I guess the extent of wartime rationing was belatedly brought home to me when I read ‘War and Peace’ a few years back. Naturally, this doorstopper of an epic requires a lot of pages – 1,334 the number my own copy can boast. But the edition in question was published in 1943 – indeed it has one of those lovely handwritten dedications inside it (‘To Ronald, from Auntie Nina, 25.XII.45’), the kind that always prompt me to ponder on the identities of these mystery people and what became of them. However, what really makes this volume unique amongst the many old books I’ve picked-up over the years is that the thickness of each page is so flimsy you can almost see through the paper. I’d been aware of paper rationing on top of everything else rationed during the Second World War, but I’d never encountered the realities of it before. Newspapers, comics and magazines were hit more or less as soon as hostilities broke out, reduced to 60% of their pre-war strength, and when the rationing of paper was tightened even further as of 1942, George Orwell looked at the way in which paper supplies were distributed from the perspective of the author.
‘A particularly interesting detail,’ he wrote, ‘is that out of the 100,000 tonnes allotted to the Stationary Office, the War Office gets no less than 25,000 tonnes, or more than the whole of the book trade put together…At the same time paper for books is so short that even the most hackneyed “classic” is liable to be out of print, many schools are short of text books, new writers get no chance to start and even established writers have to expect a gap of a year or two years between finishing a book and seeing it published.’ Whenever wartime rationing is discussed today, the limitations on food and the impact that particular privation had on the nation tends to fall under the spotlight; but, of course, clothing was rationed, as was fuel (primarily coal), as was petrol, as was soap and dozens of other items it’s fair to say we take for granted. When it comes to petrol, many private vehicles gathered dust in garages for the best part of five years, and there are several public information films from the late 1940s offering advice to drivers sweeping the cobwebs away from their old bangers and wondering why they’re no longer roadworthy.
Some rationing ended before VE Day, but peacetime didn’t curtail the entire practice overnight. Various economic factors that were a natural legacy of conflict kept many of the restrictions in place and when disaster unrelated to war struck, such as the wet summer of 1946 ruining wheat crops, restrictions were reintroduced – in this specific case, bread rationing; the notoriously harsh winter of 1947 also saw the rationing of potatoes. The amount of petrol rationed was up and down throughout the remainder of the 1940s and didn’t finally end until 1950. The fact it temporarily returned during the 1956 Suez Crisis seemed to highlight how rationing was now engrained as a default response. Rationing was a major issue the Conservative Opposition fought upon during the General Election campaigns of 1950 and ’51; the Labour Government argued rationing should continue indefinitely, as though this was now the natural order of things, but the electorate sided with Churchill’s Tories in the latter contest and the promises to finally end rationing were kept – albeit as a slow ‘roll out’. Restrictions on sugar and confectionary were lifted in 1953 and everything else was de-rationed as of 4 July 1954, fifteen years after Chamberlain’s radio address.
The reluctance of Attlee’s Government to bring all rationing to an end was mostly a case of the administration trying its damndest to cling onto power, fearful of what the economic ramifications might be at a time when pre-war reliance on goods flowing into the country from the colonies (as well as home production) still hadn’t been fully restored; but it could also probably be said that rationing had become second nature as a policy, despite the population wearying of it. Governments realised it could work and that people would simply grin and bear it without rioting outside Downing Street. When the next comparable crisis reared its ugly head a generation later – the 1972 Miners’ Strike, followed by the Three-Day Week of 1974 – rationing was prepared for to the point of printing petrol coupons, but none were issued thanks to the life-saving presence of North Sea Oil. Still, the public were advised to reduce consumption in the home, and rationing did occur via electricity supplies; power-cuts became a regular feature of industrial turbulence during the period, continuing to randomly wreak household havoc until the middle of the decade. As someone whose earliest memories emanate from this time, power-cuts were normalised from day one for me and I assumed these were (and always had been) a commonplace fact of life; yes, you will be in the middle of watching ‘Blue Peter’ and the TV will abruptly switch-off without warning and you won’t think it unusual. Memory tells me when power-cuts finally ended, the drought of 1976 started the next day and then it was water’s turn to be rationed as the country appeared to stagger from one crisis to the next.
Okay, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out where I’m going with this. What the lesson of rationing taught governments was that they could inflict hardship on the populace and persuade them it was being done for the greater good; in the case of WWII, there was an element of truth in the need for sacrifice, though it must have grated a little whenever a Brit found themselves on an American army-base and had a glimpse of the plentiful supplies in the quartermaster’s stores. In each case in which rationing was employed – the Second World War, Suez, the industrial unrest of the 1970s – an initial crisis had provoked the emergency measures and people generally accepted the thinking behind the dramatic move, believing it would only be a temporary imposition that would be lifted as soon as the crisis had passed. A not-dissimilar approach had been used during the Napoleonic Wars, when the need to fund a seemingly never-ending conflict resulted in a continuous series of new taxes, not all of which vanished in the wake of Waterloo.
Governments tend to allay any disgruntled resistance whenever imposing such measures by adopting the ‘we’re all in it together’ sales technique, playing the victim and urging the nation to unite against a common enemy – whether that be Nazi Germany, Nasser, the miners’ unions, or even a coronavirus. One would imagine the vast majority of people in this country would greet the announcement that the new ‘Freedom Day’ of 19 July is definitely on (give or take a few small-print caveats) with a modicum of euphoria considering the past year-and-a half we’ve endured. Yet the voices of disquiet at this news are not necessarily emanating from the SAGE camp and all those grandstanding doom-mongers who will suddenly be deprived of the prime-time spotlight they’ve clearly grown rather fond of; it seems the pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask divides are now picking up where the Leave/Remain divisions left off – in cyberspace, at least.
In the real world, the legacy of Project Fear is already visible with the comical sight of customers attempting to eat a restaurant meal with masks on, or those who follow the latest infection rates as though watching the football results, or those who believe we should remain under house-arrest until Covid has gone the way of smallpox, which effectively means forever – interesting that the Labour Government of 1950 viewed rationing in the same way. Well, rationing did end eventually, though almost a decade after Peace in Europe was declared. And unlike in the early 50s, Her Majesty’s Opposition in 2021 is not demanding an end to emergency measures but pleading for their continuation, as Keir Starmer bleated yesterday. Even if they end on 19 July, don’t be surprised if their reintroduction is the default response to the next crisis; a precedent has been set.
© The Editor