Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd October 1947.

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Mr. Scott-Elliot:

I hope that the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) will forgive me if I do not follow him too closely in making such a long tour of my constituency as he has made of his. I want, nevertheless, to talk about something about which I feel very strongly. I believe that it is generally agreed that most of us during the course of our lives have periods of acute anxiety on account of public or private affairs. During the last ten years, on more than one occasion, I have been acutely anxious on behalf of my country. I make no bones about saying that the degree of anxiety which I at the present time suffer is no whit less than it was on those former occasions of crisis.

There are three simple propositions which I wish to put forward. The first is that despite Ministerial speeches and exhortations I think that there are still too many people who do not understand the seriousness of the crisis with which we are faced. I think that the position is getting better and that if we can have more speeches of such a grand nature as that given by my right hon. and learned Friend this afternoon the country will very soon wake up. In war it is comparatively easy to appreciate danger. When Hitler and his tanks were at Calais it was obvious that we were in danger of invasion. It is not a bit easy to those untutored in economics—and, after all, the average man does not know very much about economics; I do not pretend to do so myself—to understand the extent of an economic crisis which we wish to ward off until such time as the economic crisis actually hits us in terms of hunger and unemployment.

My second proposition is that I am convinced, contrary to what has been said tonight by certain hon. Gentlemen on the other side, that this Government command the general support and good will of the country. I am convinced more particularly that they command the support of the workers who, provided they are given a vigorous lead, are prepared to put their backs into our great national effort. My third proposition arising out of the first two is that the Government can and must get over to our people the needs of the situation in a far more vigorous and perhaps more ruthless way than anything that has been said hitherto. In doing so I do not think it is solely a question of delivering speeches and exhortations. I believe the Government have to make a combined move by obtaining the co-operation of the Press, the radio and the films, in order to get the people to see the dangers with which we are faced.

It is not for a humble back-bencher to say how the Government should do these things. They will obviously find that out for themselves, but perhaps I might be allowed to make a few suggestions which have occurred to me. In the first place, if my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will make speeches like that delivered this afternoon by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Economic Affairs they will really get the matter over to the people. My next point is that perhaps Ministers should give themselves a little more time for thought, leadership, and administration. Inevitably they would then have to give a little less time to legislation. My own criticism of the Gracious Speech is that it contains too much legislation. I, personally, believe that in times of crisis we must be extraordinarily careful not to overload the administrative machine which is overloaded already to a rather dangerous extent. In normal circumstances I would welcome most heartily every single Measure which is contained in the Gracious Speech. For fear that I should be misunderstood I should like it to go on record that I believe most emphatically that we must carry through this Measure for the nationalisation of the gas industry in order to coordinate it with the other branches of fuel and power. Nevertheless, I should have liked to see a little less legislation and a little more time for Ministers to devote to administration, which, as they themselves realise, is such a vitally important matter.

Another point I want to make is this—I have already alluded to it to some extent—is that Ministers must make a different approach in getting over to the people the gravity of the situation. There has been so far too much generalisation, and I do not think people pay too much attention to generalisations; they would pay attention to any particular issue which is going to affect themselves. Therefore, I do not think there is any good in slogans like "Work or Want." What I believe may have to be said, and what my right hon. and learned Friend hinted at this afternoon, is something of this kind—if we cannot produce sufficient, export sufficient or pay our way in the world a certain number of people in this country will within a reasonably short space of time be hungry and unemployed. "Unemployment" is a word of very ill omen and I should never use it if I had not considered my words most carefully. That implies a certain degree of fear, but I believe it may have to be done. That is a little too reminiscent of Governments which have been manned by right hon. Gentlemen opposite in the past. The Labour Party does not stand for that sort of thing. The Labour Party stands for hope and this is the last note on which I want to end my speech. We must get over the idea of hope to our people.

In the first place, I think it will be necessary to link up in the public mind the idea of increased production with the idea of cuts. People should be told that when production has reached a certain level, barring some unforeseen eventuality, certain of the cuts can be taken off and that we shall be able to enjoy more ourselves. There is another and even more important point. I feel there is such a comparatively small margin between scarcity and relative sufficiency, and that so much could be achieved by so little extra, whether in the form of extra labour, extra efficiency or extra individual effort. In order to prove it I propose to give two examples which have been brought to my notice concerning an industry of which I have some small knowledge, the cotton industry.

It will be within the knowledge of hon. Members that our difficulties in the cotton industry are due, not to shortage of cotton but of labour, more particularly in the spinning and cardroom sections. I wish to tell the story of five mills in an area of Lancashire which I know to be one of difficult labour supply. If those mills were able to obtain an additional 150 workers they would be able to produce an extra 100,000 lb. more yarn per week. That would give us 400,000 yards of cloth per week. I believe I am right in saying that a man's shirt and two collars can be made out of four yards of cloth. We should, therefore, be able to get additional cloth for 100,000 shirts per week or 5 million a year. That is a small example of what can be done in one part of the country.

Now let me give the example of a large combine, which has 50 mills and represents about 20 per cent. of the spinning capacity of Lancashire. Before the war that combine produced about 3,150,000 lb. of yarn per week. Today they produce only about 2,000,000 lb. of yarn. If they were able to obtain no more than 2,000 additional workers of the right type, it is claimed that they would be able to produce 2,900,000 lb. of yarn, which is only 6 per cent. less than the total they were producing in 1939. These are significant figures, which prove the point I was making, that so little extra will produce so much. I commend those examples to the President of the Board of Trade and to the Minister of Labour, because between them they could get together and do something about it. I should be glad to give them the source of my information, which is a trade union one upon which I can wholly rely.

I end as I began by urging the Government to speak in the terms of the greatest possible urgency to the workers of this country. Then, and only then, will the people of Britain rise up and show that they can fight their way out of the crisis, led, and indeed, inspired, by the Government in which they put their trust.