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18 August 2021

From the NS archive: Rationing the nation

6 January 1917: How to make sure everyone got their fair share of dwindling resources.

By New Statesman

With the First World War grinding on and the army siphoning off manpower, food shortages were felt at home. Some form of rationing seemed necessary to divide necessities equally across the country, but how was the Ministry of Food to do it? As the writer of this editorial noted, it would be poor families who would suffer most: “That is to say, the families of the average widow with several children, of the farm labourer, and even of a large proportion of the soldiers at the front, together with the lonely old-age pensioners.” Reducing the supply of sugar, for example, to grocers was no way of solving the problem since how were they to distribute it fairly among their customers? Cooperative Societies were trying their best but the government handling was a muddle and nor did the country have a national register fit for purpose. The answer, perhaps, was food tickets, but they already existed and were called money. Therefore, a more equitable distribution of wealth was the answer.


Established amid the splendours of Grosvenor House, the new Minister of Food is considering how to put the nation on equal rations. Lord Devonport makes no secret of the difficulties and perplexities of his task, and we shall do well if we resign ourselves to a very moderate degree of success. It is not that there is any difficulty in bringing about a reduction in the consumption of the commodities of which there is a special shortage. The restriction of the aggregate supply quite automatically ensures precisely the amount of reduction that is called for. The nation does not, in the aggregate, now consume any more sugar than the government allows to be imported; and, if total reduction is all that is required, success has already been achieved. What is almost insuperably difficult is to get the reduction effected among 46 million people in such a way as to avoid personal hardship. As it is, with regard to sugar, which is the foodstuff with which the government began its regulation, the air is full of complaints – not, however, from the class which writes to the Times – of inequality, unfairness, and oppression.

The Sugar Commission, whose work Lord Devonport now takes over, has made, we suggest, the mistake of not explaining to the public the lines on which it was proceeding, with the result that its distributive arrangements have met with suspicion and mistrust, instead of cooperation. Having been told that there would be only a reduced importation of sugar – a reduction, we believe, of about 25 per cent – the Sugar Commission had first to decide how the diminished imports should be allocated, and through what channels.

What seems to have been decided – if we err, the Commission’s own secretiveness must be blamed – was that it was unwise to interfere much with the demand of what we may call the sugar-using industries (“business as usual”), whether brewing or the manufacture of jam, temperance drinks, chocolate, confectionery, sweets and other food preparations. We understand that some little restriction was timidly and tardily put on the sugar for beer and on that for sweets; but, greatly to the delight of the trade interests concerned, none at all on that for jam (so as not to hamper the supply for the Army) and confectionery. It therefore became necessary to make a very sweeping reduction of the supply for domestic consumption.

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The Commission shrank from the task of rationing the nation; deemed it quite impracticable to issue sugar cards; and refused even to take the responsibility of declaring how much sugar each individual ought, as a good citizen, to limit himself to per week. All that the Commission did in this respect (and if personal hardship to the very poor and privation to their children are of no account it was sufficient) was to require every wholesale dealer whom the government supplied with sugar to limit each retail shopkeeper to a prescribed percentage of the quantity supplied in the preceding year. The shopkeeper was told that he ought to distribute this reduced supply equitably among his regular customers; and he was not allowed to protect himself against any abnormal demand by putting up the price. The result has been, so far as we can judge from reports from all parts of the country, the restriction of supply has fallen almost entirely on the wage-earning class, and to a large extent on the very poorest families, because of their extreme poverty.

We feel convinced that Lord Devonport would find, on enquiry, that his own household has had all the sugar it required; and this seems to have been the experience, apart from voluntary economy, of middle- and upper-class families generally. Those who have gone short are the families whose expenditure on groceries does not allow them – for this has been the general requirement of the grocer – to spend two shillings on other things for every pound of sugar that their children require – that is to say, the families of the average widow with several children, of the farm labourer, and even of a large proportion of the soldiers at the front, together with the lonely old-age pensioners.

Speaking broadly, the result of the scheme of distribution adopted by the Sugar Commission has been that the available supply of sugar has been, apart from the licence accorded with some justification to jam, restricted least in those uses in which it is economically and physiologically least essential to the nation – such as in beer and lemonade, confectionery and sweets – and restricted most in domestic consumption; whilst the domestic consumption has been restricted least (or not at all) in those families in which it was alike above the average and easily capable of being replaced by equivalent foodstuffs, and most in those families in which it is an almost indispensable article of diet. But the poorest suffer in silence.

It is the glaring anomalies of the present scheme that are most complained of. Strangely enough, no provision seems to have been made for the establishment of a new grocer’s shop. The various newly established Cooperative Societies have not been able to buy any sugar from any wholesale dealer. The Maypole Dairy Company, whose shops sell margarine but not sugar, finds that its customers are required by their grocers to buy their margarine where they buy their sugar and yet cannot itself now start selling in order to retain its retail trade.

Moreover, population has greatly shifted, and the trade of retail shopkeepers in different parts of the country waxes and wanes. But the grocer whose trade is rapidly increasing can still purchase sugar only to the extent of 75 per cent of that which he had for a smaller number of customers in the preceding year. On the other hand, the grocer in a decaying neighbourhood, or whose own business is decaying, finds that he can get enough sugar fully to satisfy his dwindling clientele.

This anomaly has become very apparent among the Cooperative Societies, which distribute about one-eighth of all the sugar for domestic consumption, and which, unlike the private shopkeeper, have a complete roll of their customers. Many Cooperative Societies have increased in membership by 25 per cent during the year – they can still buy from the wholesalers only 75 per cent of what they bought for their smaller membership, so that their members are able each to purchase only about half their accustomed demand! So difficult has been the position that several large Cooperative Societies have been driven to issue sugar tickets on their own initiative, distributing these equally among their members, and only allowing sugar to be bought when a ticket was handed in with the price. Meanwhile, some wholesale firms have a surplus of sugar, representing the quota of grocers who have ceased to carry on business – in some cases owing to withdrawal of men for the Army – and the Sugar Commission does not appear, so far as we can learn, to have made any provision for ensuring that this surplus, representing waning retail trading, should be allowed preferentially to those retailers who can prove that they are supplying an increased number of households.

We are forced to the conclusion that the methods of the Sugar Commission have proved to be very unequal and specially unfair in their operation. They certainly do not encourage Lord Devonport to adopt them for other commodities. What is now perplexing Grosvenor House – no such difficulty has ever before perplexed the August habitation of the Duke of Westminster – is how to dole out in some more equitable and less injurious way, not only the nation’s sugar, but also its bread, its meat and the various other commodities of universal consumption of which we may presently find ourselves short.

The old economists had an easy answer. If we would but let things alone, scarcity would cause a rise of price, and this a reduction of demand, up to the point at which all would-be purchasers could be supplied. There are still among us those for whom this is a sufficient, if not indeed the only solution of the problem. But we see now that to let supply and demand thus equate themselves by a rise in price merely means, in a community in which family incomes differ so enormously in amount, that the wealthy classes suffer none of the restriction; those who have moderate incomes and small families very little; the large families more, whilst the great mass of the wage-earners endure nearly all the shortage, which comes hardest of all on those at the very bottom of the scale. It is quite an interesting sign of our progress towards equality that Lord Devonport unhesitatingly rejects this solution, which would have seemed to Nassau Senior obvious. The Minister of Food has already told the House of Lords that nothing will satisfy him, where there is shortage, but an equal sharing among all the population, irrespective of their means or social position of the foodstuffs that are becoming scarce.

The first suggestion is, naturally, the issue of food tickets, authorising the purchase by the bearer of definite quantities. Unfortunately, we possess no such minute and up-to-date register of families as is the rule in Germany. The National Register of 1915 is, among the shifting population of London, Liverpool and Glasgow, and with the great migrations of munition workers that have taken place, largely obsolete. To effect another national registration would be a long and costly operation, absorbing labour that can ill be spared. To give public notice that every family must make personal application at the Town Hall for a Food Card before a certain date, under pain of finding itself unable to purchase food, would throw upon the municipal authorities an intolerable burden of identification, and what is worse, subject many millions of poor families to the loss of half-a-day’s pay, besides a most tiring wait for hours outside the municipal office.

The most complete register of the wage-earning class in large towns (as was found by the late Charles Booth in his investigations) is that of the School Attendance Officers. Next to these in knowledge of families are the 70,000 agents of the Industrial Insurance Companies. Unfortunately, both these staffs have been largely drawn on for the Army. The present emergency reveals once more the need for something like the revival of the tithing – a continuous organisation of the whole population by tens of families – the tithingman reporting to a centurion, and the centurion to the local municipal or county office. But although we may come one day to such an organisation of an état civil available alike for registration of births and deaths, school attendance and what not, the time is not yet; and Lord Devonport must find some other way of issuing his Food Tickets.

But would Food Tickets do? Even the Germans have not adopted them for sugar. Probably several millions of people in the United Kingdom take one or two meals away from home, most of them involving the use of a little sugar in one or other way. Are all the teashops, even all the clubs, to be condemned to unsugared tea, or shall we have to surrender a minute fragment of our sugar card for each cup? Will the quantity per week be the same for each person, whether child or adult – this would result in a fatal privation of the children – or can it be graduated according to age? What about condensed milk as a substitute, or golden syrup or prunes, figs and preserved fruits, or the humbler black treacle – shall these, too, be rationed? Sugar is, in some respects, the easiest foodstuff to control; and the difficulties in rationing us in bread and meat short of a universal system of communal meals (to which the German cities are rapidly coming), appear almost insuperable.

What seems worth consideration is the issue to each family of a collective Food Ticket, say of the value of ten shillings per adult and five shillings per child, covering all purchases of food for a week; dividing it up by perforation into many small fragments of different denominations; thus restricting every family to a weekly maximum of food expenditure, but allowing complete freedom of choice and of substitution according to needs and tastes. We fear, however, that such a Food Ticket would not be popular in the families round about Grosvenor House! But they may take courage. The poor, who cannot afford to spend ten shillings a week each on food, would quickly be offering to sell their surplus tickets, which would then authorise the rich to enlarge their meals. This is a flaw in any system of Food Tickets.

The fact is that we have already a universal system of Food Tickets in the shape of money. These tickets, metallic or paper, now empower us to bring food up to their several values, and they limit our demands. Having these potent Food Tickets in our hands, it is extraordinarily difficult to put effectively into circulation another set of Food Tickets, designed to inhibit the use of those first supplied. The inhibitory tickets will never completely catch up with the activities of the first set – any more than the currency of the Musical Banks of Erewhon, that Samuel Butler described, exercised any important influence on the other currency that remained in daily use.

If our present very effective Food Tickets were issued to us all equally, or according to the size of our families, or even only in return for work done, we should not need to trammel their use. Unfortunately, they are issued in such a way that about two-thirds of them are in the hands of one-fifth of the families, whilst four-fifths of the families have at their disposal only one-third of them, thus getting very little apiece – a distribution which, quite rightly, the Minister of Food finds too inequitable for his taste. We suggest to Lord Devonport, in all seriousness, that there is no practicable way of equally rationing the nation (unless by communal meals) other than assuring to each worker a Legal Minimum Wage and to each non-worker an allowance or pension adjusted to his needs, whilst absorbing in taxation all rent and interest.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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