Iniquity in Romford
- 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.)
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.