The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
I should like to follow the comments that have been made about the remarkable speech earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). It was a speech of wit, charm and great generosity of spirit. Ever since he made it, all those who heard the speech have paid their tributes to him. I can assure him that those tributes are not formal in any sense.
It was a speech which paid great tribute to his predecessor, John Mackintosh. [column 1326]It also showed that we have a new Member of Parliament of strong character and great capacity. Indeed, as I listened to his speech the only criticism that I could find was that it was so good that it might be deduced that part of his victory in Berwick was due to his own qualities and not to the Government's qualities.
Many parts of the discussion have turned on other questions, but I shall seek to confine myself principally to the amendment, which was moved, or nearly moved, at the beginning of the debate. I thought that the amendment was extremely good. I am sorry not to see the leader of the Liberal Party in his place, because I wondered whether he was the author. I wondered whether we could account for the improvement in the literary standard because the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition and her right hon. Friends had decided to adopt the ideas of the leader of the Liberal Party in order to assist in the vote or to seduce him, if that is not a too indelicate word.
It is a great change from the scenes that we saw a few months ago. I remember the effective speech of the Leader of the Opposition when she rebuked the leader of the Liberal Party in strong terms. But the Leader of the Liberal Party is now being elevated at a single leap from his youthful follies to eligible manhood. The right hon. Lady has changed her attitude too. There is now none of this “My young man” stuff. Not at all. She turned such a benign and eager eye on the right hon. Gentleman that she might be the serpent of old Nile herself. Therefore, I am glad to see the alteration in these matters.
I am very happy to give the leader of the Liberal Party a reference. Indeed, I do not see why he should not take a place on the Opposition Front Bench in order to draft these excellent Opposition amendments. I gather there are a few vacancies, and he would certainly be a very great addition.
I should also like to offer some advice to the right hon. Lady. She knows how jealous I am about all these divergences into which she happens to stray. But I think that she should follow more carefully the advice that I sometimes give her. She must be careful not to follow these extravagant charges against the Labour Party and its East European [column 1327]policies. I do not know where the right hon. Lady gets her information from. I suppose she gets it from the right hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Prentice). But I must warn the right hon. Lady about him, because there is a strong rumour abroad that the right hon. Gentleman has not sacrificed or abandoned his revolutionary past at all. He has gone into the ranks of the Conservative Party as a kind of agent provocateur just to see what palpable absurdities he can pass off on the right hon. Lady. All I can say is that it is a theory with a great deal to sustain it. I only wish that we had thought of it earlier.
I should like to give the right hon. Lady a further piece of advice. Indeed, I offered it to her a year ago and if only she had followed it then she would be in a much happier situation today. There is the position of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) who I see is now trying to pass himself off as an ex-Chief Whip. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has not now been thrown out like the others. I hope that he tendered his resignation in time. I am sorry to have to say it in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Tell us about the Government's economic policy.” ] I am trying to fill in the gaps of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) who told us that he would tell us about the divisions in the Conservative Party. I am trying to make good the omissions. Had the right hon. Lady followed my advice of a year ago she would be making it up with the right hon. Gentleman. He is the best of the bunch, even if—to quote Shakespeare again— “the small choice in rotten apples.”
The right hon. Lady really should take my advice on this occasion and try to make a proper reconciliation.
I am happy to assist her further in that respect, because the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that the incomes policy of his party was absolutely clear. I am very happy to have the hon. Gentleman's assurance. But it was not absolutely clear at the Conservative Party conference, because I took the precaution of reading the report in that excellent journal, the Spectator, which carried the excellent reports of Mr. Frank Johnson which did not appear in The Daily [column 1328]Telegraph day by day because of an industrial dispute. If the House were to allow me to do so I could spend the rest of the evening reading extracts.
Mr. Johnson followed these matters very carefully. He described how the right hon. Member for Sidcup had received a great ovation. Then he talked about the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe). He went on to say that the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East praised the contribution of the right hon. Member for Sidcup and then went on to advocate more or less the opposite. The conference either did not notice this nuance or was not much bothered by it. Well, here in this House we have a great reputation to sustain and we have to look at the nuances.
In order to report this matter faithfully I must look at the report of the following day—and remember this was in a Conservative newspaper written by a most excellent Conservative reporter. Mr. Johnson said that
“although he was no longer in the hall, Mr. Heath 's monstrous presence dominated the morning's economic debate. He was the spectre at the Ancient Mariner's wedding, though not having one's library to hand in Brighton one is unable to check the accuracy of the Coleridgean allusion. So perhaps it would be more correct to say that he was the albatross on the wall. Anyway, he was the spanner down the trousers of party unity, all right, that's for sure.”
I know that hon. Gentleman opposite do not like this. I am filling in the gaps about what happened at their conference.
The report goes on:
“The conference draws the line at going on the box and saying that the Labour Government is all right.”
That is what the right hon. Member for Sidcup did at the conference. Therefore I thought I would have had special thanks from the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon for having filled in the gaps on these matters which he said he would deal with but which, unfortunately, he did not have time to cover.
I now come to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman——
Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)
The right hon. Member should make his own speech.[column 1329]
One of the old-fashioned habits that we have on this side of the House is to answer the debate. I see that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) is sitting on the Back Benches. Has he, too, been thrown out? Why does he not come and face the music? We had to listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East at close quarters. So why does he not come and take his medicine?
Both the House and the country should study with the utmost care not only the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East but the addition to it—or the embroidery—by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen). Both of them returned to a theme that was not elaborated in the previous Session of this Parliament, but which dominated the House during the early 1970s.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East had not urged any return to the Industrial Relations Act 1971. I am not sure whether that was the case. Certainly from what I heard I thought that he was advocating a return to some from of legislation. The hon. Member for Oswestry was not advocating it in detailed form but he was suggesting that one of the main lines of activity that a Conservative Government would have to follow in some form or another was what he might describe as the reform of trade union law or the trade union situation.
The House and the country should have learned from what happened under the previous Conservative Governments. I should have thought that the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East was the last person to tell the House how these matters should be dealt with. I am certain that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft would much prefer his right hon. and learned Friend not to deal with these topics, because every time he returns to them he makes it much more difficult for a solution to be found.
The hon. Member for Oswestry put his finger on the truth to this extent. Of course we must debate these questions in the House. I fully agree that the trade union movement is not perfect and that there should be debates on these topics. However, anyone who studied the industrial history of this country over the past [column 1330]10 or 25 years would begin to appreciate what enormous advances have been achieved by the trade union movement in terms of democracy, intelligent policy and active support for the welfare of the nation. It would be wrong of hon. Members to write that off—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may jeer. That is exactly the spirit that we had from them all through 1971, 1972 and 1973. Do they want to recreate all their follies?
The Conservatives should tell the country clearly, if they want that chapter properly and finally closed, that they will not attempt to return to any such legislative action. That does not mean that we cannot discuss the various aspects. There are many changes and reforms to be carried through in the trade union movement, and the movement will carry them through itself, as it has been willing to do over the past 10 or 20 years.
Anyone who thinks that there has not been great progress in the amalgamation of trade unions does not appreciate the problem. It is a most serious and difficult problem which can be solved only by persuasion and consent within the trade union movement. The same applies to a whole range of other policies. The only response given to most trade union leaders for what they have done in contributing to the welfare of the nation over this period is vilification in the Tory press and an echo of it here in the House of Commons. We heard echoes of it a few minutes ago. I hope, however, that all other hon. Members appreciate that if it had not been for the voluntary association and leadership of many of the heads of the trade union movement, backed by their members—they cannot achieve anything unless they have that backing—we should not have been able to make all these achievements.
Are Conservative Members interested in bringing down the rate of inflation or not? When I first went to the Department of Employment the rate was running at 15 per cent.——
Who put it there?
The Conservative Government. The people who raised the inflation rate to its 1974 level were those who [column 1331]were responsible for the conduct of our affairs at that period. When I went to the Department there were forecasts for the year ahead of a rate of inflation of 17 per cent. or 18 per cent. by the autumn and of 20 per cent. to 22 per cent. by the following year. That is what was left for us by the Conservative Party and we had to fight and struggle to persuade people to bring it down.
I notice that the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition does not say these things so raucously as do her right hon. and hon. Friends. Perhaps she understands that the people of this country are seriously interested in bringing down the inflation rate. They know that if we do not succeed in that task we shall not succeed in many of our other aims.
When I hear shouts on the lines of “What achievements have the Labour Government made?” , I am minded to ask the right hon. Lady to consider the balance of payments. Is the interested in that aspect? [Hon. Members: “What about our oil?” ] Not only our oil should be taken into consideration. Half the record deficit in the balance of payments in 1974 was due to oil considerations and the other half to the incompetence of the Conservative Party. When we came into power in February 1974 not only were we left with a record inflation rate but we inherited a huge deficit on the balance of payments which we had to bring under control. Therefore, it must be said that those, too, are achievements. Furthermore, throughout this period we have laid the basis for advances in many other respects.
Mr. A. G. F. Hall-Davis (Morecambe and Lonsdale)
What would the figure have been this year if the balance of payments in respect of oil was the same this year as it was in 1974?
Of course the balance of payments on oil has made a considerable contribution, but when the Conservatives charge us with having made no achievement I ask them to examine the figures. They will see what a record deficit on the balance of payments was left to us by their Government. The fact that we had to deal with that record rate of inflation made it all the more difficult to deal with the world-wide problem of unemployment. [column 1332]
I fully acknowledge what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) and I accept his criticisms and also his analysis of the wider problems. When we come back in the next Parliament, with the full majority which I am sure we shall all seek to secure, one of our major aims will be to ensure that we supply all our energies to dealing with unemployment. But, even in the circumstances of the last four years, we have taken a series of steps without which the unemployment figure would be higher. My hon. Friend knows that that is as much the case in Scotland as anywhere else.
At the same time we had to ensure that we held the United Kingdom together and carried through policies which were acceptable in the different parts of the United Kingdom. I do not know whether the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition has learned at last that during this period this House had to take adventurous steps in an effort to hold the United Kingdom together. [Hon. Members: “Oh.” ] It is all very well for Conservative Members to jeer. If the right hon. Lady had been in Berwick-upon-Tweed recently she would know that to be true.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
I went there.
I apologise to the right hon. Lady; she was in Berwick. I think that she has paid more visits to Scotland than has any Conservative Leader in modern times. Surely on some of those visits she would have learned that than is what the great majority of Scottish people want to secure.
My view is that in this House of Commons, limited, constrained and difficult though our position has been—and nobody knows better than I do how difficult it has been to get legislation through the House—we have been able to clear up part of the mess left to us by the Conservatives. At the same time we have been able to carry through major reforms and changes designed to hold the United Kingdom together and to enable us to overcome this problem in the future. We look forward with confidence to an election chosen at a date set by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rather than by Saatchi & Saatchi. [column 1333]
Question put, That the amendment be made:— [column 1334]
The House divided: Ayes 300, Noes