Orders of the Day — Budget Proposals and Economic Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st April 1955.

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Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham East 12:00 am, 21st April 1955

With great respect, 1951 is now four years ago, and we have had since then a series of Tory Budgets which have increased social injustices. The excuse which was offered for each of them was that it was an incentive which would result in increased investment and productivity.

The sole excuse for Tory policy is that we have to put up with growing injustice and inequality because that is the only way in which we can get more production and more investment. What I am saying is that, when we put the pudding to the proof, the record of production and investment does not justify these claims.

The one thing about which hon. Gentlemen opposite are able to take some comfort—we do not deny it, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South did not attempt to dispute it—is that there has been an increase in consumption, and in many ways life is easier now than it was four years ago. Nobody who knows the facts would seriously dispute that, but there are two important reasons for it. One is the more advantageous terms of trade which this Government have enjoyed, which are simply a piece of good fortune. The other is that the foundations for it were laid by some of the very unpopular measures that had to be taken by the Labour Government.

We see that in almost every field of national life the present Government have been reaping where their predecessor sowed. To cite the field in which I am particularly interested, that of education, one notices the rise in the number of school places provided in the first two years after the Government took office, two years being about the time which is taken from the inception of a school building to its completion, whereas since then there has been a decline in the number of places provided.

We have seen that happen in every field of national life, and the fact is brought out that such advantages as have accrued during this period of a Conservative Government are due either to the terms of trade or to their reaping the harvest which their predecessors sowed to an accompaniment of abuse, and, in the case of the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), attempted sabotage.

I do not believe, therefore, that we can justify Conservative policy in the way in which an attempt has been made to justify it. Each of this series of Budgets has had the same effect of widening the gap between the richest and the poorest and between those who work and those who do not work. That policy has not been justified by events.

Its real objective was candidly stated by the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South, and we are very grateful to him for it. The noble Lord believes in an unequal, unjust society, in which those who do not work have an advantage over those who do. The great delight which we all derive from having the noble Lord in the House is that he does so often candidly state what so many hon. Members opposite really believe, but who, not having such large majorities as South Dorset provides, do not state that belief with equal candour. This kind of policy of increasing injustice and inequality may please the noble Lord, but our objection to it is not only based on morality and justice; we say that it is profoundly inappropriate to this country in the middle of the 20th century.

The Minister of Supply put his finger on a vital problem when he mentioned the fact that whatever Government may be in power, and whoever stands at that Box, faces a very grave economic problem in that this country in future will be constantly trying to avoid either a balance of payments crisis, on the one hand, or a domestic unemployment crisis, on the other. In one year or another, the economic weather may be a little better or worse, but the fundamental situation is that, probably for a decade or more to come, this country will have very grave economic problems to face, and it can face them only if it can call on the united energies of all its people.

That is why a policy of increasing inequality and injustice, and a policy which favours those who do not work rather than those who do, is not only morally but practically objectionable. Since in the Budget debate we refer to the general economic situation and policy, I think it is right to say that it is not only in respect of a series of Budgets that the present Government have been travelling on this unjust and unwise road, but in respect of almost every other aspect of their policy. For example, what have been the injunctions and pieces of advice which the Government—not in explicit words, but by their actions and policies—have been giving to various classes of the community?

To the people who have been complaining of the rising cost of living, the Government have simply said: "If prices go up, they go up. Do not talk to us about controls. If you cannot afford things, do not buy them. Leave them for those who can afford them." If, on the other hand, they were addressing shareholders, Government policy would be to say: "By all means, both demand and expect higher dividends. Never mind whether the money ought to be reinvested in industry, or whether it ought to be used to meet wage claims. The Government are not worrying about that sort of thing, so why should you?"

If, again, those addressed were persons with good-sized unearned incomes, what the Government, by their policy, have been saying to them in the last three and a half years is: "Please accept a large gift in the first Tory Budget, and lesser but still substantial gifts in subsequent Tory Budgets." Of the other people, the old-age pensioners, the schools, the hospitals and all the rest, they say: "They can wait until just before the General Election."

To the kind of person to whom enterprise means not creative activity but purely acquisitive activity, what the Government, by their policy, have said is this: "If you would like to get hold of a valuable piece of public property, have it sold to you on the cheap and below its true value, form a pressure group and make enough noise, and the Government can be relied upon to hand it over."

In effect, this is the sort of injunction and advice which the Government have been giving to the community. Is it surprising, therefore—and let me now quote a figure which I do not think has been mentioned in the debate so far—that 1954 should show a post-war record number of days lost in industrial disputes? We have just had a strike which has silenced a large part of the Press, and there is another on the horizon affecting the railways. The public are uneasily aware that something is wrong and are beginning to ask the question whether the strikers' demands are fair. It sounds a reasonable question, but in the atmosphere created by 3½ years of Tory policy it cannot be answered.

In view of the series of pieces of advice which the Government have been giving, no conception of fairness remains. The Government's motto has not been, "To each according to his need" or "To each according to his usefulness," but "To each what he can grab." In those circumstances it is quite idle to preach reason, restraint and patience to wage earners, or to try to settle anything by an appeal to what is fair. The Government, by their own actions, and the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South explicitly, have said that any appeal to fairness, reason and justice is nonsense, and that they believe in a society based on people being able, not by creative ability but by pure acquisitiveness, to get as large a share of the national cake as they can.

I do not believe that a policy of which this Budget is simply one example can really serve the needs of a country which, for the first time in its history, is both a great importer of food and a debtor country. That will be our position for a long time and must inevitably be our position, through nobody's fault but through the march of history. The kind of policy of which this Budget is an example is not the sort of policy for a country in that position. We must have, rather, a policy which encourages and promotes public services instead of mutilating them, which provides real incentive by saying that if people work they will be helping to create a society in which people are rewarded according to the usefulness of their work.

We want a policy which will reward incomes from work rather than incomes from ownership and which, by extension of the social services, will make it possible to tap the still very large reservoir of inadequately trained talent which is to be found in the country. That is the kind of policy we want, but the whole record of the Government shows that we shall not get it while they are in power.