Government Policy (Motion of Censure)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th December 1945.

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Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley 12:00 am, 5th December 1945

I was thinking further back—earlier in the life of the Coalition. Then, when nothing else can be thought of, some one says, "What about a Parliamentary statement after Questions?" That always goes well. It is a good time —good for the Press, and, if it is a little provocative, there is always the chance of a row and so they say, "Now let's hurry up and do it before the boss comes home." In any event, the Lord President made a statement, which is within the recollection of the House, and I am not going to bother the House with all its details. I am bound to say, however, that it lacked the clarity and precision for which he and I used to strive when I was his Undersecretary. Of course there was some very thin ice to be skated over. Take the case of the municipal road passenger undertakings. They have to be co-ordinated, so we are told, but whether by purchase or by merger, with a seat on the joint or regional boards, is left to be settled later, because municipalities have strong vested interests and they have to be handled very carefully in this hard world. Meanwhile who is to decide what is to be the fate of the 80,000 road hauliers, and whether these kulaks of transport are to be liquidated. They may be collectivised or just disappear quietly, and, we hope, humanely.

Then there followed in the Lord President's declaration a few general observations which clearly illustrate the attitude of the present Government to the major industries of the country. They are treated with a combination of patronage, threats and cajolery, which the victims find increasingly unattractive. The Lord President closed, let me remind the House, with a pompous reference to pulling together in a high public spirit, so that these great changes may be carried out smoothly and successfully. Let us all pull together, indeed. I have no doubt that this is the common formula between the hangman and the condemned man. In the circumstances, it seems to me that the formal reply of Sir Clive Baillieu, President of the Federation of British Industries, was a model of patriotic restraint.

There is, nevertheless, a very curious omission from the Lord President's statement, to which I would like to call the special attention of the House. All of us, in recent months, have been subjected to an almost fatiguing barrage of exhortation about the importance of exports. We seem today to have got a little confused about exports. I know that the importance attached to exports is only, for the Socialist Benches, a post-election doctrine. Before the Election, the Minister of Fuel and Power said: Is it not sheer madness to go chasing after the will of the wisp of exports and international trade, when we have so much to do in promoting our own soil and industrial assets, to say nothing of the development of industrial expansion in the British Commonwealth. In one of the famous books of the Labour movement, "Why not Trust the Tories?" they say. By some twist of the Tory mind it is good trade to persuade some one in a remote part of the world to buy our goods, but ruinous to allow the same goods to be consumed by our own people. The same book contains the following: Should you prove obdurate and insist on the Tories fulfilling their promises of a better time after the war, they have a bogey man in reserve to frighten you into acquiescence. This bogey man … is built around our need to export. In any case supposing, as I think, that the reality lies in the broad acceptance of the facts of each particular industry, there is a great variety and in many cases it is possible to make effective large exports on a firm basis for home trade. It depends on the character of the industry. I know that from my own practical and personal experience. Indeed, the higher and more costly the quantity of capital and plant involved in production, the more important it is to use the home market as the buffer and buttress of exportable surpluses. All that I think was admirably said by my right hon. Friend who opened the Debate and not answered by the right hon. Gentleman opposite.

In any case, is it not remarkable that in the statement of policy by the Lord President no reference is made at all to any export trade except shipping, which is specifically excluded, and the cotton industry and wool industry and so forth, which were excluded by implication? If it be true that nationalisation is a universal cure for human ills and a kind of stringent tonic, which alone can produce life and vigour, is it not a remarkable fact that all these great export industries should be deprived of this precious medicine? Perhaps the truth is that the Government hesitate to prejudice or risk the industry and commerce upon which we depend for obtaining foreign currency. They may think it wiser to confine these experiments to the home market, where prices can be raised and the burden be thrown either upon the consumer or the taxpayer. The final effect on the exporting industries will of course be equally serious, but it will be delayed.

There are one or two more fundamental questions which I would like to put to Ministers arising out of the Lord President's statement. I understand, and indeed agree with, the conception that the modern developments of our economic society require new treatment and new solutions. During the years between the economic crisis of 1931 and the approaching menace of war, I tried to put forward the view that it was wrong to apply a simple and single solution to a complex and diverse problem. In 1938, I published a book from which I will quote one short passage: From time to time there will be spheres of economic effort which will have to pass under some form of public utility or statutory control. While this is happening, new opportunities will be occurring for private enterprise in the initiation and development of new enterprises."— I might have added, like civil aviation— And it is by approaching the subject in this way that I am led to the conclusion that, for as far ahead as we can see, it is both possible and desirable to find a solution of our economic difficulties in a mixed system which combines ownership, regulation or control of certain aspects of economic activity with the drive and initiative of private enterprise in those realms of initiation and expansion for which it is, by general admission, so admirably suited. This was stated with greater force and clarity by my right hon. Friend in 1943, when he said: There is a broadening field for State ownership and enterprise, especially in relation to monopolies of all kinds. [Interruption.] I am trying to put this very fairly to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite; I am trying to be fair.