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 R.A. Butler Mr R.A. Butler , Saffron Walden 12:00 am, 11th March 1947

If my words can bear any testimony in this matter I can only say that for many years my right hon. Friend, who then sat on the bench below the Gangway, voted against many of us in our party with surprising efficiency, and with a very stout band of followers.

I want to refer to an intervention I made in our Debates some time ago on the subject of agriculture. That was on the occasion of the agricultural Debate of 28th January, in which I foresaw, in my speech, that agriculture would have to play a great part in the economic troubles which we are now facing. I used these words: I should have thought that anybody examining the vast expenditure which is being carried out by the present government, the inflationary tendencies which exist today, and the weakness of our dollar resources, would regard it as essential to encourage agricultural production as one of the most practical ways of restoring our economy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1947; Vol. 432, c. 800.] It is to that subject that I wish to come in a few minutes as my contribution to this Debate, in view of the fact that it is one of our basic industries, and probably, the most important next to coal, in the same way as the right hon. Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan) referred to coal last night.

Before I consider the subject of agriculture, I want to traverse certain questions raised in this Debate, and to answer certain of the observations made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade in his imposing survey at the opening of this Debate. Whether the snow or the bad weather washes hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite away or not, in exactly the same way as the Corn Laws were washed away—and in my view this is very likely to happen—the fact is that hon. Members on both sides of the House are indeed possessed in their minds with the fundamental truth of the economic situation. We have realised that we are, to begin with, far from self-sufficient nationally. I think that we have also realised, and this is a more personal aspect of it, and it comes from the result generally of the industrial revolution in its application, that we are not self-sufficient or sufficiently self-dependent individually and personally as citizens.

It is, indeed, a sad fact, which I was able to observe perhaps from the front row of the stalls during my period of service to education, that man has become in industry the prisoner of the assembly belt; and we have this paradox—and here I refer back to some remarks made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, when he referred to the Luddite attitude in connection with mechanisation. Mechanisation, which was intended to help and relieve the labour of man, has dulled and blunted his intelligence, and very often relieved him of much of the interest he takes in the industrial process. That is a self-evident fact. I have noticed, in my experience, that that is often very much felt by those young men and women who have come back to industry from the Forces. They are finding that the repetitive process, the dullness and monotony of industry, and the lack of chances of pro motion, which they got even in the Forces to rise to a stripe or two stripes is absent in industry today, and they are finding that our industrial revolution is indeed a disappointment, and, to many of them, a sham.

How are we to deal, with these matters? I should like myself to support those constructive portions of the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade in which he referred to the vital need today for greater opportunity in industry, for incentives, and, as I believe, for the educative process, because I believe that the most important part of the educational reform which ought to be put through with the least possible delay is that dealing with technical education, with opportunity in industry, and with training for skill in hand or eye. I hope, therefore, that, in the general race which is to take place in the priorities which are to be laid down, we shall never forget these particular needs of industry. My one fear about the social services as a whole is not that they will be affected because some May committee comes along again, but that the inflationary tendency which undoubtedly exists today, and which the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself did so little to ex plain, and little to palliate in his speech last night will reduce the value of money and reduce the value of the social services to those people who are counting on them so much today.

After this short introduction which takes up some of the points referred to by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I want to come to an examination of the White Paper itself. The Government are always priding themselves on having got through the transitional period easily. They remind me of the famous and rather cryptical conversation between Adam and Eve, when Adam said as they were leaving the Gar den of Eden," We are about to enter the transition period and it is bound to be very difficult." I would not rely upon the return to the Garden of Eden, because that is a land which the Government left long ago at the time of the Election, and they have been wandering in the wilderness ever since with the serpent, themselves disguised in every sort of fig leaf. What I want to call in evidence are the words of one of our leading economists, namely, Professor Jewkes, and it is a far cry from the Garden of Eden to Professor Jewkes. These are the true words of this profound and modern economist. He said that it is not true, as the Government continually claim, that the transition has been passed through in an orderly manner. We have, in fact, permitted the gravest disorders to grow during this period. The sooner the Government come off their high horse of self-satisfaction and realise the mess in which industry is at the present time, the sooner they with us will find a solution.

I do not believe that the period 1945–46 represented in any way a satisfactory solution of the planning problem. It represented neither free consumers' choice nor the system of priorities allocated and decided according to the needs of the country. We have had the worst of both worlds, and we are still in worst of both worlds, for we have control without proper planning. Our conclusion on this side of the House is quite definite, and it is not, as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the Government side of the House may think, a conclusion which is timorous. It is that we want far better and stronger central policy and much less interference with the individual at the circumference. We are not frightened at the use of the State. A good Tory has never been in history afraid of the use of the State. The State is an agency and the agency is sub ordinate to the needs of the individual. The State ought to be used in the interest of the people and the community generally, and what we resent in the Government's supposed democratic planning, so lightly and so vaguely sketched by the President of the Board of Trade, is that they have not yet solved this problem of democratic planning.

What was, in fact, the theme or cry of the right hon. Gentleman? His cry was that human nature was so selfish. He described how one section of the community was jealous of another section, how the commercial section was jealous of another, and how, in fact, there was no real urge in the human personality for better things. We do not take that view. We follow the words of Burke when he said that right action followed right character. We believe that there is in our people the right character which can be encouraged and which will help solve the problems on the circumference, which are at present interfered with by the controls of the right hon. and learned Gentle man the President of the Board of Trade. We believe that democracy is comprised of individuals, and we believe that if the Government encourage the best in individuals and lay down at the centre the general strategic policy on which they have got to work, we will get the best of both worlds and not the worst, as the Government have got at the present time.

I believe that the fundamental mistake of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade on this subject of democratic planning is that he thinks that one can impose unselfishness by a system of controls. I do not believe that that is in any way possible. The only way to encourage unselfishness is to give the person who is doing his job, in his own quarter and in his own section, independence and confidence so that he may develop the best within himself—or, it may be, herself—and in that way one may get the best out of those who have to do the job. I was delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has so far accepted the profit motive that he now believes in incentive. We must remember that incentive offered to the workers in the form envisaged by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is no different from the profit motive. After all, what is it? It is the offer of a greater profit by way of reward in the wage packet for the man who does more work. Therefore, the right hon. and learned Gentleman must be consistent. If he accepts the profit motive through the system of incentives—which we heartily support and which I think is the most sensible approach—he must also realise that the same principle must go through the whole gamut of human nature and not be confined to those who work on the bench alone. He must give the management and others in industry the same incentives he wants to give the workers.

I believe that the solution of this problem is intimate collaboration between the Government and industry. I should like to congratulate the Government upon the fact that in the latest edition of the White Paper—in the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman yesterday—they are beginning to catch up with the right idea of how to organise their planning. I believe they have been inspired by a modest speech which I made on 27th February last at the Friends' Hall in which I referred to the White Paper as a "six penny shocker" because it is like all those serial stories in which the villain is brought right up to the last ditch, and one does not know what is going to happen next, because there is in fact no solution till the next issue. In that speech I also envisaged that the kind of plan laid down in paragraphs 8, 16 and 140 of the White Paper would not work. The reasons I gave, immediately alter the publication of the White Paper, were that the Government had not up to that date invited the collaboration of industry and had not worked out their plans with industry, a course which, I maintain, is the only possible method of working out a democratic plan, not only with industry but with the representatives of the workers

The White Paper, not like Mr. Micawber, waiting for something to turn up, but for something to catch up, seems to be exactly the same in regard to the stormy meetings of the right hon. Gentleman's party which have been so widely reported. The Government seem to have desired to catch up with the feeling of their own party at the last minute and to bring into the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech certain refinements which were totally absent from the White Paper. As is typical of the productions of this document, and as anybody who heard the speech last night of the right hon. Gentleman the senior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan) knows, the coal and fuel crisis has been inserted at the last minute in this document by a series of nuggets which appear quite plainly to anybody who has eyes to read. We should, therefore; like to congratulate the Government on trying to keep up to date. If they would listen a little to what I have to say to them now they would, perhaps, bring their plan more up to date as the result of some of the positive suggestions which I want to make.

I happen to be, by training and instinct, a great friend of France. I was partly educated there, and I have followed with great interest both the fortunes and the misfortunes of that great country. To my advantage I happen to have studied in some detail the Monnet plan. I think it is interesting to study that plan in relation to the planning system adopted by this Government. If one considers the Monnet plan one finds that the general principle is that of a central commissariat with M. Monnet in the centre of the hub, and a series of modernisation committees, these committees being composed of business chiefs, experts and Government Departments. The best description I have seen of the plan says this: The general scheme is as follows: Broadly speaking, the work of the Commissariat "— that is the central organisation— has been to help the modernisation committees to achieve their rival claims, to co-ordinate their activities and finally to synchronise the results of their efforts. I believe that this system of planning, which has involved from its earliest stages collaboration and contact with industry, is a much more effective one than that adopted by the right hon. Gentleman. The interesting thing is that if you examine the modernisation committees, the representatives arc chosen according to how they can best contribute to the national good. For example, the committee on textiles consists of 12 business chiefs, four trade unionists, four experts and three departmental experts. There fore, there is a round proportion between the different interests. When we come to manpower, there are only three business chiefs, six trade union representatives, seven experts and six departmental experts. The balance is different, and there are similar differences in the balance for the building materials committee, the machine tools committee and so on.

In all cases the Monnet plan has on purpose made its plants after consultation with industry, and after consultation with the trade unions and with the experts in each of the particular departments. I maintain that it is a much better method of planning than this belated con version of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government to a small board which they are condescendingly establishing between industry and Government Departments. Democratic planning means collaboration with industry before you make the plans, and not, as is referred to in paragraph 140 of the White Paper, attention to industry after the plan has been made by a few back room boys addicted to planning and brought in for the purpose. The French planning system is comprehensive, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman, who has always been concerned with education and has been willing to learn, will learn some thing from it. I am not happy about the departmental organisation of his scheme. I am not happy that there will be proper contacts by the Departments with industry. I should like to ask the Minister of Defence whether this planning scheme and the planning officer idea is going to apply to the Treasury and the financial side in the same way as it is to apply to other Government Departments, because the financial side is absolutely essential to planning, and we shall not be satisfied with the right hon. Gentleman's scheme unless we feel that the Treasury come under the harrow in the same way as other Government Departments. Lastly, I should like to ask whether the supreme planner, which the right hon. Gentleman has not yet found, is to be in the Cabinet office or any other office. I believe this scheme would work better if he was in the Cabinet office and able to correlate his activities in that way.

I want to turn from consideration of the Government planning to a reference to manpower. In the Monnet plan priorities are controlled in regard to manpower, partly by the allocation of foreign labour to this industry or that. But there is a vital difference between the French plan and ours in this respect, because the French anticipate using more foreign labour than it would be right and profit able for us to use. I do not believe we have a lever of that sort. I am aware, from experience on two occasions in the Ministry of Labour, of the operation of the joint industrial council, and I would lend my support to the theory which has prevailed in the course of our Debates that we cannot direct labour or Government wages from a central point. I would also say that I have always been struck, both in my experience at the Ministry of Labour and since, by the extraordinarily conservative character of the wage-fixing organisation in Great Britain. There is probably no more conservative organisation in Great Britain. If we examine the matter carefully we will find that one joint industrial council will not in any way take orders or directions from even the Trades Union Congress. Take the engineers: they regard themselves as entirely independent of the T.U.C. when they are making their contracts in regard to wages.

Whether we like that or not, it is all typically British, and I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour in not desiring to overturn that in a hurry. I think it would be a great mistake to depart from anything so truly British, but the fact is that, despite the right hon Gentleman saying he had a wages policy, which I do not believe he has, and it has never been explained by any speaker from that side; despite him saying that, I believe we must have a closer approach to synthesis in the wage structure than we have at the present time.

I want to put a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour and to Members of the Government. It is put from a modest experience of these questions, and does not in any way upset the system of collective bargaining, nor does it introduce any spirit of direction. I understand that an experiment has already been made with the National Joint Advisory Council to bring the wage structure organisations more closely to gether, and to explain to them the facts of the economic and political situation. If that be the case, could we not follow that one stage closer, and introduce some council which meets in order to bring to gether the findings of the different industrial councils with a view to obtaining some synthesis between the findings of the councils; with a view to relating the wage structure in one industry to another one; and, above all, with a view to bringing before that central synthesising council the facts of the economic situation and the national interest? If the right hon. Gentleman could follow out that idea, he would find nothing repugnant in it, and it would simply be developing a structure which he has himself developed hitherto.

Now I pass to other aspects of the man power problem. I shall not say very much about the Defence Services tonight because I think we can rely upon my right hon. Friend the Member. for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), who is to speak tomorrow, to speak most energetically on this point, and I feel sure the Minister of Defence will not be disappointed. I would like to echo what the hon. Member for South Cardiff (Mr. Callaghan) has said, and that is that I believe that the only hope for the Ministry of Labour in manning up certain industries is to obtain more from certain of the Defence Services. I believe there are possibilities of slack which can be taken up, and I believe it is in that way only that agriculture, and several other of our industries, can be manned up properly. I would like to make one personal plea to the Minister of Defence. One of the weaknesses of this system of compulsory military service for two years is that there is not sufficient in it of the educative process. If he could make young men feel that after their two years they were in some way better trained or better educated, he would make them much more content in joining up. As I speak on foreign policy from this Box, I would not attempt to say that the Government is without commitments, but I do say they could make this period of Defence Service very much more profitable than it is at the present time.

There are two other aspects of the man-power situation to which I wish to refer. One is the reference to the Civil Service and its non-industrial and other staff, and the other is to the labour for agriculture. I have had what is known as "broken down" for me some of the details of what are called in a broad term, which I know is not accurate, as the "public servants" of this country. There is no doubt that they are swelled to an alarming extent. When we come to examine them and find the only Departments in which there have been reductions since April, 1939, we get a shock. The only Departments in which my figures show there have been reductions are in the Services and Supply Departments, and in transport. Otherwise, we find that the Post Office has increased by some 50,000 persons. I should like to ask why that is necessary between now and 1939. I should like to know why the Inland Revenue has increased between April, 1939, and now from 24·5 thousand to 34·8 thousand, and why the Ministry of Labour has increased from 27·9 thousand to 44·7 thousand. I should like to know why the Ministry of Works has increased from 6·3 thousand to 20·3 thousand, and why the Board of Trade has gone up from 4·3 thousand to 15·3 thousand, although I believe that is the only one, due to the absorption of the Department of Overseas Trade and the raw materials department in the Ministry of Supply on which the right hon. Gentleman has an easy answer. Pensions have increased from something under 3 to 12·6 thousand and other Departments from 57 to 89·1 thousand. These are very alarming figures. If we are going to insist on productivity, it is not by amassing numbers into the Civil Service and particularly into the clerical grades that we are going to get efficiency. I do not think we have had sufficient explanation from the Government why this is absolutely necessary.

But it is when I come to the labour problem in agriculture that I find the situation most unsatisfactory. Anyone who knows agriculture knows, as the President of the Board of Trade said, that the labour shortage is the basis of all our troubles. One would have thought that the Government would have taken drastic steps to deal with this vital problem in our ancient and most important industry. At the bottom of the labour shortage is the housing problem, because without houses, and with the present shortage of houses in the countryside, it is quite impossible to house the workers on the farms.