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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 James Brown Mr James Brown , South Ayrshire

I am not sure whether the last speaker has blessed the Amendment or cursed it. I do not understand arguments such as these, but I am lather sorry that some hon. Members who have spoken have left the Chamber before their arguments were answered. Some statements have been made which could not be substantiated, and many statements have been made which are not worth an answer at all. The Prime Minister made some assumptions. I did not gather from the hon. Member whom he castigated that he was out for direct action. I did not gather that if this Amendment was not carried we should be going into the country preaching revolution. No sane miner and no sane miners' leader wants any such catastrophe, if our case is not a good one it will fall to the ground. But this is not the tribunal which will decide our case. The tribunal which will decide our case is the constituencies of the country, and we could not expect to carry all the other trades with us if we were out for the selfish motives which have been attributed to us by many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen to-night. We have to prove our case. I am sure we shall be able to prove it from whatever point of view we approach it. Whether you take safety or economy or output, or whatever you may take, I think the miners and the miners' leaders will be able to prove their case for the nationalisation of the coal mines. Some of the speakers to-night based their arguments on their experience. If I were basing my arguments on practical experience, and if experience counts for anything, they ought to have a great deal of weight. I have worked 29½ years below-ground. I am not boasting of that, but I am not in the least ashamed of it either, and it has given me some reason to know the conditions which obtain in the miners' life. If this Amendment is carried, or if a little later we are able to get nationalisation for the country, more safety will be secured for our men, and there can be no doubt at all that economy will be effected in the working of the mines.

It has got into many people's heads that nationalisation will be a bad thing for the country and for the people as a whole. I do not understand how that idea has got into people's heads. Why should it be bad for the country, because you are not going to change very much by nationalising the mines as we propose to nationalise them. How are the mines worked to-day? They are manned by men who have come through every grade of the coal pits. There are some people who are managing to-day who have not worked at all the grades, but the Government has seen to it that they must serve a certain number of years before they are allowed to manage a mine, and the men who are managing mines to-day have at some time in their lives been ordinary workers in the coal pits. You are afraid of nationalisation because it is going to hurt the people of the country, but who are the people of the country? Not the directors only. Not the owners. Not any of these people. The people of the country are all the classes in the country. I daresay nationalisation as we propose it would ultimately hurt some. It would certainly get rid of a great many of the directors who draw fees to-day without any special knowledge or any special qualifications. I am certain it would hurt the middlemen, who have been the ruination not only of the coal trade but of every other trade. The middlemen today are drawing more on the average per ton than the coal-getter is getting for producing the coal. We would eliminate, him and I am afraid we should not deal too tenderly with many of the shareholders.

8.0 P.M.

It has been said to-night that the shareholders will continue to draw the dividends which accrue from time to time, but do hon. Members know what they are talking about when they say that 5 per cent. or 5½ per cent. would recoup many of the shareholders for the great dividends they are drawing? When we know that colliery concerns are paying 10 per cent., 15 per cent., 20 per cent., 25 per cent., and as high as 30 per cent., it shows that those vast sums of money will be better going into the coffers of the State than going into the pockets of these shareholders, and when we talk about setting up nationalisation we are talking about trying to do something for the benefit of the community as a whole and not only for the miners, although I hope the miners will benefit also. Any scheme which might be set up to benefit the miners alone would stand self-condemned and certainly would not have the support of any of the miners' leaders, because in carrying this fight through successfully we have to depend upon very many more people than the miners of the country. We have to take all the trades along with us. We have to show that nationalisation will not only be good for us, but for them. Good from the standpoint of the producer and good from the standpoint of the consumer. The leaders of the other trade unions and the men in those trade unions are not going to assist us in carrying through any scheme that will be detrimental to the interests of the country as a whole. Therefore, we have to carry these people with us. We have to show-that our scheme is reasonable, and that it is based on figures that are indisputable. We have to prove that it would be economical. We have to show that it will be conducive to safety, and when we have done that we shall have made out a fairly decent case. Development has been mentioned. It has been said that development cannot be carried out in the same way under nationalisation as it has been under private enterprise. I do not see why the nation, however much you subdivide it, cannot develop the industry much more safely and take the risk that any ordinary private individual can take. We know that the nation would develop the industry far better and along stronger lines than the development has been in the past. While there was an element of risk the developers in the past were always fairly sure of a return. It is no use talking about the risks of these great combines and limited companies. Their great concern is the paying of high dividends, and on capital that should have a different denomination than appears in the balance sheet. As to the question of economy I know very well what I am talking about, and, indeed, I think I know what I have been talking about all along, I am not merely alluding to the economies that will be effected by the elimination of the middle man and of the directors and their fees, and many of these combines, whose chief purpose and whose birth was for the earning of great profits: I am talking about the profit to the nation in the saving of the coal of the nation. Every practical man must deplore the fact that a great deal of what the Prime Minister has rightly described as the lifeblood of the nation has been lost every year because of the lack of co-ordination and co-operation, and because the mineral happened to be below the land of different estates. Barriers are erected, and you dare not cross the line. Owners, anxious to secure profits as speedily as possible and then retire as millionaires, are very careless of the smaller scams. A great deal of waste occurs because they leave the small coal in the mines. The poorer quality of coal is not worked, and there are millions of tons of coal to-day under the surface of British soil that will never be recovered for this nation. If we had nationalisation we could easily co-ordinate and co-operate so that very little coal would be left underground. There would be no fear of a barrier. The State would be able to work the seams in a way that a private company could never hope to work them, and thereby secure for the nation a minimum of the loss that accrues from the mad rush for wealth and dividends amongst the companies to-day.

My last point is safety. We know that absolute safety is impossible. Whatever system we devise there will be many accidents in the mines. The hazardous nature of the occupation precludes us from imagining that we shall ever be free from accidents. We shall have accidents, whatever care we take. I was surprised at the hon. Member for North Lanark saying that the Government has done nothing for safety during the last fifty years. Has he heard nothing about a man named Macdonald? Does he know nothing on this subject? Of course, he knows all about it, but it suited his purpose at the moment to say that if it had not been for private enterprise, very few of the safety appliances that we have to-day, and very little of the safety legislation we have on the Statute-book, would have been brought about. It is idle to talk in that way. If it had not been for the strength of the organisations and for the resolution of the miners' organisations that safety must come first, even the Government would not have given us the Acts of Parliament that we enjoy to-day. Hut after all that has been said, we know that there are a great many accidents that could be avoided. What is the use of quoting Germany to us, or our Colonies? If you reduce the accidents to the figures which have been given, what is the use of it when we know that amongst our fellow-workers every working day in Great Britain there are five souls sent into eternity, and every year 170,000 accidents occur which have to be registered. We must do everything in our power to bring about safety in the mines. Those who know anything about mining difficulties know of the dire distress that comes upon the community when some great disaster occurs; but who registers the individual deaths that are occurring all over the country, which are as great a loss to the household as the death of those lost in the great disaster? If the mad rush for profits were curtailed, if managers were allowed to develop along safety lines and not under the pressure of the shareholders when dividends are small, many of these accidents could be prevented. We know that even the man who is working on piecework sometimes gets careless as to what happens in order to be able to produce a sufficient return on his work, and how much more is that the case with regard to managers who are determined to do everything they can so that they may escape the censure of the shareholders?

On every count it would be easy to make out a case for the carrying of this Amendment to-night. I trust that hon. and right hon Gentlemen will take into consideration this fact that we are not seeking to do anything that will bring disaster upon the country. We are trying to do something for the miner that will make his lot a little easier and happier, and we are trying to do something for the rest of the country, so that miner and consumer alike will benefit in the legislation which we hope will be brought about as a result of the by-elections and of the General Election when it comes. Then all will benefit and we shall be able to do our very best for this old country of ours.