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Guest post by LH Member Hannah Renier. 

A review of The World in 2030, by F E Smith, politician, barrister and social dynamo of the early twentieth century. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of May 2020.

2030coverIn 1930 F E Smith (by then Lord Birkenhead) published his forecast for the next 100 years: The World in 2030. He prefaced his book with a cheerful acknowledgement that he’d probably make some howlers – which he did – but in other predictions he was kind of right, errors lying usually in the timing. And of course, his book about 2030 reveals far, far more about his world in 1930 than anything else.

I have included in this review, at random, some gems from only two of the nine chapters.  He addresses among other things War (there won’t ever be another one), Women (incapable of attaining the very first rank in any field, although like Asiatics and Africans, a few are undeniably intelligent and will, given education, definitely make good lab assistants), Transport (cars will be long forgotten; we will all have our own aeroplanes)… and so on. He returns to these and other themes later.

F E was a ruling-class chap at the end of the 20s. His assumptions are not ours. Just don’t be surprised that since women and ‘other races’ – far less ‘women of other races’ – were typically not a part of history, so they would be largely insignificant in the future.

‘F E’ was clever (in his twenties a Law lecturer at Oxford), handsome, and an outstanding athlete in his youth. An indefatigable networker, he was brilliant company. He became Unionist MP for Liverpool Walton in 1906, the year of a Liberal landslide. MPs were not paid, and his background not rich, so he became a notable barrister, writer and journalist. In 1911 F E successfully saved Crippen’s mistress Ethel Le Neve from conviction as an accessory to murder, while as Attorney General in 1916 he prosecuted Sir Roger Casement for treason (Casement was hanged).

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FE Smith caricature by Leslie Ward (‘Spy’), 1907.

As a cynic, F E had two sets of friends, who overlapped. One large group were affluent bottom-feeders of politics such as Robert Houston, Lady Byron and one of the Grettons (Bass Brewery) along with Horatio Bottomley, newspaper owner and swindler, and Maundy Gregory, scoundrel and honours tout. F E didn’t judge.

However, such individuals were excluded from The Other Club, which he and his close friend Winston Churchill founded after the 1911 election. All members (maximum 50, of whom MPs must not exceed 24) were interesting and influential in the arts, the press, medicine, the military. Every second Thursday they dined at the Savoy, to exchange news and ideas. Some of the members undoubtedly contributed to his forecasts, although

….the only two branches of human knowledge upon which I can perhaps claim to write with some authority, namely, those of Law and Politics, are unfortunately …just the two that are least likely to sustain profound modification.

He was right. But

…Physics is on the brink of a new synthesis, a fresh simplification and restatement of fundamental ideas. This, when it comes—and it cannot long be delayed—must radically change all our assumptions concerning time, space, and the nature of change.

…The best scientific opinion believes that before 2030 physicists will have solved the problem of supplying the world with limitless amounts of cheap power…Locked up in the atoms which constitute a pound of water there is an amount of energy equivalent to ten million horse-power-hours. It is undoubted that this colossal source of energy exists; but as yet physicists do not know how to release it; or, having done so, how to make it perform useful work. This problem will be solved before 2030…

And then, a non-sequitur; a metaphor which, written fifteen years before Hiroshima, causes a shudder:

Some investigator, at present in his cradle or unborn, will discover the match with which to light this bonfire, or the detonator needful to cause this terrific explosion.

There is a lot here about making the Sahara fertile, shifting Ireland (his major political preoccupation) to the mid-Atlantic, and changing the climate (a good thing). The limitless potential of cheap energy is not underestimated, and as F E points out, it might derive from harnessing the winds or the tides.

He got the general idea, at least. On telecommunications, he is spot on.

…applied physics will certainly develop wireless telephony and television beyond our present most imaginative expectations. By 2030 it should be possible for any person sitting at home to be “present” at no matter what distant event.

And –

After the spokesman of each party has had his (or her) say, the votes of the entire country could be recorded and counted by mechanism installed in the telephone exchanges.

Hmm.

Chemistry had less to offer. Although he very much liked a drink, did F E, and cocaine as well, and

It has…been suggested that chemical research will tum to the discovery of new physiologically pleasant substances.

In this hope, which would not long remain unfulfilled, he claimed the support of JBS Haldane, the geneticist twenty years younger than F E. It may have been Haldane’s writing that introduced him to genes. Eugenics was all the rage in some circles, and the ability to

…control heredity. Most probably by 2030 a clever young man will consider his fiancée’s hereditary complexion before proposing marriage…

 He had heard about the ‘stud farms’ for ‘Aryans’ being promoted in Germany but while he disapproved, he thought that by 2030 genetic choices would be made by couples the female of whom would never have to suffer the indignity of childbirth anyway. As Haldane suggested, everything would be sorted out by ‘ectogenesis’ in a test tube; and F E opined that

…the connection between a mother and her growing child is purely chemical.

He was not against the idea of breeding the ‘types’ that society required, since by 2030 most men

…will work as machine-minders for one or two hours a day and be free to devote the rest of their energies to whatever form of activity they enjoy.

Tough if they enjoyed farming, because nitrogen-fixing bacteria would be allowed to proliferate and agriculture as a career would be defunct. Everything would grow spectacularly well without intervention. F E did not foresee that we would live today with the terrible consequences of inorganic fertiliser.

Biology would introduce all sorts of other good things, such as effective anaesthaesia even for childbirth, and

 The abolition of epidemic disease by 2030 is fairly certain, as is the discovery of cures for such scourges as cancer and tuberculosis…Not so fast, Sunshine. Also

…rejuvenation will be an ordinary and well recognised matter of a few injections at appropriate intervals…… The attraction of such an idea, especially to women, who will no longer grow old quickly, is too clear to require emphasis.

Unlike its attraction to men, who grow old barely at all. For instance F E, in his late forties,  married with three children, and believed by his Irish Protestant supporters in Walton to spend every waking hour negotiating the separation of Ulster from Ireland, began in 1919 a long and passionate affair with Mona Dunn, the seventeen-year old daughter of a very rich Canadian. Night clubs and dancing featured, and Beaverbrook lent them his house.

F E was absolutely of his time. And yet… The Other Club still exists. Both progress and decline seem to have speeded up. We can’t accurately predict what our world will look like in ten months, or even ten weeks.

Above all we don’t know how people will think. It is possible, for instance, that by 2122 disgust at the idea of eating dead animals or fish will be universal and worldwide. We can assume nothing. F E Smith’s forecasts tell us far more about the assumptions of the political class in the twenties and thirties than about our lives in what, for him, was the future. Such revelations are useful. Maybe we should all write books about the world in 2122, so that our great grandchildren can look back with derision or horror or sympathy on how little we knew. Our own assumptions are so much a part of us that without them we barely exist. An objective account is almost impossible, whether you are writing a biography of Kublai Khan or filming a stabbing on your phone.

kauffman

Illustration for ‘War in 2030’ by Edward McKnight Kauffer

F E died of pneumonia six months after the book (superbly illustrated by E McKnight Kauffer) was published. His health had been compromised by cirrhosis of the liver. He was 58.

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