The Korean war had economic consequences likewise or, rather, consequences where the economics were mixed up with the politics. I referred to one of the more exclusively political results two weeks ago in saying that the war impelled C R Attlee into calling an unnecessary election in October 1951.
Economically also we were forced (or we forced ourselves) into a level of rearmament which the country could not stand and which split the Labour Party. It was the origin of the Bevanite controversy. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour chancellor, accepted the level of military expenditure demanded; Bevan opposed him. The most recent evidence demonstrates that Bevan was right and Gaitskell wrong. It is set out most clearly in Dr Brian Brivati's recent biography of Gaitskell, though it was not difficult to come by even before Dr Brivati embarked on his valuable labours.
At Suez we were compelled to retreat when Harold Macmillan, the Conservative chancellor, warned the cabinet that the sterling balances were disappearing at a rate of knots. In the battle for the Tory leadership in 1957 Macmillan, who had taken us out of Suez, triumphed over R A Butler, who had never wanted us to go in anyway. It may be that the Americans would have looked after sterling on our behalf if they had been on our side then: happily they were not.
The fundamental cause of Britain's economic problem in the 20th century has been our involvement in two world wars. In the first our participation was unnecessary. The ministers who resigned from H H Asquith's cabinet at its outset, John Morley and John Burns, have been proved right. In the Second World War we had little choice except to fight. We bore the heat and burden of the day with the USSR, as we had borne it with France in the First World War. Both wars, however, were won by the United States coming in fresh after the preliminaries were over.
The aeroplanes and rockets that are now in daily use over Yugoslavia do not come cheap. Somebody will have to pay soon. I have read nothing about what the real costs are, as distinct from what an individual aeroplane or rocket would cost should you want to pick one up from your local arms dealer. There is a saying that, if you have to ask how much a yacht or a racehorse costs, you can't afford it. Modern weapons of destruction are an extreme case of this truth. But somebody has to afford it. The answer is that governments do. They afford it by taxing, by borrowing or by debasing the currency.
Nor have I read anything about how the costs of the war are to be apportioned among the countries involved. Mr Tony Blair does not mention the subject. For Mr George Robertson and Mr Robin Cook it might as well not exist. Mr Gordon Brown seems to have retreated into his bunker beneath the Treasury for the duration, as we used to say in the Second World War. From Mr Brown there has been hardly a cheep since the conflict began, except one appearance on the Today programme when he talked airily of the Contingency Reserve Fund.
Mr Blair, by contrast, appears on our television screens advancing propositions which have only to be stated for their vacuity to be apparent: for example, that the Kosovo Albanians will be led back into their former habitations under the protection of Nato troops, but that nevertheless he will not commit ground troops to Kosovo. What is the distinction between protective and invading ground troops? Mr Slobodan Milosevic is going to be equally disobliging to both.
And how are these poor people to return after they have been dispersed to all corners of the globe - or not, as the case may be? How can they go back to homes already destroyed, whether by Serbian troops or, as in Pristina, by Nato bombs? Air Commodore David Wilby initially denied that his side's bombs did any damage to the houses in Pristina. He claimed it was all caused by the Serbs. I should certainly hesitate before buying even a second-hand television set from this implausible officer.
But from Mr Brown there is not a whisper. He is the Silent Chancellor. This cannot be explained wholly by the removal of Mr Charlie Whelan from his old tasks and his transference to the world of broadcasting and journalism where, however, he gives contemporary politics a wide berth. No, Mr Brown is perfectly capable of speaking for himself if he wants to. I suspect he is not saying anything for the public ear because he is a worried man.
We all know the historic connection between warfare and taxation. Both the income tax and, less securely, the window tax were established to finance the wars of the 18th century. So far Mr Brown has managed to keep taxes - or the more obvious taxes - relatively low. In this respect he is the most successful Labour chancellor since 1945. He has been equally successful in another, more important respect as well. He has avoided the financial crisis which has marked the second and, sometimes, the third year of every single Labour government since 1929.
Here, at any rate, the People's Party would never let you down. Public expenditure would be cut, taxes raised, hospital building suspended, other laudable projects stopped, nurses disowned and teachers' pay frozen. We would be told that sacrifices were required all round. Stand up, stand up for Sterling! Mr Tony Benn would say that the Movement had been betrayed by its leaders caving in to the bankers. Mr Benn cannot be held responsible for his father's actions but, curiously, Wedgwood Benn was in the majority in Ramsay MacDonald's 1931 cabinet in voting for the cuts the bankers were demanding. It was the same story in 1947-49, in 1966-67 and in 1976.
We were due for a repeat performance of this familiar old show in 1999- 2000. But somehow, despite rumours of recession and indecision over the euro, we have managed to avoid putting it on at the New Whitehall theatre. The Government's difficulties have been different: Ireland, a tragedy which has been playing off and on to sparse houses for centuries; the House of Lords, which has been spasmodically engaging the attention of governments since the 19th century; and devolution, which has been around for a long time too.
What all these have in common is that they are constitutional problems, resolvable by reason and compromise, though you could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland was an exception, and you would be right. But wars are a matter (I quote Bismarck correctly) of iron and blood. They are not rational. Still less are those financial crises which can come about whether as a direct result of wars or for more remote reasons. That is why Mr Brown must be a worried man.Reuse content