Control of Engagement Order

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1947.

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Photo of Mr Rhys Davies Mr Rhys Davies , Westhoughton 12:00 am, 3rd November 1947

I beg to move, That the Control of Engagement Order, 1947 (S.R. & O., 1947, No. 2021), dated 18th September, 1947, a copy of which was presented on 20th October, be annulled. It will be obvious to all hon. Members that this Motion is intended to challenge the right of the Government to choose their jobs for the unemployed, instead of allowing the unemployed to choose their own occupations. Six months ago this House gave support to the Government and passed the National Service Bill. I ventured to suggest then that, once the Government secured military conscription in peacetime in this country, industrial compulsion would follow almost automatically. I was, of course, treated with scorn and contempt because I prophesied that; but industrial compulsion has now become a fact. I venture, therefore, to make another prophecy that, unless Parliament puts a stop to these totalitarian tendencies, there will be a goodly number of our working class folk sent to prison under the new regulations. I have many cases in my file here of ordinary decent working class men and women who were sent to gaol during the war under similar regulations to the one which I am now challenging.

We are promised, of course, that this regulation will come to an end in December, 1948. I have no faith at all in that promise. I well remember the promises that were made about military conscription. I was here when we were told that conscription was needed only for the emergency; and, now, military conscription is practically fastened on the British people for all time. Consequently, I repeat that I have no faith at all in the promise that it will come to an end in December, 1948. I want the House to listen to the promise of the Minister of Defence when he said on All Fools' Day this year—that was very ominous: The Government, in spite of what has been suggested from both sides of the House from time to time, have no intention whatsoever of introducing, or supporting, any form of industrial conscription"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st April, 1947; Vol. 435, c. 1956.] Now, where is he today? If the right hon. Gentleman sincerely believed that, he ought to support my Motion in the Lobby this evening.

I want next to challenge the new philosophy about industrial conscription that has arisen in our party. I have been preaching this same gospel for 50 years—and I preached it when some hon. Members on the Front Bench belonged to the Tory Party, by the way. This is the argument which I hear on all hands; people say to me, "If you are to have a planned Socialist society, you must accept compulsion of labour." But the gospel which I have preached all along the line—and I have done as much as most of my hon. Friends on the public platform—is that Socialism would provide greater personal liberty and freedom for the worker than capitalism. If hon. Members today will convince me that we cannot have as much individual freedom in a Socialist society as we could get under capitalism, I am opposed to a planned Socialist State. There is another point I want to make. I am told that we cannot very well raise objections to the compulsion of labour because we have accepted so many restrictions already. As we have accepted military conscription, it is said, we are logically bound to accept the direction of labour. What nonsense! It is just like saying that, if one member of a family suffers from infantile paralysis, all the rest of the household ought to be afflicted alike. I must make it clear that there is no absolute freedom, any more than there is absolute tyranny, hut that is no reason why, because there is no absolute freedom, we should restrict it and enlarge the scope of tyranny by Parliamentary action.

Let me say a word or two more about this new philosophy that is growing up inside our own party, but first let me thank both this Parliament and my hon. Friends for suffering a man like me to say these unpopular things. I am proud to say that, in my union, the National Union of Distributive Workers, which is the fifth largest in the country, the policy of military conscription and industrial compulsion are not very welcome. Of all sections of the working classes called upon to fight the battles of Britain, the distributive trades contribute a larger proportion than any other. Agricultural labourers, miners, engineers and some other classes of workers are exempt from military service, but the right hon. Gentleman seems to have developed a dislike of the distributive trades. Let him remember, however, that today there are 500,000 fewer people, employed in distribution than there were in 1939, and that in spite of rationing and all the headaches which shop assistants get in dealing with points and rationed goods.

Let me make my own position as a Socialist clear to my hon. Friends. I am in favour of harnessing, controlling and owning by the State or municipality of those inanimate things necessary for the life of the community, but I draw this fundamental distinction. I object to the State treating human beings as if they were things and inanimate material. That is a gospel which every Socialist used to preach in this country. It will be said, of course, that I shall get Tory support for this Motion. Why should I not welcome Tory support for freedom? The Government were delighted to have Tory support for military conscription, so I say, "tit for tat" to that. Let me make it clear too that, where personal freedom is at stake, I do not mind where support or where opposition comes from. I should have thought that the issue of freedom in this supposedly land of the free, ought to be above party considerations; that it ought to appeal to Members of all parties, because, in the end, it is the children of the future who will suffer under this tyranny if it is allowed to grow.

There are queues at every street corner, military conscription, food rationing, a scarcity of clothing, furniture and houses, and exceptionally heavy taxation. It is no use the critics blaming the Government for the shortage of houses and all the other restrictions that are imposed. The fact is that this nation to which we all belong has squandered its substance on two wars until we are hopelessly bankrupt; and no Government of any kind would do better than this one in relation to food and housing, and right hon. Gentlemen opposite know that perfectly well. But why should we add this additional direction of labour on top of all the other restrictions? Why not try freedom for a change? The most ridiculous argument of all that I have heard in relation to this, and one put forward by my own colleagues, is that the imposition of this direction of labour by a Labour Government will not be as cruel as if it were imposed by the Tories. That is nonsense too. I have said before that a pair of handcuffs are no easier to wear because they happen to shine with a Socialist solution. They are still a pair of handcuffs; and when this regulation leaves the Department of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, little does he know how it will be administered in the employment exchanges. He will have very little control over it at that lower level.

Some of my hon. Friends are very happy about this regulation because they believe that it is going to catch the rich, that it is going to deal with those who Toil not, neither do they spin. They are all wrong. This regulation will not touch the rich; it will deal only with the wage earners, when they become unemployed and attend at the employment exchange. They are the only people who will be dealt with under this regulation, and all the talk about "spivs, drones, eels and butterflies" is simply used to camouflage the real issue. This regulation is akin to the line which the Nazis took in Germany and the Fascists in Italy when they were faced with an economic crisis. I have just been in Germany, and I have seen the havoc done to a great people through accepting this sort of political philosophy—the easy way of tyranny and direction. Dictatorship is, of course, very easy; one does not need to argue with anybody; you simply give them orders. That is what they did in Germany, and I know what has befallen that great nation for not nipping dictatorship in the bud. Let my right hon. Friend remember the history of all the tyrants from the Pharaohs down to the Tsar. The Tsar himself thought that he was a decent and kindly fellow. All the tyrants think alike; they all think they know what is good for their people. But once the attack on freedom is begun, no Minister of State can stop the tyranny that follows.

The Control of Engagement Order applies to the coal mines today, and I will tell the House what I think is part of the problem of the coal industry. Some people in this House think that they are better bred than the miners. I am sure that no hon. Member in this House would send his own son to work in the pits. But when a boy enters the coalmining industry today under the Control of Engagement Order, he and his parents know that he is fastened to the industry until he is 50 years of age. For ten years I worked underground, but I came out of the pit and I chose my own job. I want to proclaim the gospel here that every other man ought to be entitled to choose his own job instead of having one chosen for him by a stranger. The difference between a slave and a free man is that the free man has the right to strike and the right to choose his own job instead of being told by a clerk at an employment exchange what job he must accept. The Government, the Coal Board and, if I may say so, some trade union officials forget the truth that man does not live by bread alone. The intangible spirit of man must be taken into account in all this; and the soul of the decent workman is offended when he is ordered about as if he were one of a flock of sheep. The "Bevin boy" experiment ought to be enough to convince the Government that compulsion will not avail them. That experiment, surely, was a failure. Although the people of this country submit to compulsion for the purposes of war, when there is an enemy at the gate, they do not submit so easily to compulsion in peacetime. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] More than that, one may take a horse to the trough, but one cannot make him drink.

I have every reason to believe that all this "spiv" business is part of a campaign to cover up the real issue. What is a spiv, a drone, an eel, or a butterfly anyway? It just depends upon one's point of view. In my view, every man and woman in the world dressed up in military clothes is a drone living on the rest of society.