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Learning the lessons of the end of World War II

Summary:
The Allies won a remarkable victory in World War II. Although among the victors, the UK was bankrupt and exhausted, its economy was in poor shape, and its infrastructure - roads, rail and telecommunications - was out-of-date and worn out. Its economy needed a reboot to refresh and renew itself to deal with the postwar world.Instead, the UK government, a major recipient of Marshall Aid (far more than West Germany), and having negotiated a huge loan from the United States, squandered the money on building up an expensive welfare state, nationalizing industry, and trying to maintain the costly illusion that it was still a superpower. The sad story is documented in detail by Corelli Barnett in “The Lost Victory” (Macmillan 1995). The result was that while Germany and Japan saw reinvestment and

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The Allies won a remarkable victory in World War II. Although among the victors, the UK was bankrupt and exhausted, its economy was in poor shape, and its infrastructure - roads, rail and telecommunications - was out-of-date and worn out. Its economy needed a reboot to refresh and renew itself to deal with the postwar world.

Instead, the UK government, a major recipient of Marshall Aid (far more than West Germany), and having negotiated a huge loan from the United States, squandered the money on building up an expensive welfare state, nationalizing industry, and trying to maintain the costly illusion that it was still a superpower. The sad story is documented in detail by Corelli Barnett in “The Lost Victory” (Macmillan 1995). 

The result was that while Germany and Japan saw reinvestment and renewal, the UK went into an economic decline that lasted for decades. Instead of abandoning the wartime restrictions and regulations, as other countries did, they lingered in the UK, hindering the country’s economic development and the process of renewal. The UK became the sick man of Europe.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned. Although extreme measures were needed to defeat the threat from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, they should have been temporary, as they were in other countries. Instead the UK retained many of the restrictions, to its long-term cost. 

To cope with the threat of the coronavirus, extraordinary measures have been adopted. An unprecedented economic stimulus has thrown away the rule-book, and restrictions on civil liberties have been introduced that are unprecedented in peacetime. The lesson to be learned from postwar Britain is that if these are needed to defeat the threat, they must be temporary. We must not continue to suffer under the burdens they impose to our economic well-being and our way of life once the threat is over.

Of course, there will be those who want to keep these measures in place in case they might be needed again in the future. The reply to this argument is that if they are needed in future, they can be re-imposed in future. But it is important to get rid of their burden until such a time, so that we might meanwhile prosper in freedom.

What we should now do is prepare a programme for the systematic removal of the emergency measures, both the economic ones and those that pertain to civil liberties, once the threat has receded. Even more than that, we should go further, going beyond the status quo that prevailed before the emergency, and removing some of the restrictions that held back our adaptation to the new economy. And we should undo the nanny state restrictions that thwarted our right to make our own lifestyle decisions concerning what we eat and drink and choose to live. After winning the war, this time we must win the peace.

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