In December 1916, a small committee of scientists at the Royal Society delivered a short memorandum entitled the ‘Food supply at the present period of the war’ to the Ministry of Food. At its core was a basic biological point. Meat production was inefficient. Every pound of meat required thirteen pounds of grain to produce. Amidst growing pressure for wartime economies, the scientists made a simple recommendation: to switch consumption habits from meat to other foodstuffs. ‘The Committee know of no other way by which a substantial addition may be made to the food available for the nation.’1
This report, and many others like it, was written not by a biologist, or, as they were then known, a ‘physiologist’, but by an economist, William Ashley. Ashley was just one of many professional economic thinkers positioned throughout the British imperial state who played key roles in the management of British wartime policy. Wartime centralization of resources of all kinds – including expertise – provoked expectations for a larger, more proactive state and wartime management entrenched economic science as a tool of state power.2 This article examines how that power was developed and deployed by economic thinkers in London with regard to an important element of wartime policy: the supply and distribution of red meat. It will explore three administrative centres that shaped the government's meat policy, each with its own bureaucratic agendas and orientations toward the state's economic role. The first is the market-oriented Board of Trade, responsible for importing meat from the formal and informal empire, mostly for military consumption. The second is the control-oriented Ministry of Food, responsible for the production and distribution of foodstuffs – including meat – on the home front. The third, the food (war) committee, is not an official government body, but a group of scientists formed by the Royal Society intended to offer expert advice on the biology and economics of food policy. These three seats of power did not always have the easiest of relations, but together they determined how meat was produced and consumed during the war.
This article's conclusions, however, go beyond both meat and food. It argues that economic expertise entered into the service of the state, not so much because of a conscious or planned initiative to tap theoretical economic thinking, as because economic thinkers proved useful in solving two kinds of practical problems: those of administration and those of bureaucratic politics. In so doing, it suggests a capacious understanding of professional economic thinking that encompasses both academics and officials. For as the First World War progressed, the line between the expertise of civil servants and that of professors remained blurry.3
More generally, this article contends that interdepartmental competition and ideological division helped integrate economic expertise into the fabric of the administrative state, thereby increasing the power both of the economic discipline and the state itself. Historians of the state and science have come to understand economics largely as an instrument of state power. Statistics and expertise strengthened the coercive capacities of states, allowing them to manage populations more effectively.4 The rise of the social sciences themselves has been figured as a liberal effort to help soothe social unrest.5 The flipside of this story of social control is replicated by historians of economics, though with less insidious overtones. Instead of understanding the economics discipline as a supplier of state power, historians of economic thinking have seen the state as the demander of expertise.6 But both such narratives, especially when paired (as they often are) with a deep suspicion of state power, runs the risk of treating the state as a monolith. This article, by contrast, suggests that the state's variegation was a key element in how it attracted and deployed economic expertise during the First World War. Far from actively recruiting a cohesive team of academically trained economists, the British state instead devolved responsibility to individual departments, of which some sought external expertise, but others drew from accumulated knowledge within the civil service itself. The result was that, across Whitehall, economic expertise took on markedly different flavours and was put to different, sometimes divergent, ends. This divergent usage bears implications for understanding the power and capacity of the British state. As this article will explore, administrative fractiousness often hindered the ability of the state to follow through on policies. But during the war, it also augmented the authority of technical experts within the state apparatus, a result that in certain ways enhanced the power of the state itself.
State capacity and efficiency were especially significant during wartime, not least with regard to food policy. Contemporary British administrators understood food as vital to the war effort. Rations, blockades, and trade deals were all matters of great concern. In the intervening years, historians have furnished significant justification for those anxieties.7 Through the 1910s, across Europe and Asia, hunger and deprivation sapped efficiency, sparked protest and revolt, and shaped political movements. Such turmoil was largely avoided in Britain, where extreme hunger was a comparatively rare phenomenon. Though British management of food was by no means harmonious or comprehensively planned, it was, by the dramatic standard of the time, successful. How the state handled meat, then, had significance, not only on the status of economic expertise, but also on the war.
Meat itself was a vital and distinctive commodity during the war years. It was a particular composite; ‘meat’ was understood as beef, mutton, and lamb, not poultry or pork, which were cheaper and considered less substantive.8 Unlike other foodstuffs, including grain and sugar, British meat never fell under the purview of a single government body. It was instead the subject of constant negotiation between different elements within Whitehall. Meat was important for several reasons. Most basically, it was a source of caloric energy. Nutritionally, it was a source of protein and fat.9 Culturally, meat – especially beef – was a symbol of prosperity and of Englishness itself.10 In the half-century before the First World War, Britons consumed ever more meat – from around 100 pounds per head in 1870 to nearly 130 pounds in 1910 – a rise in consumption that signalled growing affluence.11 Moreover, meat was a sign of the strength and unity of the British empire. In 1914, only 55 per cent of meat consumed in Great Britain was produced domestically.12 The British meat industry was imperial in scope and ambition. It maintained close links with the powerful Australian beef and New Zealand mutton industries as well as with producers and processors across Africa. Moreover, between 1909 and 1919, British companies controlled between a quarter and a third of Argentine meat production.13 Yet meat imperial executives were increasingly wary of competition, particularly from the United States.14 The Australian government had formed a royal commission to inquire into the status of the meat export trade in 1914 and the resulting report devoted some twenty-one out of its forty-two pages of text fretting over the encroachment of the American ‘beef trust’.15 Copies of this report were submitted to the British parliament in 1915 and excerpts circulated among agencies and proved influential throughout the war.16
Meat was also deemed essential to the war effort. British soldiers and sailors expected meat, and received a great deal of it. The British state used meat to feed the troops, to keep up morale, and to demonstrate that the empire could feed its people better than its enemies could.17 Frozen meat had become a staple of the British Army during the Boer War; it was easier to manage than herds of cattle, but distribution was still a great undertaking. During the First World War, food supplies were brought to the front by train and the army built butcheries at the supply depots by railheads.18 And, though military food could be a source of dislocation for new recruits, soldiers’ rations were often more plentiful than working-class diets. They certainly contained more meat – some 1 lb 4oz each day.19 The recipes in the War Office's Manual of military cooking and dietary mobilization serve as evidence; plain stew, Irish stew, and curried stew were standbys, as were boiled meat, steamed meat, baked meat, and roast meat.20 Such dishes put strain on supply chains. Though British cattle herds had grown steadily since the turn of the century, from the beginning of fighting, it was clear that domestic production would be unable to meet demand. The result was importation of chilled and frozen meat on a massive scale.21
Finally, meat, and food more generally, was at the centre of debates about the proper economic role of the state. Food – particularly bread – had long been a flashpoint in British political life.22 In the generation before the war, the question of whether to institute tariffs was one of Britain's defining political disputes: both an issue of imperial food security and a contest between British citizen-consumers and elite landed producers. But the war introduced another interest: that of the nation itself. As one government economist wrote in 1916, increasing output was of vital importance ‘not for the benefit of the shareholders, not even for the benefit of that idol of the past called the Consumer, but for the sake of our men in the trenches…[and] the highest interests of civilization’.23 Whereas before the war, the interests of producers and consumers had been balanced by the electorate through its choice of government, the war obliged the state to balance those interests itself.
But during the first wartime years, the Liberal Asquith government was loath to manage economic activity actively. The result, according to interventionists, was not ‘business as usual’, the mantra of those opposed to state interference, but chaos. Prices had surged. British beef, for instance, increased from 7 pence per pound in August 1914 to 11·5 pence per pound in November 1916.24 In response, upon taking power in December 1916, David Lloyd George's activist government brought food under the centralized direction of a ‘food controller’ (originally called the ‘food dictator’).25 Lloyd George, who before becoming prime minister had energetically led the Ministry of Munitions, was eager to apply the same model to food as he had to armaments.26 This involved drafting businessmen into the nation's service – staffing departments with a combination of civil servants and industrialists. Although prices continued to rise through much of 1917, under the first two food controllers, Lord Devonport (Hudson Kearley) and Lord Rhondda (David Alfred Thomas), both Liberal businessman, the country gradually entered what the ministry's William Beveridge called the ‘heroic age of food control’. Rationing, fixed prices, and an increasingly sprawling bureaucracy were all in place by that autumn.27
This standard narrative of British food control during the First World War has retained its basic shape since the 1920s. But state efforts at control were controversial during the war, even within the state. Government economists had diverse goals that were contingent upon local exigencies and widely divergent opinions on the state's proper economic role. This point is worth stressing because the history of wartime planning was largely written by the most enthusiastic planners. After the war, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace commissioned a series of monographs by administrators from all the belligerent countries. The British books in the series, ‘about half-way between memoirs and blue-books’, were predominantly by figures sympathetic to government control.28 E. M. H. Lloyd, a former Ministry of Food official, published the first overview of British food policy for the series in 1924.29 William Beveridge, another past food official and future architect of Britain's National Health Service, released a second book on the subject four years later.30
The picture of wartime state planning presented here is less rosy. It stresses divergence and division. But though government departments were ideologically distinct, across the British state, the war saw a marked increase in the demand for economic expertise. This article examines expertise – how it followed and transcended organizational divisions – by focusing on the management of a single commodity: meat.
The first efforts to bring meat under state control came, ironically, from the Board of Trade, the agency responsible for safeguarding Britain's commercial might and one of Britain's most business-friendly institutions. In fact, the board's initial engagement with the meat market was intended to protect British commercial interests from American competitors in Argentina. The board was among Whitehall's most dynamic departments at the outbreak of the First World War. Long a bastion of Liberal thinking, as Liberals attended to social questions in the late nineteenth century, the board too extended its reach into industrial relations and social policy.31 Still, its key duties remained related to trade, and it retained a generally market liberal stance.
By 1914, the board had special concerns about the power of American business, particularly the meat trust, concerns that only intensified over the course of the war. Before US entry in April 1917, American meat companies supplied both the Alliance and the Entente. In August 1915, the French government negotiated a tariff-free deal with American producers, much to the ire of meat-producing dominions.32 Even more concerning were the shipments of American beef to Germany's neighbour, neutral Denmark. As a Financial Times editor wrote to Walter Runciman, the president of the Board of Trade, ‘shipments to Copenhagen from [Armour & Co.] increased by 300% since the outbreak of hostilities, from which their ultimate destination is fairly obvious’.33
But for economic strategists at the Board of Trade, anxieties about American beef during the First World War were most acute in relation to Argentina.34 British firms had strong connections with Argentine merchants and cattle exporters. Household names, such as Bovril and Oxo, had played formative roles in the development of the meat industry in Buenos Aires's hinterlands throughout the nineteenth century. Yet by the start of the war, the British position in the Argentine meat trade was weaker and smaller than that of the United States and of local Argentine companies. The outbreak of the war accentuated this weakness, as British shipping became subject to the threat of German naval raids. Such was the importance and ‘great value of these cargoes’ that Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, informed the war cabinet on 9 September 1914 that he was prepared to deploy two cruisers to protect any meat convoy valued over a million pounds.35
Even with the protection of the Royal Navy, British firms in Argentina were operating at a major disadvantage. German U-boat activity made the passage from Buenos Aires to Britain risky and freight rates quadrupled almost overnight.36 In Argentina, British firms’ credit collapsed. Normal trade became impossible, with the two major British firms, Smithfield and the British and Argentine Meat Company, without sufficient liquidity to purchase cattle in the River Plate. The Board of Trade came to the rescue; it requisitioned refrigerated shipping and guaranteed ‘taking 15,000 tons of frozen meat a month, paying 75 per cent. of the estimated market…as soon as the meat was loaded in America, thus…enabling them [firms] to continue further operations in the purchase of meat’.37 For the Board of Trade, working with British meat companies had a dual purpose. It would streamline the production of meat destined for the United Kingdom. But it would also assist struggling British firms in an increasingly competitive international market.38
Over time, the board's involvement deepened. Amidst the tumult of the first wartime months, the board came to co-ordinate all meat imports into the British Isles, not just those from Argentina or those operated by British firms. What started as an exercise in commercial protection morphed into an expansive imperial quartermasterly role. In Argentina, though its ties remained strongest with British firms, the board increasingly sought to secure as much beef as possible, whatever its source.39 Despite worries about American encroachment, two years into the war, it was willing to negotiate collectively with all the major companies in Argentina – British, Argentinian, and American alike.40 By 1917, it had signed contracts with at least five of the seven major beef producers operating in Buenos Aires's hinterlands, guaranteeing the purchase of each company's entire yearly production of cattle.
Throughout the war, one man at the Board of Trade was in charge of meat. Henry W. Macrosty had thrown himself into government service at age nineteen in 1884.41 He taught himself economic statistics, developing into a self-styled expert. And though the Board of Trade's position was determined by long-standing political interests and bureaucratic jockeying, Macrosty brought to the job a distinct set of intellectual commitments about state oversight and the role of economists. In Trusts and the state, a 1901 monograph published by the Fabian Society, he ‘maintained that the State ought to guide [the] tendency [of competition to lead to monopoly] by proper regulations, so that it will terminate in the passing of industry into public ownership’.42 In the Economic Journal in 1909, he argued that economists should ‘be in the position of the philosophers who govern Plato's ideal state’.43 Six years later, as the assistant director of the Board of Trade's thirty- to forty-person statistical department, Macrosty was acting if not as king, then at least as expert.44 Over the following years, Macrosty compiled reams of memoranda on the meat industry. He drafted weekly reports on expenditure on and consumption of beef, veal, mutton, and lamb, complete with tables, projections, and graphs. These he circulated, not just within the Board of Trade, but also throughout the Ministries of Food, Munitions, Shipping, Reconstruction, the Royal Society, and the commission on wheat prices.45
But Macrosty was as much an administrator as a statistician. As such, he negotiated a tangled bureaucracy, putting out fires and pursuing departmental objectives that had little to do with his own economic principles. Macrosty had an enormous task. By the end of the war, the government of the United Kingdom was purchasing an immense quantity of meat abroad – some 857,139 tons for £64,525,512 during the 1918 fiscal year (around $4 billion today) – for the British army and navy, as well as for the French and Italians, with military surpluses going to the domestic market for resale.46 Macrosty had to negotiate with meat producers and meat shippers. He needed to liaise with Sir Thomas Robinson, the Australian serving as the imperial government's official buyer of Argentine meat.47 He needed to confirm that the treasury paid the bills.48 He even needed to ensure that there was enough coal for the refrigerated transport ships and enough tin for South American canning facilities.49
Procuring the necessary supplies required harnessing resources from across the British empire. In 1915, the Board of Trade requisitioned ‘the whole of the supplies of frozen beef and mutton produced at freezing works in Australia and New Zealand and available for export’, for which they paid discounted market prices.50 Throughout the war, Macrosty sought new sources of beef. In late 1915, he and others considered the viability of South Africa as a frozen meat producer.51 From 1916 to 1918, Sudanese cattle herds were evaluated as a potential source of meat for the British army in Egypt.52 In 1917, Nigerian herds were similarly considered.53 More successful was the effort that same year to tap the small annual meat production of the Falkland Islands.54
Macrosty was eager to work with businessmen; he maintained an especially healthy relationship with executives at the British and Argentine Meat Company. As a Board of Trade administrator, his economic thinking was sensitive to the needs of British industry and he was resistant to price fixing and rationing. Though he was concerned that the government was best served by his arrangements with beef suppliers, he was generally disposed to trust the operation of the free market. The early contracts he drafted did not specify a fixed price, but instead stipulated that the government would buy meat at 75 per cent of the going rate.55 He closely followed the prices at Smithfield, London's central meat market, and encouraged sending samples of imported meat there to determine their market price.56 In short, Macrosty was more attached to liberalism than to business. Even as Macrosty threw the British firms in Argentina a lifeline, he was keen to keep meat imports flowing to the private market. As the government's requirements grew from 15,000 tons a month to 20,000 in May 1915 to 50,000 in 1916, Macrosty always allowed for 20 per cent of the companies’ output to be reserved for private sale at a ‘fair average market price’.57
At the new Ministry of Food, an altogether different vision of government involvement with the economy was emerging. The ministry was formed well into the war, in late 1916, amidst mounting fear that business as usual was unequal to the task of keeping the nation and its troops provisioned. This was a matter of the highest political concern, bound up with the transition from the laissez-faire Asquith to activist Lloyd George governments.58 Unlike the Board of Trade, which had long linked Britain's commercial interests and its government, the Ministry of Food had been created ex nihilo to secure the nation's food needs actively from above through central co-ordination.
The first minister, or food controller, was Lord Devonport, a Liberal grocery magnate without government experience. Devonport was seen as highhanded and reluctant to delegate authority to his staff, all transferred from within the civil service.59 William Beveridge, among the most vocal of Devonport's staff, would refer to the time under Devonport as his ‘office boy period’.60 Beveridge was also significantly more sympathetic to state control of food supplies than was his superior. A traditional Liberal, Devonport sought to avoid compulsory rationing, ‘with its tickets, its officials, its vast expense, and so un-English in character’.61 Only under pressure from a war cabinet fearful of unrest in Ireland and in London's East End, which were said to be nearing famine conditions, did Devonport move toward rationing. He reluctantly had Beveridge start drafting procedures for such schemes only in April 1917.62 Beveridge had been eager to do so. ‘It is imperative’, he wrote ‘in view of a possible shortage of cereals after next harvest, at once to start bread rationing and to use the information so obtained for the improvement of the distribution of grain and flour before the shortage is felt.’ There was a similar need to extend ‘compulsory rationing to meat…as soon as possible’.63 Beveridge already had visions of a massive regulatory apparatus that would employ thousands and supply some forty million consumers.
The Ministry of Food suffered not only from internal division, but also from external opposition. One of the most strident challenges came from the periphery of government, from a small advisory committee with great aspirations. This was the food (war) committee of the Royal Society, the brainchild of Cambridge biologist William Bate Hardy. Hardy chaired a collection of scientists, mostly ‘physiologists’, assembled to provide guidance to the state on its food policy.64 Yet as Hardy was fond of pointing out, even after the creation of the Ministry of Food, there was no government food policy. This view was shared by the most famous and active economist on the committee, William Ashley.65 For Hardy and Ashley, the problem with the food ministry was not that it centralized power, but that it failed to do so effectively. Hardy wanted scientists to take more active roles in government and the turmoil Devonport was causing at the ministry afforded an easy entrée. As Hardy wrote to Ashley in March 1917, ‘it is exactly the absence of a co-ordinating body that is the raison d'etre of the Royal Society Committee…the lack of it in the Ministry of Food is astonishing’.66
Ashley himself had a complicated relationship with the state. Though as professor of commerce at Birmingham, he prepared ‘men of business and citizens of liberal interests’, he remained open to state intervention in private enterprise in national interest.67 He was one of the most important British ‘historical school’ economists, a role that disposed him, both theoretically and methodologically, to contribute to official administrative service.68 And whereas most professional British economists were strongly in favour of free trade, Ashley – who had spent over a decade in North America – had been one of the staunchest defenders of Joseph Chamberlain's proposed tariff reforms meant to encourage imperial unity.69 Like Hardy, Ashley was sympathetic to the increased role of experts in government administration. Still, his worldview countenanced limited sympathy for overbearing state interference.
The ideological differences between the Ministry of Food and the Royal Society, and between Beveridge and Ashley, erupted into a political dispute over rationing early in 1917. Food officials sought to safeguard national food supplies before shortages were widespread. In Beveridge's view, rations were smoothing mechanisms, whereby the consumption levels of different classes were pushed toward equality (rationing sugar would ‘correct the present unequal distribution’) and present consumption was curtailed to safeguard future consumption.70 Beveridge's recommendations implied an expanded role for the government in the distribution of basic foodstuffs. The ministry had acted tentatively on these ideas when on 3 February 1917, it published in several major newspapers guidelines for a ‘voluntary’ ration, calling on consumers to economize their consumption. But at the Royal Society, the appeal was seen as just a step toward a compulsory regime.71
The basic objection of the food (war) committee to rationing was physiological. Hardy, along with other biologists and agriculturalists, was concerned about the caloric intake of the working backbone of the country, a view shared by the committee's economists – Ashley and Alfred Flux, Macrosty's immediate superior at the Board of Trade. In a report entitled ‘The importance of bread stuffs’, the committee noted that bread was the ‘prime food stuff’ of working classes and ‘that it is by the consumption of bread that the mass of people are enabled to produce their daily output of work. It is impossible to ration bread without the gravest danger to the health and efficiency of the poorer element of the population.’72 In short, a bread ration would cut into the energy and productivity of the people on whom the war effort depended.
The committee argued against rationing meat for related reasons. It noted that ‘live stock are wasteful converters of food, at the best returning as meat less than half of the imported food they consume’. There was thus a strong case to ‘economise on meat’. But this was in the long term. In the short term, ‘an increased rate of slaughter’ would result in fewer animal mouths to feed and more bread for human consumption. In short, ‘meatless days at the present time would aggravate rather than improve the situation’.73 On 16 March 1917, the committee published a ‘Report on national food policy’, reaffirming its position. ‘The idea that there is a special merit in reducing the amount of meat consumed constitutes a real danger inasmuch as it is likely to cause an increased demand for cereal foods.’74
The committee was not suggesting that the government avoid actively managing food policy – quite the reverse: it was recommending the state consciously manage the composition and quantity of food available to British consumers. However, implicit in the Royal Society reports was a resistance to rationing and other forms of active government interference in the market countenanced at the Ministry of Food. For the most part, the Royal Society favoured operating through the price system. Reducing cattle herds would alleviate upward pressure on the price of cereals, and, thus, of bread. For his part, Ashley wanted the government to act as a co-ordinator, but not as an active manager of food resources. The next year, he was appointed to a consumers’ council created to placate consumer discontent over rising prices and shortages. But Ashley's mandate on the council was expressly ‘to moderate the zeal’ of ‘Labour extremists [on the council]…eager to move large resolutions to bring everything under gov't control’.75
In any case, for the food (war) committee, beliefs about the proper role of government, scientific convictions, and desire for influence in Whitehall were entangled. The March 1917 ‘National food policy’ report was a power play, sent not to the Ministry of Food as other reports had been, but over Lord Devonport to the war cabinet. Hardy's contact to the cabinet was W. G. S. Adams, the head of Lloyd George's secretariat, who in peacetime was a political scientist at All Souls College, Oxford.76 With Adams, a former University of Chicago economics lecturer, Hardy stressed the economic nature of his committee; putting economists first when describing the group as ‘economists, physiologists, agriculturalists and Civil Servants’, though it consisted mostly of biologists.77
After a few letters and a meeting with Adams, Hardy thought his subterfuge was working. He crowed to the Society's treasurer in April 1917: ‘The position of the Committee could not possibly be stronger.’ The ‘National food policy’ memorandum was ‘minuted for the War Cabinet and it is being abstracted and dealt with for the Prime Minister himself’.78 But though the committee had become ‘the recognized advisory body’, Hardy would soon learn that advice was not always followed. Just a week after the cabinet discussed the report, the Ministry of Food announced its intention to fix maximum prices on basic foodstuffs. Hardy was thrown for a loop; no one at the Royal Society had foreseen this, and he dashed off a note to Adams: ‘if the unanimous opinion of agriculturalists, economists and physiologists counts for anything, the step may prove disastrous…Cannot the Royal Society Committee, as the only body immediately available…express an opinion, before action is taken?’79 In response, Adams equivocated. For, as Margaret Barnett notes, the war cabinet was not unsympathetic to rationing. Expertise was again running up against political reality.80
Over the spring of 1917, tension between the Royal Society and the Ministry of Food intensified as prices rose. Staples including bread and meat had almost doubled in price since the start of the war.81 Henry Rew, a statistician who was the ministry's permanent secretary, flatly asserted that the price ceilings for meat would take effect – they did that summer – and refused to comment further, as the ministry's position would take ‘too long to explain’.82 Hardy in turn accused Rew of ignoring science, drawing a withering retort. ‘Having devoted a considerable amount of time during the past 25 years to the study of food supplies from the statistical and economic side’, Rew wrote, ‘I am at any rate able to appreciate the work of enquiries in the same field.’83 Flux, head of the Board of Trade's statistics department, had been serving on the food (war) committee for over a year, but left it after Hardy's exchange with Rew. Now that it was a ‘hostile critic’ of the food controller, it was improper for a government official to continue serving.84 Seeking to maintain the committee's statistical credentials, Hardy appointed another Cambridge economic statistician, G. Udny Yule.85
Meanwhile, the committee continued to rail against price fixing, with Hardy stressing the salubrious, corrective nature of the price system. High meat prices would promote production and reduce consumption. But though Hardy was a scientific expert, he was no economist, and Ashley expressed concern that the committee would become known as ‘economists of an antiquated “Middle-Victorian” type’. While it was ‘generally true’ that prices behaved the way Hardy described, ‘the proposition wants a lot of qualification with regard to food’. Ashley was ‘anxious that the Committee should not seem to be opposed to all fixing of prices, on principle’. And, he added, ‘it is expedient to be careful’, for if not, ‘our socialist friends are sure to go for us’.86
The tension with the Ministry of Food broke when Lloyd George withdrew his support for compulsory rationing, provoking Lord Devonport's resignation and replacement by the more amenable Lord Rhondda in May 1917.87 Flux returned to the committee and was joined by two representatives of the Ministry of Food. After this, the food (war) committee functioned largely as the Ministry of Food's scientific branch; as Hardy wrote, Rhondda, ‘feels himself lost…He looks to the Committee to give him the lead.’88 For his part, with his new connection to the ministry, Hardy immediately dropped his objections to price fixing, his theories about the price system abandoned as soon as the administrative landscape shifted. Within a month, Hardy was enthusiastically pitching Ashley on heading a Royal Society committee on price fixing, which would also include Flux and Macrosty. Economists and statisticians from all over the government would come together to form a properly co-ordinated advisory body. But Ashley was less excited by the prospect of managing price fixing. Lord Rhondda, he wrote:
should be able to get all the help he wants from his own staff, or from other departments. He would naturally use – directly or indirectly – such men as Flux and Macrosty. Moreover I am told that his staff has been joined by the economic statistician Bowley and by the economist Gonner,…a shrewd and cautious man.89
For Ashley, it was enough that authorities had access to economic expertise; it was unnecessary to centralize that expertise in one entity. Yet Hardy had exactly that vision and was loath to abandon it. Aspirations of political power again shaped and constrained ideals of scientific practice.
With Rhondda's approval, Hardy convened such a group, of which Ashley became a reluctant member. By the autumn, Macrosty, another reluctant member, had drawn up a proposal for pricing meat according to the prices of physiological metrics like fat and calories, a plan enthusiastically approved by the biologists of the Royal Society, who advised that ‘certain physiological principles…be kept in mind when making regulations’.90 But the project collapsed when Rhondda decided to fix maximum prices determined by, as Hardy put it, ‘commercial bargaining without reference to basal economic principles’.91 For Hardy the biologist, ‘basal economic principles’ excluded price setting by commercial bargaining. They were instead closer to Macrosty's proposal to peg the price of meat to that of fat. But when organizing the purchase of meat from abroad at the Board of Trade, Macrosty himself relied precisely on the principle of commercial agreements based on market prices. Here, the economic logic of the marketplace edged out that of the academic biologist. But it did so not because it was understood as theoretically superior, but because it was more practically and politically expedient.
The institution of maximum domestic prices was soon complemented by ‘price control…at all successive stages from producer to consumer’.92 As it continued to regulate, the government essentially undertook to equilibrate supply and demand in the markets for foodstuffs. Macrosty retreated back into the Board of Trade and Ashley moved into a new advisory role on price fixing, as part of the Ministry of Food's consumers’ council. Hardy had been remarkably successful in his effort to insert scientific knowledge into the upper echelons of the administrative state and to secure personal authority. By late 1917, his committee was drafting well-read reports and scientists sponsored by the committee were moving into direct government service. The biologist T. B. Wood had joined the Ministry of Food in January 1917; Diarmid Noël Paton served on the rations board of the ministry that autumn.93 Nevertheless, Hardy had seen his committee become an organ of a highly interventionist ministry, willing as he was to make compromises to secure greater influence. Politics had fundamentally driven and shaped the uptake of scientific expertise at the Ministry of Food.
Back in Whitehall, Macrosty was more successful in retaining his autonomy, embedded as he was within a strong government department with an ideological orientation opposed to that of the Ministry of Food. Throughout 1915 and 1916, the Board of Trade worked to defend Macrosty's turf, successfully tussling with the Admiralty over the requisitioning and assignment of refrigerated storage ships.94 Still, the creation of the Ministry of Food proved a serious challenge for the maintenance of Macrosty's independence in managing meat.
By the autumn of 1917, the Rhondda ministry was sufficiently powerful to make a play for control of the frozen meat trade. Macrosty's superiors were at first willing to let meat go, but Macrosty himself did not relish relinquishing his autonomy or being transferred to the ministry.95 Though Macrosty was a career civil servant responsible for a central purchasing and distribution scheme, in his eyes, the Ministry of Food represented the worst type of intractable bureaucracy. In a long memorandum, he pointedly highlighted the red tape at food. ‘If three or four other sections of the Ministry of Food have to be consulted as to whether the “Highland Loch” is to load 2,900 tons of trade meat or 2,300 tons of trade meat and 600 tons of Army meat’, or if policies depended on ‘the final decision of an official who has never had anything to do with Army supplies – then…delay and confusion in provisioning the Armies will inevitably result.’96 This would be a disaster, since ‘feeding of the Armies must be absolutely the first consideration’. The War Offices, Macrosty wrote, ‘will certainly not tolerate any departure from this principle’. Nor would Macrosty himself, whose son had died in the war two years before.97 Macrosty also raised the legal and diplomatic difficulties of the Ministry of Food taking over for the Board of Trade as the latter was an agent of two foreign governments. But most importantly, a takeover would cost Macrosty his autonomy; like Hardy, he would be folded into a bloated and overly interventionist administrative mechanism.
Macrosty won out, convincing his superiors to keep him managing meat at the Board of Trade, though he did relinquish control over colonial cheese imports, a responsibility acquired the previous year.98 Still, the Ministry of Food remained keen to control meat. To sidestep Macrosty's objections about the Italians and French, Beveridge and others at the ministry successfully pushed for the creation of an international organization to co-ordinate the food requirements of the allies fighting the Kaiser.99 This ‘allied purchasing commission’ was organized into four departments, of which one, the inter-allied meat and fats executive, was designed to undercut Macrosty. But though the executive organized vital imports – particularly pork products – from the United States, it never subsumed Macrosty's little fiefdom of meat imports from the empire and Argentina. Nor did the purchasing commission supersede the contracts Macrosty fulfilled for the French and Italians. Indeed, it was obliged to work with him to co-ordinate shipping.100 In no small part, Macrosty maintained his independence because his superiors recognized his usefulness as a professional economic thinker. The memorandum confirming his position at the board noted that Flux's statistical department was already overworked and that ‘Mr. Flux would find himself in considerable difficulty if…his highly trained assistants’ were unavailable.101 In any case, hostility continued to simmer between Macrosty and the Ministry of Food. In May 1918, a ministry memorandum complained bitterly of the complications caused by Macrosty and in October, the ministry again unsuccessfully tried to have him transferred to the executive.102
There was a petty aspect to the tension between Macrosty and the Ministry of Food, but there was also a fundamental difference in view about the proper economic role of the state in society. Like Macrosty, Beveridge was concerned with administrative politics, but he was also motivated by a more sweeping vision of the state's purpose. He saw the bureaucratic apparatus of Whitehall as a tool with which to push forward socially progressive initiatives. Beveridge was fresh from leading a special Board of Trade department that oversaw the implementation of labour exchanges, a remedy for unemployment that he had championed. Labour exchanges bore the hallmarks of Liberal Edwardian reformism.103 Through them, the state acted not directly, but as an intermediary, matching employers with out-of-work workers. The state, instead of offering handouts, served a co-ordinating function that helped the unemployed find jobs.
The Ministry of Food was to serve a similar, though somewhat more invasive, co-ordinating purpose – to produce ‘immense simultaneous output…without any reserve or “play” in the industrial machinery’. It was meant to find ‘through price controls, wages awards etc. a substitute for competition’.104 Food shortages affected the poor more than the wealthy, and rationing, as Beveridge saw it, was the only way of ensuring that there was both enough food to go around, and that the food was distributed in a way that would satisfy the needs of the nation as a whole. Throughout the war, Beveridge pushed for greater centralization and control, including rationing bread, meat, and fats. Drawing on experience implementing Britain's insurance scheme, in May 1917, just before reconciliation with the food (war) committee, he drew up plans for rationing policies meant to alleviate possible shortages.105 Beveridge wrote to an official at the national health insurance commission asking for advice and help: ‘the framing and distribution of cards and tickets and of instructions for [rationing]’, he wrote, ‘in many ways will be akin to the administration of the National Health Insurance Card system’.106
Though the ministry never subsumed Macrosty, Beveridge's dreams of centralization largely came true. The Ministry of Food spawned a massive and diffuse bureaucracy to carry out its plans and relied on a vast network of local food committees to enforce its policies. By mid-1917, a veritable army of bureaucrats – some 4,350 in London and up to 20,000 provincial staff – managed the production and distribution of every major foodstuff.107 The ministry ‘had to arrange that the required number of beasts and sheep should be killed in 14,000 slaughter-houses and delivered…to 52,000 retailers’ shops through 2,000 Local Food Committee areas…at the right moment…in order to supply the demands of 40,000,000 consumers’. All this with fixed prices and no profiteering. As one official noted after the war, ‘distribution would take care of itself if left to economic forces’, but to ‘do it in any other way meant drastic reorganization of the trade’.108 This reorganization was slowly accomplished. Responding to massive queues and consumer discontent, expressed through formal organizations like the consumers’ council, complaints to local food committees, and threat of strikes and riots, the ministry gradually reduced maximum meat prices over late 1917 and early 1918.109 But because future price cuts were announced, there was a widespread slaughter of cattle and a subsequent meat shortage in early 1918, an outcome that ironically resembled the one the food (war) committee suggested a year earlier.110 But importantly, the outcome was reached not through scientific recommendations, but through accidents and political shifts.
On 25 February 1918, responding to growing parliamentary pressure, the ministry again intervened to prevent queues and profiteering and instituted meat rationing in London and the home counties. The system was extended to the rest of Britain on 7 April.111 The ministry sought to stabilize the market by guaranteeing a uniform price to the farmer, fixed profits to all the middlemen, and fixed prices to consumers. It bought the entire national meat output and oversaw its distribution all the way into the hands of the consumers. In the words of an administrator, the meat trade ‘began to function for the nation much as the Army Service Corps was functioning for the Army at the front’.112 This meant disassembling the finely tuned ‘automatic self-regulating mechanism’ of the British meat market. As E. M. H. Lloyd noted, state centralization of control ‘played havoc with this intricate piece of machinery’. Nevertheless, Lloyd optimistically predicted ‘improvements in the technique of administration, and the application of scientific method…may prepare the way’ for the reconciliation of ‘freedom…with large scale organization’.113
Scientific methods were thus tied to economic thinking. When the ministry was about to dissolve after the war, an internal report stressed the importance of a future statistical intelligence department to be headed by someone ‘acquainted with statistics but not necessarily a technical statistician. An Economic rather than a Statistical outlook is what is wanted.’114 Economic management, after all, was a common goal across the administrative state, even at the Board of Trade. But efforts at such centralized management would continue to be dictated by bureaucratic rivalries. In 1919, the board lobbied (successfully) for the appointment of a ‘new officer to be known as Economic Advisor who will advise the Government with reference to the larger National and Imperial economic questions’. The suggestion was their own Hubert Llewellyn Smith, whose ‘reputation as an economist is well known’.115 Llewellyn Smith, an administrator without formal training in economics, thus became head of a new ‘General Economic Department’ within the Board of Trade, for which it sought funds from the treasury to hire the economists H. D. Henderson and C. K. Hobson as ‘officers well qualified to advise…in the various matters of policy’.116 Writing in 1928, Llewellyn Smith reported that ‘the general trend in recent years has been toward centralising all general statistical work’ to be overseen ‘from a scientific point of view’.117 Macrosty, reflecting from a greater distance, in a 1941 presidential address to the Royal Statistical Society, noted a similar transformation away from the ‘do-nothing-ism of laissez-faire’. ‘Policy, administration, and statistics’, he wrote, are ‘inextricably inter-woven [in] new forms of administration.’118 Economic statisticians, for Macrosty, were ‘the master builders of the future’, important figures in the effort to ‘plan the New Jerusalem’.119 Economists in the First World War were far more skilled functionaries than they were philosopher kings, but even as mere technical experts, they had acquired power.
Macrosty, Beveridge, and Ashley all had different understandings of the proper level of state invasiveness. Yet each of them was deployed in the service of specific departmental policy agendas and each understood the importance of economic expertise. At the time he wrote in the Economic Journal that economists were to serve as philosopher kings, Macrosty had already been a government official for over twenty years. He would keep publishing academic articles and would continue his work as a civil servant until 1930. Shortly before his death, he became president of the Royal Statistical Society, in 1941.120 Before the war, Ashley was the most cautious of the three thinkers in his view toward economic expertise. In his own article in the Economic Journal, Ashley observed, ‘when one looks back on a century of economic teaching and writing, the chief lesson should, I feel, be one of caution and modesty’. The reason was simple: ‘we economists have been so often in the wrong!’ But Ashley also stressed the practical benefits of economic training. The field's growth, he suggested, was largely due to ‘a perception of the need for more systematic training for that work of municipal and political administration which is every day embracing a larger part of the national activity’.121 By the end of the war, Ashley himself epitomized the academic government economist and his service was recognized with a knighthood.122
Beveridge had also thrown himself into war work for the government, but like many other Liberals, he entered the 1920s disillusioned, particularly with the state's ability to be an implement of social justice and he immediately left the government to run the London School of Economics.123 But the war did not sour him completely on economic experts advising the government; he would, after all, famously return to Whitehall two decades later to lead the committee that produced the blueprint for the post-war British welfare state. In his retrospective account of British food policy, Beveridge stressed the importance of consistent economic theory. ‘The effectiveness of control in replacing economic laws by human regulations’, he wrote, ‘depends upon an understanding of those laws and respect for them.’ In fact, though some economic theory was better than others, any consistent theory was superior to a lack of understanding. Thus, though Runciman at the Board of Trade was a ‘firm believer in private enterprise’, while Lord Rhondda preferred ‘complete control’, both programmes functioned. Serious problems arose only under Lord Devonport, who ran his ministry ‘without principle on practical lines; a scurrying hither and thither in chase of the unapprehended consequences of ill-considered action’.124
What Beveridge was describing as ‘consistent economic theory’ was not an abstruse set of academic principles, but a general worldview about how the state was supposed to interact with economic actors. It was a theory that was equally accessible to civil servants as to professors. This understanding of economic theory is the analogue to the understanding that economic thinkers – economists – existed and were trained both in Whitehall and in universities. Economic expertise in the First World War was not only some entity external to the state apparatus, but also a resource that existed deep within it. The war precipitated a massive increase in the demand for economic expertise across the British state – not just among those who managed currency and taxes, but also within the bodies overseeing less glamorous aspects of the war. Ton by frozen ton, ration card by ration card, economic expertise was engaged in the day-to-day management of the British economy. Moreover, thinking about ‘consistent economic theory’ pervaded the operational decisions of the wartime state.
The state demanded economic expertise because of scarcity. Money and materiel were finite resources and the state sought to utilize them optimally. Economic expertise was understood as a tool in the service of this end. But the politicking of Macrosty, Ashley, and Beveridge suggests that scarcity might have had what economists call a second-order effect on the demand for expertise. Individual organs of the wartime state had their own imperatives and ideological inclinations. In an environment bounded on all sides by scarcity, these departments came to deploy their respective experts for goals that might negatively impinge upon those of neighbouring departments. For though centralization was a watchword of First World War Britain, individual government departments continued to exercise considerable autonomy through the war years. It is no surprise that some of the resulting friction and contestation was expressed in the language of economic expertise.
But whether the British state's use of expertise was efficient or wasteful, positive or negative, is by no means clear. From the perspective of the wartime state as a whole, it might seem inefficient for expertise to be squandered on internal conflicts. Or, perhaps such an adversarial, competitive model ultimately rendered superior policy.125 For Ashley and the food (war) committee, the degree to which the acceptance and deployment of expertise depended on a matrix of ideology and politics was frustrating. For Macrosty, keen on maintaining his autonomy, it was essential. Certainly, from the perspective of economics as a discipline, the wartime double demand for expertise was a major benefit. The First World War marked a turning point in the history of the discipline. Interest in university instruction in the subject dramatically rose after the war, as did the membership of the Royal Economic Society.126 Even more importantly, the war, in Mary Morgan's words, ‘provided the foundation’ for subsequent involvement of economists in government.127 Insofar as the First World War was a formative moment for the figure of the economist in Britain, the particular, contested bureaucratic landscape of the war years played an important, though underappreciated, role.
In fact, expertise was frequently deployed in disputes between departments during the war. Though the state was undoubtedly the principal source of demand for economic knowledge, this was not solely because it sought solutions for complex logistical issues precipitated by the war. The many departments that made up the British state also found economic expertise useful in furthering their own ends and justifying their own positions, often relative to other state agencies. Thus, the politics of imperial bureaucracy was a key factor in integrating economic expertise into the wartime state. This integration bears important implications about the power of the twentieth-century British state itself. The contentiousness of the wartime bureaucracy might seem to support narratives that state control dissipated after the war due to interdepartmental quarrels.128 But the fact that expertise thrived in a contentious administrative landscape suggests the enduring power of technical expertise embedded in the state long after the transformative years of the First World War.129 Thus, the fractiousness of state administration did not necessarily imply state weakness. In fact, that very fractiousness enabled the state to take on expertise that permanently expanded its capacity.