Iron and Steel Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th February 1951.

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Photo of Mr Oliver Lyttelton Mr Oliver Lyttelton , Aldershot 12:00 am, 7th February 1951

I have already mentioned that qualification. The qualification extended to certain conferences and committees of which the Corporation was to have membership. But it is not yet agreed, and could not be agreed, that Corporation members should be members of the Executive Committee of the Iron and Steel Federation, because that committee deals with many companies that are not within the ambit of the Act. Therefore, what we heard from the Minister of Supply—I am trying to be strictly fair, but it is a rather obscure subject, and was rather obscurely explained—was that, after an indefinite period, which he hoped would not extend beyond three months, the iron and steel industry shall be under the control of the Iron and Steel Federation, while certain memberships of conferences and committees underneath that were to be extended to the Corporation. If we wanted a more complete and absolute argument that the vesting date should be deferred until the Corporation was in a position to assume its responsibilities we could not have found it anywhere than here, straight out of the mouth of the Minister of the Crown responsible for the Act. What he is saying is that the Corporation is not ready to assume its responsibilities. All that it is ready to assume is the nominal ownership of these particular shares.

I think at this point it is relevant to my argument to ask why the 12 months' latitude was written into the Act originally. Was it, for example, a conciliatory gesture made towards the Opposition, who had so strenuously opposed the Bill through all its phases? Was it, perhaps, a conciliatory gesture to my right lion. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) and to the arguments that he advanced? Or to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Learning-ton (Mr. Eden), who made a notable speech on this subject? Was it for those reasons? I wonder.

I think it was put into the Act for two reasons—and, if I may say so, for two very good reasons. It was put into the Act, first, to give every chance that the transfer from private ownership to public ownership should not take place—this is the negative reason—should not take place in critical times when dangers overhung the nation; and, second and positively, that it should take place, as far as possible, at a time when experiments could be tried in the hope that nothing worse than money might be lost.

It was put into the statute in order that the Government, which had to apply the Act, and thus make so sweeping and so vital a change in our industrial and national life, should at least enjoy the unquestioned mandate and support of the people in so doing. Those are the only two understandable reasons why this latitude was put into the statute, and the Minister of Supply, in more candid days, has subscribed to the argument which I am now putting before the House. I suggest that neither of these conditions is fulfilled today.

Turning to the first condition, I suggest that never in this century have the dangers which hang over this country been more menacing than they are today. The perils are, in my earnest belief, worse than those of 1914 or 1939. It is often claimed that the Welfare State has achieved social security, has insulated all our fellow citizens, the subjects of the Crown, from the changes and chances of this mortal life from the cradle to the grave. Phrases like "social security" and "collective security" have a terrible habit of recoiling upon mankind. If we were to accept all the claims—and this is not the time to debate whether or not they are well-founded—of social security we should at best be claiming that the State has protected its citizens from everything but the first, most deadly and most important of perils to its social security, namely, aggression by a foreign Power and invasion of these islands. Not only, therefore, are conditions today not those of reasonable tranquility in which experiments can be tried, but they are the very reverse: they are times of acute danger.

The second reason I suggest why this latitude was written into the statute was to enable the Government, who had to apply the statute, to be sure that they enjoyed the unquestioned support of the country. I do not think that any hon. Member in any part of the House believes in his heart of hearts that this is a condition or posture in which His Majesty's Government find themselves today. Even in this House the Government enjoy what I might call an ambulance majority. The motto or slogan of the Government, if I might be permitted to pun, is solvitur ambulando. Even in this House it becomes necessary for the Prime Minister personally to solicit a "pair" for a Minister who is abroad. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not!"] I think it is an odd thing to do, because I do not know of any recorded instance when a "pair" for a Minister abroad on national duty has ever been refused. Not only is the Government majority in the House precarious in the extreme, but in our opinion it has no majority at all; indeed, much the reverse, in the country outside.

I sum up this part of my argument by the plain statement that the latitude permitted was written into the statute to meet precisely the conditions which exist today, namely, that of a Government with a precarious majority, and in all probability a great minority in the country, and also a time of national crisis.

Let me now turn to my next point. Perhaps a rather pedestrian argument. I think we were all told almost in the nursery that we should not change horses when crossing the stream, and should not change even from a tired horse to a fresh one in mid-stream. Does anyone attempt to deny that the stream we are trying to cross is a dark, dangerous and deep one, which is trying to suck us down?

What we are proposing to do goes far beyond violating that old adage, because we are proposing to change a tried, proved horse which has broken record after record—look at the figures—with an animal which has so far no successes to its credit, and which has so far failed to produce any kind of form, namely, the nationalised horse, and to make this change in midstream. Nobody in his senses would suggest that it was a good plan to swap a tried, record-breaking horse in midstream for a colt which we suspect to be bred by Hardie out of inefficiency.