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Muddling through is awfully jolly

Posted by Richard Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Panic measures c. 1939: with two million unemployed, Guardsmen were employed filling sandbags to protect government  buildings in Whitehall.

Douglas Reed, in a different book this time but caustic as ever, writes of matters long ago. In reaching from the grave, however, his words resonate on things present, as if he was here now – today. This, though, is 1938, and he is complaining at the misallocation of resources on providing huge numbers of gas masks, when the risk of gas is slight and the risk from high explosives grave.

But in England there, Reed says, "were only gas masks, and not many of those, but no bomb-proof shelters, though in your underground railways you have the finest raw material for bomb-proof shelters, if anybody would take the trouble to have them adapted for that purpose, of any city in the world". He adds:
You could put hundreds of thousands of people in them in perfect safety, you could have food and water and everything you needed down there, if you ever could be moved to do anything about anything, but muddling through is awfully jolly and British, and how too British we British are, aren't we?
Of the preparations in the run-up to Munich, he then wrote:
What an incredible scene of confusion and chaos that was, after six years of constant warnings. On the outskirts of London, Aircraftmen struggling to get a few balloons into the air, many of which broke away, as who should say, "Include me out of this farce, will you?", and drifted off into the blue.
The passive defensive measures comprised gas masks, trenches, bomb-proof shelters, evacuation, he wrote, but the more important measures are the active ones: anti-aircraft guns, fighting aircraft. Do you think, he asked, we were readier in these things?

The answer had come on 4th November (reported on the day from a debate on 3 November), with Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War. He, says Reed, confirmed some of the worst fears that had been expressed about useless anti-aircraft guns, deficient transport, wrong ammunition.

However, Reed wrote ironically, the Government was not at fault. The culprits were "the people who had been crying for years to have these things remedied, for the Government to fulfil its own promises". And the Secretary's anxiety had been "not lest the full equipment should come", but about those who kept stressing the lack of full equipment.

Here, our writer slightly misquotes the Secretary of War (see second para), but not grievously so. It is made clear that the great concern "is to keep alive the vital processes of confidence". The context is that the equipment is missing, but we should not complain about it for fear of affecting "confidence".

Those who bemoan the current inadequacies of government need look no further than here. Read the 1938 debate if you have time, and you will see that we have been taken for fools for a very long time. The Old Swan beckons.

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