Debate on the Address

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th November 1965.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 10th November 1965

No one who listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will doubt or question the impressive nature of the measures which the Government have already produced in the field for which he is responsible or which he surveys, nor the importance of the measures which he and the Government are proposing to produce during the next twelve months. I do not believe that any charge could be levelled against my right hon. Friend or his associates about their energy in proceeding with these matters. I can, therefore, understand very well the embarrassments of the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph).

It was very difficult for the right hon Gentleman to explain why he took such a testy attitude towards all these propositions. In particular, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was in a specially awkward position in dealing with trade union practice. I am always a bit suspicious of Tories when they talk about trade union matters. I know that the Tories try to pretend that they are good friends of the trade union movement, that they have directed their efforts in the past to the welfare of the trade union movement, and that they approach these matters today solely for the purpose of assisting the trade union movement in overcoming its own difficulties. That is the kind of attitude they take. Very often Tories talk as if all the original martyrs in the cause were members of the Tolpuddle Conservative and Unionist Association. [Laughter.] They were not even members of the Liberal Party. There is no need for Liberals opposite to laugh. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were martyred by a Liberal Government with the fulsome support of the Tories.

We on this side of the House, therefore, are very suspicious about hon. Members opposite when they talk about all these matters, and particularly the trade union question. However, many of my hon. Friends know very much more about the trade union question than I do and, therefore, it is one of the subjects about which I have to keep my mouth shut, except when I deal with the irrelevancies of hon. Members opposite.

We have had an impressive account from my right hon. Friend, and I have no doubt that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government outlines the housing Measures to be put through by the Government in the next few months that will be equally impressive, if not more so. Therefore, those of us who have criticisms to make of the Gracious Speech are not criticising because we do not think that there are many good things in it. Indeed, we do so think.

It is my expectation and hope that we shall have a prosperous and successful Labour Government in office for the rest of my lifetime and even beyond. I dare say that many years hence I shall look down from my vantage point in some celestial place below the Gangway, and I shall be happy to study on 1st January in the year 2,000 how my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has managed to capture the headlines on that day. I shall also be interested to see whether we have got steel nationalisation by then, and it will be interesting to study how many new Leaders of the Conservative Party have been elected in the interval by the Humphry Berkeley process, or it may be that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mr. Berkeley) will be a candidate on that occasion, and if that should be the case and he should be elected modernisation will have come at last.

I must say to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that there is one part of his speech which I criticise most severely, a part of his speech where I thought he spoke quite improperly and used language which certainly should not be used. I refer to the most ferocious attack delivered by the Prime Minister on the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). It was most unfair of the Prime Minister. I am sorry that the right hon. Member is not here, because I always like to pay compliments to people to their faces, whatever I may say behind their backs.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, in my opinion, is the best of the whole bunch opposite. He says what he thinks. It does not always get him very far, or other people for that matter. He says what he thinks and nothing will break him of the habit. Nothing will break me of the habit, except elevation to the highest office of State, but the Prime Minister is not in a retiring mood and, therefore, that possibility does not arise.

The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West deserves great credit. To bury the British Empire in an official speech as spokesman on defence policy at a Conservative Party conference really takes some doing. All of us should acknowledge such a marvellous example of impudent daring. He also had some sense in What he said and, therefore, the Prime Minister should have been more careful in how he spoke about the right hon. Gentleman, particularly as so many of the other members of the party opposite are now following his course. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is the real Leader of the Conservative Party. He won that election a few months ago. He has got the rest of them mesmerised.

One of the right hon. Gentleman's chief disciples—and I am sorry that he is not here—is the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod). He has been converted to laissez faire in the last few months. He said in a speech on the National Plan that the great principle which the Tories must now establish, the one word which is the very keynote, was the word "choice". I must say that that statement coming from the right hon. Member for Enfield, West in the circumstances which we recall over recent years is surely a most gallant proposition. Nobody chooses him.

As for the Leader of the Opposition, comments have already been made upon this and the matter was referred to by the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East. He referred to the so-called economic blunders which have led to the present situation. We all know that the Leader of the Opposition is very eager to kill what he calls this "disgraceful lie" about the £800 million and that he is going up and down the country telling us what really happened. I read his speech at the Conservative conference with great interest. It was a revelation to me. I had thought that we have got into those balance of payments difficulties because of circumstances beyond the Government's control at that time, or maybe a little bad luck, or something like that. But not a bit of it! The right hon. Gentleman said that it was all arranged by his colleagues; that they did it on purpose; that they left the biggest balance of payments crisis in history all according to their plan. If any speech could make it even more certain than it is already that we shall be very little bothered by the challenge of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite, it is the right hon. Gentleman's own exposure of how, in fact, the legacy of the previous Government which has caused many of the difficulties of the Government was something designed by the previous Government. If they did it on purpose on one occasion, who knows that they might not do it on purpose again?

However, as I indicated before, I am critical of certain matters in the Queen's Speech—or perhaps certain matters that are not in the Queen's Speech —and I am entitled to put some questions to the Government. In May of this year, this House of Commons approved a White Paper on Steel Nationalisation. Many speeches have been made from different parts of the House saying that it is very awkward for the steel industry not to know where it stands. I do not subscribe to that point of view, because it appears from all the production figures which the Steel Federation has spent so much of its shareholders' money on publicising in the newspapers that nothing is so good for the production of the steel industry as the threat of nationalisation. The longer that threat has gone on the more the production figures have gone up, so it is said. I therefore do not argue on that basis. But whatever the steelmasters may say, the people who work in the steel industry and Members of Parliament and the public certainly have the right to know what is the Government's position arising from the fact that last year the proposal for steel nationalisation was in the Queen's Speech, and this year it is not.

Let us, therefore, first look at the White Paper and ask the Government the perfectly proper question whether they still subscribe to certain of the statements which appeared in the White Paper and were presented to the House—and strongly supported by Ministerial statements—and eventually approved by the House of Commons in May of this year. For example, on page 7 we read: It is essential in the interests of the British economy that the improvement in the efficiency of the iron and steel industry which can be obtained from the common ownership of its main units should be secured as quickly as possible. Later in the same paragraph we find: In the Government's view, nationalisation of the main part of the iron and steel industry is the only appropriate means of securing quickly the benefits of common ownership. I agree with those statements, and I want a fuller explanation than we have yet had from the Government as to why the Government have changed their mind— if they have changed their mind—because it does not appear here. One cannot say in May that this is the course required to secure this action as quickly as possible and then not propose to follow up such a statement in November.

Again, I am in absolute agreement with the view stated by the Government on page 15 of the White Paper: An efficient and dynamic steel industry, fully co-ordinated into the Government's general economic plan, is of paramount importance to the country. The word "paramount" has something to do with priorities. One cannot say at one moment that something is of paramount importance to the country and at the next moment that it comes low down in the list of priorities. I am, therefore, entitled to ask why the Government have changed their mind on the paramountcy of this question.