Three-Day Working Week

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , Wolverhampton South West 12:00 am, 10th January 1974

The hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) has forcibly reminded the House how far reaching and comprehensive is the impact of the crisis which has resulted in the premature resumption of our sittings. He has reminded us that in coming days we are likely to hear the word steel even more frequently than the word coal. He reminded us, too, that when regulations must be introduced which affect the working habits and operations of the whole of our industry, they penetrate in a most remarkable fashion into all the recesses and interstices of the life of every family and person in the country.

I agree with the point from which the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) began—namely, that the debate is much more concerned with the future than with the past. It is more important to know where we are to go from here than how it was precisely that we got here. Nevertheless, there are practical reasons for spending a little time in recalling the earlier part of the story.

I make no apology for once again reminding the House, and particularly my right hon. and hon. Friends, of what was our view not so long ago on the policies which have led us to this stage. I do so in no spirit of criticism or of recrimination, but because I believe that there are practical and important deductions to be drawn from recalling the fact that when the Conservative Party was elected by a majority we told the country that we utterly rejected the philosophy of compulsory control of wages. We said that we had seen the Labour Government's statutory control of wages fail and that we did not intend to repeat it.

We did not make those statements as a matter of mere theory. We did not make them, as it were, in the margin or idly. They arose not only from theory but from the observation, both in this country and elsewhere, that the attempt to combine Government policies which in themselves are inflationary with the endeavour to regulate and control prices and wages has invariably and inevitably led to an impasse and to irresolvable conflict between the demands of Government on the one hand and the realities, as the private citizen sees and knows them, on the other. We were speaking not merely from theory but from experience.

It is not a matter of recrimination but of practical utility that we should remind ourselves today of that fact. By remembering it, we understand that we are not the victims of unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents. Our present experience and our present predicament was foreseen and forecast in principle. It was exactly what we had seen happen before. It was exactly what had led us to renounce the very course of action upon which we subsequently entered. We are, therefore, obliged not to seek an escape by accusing external events, such as the movement of forces and prices in the outside world, for the crisis with which we have to deal.

More important still, we are freed from the danger of supposing that either we or the country at large are the victims of the perversity of a group of our fellow citizens. It is all too easy and all too usual to invoke the human frailities which are common to us all. The words "greed", "selfishness" and "folly" are too often on the pens of journalists and on the tongues of politicians to explain the impasse in which the Government and the country find themselves. It is salutary to be reminded that it is an impasse which was always implicit in the course of statutory control of prices and wages upon which we engaged.

When we renounced that course we did not do so merely as a contrast to a voluntary prices and wages policy. The accent was not specially upon the word statutory or compulsory. We renounced it because our whole conception of the cause and, therefore, the cure of the scourge of inflation was such that the attempt to regulate individual prices and wages, either by compulsion or by agreement, was irrelevant. In a sense, we have the grim satisfaction of seeing the realisation and verification of what we ourselves predicted.

However, I turn from the past, from how we got here, to where we are to go from here. Everyone knows that a way forward must be found. The country knows that a way must be found. That is why the House is sitting today. However popular and common it may be to ridicule or to abuse Parliament, yet, when the nation finds itself confronted with a perplexity, with a threat, with a peril, there is a kind of sense, a strange sort of instinct, from one end of the country to the other, that debate in this House must be an ingredient in the solution.

In the debate which now enters upon its second day, there has been a new note—or at any rate, if it is not an entirely new note, a new emphasis. This new note or emphasis is summed up in the word ''relativities". Never in so few hours in this Chamber has the word "relativities" been used so often. In one speech after another, from one side of the House or the other, hon. Members have dilated upon the unique nature of the job of the mineworker and upon the self-evident necessity that, if an industry is to be adequately manned, the remuneration of that industry—not its absolute remuneration but its remuneration relative to other occupations—must somehow reflect the special characteristics of that occupation.

But then, of course, other hon. Members have immediately and equally rightly drawn attention—one of my hon. Friends a few minutes ago called out, "What about the trawlermen?"—to the fact that the work of the mineworker is unique only in the sense that every job is unique. The more one reflects, the more one will realise that, in every calling, in every trade, in every industry, there are characteristics of health, of danger, of hours of working, of length of training, of prospects, of demands upon the family or upon mobility and so on, which render that calling unique as against all the others. We all know that, for an economy to survive—if an economy is not to seize up altogether—the pattern of remuneration has somehow to correspond with that immense complexity of all the jobs and all the functions which have to be performed within it.

Very recent events have driven home another lesson—that these relativities are not static. One cannot just assess the relative value of a miner and then walk away and leave it, in the hope that that will stay in exactly the same place. Why, almost overnight, with the oil crisis, all the relativities were changed again: the relative importance of various occupations, various forms of production, were shifted, and shifted unpredictably—shifted not once and for all but in a way which went on progressively. So, when we recognise, as the House has been recognising in this debate, that the basic essential of any economy is to get as near as possible to the right relativities—the relativities which produce as nearly as possible the right pattern as between all the jobs and functions which have to be performed in society—we are talking about something which is not static but about something which is dynamic.

There are those—this has been once or twice suggested in this debate—who imagine, but they imagine fondly, that there is some mechanism which can be devised, some formula, some computer, from which it would be possible to read off on the tape what should be, at any given moment presumably, the precise relative remuneration of a mineworker, a trawlerman, and all the rest. It is a delusion. No such mechanism exists or can possibly be contrived. It is beyond human imagination.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment referred to the report which is to be forthcoming from the Pay Board upon relativities. I was fascinated to observe in his reference to it the word "principles": the report will tell us about the "principles" on which relativities are to be determined. I am sure it will—because that is all that it can tell us. Any hon. Member can jot down on the back of an envelope the factors "in principle" which affect the relativities between the remuneration of one occupation and another. They have appeared in one White Paper after another: every time that we have had a prices and incomes policy—which is four or five times at least since the war—there has been a White Paper where, sure enough, one can find the principles of relativity.

But how to get from the principles to the practice? Having admitted that we need more miners relative to other occupations, is it 5 per cent., 15 per cent., 16½ per cent., 18 per cent. or 20 per cent. increase on their present remuneration which will be just right to do the trick? No White Paper, no pay board, can give the answer to that. If Sir Frank Figgures were not just a devoted and able public servant but the Archangel Michael himself, it would be beyond his capabilities to assign the correct relative remunerations to all those whose pay is supposed to be controlled by law or to be teased out of the interstices of stage 3 of the Price and Pay Code by that august agency.

We had better admit it: there is only one way, at any rate in any free country—I use the term in a sense which would be equally accepted by hon. Members opposite as by those on this side—in which this job can be done. It is, alas, an imperfect way, but human methods are imperfect. It is by bargaining ; it is by negotiation ; it is by trying it and seeing ; it is, to use a more pompous word, empirically—by the process, whether it be between great unions and monolithic employers or in the tiniest firms, of finding the point at which the interests of those concerned most closely meet, the point at which both of them can manage to get on with what they have to do.

I say, therefore, that the first necessity, the first key which must be turned in the lock for us to escape our present prison, is to return to negotiation, to free negotiation, in the sense that my right hon. Friends must say to the National Coal Board, "You are the management in this industry, you have to man up this industry, you know better than we and you probably know very well the point at which, with the National Union of Mineworkers, you can secure the manning up of your industry to the point required for your operations. It is your job to do that, and you are free to do it untrammelled by the theory and the theology either of stage 3 or of the Price and Pay Code or"—I mean no offence by saying so—" the Counter-Inflation Act itself. "That is a necessity. I doubt whether there is an hon. Member in the House who does not know that that is a necessity.

But, though it is one of the keys, it is not the only one necessary to turn the lock. There is another. Everyone says" Yes, we recognise there must be negotiation, we must find the meeting point. But what about the whole mythology, the whole demonology of leapfrogging, of inflationary wage claims and all the rest? In short what about inflation?"

On 17th December my right hon. Friend the Chancellor began to supply the second half of the solution. Why did my right hon. Friend come before the House with drastic proposals for, at any rate, the reduction of the rate of increase of public expenditure over the next 12 months? He did not do it because he thought it would be specially popular. He did not do it because he was urged to it by his colleagues, the spending Ministers in the Cabinet—at least I doubt whether they urged him to it. He did it because he and they were convinced that inflation, to use the old jargon, was being fuelled, or would be fuelled, by a wide gap between the total of public expenditure and the total of public revenue.

He accepted, what he has often accepted in the past and what is not seriously denied in any quarter, that whether or not it be the sole cause, at any rate the overwhelmingly most important cause of inflation is the manner in which Government manage the relationship between their outgoings and incomings. Labour Members know that just as well as my hon. Friends, for in the last years of their tenure of office the Labour Party put that into practice. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that they put it into practice with more thoroughness and determination than any administration had previously done since the war.

We cannot at one and the same time so manage the national finances that we constantly increase the total volume of monetary demand and then turn round upon one section after another of our fellow-countrymen, when they endeavour by the only practical method available so to settle their relative remuneration as to enable the economy to work, and accuse them of being the villains of the act and the cause of the very inflation of which they are the victims or on the tide of which they are being carried.

So the second key which must be inserted and turned in the lock is that the finances of Government in the coming months must be so regulated and controlled that they do not add to the inflationary pressure which exists already and which I fear has some time yet to work itself fully through the economy. Those two together—free negotiation and bargaining, industry by industry or firm by firm, and a non-inflationary conduct of the finances of this country—provide the only way in which we can extricate ourselves from an impasse over which the country is in danger of tearing itself to pieces, which is perhaps even worse than temporarily impoverishing itself.