Post-War Reconstruction

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 7th December 1943.

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Photo of Mr Alfred Barnes Mr Alfred Barnes , East Ham South

I am glad to hear it. I have not always, I regret to say, seen that demonstrated when occasions have arisen when Parliament has sought—a Coalition Parliament—to grapple with a Coalition Executive. We have not always then seen the House of Commons play its proper part in a Coalition Parliament on these issues. That is the first point that I want to raise. This House of Commons has done its job as a war-time Parliament to a good war-time Government very well indeed, in my view. It has been a spur and an encouragement. It has been a dynamic and driving force. When the Government have shown slackness, timidity or hesitancy in the face of difficult problems, Members of this House have not hesitated to drive and urge them to prosecute the war with the full resources and resolve of our people.

When it comes to preparatory work for post-war conditions, in which, in my view, the responsibility of the average Member of Parliament is equally great—certainly we are better fitted to give a national contribution on these matters—it is unavoidable, because of military necessity, that a large amount of the data upon which one can form a proper and considered judgment is never within our possession. In the field that we are considering to-day the daily experience of Members of Parliament in all walks of life and in all spheres of national activity, enables us, individually and collectively, to bring sound and considered judgment to bear on the issues which confront us. Therefore, I invite the House of Commons to face the problem which I think emerges at the very commencement of this Session. We have to-day a Government led by the Prime Minister, to whom every citizen and every section in this House and the country is prepared to pay tribute but we recognise that the Prime Minister is war Prime Minister, and that his job is to concentrate on the effective military prosecution of the war, and Parliament itself, if we are not to lose precious time, must confront that Parliamentary situation and find some way out of the difficulty.

I venture to submit that in its approach to the problem raised in the King's Speech, and to many other problems which are not in the King's Speech but which ought to be, this House of Commons must first develop method and courage in its desire to deal with these grave and far-reaching matters. I do not see why what we now know as Dunkirk courage should be reserved for times of national disaster in war. I see no reason why all those qualities which are called out in times of national crisis, should not be developed and should not find expression in grappling with economic, financial, political and social issues. Those issues very often have their origin in the war, and in their consequences, if not carefully handled, they may either present the possibility of another war in the future, or may react directly on the standard of living and prosperity of our people. In this Amendment we submit that on a number of very important issues, the question for the Government and for Parliament is whether Parliament is going to honour its obligations to the men in the Forces, the men and women in the Civil Defence services and the workers in the munition plants.

Let me give an illustration. The House will recall that in 1937, 1938 and 1939 we pursued a policy in international affairs which eventually became known as a policy of appeasement, towards Nazism and Fascism. As a result of that policy this country and the world had to pay a fearful price. In this field of economic, political, social and financial reconstruction, if a policy of appeasement is to be followed towards vested and sectional interests, then, I suggest that after the war we shall, in another direction, find ourselves called upon to pay an equally fearful price for our delay, our tardiness, our timidity.

The Amendment raises four main issues—post-war reconstruction, full employment, social security and economic change. Those four subjects are interlocked. For instance, you cannot have social security unless you have full employment, and you cannot have full employment, unless you take into consideration the far-reaching changes in economic conditions which will inevitably be brought about by the war. No one can shape a post-war economic, financial, commercial or planning policy until he knows the main conditions and the framework on which the Government and Parliament are going to work and to which individual businesses or corporations or local authorities must adjust themselves. So these four problems are interlocking and interdependent. Now, I want to make a definite statement against the Government. Do not let anyone imagine that in this matter I place the whole responsibility on the Government. I think Parliament itself at this stage of the Session must take a very large share of the responsibility. But my contention is that Government indecision, the Government's delay in making up their minds on the main lines of development and in stating clearly their attitude and bringing it to Parliament for endorsement or modification, or whatever else Parliament may decide upon—it is that which is holding up a considerable proportion of the work that could, effectively and intelligently, be engaged in now. That is the position which we are in at the moment.

I ask hon. Members to look at one or two dates in order to fix the share of executive and Government responsibility for that position. Sir Montague Barlow presented his report in January, 1940. How can any commercial or business or any other form of interest plan large-scale industrial or productive development unless they know whether Parliament has a policy on the redistribution of industry or not. No one expects to be able to get to the details of planning at this stage. But for many years authoritative pronouncements have indicated that the trend of public policy is towards a more ordered development of our industrial and productive system. Whether that is good or bad or indifferent, whether you agree or disagree with that proposal, the point I am making is that no one can move on that issue until the Government come before the House of Commons and state their attitude on the question so that we can discuss it. There is no need for anxiety about differences of opinion on these domestic and internal problems That is the life-blood of our Parliamentary system and our free democracy—to be able to know exactly where your Executive stands on a particular question, to express your agreement or disagreement, to bring all the power, all the experience, all the contributions that can be made from all the sections and interests involved, to work your way ultimately to the largest possible measure of agreement and to get on with the job. The alternative is to hang about, to miss the bus and to get up against the same kind of conditions as those which we had after the last war though I do not think that even if we have to face economic difficulties they can possibly become acute as suddenly as they did after the last war, for reasons which I will state later. I come to the Uthwatt Report as another example. The interim report was presented in July, 1941, and the final report in 1942. How can any local authority deal with the problem of rebuilding and especially of rebuilding blitzed areas in the present state of things.

Will Members of Parliament please try to appreciate the position of their colleagues who are on local authorities, parts of whose areas have been wiped out or have suffered extensive damage. I come from a representative constituency in the East End of London that has experienced it. There are other Members in the House who have experienced that situation. Because of war conditions people have been taken either into the Forces or into the munition plants and elsewhere, but there will be the natural disposition for them to come back to their own localities after the war. The Army is not a home or a place in which people in the Forces can express themselves. Because people have been moved from Scotland to the South or from the South to the North to work in some huge munition plant, that does not represent the natural roots in which their domestic life, happiness and cultural development will find expression. We have to face the fact in this House that directly we get an easement in the problem of the output of munitions, the change-over of the population will press very severely indeed upon us, and, if Parliament has not done its part of the work, we shall get social irritation. I say quite frankly that I am not disposed to ask our people to exert excessive patience towards those in authority if those in authority do not discharge their obligations to the people whom they represent.

Here I am dealing with a procedure that should have given the maximum degree of support in the conditions of a Coalition Parliament, and I say the Government are creating a situation of unnecessary delay that I find it very difficult for them to defend. The Scott Committee reported in 1942, and Sir William Beveridge presented his Report on 1st December, 1942. I can conceive no procedure that was more sensible than to endeavour to remove in the initial stages of examination the interplay of party conflict in this procedure of selecting qualified persons to examine various phases that would present the foundations upon which we should build our post-war policy. Yet, despite this effort on the part of individual specialists to obtain impartial reform, we are facing a vital period this Session and the Government have been unable to determine definitely their attitude or to lay proposals before the House. I want to deal with the Beveridge Report as an example and to take this paragraph in the Gracious Speech which His Majesty's Ministers present to us: My Ministers will present to you their views and proposals regarding an enlarged and unified system of social insurance, a comprehensive health service and a new scheme of workmen's compensation, and they will decide, in the light of your discussions, what specific proposals for legislation on these matters can be brought forward at this stage. Now, that is very impressive language, but I venture to suggest that there is no guarantee in that. It brings us to this point; we have already passed through this stage—at least we have had one effort or one bite at this procedure in February last. That was supposed to be the Debate through which the Executive would ascertain the views of the House of Commons, but what happened? In the early stages of the Debate the Executive interposed their view upon the House of Commons and eventually got the Whips on, which prevented us from getting a true expression of the views of the Members of the House. So, in view of that language, I want to present this very definite question to whomsoever is replying for the Government. Are we to have legislation on the Barlow, Scott, Uthwatt and Beveridge Reports this Session? I should like to have a specific reply to this inquiry. I think this House, before the Debate is finished, ought to insist that we have a clear reply to this question.

With regard to employment and economic changes, I have always held the view in my public life—and it has been confirmed by the experience of two great wars—that we should refuse to accept the position that we can only contemplate full employment and relative prosperity for the masses of the workers in these periods of war when we are living on our capital assets and piling up debts. That, in my view, is grotesque. It is ridiculous to think that in the lifetime of those of us taking part in this Debate, the only occasion on which our people have full employment and a relative measure of prosperity has been when the nation has been occupied in consuming its capital assets and piling up debts for the purpose of winning the war. We know we have to face those conditions, and we do not run away from them. We have achieved a measure of unity that probably no other country in the world has achieved, but I think we should ask ourselves whether we cannot do better next time.

In my view—and I do not speak without some knowledge of the ecomonic and financial problems involved here—I cannot see how the functioning of private enterprise by itself can possibly create a condition of full employment and an expanding standard of living for the masses of our people. Those Members who disagree with that ought to accept the responsibility of disproving it, but the fact remains that no example can be produced. We have cycles of employment and unemployment. Let us take the experience of 1920 to 1935 and consider, in the light of the knowledge gained from the repercussions of certain policies on industry generally, whether these economic blizzards could be avoided by an intelligently run community if public interests preceded private and vested interests—principally finance. There was no need for that sudden collapse of prices in the spring and summer of 1920. It was not because there was not a demand for goods; there was a demand for goods, and after this war we shall face probably two phases of a similar problem. If the European war were to end suddenly, then I should like to take the opportunity of stating that there would be no difference of opinion in this country that we should have to honour the pledge of the Prime Minister on behalf of the whole of the British people to see the Pacific war to an equally Complete and successful issue. But it follows that if there is a different period of settlement of both wars, we are going to have a longer drawn-out period of demobilisation, and we shall be faced with an intricate problem as to how we can replenish the home market and, at the same time, again build up our export trade, and enable us to establish our export industry.

This country is facing a very serious problem if we do not take advantage of the interim period when there will be a slackening-off of the major aspects of war production. After the last war it was financial policy that destroyed economic and commercial policy. It was not a question of finance being an instrument of the economic policy of the State or of industry as a whole. Financial policy knocked the bottom out of prices, and if you knock the bottom out of prices, you are bound to move to widespread industrial chaos. If the markets can see that prices will in the next month or two months or next season drop by 25 per cent. or 50 per cent., they will not buy to build up stocks. Therefore, in my view, the first essential issue which this Parliament must face is that the Bank of England or financial control should become a public responsibility. After all, it is only a handful of persons who control and direct financial policy. The average industrialist and producer and the persons engaged in the daily life of the community are very often just as much at the mercy of financial manipulators as the person who is consuming a pound of butter or a loaf of bread.

The next point I want to emphasise is what I would term motive power in industry. Motive power like coal, electricity, gas, oil again provides one of those conditions which if they are not handled from a communal interest point of view upset and throw out of gear the whole superstructure of our economic life. Let us take coal and electricity and observe the experience we have had. For generations now there has been this open and deadly conflict between the mineowners and the miners. For the moment it is immaterial who is responsible or who carries the larger measure of responsibility. What we have to face is the fact that over a long period this industry has been unable to develop those conditions, normal conditions, average conditions, of co-operation that enable industry to run along smoothly and give its maximum contribution. What is the average citizen to decide? If you take the war experience or experience at any time, the nation finds that at any time it can do without the mineowner, but we never find that we can do without the miner. During the war we have done to a very large extent without the mineowner, but we have not been able to do without the miner. Therefore my contention is that this ought to become the subject of open debate, argument, facts, not prejudices or private interests. Members who represent the nation in this House ought to be able to get on their feet and demonstrate whether the private ownership of the mines is a practical proposition in the economic life of Britain to-day. My contention is that the community should take the place of the mineowner.

My third point is electricity. I have watched electrical development in this country over a long period. I observed its periods of chaotic development under the motive power of private enterprise. I saw eventually where Parliament and the public had to step in to bring order out of chaos. What have I and other citizens observed? We have observed that to the extent that public interest has been imposed on the electricity industry both industry and the community have benefited. Public policy has produced the grid, and municipal policy in the field of electricity has developed cheap electricity for the homes of the people.

So I move this Amendment, believing and hoping that the Government will reply specifically to the points I have raised, that Members of Parliament will face up to the issues in this Address, and, finally, we request in this Amendment that these main lines of development for the nation should be settled. I sincerely trust that public opinion in no uncertain voice will declare for the public ownership of land, for the public direction of financial policy, for the public ownership of all forms of motive power and transport, because I consider that these are the basic conditions without which it is increasingly difficult to expand our industrial and economic system. Given these basic conditions I see no insuperable difficulty, if Parliament does its preparatory work, in so assuring our people in fact, food, homes and work.