Orders of the Day — Economic Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1970.

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Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East 12:00 am, 7th July 1970

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I want first to congratulate you on your appointment and to say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer how graceful it was of him to begin his speech by referring to those warriors who had spoken in these debates in past years and who had now left the House.

I add my congratulations to no fewer than six newcomer maiden speakers who have spoken in this debate. If the Chancellor had heard the whole debate—he has heard a lot of it—he would know, and if he reads the rest of it he will find, that much of what has been said today from both sides has constituted an appeal for a greater amount of intervention by government in the affairs of the community. His hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett) spoke about the problems of the elderly. Two others from his own side—the hon. Members for Esher (Mr. Mather) and Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill)—spoke about the need for substantial government support for the aircraft industry.

Two maiden speakers on this side of the House—my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Mr. D. Reed) and Whitehaven (Dr. John Cunningham)—drew attention to the value of the development area policies. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) spoke very movingly about the social problems in his own constituency.

If a debate on economics begins to give a Member the feel of the House, there certainly was not exactly a majority for the sort of tax cuts and cuts in public expenditure which the Chancellor has promised us in the autumn. My experience as a candidate—this is said not in the heat of an election and during my ordinary Parliamentary work; I am sure that it is true of many hon. Members—is that the consequences of industrial change are such that there is growing pressure for more Government help, assistance or support of one kind and another.

The debate opened with a very interesting exchange in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) disposed entirely of the idea that there was an economic crisis and that this was the reason the Conservative Party won the election. The Chancellor read out some words which he had used on the B.B.C., very skilfully prepared no doubt to protect himself from this charge after the election. He left the Prime Minister completely out on a limb in speaking about a national emergency and the probability of devaluation. Indeed, the Chancellor himself, having coined the phrase "stagflation", which he evidently likes, announced that this horse was one that he intended to run himself, at any rate for some months ahead. There was in the debate today the beginning of the awakening by the public to the fact that the campaign upon which the election was won, at any rate as concerns economic policy, did not stand close examination.

I turn to another aspect of the Gracious Speech, this time in respect of industrial policy, and deal with some of the consequences which might flow from the words used in the Speech about that. I cannot do this without congratulating the Minister of Technology and the Minister of State, Treasury, who is to wind up the debate, and all the other Ministers who will be operating in the industrial sphere.

We have a new Government; we have new Ministers; we have a new House. The only thing that is the same are the problems. It is to the problems that I want to direct the attention of the House. The task of maintaining a surplus, of securing growth, of achieving full employment, of combining this with stable prices, and of maintaining the necessary level of social spending, is a very difficult task which no Government of either party have consistently been able to achieve in any period of their stewardship since the war. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) spoke as if it were simply the dead hand of the Treasury. If it were as simple as that, somebody would have moved the Treasury, or those whose dead hands it was that were preventing these problems from being solved, into the morgue.

It is more than a question of economic management. It is a question of industrial performance against some stiff competition from other countries. It is in this area of the Gracious Speech that I come to the words which had a ringing tone and which remind one of an election manifesto— liberating industry from unnecessary intervention by Government and vigorous competition is the best safeguard for the consumer". If I may go back—I hope that it is not considered unfair—to the literature provided during the election campaign—the words I read are these: The Conservative Party believes wholeheartedly in free enterprise and in the market economy". Any Conservative candidate elected on that slogan will have now to turn his mind to the problems which will confront the Government when they try to apply the principles of the market economy. If I do justice to the Government's argument—we had it many times when they were in opposition—it was that if only the Government could get off the backs of industry, reduce taxation and diminish the connections between Government and industry, this marvellous price mechanism would produce the desired result. The right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), who was widely tipped to become Minister of Technology but who, no doubt, partly because of his speeches, had to be diverted elsewhere, described it as civilised capitalism in which competition converted business men into public servants. Let us apply this to one or two of the problems which will confront the Government.

I turn, first of all, to the development areas. There is to be a debate on this subject on Thursday and I do not want to pre-empt speeches which will be made then, except to say that the problems of the development areas are a classic example of non-intervention and the forces of competition. It is exactly because competition knocked out the older industries in the development areas that we have a problem there at all. It would be quite ludicrous for anyone seriously to suggest that the remedy for the development areas is for the Government to get off their backs. The truth is that if the problems had been anticipated rather earlier than they were, this very difficult problem of persistent unemployment in the development areas might have been averted.