Don't Sell Britain Short

Forced to live like paupers, work like slaves, the British will make any sacrifice to win their war for economic survival

L. S. B. SHAPIRO June 1 1947

Don't Sell Britain Short

Forced to live like paupers, work like slaves, the British will make any sacrifice to win their war for economic survival

L. S. B. SHAPIRO June 1 1947

Don't Sell Britain Short


Maclean’s European Correspondent

LONDON—The other day the Minister of Health issued a brief announcement. It stated that he had allowed, on the advice of his medical committee, an extra ration of bacon to persons suffering from tuberculosis. The normal ration is two ounces per week per person. Henceforth tuberculars will be permitted to purchase three ounces per week.

When you have your breakfast tomorrow morning, consider one of the several strips of bacon on your plate. One of them, a single mouthful, an extra ounce, is what is given to a British tubercular once a week by way of nourishing him or her back to health and vigor. After you have swallowed that single strip of bacon, pause for a moment. If you are at all sensitive you will possess a good working idea of the grim war Britain is fighting.

Shortly after I dug the Health Minister’s announcement out of a sheaf of Government decisions, I left England on a brief tour through Belgium, France and Italy. I returned to Britain filled with a sad sort of admiration for the people of this island.

It seemed to me that everybody is eating except the British. Canadians and Americans never knew what it meant to go short of food during the war; they only liked to believe they went short. The Belgians are today principally engaged in filling themselves with every native and imported delicacy that money can buy. It is an experience to sit in a Brussels restaurant and watch such little people eat such heaping platefuls without bursting. A “category B” menu in France makes a luxury dinner in Claridge’s look like lunch in a charity hospital. A few days ago I had dinner on a train running between Milan and Rome. It cost 300 lire — about $1.50—and it was a much superior meal to the one I had in a millionaire’s mansion off Grosvenor Square.

“You’ll find the food a bit tiresome,” the millionaire apologized, “but outside of that we do very well. Everybody here gets a proper share of food, from the very poor right up, and the national health is really quite good. Sometimes I feel I’d like to pop over to Paris for an elegant meal, but that wouldn’t be playing the game, you know. We’re all in this together.”

The atmosphere in Britain is very much like it was during the war except not quite as exhilarating. It is a drab war the British are now fighting; it lacks the verve and excitement of conflict. But it is the most important war they have fought since Hitler stood at the Channel ports, and there isn’t a man or woman in this island who doesn’t fully realize what is at stake.

What the British do in the next three years —between now and 1950—will decide whether the motherland of the greatest commonwealth and empire in history becomes a second-class nation in point of power, prestige and living standards, or whether it maintains its storied role as a great world force. Only by a demonstration that it retains its qualities of vigor, pride and technical and diplomatic genius can Britain continue to play a leading role in the postwar world. The next three years will fell the story.

How well the British know this!

On the Belgian steamer which took us from Dover to Ostend, British Easter travellers blinked at the cuts of beef and Iamb garnished with heaps of sauté potatoes being served in the dining salon. In the bar they eyed rows of bottles of Scotch whisky, which is practically unobtainable in England. I noticed they approached these luxuries with a slightly superior air, as if to say, “There are more important things than good food and drink. Being British, for one.” When the ship cut across the beaches of Dunkirk on its way to Ostend, only Belgians were left to gorge themselves in the dining salon. Every Britisher was on the starboard deck gazing silently on the sunswept beaches.

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Forced to live like paupers, work like slaves, the British will make any sacrifice to win their war for economic survival

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On the British Overseas Airways plane which carried me from New York to London, I became friendly with a middle-aged Englishman returning home after a business trip. When the plane landed at Gander for refuelling, 1 went to the airport bar for a drink. My friend was at the other end of the bar. He called for a whisky and pulled out a pound note in payment. The bartender said, "Sorry, sir. We accept only American or Canadian money here.” As my friend walked away, 1 called to him and asked him to have a drink with me. He declined politely, saying, “I think not, thank you. If British money is no good here, their whisky is probably no good either.” And he walked away.

These and a dozen other incidents merely confirmed what I found in Britain. Unaccustomed to being poor people in a world which once rolled out its reddest carpets for them, the British are determined to fight their way back—if not to their old standing, at least to one of solid wealth and prestige. They are exceedingly willing to bear with the shortages and restrictions of war for another three years, if this means they will be on their feet again.

The Figures Say No

WHAT THE British have to do is behave like paupers and work like slaves for the next three years—in the hope that the end of their dollar loans in Canada and the United States will find them in a position solvent enough to carry on without further dollar loans. This means that their productive capacity and business ability must expand to a point where they will be exporting 175% of their 1938 volume.

Will they make it?

If one were to go by figures alone, the answer must be: No, they won’t make it. They can’t make it. They are a tired impoverished people trying to draw miracles out of a production plant which was obsolete before the war and which has since run down like an overworked Model T Ford.

They will not even attain their primary goal for this year. In the Government’s White Paper, "Economic Survey for 1947,” issued in February, it was pointed out that the volume of exports over 1938 was running at 110 to 115%,. The goal for 1947 was set at 140%. Since February the country has been buffeted by frost and flood, by coal shortages and power stoppages, by ruination of crops and destruction of livestock. Antf now the most optimistic Government estimate as given to this correspondent is that Britain will attain tfyis year a figure of not more than 120% of the 1938 export volume.

The minimum goal set for 1947 wi|l not fie reached, not by a wide margin.

Meanwhile Britain’s capital position in tfie financial world grows steadily worse. The Canadian dollar gift-credit is being rapidly used up. The American loan is going faster and is buying less than was anticipated. Exports to the dollar zone have been particularly disappointing. Britain buys 42% of her food and raw materials from the American continents, and is selling there only 14% of her exporte. The food position in relation to exports is monstrously worse than in 1938. In that year Britain’s profit on her foreign investments brought in more than one billion dollars, which meant that one halt her food imports was paid for without touching her capital position. Today less than one tenth of her food imports is paid for by her foreign profits. In 1938, more than four per cent of the national income came from foreign sources. Today the figure is less than one per cent.

This fearful financial position is the measure of Britain s all-out effort to win the common victory over the Axis powers. Altogether she liquidated nearly seven billion dollars in foreign investments, gold and dollar credits in order to keep her war machine going. In short, during the six war years Britain has plunged downhill at the rate of more than a billion dollars a year from the position of a creditor nation to one of a debtor nation.

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it is a humiliating position for the proud British whose money was once the best in the world, “safe as the Bank of England.” In the open money market in Baris (where the American dollar sells at 200% of its official value) the British pound sells at 120% of its official value almost on a par with the downtrodden franc. In the Brussels Bourse, the British pound sells at 80% of its official value.

Holiday Snoopers

This has a pract ical result which adds to the grim nature of life in Britain. When the Englishman decides to holiday on the Continent he is allowed to export a total of £75, and not a penny more. Few try to smuggle more than that out of the country, and those who do, if caught, are heavily fined on their return to Britain. In every European spot popular with British travellers there art* plain-clothes men from the Treasury who watch the spending of their citizens, and those who give evidence of having more than £75 at their disposal find themselves under arrest at their port of return. The result, of this is, of course, that the British are virtual prisoners of their own drab living conditions, and will remain so until Britain can work her way back to a creditor position in the world of nations.

What happens if, as seems inevitable, the British fail to work their way out of their economic difficulties in the next three years?

I asked the question of 10 representative Britishers, some in the Government, some who are big business executives closely concerned with the Government’s economic program; one or two in active opposition to the Government’s policies.

Their replies varied in point of methods to meet the long-range emergency, and in support or condemnation of the Government’s policies. But there was miraculous unanimity on one point: If the program fails to bring Britain to its feet in the next three years, the British will simply have to buckle down to even harder work, to importing even less food, to postponing the day of salvation—until it can be brought about fairly, squarely and solidly.

There will be no surrender. Laborite, Tory, financier, civil servant—they left me with a single impression: Don’t sell Britain short.

The most interesting view came from a great industrialist who fully understands the desperate position of the country. (Because he is close to the long-range plans of the Government, he asked that he not be quoted by name.)

“Britain will come back,” he said. “She can’t help but come back. No power on earth can stop 47 millions of people who are united, who are willing to work, who have high intelligence and first - rate technological ability, from coming back. You’ve got to figure on the invisible assets of our people, their pride and patriotism. It is impossible for them to be a secondrate nation. They won’t accept it. They won’t have it. Even today, with living conditions the way they are, it would be political suicide for the Government to try to float an additional loan from America. The people won’t have it. They want to pull out of it themselves. You can’t beat that kind of determination, no matter what the production figures may read.”

I said, “But how? What art? thelongrange plans? The Empire is finished as you’ve known it. No longer Is it feasible for tens of millions of Indian and Burmese natives to pour raw materials into the Midlands and then offer markets for finished products. You yourselves admit that the world is changing. You’re giving up huge sections of the Empire. One of these days you’re going to be left with this comparatively barren little Island. How are you going to maintain the present living standard of your 47 million people, let alone improve it?”

Fifty Years of Empire

The industrialist shook his head slowly.

”‘You go too fast, young man,” he said. “We are not giving up the Empire. We are giving up those sections of the Empire which have become ready, or think they have become ready, for independence. What happens to Burma and India in the next few years is open to question. I think you will find they will remain, more or less loosely, within the Empire. But whether they do or not makes little difference in the long-range plans of this Government or any other which may follow.

“There is still 50 years of Empire remaining to Britain, some of it in Malaya but most of it. in the absolutely virgin ivealth of east and central Africa.

“What seemed jungle and wasteland 10 years ago has become, by new technological methods, an absolutely unscratched treasure of raw materials of every kind. Economically our holdings in Africa can more than replace anything we may lose in India and Burma.

“That is England’s long-range plan, above and beyond party considerations. We are turning to Africa. This may not seem to you as exciting a fact as a possible loan from America, but to certain Government officials and technicians and scientists, it. is by far the most important factor in Britain’s future. Plans are under way. Men are being trained. Britain’s future, and her economic salvation, lie in Africa for the next 50 years.

“By that time Africa too will be ready for independence. Our plans for development there will inevitably raise the standard of living and education of black men and women who are today the last of the world's unorganized, and in many ways uncivilized, peoples. In 50 years they too will know how to develop and control their own subsoil wealth and they will feel the urge for nationhood.

“We’ve still got 50 years to play with. After that, Britain may well be just another comparatively barren island. But in 50 years the world may have reached a state of interdependence of peoples which will usher in an absolutely new conception of economics and living standards. What happens then to the British people Is something no one can foresee.

I won’t be alive to see it, but I venture to say we won’t be a wasteland.”

This interview took place within 72 hours after I had flown from New York. And I came away from the industrialist’s office wondering what it was that made drab Britain a more hopeful, rather more satisfying place for living than is roaring, plentiful America. I did not have to wonder long. The answer came quickly.

While America is eating its way into a state of ferocious muscle flexing toward the Soviet Union, Britain is so concerned with the problem of living and working that it scarcely has time for thought of a new war. America is shoring up its defenses against an imminent war between Communism and the West. Britain, as exemplified by this industrialist, is thinking in terms of 50 years of economic and social development.

Perhaps the best way of illustrating the direction of British thinking is to point to two items in the other day’s Express which has the largest newspaper circulation in Britain (and in the world). Whatever one may think of Lord Beaverbrook’s policies, his Daily Express is smart enough to reflect public interest in its selection of news items.

Buried Epitaph

On the front page there was a large news item which began:

“The Government gave a party last night at the Savoy Hotel, London, to the Soviet delegation now in Britain and refreshments included vodka and caviar . . .”

Buried away on an inside page there was a complete story of exactly four lines:

“Cairo, Saturday—The Union Jack was lowered at Qasr el Nil barracks today and the last British troops loft Cairo after 64 years’ occupation.”

It seemed to me that the play and position given to these two items illustrated the wide trends of public interest here. The long, rough, romantic history of Britain’s conquest of Egypt was ended and dismissed in four lines. A gesture toward real amity with the Soviet Union was front-paged because people wanted to read it.

The British not only want peace; they expect peace. And for a very good reason. They know how exhausted they are; they know they have scarcely begun to work their way out of the morass of the last war. They cannot face another war, and they know that the French, the Belgians, the Italians and, above all, the Russians are in very much the same position.

A publican on the Embankment put it this way: “This here is the way I

see it. A whole lot of Americans are eating too much meat. Also Stalin and Molotov, they ain’t going short. It’s not a fair fight, 140 million Americans against Stalin and Molotov. It won’t happen.”

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Most Britishers with whom I have talked feel the same way. It won’t happen. They’ve got more important things to worry about, things like bread and heat and work. Even the Tories, who might be getting excited about Russia, feel they’ve got a more urgent matter on their hands in preventing the Socialist Government from expending energy on nationalization projects to the detriment of recovery projects. There is a growing feeling, in tradeunion circles as well as in others, that the Government’s pledges on nationalization should be held in abeyance until the more immediate objectives of this grimmest of Britain’s wars have been attained.

But there is no lack of support from any party or group of men for Attlee’s solid fight against national poverty.

Britain is fortunate in this respect.

Every shade of political opinion is led by a man whose first and last thought is for Britain.

No more traditionally British statement has ever been issued than this one by Attlee:

“It is the duty of any democratic government to take the people frankly into its confidence, however difficult the position of the country may be . . . The Government alone cannot achieve success. They call upon every man and woman in the country to devote themselves unflinchingly to the task which faces us, confident that they can achieve victory in the economic field as in the six years of war they triumphed over the enemy.”

I came to Britain for the first time in September, 1941, when British fortunes were at their lowest ebb in the war. The Russians were fighting with their backs to the gates of Moscow. London was bleeding from its bomb wounds, and other parts of the island were being hammered nightly. Even the Italians were winning victories in Africa. And though it seemed militarily impossible that Britain could win out,

I came to believe that it was equally impossible for Britain to accept defeat.

In 1947 Britain is at its lowest ebb economically. There seems no chance of victory in this grim war.

Well, once again I can’t help backing Britain to win.