Magazine article The Spectator

Once They Shouted 'Groundnuts!' Soon They Will Be Shouting 'Dome!'

Magazine article The Spectator

Once They Shouted 'Groundnuts!' Soon They Will Be Shouting 'Dome!'

Article excerpt

Here is a moral story with contemporary echoes. John Strachey (1901-63) was one of the cleverest men of his time. My old boss, Kingsley Martin, used to say he had never met such an intelligent fellow. He saw clearly; he explained beautifully; he radiated ideas. But he always got things wrong. In quick succession he got mixed up with Mosley, the communists and the Left Book Club. In wartime he was PRO for Bomber Command - not a good omen either. In May 1946, Mr Attlee took a risk and made this brilliant man Minister of Food. There was nothing nice to eat in those days and even bread was rationed. Strachey conceived, or was persuaded to adopt, a grandiose plan to solve the food problem by growing immense quantities of groundnuts in East Africa, to produce natural oil. The scheme was thought too big for private enterprise, but just the sort of thing a Labour government could do splendidly. Over 30 million of public money, a colossal sum in those days, was invested. Strachey was entirely captivated by the idea, brushed aside the need for a `pilot plan', and boasted about the vast numbers of groundnuts he would grow, and the way in which they would transform our eating habits and our balance of payments.

After four years the scheme collapsed in total ignominy. I forget whether any groundnuts were actually grown, but if so they were found unsatisfactory, or could not be sold or made properly into oil. At all events, the cash went down the drain and Strachey's career never recovered. It was one of the best-running stories the press ever had, as fresh prodigies of mismanagement daily emerged. Then, and for many years afterwards, at any Labour party public meeting a solitary heckler could have them rolling in the aisles by simply shouting out `Groundnuts!' It epitomised all the waste of socialism and all the stupidity of government trying to do something best left to business.

I have an uneasy feeling that hecklers will soon be shouting `Dome!' There are ominous parallels. Peter Mandelson, like Strachey, is a hyper-clever, personable man from an old political family. It is true he did not think up the Dome, which was the brainchild of Michael Heseltine, another bird of ill omen with a record of trying to prove government intervention can accomplish things business wisely leaves alone. But Mandelson has become an enthusiast, just as Strachey was for groundnuts. The scheme exhibits all the signs of a grandiose enterprise sure to end in degringolade - huge sums of money pouring in, angry executives flouncing out, constant changes of plan, unprecedented outpourings of words.

I don't at all like the sound of the latest 'secret': the gigantic statue of a feminist woman that visitors can get into - by which orifices, one wonders? - and I can already envisage the cartoons and jokes. It is true one should not laugh to scorn such Pygmalionisms in advance. Who would have thought the Statue of Liberty would have won such lasting affection? Or that a mechanical monstrosity like the Eiffel Tower would have come to be the very symbol of Paris, perpetual capital of the arts? But it is worth pointing out that Eiffel was a genius; that he and his trusted assistant, Maurice Koechlin, were men of method; that they both knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it, and prepared vast numbers of precise working drawings which were complete before building started and made it possible to assemble the prefabricated components on site with virtually no modification. …

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