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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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Major BARNES:

I am in full sympathy with this Amendment, and I intend to vote for it. Having said that, I think the Prime Minister was on very safe and strong ground when he intimated—and I think that he carried the bulk of the House with him—his opinion that this was not a proposal that could be carried by threats. That is, I think, a matter of general agreement. Somebody has said that there are men who are refreshed by a threat. I think that that statement is fairly true of this country as a whole. I am quite sure that nothing could be done more effectively to damage the case for nationalisation than to bark it up by threats. It would not only be wrong, but it appears to me that it would be foolish, because I think there is no necessity for it. Nationalisation is bound to come, and to come before very long. Therefore, those who support it, as I do and as the miners do, might very well wait. We shall not have to wait very long. Indeed, I think that it would not be altogether surprising if next year the Prime Minister should be standing at that box and making out a very excellent case for nationalisation. I have only been in the House for a year, but as I listened to him yesterday making out a case for trading with the Bolshevists I could not help thinking of the reception that even he, with those inimitable powers of persuasion which he has, would have had if he made that proposal a year ago. Times change, and we change with them. Events are stronger than opinion, and I think that a current as strong as that which has changed the opinion of this House upon Russia may very well change it upon this question of nationalisation.

But if he was on safe and strong ground with regard to these threats, I do not think he was on such good ground when he dealt with this question of incentive. For the purpose of his case it was necessary for him to disparage the incentive to public service. I cannot help thinking that this was unfortunate, and particularly unfortunate that it should have come from him, because if there is a man who stands before the public eye to-day as the shining example of public service without any incentive of private profit, that man is the Prime Minister himself, and I cannot help thinking that it is something in the nature of a national misfortune that from the lips of such a man in such a position there should have fallen anything disparaging of that labour for humanity which was referred to by the right hon. Gentleman who proposed this Amendment, and one cannot help thinking that it hardly lies in the mouth of the Prime Minister himself to utter such disparagement because great as his position is, and great as is the recognition of his countrymen of that position, yet I think that he would be the first to admit that he owes it very largely indeed to the sacrificing service of public servants in those great depart- ments of which he has been chief. And I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, who is now present, would also admit that he, as the head of a great department, owes a very great deal to the service of those who in that department have no such incentive of private profit as in the opinion of the Prime Minister is evidently the chief urge to great and good work.

It was one of the main points of the Prime Minister's speech that that incentive must be maintained in this great industry, and he said that we must not look to the war period for a parallel to see what may be done by motives which have no pecuniary interests behind them, because he said that in wartime you have a great appeal and there is great common danger, and there is a great national idea to which all respond. Some of us on this side think that one of the great businesses of the future is to get something of the same sort of idea out of war into peace. I cannot help thinking it is quite possible that the motives which led men to serve their country may also be the same kind of motives that might impel them to make that country, when safe, the sort of place we all want to live in. From that point of view I think it is particularly unfortunate than the Prime Minister has found it necessary to defeat this Amendment by the use of such an argument. Having said that it was vital that we should retain the incentive of profit, he gave as another reason against nationalisation that it would stop development. He said that a committee would not be likely to undertake the risk required to open up new coalfields. I am quite sure that the President of the Board of Trade would not have used that argument, and that if he were the Minister in charge of mines he would not be deterred by risk from engaging in now enterprises. He has shown that in the position which he now occupies There is an industry, known as the dye industry, which is regarded as being a key industry. I do not suppose it will be suggested for a moment that it is as vital to the country as the coal industry, but it is very important. What was the position? It was thought necessary to develop the dye industry and to find capital to develop it. It was difficult to get that capital from the ordinary investing public. Those who were concerned went to the Board of Trade, made representations on the matter, and the Government took the risk, acting no doubt on the advice of the President of the Board of Trade. The Government invested something like £2,000,000 in the dye industry, which I think is at least as speculative in character as the coal industry.

Can it be urged that a policy of that kind would not obtain under conditions such as nationalisation would bring about? Take another illustration. At the close of the last Session we passed a Bill granting a loan to the Persian Oil Company for development in Mesopotamia. Can it be believed that under nationalisation the Government, which will risk money in such a highly speculative business as development in Mesopotamia, would be afraid to risk it on coal in this country? It is not a tenable proposition. A very terrible picture was drawn by the Prime Minister of what was happening in Russia under the present Bolshevik administration. I do not know how much longer arguments like that will continue to be used, but I suppose not very much long after a period of successful commercial intercourse has been established with that country What was the illustration used? It was a reading from some speech in which it was laid down that workmen who entered into the service of the Bolshevik State might be directed to leave the village in which they were and to go to some other place. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is precisely the condition that obtains in the English Civil Service. When I entered the Civil Service some years ago, one of the conditions was that I must hold myself at the disposal of the authorities to go to any place to which I might be directed to go. The Government, of course, is not really opposed to nationalisation itself. As everybody who studied the Coal Commission knows, there were two proposals for nationalisation which came before that body from different quarters. There was the proposal of the miners, who wanted to nationalise the mines. There was the proposal of the mineowners who wanted to nationalise the royalties. It is really interesting to see how common the language is in which these two proposals were put forward. Listen to what the owners say when they want nationalised minerals. They say: The ownership of the seams of coal is now in the hands of several thousand persons, most of whom have exercised their rights in a reasonable manner but some of whom have not assisted in the development of the national asset. Then they say: If you nationalise the things we want nationalised, under State ownership there would be one owner instead of several thousand owners, and the difficulties existing under the present system will be effectively dealt with. Mr. Justice Sankey when he is advocating nationalisation of mines uses almost identical language. He says: There are in the United Kingdom about 3,000 pits owned by about 1,500 companies. Unification under State ownership makes it possible to apply the principle of standardisation and thereby to effect economy. It is the same argument: the same thing is at the back of both proposals. The Government listen to it when it comes from the mine owners, and refuse to listen to it only when it comes from the miners. I have no doubt that if a royalty owner got up to oppose the nationalisation of royalties he would oppose it on very much the same lines as the Prime Minister adopted to oppose the nationalisation of mines.

Of course nationalisation is inevitable. It is coming because the Government cannot help themselves. They have taken two steps which make it inevitable that they must go further. What is nationalisation? It is one method of treating an industry as a whole: it is not the only method. You could take the coal industry and treat it under a great combine or trust. That is an alternative method. I do not know that the Government propose to adopt that method. What docs treating an industry as a whole make it possible for you to do? It, makes it possible, first, for you to do one thing, and as a result to do two other things. You can pool the profits. That is what the Government have done. Having pooled the profits, it is possible to do two things—the equalisation of wage conditions over the whole field of the industry, and the Government took a long step towards that when they conceded a flat rate increase throughout the mine: and, secondly, to give the consumer some benefit out of the profits. The Government have done that as well. They have given the consumer of coal the advantage of some £12,000,000 of profit made on the overseas trade. It would have been entirely impossible to have done that as long as the trade remained as it was before the war in the hands of individual owners. The Government have got hold of this thing and they dare not let go What is going to happen is, that as long as these abnormal profits continue this pooling of profits is going on. Out of this pooling of profits you are going to get equalisation of wage conditions, and no doubt you will get further reductions of the price of coal to the consumer. Is it to be believed for a moment that this is being done with anything like cordial acquiescence on the part of the mine owners? Not at all. The reason why it is being done is because they know unless it is done nationalisation must come, and the only way in which they can fend it off is by maintaining the pooling system. That cannot go on for ever. If you were to abandon it without nationalisation taking place you would get, as was foreshadowed in speeches on both sides, demands for advances of wages, and you would have a return to the old unequal conditions with all the consequent discontent. If anybody believes that the consumers of this country after having had the benefit of some share in the profits of the oversea trade are going to allow those profits to go as before solely into the pockets of the coal owners, then I think they are taking an altogether shortsighted view of the situation. From all these points of view I would counsel my friends on this side to have patience. As the Prime Minister said even if one had to wait the length of this Parliament it is not a long time, and I believe even before this Parliament comes to an end, and at the hands of this very Government, we shall get a measure of nationalisation of mines.