Orders of the Day — State of the Nation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th November 1974.

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Photo of Mr Edward Short Mr Edward Short , Newcastle upon Tyne Central 12:00 am, 5th November 1974

Certainly. I listened to the speech today by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid), who referred to that point. I consider it a reasonable request, made by a number of hon. Members, that the Government should from time to time make their decisions known to the House and to the country—[Interruption.] I am quite willing to discuss how this should be done in the interim between the present time and the publication of the legislation. It could be done by one or more parliamentary statements or even by a number of brief White Papers. In any case, the House will wish to debate devolution early in the new year, and this will give the Government an opportunity to make an interim statement on the progress being made.

The people in Scotland and Wales who believe that we are going ahead too slowly with devolution should be put in a position where they can realise more fully the immense practical and constitutional difficulties the Government face in the operation before the process of legislation starts. However, I am quite willing to discuss how this should be done with hon. Members who are interested.

I turn now to the second topic I wish to discuss—the economic crisis facing Britain and the social dangers which flow from it. Basically, our problem is to pay for the food, the oil and raw materials that we must import and for the manufactured goods that we have to import in order to sell our own products abroad. Time and again this chronic balance of payments difficulty has held back the expansion of our economy and threatened employment. But never more so than it does today, with the oil crisis coming on top of an already serious adverse bal- ance, and with a very high rate of inflation. There can be little doubt about the extreme seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves. We are, of course, far from being alone in this, and tonight I certainly do not intend to spend any time trying to apportion the blame for this situation.

The causes are partly internal, which we can influence, and partly external, which we can influence only in agreement with other countries. It is about these —the home-grown causes—that I wish to comment. I believe that perhaps the greatest and most widely held fallacy in public attitudes towards our national problem is that it can be solved entirely by Government order by legislation. There is a view widely held by the public that somewhere there is a correct permutation of economic policies, that if only we could get the permutation right —the eight draws—all our problems would be solved. It is a view that is prevalent today, that the Government can do anything—produce better cricket, or better mannered children, or better beer.

Of course getting the right economic and financial policies is important—indeed, essential—and I shall say a few words later about them. But they alone can never solve our economic problems. We shall never climb out of the trough into which we have fallen with sickening regularity since the Second World War without a profound change in attitudes, expectations and behaviour by large numbers of people of very diverse opinions.

Unless there is this broad consensus among the people of Britain, both in their attitudes and about what their individual contribution should be, I do not think that we can succeed. Without this change in attitudes, behaviour and expectations, as a nation we shall sink lower and lower in the international league tables of growth, income, living standards and, perhaps above all, in the unquantifiable but very real table of national influence in the world.

This, I hope, is a prospect that shocks everybody. We all—on both sides of the House and among all shades of opinion of those we represent—want Britain to be great, not in the old Imperial sense of physical power but in terms of civilised behaviour in the world, in science and technology, in making our science and technology available to the Third World, where the danger of collapse is imminent and genuine in many cases, and in applying our long experience of diplomacy to the intractable problems threatening the stability of the world.

That kind of contribution, which I believe is the post-Imperial destiny of Britain, is put at risk if we do not solve our national economic problems. Because we believe that finding the solution to our problems is the task of every man and woman in Britain and not solely that of the Government, we in the wider Labour movement in the past two years have asked how attitudes, expectations and behaviour can be changed.

That is a formidable task, but it is not hopeless by any means. We have sufficient faith in the people of Britain to believe that they will respond if they believe their response is worth while. The Government's task is to make a response by the individual worth while. Leadership by the Government in the sense of merely indicating what has to be done, important as it is, is not enough. Admonition by the Government is not enough. There must be radical and decisive action by the Government to rid our society of some of the grosser inequities, deprivations and injustices which make all the calls for sacrifice and hard work, for income restraint and more production sound very hollow.

If that action is taken, or is seen to be taken, the individual will reciprocate. In Britain we have lived with inequality, with a gross maldistribution of wealth and rewards, particularly between capital and labour, for so long that it has almost come to be regarded as the natural order. There are those who believe it is, and who constantly preach that a mixed economy can survive only with this kind of maldistribution of wealth. In our view—this is the basis of our policy—this maldistribution, this inequality in Britain, is by far the biggest impediment to a feeling of identity among the people who work by hand or brain to produce our wealth—and they are its only source. This is an impediment to a feeling of identity with our national economic problems.

So long as his efforts merely result in more inequality, how can a factory worker in Birmingham, a shipyard worker on Tyneside or a miner in South Wales identify with the balance of payments problem? Without that feeling of identity, without the feeling that it is his problem, it can never be solved. I do not think that the balance of payments problem can be solved by economic policies, by arithmetic. It is one of the major errors of our generation to believe that it can.

How can we get more understanding? How can we get more effort all round for more restraint in pay claims, when there are great reservoirs of poverty among the old or lower-paid at one end and great reservoirs of inherited wealth at the other end of the scale, or when vast numbers of our children are still subjected to the gross injustice of selection at 11—one of the great remaining social injustices in Britain? How can we call for this kind of response from the people of Britain when 53 per cent. of the wealth is owned by 5 per cent. of the people, and when, as under the previous Tory Government, no attempt was made to steady food prices or rents which figure so largely in the budgets of ordinary people?

How can we call for this response when nothing was done about land profiteering or when company law gives to those who invest their capital the absolute right to make all the decisions and gives no rights whatever to those who invest their capital, their labour, and their lives in a company? How can we ask for a response when injustices of this kind exist?

The right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph)—he is not present just now—recently made a speech which came in for a great deal of criticism. I agreed with very little of his speech, but I did agree with him very much on one point, and that was that we cannot have a healthy economy in an unhealthy society. The health of our economy and our society are interdependent, and their interdependence is inescapable, although it often escapes the economists.

By an unhealthy society I do not mean one of which Mrs. Whitehouse disapproves. To those of us on the Labour benches the greatest moral inequities are the economic and social factors that imprison people of all ages in a life which exists on a bare minimum, deprived of opportunity, deprived of real choice in all the areas which affects the quality of life. The Conservative Party talks a great deal about choice. The right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) talks about it a good deal. All too often choice depends on the length of one's pocket.

It is these defects which the Labour Government are determined to remedy, which they have undertaken to remedy as their side of the contract between the Government and the people of Britain. I say to the right hon. Lady that it is a contract in spite of her narrow, niggling, legalistic approach to it. Does she not realise that it was this kind of legalism which brought the country virtually to its knees in March of this year? The contract has been spelled out in the most specific terms. Let me say once more for the record where it is to be found. It is in two documents, the first called "Economic Policy and the Cost of Living", price 3p from the Labour Party. The second one is called "Collective Bargaining and the Social Contract", price 10p from the TUC. The second one has more pages.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment said today, if that contract is honoured by the Government on one side and by the people on the other, it could indeed give Britain an era of industrial stability such as we have rarely known in the past.