Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th October 1947.

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Photo of Mr Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire 12:00 am, 24th October 1947

Yesterday we heard from the Minister for Economic Affairs one of the greatest speeches that I have ever heard. It was, as we would have expected it to be from him, a realistic marshalling of the facts, and it brought to the mind of the House, and through the House to the minds of the people of the country, the grim situation in which we are today, a situation which was summed up, in a very remarkable article written by Professor Robbins of the London School of Economics, as being the biggest disaster that has yet occurred in the long economic history of this country. We were also deeply moved by the lofty words which the right hon. and learned Gentleman used at the end of his speech; it was a most moving and eloquent peroration. But as he proceeded with his speech I felt that it was the most devastating and complete denunciation of the policy pursued hitherto by His Majesty's Government. It differed completely from so many of the speeches made in the past by his colleagues sitting with him in the Cabinet and on the Front Bench; it differed very considerably, too—if I may refer to this now—from the words which were used in the Gracious Speech from the Throne. One would not have gathered from the two opening paragraphs of that Speech that our situation was as grim, as threatening and as dangerous as we all now know it to be from the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister for Economic Affairs. The two opening paragraphs of the Gracious Speech read: In the Session which opens today the nation is laced with grave economic difficulties affecting almost the entire world. From that one might imagine that the position here was no graver than anywhere else; that the whole world was involved; and that, in truth and in fact, our position here was not due to any fault in ourselves, but due to a world situation for which we were not responsible; that we were merely the victims of some outside difficulties for which we could be in no way responsible. The Gracious Speech goes on to emphasise the suggestion underlying that first paragraph by saying that the people of this country will demonstrate once again their qualities of resolution and energy. Of course, they will There can be no doubt about that. With sustained effort this nation will continue to play its full part in leading the world back to prosperity and freedom. Again, the suggestion is that the fault lay not at all with His Majesty's Government, but with some outside influences, and that with the full help and active co-operation of the people of this country we will take the leading part in leading the world back to prosperity and freedom. I find those words "leading the world back to prosperity and freedom" rather pharisaical, coming from His Majesty's Government. It is, indeed, rather hypocritical to suggest that this Government is the one to lead us back to freedom when it has done more than any other Government of this country in time of peace to limit the freedom of the individual, and is now actually threatening their spiritual liberty.

The condition of the world, politically, morally and economically a indeed chaotic. It looks as if, two years after six years of the greatest and most devastating war in the history of man the whole world were bankrupt of true statesmanship, for instead of having an atmosphere of peace and an abolition of rankling suspicion, the world today seems to me to be in an even worse condition than it was before that war started. The figures themselves, quite apart from everything else, are appalling. At this time there are roughly 19,000,000 men in the world under arms. Forty nations are spending, in this time of economic crisis, something like £7,000 million per annum on the preparation for war, which is £2,500 million more than was being spent in 1938, before that terrible war started. Today, there are more men in uniform throughout the world than there were in 1938 and 1939, although the armed forces of Germany, Italy and Japan are now non-existent.

I emphasise that at a time when the world is in real need of food and consumer articles, it is tragic indeed that a very high percentage of the budgets of very nearly every country is being devoted to war purposes. Even the little countries which, if they were fully armed, could not hope to offer more than a momenary defence against attack by superior arms, are devoting a very large part of their annual budgets to their armed forces. In this coming year the United States are devoting 34 per cent. of their enormous budget to military purposes; Russia, so far as we know, even on the published figures, is devoting 40 per cent.; and we in this country are devoting something like 26 per cent. of our budget to those purposes.

One of the main causes of our troubles today is our shortage of labour. Yet at this time we have still over 1,000,000 men in our Armed Forces, and according to official figures something like 450,000 men whose whole time is occupied in providing food, clothing, munitions, and so on, for the Armed Forces. I think that figure of 450,000 is a very low estimate; I would put it at very nearly double; but taking it at 450,000, and taking our Armed Forces today at 1,200,000, it amounts; to 1,650,000 men: a figure even today, in excess of the 1,500,000 people devoted to the most important matter of all, our export trade; a figure which is very nearly twice the number in the coal mines; a figure far in excess of that for agriculture, even including the German prisoners of war. In fact, two years after the end of that devastating war, we can say that today our greatest industry in this country—which is face to face with the situation described yesterday so eloquently by the right hon. and learned Gentleman—is still the military industry.

The hardship of it is that ordinary men and women in every part of the world—I am sure without exception—have only one desire, and that is to be allowed peacefully to pursue their ordinary daily lives, to devote themselves to their families, and to assist their families and those around them to raise their standard of life. I only wish that the Governments of those peoples in every part of the world could show some realistic understanding of the desire of ordinary people, and could devote themselves with far greater purpose and determination than they seem to have exercised hitherto to the cause of peaceful pursuits.

The one ray of hope has been the meeting of the 16 nations in Paris, as a result of the very generous proposal made from America by what is known as the Marshall plan. We sincerely trust that this is only the beginning of a real desire for co-operation among these States of Europe, so that they may assist one another to attain a better mode of life and peace amongst themselves. I only wish the policy we are pursuing in Germany were more in alliance with what has taken place at Paris. I fear that if that policy is pursued to its bitter end, it will go a long way towards upsetting what is obviously desired by the sixteen nations. I will say no more than that, because I hope that this matter will be discussed more fully on Monday. We all want to see these nations returning to normal and being able to stand upon their own feet.

Coming back home again, our primary duty, as the Prime Minister very rightly said, is to put our own house in order. If there is need to put our own house in order, it means that the Prime Minister acknowledges that at the present moment our house is in disorder. A later phrase he used, when he said that someone would probably call attention to the fact that what the Government are now proposing to do they should have done earlier, also shows that the disorder is due, not to outside events, but to mismanagement in the past, and in the immediate past, by His Majesty's Government. There has been a misuse of resources in men and material, and a mistaken policy, which was reaching its climax during the early part of this year, and which has been steadily pursued for two years. For that, His Majesty's Government are responsible, and that, in the main, is the first reason why we are in our sad position today. The fault lies not in the amount or nature of the goods we are importing, but in the misuse of those goods, which has led to insufficient exports and to a reduction of our standard of life.

No Government ever started on their career with greater good will than His Majesty's Government. They had the support of all the workers, and the full support of the trade unions. They had the realisation among the people that the tasks confronting them were enormous. I wished them well on behalf of my colleagues in my speech on the Address in reply to the first Gracious Speech from the Throne in this Parliament. We wished them well, not so much for their success, but because we realised that upon them would depend the fate of the country, and the responsibility to bring it through its difficulties back to normal. They had greater powers over finance and materials, together with controls of all kinds, than any Government has ever had; and what has obviously happened, from the words used this week by the Prime Minister, and emphasised by the Minister for Economic Affairs, is that there has been a lack of vision, foresight and realisation of the effect of many of their actions—a real lack of vision as to what might happen as a result of the failure to exercise the control over finance which was in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Obviously, they did not realise the immensity of the problems, still less the danger. Still less did they give that proper guidance which the country was entitled to expect.

The Government are right in saying that the people will go all out to restore prosperity. We have always done so, and we shall do so again, but we shall want to know what is required, and that guidance must come from His Majesty's Government. Unfortunately, in spite of the speech delivered by the Minister for Economic Affairs, we have not today that confidence we might have had originally in His Majesty's Government because of the situation in which we have now been placed. What is more, it is obvious that there has been a complete division of opinion in the Government with regard to policy. The Minister for Economic Affairs, when he was President of the Board of Trade, was all the time warning the country, as explicitly as he did yesterday, but what has been happening? The speech he delivered yesterday was followed almost immediately by a speech from one of his colleagues flatly contradicting him. How can we possibly have confidence in His Majesty's Government when there is obviously a division of opinion on policy in the Government?

Moreover, one's confidence is not restored when, turning to the Gracious Speech, we find that, having called attention in the first few paragraphs to our economic position in the mildest possible language, it then goes on to deal with legislation, and the first thing suggested is that the position of the House of Peers should be dealt with. I hold no brief for the House of Peers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I probably have a longer memory than hon. Members opposite. I have the bitterest recollections of the action of that House between 1906 and 1911, when my party had a far greater majority than the present Government, and what is more a complete majority in the country. The country has had to wait for practically 20 years for the social reforms which we would have carried out then, and which we proposed, debated and discussed on the Floor of this House, day after day and night after night, and which went to another place only to be mutilated, torn and ultimately thrown out. One major Bill which had taken the greater part of a Session was thrown out. A meeting of Peers was held the night before in private, and after the Second Reading of the Bill had been moved by a Member of the Government, a Member of the Opposition got up and moved that they take the vote upon it. Without discussion, the Bill was thrown out. I have bitter memories of that period which culminated finally in the throwing out of what became known, because of the name of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the Lloyd George Budget.

Then we had to go to the country, and we came back. In the course of 12 months, we had to go again and we came back. As a result of those two Elections the Act of 1911 was passed. At that time there was reality in the cry of "People versus the Peers." They were standing in the way of the will of the people. But what has happened since? Since then we have been practically a single Chamber. For 36 years the Peers have not ventured or dared to interfere with a major Bill—certainly not with its principle or policy. [Interruption.] They did not interfere with the principle or with the real major doctrines underlying any one of them They have contented themselves with amending smaller principles within Bills. They have indeed performed a very useful function for the Government of the day, and especially have they performed a very useful function for this Government, because so many of these major Bills were so ill-prepared that not only had we to have scores of Government Amendments during Committee and Report stages, but further Government Amendments had to be introduced in another place. It is a sort of clearing up place of the mess that has been left. When they have suggested any important Amendment with which the Government have disagreed, in every instance they have given way. That is the position today. Why raise this matter now?

May I put this to hon. Gentlemen opposite: This Constitution, we are glad to think, is an unwritten Constitution. It keeps on growing by custom. There was a time when the Throne had a right of veto. It was last exercised by Queen Anne, who, as everyone knows, is dead. I do not know what might have happened if her successors had exercised that right, but no one ever dared to exercise it, and every constitutional lawyer today recognises that the right of veto has disappeared—gone completely. What has happened under the Act of 1911? Since 1911, for 36 years, the Members of another place have not dared to throw out a single major Bill proposed by this House and sent up to them. [An HON. MEMBER: "There has been no need to."] I agree. There have been ten years of war. In the rest of the period, in the main, it was a Conservative Government. They are expected to be complacent when there is a Conservative Government. But hon. Gentlemen forget that there have been two years of this Government.