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When Keynes went to America

The first Bretton Woods meeting was intended to establish a postwar money regime and secure funds fo

The night the Mount Washington Hotel opened in 1902, its builder, the New Hampshire coal and railroad magnate Joseph Stickney, raised a glass to “the damn fool who built this white elephant”. With its octagonal towers and 300 yards of wooden verandah, its 234 rooms each with its own bath, its telephone and mail system, and its interminable corridors, set in endless New Hampshire wilderness, this colossal monument to the Gilded Age somehow survived the Depression and wartime shortages to its appointment with financial history in July 1944.

As allied armies fought their way into Normandy, some 730 finance ministers, delegates and clerks from all 44 allied countries, including China and the Soviet Union, gathered for three weeks at the Mount Washington to plan the postwar monetary and trading order.

The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, better known from the hotel's railway stop and mail address as the Bretton Woods conference, established a currency regime and two powerful institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The role of Bretton Woods in the postwar recovery is, as always with economists, disputed but the name still evokes, for men such as Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy, an idea of order in a chaotic financial world.

The gestation of the Bretton Woods conference, as the long-serving US diplomat Dean Acheson put it, "about doubled that of elephants". It arose in the minds of two men of different temper and background but equal brilliance and arrogance: the British economist John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White of the US Treasury. At their backs, like a ghost, was the German banker who served the Nazis till he fell out with Hitler in 1938: Hjalmar Schacht.

The Victorian system for settling international transactions, known as the international gold standard, had come to grief in the Depression of the 1930s. A succession of countries, led by Britain, detached their currencies from gold rather than be forced by a fixed exchange-rate to cut demand and add further to unemployment. Britain erected a trade tariff round the British empire, known as Imperial Preference, while other countries devalued their currencies to export at any price. By the summer of 1941, when Keynes retired to his country house in Sussex to think about a successor to the international gold standard, Britain was in a desperate plight, in debt not just to the US but to the countries playing host to her armies, such as India and Egypt. Without currency controls, Britain was bankrupt.

Keynes envisaged a sort of supernational bank in which trading accounts would be settled not in gold, but in a sort of artificial or bank money that would be available to members as an overdraft facility according to their share of world trade. Behind it would stand the greatest creditor nation, the United States.

As Keynes's biographer, Professor Robert Skidelsky, writes: "Provided all countries were guaranteed sufficient quantities of reserves, it might be possible to dismantle the trade barriers which had grown up in the 1930s and during the war and restore the single world which had vanished in 1914."

In devising this plan, Keynes admitted to drawing on Schacht's ingenious use of bilateral clearing arrangements to permit the Third Reich to continue importing raw materials for its military build-up in the 1930s.

Keynes, desperate to get away and rest, took the meetings at breakneck speed. On

19 July, he collapsed on the hotel stairs

In Washington, Dexter White, director of monetary research at the US Treasury, was also thinking about "future currency arrangements" but from a different viewpoint. From President Roosevelt down, the US could not care less about preserving the British empire. The US wanted currency convertibility and open markets for its exports as soon as possible. The compromise between the Keynes and White plans, which were published in 1943, became known as the Bretton Woods System.

The process began in an atmosphere of mistrust. At his first meeting with Henry Morgenthau, the US treasury secretary, Keynes tactlessly suggested that Britain would use US military aid to build up its cash balances. Keynes and his staff objected to the number of lawyers on the US side and made snide remarks about "rabbinics", by which they meant the precision and subtlety of the Jewish officials at the Treasury such as White and Edward Bernstein.

Eventually, Keynes and White devised a system in which only the US dollar would exchange at a fixed rate into gold. The allies had to make their currencies convertible into these gold dollars within 1 per cent of a fixed rate, but could draw on short-term assistance from a stabilisation fund to which all members subscribed and the US, naturally, subscribed most. In addition to this fund, now christened the International Monetary Fund, White and his staff had devised a bank to finance the rebuilding of war-damaged economies. This International Bank for Reconstruction and Development still forms the core of what is now known as the World Bank.

Lord Keynes was by now ailing and could not bear the thought of working through the Washington summer. With great courtesy, the Americans agreed to hold the drafting meetings in Atlantic City on the New Jersey shore and the main conference in the cool of New Hampshire. Arriving with Keynes by train on 30 June, Lydia Lopokova, the Russian ballerina whom Keynes had married in 1925, found chaos: "The taps run all day, the windows do not close or open, the pipes mend and unmend and no one can get anywhere."

They were lodged in the room above Morgenthau, and for three weeks the US treasury secretary was disturbed by Lady Keynes's dancing exercises.

With much of the main work done, the conference itself consisted mostly of a British rearguard action to delay the convertibility of its debts and much detail of a mind-numbing complexity. Desperate to get away and rest, Keynes took the meetings on the bank at a breakneck pace. As Acheson reported: "Keynes . . . knows this thing inside out so that when anybody says Section 15-C he knows what that is, but before you have an opportunity to turn to Section 15-C and see what he is talking about, he says, 'I hear no objection to that', and it is passed."

On 19 July, Keynes collapsed on the hotel stairs, and word spread that he had had a heart attack. According to Skidelsky, the German newspapers ran adulatory obituaries. On 22 July, Keynes had recovered enough to propose acceptance of the conference's final act. As he left the room, many of the delegates stood and sang "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow". Within two years, Keynes was dead and White survived only two years longer, bedevilled in his last years by allegations of disloyalty in his dealings with the Soviet Union.

Some economists, such as Milton Friedman, have questioned whether Keynes and White were correct in their analysis and, even if they were, whether Bretton Woods was the solution. Others argue that such measures as the $3.75bn American loan to Britain in 1945, the $13bn Marshall Plan of 1948 and the 30 per cent devaluation of sterling in 1949 did more to revive Europe. The system of semi-fixed exchange rates just about survived the 1960s but the US, under pressure from financing the war in Vietnam, abandoned gold convertibility in 1971. The two Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, have been criticised for imposing quasi-colonial conditions on third world borrowers. The IMF is also undercapitalised in the face of the current financial crisis.

When Gordon Brown calls for a new Bretton Woods, he is evidently not calling for a currency peg or an infrastructure bank but for a halcyon age of idealism and Anglo-American amity - above all for that ideal or hero of modern times embodied in John Maynard Keynes, the economist as saviour.

James Buchan's latest novel is "The Gate of Air", published by the MacLehose Press

Thirteen things you may not know about John Maynard Keynes

  • He was born the year Karl Marx died, 1883.
  • He was 6ft 6ins tall.
  • When he took civil service exams in 1906, his lowest scores were in economics and maths because, he used to say, he knew more than his examiners.
  • Duncan Grant, with whom Keynes had a long affair, painted him writing a letter asking the US for a loan to continue the 1914-18 war.
  • At the age of 42, he married the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
  • A regular investor, he lost, then recovered, a fortune in the 1929 crashing stock market.
  • A close friend of Kingsley Martin, he joined the board of the New Statesman in 1931.
  • He bred pigs at his Sussex home.
  • He amassed one of the largest private collections of 20th-century art, with works by Braque, Cezanne, Degas, Modigliani, Picasso, and Seurat.
  • A director of the British Eugenics Society, he described it in 1945 as the most important branch of sociology.
  • During the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. he suffered a heart attack and German newspapers published his obituary.
  • At the conclusion of Bretton Woods, delegates acknowledged Keynes's achievement by singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".
  • In 1946, he suffered a second heart attack and died. It was attributed by some to the effort of securing a $3.75bn loan from the US, a negotiation that Keynes himself described as "absolute hell" .

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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