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 David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 24th October 1947

I think everyone in the House will agree with the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Chamberlain) that His Majesty's Government should try to find a sound and imaginative psychological approach to the people at the present time. But I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that if one thing is certain, it is that we have got beyond the stage of mere exhortation and appeal. The people want to see a clearly defined path on which their efforts to advance can be made, and in order to base the hope for a clearly defined path they are looking much more critically at the steps that have been taken during the last few months. Therefore, I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not object to my taking as the test of his speech, the question of whether it has explained two things; namely, why a loan which was expected to last five years ran out in a little more than one year; and, secondly, why in the second year of our reconstruction the external position was so much worse than in the first year. Unless he has answered those questions, his speech has failed to explain his portion of the responsibility for what has happened today.

We on this side of the House make allowance for certain difficulties, and always shall do so. We make allowance for the difficulty that the price of imports has risen by 21 per cent. and the price of exports has risen by only 15 per cent. That is a clear point which every fair minded disputant should take into account. We also make allowance for the responsibilities which His Majesty's Government have had—although we do not agree that they need have been as large—in the expenditure abroad. But when we have made reasonable allowance for that, we are left with four points which go far beyond bad luck and go well into the sphere of bad management. First of all, it was never the case for the Government that the Loan was merely a matter of maintaining consumption of consumer goods. It was always part of the argument that the Loan should be used, and used widely, for re-equipment and bettering our position to meet our economic difficulties. Secondly, even if one were to accept—which I certainly do not—the figures and the supposed consequence of the figures which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put before us today, there has been a wastage in the unnecessary purchase of expensive foodstuffs for the comfort of our people. Thirdly, when it was clear that the mess caused by the fuel crisis last winter had resulted in a loss of exportable production of £200 million worth of goods, action should have been taken at once.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is only secondarily answerable for the obvious mistakes of the then Minister of Fuel and Power, but he is as answerable as anyone for the failure to have any plan to deal with the results of the mistakes, and the failure to take action in some way to bridge the gap which the fuel crisis caused. But lastly, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were blessed with the perfection of a sellers' market. At a time when the world was clamouring for our goods they delayed, hesitated and put off until it was too late to urge and ask for more production, when under-production was clearly our difficulty and trouble. In all the Debates which I have initiated I have always begun—and I do not apologise to the House for doing so again—by saying that coal has been, is and will be the most important matter at this time. I am not going to say more than that on that point; I think I have made my view perfectly clear on the fuel crisis. But we must remember that if it was simply a matter of £ s. d., which it is not, our prewar coal exports would be worth £100 million today, and the lack of our ability to export coal has been a matter which, until yesterday almost, only one notable speech—that of the Foreign Secretary—has regarded as being of vital importance. It is a matter to which we dare never refer as something which was a happy accident of the past and an unhappy concomitant of the present. It is something for which all our people must work if our economic health is to recover.

Therefore, there are these two aspects: first, the increase of output per head. That is still below 1939, although mechanisation, wages and working conditions have all improved. The other is recruitment. I ask hon. Members opposite to consider that question again. With the enormous wastage in the industry there cannot be any question of over-recruitment today. Already the initial spurt in the early part of this year is lagging, and unless we deal with the situation, this priceless product—what I described on the last occasion when I spoke on a similar subject as a currency harder than dollars—is not within our power. I have mentioned that because I think every hon. Member agrees with me broadly on the importance of that aspect.

When I come to the question of the maldistribution of our resources, I say with all the sincerity I can command that the speech of the Minister for Economic Affairs was the most damning indictment of the policy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that could have been laid before this or any other bar. We began with a perfectly clear and obvious problem, that of resources and labour being liberated from their war tasks to be used in the right place. It was not until 18 months after this Government took office that they put before the country even the statement of the problem, that our basic industries were undermanned and our export position was becoming serious. In addition to that—and this is the position with which I tax the right hon. Gentleman, because I believe the responsibility is his—we went in for an immense and unprecedented programme of capital development. It was not merely immense and unprecedented: it was unco-ordinated. It was suggested, put forward, carried into partial operation by different Departments and agencies of Government, by different vehicles outside the Government, and there was no co-ordinating power; and, as the right hon. Gentleman has repeated today, and repeated with pride and self satisfaction, it was at the cost of the use of our dollar Loans that that programme was put into operation. We have seen now, too late and at long last, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister for Economic Affairs come before this House and say that that programme has to be cut. Two approaches that were poles apart cannot be harmonised even by the would-be logic and affability of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer.