I do not think that the hon. and learned Gentleman could have heard what I said. I said subscriptions to political organisations. None of the cases to which he has referred relate to political organisations. Therefore, the hon. and learned Gentleman, with respect—and I have always respected him since he gave me my first speech on the paper at the Oxford Union—is not discussing what is material here, contributions to political parties. Unless and until the practice of a great many years has been ruled by a court of law to be outside the authority of a particular company I shall be inclined to believe that what has taken place under the practice of many years is within their powers.
The fact that this proposal has not been put forward in a way that bears any relationship whatever to what is intended does not detract from the fact that its purpose is plain; nor does it leave it, I think, on its merits free from criticism or not entitled to an answer. Quite bluntly, the hope of hon. Members opposite is that if companies are bound to publish their subscriptions to a political party they can be intimidated from giving that support. Trouble can be organised with the unions and with their labour. Trouble can be organised with some of their customers. Trouble can be organised with Labour-controlled local authorities where they happen to operate. Hon. Members opposite know that and, if they were honest with themselves, that this is the purpose of the Clause.
I accept, and this at least we can agree on, that if that intimidation were successful—and intimidation in this country is not often successful—the main sufferer would, of course, be the Conservative Party. It is not our fault that the overwhelming majority of people with practical experience of running a business would regard the coming into office of a Labour Government as a disaster from which they think it right to try to protect their companies and their shareholders.
They remember the ineptitude with which Labour when in office handled our economy. They remember the biennial financial crises. They remember 1947 when the Labour Government were kept going only by American loans which we are still repaying. They remember 1949 when they were forced to devalue the £. They remember 1951 when they produced the financial crisis from which they ran away rather than dare tackle. They remember the threats of nationalisation, which we heard repeated this afternoon by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) who explicitly threatened nationalisation over the widest possible sector of our economy; and they remember, too, the sneers of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition about industry with its begging bowl.
It is not altogether surprising that in these circumstances people in responsible positions and with a knowledge of the working of our economy would regard the return to office of right hon. and hon. Members opposite as a disaster. The fault is theirs—theirs and their policies—that this is so.
What is the objection to publicity? I will ask the Committee to recall that the ballot is secret. That is to prevent intimidation. Indeed, if we look throughout the world secret ballots are regarded as the basis of freedom because, in the absence of secrecy of the ballot, pressures can be brought to bear upon people to conceal their political opinions and to abstain from supporting views in which they believe.
If we are going to force, as this Clause would propose, everyone—not only the great companies, which can probably take care of themselves but the small trader and the small shopkeeper in the small town—to publish such subscriptions, which is the Opposition's intention, it will prevent subscriptions being made. If the small trader and shop keeper is to be forced to publish, the Committee knows perfectly well that in many cases this may succeed in preventing him from making that subscription at all.
As to limited companies, we are told that the individual shareholder should know in order that, if he wishes, he should be able to challenge. That indicates an ignorance of the principle on which limited companies are run. They are run successfully only if the shareholders have confidence in the board and if the board has considerable freedom to handle the assets of the company. If we are to start saying that a shareholder must know of a political contribution in order that he may challenge it, where will we stop? He could equally demand to know about a charitable contribution in order to challenge it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—or a wage payment. Why not? Because it would bring the operations of limited companies to a standstill if one did not have confidence in one's directors. If a shareholder has no confidence in his board his expedient is simple. He can sell his shares and go elsewhere, and that is the difference between a shareholder and a trade unionist.