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 Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 12:00 am, 21st January 1974

I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Wolrige-Gordon) will forgive me if I do not take up his remarks in detail. It seems to me that the purport of what he was saying was that capitalism needed not so much a human face as a heart transplant. That would indeed be a difficult surgical operation, though perhaps some of us would agree with him.

I wish to refer to one or two comments made by Conservative contributors to this debate, particularly the remarks of the hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit). There is an old Chinese curse, on the lines, "May you live in exciting times". We certainly live in exciting times today. We also live in dangerous times, and there is little dispute about that.

I agree with the hon. Member for Epping that this country is not immune—any more than is any other society in Western Europe—from a breakdown in democracy, which would not necessarily take the form of outright subversion or a putsch, but is a danger of a collapse into cynicism and the idiot results of the poll which we have seen in some other countries of Western Europe. When the tax fiddlers' party can become the second party in the State, as has happened recently in Denmark, it must be said that there is a deep and fundamental malaise in many of the civilised, sane and sober industrial societies of the West.

It ill became the hon. Member for Epping to go on to build on that sombre warning the view that the Labour Party is in some way involved in the process of subversion. I say that particularly bearing in mind the history of the Conservative Party in times past. There are still those who can remember the attitude of the Conservative Party before the First World War on the question of Ulster. Bonar Law and others can be quoted on that question if we go back far enough. Benjamin Disraeli once told a young Marxist, H. M. Hyndman, that the English are difficult people to move. They are quiet, stubborn people and they can put up with a great deal, and these qualities come out particularly when they face national crises.

This realisation is equally shared by those in my constituency, who have been shaken in the last few years by Rolls-Royce's bankruptcy, and also by the men who work not so far away at Markham Colliery, where it is an act of physical courage to go down the mine, let alone work at the face. The disaster was felt not only by those who were injured and maimed for life but by those who went down the mine to bring out the injured. They have been fundamentally altered by that horrifying incident in their attitude to work and their capacity and preparedness for it. That disaster for three days received great Press sympathy, and the newspapers made a great song and dance about it. But that event passed and now we have the Press calling the miners "subverters" and all the rest of it.

Conservative Members must remember that when working people are faced with a national crisis, they regard it as a crisis that affects them. It is their island, too, and they have no other place to go to. They have no numbered bank accounts in Switzerland. They cannot have their wages, such as they are, paid into havens in the Cayman Islands, as do some hon. Members in this House, who come here afterwards and vote for the counter-inflation policy.

In so far as we are on the brink of a crisis, then the deep divisions in this country will be accentuated if the crisis is exploited, as it has been, for partisan ends. We know that there is a crisis because of the terms of trade, which have moved against us—probably for good, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) said. We know that there is a crisis because of the massive and, in my lifetime, unprecedented balance of payments deficit and because of the speculation which battens on such a situation. This situation today affects working people, both wage and salary earners, and also the rentier class.

We know that there is preparation for stringent measures in the face of this crisis. People are prepared to accept rationing of domestic electricity, although not the foolish suggestion of cleaning one's teeth in the dark. They would have been prepared to accept petrol rationing, if that had been necessary—and perhaps it was. But they are not prepared to accept work on ration in the so-called three-day week—put on, as many feel, largely because it was dictated by partisan considerations in the immediately pre-election period. If we can, we have to face this crisis as a united nation and not a divided one. Therefore we have to know which way the Government intend to play the crisis.

I have received a letter from an elderly constituent of mine which is typical of many which have been written to me and to other right hon. and hon. Members. She asked me to do my utmost to settle the crisis, apparently unaware of my relative incapacity in that respect. She went on: Who do these leaders think they are that by their present 'fight to the finish' attitude they make the rest of us suffer and bring the country to its knees? That is a more common attitude than that expressed by many others who profess to speak for the nation.

The great problem is that many right hon. and hon. Members have come into this debate with their election speeches ready, and they have been thrown by the fact that there is no election. All appeared to be ready. It was all orchestrated in the Press. By the end of last week everyone was unanimous that we were to have an election. Public opinion was prepared. If I may adapt those famous words of Belloc, the stocks were sold, the Press was squared, the middle class was quite prepared, and frightened into the bargain.

Then the Government drew back at the last minute. The onslaught has not come after great damage has been done. But whatever happens, whoever wins the next election and however we seek to deal with the crisis, because of the tone and terms in which the debate was carried on for two or three weeks which might be described as the outpourings of delerium, to go back to that phrase of Charles James Fox, the drums of class warfare from the other side were raised in the country.

The Government's supporters talked of subversives, of traitors, and they described anyone who opposed this or that twist or turn of Government policy as not only acting against the national interest but also as some kind of Communist or subversive. We do not know why they hesitated about an election. We are glad that they did. It may have been the remarks of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) about the immorality of an election in these terms. It may have been the Governor of the Bank of England, who was also panicking.

We know that the Government pulled back. We know that they were wise to do so. Whoever won, conciliation would have been impossible after an election, especially if the result had been indecisive because at the end of the day the public would have been indecisive and confused about such an election, and we know that there could have been no process of conciliation in the bitterness after that.

We know that the settling of normal industrial disputes, which have been made abnormal by the terminology in which they have been discussed is far more difficult than before. All this sabre rattling has not come in quiet times. It is not a case of lightning striking out of a clear sky. It has come at a time of sharp crisis, and social division.

I quote one commentary upon these deep divisions on which Government supporters would do well to ponder: Who will readily forget the brazenly swollen profits of the banks, of the ghastly band of usurers trading in second mortgages —I am sorry that the Leader of the Liberal Party is not here to listen to this—

… of the property speculators (all working together very often)? If free enterprise is losing its appeal, it must blame some of its own practitioners for behaving so irresponsibly. The activities of a grasping minority, socially insolent, politically illiterate, are becoming extremely offensive to a good part of the nation … That is not from the Morning Star, from some allegedly subversive trade union leader, or from some Trotskyist tract cycloslyled and distributed at factory gates. It is from the biographer of Edward Heath, Mr. George Hutchinson. He was right to say it in those terms and right to point to the divisions that we have in our society.

They are divisions which mean that when constituents come to see us, as a group of bus drivers from Derby came to see me recently, when they are expected to take home £20 or £23 a week on which to live, it is not unnatural that they ask about phase 3. How can they live on that sort of wage in the present crisis? How can they live on it when the Government try to make them believe that they are somehow responsible for the failure of the export drive, or the collapse of the great enterprise of the Common Market? How are they to live with it if at the end of the day they are addressed as revolutionaries, subversives and traitors to the national interest?

The Secretary of State for Social Services has a great reputation in this House, and rightly so because he has stayed with one Department. He has not played the silly game of ministerial preferment, and his reputation is high. However, when he said today that he intended to throw away his prepared speech and to reply in kind to my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale, he did his reputation a disservice. To talk of profits being made for the poor, and to talk of the ordinary man being helped by the profits—something like Oldham Estates—is such a contradiction in terms that when he comes to read his speech tomorrow he will see how absurd it sounded to his listeners. The division of what he calls the stagnant national cake, whatever that is, has to be argued about in terms of social justice.

If the Prime Minister wants to settle the disputes before us at the moment, he will do so by conciliation. He will not do it by conflict. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, not as the battle-scarred figure leading his troops into yet another contradiction of policy, but as the young man who went to Spain before the war and saw the collapse of the Republic, that he should reflect what can happen when deep divisions overwhelm a society with the result that at the end of the day the forces of the extreme right or left take over. We do not want to move in that direction in our society. This Government have one last chance today to take a step away from that abyss.