Orders of the Day — Colonial Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1949.

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Photo of Sir Walter Fletcher Sir Walter Fletcher , Bury 12:00 am, 20th July 1949

The warmth of enthusiasm which greeted the speech of the hon. Member for Central Bristol (Mr. Awbery) will, I fear, dwindle in the rather more cold and practical light which I hope to throw on matters in Malaya. I believe that the outstanding speech made from the benches opposite this afternoon, amongst some very good ones, was made by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. T. Reid), because it has at last dawned upon him, and I think upon many of his colleagues, that all the desirable things mentioned by the hon. Member for Central Bristol—education, roads, improvement in health services—will be possible only if the economic future of the Colonies will permit it.

This Debate is taking place under the shadow of the two days we have devoted to the dollar crisis, and therefore it is important not to give full and free rein to what our hearts desire but to concentrate our minds on what is possible, or how we can make it more possible by a correct economic policy. I believe, therefore, that it will not be amiss if I devote the time at my disposal to studying the Malayan question, particularly in regard to tin and rubber which, for many years to come, in spite of what the hon. Member for Central Bristol has said, and even with the policy of the right hon. Gentleman, with which we all agree, of spreading away from those two main crops into others—at any rate, as long as the present dollar crisis lasts—must be the two main factors. Possibly, in examining them closely under the microscope, instead of taking the usual gallop upon one's hobby horse around the horizon, we may learn the lesson for other things, too.

I will not deal with the document referred to this afternoon, but the one issued in May on the British Dependencies in the Far East, which is parallel in its use and value. I know that confession is good for the soul, but Governments, having no soul, do not go in for confession and, therefore, certain confessions which they might well have made in it have been omitted. I do not propose to go over, as we have done in previous Debates, the reasons for the recent troubles in Malaya because, fortunately, they are to a considerable extent passing away, but they have left behind them, on the wrong side of the balance, great financial burdens on Malaya, and they are the cause of the acute economic crisis which has overcome that country.

We refer to Malaya all the time as being the dollar arsenal, but we take the dollars. Nevertheless, I am not one of those who wish to encourage among any community of Malaya any spirit that might be arising at the present moment that they can contract out of the general difficulties in which the sterling bloc of the Empire finds itself, on the rather narrow basis of saying that, because they produce the rubber and the tin and because they are the direct means of earning the dollars, they should be given a much more favoured-nation position than other Colonies.

At any rate they have before them at the moment the example of the Dominions—a status which they themselves may reach one day—who, in an extremely self-sacrificing way, have come forward and said, "We in the sterling bloc stand or fall together." South Africa, producing diamonds, hides and skins and great quantities of gold, could put up a very good, narrow, selfish argument. Australia with its wool crop could do the same. They have all come together because they begin to understand—and Malaya understands, I think, or should understand—that here in the centre just now sterling has to be supported by the whole force of what there is inside the sterling bloc, and that means the British Empire. Actually, Malaya has not had a very bad deal about dollars. She has had, I think, more than the average allocation. The important point is what can she contribute, and what are the chances that she will contribute, in dollars over the next few months, when the crisis will become more acute?

Reference was made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) to the rubber industry, but I should like to develop it a good deal further and to mention some of the dangers into which it is running and which will affect other Colonial development schemes in years to come when they reach, as they will, in the ordinary curve of ups and downs, the same situation. The development of rubber—this was omitted from the hon. Member's speech—has become rather more a matter of the small native Asiatic producer than of the European estate owner, and in these days, when we talk of producers of rubber, an illusion seems to be prevalent.

There is only one producer of rubber, and that is the man who taps the rubber tree with a knife and gets latex out of it. Everybody else, whether it be the European estate manager, the house which helped to finance and run the estate in between, or the collecting and packing station of native rubber or the shipper, everybody else between the tapper and the man who drives the motor car with rubber on its tyres, is an intermediary in one form or another. Therefore, in considering the rubber problem in Malaya, one has to bear in mind that there is an absolute, joint and equal interest between the native producer and the European estate manager. It is possible that rubber is running into a situation where new methods of production will have to be considered, where we shall test in the great open space, in real competition against the new form of synthetic rubber, what is the most economic method of production.

The situation in rubber is undoubtedly this. Malaya has made a magnificent effort since the end of the war. The figures which have been published show that it has been the biggest individual dollar producer, for various reasons. First, because in the sellers' market the whole world wanted rubber and was willing to pay a price which, incidentally, never rose to the same level as the prices of commodities in the rest of the world. This fact has always been damped down to some extent. This damping down has been due to the main cause which worries the rubber producer, and which comprises two, or possibly three, things. The first is the appearance of synthetic rubber. For the first time synthetic rubber, cold rubber—it has no relation to the "cold" war; I must disappoint the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher)—