Foreign Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th May 1947.

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Photo of Sir Alexander Spearman Sir Alexander Spearman , Scarborough and Whitby 12:00 am, 15th May 1947

We have just listened to a very thoughtful speech. The hon. Member was certainly not unduly optimistic, but I, for one, was very glad he should so emphasise the extreme gravity of the present situation. The Foreign Secretary said that not Germany alone, but the whole world, was short of food at the present time. However that may be, there is certainly a shortage in this country and, indeed, it would be monstrous if our people who had war made upon them, should have to suffer anything comparable in sacrifice to what will be the fate of those who made war. But, I would like to stress a little more than I thought the Foreign Secretary did, the extreme difference in magnitude between the sufferings in this country, and those in Germany. Only today a friend sent me a letter received a few days ago from a Quaker worker in a team helping refugees. I would like to quote one short sentence, because I think perhaps its moderation makes it the more telling: We are living at present on a daily diet of 700 calories consisting of bread and potatoes, but the bread is short "— There is no exaggeration there— with the result that we have had none for two days, and the new ration card is not available until Monday. If only we were given the possibility to work and export, we need not be a burden on the British taxpayers. It is only just a year ago that the Combined Nutrition Committee made their report in which they said we are … facing a nutritional disaster, the magnitude of which and consequences of which the Committee fears may seriously retard the recovery of Western Europe and probably disturb its political development. That was a year ago. I believe that we are now on the verge of tragedy. These people have been living for a long time now with little food and no hope. That is no foundation upon which to build a democracy, which is so vital to Western civilisation.

At this alarmingly late hour the Government have decided on a change in Ministerial responsibility. The new Chancellor of the Duchy comes to his extremely important job with great energy and great talents. I can perhaps claim to have know him longer than any of his Socialist colleagues, or perhaps anybody in the House today. When I first knew him he was of a different size and shape to what he is today. There was then no unwisdom in his political views, but even in those days he was noted for two qualities—courage and independence. I believe that he has got those qualities today, and indeed he will need them if he is to make a success of this job, the difficulties of which are only exceeded by its importance. In those days, I used sometimes to be able, when was 12 and he was 10, to force my will upon him. Now, from a humble quarter of the House, I can only diffidently express my views, and hope that perhaps he may find time to skim through HANSARD tomorrow.

I would like to say to him two things. I believe that whether he can make a success of this job depends on two things. First, he should institute a most searching inquiry as to how the failure has come about. I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) with his great wisdom and experience, emphasise that very point; the great need to diagnose why we are in this state. I hope that the Government will not be too frightened of admitting failure. To fail sometimes is inevitable. Governments, perhaps as good as they, have failed in the past, but if they are complacent, and say that this disastrous state of affairs has come about through no fault of theirs, and indeed is unavoidable, then I shall be in despair. I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy will make the most searching inquiry as to how we have got into the appalling position in which we now are in regard to people who are our responsibility.

I wish to take up a point about food. I have no doubt that if strenuous steps had been taken far more food could have been obtained for Germany. There could have been fish from this country and Scandinavia and vegetables from Holland. I believe that they were held up through red tape and inability to improvise. I believe that industrial conditions in Germany today are quite appalling. It is as though a quarter of our workers were unemployed, and we are keeping them in that condition. In 1931 we faced a crisis in this country. We were then unable to absorb all the goods that there were or to use all the workers who were available. We had unemployment and poverty. I believe that today in this country we are facing the prospect of far greater unemployment, far greater poverty through the very reverse reasons—because we have not enough men or men in the right place, and because we have not got enough raw materials. Under those conditions it seems to me a monstrous thing that in Germany we should not be making use of every able-bodied German, but that on the contrary we should be keeping them idle and pouring our precious goods into their country. That seems to me to be a reversal of what we should be doing Germany should be an investment; it is a hideous liability.

In the short time at my disposal I cannot possibly give an outline even of the causes of failure, but I will give just the headlines. I suggest four. First, I believe that the arrangements by which the decisions of the four occupying Powers are arrived at are thoroughly unsatisfactory. I believe that the quadripartite machinery is clumsy and badly used. Second, I believe that there has been confusion between Norfolk House and the Foreign Office, between London and Berlin and between Berlin and the zones. Third, that there has been confusion between those who have been trying to rehabilitate the industry of Germany and those who, for security reasons, have been trying to pull German industry down. I would quote Mr. Gollancz, whom we do not claim as a Tory, and who I believe announced again last night that he was a Socialist. He says: If we now choose the path of destruction rather than of reconstruction: if we fill the German people with despair rather than with hope: if we make them hate and despise us, when they were ready for emotions of a very different kind—then the Nazis, in spite of everything, have won, and tomorrow's world will be of their pattern and not of ours. Wars are made by guns but it is the minds of men that make the guns. The Germans are very far from making war now, but after all it is the minds of people that matter in the long run. We are creating a condition which would inevitably bring about war. We must try to make a Germany fat but impotent.

Fourth, I believe the Potsdam agreements, however much better they would have been if they had been fully implemented, are quite monstrous in the way they have been carried out. I believe that they prevent any rational action from taking place. Surely, nearly two years after the Potsdam Agreement it is time we faced this fact. However bad a divided Europe may be it is infinitely better than a ruined Europe, and the sands of time are running out. I would suggest as essential remedies that we must first get industry going, give industry some assurance that it has a period in which it can work. What factory is there now but which knows that at any time it may be taken over or stopped from functioning? We must make drastic alterations in the taxation system, which is pre-Gladstone. There is no inducement to any industrialist now to make profits. It pays him better to hoard his raw material. What is worse, there is no inducement whatever to the worker. I believe it would take six weeks' work to make enough money to buy one pound of butter on the black market, whereas if the worker spent his time idling in the market, selling his curtains or carpets, he might make enough in the one day to buy himself a good deal. I believe it is absolutely vital to give an incentive to industrialists and workers to get on with the job.

I believe there should be at once a drastic currency reform, so that those who do earn money can have a fair chance of getting what goods are available. I would beg the Chancellor of the Duchy to make the most searching inquiries about how these most disastrous failures have taken place. I also ask him to go to America. As has already been said, it is only America which can quickly produce the goods which will remedy the situation. When I was in America a few weeks ago I was immensely struck by the sympathy of the American people for this country, and by their determination to do everything in their power to preserve Western civilisation. But I was not conscious of their realisation of how crucial the position was in Germany.

I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy—and few people would be more convincing—should go to America to explain how absolutely vital it was to avoid this crisis in Germany, and to get through next winter without disaster. They should be told that if they are intent—as they are on preserving Europe, then a small sacrifice now would save their own taxpayers a great deal in the long run. Finally, he could stress to them the fact that perhaps never in the history of Western civilization has there been such suffering as there is in Germany today. It may be that the people who are suffering are our enemies, but they are at our mercy and, surely, we cannot indefinitely punish them for their misdeeds in the past. We must remember that millions of them were not born, or by way of an age to do anything about it when Hitler came into power. Surely, every hon. Member of whatever party can agree that real suffering, such as there is today, should be attacked in every way, however that suffering has come about and wherever it is.