Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th March 1947.

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Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston 12:00 am, 11th March 1947

I am sure that this is one of the few occasions when I can speak for hon. Members on all sides of the House in congratulating the hon. Lady. In a maiden speech, she has shown a dignity and command of language that one must admire in an Assembly of this kind. She has also delivered very keen thrusts, but they were tempered with humour. I am sure she is a very valuable Member of the party to which she belongs. She has advanced its theories in a lucid and persuasive manner; she has the additional attribute of being kindly to the eye, and all parties realise what an asset that is. As a humble Low-lander, may I congratulate my Highland colleague on her very fine speech this evening. With the confidence and ability she possesses, she need have no fear of addressing the House in future. I feel certain that hon. Members will look forward to hearing her speeches with interest, if not, perhaps, with general agreement.

This very serious Debate has shown that hon. Members in every part of the House agree that we are dealing with a very grave position for this country. At the same time I realise that party interests are sometimes inclined to play too strong a part, and that prejudice and bias too often come into Debates when we are concerned with national issues and the national effort. This country is going through a period of very severe crisis, and if we are honest it must be admitted, from every quarter of the House, that it was inevitable that this crisis should develop if we had a period of severe weather. I remember during the war years speaking to the right hon. Gentleman, the then Minister of Fuel and Power, during the month of January. I said to him, in a friendly tone, "How is Fuel and Power?" He replied, "I have my fingers crossed. If we get beyond the back end of the season without a very cold spell, it will not be too bad. But if we have a very cold spell, then God help us." I take it that this was the position of our country all along, and that the intervention of the very cold weather accentuated the crisis to the extent that demands were being made on fuel and power at an unprecedented rate. During the cold spell a woman in my area who had had some coal delivered said to the coalman, "I am afraid the Labour Government have been let down. They have nationalised the coal mines but it seems to me to be the quarries which need attention." The poor quality of coal certainly made things a, great deal worse.

I heard the speech last evening of another compatriot of mine, the right hon. Gentleman the senior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan), which was, I think, a splendid analysis of the situation and had not in it that complete party character which one finds in a large number of the speeches made on this situation. With regard to the coal situation I have felt from the very beginning that the Government have been very badly served in the matter of publicity and in the answer and the statement of the case to the general public as to the reasons for the complete breakdown. I remember being in my own area at a meeting where I answered questions for an hour. Every question was both intelligent and reasonable, and the people were serious-minded so that I had no difficulty in putting up a case in defence of the Government. Let me say—without any desire to be provocative—that if hon. Members on the Labour side, instead of swamping the country with speeches about Ernest Bevin's foreign policy, would go into their own areas and explain to the workers the reasons for this holdup and all the trouble, they would discover that the workers are prepared to listen intently and seriously to what they have to say. The Govern- ment are in need of first-class publicity and it is necessary for everyone of the key people throughout the country to get on to the platform and make a complete defence of the Government.

As I understand it, hon. Members of the Opposition have been saying that what is wanted is to desert the policy adopted at the General Election. Then they talk of incentives. Are they not aware that one of the greatest incentives to the working-class of this country is that a new order is being born and that that incentive of idealism in the minds of a large mass of our working people throughout the country makes them more understanding in their outlook and more tolerant of the position, and not in the least inclined to desert the policy and programme? I can understand the Opposition desiring that, but there is this answer to it. If the Government were to accede to the demand of the Conservative Party for some form of vague national unity, and deserted their policy, they would have the masses of the working classes in open revolt against them. There would be a revolt because they had coalesced with the enemies of Labour and destroyed the aims and ambitions for which many of them had struggled over a lifetime.

In my view, the development which has taken place is due to the fact that we have had two world wars within 25 years, and because a decadent capitalism was unable to deal with the situation in the years when we could have gone ahead in the mines and elsewhere, and in providing all the houses we require. Those who now say that the crisis is upon us, and the Government must now desert their policy and get back to some form of national unity, fail to understand that the only way in which the crisis can be solved is by a new order, which has energy, mental capacity and directive ability be hind it. The ordinary things of life cannot fall like manna from the skies. The people cannot expect, having put the Labour Party in power, that they can now black mail them into giving them all they re quire. That is not the conception at all. The conception is that now the Government have the power, they must use it courageously and energetically, expecting the people to be behind them, while the plans are being unfolded and the new order is being born. The Government expect the people to fulfil their part, and to drive themselves with even greater energy and enthusiasm than they did during the war to give the tools, the machinery and the products to lay the foundation of that new order. We can only lay the foundations of a decent society by casting aside the last remnants of private enterprise.

I have heard all the difficulties in regard to the mines, and I have not told the miners what I think they should do, because I believed they were better informed and had more correct knowledge than myself on what was required. I have never tried to impose myself in that way. I think, however, there are certain difficulties which could be remedied. Take the question of foreign labour. We are told that one of the great difficulties is the question of language and more space in the mines to employ more workers. Could we not sink a few more mines, and put all the foreign personnel in them, with directors, foremen, engineers and pit managers with knowledge of both languages? We could use Army huts for housing these people. I remember going to a place in Germany where they had imported 3,500 workers to lay out an entirely new town for 70,000 to 80,000 inhabitants. I was told that the difficulties which arose between the Italians and Germans were very great. They were certainly greater than the difficulties between British and Poles. The Italians were easy-going and the Germans wanted discipline. They found that they had to let the Italians work in their own way, and these people were doing a magnificent job in building houses and industries.

The community spirit plays a great part. People should not be put among a lot of strange faces. I remember when I was in Australia for two years meeting people out in the bush. The one thing that daunted them, they told me, was being away from everything and everyone they knew. When people glibly demand the elimination of the five-day week for the miners, let them remember that a tired miner is of less use than the man who has had a chance to recuperate. There was a story told after the last war of a leader who set 300 men to do a certain job. He took another 300 men and divided them up into three separate 100s, and worked them in turn for 20 minutes on the same task. It was found that the 300 men who had been divided up into groups of 100 accomplished the task in two-thirds of the time taken by the 300 men who worked continuously. The idea is all wrong that a man can go on expending his energies. There has been a refusal by large masses of workers to face up to a task that they really can do. That has grown up, because of the great propaganda and destructive agitation that has gone on. That has to be reversed. The worker who is put on to the job must understand that he is not now fighting and working for a decadent, exploiting system, but is constructing the civilisation of the future, of which our children and our grandchildren will get the benefit. I believe we have to face up to this question in that spirit.

There is only one question to which I must take exception—the conscription of labour for the Armed Forces, which many previous speakers have mentioned. I am not unmindful of the tasks that the war has thrown into the lap of the Government; I am not unmindful of the fact that during the time they have tried to divest themselves of the vested interest of Empire—and some people think it is more difficult to get rid of an Empire than to get one—the Government have been placed in a difficult position. However, with the development of the atomic age, are we really to be told it is essential that young men should now be taken into the Armed Forces at 18 years of age, during this great national crisis? I have a young son who has been conscripted for the Forces, and has gone into the Royal Air Force. He was sent home for three or four weeks because of the short-age of fuel. Boys all over the country are being sent home. They could not get food, they could not get fuel, and a number of them are dying of chills, of "flu," of pneumonia, or are sent home to kick their heels when they should be doing some useful work. Are the Government so wedded to this question of conscription that they cannot desert this policy entirely, realising that we cannot afford one in 14 of the population in the Armed Forces—if we include those dealing with supplies and so forth—and one in six of the young men between 15 and 25 years of age going into the Forces? I say we cannot afford that, and we should not allow it. I am thinking only in terms of the effort which these young men could contribute, instead of which they are doing nothing useful.

In this crisis, I believe that the main thing we want is for the Government to see that the ordinary men and women should get to know the position. I know the case, I can put forward the case on any platform, I can satisfy anyone of the difficulties that are being encountered. But we must speed up this publicity in defence of the Government, and they must go forward with their plans, realising that to fulfil those plans, is to fulfil pledges to the common people. The real incentive to the people will be to know that in stress and trial, this Labour Government, with for the first time in history, a vast majority are remaining true to the promises and pledges they made to the ordinary men and women.