21st November 2005
I’m intrigued to know why the Labour Government introduced Bread Rationing in July 1946. Bread had not been rationed all through the war, so its introduction is a powerful case study of austerity in post-war Britain – reinforcing the perception among many people, that things were getting worse, instead of better.
According to Paul Addison in “Now the War is Over” (Jonathan Cape, 1985), early in 1946 the food experts in Washington began to predict a world wheat shortage, aggravated by a shortage of rice. Famine threatened in Germany and in Asia where Britain was responsible for the welfare of India, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya and Singapore, all of which were part of the British Empire. In February 1946 Ben Smith, Minister of Food, announced that in order to divert supplies to threatened areas, the British Government would reduce imports of wheat for consumption in Britain.
Herbert Morrison was sent to the US to try to persuade the US Administration to adopt a more generous policy towards Great Britain, but “cabled the Cabinet with the astonishing news that he had agreed to a further reduction in supplies of grain for this country, on the understanding that the Americans would share the burden in Germany and India.”
Douglas Jay, who then worked in the Prime Minister’s office as an economic assistant is quoted as saying:
“What it amounted to was that when we were faced in the first year after the war with actual famine in three places in particular, with Germany, India and Malaysia, which has a huge population, you could keep more people alive out of a given ton of wheat by raising the extraction rate from what I think it normally is, 60 per cent or 70 per cent, this is how the millers express it, to 95 per cent, with the limited amount of wheat we had in the world. That was done and I think as a result of that, probably famines in those areas were avoided.”
Paul Addison goes on to describe how the decision invoked storms of protest from the Conservative opposition.
And in conclusion he says that:
“Bread rationing was probably unnecessary. The threat to grain supplies proved less severe than expected and, since the rations allowed proved adequate there was little reduction in the consumption.”
Bread rationing controls were eventually lifted two years later in July 1948.
There seem to me be to be some unanswered questions in this account. For example:
Was the introduction of bread rationing in Britain really necessary to avoid famine in Germany, India and Malaysia? Were supplies of grain to these countries from the US increased as a result?
What was the attitude of the British public?
Why did the Labour Government go ahead with a measure they knew would be unpopular, and which in the end turned out to be “probably unnecessary”?