It must have been on a Sunday afternoon that The Men from the Ministry was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme. It is hard to imagine my grandparents would have sat in their front room listening to the wireless at any other time. In memory, programmes like The Clitheroe Kid and The Navy Lark shared a similar Sunday afternoon airing, but that might be simply a conflation of childhood impression.
The Men from the Ministry abides because, on a small Somerset farm, “the ministry” meant only one thing, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
The Ministry was regarded with fear and resentment, its inspectors were seen as inquisitive and critical. The years of the Second World War had seen the emergence of an organisation that dominated farming, that directed policy and micromanaged its implementation. The men from the ministry might arrive in the farmyard at any moment, checking on all that was happening, asking to see livestock, production records, paperwork.
In wartime, the interference was accepted. After the war, my grandfather felt that the government should have stood back and left farming to the farmers. He believed much of the government’s intervention had been counterproductive, that its attempts to direct production were inefficient, that subsidies were a mistaken policy.
Men from the ministry seemed still to be arriving at the farm for various reasons when I was a child in the 1960s, although I suspect “the ministry” was a term used to cover anyone who worked for any government body.
Perhaps it was a feeling toward the men from the ministry that nurtured a suspicion of all authority.
Authorities seemed to do little to assist the small man. If you were a big farmer or a big businessman, you always had the influence that was necessary to ensure that policies were interpreted by officials in a way that was advantageous to you. If you were a small farmer or a small businessman, then policies and the regulations they brought, were rarely to your advantage. Even record-keeping and paperwork were much easier on a farm where the farmer had workmen to continue his tasks, while he dealt with the forms, than they were on a farm where the farmer had to do everything himself.
Perhaps laughing at The Men from the Ministry on a Sunday afternoon, laughing at pomposity and incompetence and bureaucracy, was a small act of rebellion against the sort of official who might step into the yard on a Monday morning.