Orders of the Day — World Trade (Expansion)

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

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Photo of Mr William Robson-Brown Mr William Robson-Brown , Esher 12:00 am, 30th June 1952

One of the infinite charms of the House is the variety and change in the debates that we have before us. Tonight I want to speak on the question of the expansion of Communism and the only sure, certain and effective way of dealing with it, which is to strengthen and expand export trade the world over.

The challenge of Communism is threefold: ideological, economic and military. I think we shall be able to contain the Russian armies but I ask the House whether we shall be able to contain also the economic front. With weakened currencies, with signs of further inflation and with dangers of increasing unemployment, the Communists' hard, ruthless ideology would in the end win and there would be no need for Russia's massed battalions on her borders, for she would recruit her armies from the unemployed within our own lands.

I have sought this debate because I think that at present there are unhappy signs that the international unity of the free nations in the economic field is not as strong and effective as it should be. I believe that unless effective action is taken on the completion, reduction or slowing down of re-armament the world, in two or three years' time, may well drift from what is at present a trade recession to another world slump.

We have yet to muster on the economic front the unity, combination and purpose that has given strength to our military defence. I believe that Communism can only be defeated if we are able to offer economic security, a satisfactory standard of living and increasing personal opportunity to great masses of people the world over. Then only will we be able to contain Communism and to grasp the only sure way to undermine it from within. Communism cannot be defeated by force of arms, but it certainly can be deflated by good example. The present financial vulnerability of Great Britain is a matter of the greatest concern, since if we fail to restore our own economy we shall not be able to play our proper part in the defence against Communism the world over.

Recently, Lord Kirkwood, in a memorable speech, called for a challenging, commanding voice to awaken us to our peril. A few weeks later the Prime Minister, with macabre imagery, warned us that we are standing on a trap-door, and with what relief we heard the Chancellor encourage us to greater efforts by stating that as the result of his quick, emergency action the bolt was still just holding. There is no doubt that we shall win through our present dangers, but we may have to accept an adjustment in our standing of living and recognise that in the future cheap food from abroad is neither possible nor desirable.

We must also have a realignment in our thinking about the relationship of industry to the State. Absolute independence or laissez-faire is no longer generally acceptable. In recent years we have seen the exercise of absolute and rigid centralisation, in nationalisation, and we have seen revealed the fundamental weaknesses of this theory. I believe that the answer lies in industrial accountability. It is not a coincidence that both the late Government and the present one have accepted the idea of a central responsible board to control the steel industry, both agreeing on the advantages of union, management and consumer representation upon it.

I suggest that this idea should be developed and extended for the other basic industries of the country. Management, labour and consumer should be equally concerned, equally informed and equally consulted. To one it is capital to the other livelihood. To the last it is a vital raw material. Capital must be put to the best use: labour must be given every opportunity, and material must be produced at keen economic costs. This collective responsibility on the part of each industry, managements and unions in each industry would be of powerful value to the Ministers of State and their advisers who have to keep in view the complete moving picture of industrial progress particularly with regard to overseas trade.

In future industry must retain a greater share of its current earnings for re-equipment, or soon it will earn nothing at all. Further we cannot expect people to go on striving unless personal taxation is reduced. The workers want to be confident, and desire to be made confident, that the Government will not tolerate avoidable unemployment. I would suggest that a panel of experts should be set up to make rapid and positive recommendations about future employment trends.

I would like to ask my hon. Friend what methods are Ministers utilising at present to keep themselves continuously informed, region by region, and for the different industries, of the possible redundancies of labour? How up-to-date, and how detailed is this information and is it acted upon? In brief, how sensitive is our economic weather forecasting? How long a warning does the barometer offer before the needle flickers to "Storm"? The country is relying on the Government's economic thinking, and expects it to be vigilant, imaginative and courageous enough for these stormy times.

May I here refer for a moment to the coal industry? It is the mainspring of our international effort. Coal exports are going up and must continue to do so, even if the Government are compelled to keep down to the lowest reasonable level next winter's domestic coal ration, and this should be used to bolster and increase our exports. What the country is asking is for a much sterner economy in the spending of public money and for further reductions in the size of the Civil Service. It is strongly believed that the Civil Service is much too big and costly for our limited and threatened income. It is not a question of an overall cut of 5 per cent. or even 10 per cent., but complete elimination or considerable reduction in some cases, and even a modest expansion in others.

This is the moment when the Government would be well advised to consider setting up an expert panel without delay to consider and examine the cost of the Civil Service. Only quality and price will decide our share of the world markets, and the Civil Service, as it frequently does, usurps the functions of industrialists, and in too many industries there is feather-bedding and easy profit. As I have said only quality and price will decide our share of the world markets, in which we have to face ingenious and fast-moving rivalry. The slogan on the wall of every British factory should be, "Make it cheaper, but make it good."

These points I have raised about our internal economy and Government action are important at this time because of the financial crisis within our country. Moreover, expanding world trade is the greatest single answer to Communism, and the time is now ripe for a world upsurge in demand. In the long run the omens of prosperity are good as population in the free world is steadying, and it is our task to see that the agricultural output continues to increase. A small increase in the purchasing power of the populous Asian countries would carry us beyond another world slump. Far-seeing statesmen in all nations appreciate that prosperity no less than peace is indivisible, but I am afraid that if the recession in trade continues the narrow nationalist view will reassert itself and we shall cease to plan on a world pattern.

Extreme nationalism can be the ruin of the West. The tariff barrier can be a crippling barrier to trade. This is a lesson which the United States must appreciate. At the moment she is the greatest creditor nation in the world and, therefore, she presents to herself and to the world tremendous responsibilities. She should give us an opportunity to pay our way and to pay our debts to her. It is not a good thing for other nations to be under an obligation to one country and the solution rests entirely with the Americans themselves.

I believe that it is our duty wholeheartedly to support any liberal-minded international proposals which the United States advance, and they have advanced many, whereby their huge surpluses can be diverted for the security and the betterment of the free world, and we can only expect them to do this if they, in turn, are confident that in Europe and in the British Commonwealth there is every sign that we will co-operate and assist.

I believe—and this is one of the main purposes for my speaking in the debate—that we have been too slow to start in Europe, and I am glad to see that the Foreign Secretary is making every effort in the direction of bringing Europe together in this way. It is still not too late, I believe, to co-operate more closely with the Schuman bloc, not only in order to stabilise production of steel and coal in Europe but in the hope eventually of preparing no less than a world plan for the expanded production, movement and marketing of the world's steel and coal.

I myself feel that the Schuman Plan in its present form is unnecessarily rigid, and that a more flexible arrangement would be equally effective. Let us take warning in this country from the fact that last month Germany's steel production alone surpassed that of Great Britain. We cannot sit on the fence, watching European steel production growing on one side and the vast American output on the other. We shall all have to work together, in the common interests of all.

No less urgent than steel and coal is the production of food and chemicals. Internationalise these four commodities and we have laid the solid foundation for world stability. No longer can we tolerate dumped low wages or dumped unemployment. We must move forward towards an equalised price structure in the world.

I hold strongly to the view that in all these international trade discussions industrialists should be in the centre of the picture from the very beginning. Since the war there has been a tendency for Ministerial representatives to play too great a part in international trade discussions, and the men of industry not enough. How many in industry can assess the value or know the commitments of Bretton Woods, Dumbarton Oaks, and G.A.T.T.? At the same time these conferences may well commit us beyond redress. In these matters there is a great deal of suspicion because there is a great deal of mis-information.

I also suggest that the Governments of the United Nations should encourage their industrialists to get together without delay, not to set up secret cartels but to think and plan on a world scale, and to discuss openly the stabilisation of trade. In addition, we should realise that the whole problem of international finance and the development of the backward areas and tariff problems are the responsibility and problems of Governments.

We ourselves have made a great start with the Colombo Plan and the U.S.A. have conceived the International Reconstruction Bank. That is a marvellous concept, commercial, businesslike, and sensible. Huge sums of money have already been wisely expended, and I welcome this departure—not the irresponsible handing over to other Governments of huge sums of money for disposal as they like, but the commercial investigation of the probabilities and the soundness of the schemes. From that great things can grow.

The will is there, the spirit is there, but time is against us. With the falling off, as there may be, we profoundly hope, of the huge cost of re-armament, there will be huge production gaps in a wide range of industries which will have to be filled in this country, in Europe, and in the United States. We must be ready now to swing into the next phase. America must take the lead and we in this country must not be afraid to follow, nor must we fear making a few mistakes. In many of the international negotiations today we are afraid of being outsmarted; we are timid sometimes in our approaches; the courageous pioneering spirit is not always present.

The world has moved through successive periods of free trade and high tariffs and latterly of restricted trade because of Government financial controls and embargoes. This is a dangerous sign. We ourselves have had to impose these controls and embargoes for the sabilising of our currency. They are even more destructive than high tariff barriers. The latter can have gravely ominous consequences, compelling retaliation that comes from all sides.

We must move into a new phase of gradual liberation of trade within the framework of international mutual assistance and co-operation, with controlled responsibility for the distribution of primary goods and services. Trade can never again be left to blind chance, or "beggar-my-neighbour" nationalism, or hard-faced bargaining. With the deep sense of stewardship towards the undeveloped countries comes a magnificent opportunity for British industry not only to export equipment to new markets, but also to provide skilled instructors to supervise its installation and use.

Let the people follow the plant. We must speed the expansion of facilities for technological training. During this galloping period in world history, Britain should set herself no less an ambition than to become the premier technological training and recruiting ground for the free world. With the new opportunities for training and an abundant scope overseas for the trained men, the British artisan of today has every prospect of becoming the skilled technician of tomorrow. It is the buying power of the peasant and the worker that will decide the level of world trade. By conferring the benefit on them, we benefit ourselves.

It is a challenge and an opportunity to run railways into the Rhodesias, to dam the West African river Volta, to irrigate paddy fields in South-East Asia, to help clear the jungles of Northern Ceylon, and to improve communications in Assam—in fact, to raise the food productivity of all lands. This calls for unprecedented capital expenditure and unprecedented vision, courage, and imagination of a high order. Let us first swiftly and surely resolve our own troubles, and the quicker play our part in the development of our own lands overseas and the backward peoples generally.

I believe that we are in this country linking hands with the United States, that we are moving forward with Europe united by and unfolding to the world a new picture and a new perspective. But, above all, let us not allow the United Nations to follow the course of the old League of Nations.