‘A revolution in agriculture.’
Mark Metcalf examines the life of Tom Williams, the Labour MP for the Don Valley, Sheffield from 1922 to 1959, who has a genuine claim to have done more for British agriculture than any other person.
Before entering Parliament, Williams followed his father into the coal-mines, serving as the NUM branch secretary at Barnburgh Main Colliery in South Yorkshire.
From 1918 to 1923, Williams was a Labour Party representative on the Doncaster Board of Guardians, which administered the local workhouses and oversaw the paying of public relief.
Many local farmers sat on the board. Williams became aware of the low wage rates they paid their employees. Williams and his friends helped establish local branches of the National Union of Agricultural Workers.
At the 1922 general election, Williams won with a majority of 4,106. This figure grew at subsequent elections. The Tory government of Bonar Law, later replaced by Stanley Baldwin, failed to tackle rising unemployment levels and in 1923 the first minority Labour Government was elected. Williams became private secretary to Noel Buxton, the agriculture minister.
Labour was in power briefly but it did manage to initiate two significant pieces of legislation including the Sugar Beet Subsidy Act that kept five experimental sugar-beet factories going. The subsequent results allowed East Anglian farmers to engage in this form of agriculture. The Agricultural Wages Regulation Act, opposed by the Liberals but backed by the Tories, established a minimum wage of 30 shillings (£1.50) a week for agricultural workers.
Labour was returned to power between 1929 only to be annihilated at the GE in 1931 Williams was charged with handling agricultural matters for the party over the following four years. It was a task he performed with distinction.
With the likelihood of a war with Germany increasing, Labour again lost the election in 1935. The party did though have considerably more MPs and, under the able leadership, of Clement Attlee, the party proved an effective opposition.
Williams highlighted the poor state of Britain’s farms with few farmers owning tractors or possessing the resources to modernise. Nevertheless farmers opposed any form of state intervention or support and strongly backed the Tory party. Poor productivity levels meant Britain was forced to feed a growing population by an over reliance of imports, something that could only have disastrous consequences in the event of a war in which the nation’s ports were faced with a German submarine blockade.
When Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minster in October 1940 he acted quickly by bringing into government the opposition Labour MPs. Williams became a junior minster under Bob Hudson, the Tory Agriculture Minster. The pair began a root and branch reform of the industry with everyone accepting that if Britain was to feed itself and win the war then the necessary radical reforms could only be undertaken through state control. Such were to be the successes of the new polices that they remained long after war ended in 1945.
Despite the clearly emerging crisis, the Tories had allowed the total area of arable land to drop by half a million acres between 1936 and 1939. With enemy submarines now dramatically cutting food imports there was an immediate need to plough up an additional two million acres of grassland. There was not enough skilled ploughmen.
Williams and Hudson moved swiftly to prevent agricultural workers finding jobs in factories, where the wages were much higher. The minimum weekly wage was upped from 37 shillings (£1.85) to 48 shillings (£2.40). In return farmworkers were restricted from quitting their posts.
The Ministry of Agriculture increased staffing levels and began discussing with farmers what assistance they required to boost production. Williams met farmers of all ages, including the young. After some initial hostility he found a warm welcome. Tractors, thanks to Fords, were produced at an extraordinary rate. The Dig for Victory campaign that Williams supervised saw gardens dug over and a massive increase in the numbers of allotment schemes initiated by local authorities.
By the summer of 1940 it was agreed that the original two million grassland target needed doubling. Farmers did not posses the capital sums to achieve this figure. So it was agreed to give them an unqualified price guarantee from the Government for the duration of the war and a year after it ended in the form of fixed prices. Prices for feeding stuffs and fertilisers were also subsequently fixed.
Labour’s long held contention that wildly fluctuating prices crippled British farming was now being accepted by the Tories in the most dire of circumstances. It had the effect of releasing the latent energy of the farming industry. Tillage acreage rose 68% in WWII, a lot more than the 20% figure achieved in WWI. More importantly, the quality of food that people ate was a lot better during WWII than previously.
The Tories promised during the war to formulate a satisfactory post-war policy for agriculture. Yet when civil servants proposed import boards, assured markets and fixed prices, Hudson found he had no support from his party. The Tories were devoted to the free market system that had previously almost destroyed agriculture.
In the event, Labour won a handsome victory at the 1945 GE and after which Williams became Minister of Agriculture. He set to work with great enthusiasm, realising that the job had only previously been a graveyard because a series of past Conservative Governments lacked a policy.
The 1947 Agriculture Act, introduced only after close co-operation with farmers, translated Williams’ and Labour’s principles into legislation.
With the world set to suffer from food shortages for years to come it was agreed to develop maximum levels of home produced good food. The aim was a healthy agricultural industry that combined food at the lowest price consistent with adequate renumeration for farmers and workers. This required the Government to guarantee prices to farmers for agricultural products such as milk, livestock, cereals, livestock and potatoes.
The price of food to the consumer was also controlled, the difference between what the farmer was paid for his product and what it cost the consumer was made up by the Treasury.
Minimum price levels were set two years in advance. This allowed farmers to plan ahead assured of being able to draw a return on the investments they might make in new machinery.
The National Agricultural Advisory Service was inaugurated on 1 October 1946. 1,300 highly trained technical officers were made available to any farmer seeking practical advice for improving farming techniques. In return solutions to problems would be shared with others.
With the existence of a long-term policy for agriculture, manufacturers of farm machinery now had the green light to go ahead and boost output levels. As a consequence they began to successfully export more products. This, in turn, increased employment in the sector.
The Attlee Government also revised fishing and forestry. A system of loans and grants to fisherman, many of whom had served in the Royal Navy and had laid up their boats during WWI, to allow them to buy new boats and/or equipment was introduced. A new policy meant that the felling of timber and their prices were to be controlled for years afterwards.
Labour lost office in 1951. The Party obtained its highest number of votes ever and 231,000 more than the Tories, who ended up with a 17-seat majority and who were, at least, sensible enough to maintain the agricultural policies developed by the previous administration such that the production levels of crop, meat, milk, diary and farm machinery continued upwards, So too did average earnings of agricultural workers and aggregate farming net income.
It was a win, win situation. Little wonder that Clement Attlee praised the work of Williams, who throughout his adult life experienced constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis, by saying that from 1945 to 1951 “he effected nothing less than a revolution in British agriculture.”