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Chapter 3
HANDS OFF THE PEOPLE’S FOOD

This is a war-torn article, a convalescent article.

It is characteristic of the cheerful gallantry of the time that after being left for dead on Saturday evening this article should be able, in an only very slightly bandaged condition, to take its place in the firing-line again on Thursday morning.

It was first written late on Friday night; it was written in a mood of righteous excitement, and it was an extremely ineffective article. In the night I could not sleep because of its badness, and because I did so vehemently want it to hit hard and get its effect. I turned out about two o’clock in the morning and redrafted it, and the next day I wrote it all over again differently and carefully, and I think better. In the afternoon it was blown up by the discovery that Mr. Runciman had anticipated its essential idea. He had brought in, and the House had passed through all its stages, a Bill to give the Board of Trade power to requisition and deal with hoarded or reserved food. That was exactly the 24demand of my article. My article, about to die, saluted this most swift and decisive Government of ours....

Then I perceived that there were still many things to be said about this requisitioning of food. The Board of Trade has got its powers, but apparently they have still to be put into operation. It is extremely desirable that there should be a strong public opinion supporting and watching the exercise of these powers, and that they should be applied at the proper point immediately. The powers Mr. Runciman has secured so rapidly for the Board of Trade have to be put into operation; there must be an equally rapid development of local committees and commandos to carry out his idea. The shortage continues. It is not over. The common people, who are sending their boys so bravely and uncomplainingly to the front, must be relieved at once from the intolerable hardships which a certain section of the prosperous classes, a small section but an actively mischievous section, is causing them. It is a right; not a demand for charity. It is ridiculous to treat the problem in any other way.

So far the poorer English have displayed an amazing and exemplary patience in this crisis, a humility and courage that make one the prouder for being also English. Apart from any failure of employment at the present time, it must be plain to anyone who has watched the present rise of prices 25and who knows anything either at first hand of poor households or by reading such investigations as those of Mrs. Pember Reeves upon the family budgets of the poor, that the rank and file of our population cannot now be getting enough to eat. They are suffering needless deprivation and also they are suffering needless vexation. And there is no atom of doubt why they are suffering these distresses. It is that pretentious section of the prosperous classes, the section we might hit off with the phrase “automobile-driving villadom,” the “Tariff Reform and damn Lloyd George and Keir Hardie” class, the most pampered and least public-spirited of any stratum in the community, which has grabbed at the food; it has given way to an inglorious panic; it has broken ranks and stampeded to the stores and made the one discreditable exception in the splendid spectacle of our national solidarity.

While the attention of all decent English folk has been concentrated upon the preparations for our supreme blow at Prussian predominance in Europe, villadom has been swarming to the shops, buying up the food of the common people, carrying it off in the family car (adorned, of course, with a fluttering little union Jack); father has given a day from business, mother has helped, even those shiny-headed nuts, the sons, have condescended to assist, and now villadom, feeling a little safer, is ready with the dinner-bell, its characteristic instrument of music, to 26maffick at the victories it has done its best to spoil. And villadom promoted and distended, villadom in luck, turned millionaire, villadom on a scale that can buy a peerage and write you its thousands-of-pounds cheque for a showy subscription list, has been true to its origins. Lord Maffick, emulating Mr. and Mrs. Maffick, swept his district clean of flour; let the thing go down to history. Lord Maffick now explains that he bought it to distribute among his poorer neighbours—that is going to be the stock excuse of these people—but that sort of buying is just exactly as bad for prices as buying for Lord Maffick’s personal interior. The sooner that flour gets out of the houses of Lord Maffick and Horatio Maffick, Esquire, and young Mr. Maffick and the rest of them, and into the houses of their poorer neighbours, the better for them and the country. The greatest danger to England at the present time is neither the German army nor the German fleet, but this morally rotten section of our community.

Now it is no use scolding these people. It is no use appealing to their honour and patriotism. Honour they have none, and their idea of patriotism is to “tax the foreigner,” wave union Jacks, and clamour for the application to England of just that universal compulsory service which leads straight to those crowded, ineffective massacres of common soldiers that are beginning upon the German war-front. Exhortation may sway the 27ninety-and-nine, but the one mean man in the hundred will spoil the lot. The thing to do now is to get to work at once in every locality, requisitioning all excessive private stores of food or gold coins—they can be settled for after the war—not only the stores of the private food-grabbers, but also the stores of the speculative wholesalers who are holding up prices to the retail shops. Only in that way can the operations of this intolerable little minority be completely checked. Under every county council food committees should be formed at once to report on the necessities of the general mass and conduct inquiries into hoarding and the seizure and distribution of hoards, small and great.

Now this is a public work calling for the most careful and open methods. Food distribution in England is partly in the hands of great systems of syndicated shops and partly still in the hands of one-shop local tradesmen. It is imperative that the brightest light should be kept upon the operations of both small and large provision dealers. The big firms are in the control of men whose business successes have received in many instances marks of the signal favour and trust of our rulers. Lord Devonport, for example, is a peer; Sir Thomas Lipton is a baronet; they are not to be regarded as mere private traders, but as men honoured by association with the hierarchy of our national life on account of their distinguished share in the public food service. It 28will help them in their quasi-public duties to give them the support of our attention. Are they devoting their enormous economic advantages to keeping prices at a reasonable level, or are these various systems of syndicated provision shops also putting things up against the consumer? With concerted action on the part of these stores the most perfect control of prices is possible everywhere, except in the case of a few out-of-the-way villages. Is it being done? Nobody wants to see the names of Lord Devonport or Sir Thomas Lipton or the various other rich men associated with them in the food supply flourishing about on royal subscription lists at the present time; their work lies closer at hand. What we all want is to feel that they are devoting their utmost resources to the public food service of which they constitute so important a part. Let me say at once that I have every reason to believe they are doing it, and that they are alive to the responsibilities of their positions. But we must keep the limelight on them and on their less honoured and conspicuous fellow-merchants. They are playing as important and vital a part—indeed, they are called upon to play as brave and self-sacrificing a part—as any general at the front. If they fail us it will be worse than the loss of many thousands of men in battle. Let us watch them, and I believe we shall watch them with admiration. But let us watch them. Let us report their movements, ask 29them to reassure us, chronicle their visits to the Board of Trade.

I will not expatiate upon the possible heroisms of the wholesale provision trade. I do but glance at the possibility of Lord Devonport or Sir Thomas Lipton, after the war, living, financially ruined, but glorious, in a little cottage. “I gave back to the people in their hour of need what I made from them in their hours of plenty,” he would say. “I have suffered that thousands might not suffer. It is nothing. Think of the lads who died in Belgium.”

By all accounts, the small one-shop provision dealers are behaving extremely well. In my own town of Dunmow I know of two little shopkeepers who have dared to offend important customers rather than fulfil panic orders. They deserve medals. In poor districts many such men are giving credit, eking out, tiding over, and all the time running tremendous risks. Not all heroes are upon the battlefield, and some of the heroes of this war are now fighting gallantly for our land behind grocers’ counters and in village general shops, and may end, if not in the burial trench, in the bankruptcy court. Indeed, many of them are already on the verge of bankruptcy. The wholesalers have, I know, in many cases betrayed them, not simply by putting up prices, but by suddenly stopping customary credits, and this last week has seen some dismal nights of sleepless worry in the little bedrooms 30over the isolated grocery. While we look to the syndicated shops to do their duty, it is of the utmost importance also that we should not permit a massacre of the small tradespeople. A catastrophe to the small shopkeeper at the present time will not only throw a multitude of broken men upon public resources, but leave a gap in the homely give-and-take of back-street and village economies that will not be easily repaired. So that I suggest that the requisitioned stocks of forestalling wholesalers—there ought to be a great bulk of such food-stuff already in the hands of the authorities—shall be sold in the first instance at wholesale prices to the isolated shopkeepers, and not directly to the public. Only in the event of a local failure of duty should the direct course be taken.

It must be remembered that the whole of the present stress for food is an artificial stress due to the vehement selfishness of vulgar-minded prosperous people and to the base cunning of quite exceptional merchants. But under the strange and difficult and planless conditions of to-day quite a few people can start a rush and produce an almost irresistible pressure. The majority of people who have hoarded and forestalled have probably done so very unwillingly, because “others will do it.” They would welcome any authoritative action that would enable them to disgorge without feeling that somebody else would instantly snatch what they had surrendered 31and profit by it. It is for that reason that we must at once organise the commandeering and requisitioning of hoards and reserved goods. The mere threat will probably produce a great relaxation of the situation, but the threat must be carried out to the point of having everything ready as soon as possible to seize and sell and distribute. Until that is done this food crisis will wax and wane, but it will not cease; if we do not carry out Mr. Runciman’s initiatives with a certain harsh promptness food trouble will be an intermittent wasting fever in the body politic until the end of the war.

And the business will not be over at the end of the war. The patience of the common people has been astonishing. In countless homes there must have been the extremest worry and misery. But except for a few trivial rows, such as the smashing of the windows of Mr. Moss, at Hitchin, who was probably not a bit to blame, an attack on a bakery somewhere, and some not very bad behaviour in the way of threats and demonstrations on the part of East End Jews, there has been no disorder at all. That is because the people are full of the first solemnity of war, eagerly trustful, and still—well nourished.

At the end unless the more prosperous people pull themselves together it will not be like that.



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