Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th March 1947.

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Photo of Sir Herbert Butcher Sir Herbert Butcher , Holland with Boston 12:00 am, 10th March 1947

The hon. Member for Clay Cross (Mr. Neal), who has just resumed his seat, said how greatly the miners are co-operating in an endeavour to bring the country out of the grave economic condition in which it is at the present time. I am sure all of us in this House who represent rural and urban areas would ask him to convey to his colleagues at the coal face the assurance of their fellow countrymen that their efforts are not overlooked or unrecognised, and, indeed, that all sections of this community will play their part in restoring the fortunes of this country.

But I believe that the largest share in the restoration of the fortunes of this country must, necessarily, rest upon His Majesty's Ministers, for there is no doubt that, since we had a Debate on the economic position some 12 months ago, the condition of the country has seriously deteriorated. In his speech this afternoon, the President of the Board of Trade referred to the fact that exports must be a first charge upon the production of our industry. I agree with him, but, on the other hand, let us realise that that has to be reconciled with the observation made by the Prime Minister 12 months ago when he said: Ordinary every day consumption must be encouraged to rise materially in 1946…. You cannot ask people to work harder if they have not got something coming in as a result of their extra work. I would remind the House that, in that same Debate, the Prime Minister went on to say: National recovery does not depend just upon the number of workers; it depends upon securing continuity of work."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1946; Vol. 419, c. 1960–4.] Those are observations full of wisdom. But, if those things were said, and said so truly, 12 months ago, what responsibility must this Government accept for knowing these facts, and yet allowing this appalling crisis of a coal shortage to come upon us, when the mills of this country, which were working to satisfy the export demands of our customers overseas or the legitimate hopes of our people at home, were silent for want of fuel and power, and yet so tiny a saving was made.

Before the war, there was an economy on which I do not propose to dwell, but in which the price factor was the main controlling element. It had its misfortunes, it had its harshnesses, and it had its failures. But, on the whole, the shops were full, and it was a system that the people understood. During the war, we had another system, one under which the multitude of private customers was re- placed by one great customer, the State itself, who, by means of the most rigid control over materials, and, above all, over the labour force in industry, demanded, and secured, the goods. That system was new to the people of this country, but it worked very largely because the whole people were united in the one task of winning the war.

We now have a system in which, I believe, we are pretty well getting the worst of both those former systems. The controls are pulling one against the other. The money incentive is there, but it is so diminished as not to have any real effect upon the people. The real task of this Government is to recognise that the motives which inspired the people during the war are not those which animate them at the present time. I think it can best be put in the words of John Buchan in his "Memory Hold the Door," when, dealing with 1919, he said: Except in America, which seemed to be in a fair way to rake in the wealth of the globe, the ordinary man was struggling with private problems so difficult that he had no time for private affairs. Further on he says: In common with most of my country men I felt that for the time being I had done with civic duty and might reasonably return to my own affairs. That is the natural feeling of exhaustion which comes to any community and to the members of any body if they have been engaged for long periods of years in the exertions to which the people of this country have been exposed. Let the Government admit that their task is to reconcile the national interest with the interest of the individual. It will not be easy to get the national interest and the individual interest both leading in the same direction. So far from endeavouring to reconcile these two interests, the Government have moved in an entirely contrary direction. By their nationalising plans they have alienated large sections of the community. Hundreds of small businesses in the transport industry alone are liable to be put out of business without adequate discussion in this House. The Government preach the value of thrift and saving and yet they allow the thrifty members of an earlier generation who put their savings, not into wild cat speculations but into the public utilities of this country, to suffer the most penal reductions in their income. The linking of the national with the individual interests, must, if the economic health of this country is to be saved, be translated by this Government into practical measures. There must be more practical measures to attract the woman worker to the textile mills rather than to the shop. They must recognise that, having blundered into a fuel crisis they are next likely to be confronted with an equally disastrous failure in the realms of agriculture. We can save the coal we need by shutting down the plants and turning off the switches. We cannot save the food which we ought to have gathered by starving the children for three weeks, and unless this Government is more careful, the food crisis will soon be upon us. The Government must realise that each control, while it may be perfectly justifiable on its own account, yet multiplied to the extent that it is at the present time, joins with other controls to cause frustration and delay and frequently to pull in the contrary direction.

The question of a wages policy has been raised. The Government must be prepared to accept unpopularity. If need be—and I believe the need exists—it must be prepared to abandon its traditional approach to wages and be prepared to take an active part in the fixing of wages. When I say, "take an active part," I do not mean that they should necessarily come in and fix wages direct, but certainly that they should concern themselves far more than they do under the present system where the fixing of wages is not the concern of the Government. Some active part must be taken by the Government in fixing the wages so that the work which is of the greatest national importance must have the greatest individual reward. This may result in decreased power of the present wage fixing authorities such as the trades unions and employers' associations. But, above all, it is a change in the infallibility of the Government itself which is needed.

The eloquent and lengthy speech of the President of the Board of Trade to which the whole House listened with interest this afternoon was not the first speech that he has made in this House on a great occasion. I would venture to quote to him some words that he used on another great occasion: It is not some isolated blunder or mistake from which we are suffering. There will always be isolated mistakes, however good the direction of affairs may be. We are suffering today from the inability of our leaders to concert and carry through definite policies, from a lack of leadership of the people… The people of this country are not afraid of the truth, nor will they hold back from any sacrifice that is necessary. But they will not stand wasteful and inefficient administration or doubtful and hesitant leadership…. Every hon. Member today has a duty which I believe far transcends any party loyalty; it is a duty to the people of the country as a whole. To allow personal interests or party loyalty to stand in the way of necessary changes of government is at the present time to act as a traitor to one's country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May. 1940; Vol. 36o, c. 1297–98.] Those words of complete wisdom were spoken by the President of the Board of Trade a few hours before the Chamberlain Government secured a majority in the Division Lobby.

From that Debate there was a coming together of sections in this House, a change of Government, more vigorous and more courageous leadership was brought in, and from that date the fortunes of this country improved. I believe it was because that new Government in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself played so distinguished a part, did not approach this matter from a theoretical or party point of view. He was not determined that the only way in which the country could be saved was on a raft painted in Socialist colours. He was prepared at that time to work with men of goodwill from all parts of the House. I am not one of those who believe in a Coalition at present, but I am one who says to this Government, "If you are sincere in your desire for national union, if you believe that the position is as grave as you declare it to be in the White Paper, show signs of your sincerity by abandoning such things as nationalisation." Is that too much to ask? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I notice that all the dissent comes from the benches which are not charged with the actual responsibility for the management of affairs. I address my remarks, therefore, to the back benches and say, "Let the ladies and gentlemen on those back benches realise that the problems of ro4o were just as difficult as they are today.' Many of us in those days made difficult decisions, and I for my part do not believe that our patriotism in those times of difficulty is any greater than that of my friends opposite is today."