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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 Mr William Lunn Mr William Lunn , Rothwell

It is apparent that something should be done by this House to deal with the coal industry. In the King's Speech there is a paragraph devoted to problems which must be settled upon an enduring basis. I do not intend to deal with my hon. Friend who has last spoken. Half of his speech tells us that he has been a great supporter of nationalisation, which we know; the other half tells us that he has changed his opinion, and that he is going to nail his flag to some mast or other some day in the future. I think we had better wait until we know to what mast it is likely to be attached. I do not claim to put the case for nationalisation in anything like the eloquent manner in which it has been placed before the House by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Brace). I would rather that the Prime Minister had followed my right hon. Friend and had given any answer which the Government may have to give on the question of nationalisation. It will be interesting to know what is to be the position of the Government towards the proposal. I have never changed my views upon nationalisation. More than 30 years ago I started to vote for resolutions favouring nationalisation in the mining industry. I vote for them to-day, and the only difference between then and now is this, that for many years they were pious resolutions which did not seem to get much further than the branch meetings where they were passed, but that since the armistice we have seen an awakening of the people, and that to-day we believe the mass of the people in this country is anxious that nationalisation of the coal industry shall be brought about.

Mention has been made of the fact that there has been a campaign throughout the Kingdom. I supposed that that would be minimised in importance, but it has been almost like a general election campaign to those who have taken part in it, judging by the enthusiasm and crowds at the meetings. The campaign has been boycotted by the press of this country, largely because the press is in the hands of opponents of nationalisation and is financed by them. If they agree to boycott in that manner it may be necessary to consider means whereby we may prevent the newspapers being bought by the people. If newspapers are not bought by the people they will soon cease to be published. That will be the position regarding the press. There can be no settlement of this question, let me say that definitely, short of nationalisation. I am sufficiently interested in the idea that it should be settled in a constitutional manner to feel that I would rather this House took advantage of the offer that is made to-day in the Amendment, and that the Government should declare itself favourable to nationalisation. If they do not I think it is their last chance; I think it is this Government's last chance to-day to say whether or not they are prepared to nationalise the mines. I am convinced of this, that the conference that is to be held within a few days will decide very definitely according to the answer given by the Government to-day. It may be that the decision will be for a great national strike. I am not anxious for a strike; I am still a believer in the power of the vote and in the use of the vote at the ballot box. I have had experience of strikes. I know what a strike means in a home where there are a good number of children; and I say this, that I hope the workers will never relinquish the power to strike while we have private ownership in industry. Whatever the decision of the Conference I believe it will be loyally adopted and fought for by the workers throughout the length and breadth of the land. It may be said that the funds will not last long if we go on strike. We do not always fight on funds, unfortunately. We have not always plenty of funds when we are on strike, but a strike is bitterer and keener when starvation is at its greatest point. So you must not imagine that because we do not happen to have any funds it is going to stop the possibility of a strike.

You may prepare for it, as we gather it is being prepared for, in the provision of machine guns and tanks and all such things as that, for the miners and other workers when they come out on strike. That will not affect it at all. The fight will go on, because we intend that the mines shall be nationalised. Take that very definitely in this House. You talk about it as a class resolution and as a sectional interest which we are seeking to defend. In no trade union meeting have I seen such class interest as I have seen from those benches opposite during the last Session of Parliament Never in my life have I seen it displayed as I have seen it displayed here. My contention is that this is a most unselfish proposal on the part of the miners. It is the most unselfish proposal that I know of. After all, if we took the suggestion of the Government and agreed as miners that we would become part of those gigantic trusts that are to be set up in the Kingdom, is that in the interest of the community? Is that not the creation of a wider and more vicious circle than exists to-day? We do not desire that. We are anxious that the community should come into this. We are not only anxious but we mean that the community shall be brought into it, and that nationalisation shall be the only remedy. No suggestion of co-partnership, no suggestion of profit-sharing, will meet the position at all. The miners are not prepared to listen to profit-sharing under private ownership as we have it to-day. With all respect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Whitley Councils do not meet the position at all. We have had the Whitley Council idea of sitting on the opposite side of the table in the industry for a generation. We have been as near perfect in that matter as it was possible to be, and yet we have always known that the balance was heavily weighted and that after all our position was under the table.

We are not asking in this proposal simply for an increase in wages. We know that in good trade and after wars have taken place, wages are fairly high. We are not asking for that now, nor do we imagine that any increase in wages would satisfy the miners for a moment, whatever the increase was Is there any Member in this House who believes that the railway men's case is finally settled by fixing their wages upon a fictitious cost of living? Is there anybody who imagines that even after the brilliant address by Mr. Bevan before the Industrial Court, that if they obtain the 16s. a day, that that is going to settle the claims of the dockers? No, Sir, we mean more than that. There is a different aspiration in the minds of the workers to-day, and they desire something more even than bread and butter, and the unrest which you saw last year was only as a spark in my opinion as to what we are likely to have in the near future in support of this idea. I think this will be a volcano that will come forward from the industrial movement in order to realise the nationalisation of the mines. We have had the Mines Commission as a result of a miners' ballot, and the miners' ballot that was taken last year, though I suppose it would be repudiated by some people, decided by 609,000 to 100,000, and it was an individual ballot in favour of mines nationalisation. We did not ask for the Commission. We opposed the Commission, but we welcomed the relevations that have come forward as a result of that Commission. We are deeply grateful to the men who sat upon the Commission from our side. Messrs. Smillie, Hodges and Herbert Smith have won the undying gratitude of every miner in this kingdom. Then you may say, we had three others who were looking after the interests of the workers, and again I say, our thanks are due to Messrs. Tawney, Sidney Webb and Money. What of the Chairman? I remember when the Chairman was suggested in this House, his name was welcomed by all parties and it was applauded by everybody. I do not wish to say more upon that than my right hon. Friend said. He was accepted as the one man who could be Chairman of a Commission of that kind. He was applauded to the skies as one of the cleverest and greatest judges we had upon the Bench and as a man who could weigh evidence carefully and accurately, and because he gave the full light of day during that Commission to everything in connection with that industry, and did not cloak it up, as some people would have liked, that is the reason, I suppose, why we have had questions after the Report asking the Government that in future they should not appoint a Judge of the High Court as chairman of an industrial Commission. The Report was clear and understandable, and has been amply dealt with by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Brace).

There is one thing about which much has not been said this afternoon, and which will have to be borne in mind, and which is known by a few Members of this House, and that is the conditions under which the miners earn their livelihood. I come from the county of Yorkshire, where we have all kinds of mines. We have very shallow mines with very thin seams, whore the men have to work in very cramped positions, and we have mines where the travelling is bad. We have some of the deepest mines in the Kingdom, and in some of them, as was shown by witnesses at the Commission, there is bad ventilation and the temperature in which men are trying to live of over 90 degrees. There are poisonous gases in which men are working. We know that the effects of those kind of things cannot be to the advantage or to the better healthy conditions of those men. A mine like that is not a health resort, and what does it mean when you have more than 2,000 men and boys employed in such mines, and that is the case in large numbers of our mines. Then take the accidents which happen, and the number of men that are killed every year, and the 160,000 men who come within the Compensation Act every year. Whatever may be the position of the Government, I feel that the miners have come to the conclusion that they are not going now for the future to leave the safety of life and limb in the hands of private owners of the industry. An hon. Member alluded to the fact that the majority of the Commission had not reported in favour of the nationalisation of the mines. This Amendment distinctly deals with the nationalisation of the mines, not with anything else, and which was left out of the King s Speech. I believe I am correct in saying that in the Report of the Commission the whole six on one side, along with the chairman of the Commission, agreed upon the point that the mines of the nation should be nationalised. That is where I think the correctness of the position comes in in favour of the nationalisation of the mines in the Majority Report. There are other matters around this nationalisation which are of importance. There is the home life of the miner, which has never been taken into consideration by the private employer as it is to-day. Some of our worst housing conditions are in mining districts, and in every county one finds horrible conditions of housing. In south Yorkshire we have had the development of a coalfield, the richest perhaps we are likely to have in the Kingdom during the last ten years, which has not provided housing for the people who have been necessary to work that industry. There is no happiness and no comfort in many of those homes where there are four or five families living in an ordinary cottage house. You have thousands of men living away from their homes and families in lodgings in those districts, and what comfort and home life can they have under conditions like those. The three miners' wives who gave evidence before the Commission, gave to the country an idea of what is the home life of the miner. That is a part of this business which must be remedied from what it has been in the past.

I am not going to go into the question of the royalties as we have had it here this afternoon, except to say this, that from all the evidence that was given before the Commission they were convicted out of their own mouths with regard to the ownership of the royalties. Personally I will say, and I am no hypocrite in this matter, I absolutely agree with the miners that no compensation should be paid to the royalty owners. I could never believe that God placed in the bowels of the earth, the coal for the benefit of less than 4,000 people out of the 45,000,000 in this country. I could never believe that. Having had the advantage of these royalties ever since coal was found, I sincerely hope the miners are determined to fight on that point and that no compensation shall be paid to them. It is a different position with regard to the coal owners. My right hon. Friend has dealt with that, and I agree with everything that he has said. You talk of patriotism, and you talk of love of country. We had the revelation from the mining industry that during the five years of war, when millions of the best of mankind went from this country to fight the nation's battle, and when 850,000 people were killed and 2 millions wounded, the mining industry was yielding far more profits than the estimated value of the mines of this country. That is the sort of patriotism you get from them, and that is the sort of thing which we believe should be changed, and there is no change that can be suggested to-day short of public ownership and democratic control. One hon. Member said, "Are you going to end with this?' Certainly not. I do not suppose there is a workman in this country who thinks we are going to end with the ownership of the mining industry. We desire to see every industry owned by the nation and worked in the interests of the nation. "But," you will say, "that is Socialism," and you will throw out that idea. But to-day that has lost a lot of what it used to mean, and it does not mean the same to-day to say that it is Socialism as it would have twenty years ago. Most people have got to understand it, and not only manual workers, but men and women who earn their living otherwise, are giving their support to the establishment of Socialism in this country. Suppose that this Amendment is not accepted by the Government, and a strike comes about, then we shall be described as anarchists, Bolshevists, and all that sort of thing. But have they not lost their glamour in the minds of the people to-day? I think they have, and instead of such explanations and such epithets, you will have to look further afield in order to condemn us in this matter. I have been a miner and so was my father. I am desirous of seeing the mining question settled on an enduring basis. I desire to see peace in the industry in the interests of the nation. I am as convinced as ever I was of anything in my life that there is no possible solution short of public ownership of the industry. Convinced of that, I feel it is the one thing I should fight for, since my life has been wrapped up in the industry I am proud to know this, that the miners have adopted the words of Shelley, and are rising like lions after their long slumber in unvanquishable number, and moreover they are realising that "we are many and ye are few."