I want to tell you a story, a true story, and a sad story. It is also a cautionary story. Once upon a time there was a greengrocer with one assistant living in Wolverhampton. Not many weeks ago a large official envelope fell through his letterbox with a resounding thud. It was from the Prices and Incomes Board, far away in London. It told him to fill up the enclosed questionnaire, which it said was being sent to a sample of retailers all over the country. The reason why was explained in language so beautiful that I must quote it without alteration. It was ‘to provide the Board with information relating to retailers’ costs and profit margins and to give the Board some indication of the characteristic features of the retailing of fresh fruit and vegetables’.
What a lucky man I am, thought the greengrocer, to be one of those called upon to do such exalted work, though I must say I think it would have been better still if Mr. Jones and his friends would come and join me at the market tomorrow morning at 5 a.m. Then the greengrocer looked at the questionnaire, and his brow clouded. His eye fell upon such items as ‘over the last five years has the percentage of fresh fruit and vegetables sold given in answer to question 6 (a) risen (b) remained the same (c) fallen slightly (d) fallen substantially? Tick where appropriate’.
Or this one: ‘List below the items over and above the purchase price of produce which you pay to the suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables.’ Or this poser: ‘What proportion of fresh fruit and vegetables sold by you are pre-packed?’ – the space has a percentage mark after it but no indication whether the potatoes are to be valued or counted. Finally the greengrocer has to send in his trading account for the last three financial years and give reasons if any why the figures for these years are not comparable.
As he ruminated on the time, expense and general distraction which the completion of this questionnaire would involve, the greengrocer became aware that he would be liable on summary conviction to a fine of £50 if he failed to complete it or did so ‘recklessly’. He also noticed another piece of paper included with the rest which gave him something of the background to his misfortune.
It appeared that there had been discussions between the Minister of Agriculture and a body called the National Federation of Fruit and Potato Trades Limited who had recommended their members to make an increase in prices to ‘cover rising costs and increased taxation’. There had also been representations by another body called the Retail Fruit Trade Federation Limited. He rubbed his eyes when he read, and read again, that the enquiry by the Prices and Incomes Board had been requested – yes, requested – by the first of the above-mentioned Federations and supported – yes, supported – by the second Federation. No wonder the First Secretary of State and Minister of Agriculture had ‘considered that this would be desirable’. Hence the envelope through the letterbox. So, reflected the greengrocer, it is apparently people like myself and those from whom I buy in the market, or rather Federations who purport to represent us, who have brought this evil upon me. They have actually asked that I shall be plagued with this enquiry so that the Board may have ‘some indication of the characteristic features of the retailing of fresh fruit and vegetables’. At the end presumably somebody is going to tell me what my customers will be willing to pay for the various goods I have to sell them.
Now the cautionary aspect of this story is that this envelope which came to the greengrocer is one of many thousands which are going out all the time to firms and persons, large and small, throughout the country, imposing huge irritation, waste of time and dislocation in order that the Prices and Incomes Board may accumulate a mountain of figures of varying value and accuracy – I forgot to tell you that the greengrocer is allowed to insert his ‘best estimate’ whenever ‘it is impossible to give exact percentages’ – from which they can proceed to the perfectly futile and absurd operation of stating what the market price of various goods and services is, or ought to be. They are doing so aided and abetted by two bureaucracies: the old bureaucracy of the state, now growing apace, whose habits we know perfectly well; and the new bureaucracy of the Federation of This and the Association of That, all busily at work making jobs for themselves and hanging an additional weight round the neck of my greengrocer and the rest of British commerce and industry.