Public Expenditure

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th January 1968.

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Photo of Mr Eric Moonman Mr Eric Moonman , Billericay 12:00 am, 17th January 1968

From the moment when the right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod) rose today until a few minutes ago the debate appeared to be proceeding on two levels, and this has been emphasised most, perhaps, by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham. West (Mr. Dickens) and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden). However, I suggest that both these levels of debate fail to meet the massive problems which the nation faces in 1968.

On the one hand, we have the reaction of some of my hon. Friends who, after searching their hearts, have selected those items of the package which should not be touched. That is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Newens), who would tell us that the whole crisis is about particular areas with which he is concerned. Unfortunately, that is not relevant. It is nowhere near the global problem which the Cabinet have had to look at and which is what we should be discussing.

The second area of discussing has been the view of the official Opposition, who continue to react without even the thoughtfulness or sincerity of those who support the first argument. Under their Leader and the chairman of their party, they continue to act as if they were suddenly planted on earth and had nothing to do with the years between 1951 and 1964.

I would go a little further and say that many of the problems which have arisen in terms of actual confidence can be related to the attitude of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. Even in 1967, the Leader of the Opposition undermined the confidence of the nation when he said that British industrialists would be advised not to co-operate with the Government. That is a highly intimidating attitude to adopt when one considers that the whole exercise over the last few years has been to export more, to become more efficient and generally to do everything possible to create greater activity within industry.

I want also to comment on some of the statements which were made in the previous economic debate on 22nd November by the right hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Barber). I indicated to him that it was my intention to raise the matter in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. if I was fortunate enough to catch your eye.

That was the debate which followed devaluation, and the matter is highly relevant because here was an important right hon. Member of the Opposition making such statements as: The simple truth is that the House of Commons and the nation were deceived, and the simple consequence of all that has happened is that never again will any words of the right hon. Gentleman "— referring to the Prime Ministerbe taken at their face value. These may be fair debating points, but I should have hoped that they might have been left to the Oxford or Cambridge Union and not be made following a crisis in which the nation had to engage in devaluation.

The right hon. Gentleman also engaged in realms of fantasy when he said: In three short years the Prime Minister and his colleagues have turned a prosperous and confident country into a state of economic depression. However, he was happiest in his hatchet work when he said about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: No one any more believes a single word of what he says."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd November, 1967; Vol. 754, c. 1423–32.] This is all relevant, not because it is true, but because we have leading right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition encouraging an attitude within our society to become disenchanted with politicians and think that nothing really counts for anything. If politicians are so prejudiced and unable to distinguish the national interest from party interest, we cannot blame the public for failing to play its part.

There is a further level of debate which arises from the economic crisis and the Government's measures. With all the difficulties for public expression to be heard in this mass media age, the majority of serious-minded people in Britain want the Government's policies to succeed. The Government must say, therefore, clearly and accurately that, while devaluation has given us a chance to put our balance of payments on a firm foundation, it will be less effective if these additional measures fail to work. That also means telling people that the average standard of living for consumers cannot rise this year.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to look at the underlying factors which make Britain's economic problems so intractable. On the one hand, there is the disproportion between our commitments and our natural resources. On the other, there is the great difficulty of disengaging ourselves from a rôle to which we are no longer fitted.

Very much at the heart of this is the question of our trading. We still trade to the extent of something like £14,000 million a year. We are not a nation which has failed to trade effectively, and our export records have been extremely encouraging. What is more significant is the switch in markets. Traditionally, we were geared to the Commonwealth. In the period between 1945 and 1950, the Commonwealth took something like two-thirds of our exports. That level has now dropped to something like a third of the total. The easy markets of the Commonwealth with which we were concerned in the past are no longer quite so relevant, and now we are attempting to get into the more sophisticated markets of Europe. That is why the whole question of membership of the European Economic Community is so highly significant.

There has been a changing rôle in the Commonwealth itself. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West spoke at length about our integrity and honour, but he must not forget that the individual nations of the Commonwealth have changed radically. Just as they look for new ties with other nations and for new trading areas, it is right that we too should look round, and that means Europe.