Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Alfred Robens Mr Alfred Robens , Blyth 12:00 am, 12th November 1957

We have reached nearly the end of a very long debate upon the Gracious Speech, and during these past few days we have dealt with very important matters, some of which were contained in the Speech and some of which were not in the Speech at all.

Today my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition moved the Amendment in his name and in the names of some of his hon. Friends, and I think the House will congratulate both my right hon. Friend and the Paymaster-General, because I think we all listened to two first-class economists putting their arguments in such a way that even laymen like myself could follow them fairly easily.

If one were to say that one could not accept what the Paymaster-General said or the conclusions that he drew, that would only be expected from this side of the House. But I must say that with the present financial crisis, with the increase in the Bank Rate to 7 per cent. and all that it involves, the credit squeeze, and the cuts in investment which are euphemistically described by the Chancellor of the Exchequer not as cuts but as mere phasing, one would have thought that the Gracious Speech would have dealt in volume and certainly in great detail with measures which were designed to increase our production and productivity. Hence the Amendment on the Order Paper.

Certainly it seems to us that the real method by which this country is to make its way out of the recurring economic crises is to increase production, particularly to increase productivity, to push up our exports, to stop the rise in the cost of living, and to bring some stability to the economy; in other words, to bring this country's economic affairs into such a pattern that, as the Leader of the House once promised us, we should double the standard of living within twenty-five years.

In the Gracious Speech, these matters are conspicuous by their absence, and one would have thought, because of the measures the Government have taken, particularly for cuts in investment, that it was fairly obvious that industry would need to work much more intensively, and work the existing machinery already installed more intensively, than ever before. If the cut in investment is to lead to cuts in new machinery in industry, the automative processes and so on, it must follow that the existing facilities we have in our workshops, mines and factories will have to be worked in the most intensive way possible.

This means the abolition or avoidance of all restrictive practices, from whichever quarter they come. It means a really co-operative effort on the part of workers and management. It means, in fact, the more efficient use of the resources we now have if we are no longer to have the sort of investment that was at first projected. If we are to make these changes in industry and get rid of restrictive practices, if we are to get real co-operation between management and men, we must create the atmosphere in industry in which this sort of thing can happen, and it cannot possibly happen in an atmosphere of mistrust and industrial strife.

I believe it is quite impossible to secure the changes in working methods which in this era we urgently need in industry if there are strikes, "go slows" or indeed any interruption at all in industrial peace. What is it that causes unrest in industry? Workers do not strike because they like it. They do not quarrel with managements without some reason. The real reason disputes take place is that the workers are suffering under a sense of injustice. It does not matter whether that injustice is concerned with conditions of work, with wages or with the facilities that are given to enable the workers to do their jobs. If the worker feels a sense of injustice, from whatever cause it may be, inevitably troubles are bound to follow.

The Queen's Speech contained nothing that was sound and constructive to provide the right climate in which increased production and productivity could take place, and it did nothing to remove the sense of injustice which the workers in industry at present feel very keenly.

The Government have made two great mistakes. The first mistake was psychological, because for the past few weeks and no one can deny this—an atmosphere has been worked up throughout this country on the part of the Government and their supporters that the unions were to blame for the present financial problems.

In my own constituency, I have a Conservative opponent, and he was directly reported in the local Press as saying that, if it were not for the unions, there would have been no need to increase the Bank Rate. I admit that he is only a minnow in the large political stream, Nevertheless, he has picked that up from others who are not minnows but leaders of their party and members of the Government. I think it is a very bad thing and a tremendous mistake, because already there has been created among the workers the wrong sort of climate for the changes to which I have referred to take place.

This campaign went on, and I suppose it reached its climax with the exhibitionist bell-ringing of Lord Hailsham, the Lord President of the Council. I suppose that of all the men in this country in this last few weeks, his utterances in relation to the trade unions and the workers have done more damage than anything else I could think of.

I do not make these remarks about Lord Hailsham because I want the Prime Minister to dispense with his services. Far be it from me to suggest these things. I like Lord Hailsham in his present position as a Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the Conservative Party. He is one of our greatest electoral assets. Whatever might have been the case before, there certainly will not now be 3 million trade unionists voting for the Tories at the next General Election. I do not suggest that one should do anything drastic about Lord Hailsham. Let him plunge about at all the by-elections; the more he goes to, and the more times he goes, the better for us. Let him air his views on all sorts of things. Let him go on attacking the party and the leaders of the party as much as he likes. We have no complaint about that.

One thing, however, I say most urgently to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and I would say it particularly to the Minister of Labour. The Government would be very wise to tell Lord Hailsham that, while he is free to talk about anything else he likes, he ought not to talk about things of which he knows nothing, things which are a most delicate and sensitive part of our economy, namely, the life of the workers of this country and the trade union movement. In these matters, he is plunging around and doing harm to the nation as a whole.

A few days ago, the Prime Minister, I think, uttered some rebuke to Lord Hailsham. When the right hon. Gentleman attended the Institute of Directors' Conference, he said something with which I entirely agree. The Prime Minister said: We do not want civil war in this country. We have a lot of trouble to face in the world together. We had better not knock each other about. That is plain common sense, and the sooner it is realised that the trade union movement not only has a contribution to make but is willing to make it if the right conditions are created, the sooner shall we have a chance of keeping our political battles where they belong, that is, in this House and on the hustings, but not in the workshops and factories where they can do so much damage.

The second mistake made by the Government after that initial error of creating this very bad climate in the country was, of course, the very firm declaration by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was explained in some degree by the Minister of Labour later, that whatever may arise from negotiation between the railway workers and the British Transport Commission, the Government would make sure that there would be no additional money to meet it. That has been repeated, in a rather different form, by the Paymaster-General this afternoon.

This declaration by the Government seems to the trade union movement clearly to be a declaration that normal negotiation and arbitration are, at the moment, useless and that increased wages are only to be obtained on the basis of a trial of strength. Indeed, only last week, the Minister of Labour, apropos this matter, said that it would depend upon whether union funds ran out or the £ cracked first. I do not say that he said that as a challenge; he did not.