Financial and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th January 1952.

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Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Monmouth 12:00 am, 30th January 1952

Or greater. The only other thing I would say about pledges is this. No party can fulfil its pledges in a few months of office. What we ask is to be judged after a long period of office, which we intend to hold.

After that part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech I thought, if I may say so with all respect, that much of what he said was both wise and helpful. He referred to the dangers of any precipitate move towards convertibility, and I thought I saw the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) nodding his head at that stage in the proceedings. I can assure him that none of us, in any part of the House, is oblivious to the dangers of precipitate convertibility before the necessary stability, confidence and financial reserves have been built up.

The right hon. Gentleman then said he was anxious that I should spend some considerable part of my speech in dealing with certain problems, particularly production, and that I intend to do. He finished with some references to the social services, although at one stage I thought he was getting a little out of sympathy with some of his supporters. I intend to refer to that at a later stage in my speech, and to say why I think a particular limit has to be set to Government expenditure in that and other directions.

We shall be debating the speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the next two days. Obviously many differing views will be put, and many of us will differ as to the emphasis we would place on particular parts of the problem and the solutions we would give to it. But in the last resort I think it is as well to remember that we are doing more than fight one another. We are fighting a very considerable catastrophe within our national affairs.

I believe that a prerequisite of any solution to this problem is that the British people themselves should realise the full gravity of the danger which confronts them. If they do recognise that gravity in time, then I am quite confident that we shall emerge from our present difficulties; but the worse service any of us could do at the present time would be to pretend that the crisis was not there or that, if it were, it was not really very bad, or to suggest that it is something which is being played up and painted up for political purposes.

It is not that kind of crisis. The right hon. Gentleman in his heart knows that it is not that kind of crisis. The trade union leaders and industry know it, and the world outside know it; everyone outside this country in particular is watching and waiting to see whether the action taken is, in the words of the right hon. Gentleman himself, adequate to the problem that confronts us. It is with that aspect of the matter that I want to deal.

The Leader of the Opposition did say, quite rightly, that he too had faced crises. He did face one in 1947 and another in 1949, and he said that there was a certain similarity between this crisis and the ones that he had to face. He said that some of them were worse. This is not a first cousin to his crisis; it is the same crisis. We have no wish to take credit for the crises of the right hon. Gentleman which have been almost continuous; and without arguing in theory the question of how much inflation there is in the country—of which the right hon. Gentleman is no doubt as good a judge as anyone else—the fact is that the sterling area as a whole and this country in particular has chronic difficulty in balancing its accounts with the rest of the world and making an attempt to live sufficiently within its means.

The truth is—and many hon. Members opposite have pointed it out—that this country has assumed commitments and responsibilities which strain its resources to the utmost limit, and any attempt to go on spending at the present pace—and by spending I mean not only in terms of money but in terms of steel, material, manpower and capacity—can only end in disaster. After all, no argument which the right hon. Gentleman addressed to the House can get away from the fact that in the last quarter of last year our reserves were running out at the rate of£333 million and only£834 million of these reserves are left. They would be exhausted if nothing were done and the drain continued at that rate by September, and a very serious and major crisis would have developed long before.

Let us be quite clear what we mean by "crisis." We do not mean just calling a conference or something of that kind. We mean a situation in which it would become difficult, if not impossible, to buy the necessary food the people eat in this country or the necessary materials to keep the factories going.

This phase of the crisis differs in certain respects from the previous ones to which the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition referred. In particular, in this crisis, we have to climb out of it by our own efforts or not at all; nobody else is going to be able to help us. It is to be remembered that during the past six years the gap was closed by borrowing. I am not making any party point about that; I am dealing with this factually. It is true that during that period we got from Canada and America dollar loans of£1,227 million and another£796 million in loans and gifts from Marshall Aid. We are not now borrowing but repaying, and on the 31st December we did repay£63 million in respect of interest and so on.