Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 2
THE PERIL OF EXPLOITING THE POOR
No phenomenon of the present serious situation is more remarkable, or of more urgent and vital concern to the nation, than the amazing rise in food prices which we have witnessed during the past six months. At a time when the British Navy dominates the trade routes, when the German mercantile flag has been swept from every ocean highway in the world, when the German "High Seas" fleet lies in shelter of the guns of the Kiel Canal fortifications, we have seen food prices steadily mounting, until to-day the purchasing power of the sovereign has declined to somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen shillings, as compared with the period immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities.
Now this is a fact of the very gravest significance, and unless the price of food falls it will inevitably be the precursor of very serious events. Matters are moving so rapidly, at the time I write, that before these lines appear in print they may well be confirmed by the logic of events. Ominous mutterings are already heard, the spectre of labour troubles has raised its ugly head, and, unless some modus vivendi be found, it seems more than probable that we shall witness a very serious extension of the strikes which have already begun.
The most important of our domestic commodities are wheat, flour, meat, sugar, and coal. Inquiries made by a Committee of the Cabinet have shown that, as compared with the average prices ruling in the three years before the war, the price of wheat and flour has risen by something like 66 per cent.! Sugar has increased 43 per cent., coal about 60 per cent., imported meat about 19 per cent., and British meat 12 per cent. The rise in prices is falling upon the very poor with a cruelty which can only be viewed with horror. Imagine, for a moment, the plight of the working-class family with an income of thirty shillings a week, and perhaps five or six mouths to feed. Even in normal times their lot is not to be envied: food shortage is almost inevitable. Suddenly they find that for a sovereign they can purchase only fifteen shillings' worth of food. Hunger steps in at once: the pinch of famine is felt acutely, and, thanks to the appalling price to which coal has been forced, it is aggravated by intense suffering from the cold, which ill-nurtured bodies are in no condition to resist.
I am not contending that there is any very abnormal amount of distress throughout the country, taking the working-classes as a whole. Thanks to the withdrawal of the huge numbers of men now serving in the Army, the labour market, for once in a way, finds itself rather under than overstocked, and the ratio of unemployment is undoubtedly lower than it has been for some considerable time. The better-paid artisans, whose wages are decidedly above the average at the present moment, are not suffering severely, even with the high prices now ruling. But they are exasperated, and some of them are making all kinds of unpatriotic threats, to which I shall allude presently.
The real sufferers, and there are too many of them, are the families of the labouring classes of the lower grades, whose weekly wage is small and whose families, as a rule, are correspondingly numerous. At the best of times these people seldom achieve more than a bare existence: at the present moment they are suffering terribly. Yet all the consolation they get from the Government is the assurance that they ought to be glad they did not live in the days of the Crimean War, and the pious hope that "within a few weeks"—oh! beautifully elastic term!—prices will come down—if we, by forcing the Dardanelles, liberate the grain accumulated in the Black Sea ports. No doubt the best possible arrangements have been made towards that issue, and we all hope for a victorious end, but our immediate business is to investigate the distress among the very poor, and to check the ominous threats of labour troubles which have been freely bandied about and have even been translated into action—or inaction—which has had the effect of delaying some of the country's preparations for carrying on the war.
The average retail prices paid by the working-classes for food in eighty of the principal towns on March 9th and a year ago are compared in the following table issued by the President of the Board of Trade:
A few more facts. Though the matter was constantly referred to, yet we had been at war for five months before the Government could be prevailed upon to prohibit the exportation of cocoa; with what result? In December, January, and February last our exports of cocoa to neutral countries were 16,575,017 lbs., whilst for the corresponding period for 1913 the exports were but 3,584,003 lbs.! Before the war, Holland was an exporter of cocoa to this country; since the war she has been the principal importer; and there is a mass of indisputable evidence to show that nearly the whole of our exports of cocoa have found their way to Germany through this channel.
The prohibition is now removed, so we may expect that the old game of supplying the German Army with cocoa from England will begin again!
The German Army must also have tea. Let us see how we have supplied it. During the first fortnight of war, export was restricted and only 60,666 lbs. were sent out of the country, whereas for the corresponding period of the previous year 179,143 lbs. were exported. During the next three months the restrictions were removed, when no less a quantity than 15,808,628 lbs. was sent away—the greater part of it by roundabout channels to Germany—against 1,146,237 lbs. for the corresponding period in 1913. After three months a modified restriction was placed upon the export of tea, but after reckoning the whole sum it is found that during the time we have been at war we have sent abroad over 20,000,000 lbs. of tea, while in the corresponding period of the previous year we sent only a little over 2,000,000 lbs.!
Now where has it gone? In August and September last, Germany received from Holland 16,000,000 lbs. whereas in that period of 1913 she only received 1,000,000 lbs. Tea is given as a stimulant to German troops in the field, so we see how the British Government have been tricked into actually feeding the enemy!
And again, let us see how the poor are being exploited by the policy of those in high authority. At the outbreak of war the market price of tea was 7½d. per lb. As soon as exportation was allowed, the price was raised to the buyer at home to 9d. Then when exports were restricted, it fell to 8¼d. But as soon as the restrictions on exports were removed altogether, the price rose until, to-day, the very commonest leaf-tea fetches 10d. a lb.—a price never equalled, save in the memories of octogenarians.
Who is to blame for this fattening of our enemies at the expense of the poor? Let the reader put this question seriously to himself.
Generally speaking, of course, prices of all articles are regulated by the ordinary laws of supply and demand; if the supply falls or the demand increases, prices go up. But there is another factor which sometimes comes into play which is very much in evidence at the present moment—the existence of "rings" of unscrupulous financiers who, with ample resources in cash and organisation, see in every national crisis a heaven-sent opportunity of increasing their gains at the expense of the suffering millions of the poor. It is quite evident, to my mind, that something of the kind is going on to-day, as it has gone on in every great war in history. The magnates of Mark Lane and the bulls of the Chicago wheat pit care nothing for the miseries of the unknown and unheeded millions whose daily bread may be shortened by their financial jugglings. They are out to make money. It may be true, as Mr. Asquith said, that we cannot control the price of wheat in America. But, at least, it cannot be said that the price of bread to-day is due to shortage of supply. During the last six months of 1914, as compared with the last six months of 1913, there was actually a rise of 112,250 tons in the quantities of wheat, flour, and other grain equivalent imported into this country. Where, then, can be the shortage, and what explanation is there of the prevailing high prices except the fact that large quantities of food are being deliberately held off the market in order that the price may he artificially enhanced? This is not the work of the small men, but of the big firms who can buy largely enough, probably in combination, to control and dominate the market.
When the subject was recently debated in the House of Commons the voice of the Labour member was heard unmistakably. Mr. Toothill said bluntly that if it was impossible for the Government to prevent the prices of food being "forced up" unduly, then it remained for Labour members to request employers to meet the situation by an adequate advance in wages. That request has since been made in unmistakable terms. Mr. Clynes was even more emphatic. "Though the Labour party were as anxious as any to keep trade going in the country," he said, "it was clear to them that the truce in industry could not be continued unless some effective relief were given in regard to the prices under discussion." In other words, the Labour "organisers" will call for strikes—perhaps hold up a large part of our war preparations—unless the employers, most of whom are making no increased profit out of the price of food, are prepared to shoulder the entire burden.
It is quite clear, to my mind, that the prices of food are being forced up by gigantic unpatriotic combines, either in this country or abroad, or both. I do not think that mere shortage of supply is sufficient to account for the extraordinary advances that have taken place. Whether the Government can take steps to defeat the wheat rings, as they did to prevent the cornering of sugar, is a question with which I am not concerned here. My purpose is merely to point out that the constant rise in food prices, brought about by gangs of unscrupulous speculators, is bringing about a condition of affairs fraught with grave peril to our beloved country.
If we turn to coal we find the scandal ten times greater than in the case of flour and meat. It is at least possible that agencies outside our own country may be playing a great part in forcing up the prices of food; they can have no effect upon the price of coal, which we produce ourselves and of which we do not import an ounce. Coal to-day is simply at famine prices. It is impossible to buy the best house coal for less than 38s. per ton, while the cheapest is being sold at 34s. per ton, and the very poor, who buy from the street-trolleys only inferior coal and in small quantities, are being fleeced to the extent of 1s. 11d. or 2s. per cwt. This is an exceedingly serious matter, and it is not to be explained, even under present conditions, by the ordinary laws of supply and demand. Why should coal in a village on the banks of the Thames be actually cheaper than the corresponding quality of coal when sold in London?
There can be only one answer—the London supply is in the hands of the coal "ring" which has compelled all the London coal merchants to come into line. So extensive and powerful is the organisation of this ring, that the small men, unless they followed the lead of the big dealers, would be immediately faced with ruin: they would not only find it difficult to obtain coal at all, but would promptly be undersold—as the Standard Oil Company undersold thousands of small competitors—until they were compelled to put up their shutters.
The big coal men, the men who make the profit—and with their ill-gotten gains will purchase Birthday honours later on—of course blame the war for everything. The railways, they say, cannot handle the coal; so much labour has been withdrawn for the Army that production has fallen below the demand. But I am assured, on good authority, that coal bought before the war, and delivered to London depots at 16s. or 17s. per ton, is being retailed to-day at between 36s. and 40s. per ton. The big dealers know that, cost what it may, the public must have coal, and they are taking advantage of every plausible excuse the war offers them to wring from the public the very highest prices possible. "The right to exploit," in fact, is being pushed to its logical extreme in the face of the country's distress, and the worst sufferers, as usual, are the very poor, who for their pitiful half-hundred-weights of inferior rubbish pay at a rate which would be ample for the finest coal that could grace the grate of a West-End drawing-room.
Can we shut our eyes to the fact that in this shameful exploiting of the very poor by the unpatriotic lie all the elements of a very serious danger? Let us not forget the noble services the working-classes of Britain are rendering to our beloved country. They have given the best and dearest of their manhood in the cause of the Empire, and it is indeed a pitiful confession of weakness, and an ironic commentary on the grandiose schemes of "social reform" with which they have been tempted of late years, if the Government cannot or will not protect them from the human leeches—the Birthday knights in the making—who suck their ill-gotten gains from those least able to protect themselves.
The Government have promised an inquiry which may, if unusual expedition is shown, make a "demonstration" with the coal-dealers just about the time the warm weather arrives. Prices will then tumble, the Government will solemnly pat itself upon the back for its successful interference, and the coal merchants, having made small or large fortunes as the case may be during the winter, will make a great virtue of reducing their demands to oblige the Government. In the meantime, the poor are being fleeced in the interests of an unscrupulous combine. Is there no peril here to our beloved country? Are we not justified in saying that the machinations of these gangs of unscrupulous capitalists are rapidly tending to produce a condition of affairs which may, at any moment, expose us to a social upheaval which would contain all the germs of an unparalleled disaster?
Let the condition of affairs in certain sections of the labour world speak in answer. I have already quoted the thinly-veiled threat of Mr. Clynes. Others have gone beyond threats and have begun a war against their country on their own account. There is an unmistakable tendency, fostered as usual by agitators of the basest class, towards action which is, in effect, helping the Germans against our brave soldiers and sailors who are enduring hardships of war such as have not been equalled since the days of the Crimea.
|HOW WE SUPPLY THE GERMAN ARMY WITH FOOD|
|Exports op Cocoa to Neutral countries|
(for the German Market)
|Dec. 1, 1913, to Mar. 1, 1914
|Dec. 1, 1914, to Mar. 1, 1915|
|Exports of Tea to Neutral Countries|
(for the German Market)
|Dec. 1, 1913, to Mar. 1, 1914
|Dec. 1, 1914, to Mar. 1, 1915|
As I wrote these lines, strikes on a large scale had begun on the Clyde and on the Tyne, two of our most important shipbuilding centres, where great contracts—essential to the success of our arms—are being carried on, and in the London Docks, where most of the food of London's teeming millions is handled. London dockers, to the number of some 25,000, are agitating for a rise in wages; between 5,000 and 6,000 of them have struck work at the Victoria and Albert Dock on the question, forsooth, whether they shall be engaged inside the docks, or outside. In other words, the expeditious handling of London's sorely needed food is being jeopardised by a ridiculous squabble which one would think half a dozen capable business men could settle in five minutes. But here, as usual, the poorest are the victims of their own class.
In spite of the well-meaning but idiotic young women who have gone about distributing white feathers to men who, in their opinion, ought to have joined the Army, common-sense people will recognise that the skilled workers in many trades are just as truly fighting the battles of their country as if they were serving with the troops in Belgium or France. If every able-bodied man joined the Army to-day the nation would collapse for want of supplies to feed the fighting lines. It is not my purpose here to discuss whether the men or the masters are right in the disputes in the engineering trades. Probably the authorities have not done enough to bring home to the men the knowledge that, in executing Government work, they are in fact helping to fight the country's battles. None the less the men who strike at the present moment delay work which is absolutely essential to the safety of our country. We know from Lord Kitchener's own lips that they have done so.
Our war organisation to-day may be divided into three parts—the Navy fighting on the sea, the Army fighting on land, and the industrial army providing supplies for the other two. It must be brought home to the last named, by every device in our power, that their duties are just as important to our success as the work of their brothers on the storm-swept North Sea, or in the mud and slush and peril of the trenches in Flanders. This war is very largely a war of supplies, and our fighting must be done not only in the far-flung battle lines, but in the factory and workshop, whose outputs are essential to the far deadlier work which we ask of the men who are heroically facing the shells and bullets of the common enemy.
Now there is no disguising the fact that the industrial army at home contains far too large a percentage of "slackers."
That is the universal testimony of men who know. There are thousands of workmen who will not keep full time, for the simple reason that they are making more money than they really need and are so lazy and unpatriotic that they will not make the extra effort which the necessities of the situation so urgently demand. What we need to-day is, above all things, determined hard work: we do not want to see our fighting forces starved for want of material caused by the shirking of the "slackers" or by unpatriotic disputes and squabbles. To-day we are fighting for our lives. The privates of the industrial army ought to realise that "slacking" or striking is just as much a criminal offence as desertion in the face of the enemy would be in the case of a soldier. It is true, as a recent writer has said, that "those who fight industrially, working long hours in a spirit of high patriotism, may not seem very heroic," but it is none the less the fact that they are fighting: they are doing the work that is essential to our national safety and welfare. Do they—at least do some of them—realise this? The following extract from Engineering, the well-known technical journal, shows very clearly that among certain classes of highly paid workers there is a total disregard of our national necessity which is positively appalling. As the result of a series of inquiries Engineering says:
"Time-and-a-quarter to time-and-a-half is paid for Saturday afternoon work, and double time for Sunday work. Men could earn from £7 to £10 per week—and pay no income-tax.
"Men will work on Saturday and Sunday, when they get handsomely paid, but will absent themselves on other days or parts of days."The head of a firm, who has shown a splendid example in his work, and is most kindly disposed to all workers, states in his reply to us: 'Our trouble is principally with the ironworkers, especially riveters, who appear to have a definite standard of living, and who regulate their wages accordingly; they seem to aim at making £3 per week: if they can make this in four days, good and well; but if they can make it in three days, better still. … The average working-man of to-day does not wish to earn more money, and put by something for a 'rainy day,' but is quite content to live from hand to mouth, so long as he has as easy a time as possible."
What words are strong enough to condemn the action of such men who, safe in their homes from the perils of the serving soldier, and infinitely better paid than the man who daily risks his life in the trenches, are ready deliberately to jeopardise the safety of our Empire by taking advantage of the gravest crisis in our history to levy what is nothing less than industrial blackmail? It cannot be pretended that these men are under-paid: they can earn far more than many members of the professional classes. Just as truly as the coal and wheat "rings" are exploiting the miseries of the very poor, so these aristocrats of the labour world are playing with the lives of their fellows and the destinies of our Empire. They are helping the enemy just as surely as the German who is fighting in his country's ranks. They are, in short, taking advantage of a national danger to demand rates of pay which, in times of safety and peace, they could not possibly secure.
For years past we have been striving to arrive at some means of settling these unhappy labour disputes which have probably done more harm to British trade than all the German competition of which we have heard so much. In every district machinery has been set up for conciliation and settlement where a settlement is sincerely desired by both parties to a dispute. And if this machinery is not set in motion at the present moment, it is because one party or the other is so blind and self-willed that it would rather jeopardise the Empire than abate a jot of its demands. Could anything be more heart-breaking to the men who are fighting and dying in the trenches?
Whatever may be the merits of any dispute, there must be no stoppage of War Office or Admiralty work at the present moment, and if any body of men refuse at this juncture to submit their dispute to the properly organised conciliation boards, and to abide by the result, they are traitors in the fullest sense of the world. How serious the crisis is, and how grave a peril it constitutes to our country, may be judged from the fact that the Government found it necessary to appoint a special Committee to inquire into the production in engineering and shipbuilding establishments engaged in Government work. The Committee's view of the case, which I venture to think will be endorsed by every thinking man, may be judged by the following extract from their report:
"We are strongly of opinion that, during the present crisis, employers and workmen should under no circumstances allow their differences to result in a stoppage of work."Whatever may be the rights of the parties at normal times, and whatever may be the methods considered necessary for the maintenance and enforcement of these rights, we think there can be no justification whatever for a resort to strikes or lockouts under present conditions, when the resulting cessation of work would prevent the production of ships, guns, equipment, stores, or other commodities required by the Government for the purposes of the war."
The Committee went on to recommend that in cases where the parties could not agree, the dispute should be referred to an impartial tribunal, and the Government accordingly appointed a special Committee to deal with any matters that might be brought before it.
I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the seriousness of the danger with which we must be threatened if these unhappy disputes are not brought to a close, and I know of no incident since the war began that has shown us up in so unfavourable a light as compared with our enemy. Whatever we may think of Germany's infamous methods; whatever views we may hold of her monstrous mistakes; whatever our opinion may be as to the final outcome of the war, we must, at least, grant to the Germans the virtue of patriotism. The German Socialists are, it is notorious, as strongly opposed to war as any people on earth. But they have, since the great struggle began, shown themselves willing to sink their personal views when the safety of the Fatherland is threatened in what, to them, is a war of aggression, deliberately undertaken by their enemies. We have heard, since the war began, a great deal of wild and foolish talk about economic distress in Germany. We have been told, simply because the German Government has wisely taken timely precautions to prevent a possible shortage of food, that the German nation is on the verge of starvation. But would Germany, who for seven years prepared for war, overlook the vital question of her food supply? Probably it is true that the industrial depression in Germany, thanks to the destruction by our Navy of her overseas trade, is very much worse than it is in England. But no one has yet suggested that the Krupp workmen are threatening to come out on strike and paralyse the defensive forces if their demands for higher wages are not instantly conceded. It is more than probable that any one who suggested such a course, even if he escaped the heavy hand of the Government, would be speedily suppressed in very rough-and-ready fashion by his own comrades. The Germans, at least, will tolerate no treachery in their midst, and unless the leaders among the English trade unionists can bring their men to a realisation of the wickedness involved in strikes at the present moment, they will assuredly forfeit every vestige of public respect and confidence.
I am not holding a brief either for the masters or the men. Let ample inquiry be made, by all means, into the subject of the dispute. If the masters raise any objection to either the sitting or the finding of the Government Commission, they deserve all the blame that naturally attaches to the strikers. The inquiry should be loyally accepted by both sides, and its findings as loyally respected. Prima facie, men who can earn the wages mentioned in the extract from Engineering which I have already quoted are well off—far better off than their comrades who are doing trench duty in France, and are free from the hourly risk to which the fighting forces are exposed. There may be, however, good and vaUd reasons why they should be paid even better. If there are, the Government inquiry should find them out. But to stop work now, to hold up the production of the ships, guns, and materials necessary to carry on the war, is criminal, wicked, and unpatriotic in the highest degree. It is setting an evil example only too likely to be followed, and, if it is persisted in, may well be the first step of our beloved nation on the downward road which leads to utter destruction.
Mr. Archibald Hurd, a writer always well informed, has summed up the situation in the Daily Telegraph in the following words, which are worth quotation:
"The recruiting movement has shown that the great industrial classes are not, as a whole, unconscious of the stake for which we are fighting—the institutions which we cherish and our freedom. Probably if the workers at home were reminded of the importance of their labours, they would speedily fall into line—if not, well, the resources of civilisation are not exhausted, and the Government should be able to ensure that not an unnecessary day, or even hour, shall be lost in pressing forward the work of equipping the new Fleet and the new Army which is essential to our salvation. The Government is exercising authority under martial law over Army and Navy; cannot it get efficient control over the industrial army?"In France and Germany these powers exist, and are employed. We are not less committed to the great struggle than France and Germany."
Those are wise and weighty words, and it may be that they point the way to a solution of what may become a very grave problem.