15 June 1915

The Day our Countryside Changed Forever

One hundred years ago today, on the 15th June 1915 a decision was made by the War Cabinet under Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that was to have profound impacts on the British countryside.  In response to the new German strategy of attacking British and allied merchant shipping, the Government began a process that would lead to a reversal in the nation’s approach to food and farming, that would lead eventually to the radical transformation of farming after the second world war and that would lay the ground for the UK’s entry into the European Union in 1973.

The military and human story of the First World War is well known.  ‘The men who turned the hay and carried the harvest in the glorious summer of 1914  and who went overseas to fight in the trenches, some never to return leaving only their names inscribed on village memorials’, never loses its drama and solemnity however often it is told.  But, the story of how the First World War changed our countryside is less well known.

For the 70 years before the outbreak of war, during the rapid economic expansion of Britain and its empire, the prevailing policy for farming was one of free trade and little state intervention, reflecting the economic liberal thinking of Adam Smith, John Bright and Richard Cobden. 

600 years of state intervention in the price of corn – the Corn-Laws – was swept away by Robert Peel’s Government in 1843.  Agricultural historian C S Orwin describes the policy of the post Corn-Law period as  ‘The official policy for British agriculture was one of leaving landowners, farmers and farm workers substantially free to make the best incomes they could from the market’ where individual effort was rewarded and ‘the best farming is that which pays the farmer best’.   

Britain had transferred much of its food growing to the empire and overseas allies as described by Rowland Prothero, (who would go on to be Lloyd-George’s agriculture Minister) who chronicled this era in the history of our land  ‘through the mutual advantage of ourselves and our customers’.

The area under crops declined up until 1914 and the nation relied on cheap food arriving by the efficient and seemingly inviolable system of steam shipping.    But the Kaiser’s Admirals and their navy - the Kaiserliche Marine – was about to change its tactics and in so doing the British Government’s approach to farming.   The British were shocked at the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 and a rapid increase in the attack on allied shipping. 

In the first 6 months of the war, the allies lost 100 ships of just over a quarter of a million tons and only 3 of these were to submarine attacks.  Less than one fifth were cargo ships.  The German admirals at first saw no strategic advantage in sinking commercial ships. In January 1915, the German strategy changed to ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ leading to a sharp increase in harm done to British food imports that was sustained throughout the war. 

The Government’s response was, at first, limited.  Offered support from the National Farmers Union under its first President Colin Campbell, this partnership was initially of little practical effect. Then, the Government decided to appoint former colonial administrator  Lord Milner on 15 June 1915 to chair a committee to consider  ‘what steps should be taken to maintain and, if possible, increase the present production of food in England and Wales, on the assumption that the war may be prolonged beyond the harvest of 1916’

The Committee’s recommendations, not at first acted on, are important to the story of the countryside because in part they were implemented during war time, but they too formed the basis post war policy, coming fully into play after the Second World War.  Milner’s committee recommended:

•             Farmers should be given a minimum price for wheat, guaranteeing them a defined price

•             District committees should be establish to monitor and promote the ploughing of grasslands

•             On advice from the committee and following a survey on ‘the capacity of every farm in its district and on the willingness of individual farmers to contribute additional food’ and where judged by the committee ‘whether compulsion would, or would not be necessary’.

Apart from the creation of District War Agricultural Committees, the Government decided to take no action on Milner’s committee until Lloyd George’s emergency coalition came to power in 1916.  This administration was temperamentally and politically more inclined to Milner’s advice, but perhaps more significantly, they were faced much more starkly with the prospects of a starving nation. 

Allied shipping losses were now reaching catastrophic proportions.    Moreover, the loss of over third of the labour force to the trenches meant that, even if farmers were inclined to respond to the government, the supply of labour was limiting. Rowland Prothero describes the wartime countryside as ‘ Ploughmen were scarce.  Nearly half the steam-tackle sets were out of action, either from want of repair or from the loss of drivers. Many horses had been commandeered; others were unshod.  Harness and implements were out of order.   Wide districts were denuded of such essential handicraftsmen as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers and harness-machinery’.  

Prothero moved quickly.  Appointed by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George in December 1916, he announced his policy by the end of the year and on 1 January 2017 he established the Food Production Department, led first by Sir Thomas Middleton and then Sir Arthur Lee. 

The national imperative to produce more food had spurred rapid and crisis action on the Government.   However, the Prime Minister was anxious to play a more interventionist role in farming than had been the case before and an opportunity soon arose for Lloyd-George and his Agriculture Minister Prothero to have a long-term impact on the course of farming. 

Since the repeal of the Corn-Laws, British farming had relied solely on the market for their returns.  All this was about to change to meet the war-time demand for food.  The Food Production Department had sweeping powers to organise farming.  Led by county committees it had the powers to encourage greater production and, when farmers were unwilling, to compel them. 

The Government, however, set out on a course to create an incentive, guaranteeing the price of corn, so reversing the decision to repeal the Corn-Laws.  On 23 February 1917, the Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons on agricultural policy ‘there is only one way of ensuring immediate action on the part of the farmer and that is by guaranteeing prices for a definite period of time – minimum prices’

Supported by the increasingly-powerful National Farmers Union and hated by the Treasury, this move reversed 70 years of free trade in farming and set farming policy for the remainder of the 20th Century.  Arthur Balfour, the Admiralty Minister described this as ‘the wildest thing ever proposed.  It would be better to take over the land and run it on socialistic principles’.

After the war, the balance in favour of state spending and intervention in farming became a Whitehall tussle for power.  The prevailing policy of laissez faire generally won the day, made even more relevant as the British economy passed through the economic tornadoes of the Depression. 

However, the interventionists in farming had their day again in the Second World War.  First, under former NFU President turned Agriculture Minister Reginald-Dorman-Smith and then under Churchill’s Agriculture Minister Robert Hudson, the Dig for Victory campaign took hold.  Hudson’s junior coalition Minister Tom Williams was promoted to the top job by post-war Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

Determined that the country would never again face the threat of starvation seen during the war, Tom Williams’ Agriculture Act of 1947 was one of the profound post-war pieces of legislation that implemented the socialist principles of the Attlee Government. 

Enshrined in the legislation was a system of deficiency payments and guaranteed prices for crops, much as Milner had advocated as an emergency measure 32 years before. Each year, farm leaders and Ministry of Agriculture officials would meet for the annual price review and decide on the guaranteed prices needed to achieve the government’s ambitious production targets.

This cosy arrangement was the basis of British agricultural policy for 2 decades, in which agricultural production revolutionised and the countryside changed forever.   Deficiency payments remained the cornerstone of agricultural policy until Britain joined the Common Market in 1973. Overnight, the value of subsidies increased four-fold and the era of the Common Agricultural Policy began. Whilst the nature of the subsidies changed, arguably their existence smoothed Edward Heath's negotiations on entry into the EU.

Many would not believe that 25 years after Margaret Thatcher left office, having stripped most of the state control and incentives for industry away, the Common Agricultural Policy remains solidly in place, consuming 40% of the EU budget and generating over £3 000 000 000 in subsidies to UK farmers. 

The fundamental economic philosophy of this policy lies in the report written by Lord Alfred Milner and his Committee in the summer of 1915 as the German U-Boats sliced their way through the Allied Merchant shipping fleet.  

Posted on: June 14th, 2015