Food/Volume 1/Chapter III
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Planning the Machinery of Food Control
The Food (Defence Plans) Department began its work in a strategic vacuum. A few notions about what the next war would be like were generally current, in Government circles as elsewhere. The principal enemy, and his main weapon, the bombing aircraft, were identified; it was expected that war would be ushered in by devastating air-raids on British cities, particularly London; the prospect of blockade was implicit in the decision to begin food planning at all. But no comprehensive and coherent hypothesis of war, and its implications for civilians, had been or were to be attempted. This may be credited, in the last resort, to the certainty that it would be a defensive war; no Government bent on aggression, meditating time and place for a coup, could have left so unexplored the non-military aspects of its conduct. The political climate of Britain, in the years before 1939, was not propitious for the type of ruthless calculation that the prospect of modern war demands; the governing view of the time hated war and distrusted collectivist planning such as war must entail. It would be surprising if this attitude of mind had not spilled over into the way in which war plans were tackled.
Such general reflections must be tested by historians of wider themes than the present—food control. Whatever by the explanation, the fact remains that the food planners were thrown back almost entirely on their own intellectual initiative. It was not merely that, apart from the Air Raid Precautions Department of the Home Officer, they constituted the only civilian body specifically charged with defence planning, and defence planning alone. Other Departments of Sate may well have been employing comparable resources, without the publicity that was given to food, these tasks; the wartime aspects of shipping, transport, military and industrial conscription, to say nothing of agriculture, were by no means being neglected from 1937 onwards. What was lacking, at any rate until after Munich, was any continuous, informed, central pressure that should keep these departmental activities in step, either in the sense of being mutually consistent or the more practical sense of moving towards completion at a uniform pace.
But (it may be objected) did not the Committee of Imperial Defence, with its sub-committees, provide such guidance? In the economic field, the answer can only be no; the Committee did not, could not, give a lead, and the Departments seldom sought it. The Food Sub-Committee, for instance, met in all but three times between March 1937 and the outbreak of war. On those occasions it certainly took important decisions, such as authorising the printing of ration books in peacetime. But it never developed the corporate existence or the nucleus of expert, extra-departmental advice that would have enabled it to keep even the limited range of its responsibilities under continuous oversight. The image of the pre-war plans, in their civilian sector, is not that of an army, moving towards its objective in accordance with flexible, adaptable strategy. Rather is that of a number of intelligent individuals making each his own way towards a common destination, and finding mutual interests en route.
Hence the conception of the plans, as well as their execution, could not be become almost exclusively departmental. Agreed common hypotheses, or even formulated disagreement, scarcely existed; assumptions separately made might never be confronted with one another, let alone reconciled; indeed, they might never reach the point of overt statement. The possibilities of latent conflict that should only be resolved in the event are obvious. So too is the likelihood that Departments’ peacetime policies would be allowed to get in the light of their war preparations.
From this latter pitfall the Food (Defence Plans) Department was safeguarded by its terms of reference. In its case, the absence of external criteria by which its plans could be tested had the effect of strengthening the Ministry of Food tradition. Individuals might have their doubts about that tradition's applicability:
‘I have never been quite satisfied’—wrote one who had been a member of the Beveridge committee on rationing—‘that we did the whole of our job, which was to provide a scheme suitable for the next war’. But there could be no conclusive, authoritative reason against taking it as the main guide to conduct; and the argument for so doing were strong and obvious. It embodied methods that had been tried and found successful; that were familiar to the trades who would have to work it; that needed little advance explanation or defence to the Ministers, Parliament or the public. To a Department so small in relation to the task put before it, the revival of Lord Rhondda's Ministry, with such improvements as experience suggested, might well seem the only practical course.
In effect, one might say, the Department took as its point of departure the impossibility of forecasting what the war would be like. ‘Since the precise nature of the emergency to be faced cannot be determined beforehand, the plans must be flexible and adaptable to varying circumstances’. Forced by its inadequate resources to economise effort, it chose to concentrate on the problems that must be faced. Rather than speculate on matters of policy that would in the end have to be settled by the Government in office at the time of an emergency, it set itself to provide the essential machinery without which no Government could act.
This does not mean, of course, that its members were unaware those aspects of its work that might be comprehended under Sir William Beveridge’s heading of ‘feeding policy’. Such questions as the need to reduce livestock numbers in wartime, and its corollary, the rate of flour extraction, or the implications of price stabilisation and shipping diversion (to take two widely separated aspects of the war economy); these and many others were ventilated from time to time both internally and in discussion with other Departments. But they were not systematically explored or brought deliberately into relation with one another, so as to make up a coherent whole. For instance, no attempt was made to build up a picture of the wartime food requirements of the population that might serve as basis for an import programme. The question of rations for young children, adolescents, and heavy workers was raised, not as part of such a general inquiry, but in the purely practical context of the printing of ration books. There was, in short, no pattern to the Department’s thinking other than that imposed by the process of working out the practical plans themselves.
Work thus began, almost without argument, on the assumption that the methods and devices of 1918, if they were introduced sufficiently promptly, would at any rate serve to tide over the first months of war, and that sufficient time would then by granted for their revision and adaptation. The Department noted that the ‘maintenance of imported supplies in wartime is … key to food defence’, and it set itself the task of devising machinery to ensure they continued uninterrupted, and that in so far as they fell short, ‘equality of sacrifice’ was ensured. Its task was mobilisation of the food trades of the country to serve the national need; and it paid more attention to the changes that had certainly taken place in them, than to those that might conceivably affect the conditions under which they would serve.
Changes since 1918 in the pattern of the United Kingdom's food supplies and distribution had not been very remarkable, from the point of view of planning food control, with perhaps two exceptions. The first was that Southern Ireland no longer formed part of the United Kingdom; the second, and more calculable, was the changes in the sources of supply of a major commodity—sugar. One of the major problems of the earlier war had been presented by the cutting off, overnight in August 1914, of imports of refined sugar from the central Powers. That pattern of trade had been broken for good; in 1937 the recently established, heavily subsidised sugar beet industry accounted for about one-quarter of the total sugar consumed; the remainder was almost all raw cane sugar, imported from tropical producing countries for refining in Great Britain. The haul was longer, buy at any rate there was no prospect of an immediate and sudden total interruption in supplies.
So far as home food supplies were concerned, one development, as yet in its infancy, had important implications for planning; the setting up since 1931 of marketing boards and control commissions for the majority of farm products. While the amount of home production had not as yet been increased by these measures, the existence of organised marketing suggested a greater east in establishing wartime control, while the staffs working the schemes provided cadres of informed persons on whom a future Food Controller could draw.
The pattern of food manufacture and distribution seems to have changed but little. In flour milling, oilseed crushing and sugar refining there had been a tendency to combination, but this had in all cases stopped short of monopoly; and concentration of ownership had not done away with dispersal of plant. Other trades, and retailing generally, remained the province of the small man; multiples and chain stores, though they often grew to impressive individual size, were far from dominating the picture.Broadly speaking, there was nothing in the 1936 pattern of food supplies and distribution, intricate though it was, that would make the controls of 1918 obsolete. Plans for a future war, assuming it to be of a similar character to the last, could reasonably be based on them, with only such modifications as previous experience, and the opportunity of planning the structure as a whole, would obviously suggest. The Food (Defence Plans) Department could not have seen itself as embarking on a second ‘state trading adventure’; it was arranging to revive, in an improved and up-to-date form, an organisation of proven worth, in the confidence that it would justify itself yet again.
From the very beginning, the two-fold nature of the British system of food control was apparent in the way the new Department split up its planning duties. On the one hand, the future Ministry of Food would have to trade in, or at any rate exercise some control over individual foods or groups of foods; this would be the function of commodity controls based on the trades concerned, which together would form the mechanism of procurement and supply. On the other hand, the Ministry would have to organise and control demand, whether by rationing the ultimate consumer, or some form of quasi-rationing or allocation on a predetermined basis of entitlement; catering establishments provide an obvious example. This side of its work entailed the preparation and issue of documents—ration books, permits, and so on—and the setting up of divisional and local food offices.
In outline the machinery of commodity control, and the procedure for its introduction on the outbreak of war, were simple. Existing trade stocks and incoming cargoes would be requisitioned, and future purchase, whether overseas or on the farm, be made directly or indirectly on Government account. A system of bulk purchase and or long-term contracts would replace hand-to-mouth buying on the existing produce exchanges, whose members would become Government agents; by this means it was hoped to stabilise prices and eliminate speculation. Coordinated buying on behalf of allies and even neutrals was envisaged. Processors, such a flour millers, sugar refiners, and oilseed crushers, would operate as directed on allocated raw materials, at margins of profit to be negotiated with the Ministry of Food. So, too, wholesale distribution would be subject to Ministry orders. ‘The final stage is reached when the retailer, registered with his local Food Control Committee, has delivered to him at a fixed price the regular weekly supplies required to meet the needs of his registered customers’, to whom he in turn would sell at a fixed price.
The embodiment of these simple principles in the mechanism suited to the idiosyncrasies of each food and each section of the trade was, however, a task for patient labour and negotiation. If food control were to come into being without a hitch, the planners must carry the traders with them, even at the risk of undue concessions to practices not really suited to a war economy. Directly is passed from the stage of elaborating principles to translating them into terms of men and forms, the Department found itself hampered first by lack of staff and secondly by the requirements of official secrecy which forbade it to associate large outside staffs, such as those of the Marketing Boards and Control Commissions, with the preparation of commodity schemes. Before the Munich crisis, through no fault of its own, this side of its work had become immersed in a mass of seemingly interminable discussions.
The preparations of the rationing machinery, while throwing up more knotty problems for immediate resolution than that of the commodity controls, nevertheless made rather better progress, partly because there was not the same need for outside consultation, partly because it leant even more heavily on previous experience, as summarised in the work of Sir William Beveridge's Sub-Committee on rationing. That experience prescribed a national rationing system based a consumer-retailer tie and hence the establishment of a network of divisional and local food offices.
A shadow divisional organisation was ready to hand in the civil emergency food organisation that had been maintained, as a legacy of the old Ministry of Food, on account of its proven utility in the great Railway Strike of 1919. The Divisional Officers, persons of local standing who received a small retaining fee for their readiness to serve in emergency, were brought into consultation with the Department, and a few of the older ones were persuaded to make way for younger men.
The local organisation, too, was taken from the last war not merely in essential principle—namely the setting up of local food control committees, nominated by the local authority, as well as food executive officers to control the day-to-day work of local offices—but in details that were the result of historical accident. The decision to make the local unit in England and Wales the sanitary authority—the borough or district council—and in Scotland the county or large burgh, was supported by practical arguments. But it ultimately went back to 1917, when the English county councils had declined, and the Scottish county councils accepted, the task of forming food control committees. It was indeed proposed that some of the smaller authorities should combine to form joint committees—a recommendation that proved difficult to enforce in practice. The food control committees themselves, which in the last war had often intervened actively in distribution and even pioneered local rationing schemes ahead of general rationing, were now to be more circumscribed. It was granted that the Minister might delegate to them certain administrative functions, but their chief purpose was clearly thought of as being a safety-value for discontent and a shield against accusations of bureaucracy. The local Food Executive Officer was this time to be the servant, not of the Committee but of the Food Controller.
The Food (Defence Plans) Department was not long in deciding that local authorities ought to be asked at once to designate ‘shadow’ Food Executive Officers and Chairmen of Food Control Committee. A minor delay occurred over finance, since it was proposed that in wartime the Ministry of Food should bear the whole cost of local food administration, whereas the Treasury was even then bargaining with the local authorities about the proportion of the cost of air raid precautions that should be borne by the Exchequer, and did not want to weaken its bargaining position by offering to pay the whole cost of another part of civil defence. By November 1937, this obstacle had been overcome, and the President of the Board of Trade announced in the House the decision to set up a shadow divisional and local organisation. By 31st May 1938, nine in every ten local authorities had agreed to come into the scheme.
More difficult than securing their consent to nominate a Committee was to determine its composition and numbers—another problem that had troubled the earlier Ministry of Food. It was first suggested that there should be twelve members, four representing local retailers and eight the general public. The non-trade seats presented little difficulty, though the Cooperative movement did put forward a claim that it should be represented as ‘the only body organised consumers in the country’. For the trade seats, however, there was a regular scramble. The retail cooperative societies wanted one seat for their officials (their members, of course, were entitled to sit as consumers); the butchers’ and grocers’ organisations wanted to be empowered to nominate representatives. Officials of the Grocers’ Federation and the Cooperative Union agreed to support each other’s claims for a trade seat.
The Department, fearing that nominated members might be able to use the Committee as a means of putting trade pressure on the Ministry of Food, sought allies by calling upon the bakers and dairymen, who, since they did not deal in foods expected to be rationed, had not hitherto been consulted, to give their views on the filling of trade seats; and as it had expected and hoped, these strongly opposed giving grocers and butchers preferential treatment. The controversy dragged on for month; it was eventually settled by increasing the membership to fifteen seats, of which five should be traders; one a cooperative official, one a private butcher, one a private grocer, and the remaining two, other retailers. Traders were not to be eligible for non-trade seats; and all appointments were to be made by the local authority, subject to the approval of the Food Controller.
So far as ration documents were concerned, the Beveridge Sub-Committee had been content to begin where the last Ministry of Food had left off. ‘So far as we can judge, the form of leaves [of the ration book] and instructions used in July 1918 are as good a basis to start from as anything we could devise now’. It had pointed out, however, that provided the customer was tied to the retailer, detachable coupons could, and at any rate at the beginning of war should be dispensed with in order to save time in the shops. They were only necessary if, for instance, meat meals in restaurants required the surrender of a coupon, or two foods, for instance meat and bacon, that are habitually bought at different shops, were subjected to a joint ration. Otherwise the counterfoils lodged with the retailer and making up his register of customers provided a sufficient basis for supplies.
So far as the major foods to be rationed were concerned, the Food (Defence Plans) Department rejected this contention out of hand. Some people might not want to take up their rations, and the retailer’s right to by must be adjusted not to his nominal roll of customers but to his actual requirements. ‘The disciplinary control of the retailer is a matter of the first importance’, it wrote in 1937; and it proposed to discipline him, not merely by requiring him to collect and account for coupons, but also by insisting on returns of stock, sales and purchases of rationed food at frequent intervals. In this attitude it was, paradoxically enough, reinforced by the attitude of the traders themselves to a suggestion that for commodities not expected to be very scarce—sugar, tea and cheese—there should be ‘registration’ without rationing. Representatives of retail butchers, grocers and cooperative stores rejected almost unanimously, in January 1938, any half-way house between complete freedom and coupon rationing, as placing too much responsibility on the trader and favouring the dishonest at the expense of the honest. It was this alone that led to the inclusion of sugar coupons in the first wartime ration book.
Another departure from previous suggestions was the decision to print ration documents in advance of hostilities. Sir William Beveridge’s advice, both in 1933 to the Sub-Committee on Prince, and in 1936, had, on the basis of experience in 1918, been that two or three months would be sufficient time in which to get the rationing machine into operation and that, therefore, documents need not be printed in advance. The Department felt that rationing might be required not more than a month after war broke out, and was prepared to make do with an interim, simplified scheme for three months while the documents for the full scheme were being printed. The Stationery Office, facing an avalanche of printing orders to be executed urgently on the outbreak, could not guarantee to deliver interim ration cards under a month or full ration books under six months. There was nothing for it but to abandon the interim scheme and print sufficient ration documents for the permanent scheme before the war broke out.
This decision, though made on grounds of administrative convenience, implied some attempt to anticipate food policy, i.e. to decide what was likely to be rationing. In absence of an expert appraisal of shipping, foreign exchange and the other relevant prospects, the Department had to fall back on rule of thumb; a desire to make provision against all likely contingencies warred with the need to keep down the bulk and cost of the ration book. In the end, named coupons were provided in the draft book for six commodities: meat, bacon, butter, margarine, cooking fat and sugar. Three spare sets of coupons and four further spare counterfoils were added for insurance purposes. The provision of ration books for special classes of consumer—children, adolescents, heavy workers—also rested on previous practice. The decision to make six, rather than eight the age at which a child should qualify for a full meat ration was indeed verified by expert advice; not knowing what the general supply position would be, the experts could not be positive whether supplies of extra meat should be given to adolescents or heavy workers; and the Department’s decision to print special ration books for these classes was its own.
Yet another point on which the Department parted company with the Beveridge Sub-Committee was in insisting that there should be no irrevocable link, overt or covert, between the rationing machinery and the proposals for a National Register that were being worked out by the Registrar-General. The Registrar-General had not only been a member of the Beveridge Sub-Committee; he was also the author of the central clearing house for sugar ‘ration papers’ that had been scrapped in mid-passage in 1918 in favour of a purely local system of issuing ration documents and registering consumers. He was still convinced that the latter would have broken down in the long run for want of a central index that could keep pace with births, deaths and migrations; and he held that a National Register, compiled by the simultaneous enumeration of the whole population, as at a census, would be indispensable to the Food Controller as a check on a fraud and duplication. He persuaded the Beveridge Sub-Committee to recommend that a detachable portion of the national registration certificate, or identity card, might be used as a voucher for the initial issue of ration books. It might be sent to the Food Office along with a household application form, such as had been used in the last war. The primary purpose of the National Registration, that of enforcing military conscription, would thus be at once cloaked and reinforced by its rationing functions.
The Department was prepared to agree that an up-to-date National Register at the point when rationing was decided on would be useful, but found both political and administrative objections to proclaiming that it was indispensable. A National Register compiled (as was at once time proposed) in peacetime, would lack the rationing sanction on which the Registrar-General relied to make it continuously effective, and therefore could not be relied on to form the basis for a ration book issue; people could not be denied rations because they had lost their identity cards in the interval. Conversely, the Department dared not run the risk that a Cabinet decision against an immediate National Register, whether on political grounds or on account of population movements at the outbreak of war, should leave it without the means of introducing rationing. It did not want a future Food Controller to find himself tied, on purely administrative grounds, to an unpopular policy of conscription.
- One reason seems to have been that Ministers regarded the Department’s work as purely administrative, and therefore took little or no interest in it.
- As founded, it had, under the Director, only six officials of administrative or quasi-administrative status; two assistant directors and four heads of branch. When the storage scheme was adopted in the spring of 1938, a third assistant director and two more heads of branch were added. There was a great expansion after Munich (p. 43 below).
- For the attempt to estimate food supplies on another basis, see Chapter V.
- See below, p. 40.
- Quotations from Report of the Food (Defence Plans) Department for 1937, pp. 11, 12.
- op. cit., p. 17.
- In fact the Ministry of Food control Orders were to prescribe maximum, not fixed prices. The Ministry made much of this distinction, but in practice it was of little importance for foods subject to rationing by a tie to the retailer.
- An account of these negotiations, as they concerned particular foods, will appear in Vol. II.
- These were listed in the Department’s Report for 1937 (loc. cit. § 70) as follows: Registration of consumers: licensing of retailers and ‘adjustment’ of supplies to them and to catering establishments; consideration of applications for change of retailer; issue of ration documents; collection of returns and information; inspection of records; enforcement. Only the last of these could be described as other than a routine function.
- The principal reason adduced for rationing sugar was to reassure the public that the queues of the last war would not recur.
- Approval for the advance printing was given in July 1937, but for technical reasons it was not until after the Munich crisis that printing actually began.
- Other candidates for inclusion were cheese, tea, bread, milk, jam, fish, potatoes, green vegetables, fruit and eggs.
- Only enough books were printed for boys between 13 and 18. The outcry from women’s organisations that this would provoke (and indeed did provoke in 1939, when news of the proposal got abroad) seems to have been entirely unforeseen.
- See Chapter I. The accounts of this episode in Beveridge (British Food Control, p. 188 sq.) and in the secret history of the Ministry of Food are in some respect in complete. The reasons for which the central index was discontinued were transient and partly political ones which had nothing to do with its merits in principle. This was not clearly understood by the Food (Defence Plans) Department; hence, in part, its unwillingness to be closely associated with the reincarnation of the index in the National Register.