Thursday, December 30, 2010

How the Iron Lady saved Britain: Mrs Thatcher drove through economic revolution single-handed

Margaret Thatcher stood almost alone in driving through the tough policies now credited with saving the economy, secret papers reveal. The Tory Premier had to take on her predecessor Harold Macmillan, Bank of England governor Gordon Richardson and even her own Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to push through the policies which pulled Britain back from the brink of economic chaos.

Documents released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule show the pressure Mrs Thatcher faced from the Establishment behind the scenes – and the extent to which she was isolated.

In 1980, the year after becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a controversial programme to revive the moribund economy through deep public spending cuts and strict control of the money supply, intended to stamp out inflation.

But by the middle of the year – with inflation peaking at 22 per cent, unemployment heading towards 2.8million and industry complaining it was being brought to its knees by the financial squeeze – there was little sign it was working.

In an extraordinary 11-page letter to Mrs Thatcher, Macmillan, known as Supermac, warned that global conditions coupled with her tough monetarist stance left Britain at risk of ‘constant recession’. He warned that while her programme of cuts might give a ‘sense of exhilaration’ to her supporters, the country was heading for industrial collapse and ‘dangerous’ levels of unemployment.

Macmillan, then 86, sent the letter following a meeting with the Prime Minister at Chequers in August 1980. He criticised her for abandoning ‘consensus politics’ to pursue radical reforms and ‘divisive politics’, which he said went against the ‘essence of Tory democracy’.

It was Macmillan who coined the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’ in 1957 during the long post-war economic boom. His brand of consensus politics is now credited with contributing to the economic malaise that brought Britain to its knees in the late 1970s.

Years later, in her memoirs, Mrs Thatcher poured scorn on consensus politics, writing: ‘What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?.’

But in 1980 Macmillan remained an influential figure with the potential to destabilise the beleaguered new Tory government. Writing condescendingly about her focus on ‘money supply’, he said it ‘may be useful as a guide to what is happening just as a speedometer is in a car; but like the speedometer it cannot make the machine go faster or slower’.

In 1981, 365 economists wrote to The Times urging Mrs Thatcher to change course and limit the damage caused by the recession. But she was unmoved, and her tough stance succeeded in reducing inflation from 27 per cent to four per cent in four years, putting Britain on the road to recovery.

Mrs Thatcher’s economic views were heavily influenced by the right-wing Cabinet minister Sir Keith Joseph, with whom she set up the free market think tank the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974. Both drew on the work of the influential American economist Milton Friedman whose monetary theories challenged the post-war consensus on economic thinking.

In 1981 Mrs Thatcher recruited Sir Alan Walters as her chief economic adviser to help her push through monetarist policies.

In 1985 Macmillan finally went public with his criticism of Mrs Thatcher’s approach. Angered at her policy of privatisation, he likened her actions to ‘selling the family silver’.

The documents also reveal an account of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘stormy’ showdown with Bank governor Gordon Richardson in 1980 in which she said he was undermining her whole economic strategy. She accused the Governor and the Chancellor of failing to get a grip on the money supply. According to the official note of the meeting, she laid into them, saying the whole of the international banking community realised Britain’s money supply was ‘out of control’.

The following month, a reinvigorated Mrs Thatcher delivered her celebrated ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Tory conference in Blackpool.

The way an exasperated Mrs Thatcher repeatedly refused to bow to Europe is spelled out in the 1980 documents. She had been in office for only a few months but was already earning her Iron Lady nickname.

In what was then the nine-member European Economic Community, Britain was paying in £1billion more than it received through the agricultural, social and industrial programmes, and Mrs Thatcher had vowed to secure a rebate.

A secret briefing in December 1979 told her the UK was under pressure from France and Germany to make concessions following the discovery of North Sea oil. On it she scrawled in felt-tip pen: ‘I am not prepared to bargain away our few resources. ‘To suggest that we might be able to keep some of our own money in return for giving up some of our oil is ridiculous.’

In 1980 a memo from the Chancellor of the Exchequer urged her to compromise to resolve the ‘deadlock’ over the rebate. At the top of his memo, she scrawled in blue felt-tip: ‘No. The procedure is ridiculous. ‘Its whole purpose is to demean Britain… we must fight this one – if necessary openly.’

A three-year rebate was agreed in 1981. It awarded Britain two-thirds of the £1billion Mrs Thatcher had demanded, and became a permanent arrangement in 1984. The
Prime Minister showed the same doggedness on the Common Fisheries Policy.

A letter headed ‘confidential’ from Agriculture Minister Peter Walker warned her that a policy of ‘attrition’ would be unlikely to work and that failing to resolve it would lead to ‘deepening uncertainty’ within the fishing industry.

On it, she scrawled: ‘It is our water, and but for the unique common resources policy, our fish. Where he recommended they make an ‘early settlement’ by negotiating, she wrote in large letters: ‘NO’.

The Common Fisheries Policy was designed to set quotas for catches to manage stocks for the EU.


Monday, December 27, 2010

King James's Bible: perhaps the greatest work of translation ever

Comment by Daniel Hannan -- who is is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free

I can’t be the only English-speaker who suspects, deep down, that the Almighty expressed Himself in the language of the Authorised Version. Even now, I do a double-take when I listen to a biblical passage in another tongue. I struggled to repress a chuckle the other day when I heard Matthew 5:5 rendered as “Bienheureux sont les débonnaires; car ils hériteront la terre.”

Yesterday, the Queen reminded us that her ninth-great-grandfather, James VI & I, had commissioned the translation in the hope of impressing a measure of unity on the various theological currents then swirling about Britain. And, in a sense, he succeeded. The Church of England is unusual among Christian denominations in that it combines an extraordinary heterogeneity of doctrine with political and – until very recently – liturgical conformity.

More than this, though, the Authorised Version, along with the Prayer Book, has shaped our everyday idiom. As Bruce Anderson writes in the current Spectator, few Anglophone atheists can remain indifferent to the cadences of those two works: “‘Dearly beloved’ is one of the loveliest phrases in the language, as is ‘with my body I thee worship’ and many others from the Anglican liturgy.”

Bruce’s article reminded me of the good-natured struggle I had to persuade the vicar to use the unexpurgated 1662 Prayer Book at my own wedding. [I did the same at my last wedding -- JR] Looking back, I think the poor fellow was shy about declaring that marriage is not intended “to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding”. Of course, his embarrassment was itself testimony to the power of the writing.

The Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer have defined our language more than any texts except (obviously) Shakespeare’s corpus. A Muslim friend once told me that his religion left little space for miracles. The only supernatural event that he personally accepted, he said, was the dictation of the Koran; and even this miracle required no great leap of faith, since, as an Arabic speaker, he could infer the divine nature of the message from the quality of the language in which it was expressed.

The English and their kindred peoples are, in my experience, rather less spiritual than Arabs, and it would not occur to them to make an equivalent claim. None the less, the Authorised Version stands as perhaps the greatest translation of all time. The day will eventually come when our power dwindles, and all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But as long as English is spoken, and our canon preserved, ours will never be just another country.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Andrew Higgins: Boat Builder of WWII

Who was Andrew Higgins? Almost forgotten now, he was, according to Dwight Eisenhower, “the man who won [World War II] for us.”

As General William T. Sherman observed, “War is hell.” That hell includes oppressive taxes, loss of freedom, and crushing debt, as well as deaths in combat. But once in war, as the United States was after Pearl Harbor, losing is an even greater hell. Thus we had a need for war entrepreneurs, and some—like Higgins—were given enough freedom to innovate and help U.S. troops finish the war sooner than expected.

Andrew Higgins became indispensable because he was one of the very few men who could create and manufacture reliable landing craft to transport troops from ship to shore. Using landing craft in warfare was a key World War II innovation. Troop ships would bring thousands of soldiers within a mile or so of the coast. Then the soldiers would climb down the sides of the ships on cargo nets into Higgins boats (as his assortment of landing craft came to be called), each holding 36 men. The landing craft would then bring the soldiers into shore—a ramp would open at the end of the boat, and the men would disembark. Then the boats would return to the troop ship to load more men.

Higgins’s boats were so reliable, so flexible, and so fast that Americans could reach many different parts of a coastline, not just the major ports. Thus the Higgins boats gave Eisenhower many options for landing spots into North Africa, then into Italy, and finally into France. The Germans couldn’t cover the entire European coast, and the Allied forces used thousands of landing craft to hit Normandy beach at D-Day.

What’s especially remarkable about the Higgins story is that he almost didn’t get a chance to show the world what he could do. The biggest obstacle Higgins faced was overcoming the bureaucrats in the U.S. Navy. In particular the Bureau of Ships, which had authority to buy landing craft for the Navy, regularly refused to consider Higgins’s offers to supply various landing craft and PT boats. Why?

First, the Bureau of Ships wanted to use its own internally designed landing craft. What’s more, the naval leaders couldn’t imagine Higgins, a small boat builder from Nebraska, having the answers to the Navy’s needs. Therefore, they usually rejected his offers and nitpicked his designs, then purchased their own inferior vessels.

With the success of the war, and his company, at stake, Higgins fought back. “I don’t wait for opportunity to knock,” he said. “I send out a welcoming committee to drag the old harlot in.” He openly condemned the Bureau of Ships for “prejudice” against his boats. American lives were being lost, he contended, because Higgins boats were on the sidelines. Jerry Strahan describes Higgins’s battle with the Navy bureaucracy in Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II.

Higgins called the tank lighter—the mechanized landing craft that carried tanks—built by the Bureau of Ships “godawful.” He added, “I want to say that there are no officers, whether present in this room or otherwise in the Navy who know a goddamn thing about small boat design, construction, or operation—but by God, I do.”

Of the Bureau of Ships, Higgins said, “If the ‘red tape’ and the outmoded and outlandish Civil War methods of doing business were eliminated, the work could be done in the Bureau of Ships very efficiently with about one-sixth the present personnel.” The bureaucrats at the Bureau of Ships loathed Higgins and rejected his superior boats, even when their own vessels malfunctioned and killed American soldiers in transport.

Fortunately for Higgins, the U.S. war effort was just decentralized enough to give him a chance to go outside the naval bureaucracy to prove himself. First, the Marines desperately needed amphibious boats, and after doing tests they discovered that the Navy’s landing craft often didn’t work but Higgins boats did. The Marines bought Higgins boats when possible and helped get a hearing for Higgins in higher tribunals. Second, Congress authorized the Truman Committee to investigate waste and corruption in the war effort. Higgins at last won a hearing from Senator Harry Truman and dramatic results followed: Truman demanded a “head-to-head operational test” of a Higgins boat and a Navy boat.

That was all Higgins ever asked for. In the dramatic contest that followed at Norfolk, Virginia, on May 25, 1942, both Higgins and the Navy had to have their landing craft carry a 30-ton tank through choppy waters. During the race, the highly touted boat built by the Bureau of Ships failed—and almost sank—while the Higgins boat dazzled the spectators. With the scrutiny of the Truman Committee, the Bureau of Ships had to convert to Higgins’s design and immediately he began receiving important contracts.

Shocked that the Navy had repeatedly rejected the best boat available, Truman launched a full investigation into naval purchasing and concluded, “[T]he Bureau of Ships has, for reasons known only to itself, stubbornly persisted for over five years in clinging to an unseaworthy tank lighter design of its own. . . . Higgins Industries did actually design and build a superior lighter,” but was ignored because of a “flagrant disregard for the facts, if not the safety and success of American troops.”

With a green light from the Truman Committee and the Bureau of Ships, Higgins expanded his New Orleans plant and frantically churned out landing craft. He attracted good workers from across the country for his assembly lines by paying high wages, offering free medical care, and providing great training and some community services. He hired black and white workers and, although he had to segregate them, he paid them similar wages. Getting good workers and training them was only part of his challenge. He also had to find loopholes in the new federal laws that limited wages and controlled prices and purchases. Higgins often had to buy steel on the black market, and once, when no bronze shafting was available for making tank lighters, he stole the needed material from an oil company in nearby Texas. (He later paid for it.)

During March 1943, as Eisenhower began to prepare to invade Sicily and Italy, he had nightmares of shortages of landing craft. “When I die,” Eisenhower said, my “coffin should be in the shape of a landing craft, as they are practically killing [me] with worry.” The next year, when Ike planned the D-Day invasion, he said, “[L]et us thank God for Higgins Industries, management, and labor which has given us the landing boats with which to conduct our campaign.” A frustrated Adolf Hitler, who could not stop thousands of Higgins boats from landing soldiers at Normandy beach, called Higgins the “new Noah.” The old Noah helped save the animals; the new Noah helped save his country.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Stonehenge 'was built by rolling stones using giant wicker baskets'

It is one of the abiding mysteries of Britain’s Neolithic past. For all the awe-inspiring wonder of the standing stones at Stonehenge no one has ever worked out how our ancient ancestors were able to heave boulders weighing many tonnes over such huge distances.

But now an engineer and former BBC presenter believes he has come up with a theory which explains how the giant stones were moved. Garry Lavin believes that the engineers who built Stonehenge used wicker basket-work to ‘roll’ the huge boulders all the way from Wales to their present location.

‘I always thought that dragging these huge stones was physically impossible because of the friction on the surface. The key thing is the technology was always there around them,’ he said.

It is the movement of the 60 famous Bluestones which causes historians such problems. Each stone weighs up to 4 tons and they originally came from the Preseli Mountains in Wales – some 200 miles away.

Mr Lavin has come up with a cylinder ‘basket’ to roll the massive and irregularly-shaped stones. The basket is created by weaving willow and alder saplings to form a lightweight structure that can be easily moved by 4 or 5 men. To complete the rig and to ensure the best rolling and flotation conditions, the gaps between the basketwork cylinder and the irregular stone are packed with thin branches. This spreads the load as the basket flexes in transit, much like a modern tyre, and creates buoyancy when transported down rivers and across the sea.

One of Mr Lavin’s key discoveries during his earlier experiments was that the wicker cages that contained the stones were able to float. This would have enabled Neolithic man were able to get the huge stones across rivers on their journey, as well as making it easier to transport them over long distances without having to carry them the entire way.

One of Mr Lavin's sketches showing how groups of men could have enlisted the help of oxen to roll the huge boulders. The men would have been able to place the stones in a river, such as the River Wye, and then guide them on their way.

Mr Lavin said: ‘Woven structures were everywhere at the time, there are even wells which they have discovered were full with woven basketwork. It’s just taking that technology and using it in a new way. ‘It is not without some foundation. It was staring us in the face the whole time.’

In the summer Mr Lavin tested out his theory near Stonehenge and succeeded in moving a large one-ton stone in a wicker cage that he had made himself. Mr Lavin now wants to set out on his final mission to rewrite history by creating a supersize cradle capable of moving a huge five-ton stone. To do so he has enrolled the help of an engineer, an ancient wood archaeologist and a professional willow weaver to help him with the final test and construction. He hopes to run the test around the time of the summer solstice next year.

‘The physics is there it’s just so obvious. It’s one of the things that when you think about it you say “oh yes, of course”, ‘ he said.

He believes the original stones could have been moved by two teams of ten men each with one team resting while the others pushed the ‘axles’ containing each bluestone all the way from Wales their final destination.

George Oates, who works for the engineering company Expedition UK that recently designed the Olympic Velodrome as well as the Millennium Bridge, has looked at the new theory from a physics perspective. He looked at the height and weight of Neolithic men as well as the stone’s weight, the strength of the wicker basket and the inclines that would have to be negotiated.

Mr Oates said: ‘We feel that it is possible that Garry’s theory of a woven basket around the stone, moving these four-ton stones all the way from the Welsh mountains to Stonehenge is at least viable.’

Last week a competing theory from the University of Exeter was published which suggested that the stones may have used wooden ball bearings balls placed in grooved wooden tracks would have allowed the easy movement of stones weighing many tons.