Impressions from Westminster.
This has been a lengthy but lively sitting. It has been packed with talk, day after day, and night after night. But I have been left with an uneasy feeling that the discussion has become more of an exercise in debating technique than an opportunity to come to grips with the problems of the nation today. How a policy is presented may win or lose an election or sway the results of the gallup polls, but what that policy is will determine the country's future.
Inevitably money matters have dominated the session. We have had economic problems before, indeed the crisis budget of Peter Thorneycroft and of Selwyn Lloyd are too well known to need stressing. Their outstanding features were first, they dealt with the situation and restored confidence in sterling, and second, they made no attempt to disguise the true facts. This time we have had virtually three budgets within nine months—one every 100 days—November, April and the announcement in July. None of them has brought confidence to sterling and each has been the subject of “double talk” and double think. Abroad, the Government has tried to persuade our creditors we were deflating; but at home the same government has tried to persuade its supporters we were not deflating. Too many promises are still [end p1] being made and the talk put about that some financial manipulation, either at home or through some arrangements for international liquidity, will be all that is necessary to carry them out. Nothing could be further from the truth and this kind of attitude is really damaging to Britain's long-term interest.
To most of us at Westminster, this was the longest Bill in memory. We took 23 days to debate it in detail, and we managed to do so without the dreaded guillotine. A little research has shown that the 1909 Bill took 58 days, and that some six Bills have been subjected to the guillotine, the last being the crisis Bill of 1931.
The majority of the work is put in on the Committee Stage and it is up to the Opposition to give the closest possible scrutiny to every clause of the Bill. The whole operation was outstandingly well organised by Edward Heath in his then capacity as shadow Chancellor. His Steering Committee met every day to decide upon the amendments required and to allocate the clauses to different groups of people. This was team work at its best, it was a pleasure to be part of it. And of course it produced both a dead-heat and a defeat for the Government as well [end p2] as many valuable modifications to the original harsh measure. In spite of all our efforts however, the main structure of the Bill remains intact and in my view it is one of the most damaging we have ever had.
For the Censure debate, the Monday before Parliament adjourned, the House was packed; people were sitting in the gangways and standing wherever they could find a space, for the Chamber only seats 400 people and there are 630 Members. In the debate I must pay tribute to Reginald Maudling; he was brilliant. Not only was his speaking technique outstanding, it was plain that he was in full command of his subject and that every one in the House knew it. He challenged the Harold WilsonPrime Minister to give one single balance of payments figure which, in the months leading to the Election, had been held up or conceded. The Prime Minister could not name one, for the simple reason that they were all published meticulously on time and that the full facts were known before the change of Government. Mr. Maudling said that the Government had inherited a problem and created a catastrophe. The closing stages of the debate were moisy, but no more so than censure debates in the last Parliament. [end p3]
The news that Sir Alec Douglas-Home had decided to resign came suddenly. Only those who work closely with a person can his qualities to the full. He brought to politics outstanding qualities, integrity, selflessness, courage and a capacity for getting people to work together. He knew nothing of cynicism nor of artifice. Undoubtedly his value as a leader was destroyed by those who did not know him. The speech in which he announced his resignation was unforgettable. I am very glad that he is staying in Parliament and in public life; it will be the better and finer for his presence.
The balloting procedure for a new leader went very smoothly and calmly. In spite of what has been written in the press there was not a great deal of canvassing among Members for one or the other candidate and comparatively few people committed themselves openly. The decision was a difficult one to make for both are good. We are all now working hard and happily under Edward Heath. He will be a tough taskmaster, but will only drive others as hard as he drives himself. [end p4]
Foreign Affairs and the Labour Party.
As the session has gone by, the divisions of opinion in the Labour Party have become more apparent. We had a two day debate on Foreign Affairs, much of it occupied with Vietnam. The Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, to my mind is the success of the Labour Government, but the left wing of the Labour party would not agree. He was formerly a headmaster; he is very steady and reliable and the sort of person who would do well any job that he was given. He is having a difficult time, not so much from Opposition benches as from his own party who sit behind him.
Opinion on policy towards Europe is also as divided as it ever was. This was shown by a clash between the Minister of State (Walter Padley) who is vice-chairman of the Labour Party, and Emanuel Shinwell, who is Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. No one is quite sure who won.
Although the House has now risen for the recess, the session is not yet over. When we return in October, the Homicide Bill and the Rent Bill still have to be completed, as well as a number of other smaller measures. The new session of Parliament has been delayed until 9th November. The question then will be, “What about Steel?” In the meantime the problem of the recess is “What about Sterling?”