This short reminiscence does not seek to describe the occasional petrol shortage, real, imagined or contrived, that has beset this country from time to time. Many of us can remember the queues round the block, the fights at filling stations, and the woman who queued for hours to replenish the half litre that she had used to drive from her house to the petrol pumps. My intention is to describe the Great Sugar Shortage that is part of the history of Harold Wilson's Golden Days, and the subsequent but by no means inevitable shortages of other commodities.
The sugar shortage came about when two events coincided. The first was a failure of the German sugar beet crop that was due to unsuitable weather and disease. The second was that the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement was up for renewal. The system was that the British Government, anxious to promote the stability and prosperity of the newly independent cane sugar producing countries in the Caribbean, would purchase an agreed amount of sugar at a fixed price over a fixed period. Now that the review date had come round, the producers' governments wanted to to take advantage of the high price caused by the beet sugar shortage, while the British Government, representing the consumers, did not wish to commit in the long term to a high price that would probably be only temporary.
[A digression. Napoleon, because of the Royal Navy's blockade of the continental ports, offered a large reward to anyone who could find a commercially viable way of extracting sugar from beet. The prize was won by a German chemist. The effect was to reduce the price of sugar permanently, including the price of slave-produced cane sugar. Thus the profitability of the West Indies sugar plantations was reduced, and hence the value of slave labour. One does not wish to decry the noble efforts of the anti-slavery campaigners, but one cannot admire the sanctimoniousness of the British Parliament in abolishing slavery. The slave-owners, by the way, were recompensed by an amount representing approximately half a year's government income; this they invested in the Chinese opium trade.]
While discussions were in progress, there was a genuine shortage of sugar in British shops. Notices were placed outside: “No Sugar”. Customers were being limited to two pounds at a time. That is usually how much sugar anyone would normally purchase anyway. But people were dashing from shop queue to shop queue. My friend's wife, H, was still using sugar purchased during the shortage when she died some forty years later. One bedroom had been converted into a sugar store. It might have been safer if she had stored gunpowder instead! It must be remembered that Britain has a considerable sugar beet industry of its own. I have seen huge trucks nose to tail waiting to discharge their loads of beet into the gigantic processing plant at Raunds in Northamptonshire.
Eventually the Government reached a new agreement with the producers; the new German harvest was plentiful; and prices came down. However, nobody was buying sugar because they had all bought huge quantities during the panic.
A columnist in a provincial newspaper, attempting to satirise public behaviour during the sugar shortage, wrote a column predicting that there was going to be a salt shortage because the Siberian salt miners had gone on strike. That story “went viral” as we say these days. People would queue for hours if they heard that a shop had had a delivery. Yet how often does anybody buy salt? Salt supplies in this country are mostly got from Cheshire. Water is pumped into underground salt deposits, the resulting solution is pumped back out, and the salt is recovered by evaporation. You can pay a lot more for “sea salt”, but the Cheshire salt deposits must have been sea salt once.
Anyway, the Cheshire manufacturers went over to twenty-four-hour production, and shiploads were imported, until everybody had so much salt that they did not know what to do with it. Most of it ended up being flung on footpaths the following winter.
That is not the end of the story. A humorist in a parish magazine suggested that the mass panic caused by the previous shortages would have caused a loosening of public bowels, and that there would consequently be a run on toilet paper. Facetious? No, it was taken deadly seriously. For several weeks it became almost impossible to obtain toilet paper. It was being stolen from office facilities and public conveniences. There were queues; there was rationing; there were fights. Outside our ports ships were lining up to discharge cargoes of foreign-made bogroll. I remember buying toilet rolls labelled in Finnish, and once even in Devanagari script. Finally, in desperation, I bought kitchen rolls and sawed them in half. Yet British manufacturers were working three shifts a day and they could not have produced any more. In her old age H was using forty-year-old bumwad.
It strikes me that an enemy of this country does not need to attack the public with bombs or samurai swords, or to subvert hard-won commercial and diplomatic agreements. There is an easier way to cause chaos. But perhaps I have said too much.