Orders of the Day — Iron and Steel Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th November 1948.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington 12:00 am, 17th November 1948

We are now in the closing stages of this three-day Debate. I should like to begin my observations, since the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been courteous enough to be here, by making one preliminary observation about compensation. The right hon. and learned Gentleman dealt with that point last night, and deployed all his well-known legal skill to demolish, as I thought, a case which we on this side of the House had never presented to him. So far as I am concerned, he proved conclusively his argument that Stock Exchange quotations are a fair measure of value of individual shareholdings transferred on a given day between a willing seller and a willing buyer. We have no dispute on that point.

Our argument is that where an entire company is taken over as a going concern, then a whole lot of different considerations apply. When this point was made by the junior Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), the Chancellor dismissed the argument as having no logic. Like him I have had enough dealings with some of our Continental friends to be sometimes distrustful of logic. However that may be, I think the Chancellor will admit that this argument has been consistently accepted by the courts in considering cases of this nature. I want to refer particularly to the words used by the Master of the Rolls in 1944 in a case concerned with the valuation of certain Stock Exchange assets of a certain company. He said: Public market quotations are often related to quite small shareholdings, and isolated transactions are notoriously no guide to the value of investments of this character, particularly when the amounts involved are large. That is a very important part of our argument and the Chancellor did not say anything last night to rebut it. Perhaps the Lord President of the Council will have a chance to do so in collaboration with his right hon. and learned Friend.

My main sentiment has been one of very considerable sympathy with the words of the General Secretary to the Iron and Steel Trades Federation in April: This is going to be an issue at the next General Election. Remarkable speeches have been made by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House who are in close contact with the industry. I would single out—and I hope I shall not embarrass him—my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir A. Duncan), and on the other side of the House—and I hope I may say it without embarrassing them—the hon. Member for East Swansea (Mr. Mort) and the hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. Marshall) yesterday. I should like at once to give one reassurance to the hon. Member for Brightside. He paid a tribute to the quality of the steelworkers in this country, and he used these words: Those who think that nationalisation will make these sturdy steel men into slackers, men who will not pull their weight, have certainly got to think again."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1948; Vol. 458, c. 277.] Those were his words, and they were much in the tempo of what was said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. But nobody in this House does think it, or has even suggested it. Member after Member has paid tribute to the relations which have existed in the industry in the past, despite external problems which might very well have ruined all co-operation. The only discordant note came from the hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu). He told us that in his view the relations in the industry were worse than at any time in the last 20 years. I am surprised at the diagnosis. It is not borne out by anything I have ever heard said. I was interested to know what one of his constitutents said about his statement. I will read a quotation from the "Yorkshire Post." The chairman of the divisional Labour Party, Mr. Deece, said: I am of the opinion that things are probably not all they might be in the industry, but I certainly would not say that the feeling is worse than 20 years ago. I do not believe that is true of this area, at any rate. Another even more delightful quotation in the "Yorkshire Post"—a very cautious, a very Yorkshire observation—was by the chairman of the local Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, a Mr. Lawman Welch, whom perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows. He said: Mr. Mallalieu may have been referring to another area—probably South Wales—and not here. Very Yorkshire, that one. I hope the hon. Member for Brigg will read the observations of his own constituents. I am sorry that in this Debate he should have been the one hon. Member to state that relations in the industry were worse than at any time in the last 20 years.

Another argument which has been used a good many times in this Debate is about the continuous working week, the existence of which I should imagine we all agree is, in itself, a remarkable tribute to all engaged in the industry. We have been told in this Debate, for the first time, that agreement was reached on this only because of the prospect of nationalisation. Well, that may be so, but nothing of the kind has ever been said by any member of the industry. We have been told in this Debate—not by the hon. Member for Brigg; it has been argued from the other side—that agreement was reached because nationalisation was held out.

I have to point out in reply that the General Secretary of the Union, in his reference to the continuous working week, gave four reasons for it—if I may say so, four very good reasons. They were, first, that it meant reducing the hours for preparatory workers who hitherto had worked in excess of 48 hours. Secondly, it was the first stage in the claim for a 42-hour week which, in the present economic crisis, was deferred. Thirdly, it was a desire to help the nation and the Government in the struggle for recovery by full utilisation of existing plant. I believe that is right. Fourthly, it was to bring our melting practice into line with that of every other major steel producing country. These were the arguments used by the General Secretary and I can only point out that the word "nationalisation" does not occur among them. I hope nobody else will say that the continuous working week worked only because the prospect of nationalisation was dangled before the industry. If we agree on that, we are always one step further forward.

I will not deny, in reply to the hon. Gentleman the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who spent much longer on this point yesterday, that the trade union leaders of the industry are in favour of nationalisation. Of course, they are. Equally, of course, many of the men in the industry—maybe the majority of the men in the industry—wholly loyal to their leaders, share their view. But I will add something else: there are others, and there is among many of them a considerable measure of doubt whether the transfer of ownership of the industry from free enterprise to the State is, of itself, going to result in greater prosperity for the industry.

There is another argument, and it is a very important argument, which I have no doubt has had its effect, not only in this Debate but outside in the country. The idea is—we have had it hinted at and, indeed, it has been mentioned tonight—that if the State owns an industry, then in bad times the industry will be carried along, and employment will continue, more effectively than under free enterprise. I think it is fair to say that that is the argument. But is this really true? Does the hon. Gentleman think it is true? In the long run, can the State afford to make losses any more than can private enterprise—this quite apart, of course, from the fact that the Bill forbids the Corporation to make any losses at all.

Let us see what happens. Take the example of civil aviation today. It is not only a Government-owned organisation, but also a Government-built organisation. What is going on there? Because the nationalised Corporations are running at a loss, the Government have been compelled drastically to reduce the number of men they employ. I am not saying that is wrong. I am only drawing attention to the fact. It is described in the "Daily Herald." On 16th October, it was said in the "Daily Herald": When the full cuts are in force, 10,000 employees are likely to be on the redundant list. That is in a Government controlled, owned and built organisation. Are the workers so sure that when the Govern-men are the sole owners and the sole court of appeal, their employment will be more assured than it would be under any other system? The truth is that Lord Keynes was very right when he demonstrated a long time ago that if the State is to counteract the adverse periods of slump, as we all want it to do, then the way to do that is not by the State's owning the industries, but by the State's trying to ensure that there is a demand for the products which those industries turn out. It was just that world fall in the demand for steel and other products that led to unemployment in the steel trade and other trades in the twenties and' thirties. Everybody knows that is true, and that a nationalised industry would have been affected by those world economic conditions just as the privately- owned industries were. The demand was not there; that is all.

Indeed, I must remind the House—and some hon. Members here will recall it—that when in 1923 we sought permission from the country to make use of tariffs—I know that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway disagreed; but Mr. Baldwin, as he then was, went to the country to get those tariffs—so that we could maintain our trade on equal terms with that of other countries that were dumping steel in this country, none was more eloquent in denial of that than some hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last night that the industry had enjoyed the protection of tariffs since 1932, he appeared to regard that as some particular favour for the industry. It is perfectly true that that happened in 1932, and that the industry at long last enjoyed a measure of protection which the industry of every other country had enjoyed before that. I do not think that was so much of a favour. It was certainly a necessity.

I should like to tell the House what I believe to be the mood of the nation today on this subject of nationalisation. I submit this to the Lord President, who is acknowledged to be one who has his ear to the ground and knows all about public opinion. I think that the nation is saying something like this, "In this one Parliament we have seen a great many Measures of nationalisation—nationalisation of coal, transport, electricity, gas, Cable and Wireless, and so forth"—[HON. MEMBERS: "The Bank of England."] And of the Bank of England. I should have thought that even the most ardent advocate of nationalisation would have admitted that in respect of some of these industries, at any rate, the case for the success of nationalisation has not yet been fully established. I will not put it any higher than that. It is not necessary to put it any higher than that for the purpose of my argument. There has been anxiety—and I would say to the Lord President that there is anxiety—on many counts.

I here quote—not myself, because the right hon. Gentleman may not think that very good evidence—but the hon. Member for Walton (Mr. Haworth), who said in the House on 2nd November, in a speech to which I listened and which greatly impressed me: On these benches"— that is, on the benches opposite— we have got to admit a disappointment over one of our theories. The hon. Member for Hornsey spoke about the tragedy of a theory killed by a fact. Here is one. I am disappointed at the fact that what I have advocated on public platforms for the last 25 years, that if we nationalise an industry the people in that industry would work harder because they were working for the State than if they were working for a private employer, has not altogether worked out. I believed that, as did my hon. Friends on these Benches. I do not know what my hon. Friends feel about it now"— they got a bit restive I remember— but I am very much disappointed that we have not had the results one would expect."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1948; Vol. 457, c. 754.] I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, in the light of that, which I think expresses the feeling of a good many people in the country, that the mood of the nation about nationalisation today is this: "For the moment we have had enough nationalisation. Let us see how the existing schemes work out. If they prove themselves, very well, then we are ready to consider and proceed to further measures of nationalisation, but, for the moment, we have had enough." I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that to proceed at the present time against this temper is forcibly to feed the nation on nationalisation, and this course, I am confident, the nation will resent and resist. I apologise for making these observations to the right hon. Gentleman because, knowing his political wisdom, I have some suspicion that he has already said something like that to his own colleagues. The Chancellor of the Exchequer told us last night that: The opposition to this Bill stems from two main sources—those who believe that private enterprise and free competition are essentially the best way of serving the national interest and those who resent bitterly this attack upon the citadel of the power of the property owners."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 16th November, 1948; Vol. 458, c. 325.] The Chancellor of the Exchequer knows very well that we have never argued on behalf of either of those classes, but I must tell the Government, since they do not seem to know, that opposition to this Bill stems also from a third class whom the Chancellor of the Exchequer never mentioned—those who maintain that this Bill and the Government speeches have so far produced no argument to show that the Bill in any way improves on the present system of free enterprise and management, subject to public supervison and control. That is our case.