Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield


The Second World War taught the British to think, plan and act strategically albeit in the context of a highly directed economy and a thoroughly mobilised society. The great prize of the post-war years was to discover ways to apply the hard-learned techniques and to convert the energising attitudes of 1939-45 into peacetime structures and productive purpose in circumstances. As Maynard Keynes expressed it, in our struggle for survival, ‘We threw good housekeeping to the winds. But we saved ourselves and helped save the world.’


It was Keynes, too, who caught the essentials of the greatly needed transformations of the peace in a paper for the War Cabinet a few days after VE Day. In vividly un-treasury like language, he brooded upon the essential questions that have plagued us ever since – our lagging productivity and our overextended appetite for influence in the world. We have had 12 (by my count) defence/strategic reviews since 1945 and 8 (ditto) industrial strategies. Yet still Keynes’s thoughts   from his Treasury eyrie haunt and resonate 2020’s UK


Here are a couple of snatches from what he called (prophetically) his ‘personal anxiety?’ about post-war prospects.


For a Mosquito, a Lancaster, Radar, we should have the business at our feet in conditions of free and fair competition. It is when it comes to making a shirt or a steel billet that we have to admit ourselves beaten both by the dear labour of America and by the cheap labour of Asia or Europe. Shipbuilding seems to be the only traditional industry where we fully hold our own. If by some sad geographical slip the American Air Force (it is too late now to hope for much from the enemy[1]) were to destroy every factory on the North East Coast and in Lancashire (at an hour when the Directors were sitting there and no one else) we should have nothing to fear. How else are we to regain the exuberant inexperience which is necessary it seems, for success, I cannot surmise.”


“I am chiefly alarmed by the apparent prospect (if nothing is done about it) of the appalling rate at which this [overseas] expenditure will be running on the day at which the final Cease-Fire in Asia brings with it the end of American Lend Lease and Canadian Mutual Aid….  When we had thrown the Germans out of Africa and the Middle East was no longer in danger our expenditure in those parts remained as before. The Major-Generals in Cairo look like becoming chronic …. the prima facie evidence of the global statistics is that unless it is advisable and practical to bring this expenditure under drastic control at an early date (and perhaps it is not) our ability to pursue and independent financial policy in the early post war years will be fatally impaired.” [2]


The Liaison Committee inquiry could be of considerable significance in the long-term story of our search for strategic grip. In one sense it already is. In none of those post-1945 defence reviews or industrial strategies has Parliament played an initiating role as opposed to a scrutiny function after the event. If the select committees could somehow (individually and collectively) acquire a participatory and stimulating function in, at last, the UK acquiring that strategic-mindedness we have needed so sorely since 1945, it would represent a new ingredient in the mix and a boost to Parliament’s reputation.


There would be some resource implications here but most crucially, it is a question of state-of-mind, aspiration and inspiration – a game-raiser and a game-changer if the HoC select committee system (which has done truly good things since 1979) rose still higher in the level of today’s demanding and anxiety-inducing events. Maybe that ‘great prize’ we’ve been seeking since 1945 would, at last, be within our grasp.


Peter Hennessy

29 October 2023

[1] This was drafted in the last days of the War in Europe.

[2] These 2 extracts are from Keynes’s paper which was presented to the War Cabinet on 15 May 1945 by Sir John Anderson, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Keynes had written it on 3 April 1945. It carries the rather unappetising title: ‘Overseas Financial Policy in Stage III. It can be found in The National Archives as ‘WP(45) 301. CAB66/65