Wartime Britain – 1

The first time I read Juliet Gardiner’s excellent book Wartime Britain I wanted to learn about a period I had lived through as a child. The book clarified and documented things I had been vaguely aware of at the time, and reintroduced other aspects of this period. I have just reread the book and like all good historical works it allowed me to see these times in different ways. The one I want to comment on here is what happens when a predominantly market economy becomes subject to measures of central planning.

While some wartime production had started before 1939, after the declaration of war the British economy shifted to weapons output and to directing production of items like food, clothing a shelter to wartime needs. With a fully employed economy, which Britain soon became with military conscription, building more guns required reducing the supply of butter. Government planners had to decide what to produce for the armed forces and what for the civilian population. In turn this required allocating labour and materials to different needs. Two of the methods used were conscription of labour and rationing of civilian consumption, each of which illustrate the difficulties of planning. This is not to suggest that there was any obvious alternative to introducing some form of command economy.

Each type of economic activity presented different challenges for the planners and provided opportunities for black-markets to coexist with the controlled markets. There was money to be made by gaming the system and in turn the need for further controls to limit these effects. The television series Foyle’s War illustrates some of these side-effects.

Conscription of men and women

Men between certain ages were conscripted to join the military. Some who were too young falsified their age to join up, while others young enough pretended they were older in order to avoid call-up. The conscripts had to pass a medical exam and some were exempted because their skills were needed in factories for wartime production. At very short notice a screening mechanism was set up to assess the qualifications and attributes of those conscripted. Mistakes were made and with time people learned to game the system.

Women of a certain age were also conscripted into the forces, as well as for farm and factory work. The participation rate of women in the labour force rose during the war but gave rise to postwar problems when they were replaced by men demobbed from the forces.

Special arrangements were made for conscientious objectors (COs), those who refused to fight. They had to appear before boards set up to review their objections. The boards would often include retired military persons who were less than sympathetic to these requests. A few COs were excused altogether, some were directed to non-combat jobs such as medical orderlies, and some were sent to prison. It was an imperfect process but seemed to work and illustrated how some human rights were preserved even in extreme circumstances.

Rationing of food, clothing and gasoline

Ration cards for food were issued to all civilians. Not all items were rationed and those that were became subject to price controls. It was forbidden to swap or give rationed items like sugar and butter to others, but nothing to prevent someone baking a cake or pie including these ingredients and giving it to a neighbor. Absurdities like this abounded. Candies were rationed at so many ounces every two weeks. This lead many children to eat more candies than normal and rot their teeth. Beneficial effects resulted from the children receiving a weekly milk allowance. This improved the diets of many poorer children who as they grew up became taller and sturdier than their parents

Rationing is easy to administer if everyone is treated the same, but this cannot happen. Arrangements had to be made for vegetarians, people with religiously prescribed diets, pregnant mothers and others with special dietary needs. Younger people received lower amounts of some food items and all this had to be administered and enforced.

Initially food stores had to clip coupons from ration books, but this was seen to be an enormous waste of time and later on the coupons were stamped once used. What became clear is that something as vital as food rationing becomes a complex administrative process once it is recognized that the diversity of the recipients means that not everyone can be treated in the same way, and that once people are treated differently they will engage in transactions with each other.

Clothes rationing gave rise to designs that reduced the use of cloth such as the removal of cuffs from men’s trousers. Old clothes were kept in use much longer and items like socks were darned. Also people shared clothes in order to have some variety. Those in the forces were clothed in a common uniform and this simplified the production process for certain items.

Employment of volunteers

Volunteer organizations were created for people unable to serve in the military especially those over 50. The Home Guard was a voluntary organization staffed mainly by men who were prepared to assist the military in the event of invasion and during air raids. Everyone carried Identity Cards (I still have mine) and could be called on to produce it in public places. My father, who had served in WW1, was a member of the Home Guard and would man a local defense post certain nights of the week. At the same time he worked daily at an office in London. Women served in voluntary organizations to provide medical, health and other services. All of this required a degree of central planning with orders passed on down an organization.

There are many interesting stories of cock-ups but the surprising thing was how quickly a planning system was introduced and effectively dealt with unforeseen problems. No doubt, the recognition of a common enemy and the obvious threat posed lead people to cooperate in a manner that would not occur at other times. The allocation of people to the production and delivery of a wide range of goods and services meant that there was full employment including people who would normally be considered too old or infirm to work.

Gasoline rationing, through the use of coupons, meant that people carefully planned their journeys for shopping and other purposes. They shared rides so that it was much less likely to see only one or two people in a car. Bus and train transportation was used more frequently and civilians tended not to travel far from their homes. Bicycles and horses and carts were used to carry people and goods around. People quickly adapt to various constraints by adjusting their behavior.


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