March 5, 2010 10:56 pm

Defining Moment: Tate & Lyle squares up to the Labour government, July 28 1949

Cartoon character stands up against nationalisation of the sugar industry

On July 28 1949, a strange cartoon character appeared for the first time on packets of sugar manufactured by Tate & Lyle. Tate & Lyle was Britain’s leading brand of sugar and these packets entered almost every household in the land. The cartoon was of a cube-shaped, sparky-looking man with spindly arms and legs, angrily crossing out the S in “State” to leave “Tate”. He was Mr Cube the sugar lump, and over the next two years he was to become as familiar and popular a character in Britain as Aleksandr the Meerkat is today.

Mr Cube was Tate & Lyle’s aggressive response to the Labour government’s pledge of April 1949 to nationalise the sugar-refining industry. Capable of an endless variety of facial expressions and simple enough to be easily printed, he spouted speech-bubble slogans such as “State control will make a hole in your pocket and my packet”, “Leave it to private enterprise” and “If they juggle with sugar they’ll juggle with your shopping basket”. The message was always the same: under nationalisation there would be less choice, sugar would cost more and the quality would decline.

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The Attlee government had already founded the National Health Service and nationalised the coal and steel industries. But Mr Cube’s campaign helped to crystallise a growing popular mood against state controls. In these years of rationing and austerity, sugar had become a symbol of the sweet things in life that, four years after the end of the war, people now thought of as their due. (Sugar was one of the last items to come off the ration, in September 1953.)

One newspaper cartoonist depicted the 1950 general election as a bicycle race between Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill, with Attlee hampered by Mr Cube clinging to his coat tails. Although Labour narrowly won this election, the Tories defeated them in October 1951 and were to remain in power for the next 13 years. The threat of further nationalisation was over and Mr Cube retired, his work done.

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