THE government has postured for months as ‘science-led’ in its response to Covid-19, begged for wartime faith and unity, and compared itself to the National Government of World War II. A Conservative MP has tweeted that countering Covid-19 needs more interventionism and for that we need a National Government.
ConservativeHome’s editor refers to the wartime National Government in his advocacy of ‘Left-wing’ solutions.
But the National Government of 1940 to 1945 should not be emulated. Britain won the war despite the National Government, not because of it, and it saddled Britain with decades of socialist authoritarianism.
ConHome’s chosen investigator concludes that the Ministers of Supply and of Production were men of ‘dynamism’ who lit a fire under the bureaucrats, cut through the red tape, and got supplies to where and when they were needed. The implication is that similar men of dynamism can save the Boris Johnson administration from its unpreparedness, indecisiveness, U-turns, and contradictions. But the investigator consulted only memoirs and biographies of the principals involved, so inevitably retells their egotistical claims.
The Ministry of Supply was enacted in spring 1939, but it did not deal with comprehensive military supply; it supplied the Army only. And it did not supply anything itself; rather, it intervened in private supplies without either owning or inspecting supplies. And it intervened by appointing a lot of suppliers to official roles in acquisitions, which is a recipe for corruption. Hence, the British Army was presented with a plethora of equipment that never fulfilled the Army’s own requirements, but rewarded suppliers with contracts for replacements, and replacements for failed replacements, and so on. For instance, the Army received at least 20 different tank platforms of British design, plus another six of American design, and none was satisfactory.
The Board of Trade and Ministry of Supply shared responsibilities for organising the suppliers of commodities and raw materials. Control of shipping was shared between the Admiralty, Ministry of Shipping, and Ministry of Transport. The Ministry of Aircraft Production took over supplies from the Ministry of Aviation. Then there was the Ministry of Production, which interfered in everything but took over nothing. Lord Beaverbrook briefly headed each of these three Ministries. He was the main man of ‘dynamism’ and ‘rationalisation’ in the propaganda of the time, but he wrote that propaganda. He was never minister long enough to achieve anything: he took credit for prior work, then quit early, and gradually preferred offices of state without portfolio. Churchill preferred newspaper barons inside the government than outside criticising.
The National Government’s fake experts were disasters for not just industrial supply, but also military strategy. Take strategic bombers, which, by the government’s own admission in 1944, cost Britain more than all the equipment for the Army.
Frederick A Lindemann (1886-1957, from 1941 Lord Cherwell) was a physicist at Oxford University with political ambitions. During the 1920s, Lindemann joined Winston Churchill in a campaign against industrial action. In 1935, Churchill got Lindemann on to the Committee for the Study of Aerial Defence. Lindemann clashed with chemist Henry Tizard, who had once bested him in a boxing match, over the development of radar, about which Lindemann was lukewarm. Lindemann prioritised his own ideas of infra-red beams and ‘aerial mines’ (parachute bombs with proximity fuses, dropped from higher altitude on to bombers). A V Hill’s prior suggestion (1936) to use searchlights was subordinated to Lindemann’s ‘foolish’ ideas. The committee re-formed as a new body without Lindemann. In 1936, Lindemann stood for the vacant seat in Parliament for Oxford University. He ran largely on his supposed expertise in air defence, but was rejected.
Nevertheless, in 1938 Churchill and Lindemann joined the Air Defence Research (Sub) Committee of the Committee for Imperial Defence, which directly advised the Cabinet. In May 1940, new Prime Minister Churchill appointed Lindemann as his Principal Scientific Adviser. Lindemann used intuition and spurious analysis to justify lots of stupid things, but strategic bombing remained his preoccupation. He was contradicted by his own staff, mostly statisticians. Lindemann played devil’s advocate, but the RAF’s self-interested claims did not deserve to be considered the same as disinterested statistics.
Even more incongruously, Churchill sent an anatomist (Solomon ‘Solly’ Zuckerman, 1904-1993) to direct the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Air Force, which gave him the honorary rank of wing commander. From there he was elevated to scientific adviser to Allied Air Forces.
Compare the career of Sir Henry Tizard (1885-1959), who had chaired the Air Defence Research Committee, and championed radar, for two years before Churchill and Lindemann got in. After Tizard opposed the government’s policy in 1940, Churchill sent him, like most political liabilities, on a mission to the US. Tizard returned to a minor position on the Air Council, where he sparred with Lindemann again. In February 1943, he was sent to Moscow to learn about Soviet research, which was not forthcoming.
Churchill was an inspiring leader, a great orator, who led Britain to victory. He was nonetheless a poor chooser of scientific advisers and scientific advice.
The reward for the Conservative minority in the National Government was to be rejected at the national election of 1945 and most subsequent national elections until 1979. They had only themselves to blame: they had entered a coalition with the most radical of socialists and Liberals in order to protect themselves from normal democratic scrutiny; and they enabled authoritarianism, subjectivity, sycophancy, corruption, centralisation, and cults of personality. They made British socialism for a generation.