The Cold Blow

By Akrita Reyar | Last Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 18:11 PM IST

Akrita Reyar One would factor in a myriad of reasons for an economic slowdown. There could be political upheavals that mar a nation’s prospects, there may be a mismanagement of resources that causes sluggish development or simply a squandering of opportunities that posterity gripes about. But there is one entity that one would never imagine that could play havoc in the life of a state…the Weather! So as one of the worst winters of current decades in Europe slowly abates, the thaw brings forth instantly to mind comparisons of how the continent and particularly Britain coped with the Artic season nearly six decades ago, when the Imperial Empire was brought to its knees. England had at that time been, for over a century, the undisputed superpower of the world, the greatest colonial ruler ever. But histories are written in shifting sands and time changes the script every so often. As the 20th century progressed, England was bracing itself against wheel-turning events. Its outpost territories were becoming noisy about self rule. A man called Gandhi, his sole possession being high moral ethics, had destabilized the power and plans of the imposing King. The Nazis, who had unleashed tyranny, had to be challenged in the gruelling World War II and the Great Depression had left Britain’s coffers empty. When misfortune strikes, it doesn’t arrive in single sachets, it crashes all around us, like the walls did in Haiti. It was when the stage was so set for adversity, that came the final blow – the Winter of 1946-47, the coldest of the century. And when it hit, it hit hard. England had thus far boasted that it was sunk in riches. In actuality, it was drunk on haughtiness. The balance sheets looked rosy not because of its own prowess, though one cannot deny them the credit of industrialisation or entrepreneurship, but because of plunder. They had in two decades leading up to Indian independence, looted from us bounty worth 3 billion pound sterling, as a gift to itself from the Jewel in its Crown. Adjust that to inflation and you will know what naked pillage means.

But the man, whom Winston Churchill, in his archetypal arrogance had dismissed as the ‘Naked Fakir’, was made of sterner and steely stuff. England had to relent to our freedom and thus the blank cheque was soon to become void. That was not the only lesson Churchill learnt. He also gained wisdom about fickleness of brimming public adulation. It spills over and empties even before one has taken an introspective view about his genuine self worth. The cheering crowds that had sworn to die for their charismatic leader soon enough heckled him in public gatherings and voted with their feet to show him out of the Westminster door. So it was left to unassuming and PM-by-chance Clement Atlee to sort out the mess the once invincible sovereign found itself in. Just then the cold wafts unexpectedly began to play truant. There were unrelenting blizzards and bone chilling frost. Temperatures in permanent negative zone and drifts that measured 20 feet and more. The nation that chest thumped about its spirit during the Blitz began to dither. It was impossible to work, play or even go out to purchase basic essentials. Britain was snowed-in and trapped at home. Money was tight, and rationing stretched to ludicrous levels. Food supplies that would have catered to a person’s daily needs were considered sufficient for a week. Bread, eggs, a sliver of butter and cheese is what the carnivorous nation was supposed to do with to satiate its craving appetite. With an acute shortage of venison, whale meat was offered by the government. Britain that was used to chicken and beef found it tart, too elastic, foul tasting and simply inedible. The island nation, which once prided itself for its Naval fleet that helped capture, enslave and rule more than half the globe, had only a measly single ship left in its flotilla. The rest were sunk or broken for metal. Power outages that were becoming frequent were only a precursor of things to come. The cold and lethal climatic conditions made it impossible to run power plants beyond a few months. Eventually they simply shut down, as coal mining, the most vital fulcrum in the industrialisation engine, drew to a halt. Two million workers were laid off. Britons trembled, shivered, and cursed but had no option than to endure the chill without electricity and heating systems. Even Big Ben is believed to have got rickety. The Meteorological department began to fumble. All bulletins forecasting, sunny days at last, got it horribly wrong as the obdurate hail and snowstorms came down with fresh vengeance. It was in these torrid times and frigid days that Britain had one man to thank for. His vision, intelligence and sincere efforts to bail out his country were the singular redeeming grace that saved the day for this once mighty nation. Just as Atlee was rubbing his palms about a way out of the economic slide, he in 1946 had summoned the one man, who could rescue a skint Britain – John Maynard Keynes. One of the most erudite economists of all times, Keynes had shown the way during the Great Depression. His theories were being widely accepted and implemented by western governments to create a new economic order. Unfortunately he was not keeping very good health.

Atlee sent him to America, the new big boss of the world, with a begging bowl. A bankrupt UK needed an urgent soft loan of USD 8 billion, to prevent its slide towards a complete breakdown. Keynes, though ailing, prepared a solid brief on behalf of his country. The fate of his countrymen, after all, rested on his shoulders. The task was to be more onerous than he predicted. He argued his case through extensive and compelling exposition sessions that he later described as “hell”, but purse-keepers in the US were unconvinced. So days converted into months as, a now increasingly tired, Keynes continued to forcefully put forth his brilliant rationalizations. Finally, Uncle Sam saw reason. It agreed to give a loan, but just half of what UK wanted and with no leeway on interests. However, months of the arduous work despite his fragile health took a toll on him. Keynes suffered a series of heart attacks and died a few weeks after his return to Britain. One may call it a tragedy or his tribute, but the first tranche of the Anglo-American Loan arrived soon after his death, giving a fresh lease of life to his motherland. The money helped England tide over its worst winter crisis ever and helped it draft out a new road ahead towards rebuilding its prosperity once again. With the winter of 2009 being described as the severest in recent times, a parallel begged to be drawn. England and most of the West are yet again emerging from another economic meltdown, the Great Recession. And economists and governments are once more sifting through Keynesian thesis for a successful diagnosis of the problem they now face, in the hope that he would be able to show the way again.