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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 Charles McCurdy Mr Charles McCurdy , Northampton

I am sure that we all agree with a good deal that was said by the hon. Member in the very eloquent and able speech which he has just made. We all agree that if we are considering the question of how mining accidents may be averted or lessened, it may be of great importance that the miners in the future should be given a very much larger share in the control and management of the industry than they have had in the past. I should also assent to the view the hon. Member put forward, that if the miners had fuller knowledge of the financial condition of the industry as a whole, that that knowledge would prove a preventive against strikes and industrial unrest. I am sure I agree that when it comes to matters so vitally affecting the interests of miners as the regulation of the conditions of labour and the settlement of wages and questions of that kind, that the miner should be given a far greater share in the management of the industry, that in dealing with these matters the industry should in future be managed upon more democratic lines than in the past. But while I agree with this view, I fail entirely to follow the conclusion which the hon. Member seeks to draw without in any way showing any logical connection, that it therefore follows that a policy which is somewhat vaguely described as the nationalisation of mines should be forthwith and promptly adopted by the Government. I think all political parties are too apt to use large and general terms, without closely enquiring into the meaning of the words they use. When we use a word like nationalisation, and speak of the nationalisation of mines, surely it is most important that the people of this country should understand beyond any possibility of doubt, what is the precise policy which it is proposed should be adopted in regard to an industry of such great national importance as the coal industry.

I read with much interest a few weeks ago the whole of the evidence taken by the Coal Commission, which was presided over by Mr. Justice Sankey. In reading that evidence I could not help being struck by two facts. When the Commission first sat it was generally understood that it was sitting for the limited purpose of giving the country and the Government an Interim Report confined to the single question of wages and hours, and somewhat to the surprise of the country in addition to reporting upon those matters, the Commission thought fit to make a finding with regard to the necessity of some change in the management of the coal industry either by way of nationalisation or by way of national purchase with or without some system of general control. I was somewhat surprised to find the finding coupled with that demand, because up to that time no details had been laid before the Commission of any scheme either of nationalisation or national purchase with or without joint control to which that finding could be said to apply. Therefore, I turned with some interest to the somewhat voluminous report of the evidence that was taken upon the second stage of the enquiry which resulted in the present demand for what is called the nationalisation of the mines. I turned to it as one frankly desirous of understanding what really was the policy intended by those words.

The nationalisation of mines in the negative sense is, of course, quite easy to understand. It is quite easy to understand that the nationalisation of mines is intended to mean that that industry shall be removed from such capitalist control as has existed in the industry in the past. But when we come to the positive side, as to what is really the economic basis, the industrial structure which it is proposed to substitute for what is an old and well-tried economic structure, that is the management by private owners and private enterprise, then it is that our difficulties begin. The Commission commenced, so far as evidence upon this point is concerned, by witnesses intended to enlighten us as to what is meant by nationalisation, and they took the evidence of two distinguished economists, Mr. Sidney Webb and Sir L. Chiozza Money. Mr. Sidney Webb is an economist of frankly socialistic views, identified with what is known as the Fabian Society in this country, and he gave the Commission an exposition of the principles of Marxian socialism, of nationalisation and the collective ownership of mines and minerals by the community as a whole.

He was followed by Sir Leo Chiozza Money, who further expiated upon the beauties of collectivism and its superiority over individual ownership and private proprietorship. The evidence of those gentlemen took some time, and they were cross-examined at great length.

They were followed by a very brilliant figure in the world both of industry and economics, Mr. Cole, a well-known Oxford man and a great authority upon industrial subjects, and he laid before the Commission his scheme for what he also called the nationalisation of the mines. His scheme is of some interest because it has since been published abroad on behalf of some section of the Labour party, and is described in that propaganda, which has been circulated throughout the land, as a classic exposition of the case for nationalisation. What did Mr. Cole put before the Commission? He laid before them a manner of dealing with the mines which, whatever may be its merits or demerits, is certainly not collectivism or socialism, and is certainly not analogous to anything which Karl Marx ever advocated, or probably ever thought of. He laid before us the brilliant but somewhat obscure doctrine of a comparatively new school of thought called the Guild Socialists. It is so new that some of the Commissioners had to ask Mr. Cole what Guild Socialism meant. I was really surprised to find that it was not until the Royal Commission had been sitting for a whole month upon the second stage of its report that it occurred to anybody that it might be just as well to call a witness on behalf of the miners to see what it was that they wanted. It was not until May 23rd, a month after the Commission had been sitting for the second time and listening with great interest to schemes of Marxism, Socialism and Guild Socialism and expositions of economic doctrines of various kinds and sorts, that it occurred to somebody that it might be just as well to call someone on behalf of the Miners' Federation and learn the details of the scheme which the miners wanted.

The case of the miners was put by Mr. Straker, and he wanted neither Guild Socialism nor Marxian Socialism nor collectivism nor any of the things which the other witnesses had been talking about, but what in the vernacular is known, not as "the mines for the nation," but as "the mines for the miners." If I may use the technical language of economics, it was neither collectivism nor Guild Socialism but syndicalism which was the basis of the proposals which Mr. Straker, on behalf of the Miners' Federation, placed before the Commission, and when the Chairman, Mr. Justice Sankey, who perhaps is not so familiar with economics as with law, or one of the Commissioners, asked Mr. Straker about this or that which Mr. Sidney Webb had been saying—Mr. Sidney Webb had detained the Commission long with a scheme of socialism or collective ownership or ownership by the nation—Mr. Straker said "We are not responsible for what Mr. Sidney Webb has said." What then was the policy put forward on behalf of the miners? It was the policy of syndicalism. In 1911 when we were in the middle of railway troubles there were a considerable number of distinguished socialists in this House, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, Mr. Philip Snowden, and others, and I well remember the scorn with which they referred to what in this country was then regarded as the new-fangled doctrine of syndicalism—the mines for the miners, the railways for the railwaymen, the textile factories for the textile operatives, and so on—and for those who had not the pleasure of being here to listen to those high priests of socialism it is in their writings and it can still be found what men like Mr. Ramsay Macdonald and Mr. Philip Snowden at the bottom of their hearts think of the economic basis of these syndicalist proposals which are put forward under the vague and misleading appellation of the nationalisation of the mines.

What is the history of this movement? It began with the assassination of President Carnot when the French anarchists were hunted from pillar to post and, finding no roof under which to shelter themselves, conceived the idea—an idea which some people in this country seem to have taken to heart quite recently—of infiltrating themselves into what up to that time had been the perfectly un-revolutionary organisation known as the French Trade Unions, and from 1895 onwards the history of Trade Unionism in France has been the history of men who have entirely lost all conception of trade unionism as it used to be understood, and as I venture to think it is still largely understood in this country, namely, as associations of men bound together for economic purposes and not for political or revolutionary purposes, and who have utilised their position in the trade unions to give them a new and sinister meaning and to convert them into the movement which we now call syndicalism. It is a movement which has two or three aspects which I can mention in a sentence and then pass by. It is a doctrine which, instead of magnifying the functions of the State by placing under its care and keeping the mines, the railways, the industries and all the means of production as proposed by Marx, Engels, and Lassalle, says that the instruments of production, the mines, the railways and all the rest of it, shall not be nationalised at all, shall not be socialised, and shall not be subject to collective ownership, but that in every industry the producers and the producers alone, acting through the organisation of the trade unions, shall take possession of the tools and instruments of their craft and shall be in a position to dictate to the consumers and to the vast majority of the rest of the population the terms upon which they shall be permitted to obtain the necessaries of life.