John FitzGerald: UK ‘sweet famine’ teaches us sour restriction lesson

Moving from universal curbs to those that exclude only some must be carefully handled

When the UK government finally began to ease rationing in 1949, it ran into serious problems. Photograph: iStock

When the UK government finally began to ease rationing in 1949, it ran into serious problems. Photograph: iStock

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During the height of the pandemic, the drastic restrictions placed on our behaviour were widely accepted. The common danger which we faced helped develop the “we are all in it together” spirit of solidarity. However, exiting from lockdown is a much more difficult path than was the imposition of restrictions and, after a year of lockdowns, tempers are inclined to fray.

This experience of managing the pandemic has parallels with managing rationing during the second World War. Nobel economist, James Tobin, looking back at the wartime rationing regimes, suggested that other instruments could have achieved government objectives with less economic disruption. However, he also concluded that “the feeling of sharing equally in an emergency situation may be more important for . . . welfare than the individual incentives and choices”.

As is the case with Covid lockdowns, the imposition of rationing in Ireland and the UK during the 1939-45 World War was widely accepted as fair, although equally there was some grumbling about the impact on everyday life. However, there were also some “Golfgate” moments. A book about war-time austerity in the UK by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska reports that on March 31st, 1942, the London Stock Exchange auctioned a hoard of sweets for charity, raising £80,000. The next day the food inspectorate levied a fine of £238,000, ultimately payable by the chancellor of the exchequer, for selling unrationed sweets. The reaction in the media to the diligent inspectors was unkind, suggesting the auction should have been held a day later on April 1st.

Rationing and redistribution

At the end of the war, the Irish government phased out rationing relatively rapidly. However, in the UK rationing continued until the 1950s. The extended period of rationing in the UK was attributable to two key factors that did not weigh on Irish ministers.

The Labour government saw rationing as a major instrument of redistribution, continuing a world where everyone consumed the same amount of butter or clothes. However, as Tobin showed, using the tax and welfare system to redistribute resources would have been much more effective.

The UK also faced a huge government debt crisis. Instead of raising taxes to limit consumption of imported goods that could not be afforded, they relied on rationing access to goods.

However, while wartime solidarity had led to acceptance of rationing, the public were much more negative about its continuation in peacetime. Women in particular resented what they saw as unnecessary and onerous restrictions.

When the UK government finally began to ease rationing in 1949, it ran into serious problems. In March 1949, adults were surveyed to assess how much sweets they would buy if rationing was ended. On this basis the government estimated that the supply of sweets was adequate, and rationing ended on April 25th, 1949 – an event reported in The Irish Times in a story headlined “Lollipop Land”.

Adults vs children

What the UK government had forgotten was that the vast majority of sweets were bought by children, who had not been surveyed. With full piggybanks after a decade of austerity, children went out to feast on the Sunday that rationing ended. However, demand so far outstripped supply that, by May, The Irish Times was reporting on a “sweet famine” in the UK. The Manchester Guardian noted an orgy of spending on sweets. Another newspaper questioned how long it would be before children would get sick from an excess of toffees, bringing demand back into line with supply. In the end, the UK government had to reintroduce sweet rationing in August 1949, leaving many disgruntled voters and an even bigger number of cross children.

The persistence of the rationing regime in the UK long after the war proved very unpopular, helping the Conservatives win the 1951 election.

The lessons of the past suggest that a botched reopening can be exceptionally damaging and wildly unpopular. If today’s British government is forced by pressures on the health service to reverse its headlong decision to end all restrictions, the population may be very unforgiving.

A further lesson is that moving from universal restrictions to selective reopening that excludes some groups needs to be very carefully handled. The 1949 UK government overlooked the fact that children were the primary consumers of gumdrops. Today, the planned reopening of indoor hospitality to the vaccinated and older cohorts leaves out a large group of young adults who are the main customers for pubs and casual restaurants. Socialising outside the home is often the only option for Generation Rent and houseshare. Lockdown has been tough on them; rapid vaccination will be essential.

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