HC Deb 07 August 1925 vol 187 cc1743-56

"That a sum, not exceeding £10,000,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1926, for a Subvention in Aid of Wages in the Coal Mining Industry."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee. in the said Resolution."


I will not detain the House for any considerable time, but I wish to submit two observations to the Prime Minister in connection with this Vote, as I had not an opportunity of doing so earlier. The Minority and Communist movement, of which there was so much talk yesterday, candidly take lit that the position which has arisen is not due to the breakdown of the coal trade but to the breakdown of coal wages, and I appeal to the Prime Minister when he is appointing the Commission of Inquiry, to include in that inquiry the most important factor which is breaking down British wages, namely the state of the coal industry in other parts of the British Empire where British masters are employing labour at 4s. per week, and raising coal at the pit's mouth at 3s. 6d. to 6s. per ton. I submit that if the mine owners in Great Britain can be legitimately, constitutionally and Parliamentarily called upon to refrain from making higher profits than 1s. 3d. per ton for the benefit of the wage earners, it is of the highest necessity that the same law should be applied to all British mine owners in South Africa, Southern China, and India, so that the mining wages in those areas of the British Empire do not break down to a minimum and then, as its reactionary effect, the wages in Great Britain also suffer.

The other brief observation that I wish to offer is the point of view of the Minority Movement. I do not for a moment wish to stand up in false defence of the minority Communist movement, but I accept some part of the views expressed by the Prime Minister himself, and I think it is fair that the country should know what the real position is, rather than indulge in a party wrangle over this Minority Movement. I would draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the most excellent speech which was delivered yesterday by the right hon. Member for Platting (Mr. Clynes), in which he said that the miners would have been craven cowards had they not resisted the owner's attack, and that the rest of the workers would not have been comrades had they not stood by them. I think that, analysing this sentence, the Prime Minister should understand—and this is the minority point of view—that we do not accept this inquiry now to be launched as an inquiry that may produce reasons justifying a reduction of the miners' wages. If the miners would have been craven cowards last week to accept a reduction of wages, we of the Minority Movement would get up a propaganda to the effect that they would be worse than craven cowards to accept a reduction of wages after the findings of even a hundred committees appointed by this Parliament.

It is perfectly obvious—and the right hon. Member for Platting pointed out very clearly and very rightly—that at the present moment the miners, as well as the other workers who stood as comrades by them, take the position that this is a great campaign to break down the wages of the working classes, and if it were not for that the leaders of the older trade union committees would not have led the men to fight. That is exactly the position which the Minority Movement takes up. The right hon. Member for Platting was correct in his observations. It is the propaganda in the factory sheets issued by the Minority Movement that creates this psychology. It is determined to do so continually, so that the men should begin to believe that they must take direct action and ignore Parliament, which ignored the findings of the Sankey Commission, and treat it with the same contempt as Parliament has treated the miners on the question of nationalisation of mines. That will be the propaganda of the Minority Movement in the coming weeks, quite openly and candidly, and I submit that, while the right hon. Member for Platting was right—and I believe the criticism of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other critics was equally right—the mass psychology which forced the leaders of the trade union movement to come to the conclusion that a fight was inevitable was created by the Minority Movement, through factory sheets, through propaganda, and through working within, the trade union movement.

The right hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas), in his speech, also mentioned that the railway workers stood up, not because they wanted to overthrow the constitution of this country, but because they felt also a spirit of comradeship in face of the common danger. I submit that the same situation existed in 1921. The right hon. Member for Derby in 1921 was in a position, in spite of some idea among the railway men that the miners' fight must be made their own fight, and was able to change the whole situation and to draw the railway men away from the fight. In the year 1925 the right hon. Member for Derby, owing to the propaganda of the Minority Movement, has had to let his railway men be led into the fight us a just and a right fight. I submit these observations to the Prime Minister because I do not want the country and the House to take an exaggerated view of the influence of the Minority Movement. At the same time, it is deplorable that anybody on this side should hoodwink the country as if the Minority Movement and propaganda, did not exist at all.

When this investigation and inquiry is coming on, the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the same influences which at the present moment have brought about a mass psychology of the mining workers, the railway workers, and the engineers will continue to operate. Let the House and the country be under no delusion that we are going to accept this investigation as an investigation to find out whether or not the wages should be cut. We take it only in the spirit that the wages cannot, should not, and will not be permitted to be cut. The investigation should rest entirely upon the factor of finding the ways and means of giving to the hard-working miners, a legitimate, decent liveliho0d. Then I submit to the Prime Minister that no amount of quibbling on gold standards or on Communist propaganda against the respective leaders of the trade union movement will contribute to that result. The only thing that will stop the gradual driving down of the British standard of life and wages is the stoppage of the exploitation of rival Asiatic, African, and Chinese labour against the standards of British labour.

If this House is proud of its political and constitutional traditions, we of the Minority Movement submit that the trade union movement of this country should be equally proud of its own traditions. It has had the same amount of labour, trouble, and anxiety, fighting and struggling to build up a certain standard of life for the British citizens who are workers—and they are the majority of the population. If hon. and right hon. Members opposite are prepared to put up a deadly fight if we subvert Parliamentary traditions, then we say to them that the workers of this country will also be prepared—and we shall mobilise and organise them to be prepared—to offer to you the same deadly fight, if you take measures in your Empire by which to subvert the standard of life of British workers, which they have built up with much greater trouble and sacrifice than you have built up your traditions. If we all go forward in this inquiry and investigation with a candid and frank acceptance of the position, we shall bring about very good results, otherwise the whole thing will only be putting off the fight till another day and on a larger scale.


I know it should almost call forth an apology to the House, on this last day, for any of us to take time which otherwise is required for other subjects, and I would almost feel in that spirit; but I want also to appeal—and I use the word "appeal" in its fullest sense—to the Prime Minister and the Government to bring what influence they can—I hope as fearlessly as the Prime Minister did in settling the mining dispute — in this coming inquiry, to try to avoid that which, I may say respectfully but firmly, threats from the Government Benches will not wipe away. I want us to face facts, and hence I make this appeal for the fullest possible inquiry into the mining difficulties. Hard things were said during the Debate yesterday against the trade union movement. I was one who took some part—a very small part, I admit—in helping to bring the trade union movement behind the miners. I do not apologise for it, because at the close of nine months I should do it again, and no amount of threatening would have the slightest effect. Some of us realise with very great regret what we might be up against. I am one who does not believe that all our Air Force in built for France. I realise there may be other reasons. I realise the great potentialities of trade unionism trying its strength against capitalism. It is not a challenge to this Parliament. If I believe in trying to overthrow the Legislative Assembly by our action, I should not be here appealing to my fellow-countrymen for justice for the people whom I endeavour to represent.

We hear and read appeals to us, and threats to us, to reduce the standard of life of the working people as represented by our trade unions for the purpose of assisting the country, and when we object to that, it is suggested we are unpatriotic and have no thought or love for our country. Speaking for myself, I have tremendous faith in my fellow-men, even some of those to whom I am opposed politically. We would say to the Prime Minister and this very powerful Government, if you ask us to do this, when everyone else has made sacrifices, I would be one of the first to advise my people to go down to the mines. But realising the pleasures, the luxuries, realising what is going on in spending the wealth created by the nation, I say this settlement is not a victory for us. I voted against it last night on principle, which I am prepared to explain to the constituents I represent or to the trade unions generally. It is not a victory. What really happened was this: The mine workers are already worse off than they were before the War, their wages being only 47 points higher as against 73 points in the cost of living, and we only stood out f r their not going further back. What the Government have done is to take public money to give profits to the shareholders and the owners of mines. That is no victory for us at all. It is again a victory for capitalism, which can always beat us so long as we are prepared to accept.

I repeat, if others would make sacrifices and the working trade unionists were the only people who were taking something more than that to which they were entitled, I would agree very willingly that they should be compelled to be reduced. But may I point out that within the last few years, I believe from 1912 to 1918, the mineowners took something like—I am speaking from memory, but I think I am about correct—£160,000,000 in profits, whereas at the Royal Commission it was stated shortly after that the value of the whole British minefield was only £130,000,000. Then, again, we had records, especially in the South Wales coal field, of two shares being given for one in some cases, and in others one in five, two in five, and so forth, on which profits have to be paid by the working miners. That means that the action of the Government—and I will explain in a moment, very briefly, why I think there was no other way out in the circumstances —is equivalent to saying to the people of this country, "We will not have nationalisation when there are profits made out of an industry, because the profits will go to the private enterprise, but when there is a loss, we will immediately nationalise to the extent that your money is taken to keep up the profits of the owners." That is one reason why I voted against subsidising the profits of the people who had already had in profits more than the value of the whole undertaking in six years.

I consider that a defeat, not only for the working people of this country, but for trade unionism generally. Then there is the vast amount, about £6,500,000 per annum, of mining royalties. I know immediately it could not be done, but I suggest to the Prime Minister and the Government that there should be serious thought taken in this inquiry as to whether that £6,500,000 should not be taken, rather than saddle £10,000,000, or possibly £20,000,000, on the ordinary taxpayers of the country to keep up the profits of the mineowners. We were threatened by the Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer as to what would happen if ever we dared to stand by our fellows again. I, for one, will stand by the miners again at the end of the nine months, and will endeavour to bring them every possible power behind them, and, if trouble comes, I shall blame the Government, and not the trade unionists who stand by their fellows.

Let me briefly sum it up. Here we see a riot of extravagance and waste. We have seen the great race meetings and the yacht regattas, and very shortly there will be a great to-do in shooting half-tamed birds. While all this goes on, and the royalties still stand, to say nothing of the wayleaves, while profits are to be kept up, yet because working-people stand by their fellows who are threatened with a crushing down which would have meant only about 15 points on their wages, when the cost of living is 73 points above the prewar level, it is said that it is a challenge to Parliament. It is a challenge to capitalism, making it ashamed in all its brutality. I believe one of the great mining royalty-owners is a very great expert on horse-racing and boxing. What does he know about getting coal? When the nation is to be held to ransom by people who create nothing, and when we stand with our working-people who suffer we are. threatened. It might be exceedingly regrettable, and none would regret it more than some of us on these benches. We want peace, happiness, comfort and justice, and justice is the supreme consideration of them all.

I would appeal again to the Prime Minister to let this inquiry be as full, as fair and as frank as possible, and, not only that but that he will use his influence to press it into the dark corners and the secret recesses of this industry, to look at it on a broad basis. Then, if it be proved on the profits of the owners, on the mining royalties, on wayleaves, on watered capital, which has never been actually contributed in money, except that earned by the miners themselves and transferred from reserve to new capital if they will do that, and prove that there is nothing for it but for the miners to stand their share, I know from the sacrifices of miners, when they could have bled the country in time of War, and did not, but agreed on their suggestion to the price of coal being kept down, I say they will be prepared to reconsider their position, and so will the trade union movement. Without desiring to be defiant at all, or strike other than the note on which we pride ourselves is a British note, if at the end of the time the miners are told "You are the only people to suffer," no personal discomfort will prevent some of us will-nilly standing by our people, not only because we think we are standing by trade unionists and the miners of the country, but that we are standing by the great nation as a whole against those who are exploiting the sufferings of so many of its people.

We were told that if we dared to call a strike, our people would suffer. I know they would, but they are brave and big enough to stand suffering. Supposing the miners had been broken down by the Government and by the mine-owners, that the matter had not been settled and their wages would have been brought down below the cost of living. What about the long years of suffering for themselves and their children? What chances would have followed for human beings and for the future of this great nation, a nation we are all proud of, with all its faults, a nation that I want to see purified, and Christianised, and if I may use the word—glorified? That is our only aim. If you had beaten down the wages of the workpeople, there would have been many many years of suffering for them and their children. Put that in the scale. All that would have followed a strike. We stand for justice and against that which causes suffering. I appeal to the Prime Minister and to the Government not to force us at the end of the nine months to take up a hostile attitude, because by that time we shall have proved to the country that we have no desire to challenge, no desire to pull down our nation, but to lift it up to more cleanliness, more purity, and more justice for the people of this great country.


I would wish to say a word of congratulation to the Prime Minister for what I regard as a very useful contribution to the organisation of the working classes of this country. I think he has been a far better organiser of the trade union people in this country than one could have ever thought. The methods employed during the negotiations, so far as we could gather from those who were within the circle, were such that we are pleased to know that there was a feeling that should there be a reduction in the miners' wages it was inevitable that the other workers would have to suffer too. If then, there was a call, it was a call to organise. I belong to a school which, I think, has a very large following in these days—I believe it is a very good school indeed—and the idea of solidarity amongst the workers could certainly not have had a better aid than recent moves. I want, however, to say a word or two in regard to another point, and an important point. You may go on clipping the benefits of the workers under Insurance schemes; you may go on attacking these workpeople by reducing their benefits and making it more difficult for them; you may, in addition to that, eliminate a large number of the young people from benefits, and you may in many cases disqualify the miners and others, in your attempts to modify their attacks upon what we may call the preserves of capitalism. You may do that, but do not forget what is happening; do not forget the result.

These people are becoming more and more active against the forces of law, and are more and more becoming opposed to the present social order. I hope that, when you are considering these questions at the inquiry, you will include everything necessary in such a way that those inquiring will have regard to the vast army of young people who, anticipating to go to work in the mines, have now reached the age of 18 and have not even started work. That is a terrible blot upon capitalism. You may do all that you please in disqualifying these people from the benefits to which they are entitled, but when you do it in the long run so far as they are concerned it is only to make them active against you. In addition to what I have stated, you are continuing the process by reducing the means that will enable these young people to have a better education and to live under a better system than is theirs at the present time. For that reason I think that the greatest mistake of all will have been made if you do not include within the scope of your inquiry all the ramifications of these things that tend to cause the existing difficulties.

Further than that, I want to say that in the threats—and I think they are threats—that we read in the speeches of last night, so far as I can see, attempt is to be made to organise the forces of the Crown for the purpose of preventing trade unionists taking similar steps to those they anticipated taking. If that is a challenge to the trade union movement, I want to warn the right hon. Gentleman and, in fact, every Member of the House that if you throw that challenge to us now, you will encourage us more than ever to get together as speedily as possible and make up our minds as to our course of action. For whatever happens then, we will not be responsible. Do not forget this: that though we are for peace and you encourage us in the way I say, whatever happens afterwards you will not be able to complain about. You cannot complain about the Minority Movement, the Communist movement and others, if in return for what has been said we set ourseive3 to the task of organising our own supplies.

There is something more, it may be, in the question of aircraft organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Bromley) has reminded the House than is generally assumed. It should not be forgotten that there may be, even amongst the Air Force Members, many who think it necessary that there should be a change in the organisation of society. You must not forget that the men who came back from the War are amongst the most energetic and active men in desiring a change in the present order of society. Hon. Members must not forget that from these quarters we are creating a contribution to the forces of disorder. We shall not for one moment flinch in these matters from doing our duty to our own class, as others do not apparently shrink from doing their duty to their class, in order to see that our class is well protected and guarded. When you are considering the various means that you propose to call in to protect yourselves against our organisation, I ask you to remember the effect of what has been done by the workers of other countries. I ask you to remember that during the last few days the effect of this movement from the trade union point of view in every part of the world, particularly in France, Germany, Belgium has been to encourage the workmen to stand firm against reductions in wages. In that sense, therefore, our men have made a better contribution to level competition than any other scheme that has been presented by anyone in or out of this House. That is our contribution to that international unity that is so frequently scoffed at. We ought to extend it in such a way as will recognise that wherever capitalism is in this world it is the same so far as the workpeople are concerned. The effect of it so far as the workers are concerned is exactly the same. I do not think any one of us can regard with anything but utter shame the condition of things in China. and even in India. We cannot conceive anything worse for ourselves than the conditions that exist there at the present time. But I want to go back for a moment to the threat. I think it most unfortunate that this threat should have been made in the manner it was, and therefore that we should desire to be perfectly clear, and I want our friends and everybody to be perfectly clear, when I say for the trade union movement that these things will in no sense deter us from proceeding with our organisation to at least demand and secure equal conditions everywhere that we think are ours by right and not at all by privilege.

12 N.


I know that hon. Members wish to get on to other business, but it seems to me to be a pity to leave a subject in which the whole country, and probably the whole world is interested in order to pass on to subjects which are of lesser immediate interest. I will not detain the House for more than two minutes. In dealing with this matter yesterday both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented to the House and to the country the view that on the Thursday night when negotiations were going on, the Government were faced with only two possible courses, either that of entering into a tremendous industrial strugggle, not merely against the miners but against the whole of the organised trade unionists of this country, or of paying up in the form of a subsidy, as the House is agreeing to do to-day. Those were not the alternatives. That was an untrue picture of the situation. The third alternative was the obvious and the right one, and was the alternative which would have been adopted by a Government who were not completely blinded by interest in their own class. This alternative was the coercion of a few hundreds of mine owners in this country. Yesterday the attitude of the organised trade unions was referred to as the attempt of a small minority to coerce the whole community. That, again, is an untrue statement of the position. The reason the Government were unprepared to attack them was because they knew that it was no negligible minority, but was a majority of the working-class population of this nation. These organised workers were asking for one simple thing namely, that the employers should withdraw their notices. That was all the working classes were asking. The Government could easily have coerced those few thousands of men, or hundreds of men, who have brought this industry to the state in which it is just now—by excessive greed in the prosperous years they are unable to meet lean years. The Government could easily have coerced them, they had legislative power and statutory power to coerce them, but because they belonged to their own class they said, "No, we dare not." These organised trade unionists had the support on this particular issue of millions of other workers who were unorganised but yet held the view that this was a tyrannical and despotic attempt on the part of the mine owners to carry out what was the declared policy of the Prime Minister and other members of the Government, namely, to make a serious inroad into the working conditions of the working class population. I am quoting here from speeches made by the Prime Minister and by the Home Secretary, two representative members of the party opposite. The Prime Minister said on 30th July: All the workers of this country will have to take reductions in wages to help to put industry on its feet. The Prime Minister said that on 30th July, 1925. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] In reply to the deputation from the Trade Union Congress that visited him here. It is reported in the "Daily Herald." HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"].

The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Commander Eyres-Monsell)

May I ask whether any shorthand writer was present?


It was reported in the "Daily Herald." [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Just take your time. If this is untrue, you will have any number of opportunities of answering it. I am giving you my authority, the "Daily Herald," that is the Labour paper, of 31st July, 1925. Let us hear you in chorus challenge the next: In order to compete with the world, either the conditions of labour, hours or wages will have to be altered in this country. That is a statement by Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Home Secretary, reported in the "Glasgow Herald," a responsible organ of the Conservative Party on 3rd August, 1925. In the middle of the dis- pute, when public feeling was at its height and the working classes of this country were looking to the Government to hold the balance evenly between the two contesting sides, we find this Government, who are not going to be coerced by a minority, taking the side of the employers of labour against the majority of the working class, the whole of the working class, because this does not refer to one section or another. His statement was: In order to compete with the world, either the conditions of labour, hours or wages will have to be altered in this country. I shall be glad to hear that either of these quotations is an unfair presentation of the views of the two right hon. Gentlemen. I have occasionally been misrepresented and misquoted myself, and I do not want to be unfair. But while they have been saying these things, what have they done? They gave £10,000,000 in relief of the super-tax payers; but in order to compete successfully with the world, the wages, hours and conditions of the workers, who are already on the starvation level, have got to come down. £32,000,000 was given in relief of the Income Tax payers. The average man who is paying Income Tax, even on the minimum level, is a man who is living in ease compared with the working classes. The Government are spending £58.000,000 on extra cruisers; they have decided to spend up to £11,000,000 on a new naval base at Singapore; and yet it is said that in order to save the nation working class conditions have got to come still lower. That is their considered view. The ordinary working people of this country were justified in believing that this Government would have stood idly by and have seen the miners, standing alone, ground down to the bottom. That was what they were waiting for. That was why there was delay—because they believed they would have the miners isolated and would have crushed them in isolation. Only when the big mass of the organised workers stood behind them in protest did they begin to think that it was necessary to come in and conciliate and find a way out. I put it that it was the definite duty of this Government to use the powers they had to coerce these few hundred mine owners, saying to them, "You can- not be allowed to hold this nation by the throat as you are doing. You mine owners have either got to withdraw your notices and carry on, or we, the government of this country, elected by the working people—and you have told us many times that you are elected by the working people—are going to see that the interests of the mass of the common people are attended to, and if you will not run the pits, we will run the pits for you". That was the obvious, bounden duty of the Government, and it was mere class prejudice and the desire to carry on the class war that made the Government take the line they did.


After this fiery outburst, may we have a window open?

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution", put, and agreed to.