Supply, supply, supply. Clausewitz knew that victory in war depended on it, and we can all see that victory over the Coronavirus depends on it too.

The Editor of this site asked me to look into the arguments for and against a Ministry of Supply, as set up in 1939.

Immediately after he rang, I happened to speak on the telephone with a friend of mine who lives in sheltered housing, and who suffers from various ailments which mean the Coronavirus would kill her.

She could not have been more enthusiastic about the proposal:

“I think it’s an incredibly good idea, to have a government-run department that makes sure necessary supplies get to chemists and hospitals, and can supply my carers with the proper protective kit they should be wearing.”

But the example of the previous Ministry of Supply is not altogether encouraging. Its creation was demanded by Winston Churchill and others, to show that the Government was at last taking seriously the grievous deficiencies in equipment from which Britain’s armed forces suffered in the late 1930s.

The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, resisted. Here is Chips Channon, Conservative MP for Southend, who hero-worshipped Chamberlain, writing in his diary on 17th November 1938, soon after Munich, where Hitler was bought off by allowing him to annex the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia:

“Winston Churchill made a terrific attack on the Government, and he begged 50 Conservatives to follow him into the Lobby. Actually only Messrs Macmillan and Bob Boothby went, and the figures, a majority of 196 for the Government, were satisfactory. The PM spoke for one hour one minute, very well, clearly and amusingly. He refused to create a Ministry of Supply.”

By April 1939, things were looking worse. Hitler had the previous month annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia, which he was not supposed to do.

Along with the great majority of Conservative MPs, Channon continued loyal to Chamberlain, of whom he wrote on 20th April:

“The PM played with the House today. In answer to a question, he confirmed that a Ministry of Supply would be set up, and that the name of the Right Honourable Member who would be appointed to the post of its Minister was – and he paused – the temperature of the House rose. ‘Burgin’. The House, half hoping, half-fearing, that it would be Winston, was amazed.”

Leslie Burgin, a National Liberal MP serving as Minister of Transport, was a nonentity. A.J.P. Taylor described him as “another horse from Caligula’s well-stocked stables”.

Chamberlain still thought there was a chance of, in his words, “getting back to normal relations with the dictators”, so wished to give no demonstration of bellicosity, which Churchill’s appointment would certainly have been.

In this the Prime Minister was following the course charted by his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, who in 1936 created the post of Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, but instead of giving it, as expected, to Churchill, conferred it on Sir Thomas Inskip – an appointment described at the time as the most cynical “since Caligula made his horse a consul”.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Churchill was restored to the Admiralty, where, as he later related, he found Burgin’s staff at the Ministry of Supply “dismally slow and unimaginative”.

What matters, one begins to see, is not the name of the ministry, but the identity of the minister. In May 1940, when Churchill became Prime Minister, he brought to the prosecution of the war his own astonishing dynamism.

In the 1930s, Churchill was an outsider, to whom no careerists attached themselves, for he had become a defender of lost causes.

On becoming Prime Minister in May 1940 – a moment at which a defender of lost causes was just what the nation needed – he brought in other outsiders, including his boon companion Lord Beaverbrook, on whom he conferred the new and vital role of Minister of Aircraft Production.

Beaverbrook, regarded by many people from King George VI downwards as an impossibly disreputable figure, was praised by others, including Churchill, for sweeping aside all manner of obstacles in order to produce the aircraft the RAF needed to win the Battle of Britain.

The Ministry of Supply went to Herbert Morrison, a leading Labour figure, but Harold Macmillan, one of the handful of Conservative MPs to have supported Churchill in the late 1930s, was made Parliamentary Secretary in that department.

Macmillan was 46, and regarded by many in the parliamentary party as “unprepossessing, bookish, eccentric” (Chips Channon), but as Anthony Sampson relates, in an excellent short biography published in 1968,

“inside the department Macmillan was very effective…able to put into practice at last the planning ideas which had been rotating in his mind over the last decade. The boards and committees which had been so mocked before now took shape. He helped to reorganise the ministry, to give closer contact between government, industrialists and labour: neat new Area Boards were set up, with representatives from different ministries, which were responsible to the ‘Industrial Capacity Committee’ with Macmillan as its chairman. It was a planners’ paradise. He lovingly explained the new system in a speech on 7th August 1940, and jokingly remarked that he would try to introduce State Socialism in the country if he did not have to put up with the tremendous resistance of the Labour movement.”

In July 1941, Beaverbrook became Minister of Supply, with Macmillan as his admiring pupil:

“He was fascinated by Beaverbrook’s ruthless drive, his mastery of power and his dramatic style: he would ring up his Parliamentary Secretary from Washington at three or four in the morning, and Macmillan found himself working all round the clock until ‘you could not call your soul your own’. Some of Macmillan’s Liberal colleagues suspected that Beaverbrook had had a coarsening influence on him.”

This apprenticeship served Macmillan in good stead: a decade later, when he was charged as Housing Minister with the seemingly impossible task of getting 300,000 houses a year built, he used Beaverbrook’s methods, including the identification and hiring of dynamic businessmen, the promotion of brilliant officials, the sacking or sidelining of useless ones, the setting of over-ambitious targets, the ruthless appropriation of whatever resources were required, and the use of dramatic, self-glorifying publicity, to get the job done.

The houses were built using a mixture of public and private methods which to later eyes came to seem muddled and ineffective. In the hands of someone as energetic and ruthless as Beaverbrook or Macmillan, the mixture could, on the contrary, be a formidable way of surmounting all obstacles.

For they brought to it a wartime determination to make extraordinarily rapid progress, using every tool at their disposal, not caring in the slightest whether a particular lever belonged to the state or to private enterprise.

Here perhaps is the main lesson of this history for the present crisis. Any system can be made to work by a dynamic leader, who hires other dynamic figures.

To tackle the Coronavirus crisis, four Cabinet committees have been set up, chaired by Matt Hancock (health), Michael Gove (the rest of the public sector), Rishi Sunak (the economy) and Dominic Raab (international).

There is reported to have been some ministerial infighting. This is inevitable, when energetic ministers are bending every sinew to achieve very difficult things in a very short time. Here is Charles Williams, Beaverbrook’s most recent biographer:

“Arguments in the War Cabinet were sharp and at times noisy. The debate on the use of labour was one such. Beaverbrook argued that the sole aim was maximum output. (When he found out that valuable time was lost when workers took cover at the sounding of the warning alarm, he suggested that the alarms be switched off.) The Minister of Labour, the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, took an opposite view, saying that workers needed proper protection and welfare provision if they were to give of their best. To make matters worse, Bevin was given to shouting, and Beaverbrook was not used to being shouted at. Bevin was chalked up as another enemy. But the list was becoming alarmingly long.”

The Prime Minister has to hire the right people, and back them as long as they are getting things done, no matter who they offend in the process. Easy to say, not so easy to do.