HC Deb 18 August 1919 vol 119 cc1981-2

Before I begin a closer examination of the trade and industrial position, I should like to say one word about those who seemed to expect that the moment the War was over, we should instantly return to the normal. Nay, more than that, that things should be even better than before the War, and that immediately on the click of the switch of Peace, everything would leap back again to the normal, and be exactly as it was in 1914. Finance normal! trade normal! Industry normal! Production normal! Labour normal! No man who imagines that can have realised for a moment the magnitude of the disturbing events of the last five years. Certainly he can never have read the lessons of history. It is necessary that I should just remind those who still take that view what really has happened. If a house be shaken or demolished you may build a better structure instead of it, but the new structure does not pop out of the ground like Aladdin's Palace on the rubbing of Aladdin's lamp; you have to build it! The direct cost of the War to the world was £40,000,000,000, spent, not in reproductive enterprise, but spent largely in destruction. How can we expect to return to the normal immediately that expenditure is over 2 Why, if 40,000,000 able-bodied young men were to take a holiday for four years—if they were withdrawn from the task of reproduction and wealth-creation, in Europe and America, and simply took a holiday for that period, during which they had had £1,000 placed at their disposal to expend—it would give some sort of a notion of what war on this gigantic scale means. But nobody would expect at the end of the four years everything to be the same. Nobody would expect to have the habit of industry come back immediately, and one would certainly expect that the difficulties which had arisen in consequence of that would take some time to get over. I want those who feel that we ought to have been exactly as we were in 1914 the moment Peace was signed just to realise what has happened. After all, most troubles of life come from ignoring the obvious.

What are the difficulties that arose immediately on the cessation of hostilities? Let me summarise them. First of all, there is the change from war to peace conditions. I remember when I was Minister of Munitions how long it took the industries of this country to change from peace to war conditions. It will take them just as long to adapt the machinery and the workshops of this country to peace conditions, after they have been working on war material for two or three years. There was a widespread doubt as to prices. There was an expectation that there would be a great fall in prices except in iron and steel, because everybody anticipated that the withdrawal of the subsidies would result in an increase of price. There is nothing more paralyzing than a doubt of that kind for trade. Contractors were shy and even shuddered at orders. Orders were often even shyer. No one quite knew what was going to happen in respect to prices. That had a very paralysing effect upon business. There was a shortage of labour owing to the fact that demobilisation necessarily took time. There was a shortage of material. There were great transport difficulties—with which I propose to deal later. Then there were stories of great accumulated stocks of manufactured goods in foreign countries which, on the signature of Peace, would rush into this country and depress prices. My right hon. Friend (Sir A. Geddes) and his predecessor had to deal with that situation, and to restore confidence. My right hon. Friend took the necessary steps, which turned out to be eminently successful. He imposed a certain number of restrictions on imports, by Orders terminating on 1st September next. That gave the community a sense of security, at any rate, up till 1st September. They could manufacture and deal in goods without the fear of this great inrush of accumulated stock coming into the country. The contractor could safely launch out without fear of the ice cracking under him. Then the supply of labour considerably improved. From the three Services—Navy, Army, and Air—3,600,000 men have already been demobilised. Out of that enormous mass of able-bodied men there are only 350,000 who have not yet been absorbed in industry. I think that is a great achievement, and my right hon. Friends are very much to be congratulated upon the successful way they have dealt with this very difficult problem.