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Coal Mines (Nationalisation).

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 11th February 1920.

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Photo of Sir John Marriott Sir John Marriott , Oxford

We may be very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who moved the Amendment for the contrast in his tone. What was the first point on which he laid stress? It was that the Government had been absolutely unfaithful to the pledge which it had given to the Labour party. I am not greatly concerned to meet that argument; it is for others from the Government Bench to meet it. But I did notice that the right hon. Gentleman himself conditioned the pledge in the words which he used. I quote them from him, not from my own memory— The Government undertook to carry out the Report of the Sankey Commission if it proved to be a good business proposition. I believe we should all desire to carry out the recommendation of the Sankey Report if it proves to be a good business proposition. That is the whole question which we are here really to discuss. I do not for a moment, especially after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, suggest that this question of nationalisation should be judged by any other standard than that. It is not a question of economic theory, still less is it a question of ethical principle. The right hon. Gentleman made it perfectly clear that he and all those for whom he spoke were not prepared to sanction anything at all in the nature of confiscation. I accept unreservedly the assurances given by the right hon. Gentleman. My point for the moment is this: Accepting all his assurances, is ho prepared to base his claim, as I am prepared to base my case on the words which he himself quoted: If it proved to be a good business proposition. Then the right hon. Gentleman went on to lay great stress upon the fact that the Government was pledged to carry out the report. These are the terms of the Amendment which he has moved: Pledged to carry out the nationalisation of the coal mines on the lines recommended by a majority of the members of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry. We have heard a great deal about that Majority Report, but I put it to the House with all submission that there was no majority report of that Commission at all. There were four minority reports but there was no majority report. There was the Report of Mr. Justice Sankey; there was the Report of Sir Arthur Duckham, and there were other Reports, one by the miners' representatives and certain Fabian Socialists who sat upon the Commission, and the other the Report of the five coalowners and business men. There were four separate Reports and not one of these was a majority report. I hope that someone who speaks on behalf of the Labour party will tell us precisely what they mean in putting forward an Amendment which calls upon the House to adopt the recommendations of the majority of the Sankey Commission. All hon. Members opposite, I am sure, will remember that those whom they describe as the majority—at least I presume they are to be regarded as the majority—the six miners' representatives and the Fabian Socialists who, up to a point, agree with Mr. Justice Sankey, distinctly reserve certain points in Mr. Justice Sankey's Report. In the first place they laid down that The contracts of employment of workmen shall embody an undertaking to the effect that no workman will, in consequence of any dispute, join in giving notice to determine his contract, nor will ho combine to cease work. These are the words quoted by the right hon. Gentleman: unless and until the question in dispute has been before the Local Mining Council and the District Mining Council and those Councils have failed to settle the dispute. The second and third paragraphs, which I have here, embody a similar principle but affect larger areas of the organisation. These miners' representatives are those who signed the Report that, while they fully recognised the necessity of working rules and the importance of preventing unnecessary stoppages of the trade, they contended that the provisions laid down by Mr. Justice Sankey may be used—I am quoting their own words— may be used to impose upon the workers by law a particular form of contract, without their consent. I want to know from some hon. Member who will speak from the Benches opposite whether those words which I have quoted from what they call the Majority Report do or do not embody their opinions today? Do they stand by those words, that those provisions of Mr. Justice Sankey may be used to impose on the workers by law a particular form of contract without their consent? It is perfectly obvious what they mean by that. They tell us—I can very well understand their position—that, under what I may call the Sankey scheme, the individual wage earner may enjoy less freedom as the employé of the State than as the employé of a limited company. I think they are perfectly right. It is that lucidity of perception which, in my opinion, gives point and significance to a further suggestion which I quote from their own Report: With a view to securing the cordial cooperation of the workers in the success of the industry, it is necessary to provide for a fuller representation of the workers on the District and National Councils, on the lines indicated in the scheme submitted by Mr. W. Straker. I claim to have demonstrated my first point that when hon. Members refer to the Majority recommendations of the Sankey Report there is no such majority in existence, and to that extent the Amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend falls to the ground. I do not, however, want to argue on what may be regarded as a relatively trivial point. I want, if right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will permit me to do so, to come to as close grips as I can on the merits of the very important question which is before the House this afternoon. We are asked to accept the principle of nationalisation, in the first instance nationalisation applied to a particular industry—the coal industry. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last in his very interesting speech made it quite clear, as I shall demonstrate in a moment, that he does not accept—I quite understand that he does not accept it—the limitation implied in the Amendment. In the first place, we have to have some perfectly clear definition of the term which is under discussion. What do you really mean by this nationalisation? I have been a very close student of Trade Union Congresses. I have read their reports, if I have not been able to attend the Congress—which I try to do sometimes—with the closest possible interest. For twenty-five or thirty years Trade Union Congresses have been passing resolutions saying that they are in favour of the nationalisation of this or the nationalisation of that. The question I want to put to my hon. Friends opposite—perhaps they will be good enough to answer it a little later on—is this: Do they mean the same thing by the same word that they have meant during these twenty-five or thirty years? As we have understood nationalisation hitherto what it has meant is that the State should be substituted for the individual in regard first to ownership—the ownership of the land, the minerals, the capital, the machinery, and all the material means of production. That the State in the second place should be substituted for the individual as the director of industry. That the State should be substituted for the individual as the sole employer of labour. That the State should be substituted for the individual as the sole distributor of commodities. That is what we have understood by nationalisation. We have heard this afternoon that this system, or a modified system, is to begin with the coal mines, but the hon. Member (Mr. J. Jones) and many others do not mean to stop at the coal industry. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear!"] I am very glad to have that approving and endorsing cheer because it enables me to know all the better where we stand in the argument I am pursuing. We are only beginning with the coal mines, as Mr. Smillie said in December. Mr. Tom Mann, also at the Trade Union Special Congress in December, said: It was not the miners alone who required the control of their industry Each industry would come along with its programme until the general principles of socialisation had been effectively applied. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear!"] I am very glad we thoroughly understand one another on that. I am going to take it from my hon. Friends opposite that it is to be nationalisation all round and not for a particular industry. That is one point which I hope with great geniality we have established.

Having established that point, we approach the whole of this question—I am sure here again I shall have the assent of my hon. Friends opposite; I want to keep it as long as I can—with one very great controversial advantage. We are now in a position to appreciate much more clearly than we were able to do five years ago what nationalisation in practice would mean. Then we saw through a glass darkly into the dim recesses of the Post Office. Now I think we have seen face to face mammoth State Departments sprawling over parks and open spaces. We have had a foretaste of what State control of industry will mean—the apotheosis of bureaucracy, multitudes of officials, miles of red tape, tons of card indices and duplicators, cross currents of correspondence, an avalanche of papers, and violent gusts of public indignation. Do hon. Members opposite suggest that these experiments have been tried during the last five years under unfavourable conditions?