoyed the comfort and security of a national market which they farmed like an old-fashioned private estate. Not too much haste, not too much progress, not too much efficiency, not too many new ideas, not too many new men. They didn’t really have a plan, just a month-to-month, piecemeal, opportunist habit of action, unrelated to any conception of the future or of national needs. They didn’t really have a policy—just an urge to get away from the hazards of free competition, with nothing to put in its place.
That is not a fancy picture. It is by and large a perfectly fair account of a substantial fraction of British industry in the period between the two wars; and it reveals a calamitous—a fatal state of affairs. It reveals an industry comfortably dying on its feet and carrying with it into unemployment and decay a growing part of the creative energies of the nation as a whole. For with the decline of industry there went a decline of real enterprise, of thinking, planning, invention—a decline in boldness and the spirit of adventure—a decline in the level of politics, home and foreign, that nearly brought us to destruction. The nation’s military potential itself was weakened, so that it found itself years behind the needs of the time in the speed with which and the extent to which its industry could adapt itself to the full demands of modern war. Only the quick abandonment and reversal of this policy of decay, only a partnership between the State and industry which, under the spur of war, revivified and re-energized the failing powers of many of our producers, enabled us to weather the storm and win our way back toward that industrial leadership in war which we were in such danger of losing.
A case can be made for private enterprise in appropriate fields. There is a very powerful case for public enterprise. There is no case whatever for private unenterprise, for private ownership and control without the spur either of a free market and free competition or of real social purpose. In the field of private productive effort
security is a dangerous delusion-—an industry which makes security its sole aim is a menace. Unless private enterprise is prepared to take the risks which are its historic function, then private enterprise has no function.
There is a certain amount of wordspinning about private enterprise. For some time to come after the war—and I don’t mean only the so-called transition period when we are still in a state of economic emergency, but a period longer than that—the real practical issue in Britain will not be the maintenance of private enterprise. Over a very considerable part of the economic field there won’t be genuine private enterprise in the old sense—or any prospect of it. The real issue will be whether centrally organized industries shall be allowed to run their own affairs in their own separate way on a basis of restriction, monopoly and safety first, or whether the State will find some means, by public ownership or some form of public control, to ensure that they are operated in the interests of expanding national wealth and a policy of full employment.
Not only will we have to give up many of our old ideas about home questions; we will also have to adjust our minds to a new kind of international relations. We and others will have to get rid of the idea that we have a right to be judges in our own cause. In matters of political relationships and in trade and commerce we shall have to get used to working with other countries far more closely than before.
If we want peace, if we intend that international solidarity shall be something more than a nice after-dinner phrase, we and the rest will have to accept the judgment of the general body of nations, in some cases where it conflicts with our own judgment and even with our immediate interests. This is much easier to talk about than it will be to do. Just as some irresponsible people will have an easy time running raging campaigns to get rid of all controls at home, so it will be easy enough to make tub-thumping speeches and write tub-thumping articles about putting the interests of our country first and the folly of misguided international co-operation. But if we have really learned from this war we shall turn a deaf ear to that sort of talk. We shall cultivate a new kind of loyalty—a double loyalty to our country and to the world as a whole. On our hope of doing that will depend in last resort the successful working of those various international schemes in politics and economics which we shall no doubt set up.
One final point. It is my conviction that we cannot possibly wait until the end of the war to consider many of these problems and, indeed, to reach decisions about them. There are great international questions of currency supply and trade; there are great questions at home of the reorganization of industry and the improvement of every aspect of our social life. If we were content with merely thinking about those matters, if we left the finding of practical solutions until the war itself is over—or if we were content with canvassing a number of different solutions and shirked the task of reaching agreed decisions about them—then we should be burdening the postwar future with impossible tasks. We should be allowing our country to drift unprepared or half-prepared into what will be without a doubt the most difficult peacetime era in all its history. To do so would be an appalling failure of government. If we were guilty of it we would be guilty of a grave dereliction of duty, almost of treachery to the State.