Says Britain’s Minister of Agriculture: "The centre of the Empire must look after itself."
G. R. STEVENS
Part Two: Mr. Elliot Explains
AT FIVE O’CLOCK the doors closed at Canada House. The Australian meat experts, a hardworking lot, were in the British Empire Club at six-thirty. But at seven o’clock when I came through the drizzling twilight into Whitehall Place, three private secretaries and the night staff of the Department of Agriculture were still busy over the files of the day.
Mr. Elliot sprang from his desk and came to meet me with a quick smile of greeting. This was not the man whom I had expected to see. Tail and good-looking, his rugged face softened by that patina of good breeding which the years bestow on flesh and stone alike in England, his eyes strong and honest, he was far in appearance from the dour, diehard Scotsman of common report. I had heard it said that he could never be Prime Minister of Great Britain because of his intensity, his downrightness, his lack of give-and-take. These rumors wrong him. He carries with him something of the restlessness, something of the impatient aloofness of the scientist; but a Celtic strain, a strain of color and fire, restores a warmer vision in him. When men know him, they will follow him. One of the Australian leaders whom I questioned said, “Elliot is tough, but he is real.” That was well said.
I asked his secretaries for personal details, concerning him, but they could only refer me to Who's Who. He seems to have escaped biographers. When I enquired concerning the customary scrap book in which are pasted the miscellanea which embellish the careers of men in the public eye, I was told that no such book was kept. The gossip writers and the political scribblers have given Britain’s Minister of Agriculture a miss. His way is not that of the politician, but of the architect or engineer.
“Mr. Elliot,” I said, “the British Dominions are intensely interested in the Elliot Plan. It threatens their livelihood.
As its author, would you tell us something about it? About the motives behind it, and how you propose to intensify foodstuff production in Great Britain?”
He strode about the room, his hands thrust deep into his pockets. “There is no Elliot Plan.” he said. “Instead, there is a group of impulses which Elliot has sensed, and of which he is the instrument.”
I had heard this elsewhere. The British rely upon their instincts. If they have to think too much about anything, they know that there is something wrong with it.
The Starvation Threat
THE FIRST of these impulses is the memory of 1917,” he continued. “Great Britain was then within a few weeks of starvation. One out of every four ships bound for her ports was sent to the bottom. Her world empire tottered. The people of this island suddenly realized that it was physically possible for them to starve. No such threat had confronted them since the days when the Armada came up the Channel. You perhaps noticed, a few weeks ago. how quickly British opinion reacted to the announcement that Germany was about to build submarines. That touched the tenderest spot in our national consciousness.
“Never again must the fallow fields of Great Britain strike their blow for our enemies.
“Secondly, our business instincts were aroused. As world traders of long experience, we know that nations must pay their way. Ten years after the Great War, we found that we were not paying our way. Our foreign trade balance
swung so greatly against us that in 1931 it was necessary to cut our currency. We instinctively reacted against the possibility that John Bull might not be able to meet his bills when they came in. We could not sell more. Therefore we had to buy less.
“Then there was the question of employment, the everpresent problem of British governments. We had to face the prospect of less work in our factories. When the factory gate is locked, the field gate must swing open. In the last twenty-five years, a quarter of a million people have come from the countryside into our towns. We decided that we must reverse this process.
“Finally, there was an even deeper and more profound impulse behind our decision to keep rural England going. The enormous town imputation of Great Britain, over ninety per cent of the whole, feels instinctively that the English countryside is a link with sanity which must be preserved at all costs. Some place where a man's boots hit the soil and not stone pavements, where a man sees something beside the houses on the other side of the street, where a man may go to bed with other sounds in his ears than his neighbor’s radio or motor car—these are basic desires of
the English heart. It is not at all a matter of making money, it is a desire for a way of living.”
Land Must Work
T MOTORED down through Surrey on a Sunday with a -*■ poet—a minor poet but quite a good fellow. We drove slowly through sheets of icy rain. The green of the trees showed black in the gloom of the storm. “Oh, to be in April, now that England’s here,” misquoted my friend whimsically. Yet through the pelting torrents pedalled relay after relay of cyclists—boys and girls together, bending low over their handlebars, their faces streaming, their bare knees pumping in and out under their yellow oilskins. Foul weather could not balk their urge to achieve for the moment of holiday the surcease of green fields.
Colonel Anthony Muirhead, Mr. Elliot’s Parliamentary secretary put it to me in another way. He had just come back from a week-end of manoeuvres with his Territorials —an abominable week-end of soaking floods and freezing gales. He and his men had slept in the open, under the lee of hedges. They seemed to have liked it. He said :
“Play land is high-priced land, and high-priced land which does not earn carries with it the seeds of doom. If we wish to preserve the countryside—and it is our greatest heritage— we must keep it at work. We cannot afford to make rural England a great park—and if we could, it would not be what we want. It is the working land which supports the play land in our countryside, which keeps it trim and glorious. At one of our research stations we have kept a plot of ground untouched for twenty-five years. Nothing has been pruned or weeded out; no work has been done upon it. Today it is an impassable thicket, a worthless waste. No one could either work or play upon it. We feel, therefore, that if we are to preserve the charm and character of the English countryside, it must earn its way. We must keep it a going concern.”
Observe the reasoning. Security, budgets, employment— all solid material facts which count—in their place. But the seed of vast policy is found in the age-old atavistic impulse for the free distances, for the forest lanes and green marches which shaped the Englishry into a race of schoolboys and travellers, footloose wanderers who founded the world’s mightiest Empire as accident to their sport and their roving.
“Granted the impulse, sir,” I said to Mr. Elliot. “England is a land of little fields. Can her little fields compete with the big fields of the Dominions, the bigger fields of Argentine, the gigantic fields of Russia? Have you planned for any consolidation of British agriculture, either by crops or by areas, which might lower your costs of production?”
LET US LOOK at a geological map,” suggested Mr. Elliot. When it was spread before us: “See the colors,” he said. “Did you ever see such a patchwork? Every stratum thrusts through somewhere in these islands, and each stratum means a different kind of soil. If you look across the Irish sea, you find the political problems of Ireland unmistakably laid out in the colors of a geological map. If you look to the north, you will see why the dark little mountainy men cling to the glens of Scotland. If you look at England, you will discover that it must always be a land of little fields, because there is only a little of every sort of land in each place.”
“When we put this very assorted land to work, we must think in terms of a crop in which small units count. Grass is such a crop. It is the greatest crop in the world. It pays unsurpassable dividends. No money to be spent in plowing and harvesting; no costs in processing. Nature sows; the animals reap and process. All we need is thought and water.” He glanced at the streaming window panes. “Our little fields will never lack the water, and a well-watered little field is worth many big dry fields. Because of this, we feel that when wre really put our minds to work we shall be able to produce food animals as efficiently as any of our overseas suppliers. Perhaps I should make an exception of the Argentine. We are rather afraid of the big fields of the Argentine. We may have to do something to consolidate the British producers’ position against competition from that nation.”
“Even so, sir,” I asked, “do you feel that th*e land of Great Britain can give its utmost without some general reorganization of agricultural production? Can you allow every farmer to go his own sweet way, planting what he likes, following the cycle of high prices? Does this not mean glut one year, scarcity the next? Canadians feel that
national planning in agriculture is necessary, and we rather believed that you had undertaken something of the kind in Great Britain.”
A ÆR. ELLIOT smiled. “Once again you are thinking in A▼ ■terms of what has been called the Elliot Plan,” he said. “There is no Elliot Plan. We have taken no steps to control production. We do not believe in regimentation, nor do we consider it necessary. If you shake a basket of pebbles for 2,000 years, they will be pretty w:ell sorted out. Remember your Kipling. Hogben has lived on one field since the days of the Romans. In one generation he drained. His greatgrandson fertilized with chalk. Five generations later he spiled the stream. In forty generations he became jxirt of the English earth and its seasons. We can trust him to know his fields. Our people, our old ’uns, have an instinct in these matters. There is not much that Whitehall can teach them.”
“Then you feel that Great Britain’s road is toward pasture and meats, rather than toward arable land and cereal crops?” I asked. “Yet you have established subsidies for sugar beet and for wheat production which have put many thousand acres into these crops.”
“It is all part of the general impulse,” Mr. Elliot replied. “We experiment in terms of a short-term policy in order that we may arrive at a long-term policy. Since your question reflects the anxiety of the Dominions concerning cereal production in this country, 1 would suggest to you that, from the Dominions’ point of view, these subsidies should be regarded as jolly good things. If British agriculture had not been maintained for several years by the subsidy granted to sugar beet, and recently to wheat, the pressure of home competition in dairy produce and in meat would have been intensified. The -100,000 acres in sugar beet production certainly would have gone into other crops. Sugar beet soil, for example, is particularly suitable for wheat.”
“But has not your subsidy system, and your control of imports, lowered the quality of British home-grown produce?” I asked. “In Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where the finest of all meats are to be found, I asked the head carver a few days ago if British beef was as good as ever. He said, apologetically, ‘I’m afraid, sir, it stands up to the knife a little more nowadays.’ ”
Mr. Elliot laughed. “A delicate indication,” he said. “The fall in the price of beef pushed many farmers into milk. When milk also dropped, a certain amount of milk beef reached the market. There is as much high-grade English beef available today as ever before. But there is more homegrown second-grade beef. Why should we only produce the best of everything, when a great number of our people cannot afford to buy the best? The fact that all English meat is no longer a luxury product simply means that we are getting into the meat business in earnest. Our present day bacon production admittedly is not up to the level of quality of the British bacon of a few years ago. But we are producing eighty per cent more bacon nowadays, and our quality is steadily rising. I cannot see that the temporary
fall in quality means that we took the wrong turning when we undertook to support our pig farmers.”
"Speaking of bacon,” I asked, “how have the consumers reacted toward the increase in prices? Are the housewives of England content to pay more for bread and meat in order to support the ten per cent of the population which lives on the land? What has become of the old cry of Free Food?” “That cry is no longer heard,” declared Mr. Elliot. “There is no instinctive reaction against food taxes today. I am confident that the people of England will pay a good bit to support the countryside, even as they pay to support the Navy and the cathedrals. After all, it will be the town man who starves if overseas foodstuffs are cut off in time of war. He is the chap who must settle the adverse trade balance in one form or another. He is the fellow who finds his joy in green fields. It is he who loses his job when the countrymen are forced to seek work in the towns. No, I am convinced that the town man today regards a working countryside, even at some cost to himself, as a very g(X>d thing. A form of insurance, if you care to put it that way.”
Men Must Have Jobs
ON THIS point I have had corroboration. I sat on the terrace of the House of Commons one evening after dinner with a group of Labor Members. These men could speak for the heart of industrial England, those centres of black depression where every penny counts. I asked them what they thought of tuppence more per pound for bacon for the sake of a few thousand pig farmers.
One said: “Have you seen ‘Love on the Dole?’ ”
I had, and it had made me acutely miserable for an evening. That beautiful, poignant play is the story of simple people trying to keep decent in the face of stark corrosive ixiverty which eats into their hearts, which crushes them to the stature of beasts. The play climaxes in the bellow of the tortured father as he beats his fists on the table in a frenzy of despair, ‘Oh God, give me some work to do. Give me some work to do !’
"That’s it,” said my Labor friend. “Jobs count. Whatever gives jobs is right with us.”
Yet because jobs in the shires mean jobless in the Dominions, I was emboldened to ask the Minister of Agriculture one more question.
“All the British Dominions have been developed as export properties. If they are forced to be self-contained, they face bankruptcy. British men and women have taken their savings to the ends of the world, to found-new communities. great nations under the flag, secure in the belief that they would always have overseas markets, and the British market first and last of all. Your plans foreshadow restrictions not only upon foreign but upon Dominions foodstuffs. Such restrictions may write finis to the established process of Imperial development. May we take it that there has been a reversal of British policy in relation to the Dominions?”
Mr. Elliot pondered.
“Not at all,” he said. “Solvitur ambulando. But the new
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interpretations will have to work themselves out. As you know, the political tendencies of the Empire have become centrifugal— away from the centre. I feel that, in course of time, economic realities may draw us together again. But in the meantime the centre must look after itself. It is not we who have reversed the Imperial policy. We have merely conformed to the prevailing tendency.”
How often have I heard this, and in so many different forms, since coming to England. From Mr. J. H. Thomas’s dictum that it was ’igh time that the Old Country got Dominion status for ’erself, to the blunt
gentleman who declared that what was good enough for the Dominions manufacturer was good enough for the British farmer. It is something of a shock to find how literally we have been taken at our word.
A quick, warm handshake, and the interview was over. I had seen Imperial policy unfolded on the basis of a geological map and an atavistic impulse. But I had also seen an architect in charge of a vast plan who knew what every dot and line on his blueprints meant.
Editor's Note—This is the second of a series of articles by Mr. Stevens. The third will appear in an early issue.