Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Charles’s rescue plan – wrong time, wrong planet

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IN his latest speech on the environment, Prince Charles suggests a ‘Marshall-like plan’ is needed to save the planet. 

By ‘Marshall’ he means a large-scale international effort to deal with a dire situation – a concept stemming from the original Marshall Plan by the US, launched in 1948 to help rebuild the economies and infrastructure of war-shattered Western European countries.

Named after US Secretary of State George C Marshall, the gigantic foreign aid project was officially called the European Recovery Program.

Marshall foreshadowed it in a speech at Harvard in June 1947, when he said: ‘It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.’ 

Ten months later, the Marshall Plan got under way, eventually pouring more than 12billion dollars into European reconstruction before it was wound up in 1951. Some of the aid was in the form of loans, but the vast bulk was a gift.

However, while it was a generous humanitarian gesture, it was not altogether altruistic – there was quite a bit of American self-interest involved. 

When the Second World War ended with Allied victory over Germany and Japan in 1945, the US emerged as the richest, most powerful nation on Earth.

Its initial post-war policy of not aiding Germany’s manufacturing revival had been partly influenced by a controversial plan formulated by US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau in 1944.

This called for Germany to be stripped of its industry, divided into several smaller states, and returned to an agrarian economy, ensuring it could never again produce the resources for war.

Nothing so drastic happened. Eventually President Harry Truman and his advisers realised that reviving basket-case Europe, especially the industrial powerhouse of Germany, was the only realistic way forward.

It meant the war-ravaged countries would be able to rebuild and start manufacturing, producing and trading again, feeding and looking after their populations instead of relying on handouts.

Another vital factor was that hungry, demoralised, despairing Europeans were at risk of looking to the Left for salvation. Making their countries strong, prosperous and self-sufficient again would provide a bulwark against the encroachment of communism from the Eastern bloc. 

The USSR, among the most devastated victims of Germany’s aggression, was also offered American help. But Soviet dictator Josef Stalin refused to countenance the Marshall Plan, then forbade Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland and Czechoslovakia from doing so. Aid was eventually distributed to 16 countries in Western Europe.

To many Britons who had been through the war – and to my early post-war generation – the impression that has long persisted is that while Germany performed its subsequent ‘economic miracle’ thanks to American largesse, poor old Britain, which had led the fight against Hitler, was left to stagnate in poverty.

We bristled at the spectacle of the Germans achieving by peace what they had only briefly achieved by war – effective West European hegemony. 

But this turns out to be largely a myth. In fact, the lion’s share of Marshall aid went to Britain – 3.2billion dollars as against 1.4billion dollars for Germany, according to one study, although other sources quote 2.4billion as against 1.4billion.

It now seems that much of the aid received by Britain was used not to modernise our industry and infrastructure. Instead, it was wasted by Clement Attlee’s Labour government on propping up our colonial involvement as we tried to maintain our status as a first-class world power, a situation scathingly analysed in 2011 by historian Correlli Barnett. 

It has also been argued that Marshall aid was not the decisive factor in the recovery of Western Europe, because the economies of the recipient countries were already recovering without it. Indeed, some sceptics claim it was a form of economic imperialism by the US, aiming to dominate Europe with the power of the dollar.

What it undoubtedly did was to give a boost to confidence and stability and to encourage free trade and liberalisation across the devastated continent.

Perhaps ominously for Britain, the Americans also called for European economic integration as they doled out the big bucks. In 1952, this led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community, a collaboration mainly between Germany and France, which morphed into the EU.

Today, most developed countries still routinely hand out aid to poorer nations – America gives around 50billion dollars a year and Britain about £15billion, often to recipients who seem less than deserving.

But with its ambitious scale, scope and aim, it is only the Marshall Plan that has entered the history books and the language.  As to whether Prince Charles can drum up environmental aid in these coronavirus-straitened times, the prospects would not seem good.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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