11 February 2006
A New Year and a new term.
I have finished my first two essays on the MA course in Contemporary British History.
One of the essays was on Bread Rationing in the UK after the war. Earlier posts on this blog show how I became interested in the topic, and here is my final contribution to the subject on this blog:
Bread Rationing was introduced in the UK by the Labour Government in July 1946 and remained in force for two years. Bread had never been rationed during the war and at the time was seen as the height of austerity.
The measure was vehemently opposed by the Conservatives, including Churchill, who called it “one of the gravest announcements that I have ever heard made in the House [of Commons] in the time of peace” and the Daily Mail reported on 3rd July 1946, that it was “the most hated measure ever to have been presented to the people of this country."
However, in practice Bread Rationing turned out to be completely ineffective in reducing the level of consumption in the UK and most historians agree it was “probably unnecessary."
The question I tried to answer was: why did the government not only impose a measure they knew would be unpopular and which in practice proved to be ineffective in achieving its stated purpose, but persist with it for two years in the face of significant opposition at home?
Here is my conclusion in the final paragraph in the essay:
At first sight, the brief two year period of bread rationing may appear as a minor issue; the government simply followed the practice, well proven in wartime, of controlling demand for essential supplies at a time when there was a potential risk of shortages. This is at best a partial explanation. The Attlee government’s decisions on bread rationing were directly affected by four of the gravest and most difficult issues it faced during its first three years in office. Firstly, the ineffectiveness and unpopularity of a policy of direct controls, seen by the public as necessary in war but increasingly superfluous in peacetime. Secondly, virulent opposition from some elements of the public, spurred on by conservative politicians and the press. Thirdly, total dependency on the United States for essential supplies and the means to pay for them. Fourthly and finally, having won the war, having to decide how best to win the peace, at a time of shifting allegiances among the victors and vanquished.
It was a fascinating story. In the course of the research for the essay I learnt about conditions of life in Britain after the war, the desperate economic situation facing both Britain and the rest of Europe, how close much of Europe, including Germany, but not Britain, came to starvation and famine, the international politics of food supplies, the emergence of cold war diplomacy and the division of Europe.
For a taste (!) of what it was like at the time, I looked up British Pathe’s archive of cinema newsreels on the web http://www.britishpathe.com and was amazed at what I found. (Search for “Bread Rationing”). Low resolution downloads for private study are free.
The newsreels include the Minister of Food, John Strachey, justifying the government’s decision, protests by the British Housewives’ League and the Master Bakers’ Federation, plus a film called “Germany’s food – the Truth” which includes pictures of a factory in Germany which converted tons of beech and pine logs into fake liver sausage for human consumption.