Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th December 1954.

Alert me about debates like this

Mr. Hamilton Ken:

The hon. Member for Bristol. North-East (Mr. Coldrick) has pleaded eloquently on behalf of the consumer. I thought his remarks linked naturally to two points made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) in his admirable speech. The first was the question of production, and the second was, does our present form of economic organisation offer the best chances of expansion in the future?

In the course of this debate the natural divisions in this House have confined themselves to the one point—do we best increase national production, and thereby help the consumer, by a free economy, by a controlled economy, or by a mixed economy as we have at present? I wish to look briefly into the future in connection with that question.

My experience in this House has taught me that prediction in politics and economics is a dangerous pastime. I illustrate that by looking back 20 years. In 1934, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sat—a magnificent but lonely figure—where my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Spearman) now sits. Who then could have foretold that my right hon. Friend would be Prime Minister twice in his lifetime, and leader in a great moment of crisis in our national history? In 1934, we were still slowly recovering from a period of grave unemployment— 1½ million or so, if my memory serves me aright.

Who could have foretold that in this year of 1954 we should be in a period of full employment? Who could have foretold, in 1934, that the United States of America, then dominated by the policy of isolationism, would now be maintaining forces in defence of the free world in Europe, in the Mediterranean, and in Asia?

And so tonight, very briefly, I should like to look ahead for 20 years, to see how our various national problems will then relate themselves to the world picture, and to say a brief word, in particular, about the problems of an ageing population. We are told that in 1977 we shall be a very different nation from what we are now.

In 1954, I gather from the few available statistics, about 6½ million of our people are over minimum pensionable age, and about 870,000 still remain at work over that age. In 1977, we shall have an increase in the number of those over the pensionable age of 65 of from 6½ million to 9½ million, an increase equivalent to roughly one-third of the population of the whole of London. We shall have an increase of 500,000 in the working population, and a fall of about 1 million in the child population—-those under 15 years of age.

How will this affect the problem of our production? How will it affect our heavy industries—coalmining, shipbuilding, and engineering—which are so vital for our exports? How will it affect the industries which particularly serve people of older years? Older people, it seems to me, need houses, gas, electricity, and, perhaps, more medical attention. Will this mean a shift to these particular industries? Finally, will fewer children mean that we shall have to build fewer schools and divert our national energies into other channels?

What will then happen with regard to world problems in general? It seems to me that we shall have a number of commitments for a number of years. Unless we reach an agreement with Soviet Russia, we shall have to maintain, as we have promised to do under the London Agreements, four divisions in Europe, supported by a tactical Air Force, and, doubtless, Forces in other parts of the world. We shall find the overriding necessity of an investment programme overseas.

If we are to feed the rising population of the world, we shall have to put sums of money into various parts of the world. We shall have to fulfil our obligations under the Colombo Plan, and we shall have to develop the great new Federation in Central Africa. And, of course, such territories as Canada offer limitless possibilities of expansion. At home, we shall have to maintain the Welfare State and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Sir G. Braithwaite) has just said, we shall have to develop our road system to a far greater degree than we have done up to now.

With all these obligations, shall we in 20 years' time be able to afford a subsistence rate to the growing number of old-age pensioners? I cannot help thinking that, with this variety of obligations which we have to undertake, we should encourage schemes of national savings to supplement the old-age pension. If we could have a new issue of National Savings Certificates, with a ceiling of, perhaps, £1,000 or so, that would permit an old-age pensioner, on reaching the age of 65, to buy an annuity to give him an increased income of about £2 a week. Might this not be a device for supplementing the old-age pension, which will be a severe financial burden on our country in 20 years' time?

But, of course, it may be that we are on the threshold of a great period of prosperity. It may be that the atomic age will soon present us, in fewer years than we possibly think, with the problems of a society cursed, not by poverty, but by plenty—the poverty of leisure, and how our people should use that newly-found leisure.

It may well be, as the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) said in his eloquent speech yesterday, that the great problem which will then face us will be whether we adapt Christian principles to the new industrial age or surrender ourselves to the doctrines of Karl Marx and dialectical materialism. Whatever may happen in the future I am certain only of one thing: that 20 years from now, hon. Members like myself, on all sides of the House, will probably be sit ting by our firesides, looking through our National Health spectacles, surrounded by National Health bottles, and talking, perhaps, to a bright young thing—