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When it comes to national emergencies, Britain has a tradition of cold calculation

By Professor David Edgerton

Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History

19 March 2020

The government’s reluctance to put the health of citizens first during the Covid-19 outbreak has echoes in the 1940s and 50s

What’s the best way to respond to a global health emergency? For countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea and Denmark, the answer is closing schools and public spaces to limit infection. Until recently, the UK government appeared to believe that such a cure could be worse than the disease itself. Boris Johnson’s advisers now seem less confident in their initial analysis, and have switched to a “suppression” rather than a “mitigation” strategy. The government has now urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, although it has been cautious – and has not gone as far as many other nations in closing down spaces where the disease could spread.

The British state has always been good at making shrewd utilitarian calculations. In two crucial moments during the 20th century, the government thought that it wasn’t worth attempting to protect the population in any serious way because the damage wrought by drastic policy interventions would be too great. Both Neville Chamberlain and Harold Macmillan’s governments made minimal preparations for anticipated disasters: bombing in the 1930s, and nuclear war in the 1950s. In both cases, the government aimed to do the minimum necessary to allay fears.

In a roundabout way, they thought the future wellbeing of British citizens would depend on the government’s parsimonious decision to not overinvest in defensive infrastructure. Both governments hoped to avoid war by deterring an attack and by keeping the economy strong. Far better to spend on methods of attacking Germany and the Soviet Union than on buttressing the island against attacks from the air.

The Chamberlain government foresaw deadly raids – on a scale far worse than the blitz. As enthusiasts for bombing, his government overestimated the damage that the German Luftwaffe would be able to inflict. Chamberlain and his advisers assumed that many hundreds of thousands would be dead within weeks of the war commencing; they planned for the mass evacuation of children, widespread blackouts, and anti-aircraft defences.


Bomb Shelter (2)

Image source: The Library of Congress

Despite these efforts, the resources sunk into building air raid shelters were negligible. Indeed, there were loud complaints from scientist-activists, notably the biologist JBS Haldane, that proper subterranean shelters weren’t being built. Rather than building shelters, the government focused on building munitions factories and growing the armed forces. For Chamberlain’s government, this was a far more important aim than protecting the majority of the population.

The most famous prewar structure was the flimsy Anderson shelter, a set of corrugated iron sheets erected in people’s gardens. It remains an emblematic image of the late 1930s. The shelter was named after the minister responsible for air raid precautions, Sir John Anderson, who had a PhD in chemistry.

One sometimes gets the impression that these shelters were for everyone. But Anderson shelters intentionally reached only a tiny minority of the population. They were supplied to working-class people who had gardens, not to the population as a whole; anybody earning more than £5 per week (around £300 today) had to pay for one themselves. Likewise, the later Morrison shelter, which was designed in 1940, was supplied free to the working classes, but most people had no shelter at all.

And although everybody received a gas mask, the civilian gas mask that arrived in a cardboard box was a different beast from those carried by the military and ARP wardens. Their sturdier gas masks came with a separate respirator that was carried in a robust shoulder bag.

In hindsight, these preparations might be regarded as shockingly negligent, but what is really remarkable is that the UK, indeed the British empire, declared war on Germany expecting massive civilian casualties. Britain was lucky. There were no gas attacks. The blitz, when it came, was much less severe than anticipated, and highly concentrated in parts of London and port cities.

This same dilemma arose again during the 1950s, but this time it was about hydrogen bombs: was it worth defending the British population, which was highly vulnerable to attack, by building expensive shelters?

Harold Macmillan’s government decided it wasn’t. By the time Britain’s enemies began to develop hydrogen bombs, many of the civil defences from the second world war had been demolished or run down. Macmillan thought the only serious defence against enemy hydrogen bombs was for Britain to develop its own hydrogen bombs to deter nuclear war. As with the second world war, the UK endured the cold war without building mass shelters for the population. New atomic bunkers were built only for carrying on the limited business of government, not for the people.

In 1980, responding to mounting political pressure, the government published Protect and Survivea booklet about civil defence that informed citizens about how to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. The booklet suggested things such as painting windows to reflect radiationstaying at home and finding the safest place in the house to shelter. It was both ridiculed and criticised by the CND and others as a ludicrously inadequate response to the threat of nuclear war. Rightly so. Yet these criticisms rather missed the point. The pamphlet wasn’t a serious response to the nuclear threat, but a PR exercise in light of the real policy: no shelters would be built.

Although the calculation seems cynical in retrospect, the government’s decision was surely correct. We are better off today because millions of tonnes of concrete went into building homes and roads rather than redundant nuclear shelters. In the event of a nuclear attack, shelters may well have kept people alive for months – only for them to succumb later to a lack of food.

Britain has a tradition of cold calculation. Previous governments have displayed a willingness to preside over catastrophic losses of life, and an unwillingness to over-invest in expensive (and potentially unnecessary) defences. Public relations stunts – whether the publication of booklets on keeping yourself safe, or the Anderson shelters – hid the real decision-making. These decisions were symptomatic of the government’s long view: it was taking a gamble in the present, based on a belief about the future.

How does this relate to British planning for Covid-19? The government’s initial willingness to see millions be infected and thousands die seemed to echo the callous streak evident in planning for civil defence. But the other side of the government’s response, and its decision not to stop travel and close schools, restaurants and other public spaces, shows its rational unwillingness to crash the economy and bankrupt airlines.

During the 20th century this cold calculation of costs, benefits, and alternative scenarios worked. But we should remember that it could easily have been otherwise: the blitz could have been worse, and the Soviet Union could have launched a hydrogen bomb. We might have looked differently on the blitz if it had killed 500,000 rather than 50,000. Coronavirus is a current reality, not a future scenario. There is a huge difference between favouring a utilitarian calculus to minimise losses overall, and heeding this principle when dead bodies start piling up.

This opinion piece was authored by Professor David Edgerton for the  Guardian.




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David Edgerton

David Edgerton

Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History

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