21st December 2005
In my first posting on this subject I asked: 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”?
The answer to this question does appear to be in the article by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska on “Bread Rationing in Britain, July 1946 – July 1948” in the journal “Twentieth Century British History.” (Vol 4 No 1 1993 P57-85)
It seems that bread was rationed in the UK “not primarily for economic reasons – in order to save wheat – but for psychological and political reasons” as part of extensive negotiations between the British government and the United States on the allocation of North American wheat and on the terms of US loans and Marshall Aid necessary to secure the revival of the British economy after the war.
Her conclusion at the end of the article is that bread rationing helped Britain to “retain its privileged position as the only food importing country which did not suffer a significant reduction in calorie consumption.”
Britain, the United States and Canada were the three members of the “Combined Food Board,” part of the wartime supplies machinery which took charge of world cereals allocations. Britain was in a favoured position as the only food importer on the board, in a sellers market.
In 1946, Britain was under intense pressure to justify its relatively high wheat and flour stocks and high allocation of wheat imports, while the Board cut allocations to others, including European importers, India, military authorities in Europe and Asia and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which looked after the millions of refugees in post-war Europe.
The British government were also trying to persuade the United States to assume responsibility for feeding the population in the British Zone in Germany, where there was an acute shortage of food. Rations had been cut in March 1946 to less than 1,000 calories a week, well under half the ration in Britain.
Negotiations at the Combined Food Board reached a head on 10 April 1946. In a debate on a UNRAA request for allocation of stocks, the UK government proposed that Britain would be prepared to ration bread, if the US and Canada did the same. This was a negotiating ploy, as it was obvious that the US and Canada would not agree to this, but they were prepared to introduce other measures, including a reduction in the amount of wheat fed to livestock. This amounted to a 25% reduction in their own domestic consumption and therefore released stocks for distribution to UNRRA and Europe (without requiring a reduction in the British allocation).
British consumption was relatively secure due to long standing trade relations with Canada. A new four year agreement was signed with Canada on 24th July 1946, three days after rationing was introduced.
Having make the offer to introduce bread rationing in April, the UK government found it was politically impossible to go back on it, even though there was, strictly speaking, no real need to introduce rationing in the UK, as the ration was set at more or less the same level as previous consumption, and resulted in virtually no savings.
A UK Cabinet minute on 18 July 1946, three days before rationing was introduced, said:
“We were bringing great pressure to bear on the United States government to provide enough to meet the minimum needs of the British zone … on the basis that we could not supply more for the zone ourselves; but, if we delayed the introduction of rationing in the United Kingdom, we should be conveying the impression that our own needs were no longer so urgent as had been represented.”
Rationing was also important to secure ratification of the US loans and Marshall Aid which were needed to keep the British economy afloat. The first post-war US loan to the UK was agreed in December 1945 but not ratified by Congress until15th July 1947. In a note to his cabinet colleague Herbert Morrison on 20th July, justifying the introduction of bread rationing, due to come into effect the following day, Prime Minister Attlee said:
“to go back now would have a bad effect on the United States Administration who would think that we announced rationing in order to influence the loan debate.”
Two months later, in September 1946 the Minister of Food, John Strachey, proposed lifting rationing, but the policy was reaffirmed in October on the basis that:
“no diversion from United Kingdom stocks could provide enough to make adequate provision for the British zone; and if any such diversions were made, the United States Administration would be led to suppose that our situation was less serious than it really was.”
As late as November 1947, when Strachey again proposed to end bread rationing, this was rejected on the ground that:
“in view of the acute wheat shortage in Europe and of the Marshall Plan discussions, this course is, for the time being, politically impossible.”
Bread rationing in the UK finally ended in July 1948 after Marshall Aid had been secured earlier in the year.