Orders of the Day — The Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th December 1974.

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Photo of Mr Donald Stewart Mr Donald Stewart , Na h-Eileanan an Iar 12:00 am, 18th December 1974

I was greatly impressed by the realism in the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). If I may say so, as a Scot, it is something which English Members ought to regard very seriously.

The problem of the United Kingdom is a problem largely confined to England. However, four nations are concerned in the United Kingdom at present, and we must face the facts as they are. When my hon. Friends and I advocate that Scotland should have self-government, we do so not arguing that we ought to leave a sinking ship. We of the Scottish National Party argued this case in the days before we knew that there was a single spoonful of oil under the North Sea, and in the days when England was a prosperous country and when Scotland and Wales were apparently poor countries. We advocated this purely on the ground of nationhood—the ground which the hon. Member for Oswestry said ought to be applied to England as well.

As I listened to the Leader of the Opposition and to the Prime Minister today I could not help thinking that whatever the country was short of, it was not short of cliches. The argument almost induced me to fall into the trap of talking about pots calling kettles black, people in glasshouses not throwing stones, chickens coming home to roost, and all the rest. As has been mentioned in the debate, the country is fed up with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party trying to establish which bears the greater blame in this situation.

Is the country in danger of imminent collapse? The Government must come clean about that and tell the people. We sometimes hear scare stories before a Budget to the effect that a great tightening of the belt is due, but we then find—as with the last Budget—that the Budget is largely an anti-climax. The most serious aspect of the last Budget was the incerase in the price of petrol by about 10p a gallon. That is serious enough in many places, but it can hardly be described as a national crisis.

The Leader of the Opposition today asked the Government to tell the truth. I certainly back that request. However, I remember that less than a year ago, when the first signs of the economic catastrophe —if that is what it is—were on the horizon, the right hon. Gentleman was assuring hon. Members that the problems we were facing were the problems of success. The request to tell the truth, therefore, should apply right across the board.

The Government ought to take fundamental measures to ensure that agriculture is put on a sound footing. If there are hard times ahead—and I believe there are—any country that can feed its own people by means of its agriculture industry will be in a strong position.. The same applies to the fishing industry. I do not propose to go into details, because of lack of time, but both these industries are in need of help, and the Government should help, for the sake of those industries, the people in them, and the contribution made by those industries to the country's larder.

The problem of the Scottish steel industry is now coming to a head. When the industry was nationalised on a British basis many of us forecast that it would mean doom for the industry in Scotland. We had no great feelings one way or the other on the question whether the industry should be nationalised or should continue under private enterprise, but we were certain—we are now seeing it proved —that the nationalisation of the industry on a British basis was the signing of its death warrant.

The Benson Report made clear that the Scottish steel industry was a separate entity, and since the British Steel Corporation adopted that report as its basic philosophy we should have gone all the way and kept the Scottish steel industry separate. The Scottish people are becoming aware of the plans to destroy the industry in Scotland—the proposals cannot be described in any other way. I warn the Government that if the proposals are permitted to go ahead there will be a whirlwind against which the row over teachers' pay and such things will appear merely as minor inconveniences.

The British Steel Corporation has an option on the land at Hunterston. Many of us believe that the corporation is holding that land for the purpose of what I would call sterilising it and keeping out any further developments. The Government should face the BSC with an ultimatum that it must produce plans for the development at Hunterston or let the land free for others to develop.

I shall now list the action that I think is needed. First, the Government should put the facts plainly before the people and should then end divisive measures. I do not say that a Government elected on a Labour or Socialist philosophy has no right to introduce Labour or Socialist policies; or course they have. But there are certain proposals that are divisive apart from their political content. I have in mind, for instance, the proposal to increase the cost of the national insurance stamp for the self-employed. Many self-employed people are fairly affluent, but many others are not. This seems to me to be a totally irrational and vicious proposal, and an indirect and dishonest way of collecting more income tax.

We should also have genuine cuts in defence—not the kind of charade we had on Monday night. I do not believe that the country would be one whit more at risk if substantial cuts were made in the defence programme. Most of the defence projects are a conspicuous waste, and add nothing whatever to the defence of the United Kingdom.

The Government should also take a look at overseas aid. I am in favour of overseas aid, but it ought to be on a selective basis. For instance, the Indian Government, despite the fact that there are millions of starving people in that country, have constructed a sophisticated bomb and are now in the big boys' league. I suggest that the Government should cut off overseas aid to India. If India, with its starving population, can afford to waste money on something as wicked at a bomb, we should ignore its begging bowl when it is held in front of us.

There should also be improvements in industrial relations. I know that it is easy to say this, but with the country in its present position more effort should be made in this respect by both sides. We have heard a lot about industrial strife in Scotland recently. Incidentally, it was curious how indifferent the Government in London were regarding this. One would almost have thought that Scottish government had arrived and that the Government in London had nothing whatever to do with the matter. There was no invitation to trade union leaders, or strikers, to have beer and sandwiches at Downing Street at midnight. It seemed to be a problem in which the London Government were not at all involved.

We should have some regard for the facts behind the claims made by people in industry. There are many substantial claims. We hear of the miners asking for an extra £30 a week. I believe that the miners have more right to a decent wage than most people, but if they get wages of the sort they are seeking they must realise that it will mean the cost of a bag of coal going up to perhap £1·50 or £2, and this will particularly hit old-age pensioners. I do not want to single out the miners. The effects of wage increases cannot be confined to particular industries. They spread throughout the economy.

The Government should say whether, in fact, we have a crisis and, if that is the case, they should get down to the measures needed to put the position right.