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 Michael Meacher Michael Meacher , Oldham West 12:00 am, 21st January 1974

The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) spoke of the inevitability of conflicts and divisions in society. While I would not agree that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, which seemed to be his message, I believe firmly that in a national crisis such as we have at the present, if there is one overriding requirement it is that the Government must be seen to deal honestly with the people. There is no other way, in a democratic society in which sacrifice is needed, as it is at present, whereby it is possible to gain sustained consent. But the nation has not been given the truth by the Government over this crisis.

I start with the origin of the crisis, which certainly does not lie in the miners' pay claim but, rather, in the context of the Government's pay strategy over previous years. In the year prior to stage 1 wages rose slightly faster than profits. According to the former Minister for Employment, in one of those splendid asides for which he is so highly prized, it was precisely this situation, with wages rising slightly faster than profits, that stages 1 and 2 were expressly designed to reverse. They have succeeded beyond what must have been the Government's wildest dreams.

During that period, up to October 1973, workers were forced to take a cut in their real living standards—not much of a cut but a cut nevertheless—while over the same period profits rose rapidly by no less than 16 per cent. and dividends and interest payments roared ahead by up to 28 per cent. That is clearly what stage 3 is all about. In stage 2 workers were forced to take a cut in real wages while at the same time a massive redistribution from wages to capital was forced upon them. Without a much more comprehensive programme of social fairness than the Government are prepared to countenance, workers will not take a cut in their real living standards for the second year running. That is the real message in this dispute over stage 3.

Stage 3, as constituted—presumably this is intended by the Government—will, at the end of next year, make the workers poorer again than they were at the beginning. The miners are determined to get a decent, real gain and not be forced to take a cut. What the present NCB offer gives them in real terms after taxation is about 2 per cent., which is rather different from many of the figures which the Government have given. We are entitled to know why the Government think that that offer should be accepted when, over the year before, profits were rising at least eight times as fast. The Government have funked telling the nation the hard truth about those figures.

We have had all sorts of appeasing noises about 13 per cent.—or is it 16 per cent?—but the truth is that in real terms in extra purchasing power in their pockets, what the miners are seeking to get is more than the NCB now offers, which is only 2 per cent. We have had the Prime Minister's figures of wheedling generosity repeatedly wheeled out about an average £4·50 a week increase for the miners, but in terms of purchasing power, after tax, the average that the miner will be getting is about an extra 60p a week, or possibly even less if inflation speeds up, as one may expect, from now on.

In contrast to this purported generosity to the miner, the property magnates, after the chastisement of the Chancellor's latest budget, according to The Times, have been laughing all the way to the bank. Nor have the Government been any more honest in explaining the reason why they are determined to resist the miners' claim. The real reason is that they are determined that it shall be the workers who will bear the main brunt of this enormous £2 billion or £3 billion balance of payments deficit and a devaluation of 20 per cent. or even more.

The illusion sown by Ministers—particularly by the Prime Minister—the strategy to conceal the real motivation, is that if the Government were to give way to the miners' claim, there would be "leapfrogging wage increases". They cite as evidence what happened after the February 1972 miners' strike. But for five or six months after it there was no perceptible increase in the level of pay settlements. As the TUC has rightly said, there were nearly 40 major pay settlements after the miners' strike which were within the pay norm before that strike.

On this evidence, the Government's whole case for resisting the miners' wage claims totally evaporates. What the present crisis comes down to is that the Government are prepared to invoke a partial national lock-out in order to stop the miners getting more than an extra 60p a week. That is what it comes down to in the end. Even if the three-day week were absolutely necessary—and the whole country is totally convinced that it is not—it must surely be the most ridiculous imbalance between cost and benefit in history.

Estimates of the cost of the three-day week have varied from £200 million a week upwards, but whatever the truth, even if it be a lower rather than a higher figure, it must surely be the most zany and irresponsible act in history to impose a cost of £200 million a week on the country and on industry in order to stop the miners from getting an extra £1 million a week. Even the most absurdly and wildly inflationary consequences following from the miners' strike—which did not occur after the successful strike in February 1972—could not remotely cost a fraction of that.

Overcoming inflation in a democratic society demands not transparent hoaxes which divide and attempt—I am glad to say unsuccessfully—to deceive workers, but a policy in which fairness is not only done but is seen to be done. That was the ostensible purpose of the December budget, but merely to bring the peripheral edge of the property market and the tax handouts within stage 3, and that almost as an afterthought, is verging on the cynical when the value of the property tax is 1 or 2 per cent. of the total increase in property values since the last election.

What the tax changes amounted to for the average surtax payer was being asked to hand back about £75 a year out of the £1,000 a year tax concession that he gained from the Government. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a former poacher, wishes seriously to turn into gamekeeper, he will have to do more than that. He is rather like the thief who, having been caught red-handed, believes that if only he can give up a little of the swag he can carry on acting as before.

What we have had from the Government over the past three years is the rhetoric of one nation but the politics of class division. The Government now, however, show a glimmering of understanding that this is a policy that can no longer work, but they are psychologically incapable of seriously operating a policy of fairness, because they do not believe in it and because it is clearly seen that they do not.

It has been a favourite illusion of Governments in recent years that they can change their rationale in midstream but still carry credibility, but they cannot and they do not. What is needed in this situation of crisis, since social fairness is now almost universally acknowledged to be the required motif of government, is a new Government for whom social fairness is a natural philosophy and not just an expedient façade.