Beverley Baxter's London Letter: The Staggering Price of Victory
Beverley Baxter's London Letter: The Staggering Price of Victory
FEW MEN are so armored in their philosophy that they can keep their minds uninfluenced by such external matters as rain, digestion, taxation and such other exasperations as make up the 24 hours allotted to each day. Nor is it only exasperations that affect the mind. Good company, flattery, and especially sunshine can direct the trend of one’s thoughts no matter how sternly we try to discipline them.
Perhaps in Britain we are more susceptible to the weather than in countries where the four seasons come and go at proper intervals instead of crowding into a single day as is sometimes the case over here. Therefore, I must confess that I am writing these words on a late May morning of infinite loveliness. The tulips are blushing in the garden, the blossoms from the pear trees are playing some game of their own with a soft southern breeze, and there is sunshine everywhere. Even my unruly Aberdeen terrier, Max, is sitting on the lawn like Shelley contemplating a sonnet.
Therefore I feel inclined to talk about Britain’s future, despite the fact that this week in Parliament we debated Britain’s problems from 3.30 one afternoon until 11 the next morning. The Minister of Defense grew so weary toward dawn that he actually spoke of calling up young men for military service at the age of 1950 which seemed, even to our fuddled brains, to beolder than a soldier ought to be.
That Britain has a future cannot be denied either by optimists or pessimists. It is true that nations, empires and even civilizations have disappeared but the good earth remains, and people and flocks roam the fields even if beneath them Caesar sleeps. The North American Indian has almost gone but travellers tell us that in Canada there are still signs of human life.
It cannot be denied that Britons are suffering from a feeling of claustrophobia. They are a race
of islanders and in such people there is a deep instinct to put to sea, an instinct which created that haphazard, sprawling masterpiece, the British Empire. But except for a fortunate few the civilian populace has been imprisoned on the Island for eight years. So their thoughts turn to surf bathing in Australia, to the sunny clime of New Zealand, to the prairies and the Rockies of Canada, and to the lure of South Africa which has become so potent through the Royal Visit. If the ships could be mobilized there would be such an exodus that those of us who stayed behind would hear the echo of our own footsteps even in London.
Emigration Is Healthy
IDO not look upon this desire to emigrate as a sign of defeatism. It is not merely a desire to escape the harassments of postwar austerity and the shackles of officialdom; it is the longing for opportunity, for breathing space, for a chance to grow up with a younger country rather than sit by the bedside of an ageing one. If the Government were wise it would do everything to facilitate this exodus, for it would aid in the development of the Dominions and thus bring strength to the whole Commonwealth. And when the movement came to an end. or to a pause, there would still be enough of us left to carry on. One of the paradoxes of nations is that they do not decline with emigration, but by some immutable law grow more fecund in the process. Think of the Irish in America, but remember that there are a lot of Irishmen left in Ireland.
Certainly Britain’s position in the world is changing. The boast that a quarter of the world’s population lived under the British flag may soon be a thing of the past.. It was the teeming millions of India that Continued on page 38
Continued on page 38
The Staggering Price of Victory
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gave us that impressive total and in a few months India may have gone. Burma has walked out, and those troublesome adopted children, Egypt and Palestine, are looking forward to the day when the last British Tommy will give them the soldier’s farewell.
Sic Transit Gloria. No longer would the most of the map of the world be painted in red, as it has been since the early days of Good Queen Victoria. The Empire is shrinking before our eyes, and Britain’s enemies are exultant. The 19th century is nearing its end, even in Britain.
What is more serious is that India and Egypt are presenting their bills to old John Bull for his maintenance of them during the war. They supplied him with the implements of war, at top price, which resulted in keeping them safe from invasion. Unlike the U. S. A., with its enlightened system of Lend-Lease, and the warm generosity of Canada, the Indians and the Egyptians are demanding that Britain should pay to the full for saving them from destruction. It is not a good beginning for nationhood and independence.
Britain cannot and will not meet those claims, a statement that will no
doubt shock those who say that a debt is a debt and whose brains can go no further. In one of the most profound political documents of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ urged the forgiveness of debts. It was the failure of the world to recognize the wisdom of that pronouncement after the first world war that created the economic chaos which made the second conflagration inevitable.
To the normal mind progress consists of going ahead, on the assumption that if you keep on going you are bound to get somewhere. Yes—but
where? If in a fog you take the wrong turning with your car, the mere covering of the miles takes you only farther from your destination. Therefore I claim that nations, like motorists, must sometimes go back in order to get on the right road; and the whole world would be wise to look at the much condemned 19th century to see what Britain did in the days when she was the great creditor nation. For in that century between the Battle of Waterloo and the outbreak of war in 1914 there was, under the Pax Britannica, the greatest development the world had ever seen.
Britain loaned money everywhere. She poured it into the U. S. A. after the civil war and laid the foundation of the mighty industrial republic of today. She poured it into Europe, into South America, into China, into Africa. Call it self-interest if you like, but
it was enlightened self-interest, for Britain knew that her own prosperity could only survive in an expanding world economy. Untold millions of pounds were never repaid, nor was it ever expected that they would be. But they did their work in opening up channels of trade, and British merchant ships sailed into those channels and profited in the process.
Now, as the result of two world wars* Britain finds herself in the position of the world’s greatest debtor. She is impoverished, but it was nobly done for she sacrificed everything to save humanity from a thousand years of darkness. Britain’s 19th-century role is now to be played by the U. S. A.
It is a truism which could be understood by an office boy that a bank’s wealth is not in the money lying in its vaults, but in the lending of it. Admittedly the bank expects that some day the loan will be repaid with interest and that it can be sent out again on another useful errand. But there are occasions when a bank decides to take a calculated risk, although there cannot be adequate security.
Again there is the established client who has always met his commitments and then falls on difficult times. The bank can close down on him and cut its losses, or it can decide that the business is essentially sound and must recover as conditions improve. So the bank gambles on the future and on the character of the client, and again makes loans for which there is no actual security.
I have cited these simple examples because to a considerable extent the United States finds herself faced with those problems on a vast scale, since she has become world banker number one. Her position is gratifyingly sound. In her vaults there is buried nearly the whole world’s gold reserve, and, as shareholders, the American people have every reason to rejoice at this accumulation of wealth. But is gold really wealth if it is left unused? Are dollar bills of any value if they do not circulate? If we cannot live by taking in each other’s washing, a nation or a bank cannot prosper by lending to itself. That is the lesson of the 19th century and it still has te be learned.
American production will soon overtake American consumption. America will need world trade but the channels are blocked and there is no traffic, or almost none. Only American loans can free those channels. There is no other way.
But need Britain be considered especially in this regard? She is heavily in debt and with a shrinking Empire would it not be better to let her go and
turn to fresher clients? I have no doubt that in the U. S. A. there are many who think in those terms.
If there are such people I would urge them to look closely at Britain before they decide that she is a bad risk. It has been said of the ancient Roman Empire that its influence was so vast that it was impossible on the map to say where the Empire began and where it ended. Today the British Commonwealth is clearly marked on the map, but what of the invisible Commonwealth based on the reliance of various countries on the British market? Under normal world conditions where could Argentina look for the sale of her beef? Not to the U. S. A. Not to Canada. Not to Russia. British capital developed Argentina and the British market sustains her as a nation.
What is Denmark’s economic existence based upon? Where do Spain and Italy and France look to export much of those products preculiar to their natural life? Again it is Britain, the great importer, that binds those nations to her in strong though invisible bonds. Where do the cotton and tobacco planters of the American South find their market? And where, even, does Hollywood look for that screen space which is the measure of their profit on production? Again the answer is—Britain.
A Borrower of Good Character
In 1940 America’s security depended upon the beleaguered island citadel of Britain. In the years ahead American prosperity will depend upon the prosperity of Britain with all her thousand contacts with the outside world. Generous as the United States has been, I claim that she ended Lend-Lease a year too soon. I am only afraid that the beneficent aid of UNRRA in Europe was also stemmed too soon. No nation can keep its health in a sick world and no nation can maintain order within its own frontiers if anarchy reigns wit hout.
My visit to the U. S. A. last winter convinced me that America realizes her world responsibility. As a nation she has grown in stature more swiftly than we had ever dreamed. That is one reason why I am calmly confident about Britain’s future. America will not deny us her strong aid in the reconstruction period through which we must pass.
And finally there remains that factor which in the end determines destiny itself—character. The character of the British pedjple has not changed even if its temperament has. Basically honest, basically tolerant, basically world-minded and basically religious, the British race has still a mighty part to play, perhaps mightier than ever in its past. ★
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