How Britain Controls Its Manpower


I SHOULD like Americans to understand the unity of purpose which underlies the British civil organization for total war. I should also like them to appreciate the interrelationship between the various measures adopted in regard to labor, taxation, finance, manufacturing and service industries, food and nutrition and social welfare.

In trying to understand the war effort of the British, I think it is well to remember that they have been fighting for over three years; that the enemy is only eighteen miles from their shores; that their manpower is more limited than our own and yet at the same time there is greater concentration of population within a limited area. All these factors influence Britain’s defense, production, and administration. In England both men and women are conscripted. The present Government has assumed—and is wisely administering —a more rigorous control of its citizens than any other Government in England’s history.

Since the war began I have been in England many times, and during the last two years I have been in almost continuous residence there. I believe Great Britain is now more effectively organized and equipped, both on the civil and on the military front, than at any other time since the war began.

A Cabinet which prevents disputes

The coördination of government on the civilian front has been brought about by a Cabinet committee (known as the Lord President’s Committee) which the Prime Minister once referred to as “almost a parallel Cabinet concerned with home affairs.” A number of ministers of Cabinet rank are regular members; other members are invited as needed. Whenever a matter affecting a particular ministry is involved, a representative of that ministry is present. Because of this committee the British war economy has been hindered to a surprisingly small extent by jurisdictional conflicts. Of course the Committee should not be thought of as one which prepares blueprints for the departments and agencies to put into effect. Rather it resolves differences; it deals with competing claims and overlapping, with inconsistencies between details of policies in different parts of the war economy, and with gaps in the whole program. Only on half a dozen occasions have the differences and the problems with which the Committee has dealt had to be referred to the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet.


There may be help for us in watching how Britain has solved her manpower problems. The policy followed has been a judicious mixture of advance planning and quick adaptation. Some idea of the imperative adjustment between the demands of the armed forces and those of war production may be illustrated by the fact that in this war 125 workers are needed in Britain’s munitions industries for every 100 men and women in the fighting services. In the last war the ratio was only 65:100.

System of reserving men from military service

In the early years of the last war, Britain made the costly mistake of diverting into the armed forces large numbers of skilled workers who were indispensable to wartime industry. This time the pitfall was avoided by the adoption, before the war began, of the Schedule of Reserved Occupations, which provided for the temporary exemption from military service of men of certain ages in whole occupational blocks. The exemption applied whether the men were employed or unemployed.

The Schedule was drawn up on a rough-andready basis and was intended to give a wide margin of protection to strategic industries and occupations. But as the war developed and the needs of the forces for men increased, a process of transition took place by stages from exemption by occupational blocks to exemption by scrutinizing individual cases to determine the indispensability of particular men to war production.

Between these two stages was a stage where, within the frame of the revised Schedule of Reserved Occupations, men in vital war plants called “protected establishments” were exempted from service at a lower age than men in less vital plants. An electrician in a vital plant would, for example, be exempted from service if he was twenty years old or more, but in a less vital plant he would not be exempted unless he was thirty years or over. This scheme was intended not only to produce more men for the forces but also to encourage men with skills useful to war production to move into plants doing the most vital types of war work.

Exemptions were narrowed down gradually in response to changed military and war production needs. Today the Schedule of Reserved Occupations no longer exists. Deferment is on an individual basis. Dependency does not enter into account. The indispensability of the man (or woman) in his work is the basic criterion for deferment. Men exempted from military service may volunteer for service with permission from an employment exchange, except for a very few types of workers. And any person can volunteer at any time for a permanent career with the regular army or as a pilot or observer of the Royal Air Force. But at times, as an emergency device, all volunteering has been stopped for men in certain occupations until the Ministry of Labor could revaluate a particular situation.

A second noteworthy feature of the British system of deferment is that every occupation has been treated in a highly selective and discriminating manner. This policy has helped to ensure good use of manpower. Sometimes it has helped to force employers to substitute women for men (for example, as bus conductors) and to encourage men to transfer from less essential to war industry.

Finally, there is no permanent exemption from military service. Each man’s and each woman’s case is liable to reconsideration. His or her exemption is temporary only.

The British system has provided the necessary elasticity for adjusting the needs of the armed forces to the needs of war production. No one method would have sufficed to meet the different needs through these three and one-half years of war. The continuous revision of the British system in the light of new needs and of experience has been a large element in its success. As a result, Britain has been able both to raise a large fighting force and at the same time to achieve a remarkably high level of industrial production.

Complete industrial mobilization

Ever increasing demands have brought about a complete mobilization of labor in war industries in Britain.

The vital task of obtaining information on the location and composition of the labor force was begun early by supplementing the annual count under the insurance scheme with quarterly returns from employers in the munitions industries. The classification required in the questionnaire was of a relatively simple kind — extremely elaborate classification would have broken down.

This was followed by a steady extension of the scope of compulsory registration. There were special registrations of scarce skilled workers by occupational groups and a general compulsory registration by age classes, taking one age class at a time to spread the load of registration and to permit the registration material to be used while it was up to date.

The needs of the war economy required that some movements of workers should be facilitated and others restricted. First came the announcement that the engagement of workers in a number of occupations had to be made through the employment exchanges. Then new machinery was developed to strengthen the exchanges and to help them with their wartime duties, but this machinery was all linked closely with the employment exchanges and with the supply departments. One step taken was to appoint Inspectors of Labor Supply, recruited from both management and labor. These Inspectors are responsible for inspecting war and non-war plants to see that workers’ services are utilized effectively.

Essential Work Orders

When the ground had been sufficiently prepared, and when employers and workers were conscious of the need for more control and ready to coöperate to meet it, the Essential Work Order was adopted. This measure has prevented undesirable movements of labor and facilitated those which were useful.

The essence of the Essential Work Order is that it prevents employers from dismissing workers, and workers from leaving their jobs, without the consent of a National Service Officer (a Ministry of Labor official). It can be applied to any industry or any firm at the discretion of the Minister of Labor. Today it covers some 56,000 establishments and 7,500,000 workers in 120 industries. Special Essential Work Orders have been made for industries with special needs and problems (dock work, for example, and building construction).

Practically all land and sea transport, mining, building, war manufacturing and essential civilian plants, and agriculture in Scotland, are now covered by these orders. Their importance in placing war workers effectively cannot be overestimated. The orders do not “freeze” workers in their jobs or force employers to keep misfits in their employ. Thousands of applications for transfer are made every month by employers or workers and are agreed to by the National Service Officers. The job controls of the Essential Work Orders merely make it possible to direct the movement of workers according to the needs of the war production program.

Women and other labor reserves

In time, of course, it became necessary to utilize to maximum advantage women workers and men over military age, and also the younger men rejected from the Army on medical grounds. These groups were required to register with the employment exchanges and were called in for an individual interview. The exchanges arrange to transfer those who are clearly engaged in unimportant work. Many women were directed into gainful work for the first time, and many of them were transferred from home. Many millions of women have been brought into war industry for full-time jobs, and 300,000 additional women are doing part-time work. Persuasion and voluntary agreement are used successfully in most cases, but compulsion can be used where necessary.

Concentration of industry

The main purpose of the Concentration of Industry Program was to release labor for essential war work. The chief criterion in closing plants is not always the efficiency of the plant (although this plays its part), but its location and the skills of its workers weighed in relation to the needs of war production in the particular locality. The program has released many thousands of workers from a wide range of less essential industries.

The workers affected by concentration are not left to drift to other nonessential work or to no work at all. Careful arrangements are made to place them in priority war jobs. Britain has found, as a result of experience, that these arrangements must be made early in the process of cutting down on less essential production. Otherwise many potential war workers would be lost to war production or would not get into the most important jobs that have to be done.

The Concentration of Industry Program necessitates curtailment of civilian supplies. As a result, there is a close link between labor mobilization and the regulation of the consumption of the civilian population.

Curb on spending

There have been no “ceilings” on wages and no “freezing” of wages in Great Britain. But a series of measures extending into different parts of the war economy has kept wages within reasonable limits. Roughly speaking, wage rates in industries other than agriculture rose, on an average, about 28 per cent; with agriculture included, the average was about 31 per cent. The larger part of this increase was in the earlier part of the war. Earnings have risen by nearly 48 per cent.

A large part of these increases did not enter into expenditure. Only about half the total of personal money incomes in Great Britain have been spent on consumer goods. The level of taxation, the amount of savings, the effects of rationing and scarcities of consumer goods, have had an extraordinarily restrictive effect on spending and thus on inflationary tendencies.

Elasticity of wage rates

Some elasticity of wage rates has proved to be essential to an efficient war economy. The restrictions on the movements of workers could not have been imposed in some industries if wage levels in those industries had been frozen. It has been necessary to raise wages substantially in agriculture and coal mining and to some extent in shipbuilding. Otherwise workers could not have been prevented from leaving occupations in those industries without causing serious unrest.

In general, however, demands for wage increases have been kept within narrow limits for a long time. This may be attributed to: —

1. The Essential Work Orders, which have had the effect of restraining employers from competitive bidding for labor and of keeping workers from “job shopping.”

2. The early imposition of an excess profits tax of 100 per cent. Whatever technical arguments may be advanced against such a high rate, it has had a great psychological effect in reconciling the tradeunions to a policy of restraint in wage demands. No lower rate would have sufficed for this purpose. To this should be added the unprecedentedly high rates of the income tax and other taxes on high income groups.

3. The maintenance of the cost of living index at a relatively stable level.

4. The equitable and efficient system of rationing and the price control of food and other basic necessities.

5. The prohibition of strikes and lockouts under the agreement of organized labor.

6. The giving of a statutory and binding effect to the awards of the National Arbitration Tribunal.

The importance of holding down prices of basic necessities of everyday consumption can hardly be overemphasized. Some 3,000,000 British workers have wage contracts linked to the cost of living index.

Price control

Vigorous measures have been taken to deal with prices and supplies of necessities. The methods of price control vary with different commodities. British experience shows, however, that price control can only be satisfactory when a government gets control of supplies and distribution. Sometimes control has been first applied at a “bottleneck” through which supplies have to pass between the production and consumption stages — for example, the slaughterhouses, the Milk Marketing Board, the flourmills. In some cases control was established by licensing firsthand sellers and distributors. All imports are purchased by the Government. Home food produce is purchased by the Ministry of Food or by a body designated by it. Limits are set, however, on the amounts of some products which the Ministry will buy. These tend to produce an even flow of supplies. Some 70 per cent in value of the Ministry’s purchases are paid for at fixed prices.

But in wartime there is an unavoidable rise in some costs. Therefore, to prevent the cost of living index and the prices of basic foods from rising, subsidies have been used to cover the costs of certain foods. Since the Ministry directly or through its agents buys all imported and a large part of homeproduced foodstuffs, its selling price is lower than its buying price for the products subsidized.

Subsidized products

The subsidized products include meat, milk, cheese, butter, bread, and potatoes — the least dispensable foods from the nutritional point of view. The subsidies are vital to the health and efficiency of the low income groups, to the Government’s wage policy, and to public morale. The money cost to the Exchequer has been repaid many times over by the stability which subsidies have introduced into the war economy through savings to consumers in living costs.

The prices and supplies of clothing and most articles of civilian consumption other than food are regulated through the Board of Trade. Thus two departments — the Ministry of Food and the Board of Trade — control almost all civilian consumption. Control of supplies, control of prices, and rationing are placed in the same hands. British administrators have little faith in price ceilings with legal penalties for violations, unless at the same time government control is established over supplies and distribution and is administered through the department which controls the prices.

Food rationing in the war economy

For a wide range of scarce consumers’ goods the British have not merely controlled supply and the channels of distribution but they have also controlled consumer demand by rationing. Rationing was necessary (1) to make price control effective, (2) to ensure equitable distribution, and (3) as part of a nutrition program designed to provide everyone with a proper share of foods needed to maintain health and production.

Food rationing is an outstanding success in the British war economy. This is agreed both by those who have studied it objectively and by those who have lived under it. Methods of rationing have been adapted to meet the different conditions of demand and supply of various products and the differing nutritional importance of various foods.

There are three main forms of rationing. The first consists in a fixed amount of a single product over a period of time — for example, a weekly ration per person of 2 ounces of butter, 4 ounces of margarine, 4 ounces of cheese. The rations of some of these products have been changed at times — for instance, in the worst period the cheese ration was only 2 ounces. But changes are not frequent and the present rations of this group of commodities have remained constant, with the result that people have grown used to them.

The second form of rationing is designed to deal with perishable products of a fluctuating supply—milk and eggs, for example. Consumers register with their retailers, and distributions are made in accordance with the supplies available in any period. The egg ration to adults varies from one to five a month. There is no marking or clipping of coupons as in the first group.

The third form of rationing is the “points system.” It covers a miscellaneous variety of products in short supply but no one of which is indispensable or so much in general demand as the products covered by the other forms of rationing. The consumer is allowed at present 20 points per month. Each product is given a certain number of points per unit: for example, at present, a can of grade 3 salmon and one pound of prunes each cost 8 points. The number of points given to each product is changed from time to time in accordance with changes in demand and supply.

Each of these three forms of rationing is designed to meet different conditions. Any attempt to apply one of them over the whole range of products would have had unfortunate results. For example, any attempt to apply the points scheme to cover all products would lead to inequities. The points system regulates aggregate demand for a group of products. It does not necessarily ensure a minimum ration of any one basic indispensable food. Though it diminishes inequality of shopping opportunity, it does not eliminate it.

War experience has shown that an individual fixed ration of a single essential product is usually taken up, even if the person did not in pre-war days consume so much as the wartime ration. Cheese consumption — vital to British wartime nutrition—is almost certainly higher on a fixed individual ration than it would be if cheese were on the points scheme.

Food and the children

Rationing has been an instrument of general welfare and health policy. The Milk Scheme guarantees to each child under five and to each nursing mother a specified quantity of milk free if the income of the parents is below certain levels calculated to take account of the number of children in the family, and at a special low price if the income of the parents is above those levels. Children and nursing mothers are also given substantial priorities in the distribution of eggs, the price of which is kept low by subsidy to enable low income groups to take up priority rations. Cod liver oil and orange juice or black currant puree or rose hip puree have been distributed free for infants. Imported oranges have been wholly reserved for children’s ration books.

Food has been allocated among establishments so as to give larger per capita amounts of some of the most important rationed foods to canteens in factories and workplaces, to “British restaurants,” and to restaurants in working-class districts. “British restaurants” are communal feeding establishments set up by local authorities with the financial encouragement of the Ministry of Food. They serve good meals for the equivalent of 20 to 25 cents.

These and other welfare measures are closely related to the general anti-inflation policy, the price policy, and the wages policy. They not only protect health and sustain morale but also help to reconcile workers to sacrifices of much that they enjoyed in peacetime.

The policy of stabilizing the cost of living index with the aid of government subsidies, where necessary, is fundamental to the whole wartime structure, both as a means of preventing inflation and, with the aid of rationing, as a means of securing equitable distribution. Rationing of basic necessities without keeping their prices down with the aid of subsidies would lead to conditions in which low income groups could not buy the rations to which they were entitled.

Unity of purpose

In conclusion I want again to emphasize the interrelations of these policies. They have been molded into an integrated whole. The administrative lines are clear-cut. The policies have been accepted politically and are supported by both organized employers and organized labor. In spite of the compulsory elements in the British system, one is constantly aware that the authorities assumed by the Government are with the consent of the people and have the support of the people. The most moving thing in England today is its unity of purpose.