Saturday, November 01, 2014

Forty years is a long time in politics

There is a story about the Soviet official who came on a visit to Britain and expressed his wish to meet the person responsible for seeing that enough bread was baked and delivered to London each day. He was astounded when he was informed that there was no such person.

But looking back four decades to the time when I was becoming interested in politics, it has to be admitted that the Britain of the era looks remarkably collectivist to modern eyes.

The press cutting above was tweeted by the Thatcherise account, which is replaying - 40 years on tot he day - the events surrounding Margaret Thatcher's election as Conservative leader in February 1975.

Because in November 1974 the prices of goods in British shops were controlled by the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. This short-lived government department that had two secretaries of state: Shirley Williams (1974-6) and Roy Hattersley (1976-9).

Consumer protection was on the up in 1970s - does anyone remember Richard Stilgoe and Nationwide's consumer unit - and it now seems a forward-looking movement.

By contrast, the idea of price control now seems extraordinary. And the National Archives sites spells out just this department's work in the area:
The Prices Policy Divisions were developed from the prices interests of the DTI's Prices and Incomes Division. One Division was concerned with general prices and counter inflation policy, especially in connection with the Price Code and the Price Commission; the other with price regulation and information, the administration of food subsidies, and the relationship between price control and industrial policy.
This is the sort of Labourism I grew up with. And, despite coming from a poor family, I never found it enticing.

And, as it turned out, Margaret Thatcher was right. Competition between supermarkets proved a far more effective way of keeping prices down than government control.

But the Thatcher era is now long gone too, and her views now sound almost as old fashioned. The travails of Tesco suggest that the supermarket era is over too. Certainly, here in Britain, dirigiste Labourism is far from our biggest worry - despite what some commentators would have us believe.

I guess the moral is that 40 years is a long time in politics - and 30 years is just as long.


Peter Harvey said...

Well yes, but it was a time of oil shocks and almost hyperinflation (heading for 30%), which meant that people lost all sense of prices and values, especially as it closely followed botched decimalisation, which had the same effect. Government intervention, which was ad hoc and temporary, prevented abuse by shopkeepers, publicans and the rest. There were also automatic pay rises linked to inflation.

Phil Beesley said...

The 1974 sugar shortage had different causes. Deals with Caribbean cane sugar producers broke down and the British Sugar Corporation (a quango) intervened on behalf of beet producers. There was not enough sugar for a while.

Local cafes ceased to put a bowl of sugar on the table, owing to theft. Consumers have not been trusted with the sugar bowl ever since. Fine Fare (who were they?) limited customers to one or two bags.

The 1975/76 potato price increase hit families hard too. UK government acknowledged in Hansard that it was an international problem.


"Mr. Freud: I realise that the Minister could not have foreseen the weather conditions or the potato shortage, but is he aware that the potato manufacturers in my constituency had to lay off a substantial number of people because the Minister was unwilling to issue a permit 2024 for the import of potatoes from Common Market countries? I am sure that it must cost the country much more to pay these people unemployment benefit.

Mr. Bishop: The hon. Member should not over-dramatise the situation. I am aware of the circumstances to which he refers, in his constituency, although these were due to other factors besides those which were apparent. The difficulty with the supply of potatoes for chips was limited to certain areas of the country, and we do not expect a recurrence of that situation in the future."

It seems that Mr Bishop did not understand that during WWII rationing, government ensured that everyone could buy a bag of chips.