Second Day

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1969.

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Photo of Mr Harold Lever Mr Harold Lever , Manchester Cheetham 12:00 am, 29th October 1969


My right hon. Friend the former Chancellor of the Exchequer played a leading part, to the benefit not only of this country but of the whole of world trade, by his energy, imagination and great tact and charm in furthering the cause of the special drawing rights. He was the outstanding leader in the programme for the promised land which unhappily he was not able to reach himself. My right hon. Friend the present Chancellor of the Exchequer was responsible for the Basle Agreement which for the first time put the whole sterling area on a sound basis instead of the rickety and unstable basis which prevailed throughout the Tory Party's period of office. I am glad to say that this country played a significant part in stabilising the gold and monetary situation generally in the crisis in March 1968 and thereafter.

I wish to say one sentence only to remove the last plank of the Tory platform which has been built over the last two or three years on the conviction that financial crisis was inevitable under this Government. It did not happen. I will not waste time by reading last year's speeches of the Leader of the Opposition and his henchmen indicating that financial crisis was about to come upon us and that the Government would collapse. This has gone. It was followed by the confident prediction that we would flounder in a balance of payments deficit. This too is on the way out.

The Opposition are left with one last tawdry and superficial argument—that we have got heavily into debt. This again is not true. The truth is that virtually every penny, and certainly by the end of the year every penny, of our indebtedness to the I.M.F. and the central banks will merely be an exchange of obligations already incurred under an unstable financial system and called in and necessarily financed on a reputable and sensible basis. This is the final, indefensible plank remaining in the Conservative Party's hopes for persuading the electorate.

I can assert the point about the debts in its simplest form. This country has more net assets at home and abroad, taken separately or together, than when the Labour Government entered office. Unless right hon. and hon. Members opposite want to propound an argument of finance which would be beneath the dignity of a reasonably intelligent owner of a corner grocer's shop, this means that the whole argument about our floundering in debt, and so on, is as spurious as the rest of the Tory propaganda over the last two years.

So much for the balance of payments. I now wish to refer to some of the points in the Gracious Speech. I welcome the wish of the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone that we should "jazz up" the Gracious Speech. Somebody might make the prose just that little more lively without descending to the facetious. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, we could use this occasion to put forward some broad themes and then distribute what we call the Gracious Speech in printed form to everybody. It would make what is already a great ceremonial and impressive occasion into an occasion of intellectual and even emotional interest for those present to hear the revised Gracious Speech. I therefore do not have any difficulty in accepting that suggestion.

I cannot accept that this Gracious Speech is devoid of interest merely because it looks like being towards the last year or so of this Government's occupation of power, until renewed at the next election. The Speech contained much of great interest. There is a continuous humanitarian theme running throughout it. The attention to overseas aid, even though relatively minor in importance, is important to those affected. There is the protection of fishermen, offshore rigs and the like, the protection of people's homes from unconscionable seizure by second mortgagees, and the like.

I must now break in here for certain special reasons and particularly mention the energy and coal programme. I hope the House will permit me to go off at a tangent. We shall be introducing a Bill to continue until March 1974 powers of the kind we now have under the Coal Industry Act 1967. The power to support extra coal consumption by the electricity industry is intended strictly as a contingency power. The Bill will also retain powers until March 1974 to finance a scheme of compensation for redundant miners and to contribute towards the social costs of contraction incurred by the National Coal Board. We also intend to continue the ban on the imports of coal and on the conversion of coal-fired power stations to oil. We will keep this constantly under review.

My right hon. Friend has just approved proposals from the Central Electricity Generating Board for the next power stations to be ordered. They will be Heysham and Sizewell B, both nuclear A.G.Rs.; Drax B, which will be coal-fired; and Isle of Grain, which will be oil-fired. It will thus be seen that Drax B is firmly in the programme.

I hope that the House will forgive me for breaking in here but a Press statement is being made tonight and I know that the House will be eager to have this news, at least in outline form, before reading it in the newspapers. The point is that the Government have shown that they have a clear determination to achieve a prosperous, viable and modernised coal industry with a long and firm future ahead of it.

I do not want to dwell in detail on education at this time of night and in this sort of fragmented debate. It is best left to those who have studied the details of the legislation. It can hardly be called a trivial matter to lay these education proposals before the House as we intend to do, whatever view one holds of the changes. I gather that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's objection is that it interferes with local decision. He produced an interesting argument about the undesirable and excessive centralisation of our offairs. This is an argument we could go on with in a general way for hour after useless hour unless we come to specific cases.

There are matters in which centralisation is desirable and wise in a country as compact and closely-knit as ours, and there are others where we wish to devolve. With education within reason, one allows a certain flexibility, but the main structure of the national educational system is well settled in a general way from the centre. It should be of a consistent and coherent character. That is a matter which we will no doubt discuss in greater detail when we come to the merits of the proposal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Gracious Speech for me is the introduction of the concept of accountability in a rather more advanced form than hitherto; that is, the merger between the Prices and Incomes Board, the Monopolies Commission and the like. For that, again, we ought to await the detailed discussion. Those who think of this as being some form of declaration by the Government to engage in meddlesome or dictatorial intervention in industry are entirely misguided. The real truth of the matter is that things change. I know that many right hon. Gentlemen opposite do not seem to be aware of that.

The other night we had to listen to a disquisition from the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), leading for the Opposition, well supported by his colleagues, in which he said that the sole task of the Government was to regulate the amount of demand and attend to one or two fiscal matters—I think that he would keep the highways clean, and such things—and that there it should end. Anything on top of that would interfere with the climate in which industry would thrive vigorously. That is what the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East said, apart from keeping the highways clean—which I do not believe he did say. I venture to say—and I hope that it will bear repeating—that even the Conservatives have recognised that this is a quite indefensible position for a modern Government to adopt, for they themselves have intervened on a much more copious scale than the pure doctrine of this philosophy, so firmly uttered, would seem to justify.

I venture to tell the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), who applauded this statement—his head proudly high—that he must not think that time stood still simply because his own watch had stopped. I ventured to suggest that there were many other Members of his party to whom that would apply in the comments they have made about the concept of accountability. Accountability is simply a framework within which we are able to know how we can reasonably deploy such market or other power that we have in society without in jury to our fellow men and without prejudice to the common weal; indeed, furthering the common interest and common prosperity.

None of this, in a society such as ours, could be effective or come into being exclusively on a coercive basis. It must be based wholly or mainly on co-operation. But there must be some reserve power which prevents people from feeling that they ought not to co-operate since everyone else is free to do entirely and wholly what he pleases, without regard to any kind of rule or principle.

I would have thought that the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone would have welcomed this and held forth upon it rather more than upon the other things that he mentioned, because of the moral content involved in the concept of accountability and in the use of our power in society, whether the power be the power of a mighty industrialist or the power of a trade union or trade unionist. This is the heart of the problem of living together in a modern society with reasonable decency and reasonably civilised and humane conditions. It is a problem that troubles every society and it is a problem with which I claim our society, here in England, is making more progress than any other country.

I have listened to some of the statements made from hon. Members opposite, calculated to make us feel dejected or degraded or to think that our country has gone down in the world, but when I go round the world and look at other countries I see my own country, under this Government, as an oasis of good Government and progress and civilised behaviour, and of hope for the future on a rational basis, unlike the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who seems to think than student unrest, juvenile crime, drug taking and the like are unique features of Britain under a Labour Government—altogether blind to the fact that all these mischiefs and difficulties of modern society are better dealt with and better regulated in our land and that far from being held in contempt by the rest of the world our country is increasingly being looked at with envy and admiration by eyes from more troubled shores.