DON’T ask me why, but I was looking this week at a speech made in the House of Commons, 80 years ago by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston. He was reporting on the nation’s health in July 1942.

The country was almost three years into war and food supplies were at a premium. Imports had been decimated by the hazards of shipping. Yet the report Johnston provided was remarkably upbeat. The health of Scotland’s children had measurably improved since the war began.

In Glasgow, the Medical Officer of Health reported that children entering school had gained in both height and weight. Industrial Dumbarton showed “a consistent increase in height and weight in all age groups”. In Ayrshire, there was “a marked reduction in what the County Medical Officer describes as defective nutrition”. And so on.

The Glasgow report stated: “The net increase of about 1 lb. in weight for the five-year-old boys and girls seems to be unexpectedly high and may suggest an immediate response to the expanded scheme for the supply of milk to children under school age”. Rationing ensured that everyone had at least a minimum of decent food to eat.

There was, of course, plenty to be concerned about and the scourge of tuberculosis and prevalence of poor, overcrowded housing would have to wait until the war was won. But Johnston’s counter-intuitive report demonstrated a truth that is as relevant then as now – the diet of the nation largely determines its health and life prospects.

There was another factor in this triumph over adversity. Britain’s farmers were digging for victory. There was no such thing as idle, wasted land if it could instead be productive. Imports had been replaced by domestic production so that there was enough to go round, even if it was strictly rationed.

It is an interesting war-time cameo, driven by extreme circumstances. Extrapolating it to the present day is unrealistic but that does not mean there are no lessons to be drawn from history amidst dire predictions about millions of families being unable to eat or heat to the level that provides security and comfort.

The politics of food are too often overlooked yet are essential to the whole fabric of society, nationally and globally. They are now pressing in from so many directions that they cannot be ignored. Security of supply has long been taken for granted but the war in Ukraine has exposed how vulnerable some of our assumptions have been.

How many even knew that Ukraine was the world’s breadbasket on which so much of the global supply chain depends? Vladimir Putin certainly did and food diplomacy is as much a part of Russian strategy as the energy squeeze. As the impacts of the war ripple around the world, it makes more sense than ever for any country which is capable of self-sufficiency to pursue that goal. Sadly, there are many which cannot.

Then there is the question of affordability. At this point, the politics of food becomes inextricably linked to the wider question of wealth distribution. For those who can afford it, there will be no shortage of food. As the number who cannot afford it increases, the responsibility of government becomes inescapable – just as in wartime.

Rationing and price controls may be solutions from another age. But if they are politically unacceptable today, then there must be alternative ways of getting nutritious food into the bellies of poor children. All the talk about “levelling-up” is meaningless, unless that most basic of tests is addressed.

Education has a fundamental role to play. Eating cheaply does not mean eating badly. That was well understood in times past but the more that food promotion has been left to commercial interests, the less evident it has become. There is an opportunity now to ensure that basic food education is universally promoted – a far more sustainable option than relying on foodbanks to meet an ever increasing demand.

Leaving food supply to the market may seem like the best option – until something goes wrong, as is currently the case. When large numbers of people, within our own country, are unable to feed themselves and shelves are even a little bit bare, it is time to re-assess.

Food-banks have become widespread and provide an essential service. They offer however only a short-term response to what is now a long-term problem that is about to get much, much worse. In war-time, government could ensure that everyone had enough and the poor were protected. These are still the duties of any government, in practice as well as theory.

There are significant parallels with energy supply which is also causing us a lot of current problems. In recent decades, the default position has been to run down domestic generation and assume that imports, mainly of gas, will fill the breach. Security of supply became dependent on imports rather than indigenous production – which is fine, until suddenly it isn’t.

Similarly, we have become careless about food security. Production is global and we benefit from the diversity which imports provide. But why import when we can produce? A recent government paper said, “for the foods we can produce in the UK, we produce around 75% of what we consume”. A careful form of words which translates as “we import a quarter of what could equally well be produced here”.

Overall, we import almost half of what we eat. Does greater self-sufficiency within the UK not create an opportunity as well as a sensible insurance against the vagaries of global markets? Here in Scotland, instead of subsidising the fashion for “re-wilding”, should we not be looking at how more land can be brought back into productive use?

The overwhelming message is that the starting point should be a comprehensive food policy committed to ensuring that every citizen is entitled to an adequate diet at affordable cost. I doubt if that will feature in the Tory leadership debates where all the candidates appear well-fed and ideas-short.

That leaves a void for others to fill and they might start with the thought – if it was possible 80 years ago in time of war, it is equally possible in time of peace and immeasurably greater national prosperity.