Orders of the Day — Economic Situation

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

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Woodford 12:00 am, 12th March 1947

I beg to move, in line 2, to leave out from "1947" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: and, while recognising the ever increasing gravity of the economic crisis and willing to give its support to any practical measures to meet it, regrets that the full facts of the situation have for so long been withheld from the country; and has no confidence in a Government whose actions hitherto have served only to aggravate the national difficulties and whose proposals for the future are either inadequate or injurious. The problems which confronted the British nation on the morrow of their victory required the strength of a united people to solve and overcome. Instead of that, the Socialist Government, in their hour of unexpected success, set themselves to establish the rule of a party, and of a sect within a party. Having even then, as my right hon. Friend the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson) reminded us, polled only 37 per cent. of the total electorate, they nevertheless deemed it their mission to impose their particular ideological formulas and theories upon all the rest of their fellow countrymen, regardless of the peril in which we all stood, regardless of the urgency of the work to be done, most of all regardless of the comradeship by which alone we had survived the war.

This was a crime against the British State and people, the consequences of which have hampered our recovery, darkened our future and now endanger our very life. In our immense administrative difficulty, the Prime Minister and his colleagues should have concentrated upon their immediate practical tasks, and left the fulfilment of party ambition and the satisfaction of party appetites, at least until we, and the rest of the world with us, stood on firmer and safer ground. Before they nationalised our industries they should have nationalised themselves. They should have set country before party, and shown that they were Britons first, and Socialists only second. They should have set the day-to-day well-being of the whole mass of the nation before and above the gratification of party passions. In this they would have found an honourable and worthy mission, from which lasting honour for themselves and their party might have been reached.

On the contrary, mouthing slogans of envy, hatred and malice, they have spread class warfare throughout the land and all sections of society, and they have divided this nation, in its hour of serious need, as it has never been divided, in a different way from that in which it has ever been divided, in the many party conflicts I have witnessed in the past. In less than two years our country, under their control, has fallen from its proud and glorious position in the world, to the plight in which it lies this afternoon, and with even more alarming prospects opening upon us in the future. That is their offence, from which we shall suffer much, and with the guilt and discredit of which their name and the doctrines of their party will long be identified in British homes.

For our part, when this Government first took office, although profoundly distressed by the vote of the electorate—[Laughter]—no one more than me—we immediately offered any services which we could render to the national cause, not only at home, but in the United States. I, and my leading colleagues did our utmost, against a good many of our friends here, in our party, to help the Government to obtain the American loan of £1,000 million, in spite of the disadvantageous conditions under which it was offered. I used such personal influence as I had in the United States, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer knows, to clear away American misunderstandings, so far as it is in the power of any private citizen to do any such thing. On every occasion hitherto, my colleagues and I have emphasised the importance of national savings, and we shall continue to do so, but I have an increasing feeling, in view of inflation, that at any rate the smallest class of savings might be linked to some permanent standard of values. We have voted with the Government in everything they have done for the sake of our country, but what has been the return? An aggressive party attack has been made upon us.

I am sorry to see, from the newspapers, though I am glad I was not here, that the Minister of Defence distinguished himself by showing that aggressive spirit last night. An unbroken stream of scorn and hatred has been poured out upon us, not only by Government speakers in all parts of the country, but from the official Government newspaper, the "Daily Herald." One would have thought that the ten million people, who voted for us, or with us, at the Election, were hardly fit to live in the land of their birth, although most of them were folks who had given a lot for the national victory.

The first and the gravest injury which our country has sustained is psychological. It is the injury to the spirit. I was the Prime Minister responsible, as head of the Government, for the present crushing weight of direct taxation including the almost confiscatory taxation of wealth. All this was done with a great Conservative majority by a Prime Minister of the Conservative Party and by a Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Conservative Party. I was also responsible, as head of the Government, for the controls and regulations of all kinds that were in force at the end of the war. We must not forget that afternoon in May, 1940—I was not here; I had to go to Paris—when the enormous Tory majorities in both Houses of Parliament voted into the hands of the Government, for the sake of our country's survival, practically all the rights of property and, more precious still, of liberty on which what we have called civilisation is built. That ought not to be forgotten when hon. Members opposite mock at us as exploiters, rack renters and profiteers. It ought not to be forgotten, nor grinned at, that Conservative majorities in both Houses of Parliament, in one single afternoon, offered all they had and all that they were worth.

Britain saved herself at that time. Perhaps it may be argued, in the light of history, that she saved the world. But what is so particularly odious and mean, and what has caused this deep schism in our island life, is that this sacrifice so nobly made for victory—not only for our own survival and self-preservation but for the victory of the world cause of freedom—should be used and exploited for party purposes and for the institution of a system of Socialism abhorrent to the mass of the nation, destructive of the free life we have known here so long, and paralysing to our native enterprise and energy. Advantage has been taken of the generous impulses of the nation and they have been used for the opposite purpose for which they were given. Rarely has there been such a distortion of trust or breach of ordinary British fair play. It is that malversation of wartime sacrifices, that "fraud on the power" which has riven the nation in twain and rendered it incapable, while the abuse continues, of overcoming and surmounting its many problems and difficulties.

I have hitherto dealt with what I call the psychological aspect. I now come to the material things by which we live—a lower level, but still essential for the continuance of existence. I will first deal with bread and coal. I shall be told, "You complained of too much regulation. You, Mr. Churchill, complained of too much regulation about bread, and you also complained of too little regulation about coal. Where do you stand upon control of these two fundamental supplies?" It may be asked—it is a perfectly fair question and I give hon. Members opposite an opportunity to cheer it—" Have you any central theme of thought in these matters, or are you merely taking points off a harassed Government as difficulties arise?" I will answer that question as bluntly as I have put it, but it will take a little while. There was no need for a bread shortage and there was no need for the breakdown in coal. I assert that the shortages which have caused us so much trouble and misfortune, both in bread and coal, are merely marginal and could have been provided against by reasonable foresight and prudence.

Of course, now that the crisis has come, all kinds of emergency measures may be necessary, but if we look back to a year ago, it would have been possible though not easy—many things are not easy nowadays—to maintain sufficient supplies to avoid the disasters which have come upon us. First, take bread. The whole of this process of costly and vexatious rationing, to which even in the crisis of the U-boat war we never had to resort, has only saved so far 290,000 tons of wheat out of a total consumption of perhaps 2,500,000 tons since bread rationing began. Why, then, did Sir Ben Smith give away 200,000 tons of our agreed allocation in April, 1946? Why did the Lord President, in May, waive our claims to another 250,000 tons of foreign wheat which His Majesty's Government had been convinced, and the Food Ministry had been convinced, our people needed? Here were 450,000 tons that we could have had for our under-nourished people which were whistled down the wind last year for reasons which have never been properly explained to Parliament.

Compassion, charity and generosity are noble virtues, but the Government should be just before they are generous. There is no virtue or wisdom in so far undermining the physical strength of our population that we ourselves have to join the ranks of those who were broken by the war and cease to have the power to help the world even to make the British wheels go round. There are international bodies of great power and force nowadays, and undoubtedly they will continue. We do not get very well treated on these international bodies, anyhow. We do not seem to be able to stand up for ourselves, for our own rights and our needs. Of course, when the new British Food Minister says that we are on the whole better nourished than ever before, not much sympathy can be expected from international bodies dealing with a number of countries who are not at all backward in making their claims and dilating upon their woes. Let me repeat what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is reported to have said the other day: Already in this country the people are probably enjoying the highest standard of living in the world. We are not even suffering from as many shortages as people would imagine. What chance have we got before these international committees of making our case for the hard-working people of this island, when it is given away beforehand by the Minister? I affirm here this afternoon that the British people today are under-nourished. They are less well fed—[Interruption.] I have never heard much anger expressed, in my long experience, from the Left Wing and Radical quarters about anything which got more food to the people. It has always been a point they championed. But now the Government's Socialist policy comes first and the welfare of the people comes second. I say that our people are less well fed in this victorious but precariously balanced island, with its magnificent but at the same time delicate and ramshackle structure of wealth producing apparatus, than are the populations of Holland, Belgium and Denmark. They are three countries which have just emerged from long years of Prussian German Nazi rule.

I say there was no need for bread rationing with all its inconveniences and the additions to our clerical staffs and paper forms so dear to the hearts of the party opposite. I say there was no need for all this inconvenience if we had not needlessly and wrongfully given up the basic share to which our condition entitled us, which our ships could carry, and which our money, albeit borrowed, could last year and this year at any rate buy.

I challenge the Government directly and in detail, on this food issue. We are fre- quently informed that 2,400 calories is the minimum daily amount to maintain a human being in a state of health. It was only a few weeks ago that we were told in this House by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food—who is in her place and whose authoritarian demeanour would inspire all, if her agreeable personality did not somewhat discourage it—that our rations gave us less than 1,400 calories, and that from food bought on points, another 200 calories could be derived, 1,600 calories in all. Yet the Chancellor of the Duchy—he has gone—I did not mean to knock him out so quickly. The Chancellor of the Duchy was challenged because the Germans only got, as was said, 1,550 calories. He explained that this was merely the basic ration, and that two-thirds of the Germans were getting rations varying from 2,550 calories to 3,990 calories. I hope it is true. I would not begrudge anybody the food they can get, but how do the statements correspond with the arguments which are used to make us content with the diet which, without having committed great crimes in the world, our nation has now to receive?

We are told, of course, that our people get another 1,300 calories from foods outside the rationed types. Well, I should like to know where. To get 1,300 calories each, persons would have to eat 5 lb. of potatoes or 8 lb. of cabbage every day, and which of us, I should like to know, except perhaps the President of the Board of Trade, would do that even if we could buy such quantities of vegetables and could afford to pay the price which is being charged for them? I am quite prepared to take my share of whatever the British nation subjects itself to, but not necessarily to contemplate receiving with composure the consequences of the mismanagement of the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I repeat that the British people are under-nourished today. This lethargy in work and falling-off in individual output to which attention has been drawn from every quarter of the House, is only partly due to Socialist teachings. It is mainly due to a shortfall in the necessary calories in respect especially of the heavy manual workers. All this is quite apart from the dreary, dull monotony of diet which directly affects incentive. Let us put up a fight for John Bull's food anyhow—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] He will make the sacrifices if he is called upon to do so, but to run him down as low as this, is a scandal and a shame.

In the whole business of purchasing food and other commodities the State, that is to say the Government officials and Ministers involved, have already shown a lack of foresight and judgment which plainly reveals their incapacity as compared with private traders competing with one another, animated by the profit motive, and corrected constantly by the fear of loss and by the continual elimination of the inefficient. That is a general principle. I say that the wanton and partisan—this is only an incident, but I cannot omit it here—destruction of the Liverpool Cotton Exchange will be for ever held against the distinguished record of the President of the Board of Trade as an act of folly and of pedantry, amounting to little less than bad citizenship.

Now I turn from bread to coal—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is the Minister?"] I am sorry that the Minister of Fuel and Power is not here. I intend to devote an important section of argument to the matter for which he is responsible. I cannot, however, consider that the Business of the House should be frustrated by the evidently calculated absence of the Minister concerned in any particular matter which it is necessary to raise. I will address myself to the Prime Minister as far as possible in this matter.

Here in the case of coal the argument is much clearer than in that of bread. The saving produced by all this stoppage of industry, with its measureless reactions upon our means of earning our livelihood in future years, and averting financial catastrophe, has been very small. What does it amount to? The only figure we had was given to us by the Prime Minster. He said there was a saving of 550,000 tons at the electrical generating stations. That is much less than a single day's output of the mines. How much should I add for the other direct saving: two, three, four days' output? The Government have not told us. Perhaps I should say it is four days—five at the very most. That is all we have saved by the whole of the inconveniences and hardship inflicted on the domestic consumer and the stoppage of industry, leading, mind you, to a rise in unemployment only just short of the previous high peak of unemployment, the last time a Socialist Government was in office in 1930.

It is no pleasure to me to hit the Minister of Fuel and Power now that he is down—I do not know whether he is out or not, but he is certainly not here. I must, however, mark his total lack of foresight. The misleading statements which he made repeatedly are so notorious that I will not trouble the House by quoting them, though I have them here. They have certainly robbed him—I say this seriously to the Prime Minister—of the credence and confidence of the public. Everyone knows he is a very straight, honourable man in private life, but no one will believe his statements about the coal situation in future, and no statement that he makes will receive the slightest attention. It is a matter which certainly should be considered, and which perhaps explains his absence from our Debate this afternoon. He failed to persuade the Cabinet in good time or else they failed to persuade him—I cannot tell, naturally—but he failed to persuade the Cabinet of the calamities which would come upon us, if we ran short of the few odd millions of marginal coal which should be kept as a sacred reserve, as what is called the distributional minimum or, in the "Digest", distributive stock.

There were produced in the year 1946 189 million tons of coal. If we had had only 4 million or 5 million tons more, we could have got through without this disaster, and with something in hand. Five million tons extra, and we should have come through this hard, hazardous winter without a breakdown. The plainest warnings were given. It is remarkable, looking back, how often the figure of 5 million tons of coal was mentioned. Belatedly, the Minister of Fuel and Power himself realised it— What stands between us and success this winter? he asked on 26th September of last year. A matter of 5,000,000 tons of coal. On that coal, he said, depended the salvation of this country. And Mr. Horner—Comrade Horner—speaking at a coal production conference at Edinburgh on 6th October, said: For each 5 million tons of coal of which the industry might be short, there will be a consequential loss of employment to more than 1,000,000 people. There was certainly not any lack of warning from that quarter. Five million tons of coal. Why, the Government allowed its Minister of Fuel or its President of the Board of Trade to export 9 million tons, no doubt with very good reason, in this same war. No doubt the reasons were good but, nevertheless, 9 million tons of coal were exported in bunkering or otherwise during the year, and 5 of these 9 millions kept at home, or 5 millions imported in good time, would have saved us from a breakdown in the whole of our productive industry which will cost us directly tens of millions and, indirectly, hundreds of millions in the productive energies of our people.

It is no new topic. We watched the coal position vigilantly every year of the war. We took the necessary difficult decisions each year in good time. In January or February you must always make sure that you will be able, by the winter, to build up your stocks to the normal 18 million tons of coal or thereabouts, so that you do not drop below the distributional minimum on account of any extra winter consumption. All through the war, we succeeded in keeping this reserve intact. The President of the Board of Trade stated in his comprehensive speech two days ago that during the war we had steadily reduced our stocks. That is quite untrue.