Government Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th November 1951.

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Photo of Captain Harry Crookshank Captain Harry Crookshank , Gainsborough 12:00 am, 13th November 1951

During the course of the afternoon and evening we have heard three very remarkable maiden speeches. I feel as if I were making one myself tonight. It will not be remarkable, though I hope that I may have some indulgence. The hon. Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke), from this side, and the hon. Members for Islington, North (Mr. Fienburgh) and Northfield (Mr. Chapman), from the other side, spoke with such a fluency and self-assurance as I have never heard in maiden speeches, let alone three times in one evening. I am sure that I am voicing the wishes of the whole House in congratulating them on their speeches and in commiserating with those hon. Members who, unfortunately, could not be here when they were delivered.

We are dealing with an Amendment which the Leader of the Opposition has explained to us, though, oddly enough, his name is not attached to it. That, I think, is extremely odd, to put it mildly. Of course, as has been pointed out, the first draft, to which the right hon. Gentleman did attach his name, had to be withdrawn. However, the Leader of the Opposition has wound up the debate and, by so doing, has expressed his approval of the Amendment.

This Amendment divides itself into two different parts. There is the alleged "absence of well-thought-out and constructive policy," and a complaint, again inaccurate, that for three months we are to deprive ourselves of "the advice and counsel of the House." There was never any suggestion of three months at all. So, again, inaccuracy; just as in the first draft, so in the final one.

This suggestion that we are depriving ourselves of the advice of the House for a long period prompts me to repeat what my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of the debate. Not only was there no suggestion, as there is no suggestion, of absenting ourselves for three months, but we are really doing what is the normal practice after a General Election, a practice which the right hon. Gentleman himself as Prime Minister adopted. He sought to excuse himself in his speech by saying that it was summer time, but I do not see that that affects the situation.

What occurred then, after the General Election, was that this House met for six sitting days and then adjourned for six and a half weeks. What is happening now is that this House, straight from the General Election, is to sit for 24 sitting days and is rising for seven and a half weeks. Taking the equivalent period, we find, in fact, that the difference is one week more in the Recess, which is balanced by 18 more sitting days, and the reason is really the same.

I was sorry that the hon. Member for Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), who spoke earlier, was so ungracious in this matter, because the reason which the Prime Minister gave in 1945 was this: I may say that this interval will give new Ministers an opportunity of familiarising themselves with the work of their Departments." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 99.] That is what right hon. Gentlemen opposite had to do, although, in point of fact—and this is the difference—the leading Members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, the then Lord President and others, had been continu- ously in office, except for the short period of the Caretaker Government, for years, and were therefore well acquainted with the general problems—finance, defence, foreign affairs and the rest. In fact, the present Cabinet contains only two Members who sat in a pre-war Cabinet at all, and for the last six years, of course, we have not and could not have—it is not our business in opposition, as hon. Gentlemen opposite will find out themselves —that intimate knowledge which can only come from being in office.

If it was so necessary for Ministers in those circumstances to have time to familiarise themselves with the work of their Departments, so it is today. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Attercliffe should complain, because he, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was one of the beneficiaries. The second reason which the then Prime Minister gave for the Recess was that it will allow many new hon. Members to arrange their affairs, and I expect that that is true of new hon. Members still.

The implications of a great deal that I have heard during the debate is that Parliament really ought to be in continuous session. Of course, it ought not, but the real trouble which underlies the whole debate on the Address is that the Opposition is on the other side of the House. That is really their trouble. They never expected to be there, and they are still dazed by it. They never expected it, and, after all, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the former Attorney-General was saying not so long ago: We are masters at the moment, but not only at the moment, but for a very long time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 1213.] Afterwards, he said: The Conservative Party is incapable of forming a Government. It has no Front Bench and no leadership. Well, the whole country and the whole world has had very good reason in the past for being thankful for the leadership of my right hon. Friend, and so it will be again. But it was not the former Attorney-General alone who spoke in this strain. There was also the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who said: If we have five years of power, we shall establish such achievements and we shall do such things that you will never see a Tory Government in Great Britain again. In other words, "Votes may come and votes may go, but I go on for ever." Votes did come to the right hon. Gentleman when they voted for the Party Executive. I am prepared "— said the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell)— to say that Labour will remain in office for at least the next 10 years. It is exceedingly doubtful whether the Conservative Party in its present form will ever become a Government again. So in the light of all these beliefs publicly expressed, it is no wonder that hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies and right hon. Gentlemen opposite are surprised to be where they are. They have not got over it yet. But they have left us a pretty grim legacy. During the election I remember saying—it was rather an obvious remark—that one could not foreshadow the future exactly for fear of what skeletons there might be in the cupboard. But it was not in the cupboards that the skeletons were; they are hanging like candelabra in every office and Department.

I remember very well years ago Sir Stafford Cripps saying that he could not imagine the Labour Party coming into power without a first-rate financial crisis., It is not a matter of coming into power; they cannot go out without one. It is the other way round. In 1931, there was a financial crash—but then Mr. Snowden did at any rate produce a form of moral restitution by stopping to clear up the mess. This time, in 1951, we have not had an apology or a word of sympathy for the new Government throughout the debate. One colleague after another from this Front Bench has exposed the situation in finance, food worse than 1941, said my right hon. Friend, who had been in the Ministry at that time—fuel, with the house coal stocks lower than ever, and that in spite of the fact that after the 1947 crisis the then Prime Minister said that a shortage of coal stocks in winter must never happen again. What was he doing all the summer with his colleagues to ensure that it would not happen again?

It is indeed a sorry legacy that we have found. Anyhow, what is all this talk that we should not have some time to devise our Parliamentary programme? What did the then Prime Minister himself say? He said that they had tried to do too much. After we had finished with the mining Bill, the right hon. Member for Easington said that when the mining industry was nationalised they thought they knew all about it, but that the fact of the matter was they did not. Would it not have been just as well if there had been a little reflection then instead of rushing ahead?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleagues propose to move when we are sure of the ground, to make the necessary preparations and not to take false steps. They do not propose to rush into every kind of fantastic legislation, if that is the complaint. The postwar Parliaments have, I think we can all agree in retrospect, legislated ad nauseam, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford (Mr. Profumo) was right. We ought not really to give the old Mother of Parliament legislative indigestion. It is not necessary. We have got to digest the legislation we have already passed.

Legislation, after all, is only one of the most important functions of Parliament. Careful administration and control of finance are equally important, and this House really should be, and is and has been in the past, the great forum of debate for the nation. It was the late Prime Minister when he was in office who said, and I heard him say it in this House: … it might have been better if we had had a greater concentration of effort. It may be we have tried to do too much in a short time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 6th August. 1947; Vol. 441, c. 1489.] As has just been pointed out by one of my hon. Friends, the failure to carry out the election plans of 1950 was probably a belated realisation of that fact on the part of the Government at that time. I think the late Prime Minister was right there. After all, one of his own supporters did go so far as to say that Imagination is not one of the great assets of our Ministers. He was right, because looking ahead was not one of the strong points of the late Administration. Their imaginative powers were not very highly developed. [An HON. MEMBER: "Are yours?"] I hope they are; those of my colleagues certainly are. A little imagination might have foreseen some of the troubles coming, shall we say in Abadan, or in Egypt, or in the financial crisis.

They did not have the imagination even to make use of the glittering opportunities left to them in 1945 by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. [An HON. MEMBER: "Bankruptcy."] They devoted themselves not so much to the national interest as to their squalid political schemes. We have only been here in office just over two weeks. [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] The wit of hon. Gentlemen opposite is really surpassing. We foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech three very important Measures, but they complain there is no constructive policy.

Well, foreign affairs have not been mentioned in this debate. The reason for that is the absence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in Paris, and it has been decided that there shall be a debate specifically on that point. He is busy building again some of the weakened bridges—some of the bridges over which his predecessor never walked at all. If to try to re-establish that accord with our friends in the world and to re-establish the position which ought to be and, I trust, will be ours, is not constructive policy, then hon. and right hon. Gentleman opposite can have it their way.

Defence has not been raised. That, too, is a subject which will be debated subsequently. In the King's Speech it is put down as our first duty, for without the safety of the Realm all else comes to nothing. It may not mean legislation but it does mean safety, and it is constructive work for peace. Is not that constructive policy?

Finance, of course, at the moment overshadows everything. We are in a desperately serious position. The Opposition jeered and sneered as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking. I wish some of their constituents could have heard them laugh when they heard of the cut in non-rationed foodstuff imports. We have been told right throughout the debate that it is extraordinary that we should have been surprised at what we found because warnings had been given. Granted the former Chancellor gave a warning on 3rd October, but it was in October when the disaster occurred, after the warning.

Has the House forgotten the figures which my right hon. Friend gave of the dollar balances? We were plus $360 million in the first quarter, plus $56 million in the second quarter, minus $638 million in the third quarter—that was the period which the right hon. Gentleman had in mind—but in October it was minus $320 million in one month; and on the European payments in the third quarter in the year it was minus £183 million and in the month of October it was minus £89 million. When my hon. Friend the Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher) interrupted the right hon. Gentleman and asked about the deficit and when it was mentioned, the right hon. Gentleman said, "That is only a quibble." If a loss of £89 million in one month is only a quibble we had all better go back to school and learn the English language. It is not so.

It is beside the point for hon. Members to tell us that during the Election they were warning the country of the grievous financial situation. They did nothing of the kind. I looked through countless speeches and notes of Election addresses to try and find these warnings. I found the opposite. I found, for example, that such a respected Member of the House as the right hon. and gallant Member for Leads, South-East (Major Milner), was saying that this country was never so prosperous. I found the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), who spoke earlier in this debate, putting into his Election address, "Each year the people, under the guidance of the Labour Government, have taken a step nearer solvency." This at the very moment when our financial resources were pouring away.

The restoration of our financial position is going to be a very great work and it has got to be constructive work, although it may not be legislation. Is not repairing the injuries done to our rights in Persia constructive work? Are not the defence arrangements in the Middle East constructive work? Are not flexibility in industry and the creation of a spirit of partnership constructive work? I not only hope that they are, but I hope that hon. Members opposite and their supporters will help us, because without that we shall find our country in a very parlous position. Are not searching inquiry into public expenditure, the restoration of our economy, Imperial co-operation and the support of the United Nations all constructive work? What is it that hon. Members opposite are complaining about?

The right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), who opened this debate, tried to make out that we had thrown over all our election promises because certain controls had had to be introduced forthwith. He forgot to remind himself that the general subject of controls comes into the Gracious Speech and we propose to review that, but for the immediate financial crash with which we are faced—[Interruption.] If the loss of 320 million dollars and £89 million in one month is not approaching a financial crash, there will never be one. He said we had thrown over all our promises because these controls had had to be introduced. and then he kindly said the Government would have to tell the electors why they had had to make a switch about controls. They will tell them all right—it was because of the legacy which we found that these steps had so urgently to be taken.

There are just one or two questions put by the right hon. Gentleman which I will answer. He asked about replies to Parliamentary Questions and about co-ordinating Ministers—who would answer for them? As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister yesterday gave a reply to that question and said he would make an announcement almost immediately. The Leader of the Opposition, on the other hand, considering the points made by my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, said it was a dreadful idea that anybody should think of making it easier for people to buy and own their own homes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Council houses."] My right hon. Friend said "their own homes"; the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition put the gloss on it and said "council houses".

During the six years in which he was Prime Minister, under the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act, by which money is provided for would-be purchasers of houses, of which the majority are purchasing council houses—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] May I give the figure? Under that Act, £40 million worth of houses were purchased—and that is a very good thing.

We are coming near to the end of this debate, the first clash in this Parliament. In this Amendment the Opposition are playing with words. They know, as we know, that all of us want to do our best, so far as it is in our power to do it, to weld people together in these dangerous times. Just because foreign affairs have not come into this debate, just because defence has not come into this debate, that has not made our position in the world any safer. These dangers are crowding around us, as well as the financial dangers, and we know that nothing can get us out of our present mess except hard work and readiness to accept additional burdens. Unless we do so we shall never regain our economic independence, without which it is impossible to feel secure. I am sure hon. Members will agree with that sentiment, because it is one which was expressed by their own leaders after the last financial crash for which a Socialist Government were responsible.

The debate on the Address having been got out of the way, the cuts in imports which have had to be made having been accepted as inescapable, as the "Daily Herald" said they were, we now hope that perhaps in the dangerous world situation in which we are, in the dangerous financial position in which this country has been placed, we can now pull together in a spirit of harmony to try to restore our position, as the right hon. Member for Easington appealed to us to do in 1949, and as we did our best to do at that time.

There is much that this Parliament can surely do without quarrelling all the time. The Address is the set occasion for that quarrel. This battle is over. Let us, therefore, go forward and see how far we can make this a real forum for the nation, how far we can have a real meeting of minds—because, at the end of the day, I think we can all see that there are more fundamental things on which we agree than on which we differ.