An Interesting Hypothesis

Older readers may recall Nevil Shute as the author of On The Beach, or perhaps less famously, No Highway. Both books were eventually translated into films, starring Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart respectively. At the peak of his writing career he was a fairly well known man of letters. But much earlier in his career, back when his name was still Nevil Norway, he spent many years as a pilot and aeronautical engineer. As such, he was intimately involved in the construction of the R100 airship. His autobiography, Slide Rule, details his experiences with that enterprise as well as his thoughts on the doomed R101. Slide Rule is a wonderful little book, full of unpredictable observations, and the following passages are as good an example as any.

A man’s own experiences determine his opinions, of necessity. I was thirty-one years old at the time of the R.101 disaster, and my first close contact with senior civil servants and politicians at work was in the field of airships, where I watched them produce disaster. That experience still colours much of my thinking. I am very willing to recognize the good in many men of these two classes, but a politician or a civil servant is still to me an arrogant fool till he is proved otherwise…

I considered at the time that the disaster was caused by the actions of the men at Cardington; I do not think that now. The men at Cardington were honest, hardworking men doing their best in a job that was rather too big for them. The first-class brains in the Air Ministry, the high executive civil servants at the top, should have been able to assess the position correctly and take action that would have avoided the disaster. They had plenty of evidence, extending over several years…

If just one of them had stood up at the conference table when the issue of the certificate of airworthiness was under discussion, and had said, “This thing is wrong, and I will be no party to it. I’m sorry, gentlemen, but if you do this, I’m resigning”—if that had been said then or on any one of a dozen previous opportunities, the disaster would almost certainly have been averted. It was not said, because the men in question put their jobs before their duty…

Ten years after these events when I was in the navy I was drafted to a technical department of the Admiralty which was staffed by over a hundred temporary officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. As civilians in uniform we found the Admiralty system to be better adapted to conserving money in peace time than to getting quick production in time of war. We found in many instances that the only way to get things done quickly was to short-circuit the system, getting verbal authority by telephone conversations with the various departments affected and letting the paper work tag along three weeks later. These methods required senior officers of the regular navy to give verbal decisions which might involve expenditures of thousands of pounds without any paper cover, and naturally made us very unpopular. These naval officers were as brave as lions, and would have risked their lives in a destroyer torpedo attack without any second thought, but to be asked to risk their jobs on a verbal decision involving public money often seemed to them unfair.

Now and again, we would find some cheerful young commander or captain who was not affected by these scruples, who was as brave in the office as he was at sea. Commenting on such a regular officer and on his way of doing business we would say, “He’s a good one. I bet he’s got private means.” Invariably investigation proved that we were right. The officers who were brave in the Admiralty were the officers who had an independent income, who could afford to resign from the navy if necessary without bringing financial disaster to their wives and children. It started as a joke with us to say that a brave officer in the office probably had private means, and then it got beyond a joke and turned into an axiom. These were the men who could afford to shoulder personal responsibility in the Admiralty, who could afford to do their duty to the navy in the highest sense.

Such men invariably gravitate towards the top of any government service that they happen to be in because of their carefree acceptance of responsibility. They serve as a leaven and an example to their less fortunate fellows; they set the tone of the whole office by their high standard of duty. I think this is an aspect of inherited incomes which deserves greater attention than it has had up till now. If the effect of excessive taxation and death duties in a country is to make all high officials dependent on their pay and pensions, then the standard of administration will decline and the country will get into greater difficulties than ever. Conversely in a wealthy country with relatively low taxation and much inherited income a proportion of the high officials will be independent of their job, and the standard of administration will probably be high.

I do not know the financial condition of the high officials in the Air Ministry at the time of the R.101 disaster. I suspect, however, that an investigation would reveal that it was England’s bad luck that at that time none of them had any substantial private means.

It's an interesting hypothesis, and I'm afraid I'm predisposed towards finding it plausible. Nevertheless, off the top of my head I can think of at least one contradictory datum. How are we to account for Ted Kennedy?

posted by Justin on 05.29.06 at 10:42 AM










Comments

"It's an interesting hypothesis, and I'm afraid I'm predisposed towards finding it plausible."
Love that sentence!

"Nevertheless, off the top of my head I can think of at least one contradictory datum. How are we to account for Ted Kennedy?"
It isn't contradictory because the assumption is that the administrators are brave and honorable men who don't act that way because they are afraid doing so will hurt their families.
Nobody, I believe, figures Ted Kennedy is a brave and honorable man.

Harkonnendog   ·  May 30, 2006 6:57 PM

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