Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:06 pm on 4th February 1980.

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Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Flint West 7:06 pm, 4th February 1980

Whatever happens, this country has to live in a competitive trading world. Import controls would not make it any easier for us in such an intensely competitive world. However, I do not propose to continue along the lines of the hon. Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes) or to tread on the bitter family quarrel that he referred to earlier. It has been a sombre debate and I shall speak briefly and sombrely.

Whatever happens, unemployment in Wales will rise to a terrifying level. The underlying reason for that unemployment is that the industries which provide so high a proportion of jobs in Wales have become uncompetitive. Too much of British industry is unable to compete in world markets; too high a proportion of that uncompetitive industry is in Wales. More serious still, we have now sunk to the point where a further increase in unemployment is inexorable—either through this Government's policies of forcing those industries to become competitive or through the policies now, I believe, advocated by the Labour Party of allowing industry to become still more uncompetitive. Either way, unemployment will follow inexorably, because the rest of industry does not produce enough work to subsidise those uncompetitive industries and firms.

However, whatever the real reasons for unemployment, it will be under a Conservative Government that unemployment in Wales will reach—and may well exceed—the estimate of 130,000 that was predicted by the Wales TUC. Naturally, the Labour Party will make the fullest political capital out of that. We Conservatives cannot complain. We made political capital enough out of the fact that the Labour Government, which came to power with the slogan Back to work with Labour", doubled the number of people out of work in Wales. I hope that the Labour Party, in its understandable glee, will be as careful as I hope that we were not to promise any magic cure for the ill of unemployment.

In Wales the situation has gone well beyond charges and counter-charges of Government inefficiency and misguided policies. There is no mistaking the bitterness and fear. The nightmares of 50 years ago are recurring. It is natural that workers, faced with an erosion of their living standards or with the far worse prospect of redundancy, should turn to industrial action to safeguard their living standards or jobs.

Right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches are clearly under intense pressure to support or even take the lead in industrial action. Except for the comparatively small number of extremists, the strikers are their own people—their friends, workmates and political associates. Those people are in conflict with the policies of a Conservative Government. If they so choose, hon. Gentlemen are perfectly entitled to support the call for a general strike, which is being urged by the Wales TUC to force the Government to change their policies. The right hon. Members for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) and for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) have chosen to do so. No doubt, in urging the TUC to initiate a general strike, language such as we heard from the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) will prove powerfully emotive.

It is perhaps futile and impertinent for me to beg the Labour Party to think again, but I have to say this. The Government have a substantial majority that will see them through this Parliament, however many by-elections they lose—and they will lose many by-elections. That majority is quite astonishingly united and resolute. We believe that, however unpalatable may be the consequences of some of the Government's policies—and those of us who accept the idea of State intervention and believe passionately in the ideal of one nation find the consequences unpalatable indeed—the alternative of putting off cruel decisions will no longer buy even a few months' reprieve for living standards or jobs. We believe that we have reached the point where a massive confrontation with the unions in Wales is less dangerous, even in the short term, than using taxpayers' money to pay wage increases unearned by higher production or postponing indefinitely the move towards competitiveness.

That being so, the unions cannot force the Government to change their basic strategy, but they can bring Wales close to total collapse. They cannot govern Wales, but they can make it ungovernable. I beg the Labour Party to think deeply and calmly before it travels down that dangerous road. The Labour Party is a great democratic party, and Labour Members are, I know, great Welsh patriots. If they encourage the Wales TUC to plunge Wales into chaos, and if they make it so unattractive to incoming industry, particularly industry from overseas, what eventual inheritance are they preparing for themselves?

The Labour Party is in a strong position. Although it cannot force the Government to change their policies, it can ensure that those policies do not succeed. What is more, I believe that the crisis facing Wales is so grave and urgent that we are entitled to ask the Labour Party for a limited but priceless degree of co-operation—that it should actively discourage the unions from political strike action.

If the Labour Party does that—and I am aware that I am asking a lot—the Government must give something in return. It cannot be pressure on the nationalised industries to concede wage increases unmatched by higher production. It cannot be a guarantee to shelter any section of the community against falling living standards. However, we can and should give an even firmer commitment than hitherto to providing jobs for the people of Wales in so far as it is within the power of the Government to do so.

We have to admit that private enterprise, which we still firmly believe is the long-term salvation for the country, is so debilitated after years of buffeting from both sides that it is not capable of providing enough jobs, or providing them soon enough, to replace the jobs being lost in the public sector. For that reason, I was particularly glad to hear what my right hon. Friend said about the direct action that the Government are taking to provide additional jobs in Wales.

We have to accept a degree of direct responsibility on the Government and the agencies of the Government to provide jobs. We may have to continue with job creation programmes that are barely cost-effective. We may have to envisage a more direct and expanded role for the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales. We may have to spread our programmes of closures, including steel closures, over a longer period than is desirable in the industry's interests. In short, we may be obliged, in the interests of what the right hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones) called social cohesion, which is now gravely threatened, to accept a slower pace of advance towards industrial competitiveness and a slower move towards those higher living standards, improved social services and decent levels of pensions that we all aim to achieve.

We must be quite clear about the concessions that we may be forced to make in order to induce the Labour Party to co-operate in urging restraint on the unions. It amounts to sharing out the available work. In a static economy, that means sharing out the available earnings. The price of cutting unemployment without raising production is lower living standards for all. I am prepared to pay that price if the Labour Party is, but we must pay it with our eyes open.

If we pay it, it must be only in part and for a time. The Government may be forced, in order to retain social cohesion, to slow down their progress towards efficiency and prosperity. What they must never do is start marching in the other direction. If that is the price that the unions and the Labour Party demand in return for not plunging Wales into temporary chaos, the answer must be "No".