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The World in 1913 – Part V: This and that

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, IV & VI.

In 1913, Britain has an empire. A very big empire. It’s pretty peaceful, doesn’t appear to be very expensive and doesn’t appear to be very controversial. The problem is that the British have no idea what to do with it. It is, let’s face it a pretty disparate and far flung bunch of territories. About the only thing that connects them is that Britain got to them before anyone else. In 1906, the Unionists went into the general election proposing an Empire-wide common external tariff otherwise known as Imperial Preference. Given that this would have put up the price of food and given that that’s what about 50% of average incomes were spent on it is not surprising that the Liberals won by a landslide. What is surprising is that the Unionists refuse to ditch it.

There are proposals to build a Channel Tunnel. Given that it didn’t get built until 80 years later, using much better technology and at great cost, you would have thought the main concern would have been over its feasibility. But no. The main concern, or at least the one occupying the minds of the Times and its correspondents, is how an invader might use it. Could an invader take both ends? Could it be blown up? What if they put the entrance on a viaduct and blew that up? Those are the sort of questions being asked.

Some controversies and concerns will seem odd to us. A lot of space is given over to agriculture, Welsh disestablishment and the teaching of Greek.

One of the big hullabaloos is over the Olympics. Britain did not do very well in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics only coming third in the medal table. This has caused a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth not least from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who feels that Britain risks losing her reputation as the “Mother of Sport”. He believes there are only three options for dealing with this catastrophe: accept the humiliation, withdraw from the Olympics entirely or create a subscription-based fund to pay for the recruitment and training of future Olympic champions. Cue letters to the Times arguing that we should withdraw as quickly as possible as the Olympics already represent a ridiculous perversion of the amateur principle.

At no point has anyone suggested that they should be using taxpayers’ money.

13 comments to The World in 1913 – Part V: This and that

  • At no point has anyone suggested that they should be using taxpayers’ money.

    Which truly does reveal what an utterly different world it was, as that is nearly always the very first thing suggested these days.

  • Tedd

    It’s interesting to me that the technical challenge of a channel tunnel wasn’t more of a controversy. I suppose that Brits of that era were accustomed to pretty impressive feats of civil engineering. The tunnel may not have seemed overly ambitious to people who’s lifetime might have spanned the construction of the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and enormous railroad networks. Similar things could be built today with vastly less human toil, and incomparably less loss of life, yet we seem to be less confident in our technical capability than they were.

    Or is that an illusion? Perhaps the change is that there is now a much wider set of demands on the public purse, causing a lot of people to view tax-funded civil engineering projects as a threat to other, more politically favoured, expenditures. Perhaps what appears to be less confidence in our technical capability is just the result of rhetorical arguments made by people who find it easier to question the technical feasibility of a civil engineering project than to argue persuasively that the benefits of their preferred tax expenditure are greater?

  • Richard Thomas

    Tedd, if it won’t be completed in time to support the reelection chances of some politician, what is the point?

  • Jacob

    Concerning the tunnel:
    Maybe reporters were as clueless about engineering, then, as they are now?
    They simply were unable to grasp the engineering problems, and probably, the economic problems, too. So they wrote about what seemed to them as the important problems.

    Everybody supposed then, that if it’s too difficult or costly it won’t get built anyway, as there would be no investors. Nobody thought about a Government project. If it is not a govmnt. project, then there is no need to discuss engineering and financial problems in the public domain, it the Times.

  • Regional

    Britain should have stayed out of European affairs and traded with both sides in the event of war.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    If the Kaiser had beaten the French in WW1, then he would have had the resources to build a navy big enough to successfully invade Britain. It was his attempts to build up his navy that really caused the antagonism to Germany from Britain.
    What sort of navy does Britain have now? Could Britain retake the Falklands if Argentina grabbed them now?

  • Jacob, sorry I’ve misled you. When I said “correspondents” I meant people who had written letters to the paper. They are the ones worked up about the prospect of invasion.

    Incidentally, the other day I was looking into the controversy over the 1882 Channel Tunnel attempt. Exactly the same arguments were being used. There was, however, one letter which attempted to look into the economics of the scheme. The conclusion was that to be profitable the Channel Tunnel would need to be as busy as the busiest railway in the UK – an unlikely prospect.

  • Pardone

    Tax funded civil engineering projects are always scams. The taxpayer sees little benefit from them, the main beneficiaries being politicians and contractors. If an engineering scheme is viable it should be able to secure private investment, if not, then it is obviously not needed.

    One should never underestimate the vanity of politicians and the amoral greed of contractors, who, judging by their tendency to fail deadlines and go over budget, love taking other people’s money.

  • Dale Amon

    According to some documentaries, the Kaiser had a particular dislike for America and had contingency plans to invade which included steaming into Boston and New York harbours and shelling. He was also was discussing with Mexico the idea of having them invade from the South.

    All of it very foolish and showing what others have said: the European elite of the era simply had no *idea* of the scale of the USA.

    Of course the Mexican angle got found out and did not exactly make the American powers that be of the time very well disposed towards Germany.

    During the war there were some large sabotage events as well. I believe there was a huge shipyard explosion in the Brooklyn Navy yard perpetrated by saboteurs.

  • renminbi

    You mean the Black Tom Island explosion of July 30, 1916. Ammunition being stored for shipment overseas was sabotaged. The explosion shattered windows through out lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty sustained $100,000 in damage. Google it for more.