A story from three generations ago

Most people in the UK and many outside it have heard of Harold Wilson, who was Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and then again from 1974 to 1976. Though (inevitably) a controversial figure, he is often regarded as one of the most successful Labour Prime Ministers of the post-war era.

In 1947, during an earlier Labour government under Clement Attlee, he was a junior minister (his title was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works) and one of his jobs was to consider a proposal from the Director-General of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (known as the FAO) that a World Food Board be created to increase price stability through food reserves. Both the UK and the US had doubts about the idea. But there is something striking about the debate in the UK parliament (as recorded in Hansard). It’s the the degree of understanding about the dangers of price fluctuations and the value of buffer stocks in dealing with them. The parliamentary debate is still worth reading, three generations on. Moreover, it is a debate in 1947 in the context of a slow recovery from a devastating war which had produced famine in certain parts of Europe and outside it. It may well be that the war following the Russian invasion of Ukraine will produce global consequences which will also lead to famine and food shortages.

The speech of the future Prime Minister in Parliament contains the following words about the situation before the Second World War:

I need not remind the House of the violent fluctuations in prices which occurred between the two wars… To take one or two examples. The price of wheat fell by over 50 per cent. between 1928 and 1932, sugar and butter by over 40 per cent., cotton and wool by between 60 per cent. and 70 per cent., oils and fats by about 50 per cent. More production only meant lower prices, and the Canadian epitaph was becoming more and more widely true: “Here lies the body of Farmer Pe

Much of Harold Wilson’s speech naturally focused on the problems of high prices for the consumer at a time when there was limited spending power after the war, and the need to introduce new farming methods that would increase production. But as the quotation above shows, he was also aware of the problem that low prices could create for the farmers themselves if they produced too much. They would not make a profit and could end up with a loss, and possible bankruptcy.

Harold Wilson went on to say that:

The British Government’s approach to this problem was one of full support to the idea of buffer stocks, such as was suggested by Sir John Boyd Orr, as a means of stabilising agricultural prices.

However, he went on to say that ‘we departed from Sir John Boyd Orr’s proposals in two respects.’ In the first place, he didn’t see why the proposals should be limited to food and agricultural products. In the second place, while accepting in principle that ‘we should have liked to see an international authority established, an international authority holding buffer stocks of appropriate commodities, buying whenever the market price fell below a certain level, selling whenever it rose above whatever ceiling price had been fixed in the agreement’, he felt that ‘a number of nations would not—and we and some others certainly could not—put up the dollars and other scarce currencies, which would be required in very great quantities as the initial capital for such a scheme, not to mention the quite considerable running costs of operating it.’

Such reservations were understandable in the immediate post-war years during a time when rationing was still in force and the UK was in desperate need of dollars for reconstruction. Boyd Orr’s proposals were perhaps too ambitious for their time. But if we move on three generations, to a time when far less ambitious proposals for national or regional reserves are being put forward by ACTION, there seems to be none of the confidence of the immediate post-war period in the value of buffer stocks, not least on the part of the FAO itself.

The immediate post-war period was a time of scarcity but also of determination to plan for the future. So much more could be done now in a time of relative plenty, if only the will and the courage were there.