Eat Out for Victory
Not long after war broke out in 1939, plots of land across Britain were repurposed into ‘victory gardens’. There would eventually be 1.4 million of them. The immaculate lawns of private schools and Oxbridge colleges were dug up, as were public parks, school playing fields, flower beds, and parcels of ground in the middle of cities, where flagstones were wrenched out so the packed earth underneath could be tilled. The soil was often poor, and fertiliser was in high demand, especially in cities. Horse manure was scarce, so pig and rabbit excrement were often used instead. Tons of pigeon droppings were scraped from the inside of a church in Holland Park and shared out among gardeners across the borough of Kensington.
The name of the campaign – ‘Dig for Victory’ – came from the last line of a leader in the Evening Standard, probably written by a 26-year-old Michael Foot. The aim of the scheme was to reduce Britain’s reliance on imports, improve the supply of nutritious food to supplement rationing, and boost morale by getting people outdoors and engaged in physical labour.
This month, the government is inviting us to do our bit to stave off the Covid-19 recession by taking part in another food-related campaign, ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. The motivational tag-line is deliberately reminiscent of the bright slogans of wartime solidarity. The scheme, which gives diners up to £10 off their weekday sit-in meals throughout August, was conceived by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, whose proximity to Boris Johnson during the pandemic has lent him an air of striking comparative competence. Sunak’s idea is to save the hospitality industry and those whose livelihoods depend on it by encouraging people to overcome their fears of contagion and share an evening’s air with a room of other diners in a necessarily maskless space. More than 35 million discounted meals have been claimed in the scheme’s first two weeks. So far this year over 22,000 restaurant workers have lost their jobs.
The day after the scheme was launched I got an email from the Vietnamese chain restaurant Pho: ‘We're splitting the bill with Rishi on our entire food menu.’ Even setting aside the partisan chumminess, it’s an odd claim, since neither the restaurant nor the chancellor is funding any part of these meals: we’re paying half from our pockets, and the other half through our taxes. And many of us would rather have seen £500 million of public money used for something more equitable than a treat for higher-earners. Around seven million people in the UK don't have access to sufficient nutritious food, and food bank use has doubled in recent months. According to a government report published last month, the national food supply is insecure in the face of the threats posed by the pandemic, Brexit and climate change.
It’s often seen through a haze of nationalist nostalgia, but ‘dig for victory’ was a radical, subversive campaign. Public land was turned over to communities so they could be more self-sufficient and meet their needs off-grid, outside the system. In 1939, Britain imported 75 per cent of its food and grew only 25 per cent; by the end of the war, those percentages were reversed. (Today, imports account for 80 per cent of what we eat.) Dig for Victory emphasised the use-value of land and food, and temporarily reinstated something resembling ancient rights of commons. Rationing and victory gardens meant that the diets of the middle and working classes converged, nutrition was strong across the board, and meat consumption was vastly reduced without an attendant reduction in protein, thanks to the increased reliance on home-grown pulses.
Forty-four years after championing victory gardens, in 1983 Foot lost a general election on a socialist manifesto famously described by Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. It was during a severe economic recession. Foot’s pledges, to which Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto is often compared, included a ‘new deal’ for council tenants, ‘ending mass unemployment’, ‘eliminating poverty among disabled people’, and ‘a more humane and responsive service’ for benefit claimants. It anticipated criticisms: ‘Where will the money come from?’ the manifesto asked. The answer was oil revenues, savings on unemployment benefit, domestic rather than overseas investment, ‘and some of it will be borrowed, Mrs Thatcher’s dirty word.’ Borrowing, the manifesto said,
is what every intelligent government since the war in Britain has done – including even Conservative governments. Borrowing in that sense is what has been done by other governments in this world slump who have kept their unemployment much lower than ours – and their inflation rates low too.
Voters were unpersuaded. The spectre of Labour borrowing – Denis Healey going ‘cap in hand’ to the IMF in 1976 – continues to haunt British politics. Before the 2010 election, George Osborne promised to be ‘tougher than Margaret Thatcher’ in dealing with the budget deficit. ‘There is no alternative’ to austerity, David Cameron said in 2013, echoing Thatcher’s catchphrase. Last November, Sajid Javid said Corbyn would ‘open up a huge black hole in the nation’s finances.’ As GDP fell and borrowing rose during the first months of the pandemic, the national debt in May exceeded the size of the economy for the first time since 1963. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme is supposed to help ‘spur the country’s economic recovery from coronavirus’ as part of the government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’.
‘We all have to die sooner or later,’ the Daily Mail columnist (and Michael Gove’s wife) Sarah Vine tweeted on 2 August.
If I get Covid and cop it, so be it. My time has come. I’ll have had a good life, better than most in this world at any rate. I certainly don’t expect the entire nation to bankrupt itself to save my sorry ass.
Vine was widely and rightly condemned for her callousness, but she was merely paraphrasing the government’s Covid-19 exit strategy: to try to resuscitate the economy by putting our roles as workers and consumers ahead of our lives.
There is always an alternative. Economies are for people, and the government’s priority should be to ensure that as many of us as possible survive the pandemic without being ravaged by grief and poverty. Bribing people to congregate during a pandemic and spend money so that others don’t starve is the mark of an economic system that doesn’t work, and a government that lacks the imagination to do better.