REPORT ON BRITAIN
AN ADDRESS BY MICHAEL BARKWAY
Chairman: The President, Major F. L. Clouse
Thursday, March 27th, 1947
MAJOR CLOUSE: Gentlemen of The Empire Club, in January the Chairman of Your Speakers' Committee learned that Mr. Michael Barkway--Canadian representative of the British Broadcasting Corporation--was leaving for England and would return in March, so we immediately contacted him and he agreed to speak to our Club on his return.
Our guest speaker was born in England and educated at Hailebury and Queens College, Cambridge, where he was honoured with the distinguished office of President of the Cambridge Union.
Mr. Barkway has been with the B.B.C. since 1934, commencing as a sub-editor in the news department and from its inception, was placed in charge of the overseas news service of the B.B.C. We will always remember Mr. Barkway as the man who conceived and produced the famous "Radio Newsreel", which came to us nightly throughout the war.
Our guest of honour, in 1943, was United States correspondent of the B.B.C. and returned to Europe as Deputy Chief of the Radio Section of the Physiological Warfare Division at the headquarters of General Eisenhower.
Mr. Barkway also served as organizing secretary of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Conference assembled in London, which consisted of representatives from the British Dominion and India, and he also spent a year at Geneva as broadcasting expert of the League of Nations Secretariat.
As I announced last week, Mr. Barkway has told me that his story will be grim but, nevertheless, the members of the Empire Club are anxious to know just what is happening in the Mother Country, and today the Club welcomes Mr. Michael Barkway who will give us his "Report on Britain".
MR. MICHAEL BARKWAY: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: It is, as you said, nearly two months ago since I accepted your invitation to speak to you today. That is to say it was before I went to Britain and before any of us knew, of the hardships and the trials which the worst weather of a hundred years was to bring upon Britain. Knowing what we know now, I marvel that I could so light-heartedly have accepted such a terribly difficult task.
Let me be personal for a minute. I arrived in Britain early in February on the very day the fuel cuts were imposed on industrial and domestic consumers. I left just after the three-day Parliamentary debate on the economic situation. That is to say, I missed the floods and the hurricane. I was there for the worst of the cold weather and the industrial dislocation. I spent three weeks in London and another week in Manchester and in Scotland. I tell you that simply because I have no desire to emulate the flip journalists who tell you all about the condition of the country after spending three days there.
Throughout my visit to Britain, if you will let me be personal again, I wore thick woollen combinations, stretching from wrist to ankle, which I have only worn once before in my life, when stranded in a blizzard in Labrador and which I hope never to wear again. I ate more fish, which I hate, than I have ever eaten in my life before. And I was mighty lucky to eat it. I was only able to get it because I was one of the privileged people living in hotels and eating in restaurants: If I had been living at home I wouldn't have got it at all and whatever I had got would have cost my wife hours waiting in a queue. The period of my visit was the period when miners and transport workers were working on Sundays and at nights to get out the coal in circumstances of unparalleled difficulty; when the merchant seamen, for all their courage, were storm bound in east-coast ports; when most of my friends had burst pipes that they couldn't get repaired; when more than two million men and women were out of work, and thousands of others were working in unheated offices, wearing their great coats and their gloves; when transport was almost at a standstill; when aircraft were lost in trying to drop supplies to isolated villages; when sheep and lambs were dying by the million in the blizzard; when the winter sowing of grain and the vegetable crop was dying in the ground; when the people of Britain were suffering more inconvenience and more actual hardship than they had suffered since the winter of the Blitz in 1940.
So you won't expect that I should give you an address full of wit and gaiety. That relatively easy road is closed to me.
The other easy road that I can think of is to try to stir your emotions and arouse your sympathy with graphic and heartrending tales of hardship. That road equally I refuse to take. So I am going to try and do what I imagine you would want me to do, which is to try to give you some kind of perspective and that is a terribly difficult task.
Let me say for once and I will try not to bore you by repeating it, that I can only speak as I saw and that I saw very partially. I can only claim that I shall be as objective and as frank as I know how.
First, then, some salient facts which I think are beyond controversy.
This winter is the worst Britain has had since I don't know when. People argue about the records and the figures, but I am sure it is safe to say that there haven't been two winters as bad in the last hundred and fifty years.
Secondly; let me remind you of a thing which is a little difficult to realize. Britain has no resources of water power or of anything else. She depends for her power for industry, for domestic consumption and for everything else, on coal. I don't need to remind you of the typical heating in a British home. People still cluster round a miserable little coal fire in the grate, while a swirling draught whistles around their backs, and I was reminded quite forcibly while I was over there that a great many of them still utterly dislike what they call "central heating." But when the temperature is away below what they are accustomed to and there isn't any coal to burn in the grate it isn't very much fun.
But that is a digression. In realistic economic terms it is not important.
To come back to coal, which is basic to Britain's economy, thirdly, let me remind you that the decline in the number of miners and in the output of coal from the British mines had already set in before the war. Then followed the years of war in which British mines were ruthlessly exploited. That is the best way I can think of putting it. The coal was dug regardless. Wherever coal could be got it was taken out with the barest necessary care for replacement and maintenance. Is it then any wonder that fate should have caught up with the British coal mines?
The first comment I heard on the situation when it got really acute was the wag who said, "Be sure you're Shinwell find you out."
Then came the two serious theories. First, that the Labour Government had disgracefully neglected to provide for the eventuality of a bad winter. Secondly, that the mines had been so disgracefully neglected by their capitalist owners for many years past that this thing was inevitable anyway.
It is not for me to try to tell you which is the better explanation. But I tan observe that it seems to me, it seems logically possible that both might be true.
Nor, honestly, does it seem to me very important. The immediate sharp and disastrous crisis of coal production which closed down the factories, blacked out most of the cities, was a new revelation of an old condition. The crisis was chiefly important, as I think, because it revealed for all to see the position that Britain was in: And most important of all, perhaps, it revealed to the British people themselves. Academic calculations about a trade balance don't have very much effect on the working man anywhere in the world. Certainly on the stolid, optimistic British workman they don't make very much impact. As long as things jog gently along, as long as the housewife can make do somehow, as long as the man has a job and can get his pint of beer, even if it is watery beer, all he does is grumble. Inconveniences are a matter of grumbling. Have a good grumble and you feel better. But when it gets relatively tough, when men are thrown out of work, when there isn't any heat in the home, when you are threatened with no coal and no gas and no electricity, then you have got to do something about it.
The day I arrived in London the Government asked people not to use electricity between nine and twelve o'clock in the morning, and two and four o'clock in the afternoon. I suppose if it had been possible to switch the electricity off at the mains that would have been relatively easy. But that couldn't be done because hospitals and essential services were served by the same lines. So it was up to each user. Now, obviously, neither I nor anybody else can give you a statistical record, but I can say that I never was in any building, shop, restaurant, hotel, office, house or apartment where I found people using the electricity in the prohibited hours. I was staying in my Club, where the bedrooms are away up in the roof, reached by a difficult, devious, rather dark staircase, and one morning at ten minutes past nine when I wanted to go up to my bedroom I found that the elevator, which was self-operating, was still working. I took it. When I got out at the top, by ill luck I met a maid. I couldn't decide whether it was just my bad conscience or whether she really did scowl at me, but when a few minutes later I went to go down in the elevator I found some servant had got to the switch and turned it off. I never felt such a heel. Here I *as, warmed, well-fed, asked to put up with this for a month, and for the sake of a trifling convenience of getting upstairs I was ready to disregard my public duty. That maid, ill-fed, tired, fed-up, wouldn't have dreamt of using the elevator at the time when she had been asked not to.
I say, I never found anybody willfully ignoring that voluntary ban. I heard of a barber who made a victim hold a candle while he clipped. I saw myself in Claridge's the small Hungarian orchestra playing in a vast, dark, empty lounge by the light of a three-branched candlestick, standing on the grand piano. I met housewives who sat in their quiet unheated homes and did their housework and conducted their affairs from nine until twelve in the morning, then crouched over their electric stove for a coupe of hours before they reverted to two heatless hours in the afternoon.
But, as I say, that probably is not important in realistic economic terms. The important thing is that the crisis showed the British people what they are up against and you who remember Dunkirk and the threat of invasion and the Blitz and the second blitz and the flying bombs--and you haven't had to live with all that for six years--may well say that this in itself provides the answer. So it may. But let me remind you again that the coal shortage is only the primary and obvious shortage. Behind coal, much more significant and sinister, lies the dollar shortage. There is no point in mincing words. You know it as well as I do: Britain is living on tick. She is living on the American and Canadian loans. The London Times estimated just the other day that those loans would be exhausted some time next year, probably early, rather than late in the year. Analyzing the situation in a cold-blooded way, the paper discussed what Britain would have to do to prevent a very severe cut in her present living standards. There is only one answer--a great increase in production--such an increase as I confess seems to me barely possible.
I wonder if you can guess what made the people in Britain laugh most while I was over there. There is not an awful lot to laugh at in Britain now, The thing that made Britain laugh most was the new definition of an optimist as "a man who regards the future as uncertain".
I heard more genuine laughter over that crack than over anything else. You may say that there is something a little pathetic about it. I think perhaps there is. But there is astonishing courage, too.
Now, I suppose I ought to say a word about Britain's external relations. I do so reluctantly because foreign affairs are always a matter of many subtleties and complexities. They don't lend themselves to easy and sweeping generalizations.
May I illustrate that? Soon after I got back to Canada I went to a barber and I had to wait my turn. I picked up the current issue of a popular illustrated American periodical. I found that it had excellent pictures of the Royal Tour of South Africa, and under one picture of a very splendid ceremony, somewhere or other my astonished gaze fell on a caption of which I would like to quote part to you. Speaking of this splendid ceremony, the captain said
"It was a brave show .. . . and it glittered all the more brightly for the fact that it was enacted against a darkening backdrop of imperial calamity. The structure of the British Empire, raised by mighty men from Drake to Churchill, was crumbling. Even as its King paid tribute to the work of Rhodes, his royal cousin was on his way to India to undo the work of Clive. One by one, the plums of power were slipping away-Egypt, Palestine, Burma" . . . and so on.
It is what the New Yorker would call the "Rich beautiful prose department". It was what the rest of us would call a non-too-distinguished example of an already outworn pastime known as "twisting the lion's tail". It is not worth very much attention. But doesn't it appear to you a rather curious conception of responsible journalism? that an anonymous hack journalist, using "rich, beautiful prose" as a substitute for the unaccustomed exercise of thought, should be allowed to put that kind of nonsense into several million American homes? Definitely, foreign affairs do not lend themselves to that sort of literary exercise.
Let me, if I may, add just one word about India. I hope it may be a word of reason which may serve to re-establish some perspective.
The British Government has been committed in principle to self-government for India since the Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1927, and I have never heard any protest about that from south of the border. All that the fuss is about now is the fixing of a date. Now, Sir, I entirely agree it is arguable whether or not it was a wise decision to fix a date. But it is arguable only in terms of a detailed discussion of continuation in India of the devious course of the negotiations which have been going on for so long. I am ready, indeed I am eager to listen to a discussion of the decision by those who are competent to discuss it in those terms. But I am not interested in a discussion of it in terms of "rich beautiful prose."
Which leads me to another observation about the much advertised decline and fall of the British Empire. Those of us who have taken any interest in Commonwealth and Empire affairs have been aware at least, I suppose for the last twenty years, that the process which reached its magnificent fruit in the Statute of Westminster, which transformed the 19th Century Empire into the 20th Century Commonwealth was a dynamic process. It hadn't reached the end at the Imperial Conference in 1926. That was the beginning; and ever since then the aim of British colonial policy has been the progressive development of self-government. Patiently and consistently that process has been going on according to the needs and the differing abilities of each territory. When the process comes near its fruition, as now in Burma, are we to lose faith in our convictions? Are we to abandon our ideals because of the jeers of people who have never understood them?
Now, Sir, I know that the Charter and customs of this club as well as the restraints of my own position, preclude me from discussing party politics, even if I were so minded, but I think within the limits of a purely objective report, one can perhaps again point some perspectives that aren't easy to discern from this distance.
May I first then quite platitudinously remind you that the battles of party warfare are fought to a considerable extent with wooden weapons. Those who take part in it and the other people on the stage understand perfectly well the significance of the manoeuvres, but the spectators in the gallery may not. You have got to be sitting in the front row to see the grease paint.
I suggest that that is worth remembering when you read accounts of British politics. Now, I may be wrong. I may have met the wrong people. I may have formed quite the wrong impression, and I certainly offer this as no judgment of my own, certainly as no deliberate statement of my own. But as a matter of factual report, I met no one during my stay in Britain who thought that a change of government was imminent or even foreseeable, and I am perfectly sure I met more Conservatives than Labour people.
Second, I wonder if you will understand me when I say there is a sense in which the completion of the government is relatively unimportant. My emphasis is on the word "Relatively". Of course, it matters; of course, it makes a difference whether it is a Conservative or a Labour Government in Britain. A change of government would mean modification here and there. It might make things a little better; it might snake things a little worse, but the fundamental situation of Britain is an absolute datum. Not even a government of angels could change it basically.
For, in its crudest terms the British dilemma is this:
How are we to find enough food for rather more than forty million people to eat? The bulk of that food has to be imported, particularly this year after the disastrous weather. What has to be imported in the long run has to be paid for. Now, Britain can pay, having spent her foreign investments for the sake of her war effort, only by increased production for export, and the weather and the coal shortage between them have set back her production by an amount which no one can yet estimate. Within not much more than twelve months anyway, existing dollar credit will be exhausted; and unless British exports, particularly to the dollar countries, have expanded to an unforeseeable degree, imports will have to be cut again and that will mean food.
Let me observe, purely in parenthesis, because it doesn't need saying to this gathering, that Canada's concern in all this is obviously not entirely disinterested. Your external trade obviously is very much involved.
But still let us try to keep the perspective. The current ration in the British and American zones of Germany is, I believe, about half the British ration. Much of Europe is worse off than the United Kingdom; and if you will forgive me for saying so, I believe the British people are much more. aware of their relative good fortune than most of us are of our unrivalled material prosperity. It is, therefore, presumably to be contemplated that life could be maintained in the British Islands with very much smaller imports and very much less food than at present. None of us, I think, would care to live in those conditions; but then there aren't many places in the world even at this present day, where we could enjoy the luxuries, the almost excessive food and the material welfare which Canada enjoys today.
I may be blamed by you, or by others, for putting it as bluntly as that. And I end with this: it seems to me that you cannot cross the Atlantic at the present day without being confronted, as I have never been confronted before, with the question whether this is "One World", or whether that is merely hot air. If it is one world, if it be true in sober fact that "if one member suffers all the other members suffer with it", then I think most of us have got to do a mighty lot of fresh thinking.