We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Coal Mines (Nationalisation).

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 11th February 1920.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Robertson Mr John Robertson , Bothwell

The Prime Minister in dealing with the Amendment tried to frighten us, and I suppose not only the Members of the House but the country generally, away from nationalisation by referring to it as Bolshevism, and he was very careful to emphasise that Bolshevism meant compulsory labour. Compulsory labour does not frighten my class. Some of us have known compulsory labour from our very fenderest years. The average miner knows it from his first conscious existence when he can observe his parent. He has it almost from the cradle to the grave. If there is any fear of compulsory labour under any system I am afraid it is from a section of the individuals who are supporting the Prime Minister against nationalisation. A little compulsory labour might do some of them good. I would like to have a higher standard amongst the workers; that of compelling everyone to give of their mental and physical abilities for the welfare of the nation. I would like to develop the idea amongst the workers that they would be only prepared to give their labour to those things that are useful and not have to administer to senseless luxury as many of them have to do at the present time. When the miner goes into the coal mine I would like him to ask himself the question whether his labour was going to be used to build houses for the worker or motor-cars to indulge the luxury of the profiteers of the country at the present time. Karl Marx has been quoted, and Cole and many others; but those who have quoted have not taken the trouble to face the case put by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Brace), who moved the Motion. Karl Marx has nothing to do with it. Cole has nothing to do with it. Sidney Webb has nothing to do with it. Everyone who has spoken against this Resolution has been very careful to avoid the case that has been put, and still more careful to avoid the case that was put before the Coal Commission.

I was very sorry to hear the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Stanton) speak slightingly of Mr. Justice Sankey. I am a Socialist and a trade unionist, but if I were to be tried for a crime in any part of the world I would prefer to be tried in Great Britain, because I believe in the honour of our judicial bench. I am not prepared, and I do not think hon. Members ought to be prepared, to welcome statements in this House because Mr. Justice Sankey refused to perjure his soul and gave a decision in consonance with the evidence put before him at the Commission. We have been asked about the history of this question. It is very convenient to run away to the French Revolution for history, but we do not want to go there. Let us come a bit nearer. Let us take the history of the Commission itself. What are the facts? The hon. Member for North Lanark said that the Government were frightened into the Commission because of the condition of the country and the demand of the miners for a six-hours day and a 2s. advance. To say the least of it, that is not true; that is not the history of it. The miners had decided to strike for nationalisation. They had a perfect right to do that. Hon. Members on the other side of the House can refuse to sell their labour and agree to the conditions on which they will sell it, and we claim for the miner and the miner claims exactly the same right, to say under what conditions he will sell his labour. The miners having decided to strike for nationalisation, the representatives of the Government came along to the miners and pointed out that it would be very wrong to strike. They said, "Do not strike. This is a question that can be settled by reason, arid can be settled by examination." The Home Secretary said, "This is a business proposition. If the facts are in favour of nationalisation, then it will be carried out." I want the House to observe that the Commission was not the miners' method. The Commission was the Government's method of settling the difficulty. In the opinion of the representative of a discredited aristocracy, we are not able to govern. We may not be able to govern, but I sincerely hope, whatever our mixture and admixture may be as a labour party, that we are honourable. I would rather live in a nation governed by honourable men than governed by men of ability who are devoid of that honour, if they get men to enter into a certain compact with them and then they do not keep it. Something has been said about Mr. Justice Sankey. Again Mr. Justice Sankey was not our choice. There you have the two main facts. You may try to frighten us about Bolshevism as much as you like, and you may quote Karl Marx until doomsday; but the Commission was your method, the chairman was your selection, not our selection. Relying upon your honour we went into the Commission, and we have a perfect right to ask the Government as honourable men to carry out the decision of that Commission.

Much has been said about the evidence which came before the Commission. If anyone takes the trouble to look at the list of witnesses who were called before the Commission, they will find that the coal-owners brought forward the most outstanding evidence they could in favour of their case. Notwithstanding, Mr. Justice Sankey and those associated with him, came to the conclusion that the present system stands condemned. I am not to attach very much weight to that, but the coalowners themselves admitted that the existing system stands condemned. Arising out of that Commission the House has to face the proposals now being put forward to satisfy the demands of the miners for nationalisation. Call it what you like, syndicalism, nationalisation, socialism, or anything else, but you have to take the proposals as they are put forward. Three proposals are put forward. The coalowners expressed their willingness that the miners should have a voice in the general management of the mines, and they are willing, I suppose, to give the miner a share in the profit. That is their proposal. They do not defend the existing system. They put forward other proposals, and when the coalowners do not defend the existing system I am astonished that hon. Members should get up to defend it. The Government's proposals are that the miners should have a voice in the management of the industry precisely the same proposal so far as management is concerned that the coal-owners make. Then you have the proposals put forward by the Miners' Federation, and these are also that the miners should have a voice in the management. The only essential differences between the three proposals are these, that when the miners have a voice in the joint management of the mines under the coalowners' proposals, they would have a joint voice in the management for the purpose of getting good wages and the employers getting a profit. Under the Government proposals the miners would also have a joint voice in the management, but the profits would go to the trusts. Under the miners' proposals, which are being condemned so eloquently, the only essential difference as between the miners' proposals, the proposals of the coalowners, and the proposals in the Duckham Report as to management, is that when the miners give assistance in the management of the mines, the profits, instead of going into the pockets of the colliery owners and the trusts, should go to the State. I do not see very much to cry out against in that.

You have admitted the miners' case by admitting them into joint management of the mine. You may try to frighten the miners away by talking about what private enterprise has done in the past. There is another side to this. It is very easy to get impatient, but if some of you had been compelled to labour under the conditions which some of our people have had to endure, you would probably speak with as much warmth as I do on this question. For a hundred years our fathers and we have trusted this House and every measure of reform for the safety of the life and limb of the miner has had to be fought out in this House. Every time we make proposals that would be for the advantage of the worker underground they have been misrepresented in the fashion in which our proposal has been misrepresented here this afternoon. No later than 1911 when, after a series of promises we got a Coal Mines Regulation Bill passed through the House of Commons, for the first time in the history of mining legislation at the instigation of the coalowners, the Govern- ment of the day placed on the Statute Book the enactment that the miners were not to get a certain very necessary safeguard unless the employer could make a profit on that seam. In the autumn of 1913 the world was startled by the Sengenhydd disaster: 500 men were swept into eternity. Can you imagine what that is? There was an inquiry—an impartial Government inquiry—and the finding of that inquiry was to the effect that every man would have escaped out of that mine with his life had it not been for the necessary safeguard being taken out of the legislation in 1911 to safeguard the profits of the coalowners. Do you wonder then that it is difficult on this side of the House to listen with patience to the statements made against the case of the miners?

When we make proposals we are continually being reminded that there was a war on. I am not here to belittle what any class did in the war, but the miners did their share both in the mines and on the battlefield, and I was very sorry to hear in this Debate an hon. Member referring to some of us as persons who would prefer to see the Germans conquering rather than our own people-That is very unfair. There are very few of my colleagues who have not empty chairs in their homes. I have just come from the home of one of the heroes. You talk about private enterprise. This is a house of two apartments. There are two beds in one of the compartments. On one of the beds are a father and mother and four children: on the other bed are two adults. There is another compartment. To-night, stretched on the floor, with seven motherless children, is one of the heroes who fought in the great War. We have erected in the country, we have had to erect in every county in the industrial areas, sanatoria and fever hospitals for infectious diseases at the expense of the ratepayers. We have had to do that to save the wreckage that has been made by private enterprise in the mines and other industries. Every time I see a sanatorium or hospital I look upon it as an outstanding monument of the failure of private enterprise. Is it any wonder that we are out for an entirely different method of conducting industry? We have trusted the private owners. We put them on the county councils and on the parish councils, and we even sent them to Parliament.

If there are any hon. Gentlemen here who doubt my statement as to the housing conditions, lot them come with me some afternoon, and I will show them the conditions that hon. Members are standing up here to defend when dealing with the question of private enterprise. Seventy years ago, a great cholera epidemic swept over this country. I can show you houses in the mining district that were condemned in the forties as unfit for human habitation. They are occupied to-day, and are more crowded than they were in the forties. Many years ago there was a recommendation that baths be erected at the mines. There are still no baths at the mines. I do not like to say anything in a way which may seem hard and uncharitable. I know it would take a great deal to disturb the complacency of some individuals in this House. I want just to state, in conclusion, that we have tried private enterprise in the coal industry and it has failed us as human beings. It has housed us, in the words of the First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Long), "in houses little better than pig-sties." You speak about revolution and Bolshevism. If you have revolution and Bolshevism, you can attribute it to the class who are opposing nationalisation at the present time. I know how the vote will go. I do not like to refer to the results of elections, but I