Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Don't You Know There's A War On

But what about all the other waste?

I was brought up to believe it was our Finest Hour. And from the perspective of Grand Historic Narrative, of course it was- you can't put a price on freedom, and we could easily have ended up a province of some anti-democratic European Superstate with every aspect of our lives directed from above.

But knowing what we now know about government's eye-watering ability to waste money, I've always wondered quite how much they wasted fighting the Second World War.

The economic stats tell us that between 1939 and 1945 we spent over 50% of our GDP on war. In today's terms that would be £3-4 trillion- say £150,000 for every household in Britain. And for that we got 150,000 British built aircraft, 3 million .303 rifles, and whole host of other goodies both from factories here and from Uncle Sam.

But did we get value for money? Did we buy the right things? How much did we get ripped off by those infamous war profiteers and the blackmailing unions? And what happened to the surplus?

Most of these questions were glossed over at the time, and are now lost in the mists of time. But we have just had an interesting insight into the last one:

"Three thick files just released at the National Archives list the enormous quantities of wartime gubbins that couldn't be flogged off and, between 1946 and 1948, was thrown down old coal mines."

Thrown down coal mines? Surely it all must have had some market value, and Austerity Britain was pretty strapped at the time. Pricey stuff like 240 tons of asbestos compound (tipped down a mine in Dowlais), 100,000 face pieces from gas masks (also Dowlais), and "irritant powder" for tear gas (Alfreton) could surely have been swapped with a dictator for Argentine beef, say. Then there were the thousands of tons of balloon fabric deliberately destroyed with some unimaginable substance called woolgrease emulsion- wouldn't it have been more austere to fashion them into New Jerusalem underpants?

And some of the kit sounds even more useful than that. How about the 480 tons of "scrap rubber boots", bought from the Dunlop company and never used, but still dumped down a shaft in Nottinghamshire. Why? Assuming they weren't all left feet, they'd have surely been worth a few bob, and would have come in really handy during the Great Floods of 1948.

Then there were the 10,000 radio sets, dumped down something called the "Wonder Shaft" in Cheadle. Why weren't they flogged off? A point underlined by the fact that some sharp entrepreneur subsequently excavated and presumably flogged them. As somebody else did with half a million incendiary bombs- no wonder my Dad reckons fireworks used to be better.

So maybe not quite our finest hour in terms of taxpayer value.

And what happens to surplus kit today? Check out the stock at MOD's Disposal Services Agency:

  • New Unissued Snipers Smock. Size 170/96. Ideal for military coups etc- £50
  • RMAS Fiona- 80 net registered tonnage- £70,000 ovno (in stock)
  • Searider Enforcer RIB- £9,800
  • Genuine Brass Military Bugle. Seen plenty of action. This item is subject to availability. Call now to avoid disappointment- £100

They reckon they've made £570m on sales since they opened in 1993/94- around £50m pa. But since that's only about half a percent of what we spend annually on defence procurement, we probably shouldn't assume taxpayers are getting a much better deal than in 1945.

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