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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 Jack Lawson Mr Jack Lawson , Chester-le-Street

I have been reallysurprised to hear the description of pit committees given by the last speaker. When he begins to call joint control syndicalism, and by various other names, I am really astounded, and I am still more astounded by what other speakers have said on the subject of joint control which they seem to view as some sort of fancy scheme. Every week a deputation of workmen meets the manager of a colliery to discuss wages and other grievances. They may discuss to some extent the question of safety, but although we hear much talk on the question of increased production the deputation in the colliery office have no right to raise the question of production or to make any contribution upon it that is worth while. I know well what I am speaking about. As a man who has worked in the pit for 20 years, who is a representative worker, who has acted as a check-weighman for 9 years, and has done representative work in the colliery office as well as upon District Boards, I have had the experience of seeing the output reduced and of asking an opportunity to deal with that reduction and of being refused that opportunity because it was outside our area of discussion. The suggestions for joint control would give the pit committee a legal standing, it would enlarge its area of discussion, and would secure the ripe experience as well as the judgment of men who have been doing practical work. I want to say this before leaving that subject. There are some of us whose fathers worked in the mines right back to the time of serfdom, and who have been cradled in that atmosphere, and you have to-day a multitude of intelligent men spread all over the great coalfields and though they have been born in the industry they stand on the threshhold of that industry as strangers so far as their contributions of experience and intelligence are concerned.

I was somewhat astounded when I heard the Prime Minister take up the attitude that the coalowners alone supplied the brains and main incentive. I do not want to be offensive to the coal-owners, and I do not think I should be so in saying that only a fraction of the brains and of the incentive in the mining industry is supplied by the coalowners. I know very well that the men who matter would be the men who still would remain if you nationalise the mines. They do not even use the brains they have with any great ability, they limit the opportunity of expression of those brains and they make very little use of the brains of the men who are doing the practical work. I come from a county where there are 200 coal mines. In that district, with 150,000 workers, you have practically no educational facilities for studying the scientific side of the industry. Coalowners, in the main, have been in charge of the education of the county. It has been left to a labour council of the Durham County Council to take the first steps towards laying the foundation of a mining college in that county. I submit to hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House that that does not show that the men have no concern or incentive for using the brain power of their own people.

It has been said that if you nationalise the mines and set up these committees you will have a great bureaucracy and a large number of bureaucrats. I can understand that as a political argument. I can understand it as a sort of dodge, but I do not think it counts very much with the people who are not even miners but who are up against the problem in the constituencies. Take again the county to which I belong. Household coal was reduced by ten shillings a ton. Immediately the people who were living on the very edge of the coal mines ceased to get their coal. Miners' representatives made investigations and discovered that there were 400,000 tons of coal lying stacked at the pit mouth. The owners said they were wrong and that there were only 291,000 tons. There were people within sight of the pit mouth who could see the coal, yet who had no voice upon any committee of any kind to enable them to get that coal. If there had been a pit committee or a district committee there would have been some incentive to the people concerned to get that coal from the right source. With reference to the talk about bureaucracy, it seems to me that a man does not need to be in Government service to become a bureaucrat. If bureaucracy is something that levels life down, we people who live in houses that are all alike, in streets that are all alike,—and every colliery is alike in a great area—we who live the dull and drab lives ought to be good judges of what is called levelling down or bureaucracy. A point mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Spencer) is one that has been before my mind for a considerable time and one that would not under a system of national ownership continue as it is for very long. He mentioned the disease of nystagmus, or minor's eye. I have not seen the figures for nystagmus, but I should be very much surprised to learn that it was not upon the increase, yet there has been no step taken, so far as I know, for reseach purposes in order to discover the cause of that disease or the means of dealing with it. We know of course that the light has a good deal to do with it. Part of the wealth that is produced in this great industry ought certainly to be used for dealing with diseases like that.

There has been a good deal of talk about the method of realising the principle for which we are fighting here to-night. The miners have no reason to fear what will happen if they go to the electors of the country. I fought a seat about two months ago. It was agreed that national ownership of the mines was the central principle of the conflict. Both friendly newspapers and opponents agreed that we made that the central principle of the conflict. Out of 23,000 votes cast I was fortunate enough, championing a proposal of this kind, to get nearly 18,000 votes. I submit that from the consumers' point of view, from the nation's point of view, as well as from the workers' point of view, there is an unanswerable case for national ownership. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Marriott) said that miners had received considerable financial advances during the war. Indeed the Prime Minister said that with the increase of profits there was an increase of wages. I was surprised to hear the Prime Minister make a statement like that, for, as a matter of fact, in the mining industry profits have never been the determining factor—it has always been the increase of prices. Whatever the general public may know, the Members of this House should know that the miners themselves were the first to ask for a limitation of prices and in doing that we asked for a limitation of wages. I remember as far back as 1915, at the Conference at which the Prime Minister was present, Mr. Smillie, speaking for the miners, asked the Government to limit the price of coal on behalf of the consumer. It took some twelve months of insistent demand before that was realised. The export price has doubled and trebled since that time. From the point of view of the public well-being the miners' case will compare well with that of any section of the community. I have not been surprised to hear ignorant people outside saying that the miners are out for themselves, but I am surprised to hear hon. Members of this House, who ought to know the facts, dare to make any such statement in the face of the history of the last five years, and the miners' conduct during that period.

10.0 P.M.

The Government has made the proposition, and the Prime Minister has repeated it to-night, that we should consider a modified form of the Duckham scheme. The Government think it would be very well if we accepted that scheme. There may be some consumers in the country who are foolish enough to think that would be well too. It means that you are going to reorganise the whole of the industry for the advantage of the coal owner. If the miners accepted that proposal, it would mean that you were going to have one of the most formidable tasks which you have ever seen in this or any other country. The owners will be more entrenched. The owners can offer better conditions. They can even deal with housing. They could pay themselves in dividends £2 for £1 that they are paying now. The country would find that, terrible as the picture is that the Prime Minister has drawn of the results of nationalisation, the results of the system that he wants to put upon the country, if the miners agree with the owners in setting up that great monopoly, would be infinitely worse than anything the Prime Minister has pictured. I have been surprised to hear the Prime Minister speak slightingly of the possibility of exploiting the peace-time patriotism of the workers. Have we to assume that it is only during war that you can get that exalted state of feeling which enables men to give the best that there is in the nation? I have spoken to men at the pit mouth—intelligent men. They have said "You can say what you like. As far as I am concerned, I am not going to pull myself to pieces to build more castles for coal owners. That is the position in a nut-shell. As a man who has been up against the very practical facts of life from boyhood, as one who has had some obstacles to fight in order to get education, as one who can speak of the matter-of-fact things of life, I want to say that even that experience has not made me such an unbeliever and such an atheist in the things that matter in human goodwill as some gentlemen on the other side of the House. I know from our own people that there is a great fund of goodwill and the finest patriotism to be exhausted. You will do it under nationalisation and nothing else.