12 AUGUST 1905, Page 8

OUR FOOD-SUPPLIES IN WARTTME. T HE Report of the Royal Commission

on the Supply of Food and Raw Material in Time of War, which was published on Wednesday, is on the whole a satis- factory document, though it suffers from the usual dis- tracting crop of Minority Reports and reservations. When we say that the Report is on the whole satisfactory, it must not, however, be supposed that we do so because the result is optimistic, and goes to show that we are in less danger from having our supplies of food and of raw material cut off than is often alleged. We have had of late too many soothing assurances in the matter of national security to make us anything but prima facie suspicious of smooth things from official sources. Indeed, we were inclined at first sight to regard the Report with doubt because its conclusions are so "comfortable." If, however, it is considered carefully and without bias, it will be seen that they are based upon reason and fact, and are not the outcome of any desire to apply a soothing poultice to the national anxiety. The main Report has throughout the ring of a genuine document, and we have a further assurance of its bona fides in the fact that the Commission was presided over by Lord Balfour of Burleigh, and that its drafting is understood to have been his work. Lord Balfour is no professional optimist, but essentially a man with a sound business brain and great business experience, and we may be certain that he would not have taken the responsibility for the Report unless he was convinced that it represented the weight of the evidence heard by the Commission.

Shortly, the verdict of the main Report is that there is no reason to fear that in time of war our food-supplies and our supplies of raw material would be seriously endangered. We should get the imports necessary to feed our people and to keep our manufactures going, if not in undiminished volume, at any rate in sufficient quantities to prevent national disaster. But though this is the general conclusion of the Commissioners, they admit that at the beginning of the war there might be a very dangerous panic rise in prices, especially as regards food, and so that considerable injury might be done to the poor. No doubt one of the first results of such a rise would be the bringing about of conditions tending to cure the evil of high prices. Directly wheat reached a certain price there would come an instant economy in its consumption and a large use of cheaper substitutes. But such a process, by diminishing the demand, would tend to lower the price to reasonable dimensions. Again, the temporary existence of famine prices would instantly make the whole corn trade of the world desperately eager to send corn here,—to a place where it could be sold at prices which would make fortunes in a few days. panic rise of ten shillings a quarter in the English market when the actual corn-supply of the world was undimmished would draw corn here from the uttermost parts of the earth. Such a rise would, as it were, automatically load the ships in a thousand harbours and direct their course to England. The Commission recognises, however, that in spite of these facts everything should be done to smooth the path of supply, and encourage men to run all risks to get supplies into this country. Just as panic 'kills more men than plague, so panic does more injury to trade than the actual captures of an enemy. The dread that their ships will be taken and confiscated, no matter what may be the theories of international law, prevents shippers from showing their usual enterprise in sending cargoes during a war. In these circumstances, it isclearly wise to try to discover some plan which will eliminate the war risks from commerce,—some plan under which the Government can say to the trader : "Go ahead with your trade as if there were no war at all, and we will protect you from any injurious consequences." The most primitive way of carrying this out is the convoy. The Government guarded the trader's ship from its port of departure to its destination. Under modern conditions, however, the convoy is far too cumbrous a system for universal adoption. Next comes the suggestion for some plan under which Government will cheaply insure vessels and their cargoes against wax risks. Lastly comes the proposal which the Commission favours, and, as we think, rightly favours,—that is, a proposal for some system of national indemnity. The Commission, how- ever, does not construct any definite system, but suggests that a small Committee should be appointed withotit delay to consider details and report to the Government.

Such a scheme has always been strongly supported by the Spectator, and we hold that if the present Royal Commission had done nothing else, it would have achieved a truly national work in making this recommendation. We do not, of course, consider ourselves competent to lay down the precise plan for national indemnity which should be adopted. The main principle, however, is clear enough. The Government should in time of war say in effect to the shipper and the merchant :—" Insure your ships and your cargoes as usual against ordinary marine risks. If your ships are lost by ordinary peril of the sea, you will get your indemnity from the insurers. If, how- ever, your ship or cargo is lost through the action of the enemy, we will indemnify you for that loss. In other words, we will issue you a free policy against war risks equal to the amount at which you would have effected a bora-fide peace insurance." The results of such a full indemnity could. not but be most beneficial to trade carried on under War conditions. It would sweep away at once those panic prices which, as we have pointed out, often prove so injurious and so unnecessary. It would keep the river of supply flowing smoothly, and it would prevent any necessity for transfers of shipping to foreign flags which, though they are made so easily during war, are by no means so easily cancelled after peace. At the same time, the actual loss likely to fall upon the Government because they had adopted the policy of national indemnity would. be by no means great. It is the dread of capture, not the actual captures, which ruins commerce in wartime. Even if a Govern- ment paid £10,000,000 during a great naval war for ships captured, the resulting security from panic prices would. be cheap at the price. But granted that we had not lost command of the sea, and were not therefore at the mercy of the enemy, it is highly doubtful whether £10,000,000 worth of captures would take place. The knowledge that the loss would be a Government loss would, it is needless to point out, make the Admiralty especially vigilant in hunting down salt-water thieves like the Alabama.' We trust that this recommendation of the Commission will not be ignored and forgotten by the Government, as too often happens in such cases, but that the suggested Committee will be appointed forthwith, a scheme prepared, and. legislation based upon it introduced without delay. In our opinion, it is essential that the necessary Act should be passed in peacetime. If we postponed action till a declara- tion of war had taken place, immense harm might be done to the national interests even in the first few days of the war, and before a Bill could be hurried through Parliament. We want the trader to feel during the weeks of dread and anxiety that go before a war. : "Well, even if there is a war, the war risks won't affect my pocket, and therefore I can safely afford to go on just as usual making preparations to discharge food-supplies and raw material in British ports."

The Royal Commission heard a great deal of evidence in regard to various schemes for the storage of wheat in England. The main Report, however, comes to the con- clusion, and on grounds which we cannot help thinking are right, that no system of storage is really required. It suggests, nevertheless, that an experiment might be tried with a scheme for the free rental of store- room. Such a scheme was definitely laid before the Commission by Mr. Marshall Stevens on behalf of the Trafford Park Estates Company, of which he is managing director. This scheme is endorsed in the statement of reservations and supplementary Reports signed by the Duke of Sutherland, Mr. Chaplin, and three other Commissioners. Under Mr. Stevens's scheme the Government would place at the disposal of importers a large amount of free store-room. They would, that is, pay rent for any one who would keep grain in store for a stated period. Mr. Stevens suggests as an experiment that the Government should pay £12,500 per annum to his Company for accommodation for five hundred thousand quarters of grain, and that this accommodation should be open to all dealers of corn free of any charge in rent. It is not, of course, argued that this amount of storage would be sufficient; but if the experiment were successful, the Government might on the same lines offer to store larger amounts.

We do not object to the experiment on the ground of expense, but we are not convinced that its extension would result in a real increase in the stores of corn kept in this country. We .very much doubt whether this end would be secured, and whether the effect of the Govern- ment's action would not simply be to get rid of the present system of private storage. We should practically have no more corn in hand than we have now, but the Govern- ment would be spending £120,000 a year—the cost of storing a two months' supply free—which might be better spent in the upkeep of, say, three battleships. On the. whole, though we do not wish to he dogmatic, we are inclined to think that the wisest plan will be to trust to a comprehensive and thorough system of national indemnity in the first place, and secondly to a Fleet so powerful that a call on the national indemnity fund would not be likely to be very large. That seems to us the bolder course to pursue, and also the safer one, and there- fore the most businesslike. As far as we know, national storehouses against emergencies, though they have often been discussed, and sometimes tried, have not hitherto been, a success. Hoarding grain partakes too much of the nature of passive defence, and is in essence a kind of. abnegation of the principle that in the command of the sea is to be found the only true safety of this realm. At the same time, if after due consideration the Government believe that it would be wise to try the experiment at a cost of £12,500 a year, we should raise no objection to such a course of action, though we should entertain little hope of its proving of practical value.