Iron and Steel Industry

Part of Civil Estimates, 1946 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th May 1946.

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Photo of Sir Walter Fletcher Sir Walter Fletcher , Bury 12:00 am, 28th May 1946

I would like to refer now to what are called "The years between "The two wars. We have heard a rather garbled version of what really happened. After the last war, what faced those who were responsible for running this industry? Very difficult decisions. Some of those people took the decision to be very enterprising and go-getting, by expanding and raising money for various sorts of enterprises. The other people thought that we were approaching an economic crisis and that it was right to conserve their capital and liquid assets. The fate of those two groups was very different. The fact remains that both of them were hit by an economic blizzard of undoubted magnitude. It is worth pointing out to the Chancellor, who is slightly selective in his examples, that it was a universal blizzard. It came just as much upon countries with Socialist Governments as it did upon countries with other kinds of Governments. It swept over countries of every sort of political complexion without taking any notice whether there was a sign saying, " Don't come in here. This is a well-organised, well-planned and Socialist country, and we don't like economic blizzards."It left behind a vast devastation.

If hon. Members opposite are honest with themselves they will not take up the attitude of saying that they could have foreseen everything and could have planned everything and done everything very much better. The truth is that economic blizzards will never be totally avoided. Their effects may be modified and should be modified, but I would warn hon. and right hon. Gentle. men opposite that with all their planning, economic blizzards will fall upon them in due course and will affect them very greatly. What did this industry do? It was the one industry that realised the disaster that had fallen upon them, upon industry in general, and upon the world. It pulled itself together and produced something like a really well-thought-out plan. We have heard a great deal about the Socialist planned State from the other side of the House. Here indeed was an example that might well weaken their case. This industry put its own house in order. I have always been told that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than in the others that went not astray. Here was a semi-sinner which not only repented but found out a new path to righteousness. Nevertheless there will be no reward on earth for it. Having put itself in order it will find that there will be no mercy for it in the hearts of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite, who will kill it stone dead by nationalising it, in spite of the fact that it has seen the errors of its ways in many directions and has put them right.

If, as we have heard today, this is only the beginning of the first batch of nationalisation proposals and is to be followed by a sort of hauling of the rest of the industry up before a committee to be examined and put on the spot—to use an American expression—it will knock the heart out of the industry. This industry has, in many ways been a pioneer in showing how the effects of economic blizzards can be handled. The argument is put forward that this industry is both a monopoly and a cartel. I do not like monopolies or cartels, for a reason that hon. Members may find difficult to believe. I object to them because of their size. When an industry or a firm, or a group of companies, gets to that size, it loses its human element. The management is unable to keep in touch with the day-to-day problems not only of the workers, but of the management and scientific sides as well. Nevertheless there are certain industries which call out for some form of monopoly. I believe that this is one of the few—although it should not establish a precedent—which by its very nature, call out for that form of treatment.

As for cartels, I am surprised there should be an attack from the other side of the House on this industry for joining an international cartel for the regulation of prices. I have heard vehement arguments from the Chancellor to show how extremely important it is to stabilise food and other prices, at great cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, the whole Bretton Woods international trade agreement must mean, if it means anything at all, some form of international price regulation. If that is not adhered to it is no use trying to arrive at international trade agreements. I notice reluctance on the part of His Majesty's Government to go into this particular question. We were told by the President of the Board of Trade last October that these meetings were so vital that we should hold them almost immediately. Now they have been put off for another six months because of the extreme difficulty, in a chaotic world of varying prices and production costs of raw materials and labour, of arriving at anything like a method of proper price-fixing which will give a fair deal to all countries.

In this industry, after years of close working and hard bargaining of great difficulty, an international price agreement was arrived at which, though not any means, was at least showing very good results, so far as this country was concerned, and there was no undue complaint from other countries. I would like to ask His Majesty's Govern- ment to tell us quite clearly, after the criticisms that have been levelled at cartels by the Ministry, whether they agree with price-fixing cartels, as foreseen in the Bretton Woods Agreement, or whether they will state openly now that they do not? Unless they make that point perfectly clear, the criticism which they have thrown at this great industry for its adherence to cartels has no meaning at all.