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The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

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26th September 1953: Sugar Rationing comes to an end at 12 Midnight!

Written by Ron Noon at 23:46 on Thursday, September 26th 2013

My first essay on MR CUBE the animated sugar lump that led the successful Tate & Lyle fight against threatened sugar nationalisation in 1949/1950 was published in HISTORY TODAY November 2001. It was entitled GOODBYE MR CUBE but obviously missing him in 2011 I co-authored another essay on the swash buckling champion of free enterprise (and “Tate not State”) with a former colleague at LJMU, David Clampin. (The Maverick Mr. Cube: the resurgence of commercial marketing in post-war Britain. Journal of Macro-Marketing)

We argued that the impact of the Second World War on British Society was widespread and much to the chagrin of its war time leader, Winston Churchill, the peoples war demanded a people’s peace without him and his Tory party at the helm. His party had been routed to the extent that they looked in danger of terminal decline. “The fear ‘was not that the Conservative Party had missed its turn…but that it would never get another’ (Schwartz 1991, 150). It was their Waterloo moment and arguably as devastating a defeat as in 1846 or 1906. Throughout the election campaign of 1945 Labour had spoken extensively of the prospect of the nationalization of key industries and, with it, a fundamental change in the nature of the business world.

Indeed The Economist at the end of that seismic year commented that ‘the voters were not so naïve as to imagine that they could get a Labour government without a Socialist policy’ (Rogow 1955, 156) given that ‘Socialism involves a radical transformation of incentives and motivations’ a ‘shift in the words of R. H. Tawney from an acquisitive to a functional society’ (Rogow 1952, 203). The tone of the Labour Government was distinctly cool towards the manufacturers of acquisitiveness.”

Those observations were made in an “academic essay” drafted with all the ritual genuflections to sources and the particular American journal’s etiquette and orientation. I’d felt constrained because I’d intended to write more about the post-war Labour Government’s achievements and less about the resurgence of commercial marketing.! At least I’d been able to write more about SUGAR which had been rationed since 1940 and establish some much needed context about why CONSUMPTION issues were of such great importance when “sweets and treats” had been absent for so long.

The much reduced sugar supplies in war meant that this generic and hitherto undifferentiated product would galvanise issues around food and consumption in a very bleak and austere post-war environment. When Peter Hennessey alludes to “an entire nation…obsessed with food” then sugar not steel is the commodity talked about in the grocers! That means that the grocery store, albeit not in the technical sense, becomes a political conduit for the “Tate not State” and “Dear, Dear, Dearer” sound bites of Mr Cube. (See some of the earlier blogs I’ve done on this lump of sugar. ) This is a way of saying that when a nation becomes obsessed with food the grocer becomes political!

There had been an experiment to de-ration sweets in April 1949 and it proved a failure. It was the month before Mr Cube was born in the Daily Express!

And then “just to cock a snook at Mr Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson’s grandad) and his colleagues, Mr Cube appeared on sugar packets timed for delivery over Christmas 1949, wearing a paper cap lifting a glass and saying ‘Whatever the Party, we wish you a merry Christmas”!

His seasonal greetings were conveyed in a very austere climate. For those however who argued that the Government was not doomed to a policy of continuing austerity Mr Cube was the proxy voice. He symbolised the fact that there is always far more to food than nutrition! Indeed the government’s nutritional adviser commented early on in the post-war period that “because meals, have become so much more unattractive…people will not eat sufficient to eat their daily energy requirements”.  It is that psychological context and the reminder that sugar was both a fact and a metaphor for the sweet things in life conspicuously absent, despite improved vital statistics, that provides the key to understanding the politics of food discontent. 

Bargielowska ‘s book on post-war austerity reminds us that although there was no objective evidence of under-nourishment “perceived deprivation was intense”.  A cameo of this early predilection towards the good life as the sweet life was the experiment in de-rationing sweets referred to above. When carrots were sucked by children as sweets, Pathe News recorded the events in April 1949 that were designed to “put the fun back into being young” with its film footage of tiny tots queuing in anticipation of sweet shops opening up with their de-rationed goodies.

“Tots mouths have watered a whole lifetime for this great day. For years they’ve been cheated by the hard facts of world economy, from the unrestricted orgies, once accepted as the birthright of every child. But now hundreds and thousands are back by the billions, sherbert and gobstoppers and aniseed balls, lollipops and chocolate bars. And now for the Tummy Ache of a lifetime.”

The anticipated epidemic of tots tummy aches was prevented by so called killjoy Food Minister John Strachey who did not build up sufficient stocks to meet the pent up demand and failed “to take into account considerations such as the present high cost and shortage of tobacco, the cut in our meat ration and our dull diet”. 

The disappointing result was that unlike France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg,  Poland, Switzerland and Eire, Labour Britain botched the experiment in assuaging dietary severity with sweets. Consequently when “treats” like sweets were re-rationed the sweet fightin’ icon of free enterprise was a permanent reminder to contemporaries that there were choices and policy differences between the political parties. That was the political significance of the Mr Cube campaign and on September 26th1953 at midnight Sugar and sugar lumps were de-rationed successfully.