Orders of the Day — The Divided Nation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st January 1974.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 21st January 1974

I beg to move, That this House, recognising that an international energy crisis has come on top of an acute national crisis, condemns Her Majesty's Government for its economic mismanagement which has led to the largest balance of payments deficit in our history, to massive inflation which the Government has done little to check, and to deepening divisions in our society ; and believes that policies of social justice and much greater equality of wealth and incomes are essential to provide the basis on which the country can unite to overcome its economic difficulties. One of the origins of the motion was the extraordinary events of last week when there was discussion on the possibilities of a General Election. I hope that the House will permit me to make a brief reference to those extraordinary events before I proceed to more sombre matters.

I have never taken the view—at any rate up until the week before last—that the Prime Minister was likely to call an early General Election. The reason why I took that view so strongly was that I thought that for him to do so would be in defiance of his character. I thought that the Prime Minister was not a gambler with the fortunes of the Conservative Party, whatever may be his attitude towards the national finances, and that he had always displayed to us and to the country a misplaced sense of confidence in his ability to deal with the difficulties facing the nation. Therefore, I had always believed that the Prime Minister was likely to retain office almost as long as the parliamentary limit allowed. Indeed, this view was somewhat confirmed when the Secretary of State for Employment came back from Ulster.

When I was travelling down to my constituency on the Friday before last I was surprised to hear on the radio that Mr. Willie Whitelaw was to take part in the "Any Questions" programme that night. I was the more surprised because I had heard his speech in the previous debate and perceived that he did not know any of the answers. I listened most eagerly later in the evening to hear the right hon. Gentleman and was gratified to hear a familiar voice on the "Any Questions" programme telling us that we should not be at all concerned about the reds under the bed, we should be much more concerned about the Fascists in the bed. Only after I had listened a little longer did I discover that it was not Mr. Willie White-law but Miss Billie Whitelaw. I congratulate her. I thought she made a most powerful contribution to our national debate.

However, I was much shaken on the Sunday before last when most of the newspapers appeared to believe that an election was certain, and when indeed all the popular newspapers agreed with all the correspondents in the posh newspapers I was driven to the extraordinary conclusion that even Miss Nora Beloff had got it right. I was momentarily shaken in my belief that there would be no General Election. And then we had the events of last week. Despite all the prophecies of an early appeal to the polls, it appears that the decision has wavered in the opposite direction.

I am still wondering what may have been the cause of this change. Was it the skilled diplomacy of Mr. Len Murray and the TUC—and I am sure the whole nation pays tribute to them—or was it the timely and kindly intervention of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)—and I am sure that part of the nation pays tribute to him—or was it the speech of the Governor of the Bank of England? It is not so easy to deal with him in a General Election. My best suggestion to the Prime Minister—and I hope that my advice will be passed on because it might be useful whenever we get the election—is that he should try drowning him in Lord Rothschild's think-tank, if there is still any room left among those sodden corpses. I will return to the Governor of the Bank of England in a few moments.

I wish to begin my remarks by dealing with what I regard as the most immediately serious aspect of our situation. I refer to the mining dispute and the prospect of a settlement. I hope that the House will permit me to approach this matter as a representative of a mining constituency and to put to the House the astonishing experience we have had in my constituency in recent months beginning just before the overtime ban. One of the collieries nearest to my constituency is the Ogilvie Colliery, which happens to be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly ("Mr. Fred Evans). Many of my constituents, who live in the village of Abertysswg, work in the Ogilvie Colliery.

For some months past, almost coinciding with the outbreak of the overtime ban dispute, the members of that colliery at NUM lodge meetings have fought to keep their pit open. They have fought with all their strength to put their case to the National Coal Board. They have even subscribed from their not over-generous pay to hire a public relations firm to put their case as strongly as they could, not merely in Wales but in the country as a whole. They held a Press conference to emphasise the need for keeping the mine open. Unfortunately, that conference coincided with the opening of the overtime ban dispute and as a result their campaign was somewhat submerged.

I put this illustration to the House because it shows up the whole national situation. That pit, which the National Coal Board proposes to close, contains millions of pounds worth of coal reserves. I would not like to guess at the value of those reserves now compared with what it was before the Ogilvie Colliery miners began their campaign. I suppose the value has trebled, if not quadrupled. Those miners have been fighting with all their strength to keep the pit open, partly in their own interests and partly, as they believe—and as I think most people would now believe—in the national interest.

Why did the National Coal Board wish to close that pit? There have been losses at the pit over a number of years, but those losses might have looked very different on the balance sheet today when the possible price of coal is taken into account. It would appear that the National Coal Board wishes to close that pit, despite the huge wealth of coal that still remains in it, because of the necessity by the board to recruit people into neighbouring pits. It is a dramatic illustration of the fact that there is scarcely a pit in South Wales—the same applies to mines in the rest of the country—which is not short of miners and which could not use more miners. One way to put the problem starkly is to underline the fact that 15,000 miners leave the pits every year.