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 David Pryde Mr David Pryde , Midlothian and Peeblesshire 12:00 am, 21st April 1955

At this time of the year the main interest of the people is in the Budget. No speech is anticipated with so much expectancy as the Chancellor's, and, in common with others, I listened very carefully to the proposals which he made on Tuesday. I was disappointed as, of course, were millions throughout the country. On previous occasions I have urged the Chancellor to afford some measure of relief to certain athletic organisations. I found that the Scottish Tory Members had this year stolen my thunder and had made representations to the Chancellor. I had hoped for some relaxation at least in the Entertainments Duty on athletic meetings, particularly in Scotland, because they are part of our national life. But the sporting fraternity in Scotland are bound to be disappointed with the Chancellor's Budget proposals, which are very strange and very puzzling.

Before the date of the General Election was announced, we found the Chancellor indicating that in future there was no room for optimism about the country's financial position. The right hon Gentleman mentioned that there might be a certain danger of inflation in the home market—too much money chasing too few goods—yet he proposes to put into the pockets of the people of this country more money to chase the goods, and thus heighten the trend towards inflation. Indeed, I think he said it rather boastfully. That was a curious situation.

I do not under-estimate the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that if there is one man who knows what looms ahead, it is the right hon Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), but I believe also that he has given us a General Election in the very season of the year which, historically speaking, has been shown to be most propitious for us. I remember 1929. I wonder how many hon. Members remember 29th May, 1929? I was happy to put my finger on the date weeks ahead, and in the constituency where I was the election agent we trebled our majority.

I believe that we are re-living the days of 1929, because a summer Election is a good one for us. It allows us to get into the open air. We are not a rich political party, and it helps if we can put forward our propaganda from the street. It also allows our people, who are not always well clothed, to walk to the polling booths to record their votes.

I believe that those facts are not unknown to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I believe also that he is fleeing from the wrath that is to come. The right hon. Gentleman is like Johnny Cope, who fled from the stricken field of Preston Pans and, when he reached Berwick, was asked, "Where are your soldiers, Johnny?" That will be the position on 7th June, when I shall ask the Chancellor, "Where are all your troops?"

Indeed, the Chancellor is like the trapper in the Arctic Circle who was pursued by a hungry pack of wolves. When his cap flew off, he discovered that it held up the pace of the wolf pack, so he proceeded to divest himself of all his clothing. When his dogs took him home, it was discovered that, because the temperature was 40 below, the trapper had frozen to death. That will be the fate of the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Let me say to the party opposite that they will not find anyone to deviate on our Front Bench, and if the country faces an economic crisis, the Labour Party will boldly and courageously take over the reins of Government and will again take this country along the road to prosperity, as we did from 1945 until three and a half years ago.

I expect that the Financial Secretary will reply to the debate, and I ask him if the answer to the Lancashire problem is that the British worker has to accept the standard of living of his foreign competitor because, brought down to brass tacks, that is what is happening today in Lancashire. To the hon. Gentleman the Member for Scotstoun (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison) I say that, so far as the application of machinery is concerned, he does not require to go far in his own country to see how Scottish manufacturers take the initiative.

If he goes down to Hawick in the South-East of Scotland, he will see how, in the textile industry and in the knitwear industry, our people are taking the lead. But what does it matter if we in Scotland take the lead? Does it mean that the Yankee, or the German, or the Japanese, or the Frenchman, or the Russian, will lag behind? Certainly not. In a few years they will all be equipped with up-to-date machinery and we shall be faced with the same set of conditions.

In the speech of the Chancellor we heard the piteous cry which has been uttered so often in this House, the cry for coal, and one hon. Member made some scathing remarks. Nobody on this side of the Committee directed the coal industry under private enterprise, but hon. Gentlemen opposite have done so. Even today there are on the Coal Board people who directed the industry under private enterprise. I have no fault to find with that. In those days, however, the private owners sunk small holes in the ground; they put down small rails between three feet and six feet long and they put down small tubs; they put small ponies to haul the small tubs on the small rails; they put down small boys to drive the small ponies which drew the small tubs on the small rails. Last week, at the invitation of the Scottish Division of the Coal Board, Members of both parties had an opportunity of seeing just what had been accomplished since vesting date. It was a revelation. All credit to the Coal Board for what it has been doing. Yet, since vesting date, 59 collieries in Scotland have been required to close because they are uneconomic. That is not the fault of the Coal Board. Let us put the blame where it belongs. In 40 years colliery manpower in Scotland has been halved from 150,000 men to approximately 70,000. I fear that it will take many more millions of pounds, as I forecast in 1945, to re-equip the collieries of this country.

The Coal Board has performed a remarkable operation and should be given full credit for it, but the Board cannot be expected to get modern output out of antiquated collieries. Today we have streamlined the man at the coal face. Let any hon. Gentleman opposite try to tackle, on the floor of Westminster Hall, the task of the miner. Let him take a shovel and try to turn over 20 tons of stone in seven and a half hours. If he does that, he will realise what the miner has to do. And all that output has to be transported by the antiquated arteries provided under private enterprise.

I have said enough about the Coal Board to allow hon. Members opposite to realise that we cannot get coal unless we put the men into the industry, and time is needed to train them. We cannot get the coal unless we open up coal faces and put modern machinery into the mines to extract the coal. So the Chancellor should not bank on an increase of coal production.

Today the Chancellor questioned my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) on his statements about the coal industry. I shall not speak for England or Wales because the English and Welsh Members can speak for themselves, but I have with me the Report of the Department of Agriculture for Scotland and the recent White Paper on the state of this country. I notice that Estimates for next year for agriculture, fisheries and forestry will be £2⅓ million less than those of a year ago. On reference to the Report of the Department for Agriculture for Scotland, I find that the total tillage acreage has dropped. The total arable acreage has also dropped, but the acreage of permanent grass has risen.

Turning to another page, I find that the Government will have spent, by 31st December this year, about £4 million in endeavouring to rescue about 6,000 acres of land. Again, there has been a decrease in tillage and arable land. The Government are spending money in that direction for absolutely nothing. Is it not apparent that the farmers are ploughing up the grass, taking the grants and then allowing the arable land to go back to grass?

The Chancellor challenged my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland to tell him where subsidies had been whittled away. He will find the answer in the Department of Agriculture's, Report. The hill sheep subsidy is abolished this year. I have here a letter on this subject which I received this morning from a hill farmer in Peebles-shire.

Peebles-shire is still in my constituency, although it will not be at the General Election. I shall be fighting in Gladstone's old constituency. I challenge any occupant of the Government Front Bench to come up to Gladstone's old constituency and dispute what I am saying. I have already trained two Government Front Benchers in Midlothian and Peebles. The Tory Party has been very mean about it; it has not given me a donation towards my Election expenses although two of its members served their apprenticeship under me. I am getting a little tired of it; I do not have the use of the radio or television, but my opponents always do. Now that I have Gladstone's constituency at my disposal, it would be nice to test out the optimism of some of the Government Front Benchers.

We have already heard of the "great benefits" which are to be conferred upon the people of Midlothian as the result of the Budget proposals. The hill farmer in Peebles-shire from whom I received the letter this morning tells me that the subsidy was whittled away in the last Price Review and that the hill sheep farmers of Scotland are now getting no subsidy. Also the drop in the guaranteed price for their stock from 6d. to 4½ d. per pound is a considerable one. Even the Chancellor can be taught something about agriculture.

I will not go into detailed figures because figures are always boring, but history repeats itself, once as a tragedy and once as a farce. In 1929 it was a tragedy but now it is farcical for the Tories to believe that they can put the Labour Party in for a short time and then fling it out again. The Tories have not now got Liberal allies, as they had in 1929.

Australian imports were cut in 1952. I am going to put to the Government a question to which I want an answer. At Easter, 1952, I was compelled to forgo any holiday because I had to bring deputations to London to the Australian High Commissioner and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, and had myself to go to the President of the Board of Trade to explain what was happening in my constituency.

Midlothian has three factories manufacturing tapestry, the firm being the only one in Scotland engaged in that work, and the product plays a very important part in our export trade, especially to Australia. When Australia cut her imports our people were put in a bad position. This tapestry is the cheapest form of carpeting; it is called "the working man's carpet." For weeks our people have been on short time, and the firm has now decided that, because of the uncertainty of the export market, it must cease the manufacture of tapestry. That means that the manufacture will go to Kidderminster, where it will be a monopoly because Kidderminster will be the only place in the United Kingdom producing the tapestry.

I want to know whether the Government propose to allow the industry to cease. The Purchase Tax concession which has been made will not affect the industry. I want Purchase Tax to be removed from the product altogether in order to give our people an opportunity of competing in world markets at competitive prices. If that is not done, our people will require, as was said by a Scottish industrialist in the early twenties, to accept the standard of living of their foreign competitors. I have no intention of allowing my people to accept the standard of living of the coolie. I know perfectly well that British effort, whether in combination with private enterprise or by public corporation, can more than hold its own in world markets.

In my constituency, the county council and the National Coal Board have built large numbers of houses for the purpose of transferring redundant miners from the West of Scotland in order to increase our coal output. For years I have pleaded for alternative industries to employ the womenfolk of transferred redundant miners. Yet here we see an industry being taken away from Midlothian, which will further increase the economic distress there.

In Scotland we have 60,000 unemployed. The Chancellor has a surplus, which shows that his last Budget estimates were bad. He could have built the Forth Bridge and the Tay Bridge with the surplus. For months past the Government have been pursuing a policy of political window-dressing, promising roads, this, that and the other. I want to know now from the Government what is their policy for Scotland. Are the 60,000 to remain as a hard core of unemployed, and is our tapestry industry to be allowed to close down merely because the Government refuse to abolish Purchase Tax?