Orders of the Day — Nationalisation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd November 1948.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Plymouth, Devonport 12:00 am, 2nd November 1948

How could Mr. Hoffman say anything else? Mr. Hoffman is an honest man. He is going back to America as the servant of the American people. He is not going there to put something across on our behalf to the American people, but as a servant of the American people, to persuade them and to tell them of the facts as he has seen them here. The right hon. Member for Woodford has not had the grace or the generosity on one occasion in the past year to pay some tribute to the production achievements of this country. Instead he says that our prestige has sunk to nothing and that the British people ought to be ashamed of what they had done in the past few years. That is in direct contrast to what has been said by those who are trying to reconstruct Europe at this time.

Let me recall another part of the argument which was used a year ago. The first charge made by the right hon. Member for Woodford was that we had broken the mainspring of our productive system. Not even the right hon. Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson) dares say that today. The second charge made by the right hon. Member for Woodford a year ago—and what he described as the second count against the Government—was that the housing programme had collapsed. Those were the words he used. It is significant again that there is no reference in this Amendment to the housing programme which was supposed to have collapsed a year ago. It is a remarkable thing. The right hon. Member for Southport today did say a few words about the housing programme, but the housing programme has not collapsed.

In the city of Plymouth, of which I am one of the representatives in this House and which is one of the areas most tragically affected by the shortage of houses, we have built in the last three years more than 5,000 new houses. During the whole of the period during the two wars—the right hon. Member for Southport was very careful to safeguard himself about the period immediately after the 1914–1918 war—in Plymouth something like 11,000 houses were built. We have now built 5,000 houses in three years, so that we are well on the way to doing in three years half of what was done in the whole of the 20 years between the two wars. That has been done while carrying out a large number of repairs as well. And that kind of experience can be repeated in many parts of the country.

It is disreputable that the Opposition should try to pretend that the housing programme has collapsed when, in fact, we have a better housing record than any other country in the world. Taking into account the fact that my city of Plymouth stands almost at the top of the league in housing—[Interruption.]—I am afraid it is not at the top of the league in other matters—I say that there is no city in the whole world which has a bigger housing record since 1945, in proportion to its population, than has my city. Should we not be proud of that? Or should we go around saying that the housing programme has collapsed and that the figures do not mean anything?

I remember when the right hon. Member for Woodford was speaking during the war when the soldiers were going into battle. He was making promises to them. He said that Lord Portal at the Ministry of Works was working wonders and was going to produce 500,000 steel houses. Only two of them were ever built. When a Tory Minister produces 500,000 houses on paper, that is working wonders, but when a Labour Minister produces 800,000 houses in fact, we are told that it is a housing programme that has collapsed. That is the kind of patriotism we have had during the past three years from hon. Members opposite.

Let me take another aspect of this matter. Now that hon. Members opposite find that they have not been able to continue their attack on the Government on the ground that the production campaign has failed, they say: "We must think up something new. We must accuse the Government of taking steps to disrupt the harmony of effort that has been continuing in this country and the solid alliance between Opposition and Government in pursuit of it. They come down and say that they are deeply shocked—almost as shocked as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Ivor Thomas) was—that we should have brought in the Parliament Bill and the Steel Bill at the present time. I have not seen much of this eager enthusiasm among Members of the Conservative Party to support the austerity drive of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have not seen them working hard in support of those proposals. I do not know what facts there are to justify this picture of a Conservative Party tireless, selfless and diligent. They must have been almost subterranean in their working on behalf of national recovery. I do not know where that picture comes from. I recall the phrase used by Junius; it applies to the Opposition: They have done good by stealth. The rest is on record.

There is hardly one Measure which this Government have taken during the past 12 months to assist the recovery of this nation which has not been opposed by hon. Members opposite. A year ago, the right hon. Member for Woodford was standing in his place over there denouncing the whole export programme of the Government and saying that we had done it in the wrong way altogether. No measure for the limitation of imports which has assisted us so powerfully in bringing about the improved situation which we are in today, have hon. Members opposite had the courage to vote for in the Lobby. Instead of that, they have tried to work up a little popularity on the basis of denouncing certain limitations of imports.

This is the party which claims in someway or other that national leadership has been broken up. I do not believe we can ever have national leadership with people who only represent a small clique but if we ever were to think of that, I think we could at least demand that they should vote for at any rate one or two unpopular measures which they felt might conceivably lose them votes. If they did, some people might be prepared to consider national unity with them, though I would not. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about conscription?"] That was not an unpopular measure. If it was, we have shared the unpopularity. I am talking about petrol, newsprint, timber, food and bread rationing where we have taken measures which are unpopular and difficult. Some hon. Members opposite know the reasons for these measures but they have not had the courage to come forward and support one of them.

Today the hon. Member for Hornsey, who knows better, talks as if there is no balance of payments crisis. He says that the troubles the nation has to face are due to wasteful expenditure and Socialist administration. He knows quite well that the country has been facing an economic crisis which has been arising for years past. His statement that capitalism in the years before the war enabled us to pay our way is not even true. The balance of payments problem was already arising in the years before the war, and the hon. Member knows it very well. Yet he will try to make as much publicity out of it as he can. He has said that he will sling as much mud at every Minister that he can and tell all the silly tales which Lord Woolton dishes up for the Housewives' League and then say that the Tories have a long-term plan. He is prepared to fight the General Election on that basis. As I listened to his speech and other speeches by the Opposition, I could not help being reminded of the statement by Disraeli that the Conservative Party was the first association of public men who came together for an avowed end without enunciating a single principle.

The other comic part about this charge of breaking up national unity is that this is exactly the same charge that was made a year ago. We are now told that it is the Steel Bill which will cause all the disunity and disharmony, but a year ago it was the Gas Bill. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) got up in the House a year ago and said that the Gas Bill would distract the nation from its purpose. The Parliament Bill was going to do the same. What I said at the time was right. The miners have not gone on strike because the Lords are to lose a year of their veto power. The electrical workers and the mill girls have not come out in sympathy with the battle of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) on the Gas Committee. Most significantly, the steel workers have continued to work hard and produce more steel with this black cloud of nationalisation hanging over them. It was announced a year ago that we were to nationalise steel. All those prophecies of the Opposition have not been fulfilled.

The most remarkable thing about this year as compared with a year ago is that nearly all the hopes of the Government, brave and optimistic though many of them were, have been fulfilled, and all the prophecies of the Opposition have been rendered void and made to appear ridiculous.

The fact is that the Government have kept faith with the working people of the country, and that is the most powerful fact which has contributed to the production drive. If the Government had adopted the advice which was given to it by the Opposition during past years and the past year in particular we should not have been able to report the increased production figures that have been achieved. If the Government had cut the food subsidies, as they were advised to by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and if they had slashed the housing programme as they were advised to do by Lord Woolton, and if they had cut to ribbons the capital investment programme, as they were advised to do by a lot of harebrained economists in Oxford, and if they had refused to go forward with the National Health Act despite the fact that some of the doctors and the Tory Party did not like it, and if they had taken all those measures advised by hon. Gentlemen opposite, then we would today have been in the situation which the right hon. Gentleman forecast 12 months ago.

And if that had happened, then the right hon. Member for Woodford would have been able to go off to Llandudno as happy as a king, able to make his speech and to join in the chorus of singing that fine old song, "Ain't it grand to be blooming well dead." Instead of that, the right hon. Member for Woodford had to tear up his speech on domestic politics altogether—or almost altogether. He went up to Llandudno and decided to talk on another subject, and in order to show that we have something great to offer in this country, he offered the world the atom bomb which we do not happen to possess.

The circumstances changed somewhat when the Debate took place in the House because it was quite evident that most of the speakers on that side of the House did not agree with his Llandudno speech. In order to change the tone of it, and to elevate the general atmosphere, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) was put up as the first speaker on the opposite side. And what did he say? He did not mention atom bombs from the beginning to the end of his speech. He said what we wanted was a Christian Renaissance and some others have suggested it as well. I do not profess to be a very good Christian, but I must say that if this is to be the Crusade which they are advising for this country, that we should go forward and present ourselves in Europe as a great Power, with a Bible in one hand and an atom bomb in the other, I do not think that that is the way in which this country will ever establish its reputation throughout the world.

We must maintain our defences, we must protect ourselves, but everyone knows that there is an even more subtle and complicated and difficult task to be discharged if the onrush of Communism is to be resisted and rolled back, and that is that we must have something better to offer. And we say that here in this country we have something better to offer, and we shall only have something better to offer so long as we continue to reject the advice which has been offered by the right hon. Member for Woodford and his friends. It may be very difficult for them to understand that their philosophy is totally irrelevant to the problems of Europe today. Most of the friends of the hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House in Europe—most, I do not say all by any means, there were honourable exceptions—but most of the friends of hon. Gentlemen organised in parties destroyed themselves in Europe before the war because they were allied with the Nazis and with Mussolini. They destroyed themselves. They wiped themselves out as an important political factor, and the real argument in Europe is the argument as to whether the world is to be re-established and a new society is to be built upon democratic and free and Socialist lines, or whether it is to be rebuilt on tyrannical lines.

That is the real choice in Europe, and if one goes into Europe one can see that is the battle that is being fought out today, and that is the battle in which we say that Britain is the leader. It is a task which accords with all the finest traditions of this country.