Consumer Goods (Shortages)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th June 1947.

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Photo of Sir Frank Medlicott Sir Frank Medlicott , Norfolk Eastern 12:00 am, 26th June 1947

That may well be, but, after all, it is the shops from which the consumers obtain their goods. [An HON. MEMBER: "It has the largest black market in the world."] I can only state that in Belgium, without any reference to the black market at all, it is possible to buy a large number of goods which are completely unobtainable here. That is the only point I wish to make, and it is in some respects proof that Belgium has made a quicker recovery than we have. I believe the Belgian war effort was not of the same nature as ours, but she did suffer from occupation. Her economy was disrupted by the Germans. Many of her factories were switched over to processes very different from those of peacetime, and she has had to overcome these difficulties. She has done so in a very interesting way. One is entitled to ask whether it is not due, in some measure, at least, to the fact that her industries and manufacturers have not been subjected to the same amount of Government interference as those in this country

I said that the shortages were bad for morale. I do not wish to exaggerate that aspect of the matter, but it is, nevertheless, a fact. These things do affect the morale of the people in time. We shall, no doubt, be given a large number of reasons for the shortages. We shall be referred to the need of the export trade, as to which we on this side of the House are entirely in agreement. That must be the basis of our return to prosperity. We shall also be told about the financial position, the fuel crisis, the shortage of labour and raw materials, and the magnitude of the task of conversion from war to peace. The most important reason will probably not be mentioned from the other side of the House; that is the crippling effect upon our national economy of the effort to introduce Socialism in our time. Of course, I would hardly expect the Minister to admit that. At one time it used to be said that the Board of Trade was so called because it was not a board and did not do any trade. Nowadays, of course, it does a great deal of trade—or at least it has a great deal to do with trade. There is a distinction. But, without being patronising, I would like to say that the reputation of the Board of Trade and of the Minister in business and industrial circles, stands probably a good deal higher than the reputation of almost any other Minister. That is shown by the answers given in this House to the numerous Questions which are always answered with courtesy and patience.

We are entitled to ask what is the Government's ultimate policy in regard to the trade and business of the nation. Is it doomed to be ultimately strangled by the octopus-like tentacles of nationalisation? Are bulk buying and price control and central direction to be retained as permanent features of our economy? Or is there in due time—but at the earliest possible date—to be a genuine willingness on the part of the Government to restore to British business a real measure of freedom? I mentioned just now some of the many items which are scarce at the present time. They have one feature in common, that in normal and, I think, happier times, they were nearly all the products of British private enterprise; they were the results of the particular genius which the British people have for vigorous and open competition conducted by merchants with the avowed object of making for themselves reasonable profits but, at the same time, providing a wide range of goods for the customers, both at home and abroad, at reasonable prices. I know that to criticise and even to deride British business enterprise, and to attack the profit motive, is part of the normal propaganda of certain sections of hon. Members opposite; although one can welcome the rather more helpful attitude that has been shown by the Board of Trade itself, because, after all, our overseas investments and the favourable balances of trade and the rising standards of life which were built up in prewar and pre-Socialist days were very largely built up by the genius of British merchants and traders, by our inventive genius and by our manufacturing capacity.