Iniquity in Romford

Bernard Porter

  • Black Market Britain 1939-55 by Mark Roodhouse
    Oxford, 276 pp, £65.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 958845 9

Britons on the home front in the Second World War bore the sacrifices the war imposed on them without too much complaint. In particular they accepted the need for market controls and rationing, which were intended to constrain the demand for precious consumables, ensure their quality and allow them to be shared out equally. This in a society which before then had been notably inegalitarian, and whose dominant economic ideology had taught that anyone was entitled to what he or she could afford. For some, such as certain Chicago economists, the new self-restraint was difficult to understand: their model of ‘rational economic man’ didn’t seem to fit this case. To many people today, having gone through the purgative fires of Thatcherism, all that community spirit may seem too good – or too illogical – to be true, a myth. Historians have been quick to point out exceptions: instances of defeatism, disloyalty and people taking advantage of wartime conditions to loot, steal, cheat and kill undetected. ITV’s Foyle’s War is built on this. And then there was the black market in illicit goods and in food coupons, which were not supposed to be traded but were. Don’t these dent the myth to some extent? To a Chicago economist a black market is just a market. It shows ‘natural’ human propensities triumphing over state tyranny: compliance with wartime controls was an aberration. (Wartime America was much less obedient.)

Cartoon by David Langdon for ‘Punch’, November 1949.
Cartoon by David Langdon for ‘Punch’, November 1949.

Mark Roodhouse’s answer to the crude question of just how much black market activity there was in Britain, both during the war and in the period of postwar austerity, is that, though widespread, it was far less so than might have been expected, given the temptations open to people and the ease with which they could get away with it if they wanted t0. (The government didn’t have the resources to police it properly – there was a war on, after all.) It varied geographically: Roodhouse singles out Northern Ireland – both communities – and Romford in Essex as notorious centres of the ‘black’ trade. (Coming from Romford, I’m not surprised.) Elsewhere serious black marketeering was thin on the ground. It was also less harmful to Britain’s wartime economy than it could have been. Willing compliance with the regulations was the norm. Popular values trumped pure economic ones for most of the period. At the time, these values were taken to be patriotism and inbred British respect for the law. Roodhouse, however, has analysed both the black market and the resistance to it more systematically and in more empirical detail than anyone else has done – other studies tend to be either too theoretical or merely anecdotal – and shows that this was at best a simplistic way of looking at it.

The key is to discriminate between ‘black markets’. The term was understood rather loosely at the time. The government used it to discredit all illegal economic activity, from wholesale smuggling and coupon forgery – often attributed to organised crime syndicates (a bit of a myth, but it helped to vilify them) – to the minor fiddles of a figure like Lance Corporal Jones, the elderly butcher in Dad’s Army who slips the buxom Mrs Fox a couple of sausages on the side. (In his LRB Diary for 2002, Alan Bennett cited a letter from a Grantham evacuee reporting the rumour that Alderman Roberts was ‘thought to be into the black market’. It is tempting to imagine that this was where Thatcher learned her neoliberal ethics, but ‘a bit under the counter’ may have been all it amounted to.) Private Walker, the wide boy in Dad’s Army with his mysterious supplies of nylons, cigarettes and the like, and his dubious excuse for avoiding the call-up (an allergy to corned beef), came somewhere in between. Ordinary people, however, distinguished degrees of blackness, through various shades of ‘grey’ markets to ‘dirty white’. They were happy to obey some laws, but not others. The choice was personal. Was a particular regulation ‘fair’? If they felt it wasn’t, they flouted it. Since people had different needs, equality of sacrifice could itself be thought unjust. Some regulations seemed to make no sense, such as the rule that spare coupons should be returned to the government and couldn’t be swapped. That was a grey area: it could make no difference to the wider economy. The same applied to petty pilfering – of coal from slagheaps, say, or surplus items from the workplace – so long as it wasn’t of materials needed for the war, or from the pilferers’ neighbours. For many of the poorer working classes this had been an accepted way of life for years. Perhaps remembering the blatant profiteering that took place during the First World War, people also wanted to know if anyone was making money through the trade in pilfered goods. If they were, that made it very ‘black’. (Private Walker is a loveable rogue in Dad’s Army, but he probably wouldn’t have seemed so loveable at the time.)

Front page of the ‘Spivs’ Gazette’, March 1949.

Ministers turned a blind eye to much of this activity, not wanting to stir up any feelings of resentment that might detract from people’s ‘patriotism’. So did the courts (having juries helped). Sometimes judges had to be restrained: ex-colonial civil servants seem to have been the most vindictive. Sir Waldron Smithers, chairman of his local bench and described by one of his colleagues as ‘an extreme Tory out of a vanished age’ who was ‘not insensitive to the consoling effect of alcohol’, believed that anyone convicted of black market offences should be a) hanged; b) flogged; c) imprisoned for at least 14 years; d) have all his property confiscated; and e) be deprived of his citizenship. (‘Surely in reverse order!’ the home secretary commented.) Overzealous inspectors also had to be held in check if they employed ‘un-British’ methods like ‘snooping’ or posing as customers and acting as agents provocateurs. It wouldn’t do, another Conservative justice of the peace said, ‘to have to imitate totalitarian methods in order to vindicate democracy’. The police didn’t much like getting involved, for fear it would undermine the public’s trust in them. Some of us might regard this discriminating support for ‘fair’ laws, decently enforced, as a healthier national characteristic than ‘respect for the law’ tout court – especially a law imposed by the upper classes. (Roodhouse is right to draw attention to the overwhelmingly Tory make-up of the bench, even leaving aside the drunks and ex-colonials.)

Aware of the damage that even a hint of class favouritism might do to morale, the government went out of its way to make examples of rich and famous transgressors where it could. Roodhouse begins his account with a report of the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Ivor Novello for fiddling his petrol ration; his prosecution was covered widely in the press, as one would expect, and generally approved of even by his fellow artistes. Novello claimed that driving from Maidenhead to London to direct his musical shows was vital war work, and that he could hardly be expected to travel by train. At the time Noël Coward called this ‘selfish, pathetic triviality’, though he later fell foul of the regulations himself. So did Lady Astor, Lord Donegall and the army’s provost marshal, no less. It was a smart move by the authorities to target these figures. It was smart, too (though not mentioned here), to make such a play of the king’s and Churchill’s strict adherence to food rationing; though in Churchill’s case this was somewhat mitigated by a cook (married to a French chef) who could do wonders with spam, and regular gifts of caviar from Stalin. (You were allowed food parcels from abroad.)

In Germany, by contrast, rations were determined by one’s value to the Reich: the mentally handicapped and Jews were effectively starved, soldiers and factory workers did better, and Goering was allowed to stuff himself with whatever he fancied. Ordinary Germans resented that. It’s true that in Britain there were working-class mutterings over posh restaurants where the rich were able to scoff coupon-free: ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror declared a ‘Gutskrieg’ on this in 1941. But ordinary people had their works canteens and state-run British Restaurants, which didn’t take coupons either. The food was probably healthier there, if not so gastronomique. What Roodhouse calls ‘conditional co-operation’ prevailed.

*

One can understand this acquiescence at a time of total war, and in Britain rather than America, where the war impinged far less. What may seem more remarkable is that Attlee’s Labour government was able to continue with rationing well into the postwar years, even tightening it in 1947, to include bread for the first time. The new rationale was the nation’s desperate need to repair the huge economic and fiscal damage the war had done, by boosting exports at the expense of the domestic market. At first most people accepted this as a temporary measure – the signs of ruin were all around them, in the cities at least – but as time went on patience began to wear thin. The Conservatives, freed from the constraints of their wartime coalition with Labour, which many had felt uncomfortable with in any case (one junior minister thought he detected a ‘tinge of socialism’ about the ‘fair shares for all’ slogan they had all agreed to use), led the reaction, aided by big business and the mean-minded middle-class British Housewives’ League. They were intellectually stiffened by Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944; the Tory chairman, Ralph Assheton, sacrificed one and a half tons of the party’s paper ration to print 12,000 copies for distribution during the general election the following year. The main lesson they drew from Hayek was that rationing was the cause of the black market and thus of criminality – which is plausible. (It was clearly the case in prohibition America, and the argument is used in support of the liberalisation of drugs today.) It was at this point, with the blame lifted somewhat from his shoulders, that the wartime spiv began to metamorphose into Private Walker: less an unmitigated blackguard than a figure of fun. He even had his own comic walk, beautifully described by the writer Bill Naughton: ‘You stiffen the shoulders, and lift them a drop. And walk knowing you are walking. Fancy little style it is, and there’s no other walk just like it. It’s a mixture of pug and pansy.’ George Cole as Flash Harry in the St Trinian’s films epitomised it.

Mass Observation noted in 1947 that in the minds of many of its interviewees ‘peace meant the end of communal effort, neighbourliness and belief in a common cause.’ Others talked of ‘patriotic fatigue’. Individualism reared its head again. ‘Fairness’ dropped out of the common political vocabulary. Was this as a result of all that Tory propaganda, or a mere reversion to the ‘natural’ human state – Homo economicus? Or did the Mass Observers get it wrong? They were biased towards the middle classes, and it seemed that the working classes took longer to turn against rationing. Communitarianism must have persisted in one form or another, or Labour would have found it difficult to launch its great new welfare state over the following few years, and indeed with the broad acquiescence of the Conservatives for some time after that. (Churchill notoriously predicted before the 1945 election that a ‘Gestapo’ would be needed to bed it down: he may have got this idea from Hayek too.) The scale of that achievement can never be overstated. The time seemed wrong for it economically, with Britain horribly in debt. (Today, of course, debt is presented as a reason to cut welfare services.) But it may have been timed just right morally, in the afterglow of a wartime ‘patriotism’ that was defined in communal terms. Maybe Labour got its welfare state up and running just in time.

Almost everyone broke the rules to some extent in wartime and postwar Britain. But the system needed some wiggle room to keep it flexible and prevent it from shattering. Minor fiddles also helped you feel you were still a free agent – they could be ‘fun’ too (think of Whisky Galore!). Arguably, they may have helped prevent a serious and damaging black market taking hold, though the main factor here was the ‘we’re all in it together’ spirit that allowed the authorities to make sure that the rich behaved as well as the poor. The equivalent in the present crisis would be to come down properly on bonuses and big-money tax avoidance, and turn a blind eye towards minor ‘benefit cheats’. But the circumstances are a little different now: no bombs or craters; no Nazis, only bankers; no socialism. ‘We’re all Thatcherites now,’ according to David Cameron. ‘Patriotism’ doesn’t include community any more. Roodhouse doesn’t quite say that. But it’s one sobering inference to be drawn from this fascinating account of the place of crooks and fiddlers in an earlier and rather more heroic period of national ‘austerity’.