Orders of the Day — Economic and Energy Situation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Robert Woof Mr Robert Woof , Blaydon 12:00 am, 19th December 1973

In following (he hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse), I promise to abide by Mr. Speaker's request for brevity.

From the objective of trying to grasp the impact of the present economic and energy crisis, the force of the alarming circumstances must bring a haunting sense of meaning.

Confining attention on the intensive situation, the magnitude of short-time working that is unhappily anticipated, and, if I may say so, as Karl Marx interpreted the unemployed as the industrial reserve army, in proportion it will systematically suppress production for every leading form of industrial activity with serious implications of essential services.

We are not unmindful of the economic mould which governs most of our day-today living, but now aggravated by the energy shortage and restricted fuel supplies, to put it very crudely, it will be the coldest of comfort of personal suffering to those who want to get warmth, a light in their home, or to those who have their jobs in industry disrupted, and are sent home to face all the inconveniences.

The harsh realities have staggered the imagination of many. Even thousands and thousands of Tories throughout the land see the cutrain rising upon what looks to be a prolonged period of stagnation, which will affect the economic health of the country.

The dreadful possibilities are, however, dominated by the emergence of causes, with the centre of gravity of antagonisms, and the marshalling of strengths, practically unknown to industrial text books.

There is nothing within the range of human experience to deny the fact that, when representatives of organised labour indicate their disapproval of traditional capitalist solutions to capitalist problems they are taken to task for lack of vision, and not applying their minds to industrial realities, in bringing a strong sense of duty on matters more subject to human decision.

Suddenly, in the past few days, the nation has been made to become highly sensitive and conscious in being overtaken by a tidal wave of catastrophic affairs. We have read acres of comment and explanations which have appeared beneath the headlines, and prominent among them is the discrediting of the miners with mounting criticism for their obstinacy and doing their worst, even from the Prime Minister downwards.

Rightly interpreted, we would do well to be worried about it. We have landed in a great maelstrom of economic antagonism. It is not new. It has not suddenly cropped up this month—it has been drifting with us for a very long time. It lies at the root of realising the likelihood that it would render comfortable existence more uncertain than ever before.

So why do we argue that the crisis of coal production should not have reached the degree that it has in the present atmosphere of dramatic urgency? It is like Rip Van Winkle waking up again, because it has been debated and analysed so thoroughly by the so-called experts that its outlines have become quite wearisomely familiar.

Ever since 1957, we have been bombarded by statements that the coal mining industry is dying. Statements have been made, which must be accepted, that it is inevitable, through the development of nuclear power, North Sea gas and oil and the products of technology. Such gospel was preached and impressed upon us as so great and crucial that a change in the relations of production would be so rapidly brought about.

In constructively criticising past Governments' energy programmes we requested that we should not make the economy dependent on imported fuels and, in particular, when the scramble for markets was going on, that powerful international oil monopolies should not be allowed to intrude in the traditional coal markets. That is now buried in the dustbin of history.

As every hon. Member is aware, the present oil crisis is unpleasant and unpredictable for British industry. It is clear that the once declared paramount and considered cheap imported fuel upon which the economy developed is now over—it is irretrievable. It has been well circulated that the price of oil, even although if normal supplies were to be resumed at any time in the future, will impose a whole series of difficulties on the economy and an increased cost of living.

But now a wide range of industry is confused and bewildered by the severity of the new measure to conserve all the available sources of energy. Many of them are heavily dependent on taking 40 per cent. of the power from the national grid, of which coal supply to the power stations accounts for 70 per cent. of electricity generation. This must be highly valued and cannot be belittled by the nation.

The cruelty of economic progress is, however, just as terrible as the cruelty of nature—it takes no account of feelings or passions. Only when the material basis of individual and social life is fully assured does the higher development of human intelligence and character become apparent.

It is interesting that in assessing the various conflicts and the rôle of the pattern of a prolonged cutback in production, speaking as trade unionists, we want to make clear that we do not wish to see a charter of uncertainty of employment, hoping for better times in a depressed level of production and productivity, accompanied by living standards literally falling in a society where inequalities are so glaring. It is common currency of politics to ask how trade unionists can be expected to exercise restraint in the face of rising living costs. It is almost despairing to read how wholesale prices are likely to continue to rise sharply in the months ahead, because they have still not experienced the full brunt of the sharp increases in import prices over recent months, and not forgetting coming on top of the well-established higher prices that have been inflicted upon us through the Government's acceptance of the common agricultural policy of the Common Market.

These are some of the rock-bottom facts of life as they affect ordinary people, but as a nation we are in effect in danger of losing faith in ourselves, and in the ordinary sense of making use of the word "confidence", how are we to respond to the national mood with a better quality of decision? Even in the Black Hole of Calcutta the richest man there would have given all that he possessed to get the door or the window opened to let in some air in order to survive. Is not that an analogy of the present situation?

But in all the exceptional circumstances we do not feel that the final step to put the situation on a more favourable keel to avoid industrial paralysis has yet been taken. We all understand that it is a period of fear, uneasiness and one of perilous balance that we cannot afford to neglect when demands for higher material standards of life rest on intensifying international competition with vital production for home and abroad that will not be capable of being delivered.

It may well be that events are overwhelming and that many are trapped by circumstances, but what one considers to be defence another considers to be a threat. It is happening all round us but, as the demand for coal is vital to the wheels of industry, it must be unanswerable—it must be obvious—that we cannot disregard the loyalty of the men employed in the mining industry who produce the coal that is needed now more than ever. The Secretary of State for Employment today referred to reconciliation. I only hope when he meets the mineworkers' leaders tomorrow that he will think of the biblical phase, Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out". That, perhaps, is now of no importance but my final word is that unless the Government come forward with more concrete proposals and undertakings of action to break the deadlock, in the interests not only of the miners but of the nation as a whole, then I am afraid, in human and economic terms, it will have such serious repercussions on many sectors of industry that the consequences will not be difficult to ignore, even by the most naive.