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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Photo of Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire 12:00 am, 23rd October 1947

I think the whole House will agree that we had a really remarkable speech this afternoon from the Minister for Economic Affairs. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is courageous in exposition, and, as I know from personal association with him towards the close of the war, he can be equally courageous in administrative action. The hopes of the country and certainly all the hopes of the Socialist Party are now centred on his success. We hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has full authority, even over his most important colleagues, and in particular over the Chancellor of the Exchequer who appears to a great many of us to be the real architect of our present disaster. It does not look as if the right hon. and learned Gentleman can have full authority. It does not appear that he could have been consulted about the drawing up of the King's Speech, for the Gracious Speech bears no relation whatsoever to the speech made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman this afternoon. Nor indeed does the speech made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman bear any relation to the promises made two years ago by the present Ministers now sitting on the Treasury Bench. When the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Scott-Elliot) said he hoped all Ministers would make speeches such as the right hon. and learned Gentleman made today, I could not help reflecting that had they done so two years ago, they would not be His Majesty's Ministers today.

We are tolerant people in the House of Commons. We are inclined to forgive those who make extravagant promises when they do not anticipate being elected to power and then find it difficult to carry them out, but what we cannot altogether forget is that these promises have been repeated all through the two years, and as recently as June this year, by Ministers who ought to have had, and indeed have, some knowledge of the shape of things immediately to come. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Food in July ridiculed the people who were telling some housewives that there might be some difficulty in ensuring our food supplies. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health staked his reputation, for what it is worth, on the successful achievement of the housing programme, and now the shock that the country is going to suffer both in regard to food cuts—probably more to come—and the real human tragedy of the housing collapse is immensely increased by the hopes that were so wantonly aroused, even as recently as June this year. When we survey the present housing situation and the lamentable story the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to unfold, we are entitled to remember that this is not much of a blitzkreig in house construction and is truly the most outrageous of all the follies of ministerial boasting followed by administrative incompetence.

It would be ungenerous and untrue not to confess that the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman struck exactly the right note. It was the first, and indeed the only, sign of real leadership we have had from the Government since they won the General Election. It was of course, as we all know, and as even hon. Members behind the Minister will agree, a complete and utter condemnation of all that they have been doing in the course of the last two years. It was a denial not only of the promises whereby they were elected to power but of the validity of the 53 Acts of Parliament which we are proudly told this House passed in the Session just over. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has left a great deal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to deal with tomorrow, and if I appear to praise the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, it is only on the assumption that other questions like inflation, the possible ceiling on wages, wage demands, and hours of work will be dealt with by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But within the limits of the vast field he covered, it was indeed a remarkably good speech.

We think that the speech is two years too late. Nonetheless, we will give all the help we can to the working out of any programme that can be called a national programme. Obviously the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not expect me to deal in detail with the various points he made this afternoon, though I hope to deal with a number of them in the course of the next few minutes. A detailed criticism and helpful examination of what he said must take a little time to prepare, but we hope it will not take quite so long as the Government have taken in making up their minds what to do.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has gathered round him a team of people who are largely of his own choosing. If I may strike a personal note, I should like to give a particular personal welcome to Sir Edwin Plowden who is the Chief Planning Adviser to the Government, and with whom—I was Under-Secretary to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the closing period of the war—I had close administrative and personal relations. It is unlikely, therefore, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman who chose his advisers and, apparently, also has chosen most of the other Ministers now associated with the economic drive, will blame his failure either on his experts or his subordinates. He chose one of his chief Ministers, the Minister of Fuel and Power, following the good Socialist custom of going to the same public school, from his own public school, and if this crisis is resolved it may later be said that the British economic crisis was solved on the playing fields of Winchester.

We wish the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel—with whom I was also at Oxford, for he had the traditional education, he went right on to Oxford as well—every possible success. He inherits a very difficult task. Almost on the day he is appointed many thousands of Scottish miners are out on strike; the intimate understanding that we were told would arise from the nationalisation of the mines between the National Coal Board and the miners themselves has proved, as of course we thought it would, an illusion, and rigidity and delays have taken the place of a relationship which, though often criticised in the past, did at least apply very often human understanding to the problem. He also succeeds to the Ministry of Fuel and Power at time when it has been stated, and not denied, that the administrative cost of raising coal has gone up since nationalisation by 800 per cent., and a profit of 2s. 9d. a ton on the raising of coal has been turned into a loss of 3s. 3d. Now the task of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Fuel is not only important in regard to coal, but it is, of course, a foundation task in regard to the production of steel, and much of the hope of Britain in the months that lie ahead turns on the work that he is able to do.

Now the right hon. and learned Gentleman has painted a very alarming picture, but it cannot be made too alarming and we certainly have no charge against him that he has overpainted it. At the outset in dealing with what he said, I would welcome the reference that he made to the Marshall Plan and to the overriding need for the countries of Europe, in particular of Western Europe, to try to work out their joint salvation. I think the ominous silence among many of his own supporters with which those references were met was rather tragic. We agree also with him that on the success of the Government—on the success of the British Government, of whatever party it may be in the future—depends as well the survival of European Christian civilisation. This is linked up with the problem of demobilisation. All sorts of people are urging that we should over-rapidly demobilise our Armed Forces, and many people are using the economic crisis and the un- doubted manpower shortage in order to clear out of Europe because they wish, for quite different reasons, that Europe may be laid at the mercy of the new Communist tyranny.

We, have a great responsibility in Europe still, and if we had to make our decision between cutting our commitments altogether in the world, and particularly in Europe, and cutting our domestic capital expenditure, I hope we should be in no doubt as to where the cut should fall. We ought to cut our own capital expenditure and not abdicate our position as the most level-headed and traditional leaders of the free people of Europe today. Once we used to tell Europe to hang on and we would come to their aid. It would be a sorry commentary on the decline in our authority if now we had to say today, "We are sorry, we cannot play a big part in the conduct of Europe today, we are too much concerned with our standard of living at home." We have great obligations in Europe. Even if we had not great obligations in Europe we obviously need a stable and peaceful Europe for the working out of our own economic problems at home.

This fear of our growing weakness in Europe, and the agitation to demobilise overmuch our Armed Forces, has not been in any way assuaged by the curious story in regard to the Home Fleet, which was not carried any further today by the comments of the Minister of Defence. We shall await some further explanation on the state of the Home Fleet. We know how much the difficulties about the figures in regard to the Fleet are due to the Minister of Defence's own abdication in regard to the conscription training period. That has thrown out all the plans of the Army, Air and Naval Staffs for training, an achievement not compensated in the least by the almost immediate subsequent appointment of the chief back bench critic of the Minister of Defence to Ministerial rank. So much for our obligation to keep our position in Europe.

The outstanding feature of the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman dealt, of course, with the capital construction programme. Those of us who were jointly associated in the concluding stages of the great war and the Coalition Government know what work was devoted to the preparatory work in regard to a capital construction budget, and we have been waiting for it for a long time. We are glad it has come, and could wish it had come two years ago. Sir Hubert Henderson, who played an eminent part in advising Ministers of different political persuasions, has said recently that the bottleneck and delays in allocating materials resulting from the excessive finance allocated to nonproductive capital expenditure has lost us more production than would be caused by 1,000,000 men openly unemployed. Let us hope that the White Paper we shall shortly receive from the Government will show cuts which, while not affecting those long-term investments which we must be starting now, will at least divert finance into the most necessary channels.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman painted a terrifying picture of the future, but it is mainly in the field of retrenchment in capital construction that the most immediate and obvious changes can be made. We shall, of course, await a fuller picture in the White Paper, but one or two things already stand out. It will no longer be possible after that speech for hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House to go round misrepresenting the point of view of Members on this side of the House. When we queried, for example, the five-day week, little did they think it would soon come home in regard to the difficulties in the turn-round that they are largely due to the five-day week. When we said it was ungenerous and unfair to call the railway assets a "pretty poor bag" of assets, and to draw attention to the shabby coaches and out-of-date locomotives, little did hon. Members realise that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have to come down here and say that there would have to be further cuts with regard to the allocation of coaches and wagons to the railway companies. And when one or two people, while fully supporting, as we all did, the raising of the school-leaving age as a long-term national investment, queried the wisdom of actually raising it now, with the shortage of schools, little did hon. Members realise that there would probably be cuts in school construction, which will face school teachers and authorities with an appalling administrative problem.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman passed from the references to capital construction to various other observations, and I should like to deal with one or two other of those aspects. The Gracious Speech from the Throne urged that our people should show once again the same resolution and energy that distinguished them in the past. It has been our complaint against His Majesty's Government that the leaders in Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Ministers hitherto charged with economic affairs, have never shown that proper sense of national urgency which would get the people to give a response whereby their resolution and energy could now be nationally invoked. A Session in which 53 Bills became Acts of Parliament prompts one to wonder how many of those Bills, or Acts, as they are now, have actually added to our productive efficiency. The rather pathetic plea by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Scott-Elliot) that there should not be so much legislation was always greeted with derision when made by us last Session. If the country could be saved by laws there would be no crisis today. The trouble is that they were the wrong laws, and while the Minister of Health was saying that we had no time for a rural housing Bill, the sands were running out in regard to agricultural production.

These Bills have only one really material result, and I commend this to the Minister of Labour, who is always searching for scapegoats for his own administrative failures. These Bills have created a vast army of non-productive people whose energies might well be tapped in this crisis, people who are not doing a full day's work—the 13,000 officials who now have the right to enter our homes without legal authority, the people who are drawing up some 900,000 questionnairies every year to industry—one questionnaire I saw a few weeks ago had no fewer than 1,000 questions—the people who have increased, since this Government came in, the number of official forms from 900 to 3¼ million. These are the sort of people who might well be diverted to productive industry. At a time when when we have one civil servant in the Admiralty to every five sailors, one in the War Office to every 18 soldiers and one in the Air Ministry to every 12 airmen, one civil servant in the Ministry of Supply to every 10 workers in the Royal Ordnance factories, that is surely a time to look again at the consequences of unnecessary legislation. When the lights are put up at night in the Ministry of Transport—and no one accuses Ministers or officials of not working hard—while it might have been that the lights would be up in order to mobilise the merchant marine to get raw materials and machinery from abroad to England, they have in fact been up in order to devise new forms of regulations with which to harry lorry owners in my constituency, and others.

If the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman today argues a change of approach then it will have results which will carry us on for quite a period of time. Unfortunately, the speech was made in the Debate on the Address, and we cannot run away from the Gracious Speech, which is the Government's legislative intentions for the present Session. There is nothing in that Speech to match the sense of urgency or to evoke again the sense of leadership which was present in the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Even "The Times" newspaper said of the Gracious Speech that there was in it scarcely a glimpse of the prodigious dangers and historic opportunities now open to the British people, and many Members have drawn attention to the outrageous attempt to divert attention from shortcomings by the reference to the reform of the Parliament Act.

Even the papers most notoriously associated with trying to understand the motives of the present Government have been unanimous in their condemnation. The "Daily Mirror" called it "a move to cover something up" and said it was probably the mishandling of steel. The "News Chronicle" called it "brawling at phantoms," the "Manchester Guardian" spoke of "political irrelevance," and the only paper in the country that is, by the terms of its charter, obliged to publish what its political chiefs tell it to publish, the "Daily Herald"—the only thing they could think of was that it was all most interesting. We all know perfectly well that the real feeling of the people of this country was summed up by the Lord President of the Council as recently as last November in one of his sprightly speeches in the country. He then said: The rarity of a conflict between Lords and Commons is nowadays so trivial that most people take the smooth working of the two Houses for granted. I commend that to the Government as a fairer picture of our constitutional position than anything they envisage in the Gracious Speech. In the course of the speech of the Minister for Economic Affairs, the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked for greater production, but he made no reference, other than the obvious spiritual references with which I do not quarrel, to the need for greater incentive, and greater respect also, for the people who have, by their prudence and hard work, managed to save some money of their own and want to be allowed to hand it on to their children. Without a better and new approach to the problem both of incentive and of savings, there will never be full industrial or agricultural production in this country. I will not go into detail in regard to the problem of incentives, but I would like to commend to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Government the remarkable example of Belgium which, though it has a Socialist Government, has now achieved almost miraculous increases in production after first; meeting some of the urgent and overdue domestic needs by diverting some part of production for a time to consumer goods at home. This particular incentive, for a short period at any rate, is one that the Belgians have proved in practice to have immensely advantaged their export trade in the long run.

I want to deal for a minute or two with the question of savings. It is a very alarming fact that in the last six months nearly as much money has been taken ort as has been put into national savings. The sum of £391 million has been taken out of national savings and the sum of only £453 million has been invested. We are still £100 million off our national savings target. The Government must know how far this is due to fear in the minds of investors, particularly small investors, that the value of money will decline and also to the fear that the attacks by the Minister of Labour and others on people who are independent—which only means some one who has either earned enough to be independent or whose ancestors were producers at some other period—show that the Government do not intend to respect investments and saving. The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot at one and the same time ask for national savings which provide a form of deferred purchases later on, and then turn on the people who do save and accuse them in derisory terms of being contemptible people who claim to be independent.

It has been well said, and it is particularly true of a great country like ours with a long history, that the essence of saving and investment is to secure a legal right on future production in which the beneficiary will not himself participate. If this generation in the House of Commons teaches the workers of this country that they can live in the present alone, take such capital as can be invested, but regard every one else as drones, then all thrift will go. That is one of the reasons why we are in a difficult financial position today. The desire to earn something for one's self and one's children and to leave one's children free to choose their own career and not be forced to choose their careers by economic circumstances, is deep-rooted in our being. The Government which recently withdrew the "home of your own" advertisement from national savings have now issued another one through the War Office with the astonishingly ironical suggestion that young men ought to go into the Army and learn about mechanics because one day they may want to own a garage or a filling station.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, after talking about production, which went right through his speech, turned to agriculture, and I would like to deal with that subject. I believe that the talk about non-productive workers by the Minister of Labour is largely an attempt to get the great mass of the workers of this country to accept the direction of labour without really realising that it has happened. We are against direction of labour, whether for agriculture or anything else. We do not regard it as a possible means either of getting the workers we need or building up the society in which our people wish to live. The agricultural labourer was recently addressed by Mr. Priestley, who said this, and it has been quoted in my constituency: To know that you and your work are urgently needed may indeed be better than the vague liberties about which wealthy industrialists are so eloquent. So the agricultural worker has to lose his liberty. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows as well as anybody else the disastrous situation in regard to rural housing—the failure to use the Housing (Rural Workers) Act, and its non-reimposition, in spite of the almost unanimous report of the Ministry of Health inquiry, the only adverse vote being that of the Minister's own wife. This demonstrates a tragic failure to provide the most elementary agricultural needs.

The Minister also dealt with agricultural machinery, and said that the farmers are now getting three times the machinery they had before the war, and there were loud cheers from the Government back benches. Of course, the reason largely is that, under the late Minister of Agriculture, there was a huge increase in mechanisation during the war, and, in addition, all sorts of urgent repairs were not done to agricultural machinery, which makes the need all the greater today. It was most unfair for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to, blame private industry for failure to provide ploughshares, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman was really serious about that, because he well knows that last year we exported £7 million worth of agricultural machinery and already this year £5.9 million worth had been exported up to June. It would, perhaps, be more sensible planning to have had some of this machinery on our own farms. My last comment on agriculture is this. Even if the Government hope of getting £100 million more in agricultural production by 1950 is realised, we shall only then be back at the level of agricultural production in 1945, when we handed over responsibility to the present Ministers.

The last reference I wish to make is to the question of the Empire's contribution to solving our present difficult economic situation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman made some reference to the Geneva conversations. We appreciate that it is difficult for him now to give us any clear indication of what agreement, if any, has been reached, but we would like him to realise that, I believe in his own party, and I know among the overwhelming mass of my own party, there is the deepest possible anxiety lest we should be betrayed, in the interests of multilateral trade, into sacrificing that Imperial Preference which can weld us into a strong economic union and enable us to weather the storm and thereby provide a real contribution to the solution of the problem of the whole world.

We realise that this country, which once, in the 70's of the last century, exported two-thirds of all the manufactured exports of the world, saw a fall to one-third by 1913 and to one-fifth by 1938. A good half of that one-fifth goes to markets where we have preferences. In 1938 the Empire took 32 per cent. of their imports from us, and the rest of the world took only eight per cent., and that is the measure of our competitive position in the terms of present world competition. I think it provides a great warning against making an agreement today with the United States, including Article 16 of the draft Charter, which forbids any increase of existing preferences or extension of any new ones without approval of the International Trade Organisation. We shall hope for an early statement on that matter. But I must warn the right hon. and learned Gentleman in advance that there will be the greatest possible opposition from the Government benches to any serious whittling down of Imperial Preference—[HON. MEMBERS: "Opposition benches."] Yes, Opposition benches; I was a little premature—no matter what temporary advantages may claim to have been provided.

I have covered a fairly wide field at, I hope, a somewhat slower speed than usual, although I rather doubt it. I would like to end on roughly the same note as I started. We welcome the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He gave an indication that this Government has offered a partnership to all sections of the community, political and industrial. He praised the cotton managers, the steel producers, and, of course, the workers as well, and, from time to time, hints that managers and salesmen also provided useful services crept in. I do not believe that the right hon. and learned Gentleman really thinks that planning by itself, leaving out all the human needs and opportunities, is going to solve any of our difficulties. Even the "Economist" said a week or two ago that if ever a community had been more planned against than planning, it is Britain in the last two years. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman match his speech today with giving opportunities to industries, employers and workers, within the general broad directive of the Government of the day to work out their own salvation, remove as many controls as can possibly be removed and give opportunity again to people to do well in the world, and to hand oh a better heritage to their children than they themselves received. If he did so, he would be astonished at the response he would evoke.