A butcher during rationing, 1947. (Photo by NCJ/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The failure of central planning

It didn’t work in the late 1940s or the early 2020s

Artillery Row

“What was it like in the war?” was amongst the most frequent questions that we asked our parents and grandparents. Our children and grandchildren may well ask us: “What was it like during the pandemic?” Some comparisons have been made between the two emergencies. Others recoil at the notion of any possible equivalence of the heroism of those fighting to defend western civilisation in the Second World War, and those stuck at home watching Netflix for a few weeks: not working but on 80 per cent of their regular pay via the taxpayer-funded furlough scheme, the routine only broken by the occasional visit to a supermarket to panic buy lavatory paper.

It occurs to me that a more valid comparison to our lockdown episode came in the years just after the war, during the late 1940s. That was when the zeal for state control in a time of peace was unleashed to its greatest degree — until it was surpassed in 2020. Such was the determination of the Attlee Government to pursue “economic planning” that the response to each setback was to intensify the folly.

Astonishingly, rationing not only continued but became stricter in some respects — bread rationing was introduced, for instance. If rationing is good for the people in wartime, surely it must be good for them in peacetime, Clement Attlee argued.

Fair shares for all! “You are against food rationing? You don’t care if the poor starve?” Then as now, the fear of the proposed alternative was used to silence critics of the encroaching state. Don’t kill your gran, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock told young people in justification of the lockdown. In the 1940s the promise was that you could depend on the state “from cradle to grave”. In the 2020s it was the Government “wrapping our arms around the country”, with hundreds of billions for families and businesses whilst the economy was closed down.

With enough alarmism, pleas for restraint — for checks and balances, for costs being measured against benefits — can be quickly silenced. Any call to defend liberty as a matter of principle is presented as virtually insane.

Ordeal by Planning, an obscure volume by John Jewkes long since out of print, influenced Margaret Thatcher’s thinking. It provides a catalogue of some of the worst absurdities, the greatest intrusions into individual liberty, and the dishonest and contradictory justifications offered by politicians and officials for taking so much power away from the people.

It wasn’t just the nationalisation programme, significant though that was. Most of the economy remained in private ownership, but we had become capitalist in name only. Basic tools — the signal of the price mechanism, the profit motive, the spur of competition — were severely blunted.

With so many components to an economy, what hope can we have of regulations making sense? What businesses are essential, and what non-essential? Is a scotch egg a meal? Is a party a work event?

How could the Government have predicted just what would be needed?

Having imposed rules that proved unworkable, the politicians expect gratitude when they generously offer exemptions. Speaking at a Union Society debate at his alma mater Cambridge on 3 June 1947, a Labour Minister named Hugh Dalton recalled that the President of the Boat Club had told him that boats and oars were practically unavailable because of the export drive. “I am glad to say that, following a telephone conversation I had before leaving this evening, an exception is going to be made for the Olympic Games.” Hurrah! Dalton’s Ministerial colleague Edith Summerskill, meanwhile, announced in the House of Commons on 17 June 1947 that licences were to be issued to obtain wedding cakes free from price control for the celebration of golden weddings. Three cheers!

Another characteristic of the 1940s planner — which would resonate with the reader of lockdown Whatsapp messages leaked to the Daily Telegraph — is that rather than acknowledging and rectifying mistakes, the strategy is to keep them secret and deny everything. Too much of one thing was decreed under the plan, not enough of something else. Then when production ground to a halt, Herbert Morrison would say the “bottlenecks” were not his fault. How could the Government have predicted just what would be needed? Quite.

Nye Bevan would offer a housing programme of 240,000 new homes for 1947. Plenty of labour was directed to construction. Plenty of bricks were produced. There wasn’t anywhere near enough timber allocated, however. Houses were left half-built.

Manny Shinwell, the Fuel Minister, announced in 1947 that two-thirds of British industry was being suddenly closed down as there had been a mistake, and we hadn’t been producing enough coal. Whoops!

The Control of Engagement Order of 1947 decried “that employers shall not engage for employment men between the ages of 18 and 50, and women between the ages of 18 and 40, or seek to engage such persons, except through the Ministry of Labour exchanges”. You could only offer a job, or seek a job, through the direction of the state. It was all supposed to help achieve the various production targets of the planned economy.

Margaret Roberts, the Conservative candidate for Dartford, denounced it in letters to the Dartford Chronicle. She wrote of “a person who was negotiating direct with another employer for a better job. He was informed that such action was prohibited under the Order, that he would be required to secure his release from his present employment and apply through a labour exchange”.

“There was then no guarantee that the exchange would send him to the job he wanted, but they might direct him to another. He considered the risk of not getting the post too great, and is still in his present work.”

Attlee wasn’t going to take any notice of any backchat from these impudent youngsters. In a broadcast to the nation, he said:

Ask yourself if you are doing the sort of work that the nation needs in view of the shortage of labour. Your job may bring you in more money but be quite useless to the community. You may complain of the shortage of coal or houses, towels and underclothing. But have you any right to complain if you are content to do some better-paid but quite useless work?

Then and now we might well ask ourselves if our work is useful to others. I would suggest the market offers a better guide than the Prime Minister.

Officials had special powers to inspect private premises — or engage in entrapment

Another familiar problem of all these state restrictions was how to enforce them. During the Attlee terror, we needed snoopers to tip off the authorities against “the spivs and drones”. Also, officials had special powers to enter and inspect private premises — or they might engage in entrapment. The Evening News reported a case of a Hove restaurant proprietor accused of supplying meals over the five-shillings maximum. His barrister “submitted that it was a shocking thing that people employed by the Government should go into restaurants and deliberately attempt to bring about an offence”. A Food Ministry enforcement officer, Henry James Reed, and his typist Miss Dickinson went into Tommy Tucker’s Larder in Hove on 25 June 1946 and ordered meals costing a total of 14 shillings. Reed asked the waitress Mrs Pelham for trifle, and she said: “I’m not supposed to, but I’ll try to get you one.”

Then we had a report in the Times that a Mr Lewis was fined £2 for buying rabbits at a price exceeding the maximum. The divisional enforcement officer at the Ministry of Food admitted that, on the instructions of the Ministry, he had taken a dozen rabbits to the market. The defendant approached him and offered and paid him 2s 6d each for the rabbits.

One could go on, but I think we have enough to understand the spirit of the age in the late 1940s in this country. We know it all too well from what we saw imposed just three years ago.

Winston Churchill came back in 1951 with the slogan “Set the people free” and did abolish rationing — but I’m afraid there was still significant consensus for state restrictions. Economic planning was still fashionable in the 1960s. Enoch Powell was a trenchant but isolated critic, declaring: “Lift the curtain and ‘the State’ reveals itself as a little group of fallible men in Whitehall, making guesses about the future, influenced by political prejudices and partisan prejudices, and working on projections drawn from the past by a staff of economists.”

I’m too young to have lived through Attlee but after the extraordinary impositions of Boris Johnson, it’s so much easier to understand. In some ways the country continued — we had the monarchy, we had a parliament. “It’s a free country,” we would mutter to each other with an increasing sense of irony. Human nature being what it is, future generations will doubtless allow themselves to submit to similar ordeals.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover