Archive for August, 2019

The Crisis Years: 1914/1939/2016

In the last 100 years, Britain has faced 3 existential crises. The first was 1914 at the start of the 1st world war, the second 1939 at the beginning of the 2nd and the latest one – Brexit- is not even a war at all (but has the potential to turn into one- a civil war). Each of these crises shows a persistent pattern to British decision making, and it’s worth remembering what they are.

In 1914 when the 1st WW started, Britain had only 4 months’ supply of acetone. Acetone is needed to make cordite, which is a missile propellant, and without a supply the war would have been over in 6 months. None could be bought because the Germans had monopolised the supply. The government turned to a chemistry lecturer in Manchester named Dr Chaim Weizmann who had synthesized acetone from grain in 1912 and asked him if could create it on an industrial scale. He did it in a matter of weeks and factories were quickly set up. Because of this Britain managed to fight the war but only won because the Americans finally joined in.

In WW2 we had a different fiasco. Then the government tried to appease Hitler by making deals with him and did not prepare for war. Hitler had been re-arming for six years and was ready to fight. He had even bought airplanes from the British. How could they have thought they could appease this dictator, who was gobbling up Europe one country at a time? That so-called ‘warmonger’ Churchill was right all along that we would have to confront Hitler at some time and the sooner the better. In the end Britain won the war again but only because America joined.

2016 will go down in history as the year of Brexit, when a prosperous country, without an obvious enemy, decided to voluntarily make itself poorer, weaker and less stable. In that year we decided to cut ourselves loose from our largest trading partners and instead seek to be saved once again by America. But this America is not the same as the one who selflessly aided us in 1914 and 1939. This America won’t care what happens to us if we decide to cut our own throats. In fact, there will be people there (and in the rest of the world) who will find British decline quite an amusing spectacle.

Both Wars showed a woeful lack of planning and insight into the nature of the crisis. Both wars could have easily been lost. Plucky Britain was lucky Britain. But maybe it’s not three times lucky. Our history tells us that we are not very good at planning and management in a crisis. Do we really want to break our own legs? And for what?

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August 12, 2019 at 9:07 am Leave a comment


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Reflections on an age of anxiety.

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