Perhaps I have a weakness for financiers, but if so it is entitled to some respect, because it is based on closer knowledge of them than is owned by most of their critics. For years it was my business as a City journalist, to see them day by day; and this daily intercourse with financiers has taught me that the popular delusion that depicts them as hard, cruel, ruthless men, living on the blood and sweat of humanity, and engulfed to their eyebrows in their own sordid interests, is about as absurd a hallucination as the stage Irishman. Financiers are quite human—quiet, mild, good-natured people as a rule, many of them spending much time and trouble on good works in their leisure hours. What they want as financiers is plenty of good business and as little as possible disturbance in the orderly course of affairs. Such a cataclysm as the present war could only terrify them, especially those with interests in every country of the world. When war comes, especially such a war as this, financing in its ordinary and most profitable sense has to put up its shutters. Nobody can come to London now for loans except the British, or French, Governments, or, occasionally, one of our colonies. Any other borrower is warned off the field by a ruthless Committee whose leave has to be granted before dealings in new securities are allowed on the Stock Exchange. But when the British Government borrows, there are no profits for the rank and file of financiers. No underwriting is necessary, and the business is carried out by the Bank of England. The commissions earned by brokers are smaller, and the whole City feels that this is no time for profit-making, but for hard and ill-paid work, with depleted staffs, to help the great task of financing a great war. The Stock Exchange is half empty and nearly idle. It is tied and bound by all sorts of regulations in its dealings, and its members have probably suffered as severely from the war as any section of the community. The first interest of the City is unquestionably peace; and the fact that the City is nevertheless full of fine, full-flavoured patriotic fervour only shows that it is ready and eager to sink its interests in favour of those of its country.
Every knot that international finance ties between one country and another makes people in those two countries interested in their mutual good relations. The thing is so obvious, that, when one considers the number of these knots that have been tied since international finance first began to gather capital from one country's investors and place it at the disposal of others for the development of their resources, one can only marvel that the course of international goodwill has not made further progress. The fact that it is still a remarkably tender plant, likely to be crushed and withered by any breath of popular prejudice, is rather a comforting evidence of the slight importance that mankind attaches to the question of its bread and butter. It is clear that a purely material consideration, such as the interests of international finance, and the desire of those who have invested abroad to receive their dividends, weighs very little in the balance when the nations think that their honour or their national interests are at stake. Since the gilded cords of trade and finance have knit all the world into one great market, the proposition that war does not pay has become self-evident to any one who will give the question a few minutes' thought. International finance is a peacemaker every time it sends a British pound into a foreign country. But its influence as a peacemaker is astonishingly feeble just for this reason, that its appeal is to an interest which mankind very rightly disregards whenever it feels that more weighty matters are in question. The fact that war does not pay is an argument that is listened to as little by a nation when its blood is up, as the fact that being in love does not pay would be heeded by an amorous undergraduate.
If, then, the voice of international finance is so feeble when it is raised against the terrible scourge of war, can it have much force on the rare occasions when it speaks in its favour? For there is no inconsistency with the view that finance is a peacemaker, if we now acknowledge that finance may sometimes ask for the exertion of force on its behalf. As private citizens we all of us want to live at peace with our neighbours, but if one of them steals our property or makes a public nuisance of himself, we sometimes want to invoke the aid of the strong arm of the law in dealing with him. Consequently, although it cannot be true that finance wanted war such as this one, it cannot be denied that wars have happened in the past, which have been furthered by financiers who believed that they suffered wrongs which only war could put right. The Egyptian war of 1882 is a case in point, and the South African war of 1899 is another.
In Egypt international finance had lent money to a potentate ruling an economically backward people, without taking much trouble to consider how the money was to be spent, or whether the country could stand the charge on its revenues that the loans would involve. The fact that it did so was from one point of view a blunder and from another a crime, but this habit of committing blunders and crimes, which is sometimes indulged in by finance as by all other forms of human activity, will have to be dealt with in our next chapter, when we deal with the evils of international finance. The consequence of this blunder was that Egypt went into default, and England's might was used on behalf of the bondholders who had made a bad investment. This fact has been put forward by Mr. Brailsford, in his very interesting book on "The War of Steel and Gold," and by other writers, to show that our diplomacy is the tool of international finance, and that the forces created by British taxpayers for the defence of their country's honour, are used for the sordid purpose of wringing interest for a set of money-grubbers in the City, out of a poor and down-trodden peasantry overburdened by the exactions and extortions of their rulers. Mr. Brailsford, of course, puts his case much better than I can, in any brief summary of his views. He has earned and won the highest respect by his power as a brilliant writer, and by his disinterested and consistent championship of the cause of honesty and justice, wherever and whenever he thinks it to be in danger. Nevertheless, in this matter of the Egyptian war I venture to think that he is mistaking the tail for the dog. Diplomacy, I fancy, was not wagged by finance, but used finance as a very opportune pretext. If Egypt had been Brazil, it is not very likely that the British fleet would have shelled Rio de Janeiro. The bondholders would have been reminded of the sound doctrine, caveat emptor, which signifies that those who make a bad bargain have only themselves to blame, and must pocket their loss with the best grace that they can muster. As it was, Egypt had long ago been marked out as a place that England wanted, because of its vitally important position on the way to India. Kinglake, the historian, writing some three-quarters of a century ago, long before the Suez Canal was built, prophesied that Egypt would some day be ours. In Chapter XX. of "Eothen," comes this well known passage on the Sphynx (he spelt it thus):—
"And we, we shall die, and Islam will wither away, and the Englishman, leaning far over to hold his loved India, will plant a firm foot on the banks of the Nile, and sit in the seats of the Faithful, and still that sleepless rock will lie watching, and watching the works of the new, busy race, with those same sad, earnest eyes, and the same tranquil mien everlasting."
After the building of the Canal, the command of this short cut to India made Egypt still more important. England bought shares in the Canal, so using finance as a means to a political object; and it did so still more effectively when it used the Egyptian default and the claims of English bondholders as an excuse for taking its seat in Egypt and sitting there ever since. The bondholders were certainly benefited, but it is my belief that they might have whistled for their money until the crack of doom if it had not been that their claims chimed in with Imperial policy. It may have been wicked of us to take Egypt, but if so let us lay the blame on the right doorstep and not abuse the poor bondholder and financier who only wanted their money and were used as a stalking horse by the Machiavellis of Downing Street. Mr Brailsford's own account of the matter, indeed, shows very clearly that policy, and not finance, ruled the whole transaction.