Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1969 Jul 23 We
Margaret Thatcher

HC I [British Railways (Shipbuilding Contract)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [787/1869-73]
Editorial comments: 2248-2259. MT spoke at c1870.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1285
Themes: Privatized & state industries, Transport
[column 1869]

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

The two points I wish to make have not been covered in detail. This is a rather unusual debate. It would be difficult for a stranger listening to it to decide on which side, concerning party, hon. Members spoke. This has disturbed me and I have been trying to discover the reason.

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) for initiating the debate, for [column 1870]this is a matter worth discussing. I find it odd that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster), although he has excellent research facilities concerning Harland & Wolff and Short Bros., should merely use the occasion virtually for an attack on any kind of publicly-owned body without any recognition of the substantial amount of Government money going not only to Harland & Wolff, but to Northern Ireland as a whole. One must be fair.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) is not present. All of us, although we detest his politics, have a genuine liking for him. I am all the more sorry that he is not present—I say this to the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher)—because he speaks with some authority on behalf of the Conservative Party in Scotland on shipbuilding matters. It would have been interesting if an hon. Member opposite could say that he either was or was not speaking officially for the party.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

My view on the matter is rather different from that which Edward M. Taylormy hon. Friend took. I take the view that British Railways are fully entitled to purchase their ships at the lowest price and the earliest delivery dates. I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me the opportunity to make that clear.

Mr. Brown

I do not know whether the Scottish people will be told what is official Opposition policy, and if the hon. Member for Cathcart reads it I hope that it will not retard his recovery.

It is true that a delivery date in the spring is important, but why have British Railways taken so long to place the order? Why was the ship not ordered sooner? There may be a good answer, and the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Brewis) may know it, but I do not know it—and I should like to know it. This is an emotional subject. Why are we hiring this Swedish ship? Why are we involved in this loss of foreign currency? What about the credit facilities?

All hon. Members apparently argue—although I have some reservations on the subject—that publicly-owned bodies and nationalised industries should be completely free to use their commercial judgment. But do they suffer any disadvantages in credit facilities compared with [column 1871]others who wish to buy ships? There is no point in the hon. Member for Belfast, East telling us about the losses of British Railways if he then argues that they are not even to have equality of treatment in the buying of ships.

Leaving aside the problems of British Railways, the question surely is: why cannot the customer get what he wants from a British yard? What about other companies which are buying abroad? What is their excuse? British Railways have some excuse, because they are under pressure from ill-informed and malicious critics in the Opposition who are always breathing down their necks and who offer no recognition of the uneconomic services which the railways have to provide.

There are a few such services in Galloway and Northern Ireland. I do not think that there is a service in Scotland which pays its way. That is why we resent the ill-informed, prejudiced views of the hon. Member for Cathcart when he makes his public statements. It is high time that the Conservative Party either disciplined him, or makes it clear that he speaks for no one but himself.

Sir A. V. Harvey

The hon. Member regretted the illness of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor). Now he is attacking him in his absence. He is being a little unfair. Why does he not get on with the debate?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey) does not know the love-hate relationship between myself and the hon. Member for Cathcart.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Despite the love-hate relationship, the hon. Member should get back to the subject.

Mr. Brown

When an hon. Member intervenes, and is so insulting to me, Mr. Speaker, I am entitled to defend myself. The hon. Member for Cathcart knows me well enough to realise that if he has any complaint to make, I will withdraw anything which offends him, but I will leave him to decide that.

I am coming to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey). He talks about the Conservatives now being in favour of the commercial judgment of nationalised industries. [An Hon. Member: “We always were.” ] A sig[column 1872]nificant reason why British shipbuilding is in a mess is precisely the attitude of the hon. Member for Macclesfield and his kind. In shipbuilding on the Clyde there have been plenty of well-bred bowler hats, but not enough brains beneath them. This has been a family tradition. Where have the subsidies been in the past? There is surely some significance in the fact that Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a private concern, is in a bit of a mess because in the past Clyde shipbuilders have been feather-bedded as a private enterprise concern by taxpayers money. It is no coincidence that the Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the fact that Denny's, for example, always seemed to get all British Railways' contracts. It is now bankrupt. It did not object to taking taxpayers' money; it was a lucrative contract.

It is significant that Fairfield's used to get all the Caledonian Steam Packet orders. It was good, profitable public money. This was in the good old days, when hon. Members opposite were in complete control of everything. It is more than just a coincidence that the John Brown shipyard received all the Cunard orders, or that Yarrow's received all the defence contracts—all with public money. They have been so used to taking it from the taxpayer that they are quite inefficient.

I will not be tempted into the aircraft industry, but I suspect that there is a wee bit of that——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resist temptation at once.

Mr. Brown

There is no fun if one does not have a little temptation sometimes, Mr. Speaker.

I think that I have made the two points I started out to make—the delay in ordering and the credit facilities. I suppose that we are all nationalists at heart here. Probably everyone who comes from Glasgow and the West of Scotland has nostalgic memories of sailing up and down the Clyde. My father worked all his life in Harland & Wolff, and I know a little about the firm. Some of the most reactionary employers in the world were the Clyde shipbuilders. Therefore, I say with some feeling that I regret that the 500,000 passengers sailing backwards and forwards from Stranraer to Larne, one of the nicest sails [column 1873]that one can have in summer when it is calm, should have to look at a plaque saying that the ship was built in Italy. This is not just being narrowly patriotic. While we all want commercial judgments for publicly-owned bodies, I always hope to see them being tempered by some kind of social responsibility, unlike private enterprise in the past.

Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us assurances that the policy of commercial judgment tempered by social responsibility has been applied in this case.