17 April, The Spectator, Matt Ridley
In search of wisdom about how an officious government reluctantly relaxes its grip after an emergency, I stumbled on a 1948 newsreel clip of Harold Wilson when he was president of the Board of Trade. It’s a glimpse of long-forgotten and brain-boggling complexity in the rationing system. ‘We have taken some clothing off the ration altogether,’ he boasts, posing as a munificent liberator. ‘From shoes to bathing costumes, and from oilskins to body belts and children’s raincoats. Then we’ve reduced the points on such things as women’s coats and woollen garments generally and… on men’s suits.’
Does this remind you of anything? One day in November, George Eustice, the environment secretary, uttered the immortal words that a Scotch egg ‘probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service’, only for Michael Gove to say the next day that ‘a couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned’, later correcting himself to concede that ‘a Scotch egg is a substantial meal’. This is the sort of tangled descent into detail that central planning always causes. We have seen it again and again over the past year. What is essential travel? Is a picnic exercise? Can you go inside a pub to get to its outside space? Ask the man from the ministry.
Three years after the second world war ended, the government was still micromanaging the decisions of consumers. Incredibly, it was nine years of peace before rationing ceased altogether. Bread was rationed for the first time in 1946, potatoes in 1947. Only then did the slow liberalisation of shopping begin. Flour was derationed in 1948, clothes in 1949, petrol, soap, dried fruit, chocolate biscuits, treacle, syrup, jellies and mincemeat in 1950, tea in 1952, sweets in 1953, cheese and meat in 1954. The black market thrived.
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