‘Profiteer’ was coined as a verb during the Napoleonic Wars and a noun in the First World War, when ‘illegal profiteering’ by opportunist ‘unscrupulous dealers’, the Times reported, proliferated in ‘aggravated form’. A Royal Proclamation of 31 August 1917 prohibited the import of bacon, butter, hams and lard except under government licence. Profiteering Acts were passed in 1919 and 1920, and newspapers reported on the plans of housewives’ unions to ‘beat the profiteering tradesman’.
Hansard shows another spike in the use of the word ‘profiteering’ in Parliament during the Second World War. It didn’t peak again until March 2020, as MPs woke up to the global emergency of Covid-19. ‘In all emergencies there is profiteering,’ Labour’s Liam Byrne warned, ‘and in countries such as the United States, where it has been prevalent for a long time, two thirds of states have legislation in place to stop profiteering. We need it here now because it is hitting the poorest communities hardest now.’ His colleague Nick Thomas-Symonds added: ‘The imperative is to protect everyone and support them in this time of peril. We ask people to make sacrifices and we must support them, too.’ Within weeks, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment firm was accused of profiteering from the virus, advising clients that the crisis was a ‘once in a generation’ chance to make ‘super normal returns’.
Last month, when a private company that had apparently been exploiting the vulnerable entirely legally came under public scrutiny for cutting one corner (or carrot) too many, the distinction between profiting and profiteering – which implies that profits bear some sort of relation to moral accountability – was also called into question. The Public Accounts Committeeconcluded in a report published today that the Department for Education was ‘surprisingly unconcerned’ about whether the company contracted to run the scheme ‘was profiting … at taxpayers’ expense’. According to the committee chair, the ‘government’s failure to learn from its repeated contracting mistakes, over and over, large and small, is costing this nation too dear.’
Profiteering peaks in times of war. Resources decline as the number of vulnerable increases, and there is no shortage of unscrupulous opportunists. The UK is not at war now, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was. The government and its cheerleaders in the media, heavily invested in renewed myths of British imperial greatness, have had us at war with the virus for what will soon be a year (for the Telegraph, to acknowledge the dangers of Covid was to detract from Britain’s national character: ‘Once upon a time we were Blighty not Frighty’), and they seem anxious to stage war with our nearest neighbours, too. December’s threat to deploy Royal Navy ships in the Channel to protect British fish from (other) Europeans has given way to this month’s undignified squabbling over vaccine doses (with Brussels briefly behaving as badly as Westminster), while Europe’s former colonies in the Global South struggle to secure a fraction of what they need.
Dido Harding told the Commons Science and Technology Committee this week that 2500 consultants were working on her ineffective Test and Trace programme (not linked to local public health or GPs), earning an average of £1100 a day each, while the NHS is now historically underfunded with an underlying deficit of around £3 billion.
While profiteers have been sending out pitiful portions of what appears to be tuna in a coin bag for free school lunches, fish have been rotting on the docks and seafood lorries have parked near Downing Street. Fish are easy prey for nationalists, as Rees-Mogg’s unfunny joke in the Commons last month demonstrates; but fish and chips, Great Britain’s national dish, exempted from rationing by Churchill, was a meal brought to England by Jewish refugees in the late Victorian period, melding Jewish and Catholic observance on Fridays.
In the First World War, Thomas Hardy was drawn into adjudicating on food profiteering cases brought by the Dorchester Food Control Committee, sitting as a magistrate. He recorded in his diary that it was ‘the only war-work I was capable of’, and told his friend Florence Henniker, a fellow writer, that, since he was ‘detached from & uninfluenced by local interests’, his impartiality was assured.
In the summer of 1914, Hardy had been summoned by the War Propaganda Bureau to a secret meeting of writers at Wellington House. He recalled ‘the streets hot and sad, and bustling with soldiers and recruits’. Arnold Bennett noted in his diary:
Masterman in the chair. Zangwill talked a great deal too much. The sense was talked by Wells and Chesterton. Rather disappointed in Gilbert Murray, but I like the look of little R.H. Benson … Thomas Hardy was all right.
Hardy had consistently opposed war. In 1900, during the Second Boer War, he told Henniker (married to a major in the Coldstream Guards) that he was ‘happy to say that not a single one’ of his ‘effusions’ on war was ‘Jingo or Imperial – a fatal defect according to the judgment of the British majority at present, I dare say’. In 1906 he signed a letter to the Times, drafted by G.B. Shaw, affirming British and German solidarity. It was a companion to a letter from Germany, published above it, which expressed the view that ‘the future and fulness of European civilisation’ depended to a great extent on the continuance of this intimacy between the Germans and British. The signatories, forty-one ‘distinguished representatives of Science, Literature, and Art’, included A.C. Bradley, two of Darwin’s children (Francis and George), Edward Elgar,the Pre-Raphaelite model Jane Morris, and the novelists Margaret L. Woods and Israel Zangwill (Shaw did not sign the shorter, published version). They declared themselves ‘annoyed and misrepresented … by the affected belligerency of some of our journalists’, while the German letter called on scientists, artists and thinkers, ‘and on the British Press, as the leader of British feeling and opinion, to discountenance … prejudice’.
During the war, coming after his epic poem on the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts (1904, 1906 and 1908), which he had first called ‘Europe in Throes’, Hardy wrote against anti-German sentiment, consistently resisting the nationalist grain, referring in December 1914, in a letter to the American poet Amy Lowell, to ‘this hideous European tragedy’ and remarking that he considered the German people to be ‘the victims of an unscrupulous military oligarchy’. German prisoners of war stationed in Dorset came to help enlarge the kitchen garden at Max Gate. ‘I am told that thousands of these prisoners are craving agricultural work,’ Hardy observed. ‘Nothing has made me feel more sad about the war than the sight of these amiable young Germans in such a position through the machinations of some vile war-gang or other.’ He regretted that ‘they get only 1d an hour each of the 6d each that I pay.’
‘Everyone believes in the war,’ Siegfried Sassoon wrote to him in 1916 from the battlefields of France, ‘except the man in the shell hole.’
On the bench, Hardy convicted one butcher for overcharging, one for not posting his prices, one for violating slaughtering regulations, and two for buying and selling without ration coupons. But these were men who came from the same community, if different ranks, in an actual world war. The food profiteering and other corruption we are now seeing is not only state-sanctioned but state-led, on an industrial scale, and surely lays claim to be world-beating.