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 am grateful for that assistance. I cannot detect so clearly from where I am standing. They might be described as a couple of ornithological hermaphrodites—neither one thing nor the other—though we thought that that rôle was reserved for the Prime Minister. However let them tell us what it is that they are proposing to do to deal with the situation.

As I promised, I come now to the Governor of the Bank of England. One of the objections which the Opposition hold to the way in which the Government have pursued this policy is that, as is clear from the way in which the Prime Minister spoke to the nation at the beginning of the dispute on 22nd November last year, they have caused deepest offence in the mining communities by seeking on television to blame the miners not only for the inconveniences and difficulties resulting from the overtime ban but also for most of the other economic ills of the nation.

The Governor of the Bank of England spoke in a manner which disposed of these matters, and I have summarised what he said, though it is in a slightly different context. I wanted to make sure that all these matters were wound up in one simple proposition. We must remember that the Governor of the Bank of England was speaking about the period before the miners' overtime ban began.

I have put it this way. My summary is headed, "The Problems of Success, by Gordon Richardson, Governor of the Bank of England". That is not how he entitled his speech, but we always like to be sure that the Prime Minister puts his words in this financial context.

One of the problems of success is, "How to accumulate a £2,500 million deficit running rate on the balance of payments without anyone noticing".

Other problems of success are, "How to conceal the fact that the disaster developed before the oil crisis and before the miners' overtime ban. How to prevent anyone realising that the £1,000 million deficit with the Common Market countries has contributed to the fiasco. How to prove that a record £330 million trade deficit in December, with exports falling and imports rising in that figure, is just another Barber-Walker triumph. How to persuade the country that the Budget of 'unparalleled severity' which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to introduce in March has nothing to do with the previous policies of Her Majesty's Government."

Those are not the exact words of the Governor of the Bank of England. But that is how he would have stated the position if he had been seeking to help the Government out of their difficulties, because that is the way the Government sought to present these economic problems to the nation before the Governor of the Bank of England intervened.

Let me deal with the last proposition—it may be the most relevant and urgent one—of the "unparalleled severity" of the Budget which the Chancellor of the Exchequer will introduce. Those are not my words. They are words which were used in a broadcast on Friday by a most eminent member of the Conservative Party. He was forecasting what would occur. His words were taken up by The Times, which seems to know about these matters.

There are very few people who suggest that it will not be a Budget of "unparalleled severity". If the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is to introduce a Budget, perhaps I might give him a little advice. Indeed, my first advice is to the Prime Minister. It is to get rid of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is to send him back to the kitchen of the Conservative Central Office, the spiritual home from which the right hon. Gentleman never really departed, where his half-cooked theories and over-cooked figures may be examined more carefully. My advice to the Prime Minister is to send the right hon. Gentleman back there so that we may have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who presents a Budget to the nation in quite different circumstances.

Everyone knows that the next Budget has to be very different from the one which the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented as recently as last December. What is more, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were sent to Tory Central Office it might have the added advantage of allowing the Secretary of State for Energy to get on with his job full time. After all, bearing in mind the coal stocks which the part-time Secretary of State has been able to produce, he might be able to do wonders if he were doing the job full time.

But if we are to have a Budget which deals with the problems, it will have to be a Budget which goes to the root of the divisions in our country. It will have to deal with the question of the rich and the poor, with the basic questions of what has been happening in our country for many decades. I do not say that only this Government have been responsible. It is merely that the actions of this Government in some respects underline these deep cleavages more fiercely than ever before.

Indeed, the action over the three-day week itself has only underlined these class differences. H. G. Wells used to say that the class war was an old pastime of the British ruling classes. So much is this so that they do it almost automatically. The three-day week hits wage earners much harder than salary earners and both much harder than property owners. That is the way in which our society is organised.

What right hon. Gentlemen have been doing during their period of office, in particular during phases 1, 2 and 3—this is why we have said that the policy was not merely unfair but unworkable, and Heaven knows that has been proved clearly enough—is to ensure that it will always work out in this way. Instead of the wage earner being able to improve his position, his position will be held down while that of the dividend drawer, the profiteer, would be enormously enhanced.

Any hon. Gentleman who doubts what I say has only to read the figures in The Times today given by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Gentlemen want to contradict the figures, let them do so, but let them realise that this affects the mining dispute as well. Because of this situation, what the miners are offered by the National Coal Board, even if it were accepted, taking into account the increase in prices which will happen and the extra taxation and insurance that they will have to pay, is only an inconsiderable increase. If it is argued that the offer is in some respects more than some other workers have been offered, that is merely an illustration of what my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West has been pointing out persistently without any effective contradiction—that phases 1, 2 and 3 envisage a decline, a cut, in the standard of life of the bulk of working people.

It is against that picture that a Budget of unparalleled ferocity will have to be introduced in March. We say that if such a Budget is to be introduced, if the country faces such severe problems as the Governor of the Bank of England and sometimes Ministers describe—although Ministers are not consistent in the matter—it must be a Budget which seeks to readjust by deep and radical measures the gross disproportions of wealth. It must deal with wealth as well as incomes and must go to the root of these problems. That is why we have argued this case and put down a motion.

Since it will have to be such a Budget as that, a Budget dealing with such questions as that, we do not expect this kind of radical step from the Conservative Party, and particularly not from the present Chancellor. One of the least surprising aspects of the gossip which has been leaked out from the Cabinet in the last week is that the Chancellor is the man most in favour of cutting and running. This is exactly what we would expect of him.

It was once said by Charles James Fox that a wise statesman is one who uses the sober moods of a people to guard against the hour of delirium. What the Chancellor would apparently like to do—there may be one or two who agree with him—is exploit the moment of delirium in order to press through measures which, in their sober moods, the people of this country would not be willing to tolerate.

That is the Chancellor's approach to our national politics. Whether he has the support of the Prime Minister, we do not know. However, the Prime Minister has already contributed gravely to the divisions of the nation by seeking to say to the miners, and possibly to the rest of the working people—they are lined up with the miners, united with them, so he is apparently saying it about them as well—that it is a crisis, a clash, between the people and Parliament.

I must say that this Prime Minister as a defender of Parliament is a more bizarre and daring impersonation than anything every attempted by Danny La Rue. No Prime Minister in modern British history has done more to debase and corrode the standards of parliamentary government than the present Prime Minister. It was under his incitement that we spent the first year of this Parliament pushing through an Act designed to remove the last effective control in industrial affairs away from this House to the law courts. So brilliantly effective was that piece of legislation, that even the Prime Minister dare not touch it on the mantelpiece, where it now stands.

Then we spent the next Session pushing through the European Communities Bill. It would be almost masochistic to mention the Common Market in these days, would it not? But it is fact that, during that second year, Parliament spent hours—how many hours I do not recall—deciding that the proper authorities to fix parities, food prices, regulations about juggernauts and all such other matters were the people in Brussels. We decided that all such power was to be given to those men in Brussels or to the executive bodies of the Government in this country. In any case, it was to be taken away from this House.

In the third Session, under the incitement of the same Prime Minister, we spent much of our time establishing the Pay Board and the Price Commission. Nobody knows what powers they have or whether they are exercising them properly. No one knows—at least, apparently the Prime Minister does not know himself—when the Government can intervene in a matter of exceptional crisis. Heavens above, if that section in the Act is not to be used when the country is suffering the deadly and debilitating effects of the industrial crisis at the moment, when in Heaven's name is it to be used? So skilfully was that Bill passed through the House, taking away the final voice in these matters from the House of Commons, that even the Prime Minister does not know when he can invoke that power.

Whenever this House decides to surrender its powers, whenever it becomes weary of our methods, when people think we do our business so badly—I do not say that it is perfectly done—danger follows. It is the claim of those who defend parliamentary government and democracy that, in the end, this is the place where the collective wisdom of the British people should be expressed, particularly by Governments and Oppositions who have faith in the institution. The Prime Minister has never shown any such faith. All his politics have been directed to deriding and undermining the House of Commons.

The only way in which the authority of the House can be renewed is by a new General Election. Therefore, despite all the arguments which may persist among Conservative Members, the sooner electoral decencies permitting we can have that election the better. The sooner we can get a new Government the better. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite have forfeited the right to speak for the nation. The sooner they get out of the way for those who will speak for the nation, the better for all concerned.