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the rich had but little difficulty in getting as much as they wanted-and in getting it at the arbitrary low prices fixed by the late Chancellor of the Exchequer. A poor woman would certainly prefer to pay even a shilling a pound for a small quantity of sugar than to be turned away from the shop, prevented by the supreme wisdom of Cabinet ministers from obtaining a single ounce. At the same time, all the confectioners' shops in London and provincial towns were doing a roaring trade in expensive sweetmeats. If Mr. McKenna had followed the common-sense course of increasing the price of sugar sold by the Government-or what amounts to the same thing, increasing the tax upon sugar—there would have been considerable economy in total consumption, the extravagant would have been compelled to pay more for their luxuries, while the poor would at any rate have obtained some sugar.
It may be argued that the hardships of the very poor could have been avoided by a more scientific system of rationing, giving each individual the right to draw a specified quantity of sugar each day or each week. People who talk light-heartedly about rationing have apparently never paused to reflect upon the hardships which all classes would suffer if a strict system of rationing were attempted. In a country which is in a state of siege like Germany these hardships may be inevitable. But a country which is able to import in one month, as we did in the month of December 1916, food, raw materials, and manufactured articles to the aggregate value of £75,000,000 is not in a state of siege, and it would be sheer madness voluntarily to inflict upon ourselves the hardships which the British Navy and the German bureaucracy are together inflicting upon the German people. The mere economic waste of the German system is alone appalling to contemplate
- long queues of people who ought to be at work waiting instead for hour after hour for the chance of receiving some minute ration of food. The attempt to establish any real system of rationing in the United Kingdom at the present time would certainly provoke dangerous rioting in all the principal centres of population.
In a community enjoying a high average of prosperity and traditionally disinclined to submit to official regulations the only workable way of limiting the consumption of staple commodities is to raise prices. If market conditions do not themselves operate sufficiently in this direction it is the duty of the Government to aid the market by imposing heavy taxation so as to compel—as far as possible—all classes to cut down their current consumption of commodities, which may in the future be even scarcer than at present. At the same time pecuniary assistance ought to be given to the really poor, so that they may be able to procure the necessaries of life. By this double operation demand is reduced and revenue gathered in, without the infliction of excessive hardship on any class.
The question of increasing supplies is more difficult. In view of the activity of German submarines we must anticipate still further difficulties in the importation of food-stuffs from abroad, and some writers have rather hastily jumped to the conclusion that we must therefore concentrate all our efforts on increasing the supply of home-grown food. Taken by itself that would be a counsel of 'despair. It is quite impossible to produce within the British Isles the whole of the food necessary to feed our present population. Therefore, measures for facilitating the importation of food are quite as important as measures for increasing home production : both are essential. The question of imports is to a very large extent a problem for the Navy. It may be assumed that our naval officers are doing their utmost to hunt down German submarines by every available method. But our losses in ships are admittedly heavy, and therefore we are compelled to build new ships as rapidly as possible. Very wisely the new Government has set to work upon the construction of standardised steamers which can be turned out rapidly and at a reduced cost. The difficulty here, as in almost every direction, is the labour problem. So many men have been absorbed by the needs of the Army that it is not easy to find enough skilled engineers to build the ships required.
The same difficulty arises in a more extensive form in connexion with the work which ought to be undertaken at once for the increase of our supply of home-grown food. Here the problem is not to get skilled labour but to get a sufficiency of unskilled labour. A very great deal of the work which has to be done on the land is work which any man or woman or child can learn in a few hours. It may not be out of place here to record an experiment made last year in planting twenty acres of land with potatoes. Small schoolgirls, who had never been on the land before, were employed in two batches, each working for only half a day and paid 4d. an hour. The work was very rapidly done, and at no greater cost to the farmer than in previous years when men had been employed. Although thousands of women drawn from all classes are working as hard as they can—some, indeed, probably much too hardthere remain many women who are doing little or nothing in the way of actual work. This is by no means always their fault. Old-fashioned prejudices which have limited in the past the range of women's work are still operative and prevent patriotic women from doing work which they would gladly undertake.
Beyond this is the question of wages. Agricultural work is exhausting and often unpleasant. Therefore, if women are to be attracted to it they ought to be offered a decent wage. But there is no point on which the average English farmer is so emphatic as in his dislike to any departure from the custom which condemns agricultural labourers to receive lower wages than almost any other class in the community. Even those farmers who have been forced by economic pressure to raise the wages of the men they employ, still boggle at paying a moderate wage to women. Admittedly for most farm work women are inferior to men ; but there are certain forms of farm work, such as milking, which in the judgment of many farmers can be better done by women than by men. Yet a farmer, who will frankly admit the excellence of his women milkers, is content to pay them 145. a week for seven full days' work. Simultaneously, the Government is offering to any kind of girl clerical work in London at a minimum of 255. a week, plus overtime payments and easy-going discipline. In passing it may be remarked that the country has not yet realised the enormous waste of public money and female energy daily going on in the gigantic hotels which the Government has taken over for the use of the multitudinous new bureaucracies which it is building up. It would be far better if many of the girls now playing at clerical work in these great offices were employed instead upon the land. But it is unfair to expect young women to undertake heavy farm work under unpleasant conditions for the miserable wages now offered.
Unfortunately the late Government by fixing a maximum price for milk has provided farmers with an excuse for continuing to offer low wages to women employed in the dairy industry, with the result that the necessary labour is not forthcoming. The milk industry is one of the most important of our home industries, and there is no reason in the nature of things why it should not be conducted on such lines as will enable it to pay adequate wages to the persons employed. Neither in peace time nor in war time is it just to ask women to work for 25. a day in the cowshed in order that other women employed in factory or office at double or treble that wage may be able to buy cheap milk. The real difficulty in this case arises with the children of the very poor who suffer if they cannot be supplied with a sufficiency of fresh milk. Here again we come back to the problem of poverty. In passing it may be remarked that so far as farm wages rise they tend to force up the wages of other underpaid classes in the community. But such tendencies may work very slowly. In the meantime the problem of supplying cheap milk to the children of the very poor has to be faced, and probably the best way of dealing with it is by authorising the local authorities to supply milk to necessitous families at a reduced price, the difference being met out of rates. The essential point is to do nothing arbitrarily to depress prices. Not only does the producer of milk require an increased margin of profit in order to meet the necessity for raising farm wages, but the price of all feeding stuffs is rising rapidly, and if the farmer cannot pay the increased prices he will not get the feeding stuffs. Already indeed as a reply to the fixing of milk prices and the proposed fixing of prices for other home-grown food the farmers are demanding that the prices of feeding stuffs and fertilisers should also be fixed. In the case of imported commodities this is impossibleunless the Government is to constitute itself the sole importer, and after buying outside at the top market price is to sell at home at a loss.
This indeed is what the French Government has done in the case of wheat. In order to keep down the price of bread, maximum prices were fixed for home-grown wheat, with the result that some farmers used wheat for feeding their stock, others grew less wheat than before, while the additional wheat required for the consumption of the French people has had to be imported by the French Government and sold at a heavy loss. Socialists in this country, who contrast the steady price of bread in France with the rise here, are probably unaware that the simple explanation of the phenomenon is that the French taxpayer is subsidising the French bread-eater. It may be legitimate, as urged above, that the very poor should be helped in the present grave emergency with a subsidy to enable them to cope with war prices ; but it is sheer folly for the State to supply the rich and the well-to-do with bread below cost price. In the present condition of French finance this piece of political eye-wash makes a heavy addition to the burden of debt which will rest upon future generations of Frenchmen. Unfortunately there is reason to
fear that the new Government of the United Kingdom is inclined to proceed along a similar path. The most important proposal yet made by Mr. Prothero, the new Minister of Agriculture, is that the State should buy up all wheat grown in the United Kingdom in the current year at the fixed price of 6os. a quarter for wheat of a specified standard. A similar bargain is offered to British and Irish farmers for the oats and potatoes they grow. It may be said at once that this proposal is at any rate better than a crude fixing of maximum prices. There is indeed no necessary conflict between such a proposal and the law of supply and demand. In its essence this scheme is a gigantic speculation by the State with the money and credit of the nation. It may turn out well; it may turn out badly. But already the terms of the proposed bargain have been subjected to very serious criticism. At the very time when Mr. Prothero is offering 6os. a quarter for wheat grown in the coming harvest, wheat is selling in the market at 80s. Many farmers have already expressed with emphasis their opinion that the offer is not good enough. In particular it is pointed out that though 6os. would doubtless be a profitable price on good wheat land it will not suffice to recoup the farmer in one year for the cost of breaking up new land. From this point of view there is much more to be said in favour of the scheme, attributed to the committee appointed by the late Government, that the State should guarantee to British and Irish farmers a price of 45s. for five years. Similar criticisms are made of the terms offered for oats and potatoes. In the case of potatoes it is argued by farmers that the price offered by the Government will hardly cover the cost of seed. Such criticisms are inevitable the moment the Government enters into the market as a speculator.