Skip Content

Howard League blog · 3 Nov 2017

With food prices rising, should we prepare for civil dissent?

We held a lively meeting with trustees to review the charity’s strategy this week. We were looking at the work of the Howard League and how we should focus our (quite meagre) resources in future. One of our trustees raised an alarming prospect that could derail all our, and the government’s, best-laid plans.

He works in public relations in the commercial world and is well-connected. He said that he understood the big supermarkets are planning for a 25 per cent increase in food prices as a consequence of Brexit, possibly quite quickly. Food prices have already risen, partly as a result of the plummet in value of the pound, and he told us that the big retailers expected that food in particular would become significantly more expensive.

On the same day, I saw that the LSE Centre for Economic Performance published a paper indicating that there has already been an increase in consumer prices, particularly in food prices, since the referendum (I have to declare a personal interest: the paper was jointly written by my nephew).

What do we think might happen if, as a result of deepening poverty and hunger, there is civil unrest?

The LSE paper says that there has been a distinct and substantial increase in food price inflation and that it is likely to get worse. The paper confirms the concern expressed by my trustee.

The LSE economists say this has important implications for how the vote has affected the purchasing power of different income groups as low-income households spend a higher proportion of their income on food than rich households. They point out that this is happening at a time when real incomes are falling.

The question my trustee posed for the Howard League to consider is: what do we think might happen if, as a result of deepening poverty and hunger, there is civil unrest?

If we look back at the judicial response the last time we had riots, it was draconian. Extremely punitive prison sentences were handed down with courts getting extremely excited by their powers and sitting late into the night to send teenagers to prison for stealing a bottle of water.

The initial resentment that triggered disorder in 2011 was exacerbated by the way the justice system responded

The prisons were suddenly flooded with young people who felt that they had been dealt with unjustly. The initial resentment that had triggered the disorder was exacerbated by the way the justice system responded.

Economic deprivation is worst outside London and the impact of sharply rising food prices would hit people hardest in areas where unemployment, food banks, mental and physical ill health are concentrated.

Hungry people do not normally riot, but there could be a return to the hunger marches of the 1930s and civil disturbances are a possibility that must be considered.

Of course, this is all speculative. It is possible that the pound could recover, that trade post-Brexit will flourish, that food and consumer prices will stabilise and good jobs will flood into the poorer areas of the country. But, if this does not happen, maybe we should think about what our response to civil dissent will be.

If we see hunger marches coming to lobby Parliament from across the north and Wales, what will the police and the courts do? What is the moral response to civil dissent due to severe economic hardship?


  • […] and poverty means hunger. Questions advocates for no-deal Brexit should be asking (and are not): how will households already struggling to feed their children cope when food prices rise and food availability […]

  • dr david seddon says:

    there can be no doubt that food price inflation on top of very large debt overhang for many households and stagnant incomes is likely to lead to increased hardship. If this is combined with a continuing roll-out of universal credit without substantial alteration (reducing the period of arrears and funding advance payments as necessary) there may well be a serious political reaction. I doubt, however, that ‘bread riots’ are likely. I have studied and written widely about popular protest in other parts of the world (see my book with John Walton on Free Markets and Food Riots) and am not convinced that we have yet reached that stage of desperation that collective forms of action like riots reflect. But a rise in petty crime, like shoplifting, theft, etc and an increase in gambling (in an attempt to get a big win) are certainly on the cards. But I could be wrong.

  • I am surprised there has not been civil disorder in the UK, given what the Torys have done to people with a lot more to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation