William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

10
RATIONING AND RECONSTRUCTION

I

BEVERIDGE'S career in the Ministry of Food was to be personally significant in several ways. His experience as one of the chief architects of rationing and price control between 1916 and 1919 strongly influenced his subsequent views on the scope of state intervention in economic policy. The impact of this experience was crystallized in the mid-1920s when he wrote the official history of the Ministry of Food; and it was in his reflections on wartime food control that he first clearly articulated the growing mistrust of state-controlled welfare capitalism that was to characterize his thinking for much of the inter-war years. His work for the Ministry must therefore be seen in several distinct though interlocking dimensions. On one level, he was the impatient protagonist of governmental action, devising and sponsoring particular lines of policy. On another level, he was, or was trying to be, a detached professional historian, patiently recording facts and trying to extract general principles from a complex pattern of historical events. And, thirdly, for many years afterwards he tended to use food control as a crucible of personal experience -- a practical standard by which to measure the soundness and viability of social, economic, and political ideas.

The organization of food supplies, to which Beveridge was drafted in December 1916, was in many respects as controversial and explosive an issue as organization of labour. By 1914 nearly two-thirds of the food eaten in Britain was imported from abroad, and maintenance of these supplies was ultimately as important to the war programme as the supply of ammunition for British troops. Because of Britain's commanding naval position, however, it was not envisaged at the start of the war that feeding the civilian population would pose any serious logistical problems. Beveridge as a Board of Trade official had been concerned with drawing up a food price index in August 1914;1 but the Board's President, Walter Runciman, was firmly opposed to state interference in the food industry, and, when pressed to introduce statutory control of food supplies, he poured scorn on the notion of a

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1
BP, IIa, WHB to ASB, 13 Aug. 1914.

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