Pay and Prices Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th July 1976.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey 12:00 am, 6th July 1976

Nothing surprises the Chancellor's hon. Friends below the Gangway. I am sure of that. They have the misfortune of knowing him better than we do. But he was describing himself in this way, as a self-confessed monetarist, as a man of immense virtue who followed the most superb monetary policies with tremendous consistency.

However, he must make up his mind how he wishes to use monetarism. Is it to be used as a term of abuse when it is convenient to denounce my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East? Is it to be used as an alibi when it is convenient to rely on Lord Barber years after he has left the Treasury? Is it to be used as a halo with which to astonish the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends below the Gangway? He cannot have it all three ways, and it is about time that he stopped trying to lay the responsibility for his own disastrous management of the Treasury on the policies of the previous Government.

The Chancellor points lamely to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East. However, it was the Chancellor himself who told us in a debate on 29th January of this year that he did not believe that the most significant cause of the inflation of the past 12 months was monetary policy. He believed that the most significant cause was what he described as the disastrous round of wage inflation which began in November 1974. So he cannot have the game all ways and in the middle. It is time that he accepted responsibility for the disastrous way in which he has managed the economy.

It is important to put the record straight about the policies of the previous Administration. That Government, throughout almost the whole of their time in office, had to face a Labour Party in opposition of unique irresponsibility, clamouring in support of every pay claim and every demand for the expansion of public expenditure. When Lord Barber, as he now is, came to this House in December 1973 in response to the oil crisis and announced his intention to introduce expenditure cuts of £1,200 million, what thanks did he get from the right hon. Gentleman and his party? We were denounced for savaging the social services. But, years later, after the Chancellor's incompetence, he is now facing the British people with the consequences of catching up with the adverse change in the terms of trade which took place at that time, which we had the courage to face up to then and which he has only begun to face up to after 18 months in office.

Let us consider this astonishing White Paper in relation to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). This Government have been in office for two and a half years. We look at the opening two paragraphs of the White Paper. The second paragraph describes a scene of pervasive gloom affecting the economy, rapid inflation damaging human and economic values, confidence threatened, jobs being destroyed as industries cease to be profitable. Then we read the astonishing sentence which says that since July 1975 we have begun to pull away from these dangers.

What was the Chancellor doing for the first 18 months? He was himself creating the dangers. He came to office committed to the superb policy of the social contract which was to solve all these difficulties. Why is it that the year that is just ending is described as only "the first year" of the attack on inflation? Did history begin on 1st July last year? Are we to forget that the outgoing Government had been endeavouring to tackle inflation for years before that and that there then came the catastrophic lost weekend, 18 months ago, in which this Government came to office prepared to raise every kind of expectation, prepared to challenge every aspect of the previous Government's realistic economic policy and prepared to let wage inflation rip?

The result is that the Chancellor was saying, describing his own first 12 months in office in January of this year, If I had continued in my Budget last April the stimulus that I gave the economy in July and November 1974, I would have brought the whole economy down in ruins."—[Official Report, 29th January 1976; Vol. 904, c. 689.] He had a good try.

The Chancellor's performance today is characteristic in another way. It is the way in which he seeks to deal with his relationships with his international creditors. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) asked him what was the extent of drawings on the standby credit that we negotiated earlier this month. The Chancellor's handling of that matter was characteristic. When he was first asked about it by me two or three weeks ago and it was convenient for him to tell us the answer, he was proud to leap to the Dispatch Box and say "We have not had to draw on this. I hope that we shall never do so."