“Give them what they want.” At face value it’s certainly not as outwardly rousing as his “We’ll fight them on the beaches” speech or his brilliantly biting, “Yes, I might be drunk, but come the morning I will be sober and you, Madam, will still be ugly.” “Give them what they want” is, however, perhaps the most strategically savvy, forward thinking, patriotic sentence to have been delivered by Churchill between the years 1939 and 1945, and it is a sentiment Prime Ministers and Presidents around the world should embrace with equal passion today.
To understand what I’m hitting at here you must first know the backstory to these five simple words, and that goes something like this:
In the summer of 1943 a young accountant whose name has been lost to history took on a new assignment inside His Majesty’s Treasury. With investigative authority issued from No. 11 Downing Street this particular bean counter was tasked with rooting out excesses in spending primarily inside the Ministry of Defence. At the time Britain’s wartime budget was in a shambles, the country was racking up debt at completely unsustainable levels and, being British, the Chancellor of the Exchequer figured there was no time like the present (war or no war) to do some financial housecleaning.
By January 1944 this young accountant was staring at an incalculably expensive mystery. Untold sums of treasure were being channelled to the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill but he couldn’t for the life of him understand why. There was nothing out there. Nothing that could account for the vast investments he was tracking and which seemed to just disappear without anything to show for it all. He started asking around, but no answers were forthcoming. He knocked on politicians doors but no one seemed to know anything. Slowly but surely this young accountants questions worked their way up through strata of military and governmental authority until news of this mounting mystery reached the Prime Minister’s office.
Churchill’s response was to summon his driver and personally go and investigate. When he returned to London later that day he sat down behind his desk and penned a handwritten memo which simply said, “Give them what they want.”
What Churchill had seen that day was the working Colossus Mark 1 and a nearly completed Mark 2: huge vacuum tube computers assembled by Tommy Flowers, Sidney Broadhurst, William Chandler, Allen Combs and Harry Fensom to service the mathematicians at Bletchley Park who were struggling to decipher German communications traffic encrypted by the Lorenz SZ40/42 machines.
“Give them what they want.” The beauty is in its simplicity. “Give them what they want.” This is how governments today should approach the sciences. Space telescope? Give them what they want. Space elevator? Give them what they want. Ion drive propulsion? Give them what they want. Dyson Sphere? Please, give them what they want!