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Three men who saved the world

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Wednesday, 22 June 2005


We’ve been celebrating the 60th anniversary of various milestones of the dying days of World War II 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 a couple of weeks ago.

On the June 4, 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.”

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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 and 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 February 4, 1936 he published the culmination of his own thought. Hubristically titled after Einstein’s revolutionary physics, Keynes’ General Theory founded modern macroeconomics.

Despite the vigour 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”.

His new macroeconomics helped Britain to intensify what became a prodigious war effort and Keynes 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 in history.

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Then there was Alan Turing whose mathematical genius helped unlock the German Enigma Code and so turn 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 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.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on June 8, 2005.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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