A class bound, hide bound, establishment bound country snaps into meritocracy when it matters

Troppodillians have seen some of this week’s Courier Mail column coming in an earlier post. This week’s column is about the strange way in which Great Britain snapped out of the ‘low dishonest decade’ of appeasement. It seems to me that there is something remarkable about the way in which it turned to the right people, despite their transgressions against the establishment.

In some ways it was the very cosiness of the establishment that meant that when the chips were down the right ‘chaps’ could be turned to and the formalities could be dispensed with. If Keynes wanted a word with Churchill he could meet him at the Other Club.

I wonder whether someone like Keynes would have been as influential in a more formally meritocratic system. Apart from being an ‘outsider’ he was also extremely forthright in his criticism of the establishment, and I can’t see that being taken too kindly to within the modern Australian bureaucracy. But who knows?

I’m afraid I can’t help but quote the incantation “we shall fight on the beaches” again. I expect its unfashionable but I just love great rhetoric. Maybe I wouldn’t be so smitten if I had been brought up within an organised religion – because religious texts appeal to something similar – they become more powerful -not less – for being repeated. The words resonate with meaning.

Churchill could do rhetoric – he really could. Abe Lincoln even more so. One of the big fakers of rhetoric in my opinion was JFK – but I digress. . . .

Three men who saved the world

We’ve been celebrating the 60th anniversary of various milestones of the dying days of WWII lately, like V(E) day and the liberation of Auschwitz-Burkenau humanity’s most concerted attempt to descend into the bowels of Hell itself. I’m not sure why we’ve given less attention to the 65th anniversary of the early landmarks of the war, but one passed last Saturday.

On the 4th June new Prime Minister Winston Churchill steeled his nation to fight. To fight in France, and on the seas and oceans, and in the air.

We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

The British are often thought of – perhaps think of themselves – as a crusty, hidebound lot with a monolithic ‘establishment’. Yet when it mattered in 1940, Great Britain turned to people of greatness and genius, whatever offence they may have caused the establishment. Here’s the story of three such figures whose mental feats helped save our world.

Churchill spent most of the 1930s in the political wilderness opposing the disastrous appeasement of Hitler. Right up to the royal family, the establishment feared him as passionate and unpredictable – a loose cannon. Winston wasn’t a ‘sound chap’. Churchill brought resolution indeed sheer physical courage to his office. He was foolhardily courageous himself. With others in the bunker, he would take those who dared onto the roof of Number 10 to take in the Luftwaffe’s fireworks during the blitz.

Then there was John Maynard Keynes, polymath, gadfly, high minded aesthete and economist of the century. He resigned his Treasury post in 1919 to protest the looming catastrophe of the Versailles treaty in which the victors avenged themselves against the defeated Germany with crippling war reparations. “Vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp” prophesied Keynes. Nor did it.

Thereafter Keynes lambasted the financial and economic policy establishment for needlessly contracting the economy with their eyes on a long run in which Keynes famously said we would all be dead. On 4th February 1936 he published the culmination of his own thought. Hubristically titled after Einstein’s revolutionary physics, Keynes’ General Theory founded modern macroeconomics.

The night before, he attended the opening of the Cambridge Arts Theatre, the construction of which he had conceived, supervised and financed.

Despite the vigor of his attacks, indeed the ridicule to which he had subjected those in power (not least Churchill!), June 1940 saw Keynes become consultant to the Treasury. Without any official position within Treasury’s hierarchy he became in Lord Salter’s words “the strangest civil servant Whitehall has ever seen, less the servant and more the master of those he served”.

He ran British economic policy from a little corner office and used his new macroeconomics to engineer the greatest proportional switch of resources towards war production of any of the belligerents. He then directed Britain’s negotiation of the post-war financial architecture which did so much to avoid the mistakes of Versailles and instead to deliver the biggest boom the world had ever known.

Then there was Alan Turing whose mathematical genius was pivotal to unlocking the German Enigma code and so, turning the tide against the German U-boats in the Atlantic.

Once war was won how quickly things changed.

The computers and other gizmos Turing helped design at Bletchley Park were smashed to pieces, their work (and Turing’s hand in it) kept secret until the 1970s.

Churchill was turfed out of office by an electorate that was keen to get on with building the welfare state. Responding to his wife Clementine’s suggestion that, at his age, it might be a blessing in disguise, a shattered Churchill responded that it was certainly a very good disguise!

Keynes’ health had been failing for years whilst an eccentric doctor he called ‘the Ogre’ kept his heart going with a regimen of sulpha drugs and bed rest with ice bags on his chest. (This regiment got him through the negotiations on the international financial architecture at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in 1944.) Exhausted by his labours Keynes’ died in 1946.

In 1952 Turing’s life was ruined by prosecution for “gross indecency and sexual perversion”. Unapologetic, about his homosexuality, Turing offered no defence and was given the choice between incarceration and hormone therapy. Growing breasts as a result of his choice, he died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, presumably by his own hand.

By then Churchill was nearing eighty in his second term as Prime Minister. While some of his concerns remained typically visionary and ahead of their time – for instance his championing of nuclear disarmament and his (then) unfashionable hostility to communism and decolonisation – he was too old to do his job well.

He remained nostalgic then as he did for the rest of his long life for those days of 1940 when, as he put it, “there was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end”.

Cometh the hour; cometh the men.

And then they went from hence, and were seen no more.

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Dirk Thruster
2022 years ago

“He was foolhardily courageous himself. With others in the bunker, he would take those who dared onto the roof of Number 10 to take in the Luftwaffe’s fireworks during the blitz. ”

That’s not courageous – foolhardily or otherwise. That’s just stupid. Being courageous involves overcoming fear to take a risk which could result in a positive outcome – getting little Timmy out of the well, for example.
Churchill may have to lose his seat in my pantheon after reading that.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago


He was courageous in the way you require for it to be courage. But he was also foolhardy. He used to ask the planes flying him over to unoccupied France before its complete collapse to fly near the front so he could have a look!

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I’m not precisely sure how Keynes “saved the world”. His theory was enormously popular and continues to frame mainstream thinking. However the stagflation of the 1970s proved that it was, in several important respects, wrong. Yet even today people talk about pump priming and stimulus and animal spirits.

Nor is Churchill a perfect saint. A great wartime leader, a stirring orator, a dogged fighter. But also a bit of a bastard – the carpet bombing of Dresden was hardly a kind and noble act.

I agree however that Turing deserves admiration for his achievements. Though the machines he helped to build were classified, it is the mathematics he pioneered which lit the path to modern computers.

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

The myth of Britain as being united as one in 1940 has important elements of truth in it, but like most such national myths it’s not by any means all true, and again like most its purveyance serves particular political interests.

Read George Orwell’s 1940 letters – he thought the country was likely to dissolve in revolution at the time (indeed, he thought it a Good Thing as a revolutionary government would not be tainted by past appeasement).

The King and Churchill were both heckled when they visited the bombed East End. Extreme left and extreme right were united in their calls for peace. And many of the scions of the upper class were packed off to obscure corners of the Empire out of harm’s way.

The 1945 election was by no means an aberration – class feeling was rampant throughout the war.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Jacques I didn’t argue that Churchill was a perfect saint. If we’re thinking about his less than saintly qualities, nor was he perfectly sober!

I think you confuse Keynes’ ideas with ‘Keynesianism’. One of the first ways Keynes deployed his own new framework from the General Theory was in his pamphlet ‘How to pay for the war’ which he then implemented to a significant degree from within the Treasury. A central objective was to fund the war whilst containing inflation. The vicissitudes of stagflation arose from a particular ‘bastard’ Keynesian idea that unemployment necessitated expansion pretty much regardless of its cause. Keynes would have been one of the first to point out how untenable such an idea was. Indeed, he was luke warm on the clever formalisations of his theory provided by Hicks

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Thanks for those points DD. I’m sure you’re right. That’s rhetoric for you! I wasn’t arguing that it was all true :)

Jason Soon
2022 years ago

yep, Keynes was the father of economic globalism (didn’t he help set up the IMF?) and the perfect example of a public spirited civil servant.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

He sure did (And the GATT – later WTO – and the World Bank)And he sure was.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

nicholas, agree on Keynes and Keynesian.
Joan robinson, the best writer of economics. made a similar point.

What has always perplexed me is that in 1905 Churchill made a keynesian speech that was ahead of its time (but not Lloyd george).
He becomes chancellor has Keynes debate with Treasury and then loses his bottle.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Firstly he had become a Conservative (not that that meant a lot with Winston, but I guess his views were changing).

More importantly I think what happened was that of the whole group of advisors (including Churchill) Churchill had the most respect for Keynes, and proceeded with the most appreciation that the official advice could be wrong, but there was very little official support for Keynes’ line within Churchill’s circle of advisors within Treasury (and I presume the Bank of England but I don’t know how closely they advised Churchill).

Given that Churchill was no economist, that made it very difficult for him to go with Keynes and so he ended up taking the line of least resistance. I’ve seen this happen on lots of occasions with lesser politicians, and I sympathise with them – it really is very difficult to go it alone even if you have the expertise – let alone if you don’t.

Churchill had Keynes in on crucial meetings about whether to return to pre-war parity and he won the debate but not the battle. (This is all from memory, so needs checking). Churchill at least in his later Conservative years was pretty unintersted in the economy. Again from memory, Keynes felt that Churchill’s promise of ‘victory at any cost’ which he carried through on and so impoverished Britain, was a mistake. That he should have held back more to put more of the weight on the US (when it entered the way) and allowed Britain to enter the post war period in better shape.

2022 years ago

“Unhappy is the land that needs heroes”.
source forgotten

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Bert Brecht:

“Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes” – in his play called Galileo.

The other terrible line I love is this:

“The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news.”

A genuinely scarey idea, once turned into a great Leunig cartoon.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

“An optimist is a pessimist without the facts”!

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

It is interesting that honest Abe’s Gettysberg adress was seenas a failure at the time!

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

“People will little note nor long remember . . .”

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

As an aside I have been told two of the best orators in Asutralian politics were John Curtin and James Scullin ( who also believed to be the best leader of the opposition, pre-Depression).

2022 years ago

Er, Nick, I can’t feeling this is a bit of a beat up based on a few scanty data points. A stimulating beat up though.

For every boozy, flamboyant and brillant half-American aristo like Winnie, or sociopathic social-climbing religious fanatic privateer like Drake, or ruthless amoral yuppie accountant like Pitt the Younger, there’s no shortage of equally prominent Brit fuckups.

From that brillant general turned oversexed and politically incompetent PM like Arthur Wellesley, to glamour boy Anthony Eden pissing on what was left of the Empire’s middle east goodwill to Douglas Haig prolonging by sheer stupidity one of world’s worst killing grounds.

Yes, actually I’d agree with you that Winnie was a case of “comes the time, comes the man”. But hey, the Brits got lucky then. As they have been for a long time. But they worked out long ago how to create their luck, and it had nothing to do with “a class bound, hide bound, establishment bound country snaps into meritocracy when it matters”

Speaking as someone who comes from along line of empire builders, I’d say it’s always been a confused and muddling along process. Lateral, flexible and with one eye on the money, another on posterity, the third focused on noble causes that rugger-bugger public school testostrone energies could be channeled into and the fourth eye on the sheer glee of escaping a small wet caste-bound island for hot and colourful adventures abroad.

They were all making up as they went along, and with the cultural throb of Arthur Pendragon, Alfred and his singed snacks, Drake’s drum et al, beating out an distant ancestral tattoo in the blood.

And when it came to the ultimate crunch, they’d go with the quirky flamboyant boozy privateer merchant robber calcuating smooth talking fixers that got their empire this far.

Fuck. I think I’ve just come full circle to end up proving your point Nick while trying not to.

I will retire now to get my head straight by watching a DVD of Zardoz.

2022 years ago

That’s right, Dorothy: things are always clearer after a good Rampling.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago


“Stimulating beat up”

David Sligar
4 years ago

Meritocracy in this context refers to promoting those who best meet certain criteria defined by government leaders/agency heads. Increasing meritocracy is one element of a broader improvement in government leaders’ and agency heads’ capacity to optimise inputs to achieve their goals.

But their goals – including day to day system efficiency, conformity, public image management – are not necessarily identical to society’s goals. Given this principal-agent failure, optimisation could sometimes be actively harmful.

In HR, for example, it could exclude critical thinkers, people who ask “inconvenient” questions, and this would be society’s loss. By hiring only system-maintainer types, it may affect an agency’s ability to change and to think creatively, things that are particularly important in crises such as war, etc.