I’ve been reading a fascinating, if rather grim, book called The Secret State, by the distinguished British historian, Peter Hennessy. Based on interviews and a range of declassified official files, it’s a detailed picture of the secret arrangements made in the UK during the cold war for preparing for, fighting and supposedly surviving a nuclear war. Among the frankly very chilling details are a few amusing facts, including the members of the government who would be moved to a secret underground bunker if nuclear conflict occurred. There are representatives of most government departments, but not HM Treasury, on the basis that money and finance skills would be of no value in the post-holocaust world. There was a discussion about how soon money might be re-circulated after the conflict but wiser views emphasised that in any post-nuclear world the value of money would be zero. Any survivors would want food and shelter; bits of paper with the Queen’s head on would not be much use.
This, admittedly extreme scenario shows that money is simply a social convention. We all accept pounds (or dollars, euros etc) for payment only because everybody else does. The paper and coins have no intrinsic value. During hyper inflation this convention breaks down and the currency loses its value. The recent hyperinflation in Zimbabwe ended when the economy shifted to using foreign currency instead. Some gold enthusiasts seem to think that gold-backed currency is an improvement on what economists called fiat currency (the Latin for “let it be”) but gold, although tangible and having some direct use as jewelry (and some industrial purposes) is just as much a social convention. Having no yield, there is no rational way to assign a fundamental value to gold. In a post-nuclear world gold coins would be much less useful than a can opener.
So the planners were quite right to de-prioritise finance expertise in their wargames. In any case, the UK would not have survived any full scale nuclear war, being highly vulnerable owing to its high population density and the large number of military targets. Her Majesty’s realm would have been left a blackened, irradiated ruin, apart perhaps from a few bits of the Scottish Highlands. Cambridge would have been wiped out very early on as it is close to several US air force bases and was for a while one of the designated post-war regional seats of government. So we can expect the Soviets to have allocated a few megatons in our direction. The old nuclear bunker on Brooklands Avenue was demolished a few years ago and is now the site of an award-winning housing development.
The book includes some other interesting information. It seems that British and American Trident submarines use a lot of formica inside because it reduces fire risk. Russian nuclear subs have a lot of steel and glass and include a sauna. And the French ones have not only wood panelling but a fish tank. National differences, as expressed through the style of nuclear deterrents.
In case readers are concerned at the depressing tone of my holiday reading, I should mention that the two other books I’ve recently been reading are a superb analysis of the Chinese Communist Party (Richard McGregor’s The Party) and a re-reading of F. Scott Fitzerald’s beautiful, sad novel Tender is the Night. There may be a linking theme in these choices but I’m not sure what it is.