Clause 1. — (Continuation for further periods of certain Defence Regulations.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Emergency Laws (Transitional Provisions) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th November 1947.

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Photo of Mr David Maxwell Fyfe Mr David Maxwell Fyfe , Liverpool, West Derby 12:00 am, 19th November 1947

You will see, Major Milner, the difficulty we are in. The effect of these Amendments is to dispense with Regulation 58A, which gives power of direction and the imposition of industrial conscription. The issue before the Committee is whether that regulation should be continued or ended. I have tried to indicate, without going into details, the reasons why I think the regulation should be ended. The first reason is that had ordinarily prudent steps been taken in time to deal with the maldistribution of labour there would have been no need now to decide whether there should be the compulsory direction of labour or not. If anyone is asked, "Are you going to vote in favour of continuing the compulsory direction of labour or not," he is entitled to say," What is the need for it? "If the Government had taken steps to deal with maldistribution of labour in time, it would not be necessary to debate this matter now. If, at the moment, the Government were prepared to deal with my other two points, to have an overhaul of the unnecessary material used in the public administration, and to deal with inflation, they could find an alternative to direction and compulsion.

The second point I want to put to the Committee is efficacy. Is this an efficacious method of assisting our industrial output and production at the present time? That must be material. It is a point to which anyone considering this matter fairly, judicially, and in an unbiased way, as I am sure hon. Gentlemen will, should address his mind. I could give a long string of quotations on that point, which have been made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, in which they have decried the efficacy of direction and the labour which it produces. The presence of the hon. Member for' North Battersea (Mr. Jay) reminds me of a quotation from his book, which I shall not give to the Committee, but which I am sure someone will give before this Debate is over, and, therefore, Major Milner, in answer to you, I confine the recollection of the House to two quotations which I consider are most vital.

One is from the well-known speech of the Minister at Brighton, when he said that the person who was directed was not much use to his shop, his fellows, or himself. The other was the striking remark made by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) that the result of direction to the coal mines was only to increase absenteeism. I take these as typical, and, I think, a fair selection from a large number of quotations, and they go to the root of the matter. We have the view of the right hon. Gentleman and the view of a most experienced miners' Member who said that, in the case of industry generally, and the coalmines in particular, directed labour is not useful and not likely to add to efficiency of production. Therefore, that point I consider to be established, because this is a Debate largely between the two sides of the Committee, and that point is admitted by those on the other side of the Committee who have the greatest right to make the admission from their long experience.

I now come to the effect on individuals. One is bound to make a passing reference to what was said as to the effect on individuals in the case of the National Service Bill when service for one year was imposed. This is not a question of a temporary imposition. It is true that the point has been made that the Orders made under this regulation by the right hon. Gentleman are given a first ending period at the end of 1948, but no one in this Committee who has listened to the speeches, from the Government Benches alone, on the duration of the economic crisis, can expect for a moment, or would be so vain and foolish as to hope, that the end of 1948 could be the final period in regard to the continuance of the orders; and certainly the same applies to the power to make them under the regulation. Therefore, what we have to consider, and what right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite are voting for, if they vote against this Amendment, is the right by direction and by supplementary order to deprive the young men and young women of this country of the right of choice with regard to their future life for a long period, and, it may well be, for all time so far as each individual is concerned. There can be no graver issue affecting the personal liberty of the youth of this country, and, as I have said, their whole future—not only their industrial future, but their whole future—as to whether they will go through life as free men and women or not.

I leave that point, dealt with in that summary manner, because the point itself—the deprivation of the free choice of work—is of such importance that its very statement is the justification of our answer to it. It is not only a question of individuals. This is not only a question which can be considered from a partial or semi-selfish point of view. It is important enough that the individual should have the chance I have described, but it is still more important that the community of which we are all members should take a part other than this regulation indicates for it. Every hon. Member opposite knows that I could cull from a sheaf of quotations against industrial conscription in time of peace from practically every hon. and right hon. Gentleman who sits opposite tonight; but I am not going to weary the Committee, or to embarrass those who are facing me, by giving detailed quotations of their views.

I ask them, assuming, as I do, that they were speaking with good faith and truth in their hearts when they made these speeches, what is there now to change the point of view that they so clearly and vigorously expressed? I ask this question: have they abandoned that point of view? Did the speech of the Foreign Secretary at Southport, when he said that for every minute he had been in this Government he had been working for planned direction, mean a complete change of heart and change of mind? Does it mean that a planned economy, or a Socialist economy, is now found to require planned direction; found to require compulsion for the ordinary man and woman as they go into life? If that is so, let us face it.

We shall be voted down tonight but we shall not be voted down by the country on that issue. If it is once made clear, and honestly admitted, that this planned economy of which we have heard so much means planned direction for young men and young women, we shall face that issue with confidence, not only in the Tightness of our cause, but in our power of winning. It goes further than that. We are, I believe, at a parting of the roads. There is always a hard way and an easy way. I could again give examples from the history of almost every country in the world of the fatal ease with which the lazy way has been adopted. It is so easy to say: "Well, things are very difficult; the situation is almost as serious as during the war. During the war young men and young women were conscripted. Why should they not be conscripted now? In that way we will cure our difficulties."

To say that is, first of all, to ignore the fact that war has a condition entirely of its own kind when the vast majority are ready to make sacrifices to meet an abnormal and unique condition; and, secondly, it ignores that in a time of peace, if we are going to go forward as a free and democratic people, we must demand of the citizenry that they will make a voluntary effort. It is quite true that that demand is not merely a question of putting up posters saying "Work or Want" or using facile expressions in speech. That demand means putting the truth before the people, even when that truth involves the disclosure and admission of mistakes that have been made. If the truth is put before the people, I am quite sure that the demand for their services will never be made in vain. If we are prepared to say that two and a half years after the end of the war we have abandoned the idea of asking the British people to go forward in liberty because we do not think they will answer to the call of the truth, and are adopting the easy way of compulsion, taking it gradually and following one step after another, then we are simply adopting and administering the old Latin proverb that the easiest road is the road down to hell.

8.0 p.m.

That is the issue. There is no question of where it comes in this Bill or any other point that will obscure the issue, to my mind, to the mind of everyone in this Committee, and Jo the minds of the people of the country. The choice has got to be made whether we will go forward and use every ounce of energy that can be given by free men and women or whether we will submit to this compulsion. That is as serious a choice as the people of this country have ever had to make. We as their representatives have got to make a choice for them tonight as to whether the powers of compulsion will continue. I ask the Committee to accept this Amendment which would take away this stain on our people and give them once again the chance of free lives.