Thursday, November 22, 2018

Tergiversations of policy

‘The thing which really worries me most here and now and which has worried me most during the preliminary conversations last winter is that I, whom the Americans trust, have been in a position in which, as a good public servant, I have had continually to exploit my reputation with them to cast a cloak of academic respectability over the shabby reserves and tergiversations of our own policy.’ This is the British economist, Lionel Robbins, born 120 years ago today, writing in a diary he kept while in the United States negotiating on post-war economic policy. The three diaries he kept on US trips during and just after the war were first published in 1990, but two of them are also freely available online.

Robbins was born in Sipson (now only a few hundred metres north of Heathrow Airport) into a farming family on 22 November 1898. He had two sisters, one of whom died young, He was educated at the local grammar school. When his mother died in 1910, his father married her sister who already had two children. Robbins started at University College, London, until he left to serve as an officer in the Royal Field Artillery. He was posted to the Western Front in 1916, but in 1918 was wounded and invalided home. After the war, he became interested in socialism, and took a job with the Labour Campaign for the Nationalization of the Drink Trade.

In 1920, with support from his father, he resumed his university education, at the London School of Economics (LSE). He graduated in 1923, and the following year married Iris, the younger sister of his friend Clive Gardiner. They had two children. After a brief period working as a research assistant to William Beveridge, Robbins was offered a temporary lectureship at New College, Oxford. He then returned to the LSE in 1925 as an assistant lecturer, and, a year later, was promoted to lecturer. Over the next 30 years, he dominated the economics department, building up its now pre-eminent position. In 1927, he was elected to an official fellowship at New College, Oxford; in 1932, he published his first major book, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science.

In mid 1940, Robbins joined the government service, being promoted to director of the economic section of the war cabinet offices in 1941. As such he played a pivotal role in developing the British war economy: advocating points rationing for food, for example; engaging in Anglo-American discussions vis-a-vis post-war international monetary and commercial policy; and inputting into the British government’s 1944 white paper on employment policy. In 1946, he returned to LSE, publishing The Economic Problem in Peace and War in 1947. Many other books followed. He engaged widely in public debate on economic policy, and was consulted by two chancellors of the exchequer on monetary policy in the 1950s.

But Robbins was also interested in the arts, and took positions such as chairman of the National Gallery and director of the Royal Opera House. In 1958, he became chairman of the Financial Times. In the early 1960s, he chaired a committee on higher education which resulted in the Robbins Report, advocating an expansion of the university system. He was also president of the British Academy for five years. He was appointed Companion of the Bath in 1944 (and Companion of Honour in 1968) and, in 1959, was awarded one of first life peerages to the House of Lords (taking the title Baron Robbins of Clare Market). He died in 1984. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), or the LSE.

There is no evidence that Robbins had a habit of writing diaries, but during each of three trips to the United States during the war he did keep a diary. These, along with those of his colleague James Meade (see UK-US talks on commercial union), were edited by Susan Howson and Donald E. Moggridge for publication by Macmillan in 1990 of The Wartime Diaries of Lionel Robbins and James Meade, 1943–45. Robbins’s diaries take up three of the four chapters, one per trip: Hot Springs and after, May-June 1943; Breton Woods, June-August 1944; The Loan Negotiations and the ITO, September-December 1945. Some pages from the 1990 publication can be read online at Googlebooks, and the e-book is still available to purchase at Palgrave Macmillan. Some further information about the diaries (and a photograph of one page) can be found at Archives Hub.

According to Howson and Moggridge, Robbins’s diaries of his visits to North America were written in the first instance for his colleagues back home in the economic section of the war cabinet offices and for his friend John Maynard Keynes, who had returned to Treasury in 1940 (though without any formal role). Using his rough notes, they explain, Robbins dictated the entries for each day which were then typed up, sent home and returned to Robbins once they had been circulated. Two of the diaries are available to view online at the LSE Digital Library. The images of the typed pages are a little fuzzy, and, as far as I can tell, there is no transcript, but each diary has a link to a catalogue precis of each day’s entry (1944 and 1945).

Here are several extracts from the diaries found online (the first and last at Googlebooks, and the middle one at Palgrave Macmillan).

9 May 1943
‘A short spell in an earthly paradise. I cannot understand why the Americans, who certainly do sometimes boast, do not boast about the Pennsylvanian countryside. It is quite as lovely as the best of Buckinghamshire (which in some respects it resembles) but the greater richness and varieties of the trees and flowering shrubs and the quiet distinction of the domestic architecture give it a character all of its own - a mature and kindly setting plucking curiously at the heartstrings.

Three and a half years accumulated gossip and the presence of extremely vivacious companions left little time for talk of a kind worth entering in this record. For a brief period however, away from her other guests, my sister did allow herself to expatiate a little on the politics of her adopted country. She is a woman of great commonsense and sobriety of judgement and the two main points she made seem to me to have considerable importance.

The first thing she emphasised was the gravity of the food situation. By this, of course, she meant the politics, not the economics, of the matter. In her view the administration have so bungled the handling of price control and rationing that this purely local issue is likely to be one of the dominating influences in next year’s elections. She goes so far as to think that there is even a chance that indignation on this matter may bring back not merely the Republicans but the diehard Republicans. She is not inclined to suggest the existence of a wider degree of anglophobia than we usually assume. But she thinks that we vastly underestimate the potential strength of the Republican comeback.

As I listened to her elaboration of the causes of the irritation about food, I suddenly realised what I think is an illuminating comparison. To understand the American attitude to food rationing we have to think of our own experience not of food but of coal. Food at home is shipping: Englishmen understand shipping, they therefore understand food rationing. But coal, that is another matter. The stuff is there in the ground. How can we be short of it? Well food in America is like our coal. How can this great food producing country have to go short of food? Someone has blundered ... Of course someone has blundered. But that is not the whole story.

The second point that my sister made was more encouraging. She asserts that nine out of ten Americans, however anglophile, believe in their hearts that we are going to let them down over the war with Japan. If this is so - and I have heard it before from one or two people I trust - it is a great opportunity. For we shall not let them down. We are just as interested in the Far East as they are.

Sitting alone with my sister and her husband when the week-end party had dissolved, listening to a Glyndeboume [production of Mozart’s] ‘Don Giovanni Act IV’ [sic] and making a supper of bread, Pennsylvanian cheese and good red wine, I suddenly thought ‘I haven’t thought about the war all day’. Of course I had talked about it, told stories, exchanged wisecracks, rejoiced in the fall of Tunis and Bizerte, weighed soberly the prospects of struggles to come. But it had all happened somewhere else. There was no continuing presence. And that is, and I think must be, one of the central difficulties of the American situation. It all happens somewhere else; and though it may be very exciting, and indeed moving, it is exciting and moving like a film at the cinema rather than life itself.’

27 September 1945
‘We are now approaching the end of the voyage out. According to the stewards we shall tie up at New York at about eleven o’clock in the morning. I have not kept any record of our discussions on board ship, not because they were not interesting but because they were almost exclusively technical and the results therof will show themselves in our day-to-day negotiations when we get to Washington. Suffice it to say that they have been abundantly successful in their primary object, that of reviewing the subject as a whole and training us to work together as a team.

I sat out this afternoon on the upper sun-deck, the only space available for taking the air, and tried to assess my hopes and fears as the great ship drove onward through the ocean. It must be confessed that the hopes, at least, were not high. I could not resist the contrast with our earlier mission in the autumn of 1943. The same subjects, the same men (with one lamentable absentee, my dear James Meade). the same (or much the same) negotiators to encounter on the other side. But what a contrast in mood. Then we had a constructive case to argue, an initiative to take, a cause to forward - and despite the scepticism of cynics at home we won right through and brought back a series of drafts which if they had been followed up, could have been made the basis for a general settlement in the economic sphere considerably superior to anything which we can now possibly hope for. Now our case is defensive, initiative is denied us, there is no question of a cause to be vindicated, only a possible grudging acquiescence in a settlement, acceptable only for extraneous reasons. On top of all this, and very materially darkening our anticipations on the voyage, hangs the shadow of possible personal difference within our own ranks precipitated by the wayward impulse and intransigence of one whom we all admire and love and the complete failure of his immediate associates to exercise corrective influence.

The thing which really worries me most here and now and which has worried me most during the preliminary conversations last winter is that I, whom the Americans trust, have been in a position in which, as a good public servant, I have had continually to exploit my reputation with them to cast a cloak of academic respectability over the shabby reserves and tergiversations of our own policy. How I envied Will Clayton the other evening in London when, after listening patiently to Liesching on a certain point, he threw his papers on the table and said, ‘I won't argue with you, Sir Percivale, I have always said we have been wrong on this point and I believe we are still.’ That was the sort of thing which we could afford to do when we still had confidence in ourselves; and it was the way in which I like to conduct my argument when I am speaking for myself. However, I have often had this out with myself and my line is dear. As I see it, there is nothing less at stake in this business than the future solidarity of the Western World. The precious Plan II is either a not very clever bluff or a policy which would land us in a quagmire of bitterness, poverty and humiliation. The only hope for the world, or rather for that part which still renders lip-service to the principles of liberty and decency, is the maintenance of the unity of the English-speaking peoples; and if some of us, playing with fire like idiot children, land our country in a position of economic antagonism to the US the future seems to me to be completely and unmitigatedly black. Hence it is not a matter of achieving some positive good, it is a desperate business of staving off an ultimate evil and there is hardly any degree of personal inconvenience and humiliation which I would not be prepared to undergo in order to do so. Not that I have many illusions about the likelihood of even this degree of success. If people do not know where they want to go - and certainly this is true of most of those who have handled these matters in the last two years - it is surely a pure fluke if they arrive at the right destination. Bear all this in mind, kind friends of the Economic Section, when you read the telegrams of the next few weeks and are tempted to say that I have sold the pass and let down our good tradition.’

14 October 1945
‘I spent Saturday night and Sunday with my sister and her husband at their home near Philadelphia. Nothing much of public interest. Caroline was very gloomy about the anti-British propaganda now being carried on by the New York Zionists and asked why we didn’t call the American bluff on all this. Joe was very solicitous about the loan negotiations, not a bit inquisitive but anxious that the Americans should act handsomely. He thought they ought to begin by paying us back for what we spent during the cash and carry period - a time which he seemed to regard as one of deep national humiliation. I did not disillusion him as to the prospects.

In the train coming back, I read a terrific discussion on Hayek in P.M. [liberal-leaning daily newspaper] - a special supplement devoted to the report of an inquiry into the vogue of the Road to Serfdom. Had it been financed by big business etc? It was all a little comic for in the end after much sound and fury and thumbnail sketches of Aaron Director, John Davenport and others, the investigator was forced to the conclusion that there was no conspiracy of big business. The reception of Hayek’s book by the intellectuals over here is really most discreditable to their sense of fairness and candour. I am beginning to think that P. M. is not much better than The New Statesman.

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