HC Deb 05 May 1926 vol 195 cc408-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Commander Eyres Monsell.]


I should not have intervened had it not been for the fact that, after replying to the speech this afternoon of the right hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas) I discovered that I answered only a part of his speech which he delivered when I was in the House, and that I had dealt incompletely with a part of his speech which he delivered before I came into the House. Before I proceed, I should like to say that I was not aware that this subject was going to be raised. I had no notice of it. I find that it deals with matters which took place at interviews which were of a confidential character. In these circumstances, in making clear my own position, I am bound to refer, as he did, to discussions that were conducted confidentially, and, as he has made a statement which I venture to think is incorrect, I am bound to substantiate my view of the case by evidence which, I repeat, is taken from a confidential discussion—a thing I am very reluctant to do, but I see no alternative. Let me read what the right hon. Gentleman said before I was able to be here: Let there be no misunderstanding. It was no formula. I say, even if it is the last word I utter in this House, that at Eleven o'Clock on Sunday night not a formula, but the Prime Minister's, own words, in his own writing, were in my possession as a means of settling, and I accepted it. After I came into the House the right hon. Gentleman made a much shorter statement, which did not embody the words that I have just read about the statement in the Prime Minister's "own words, in his own writing," arid his acceptance of it. I think, perhaps, the confusion that has arisen in the Debate is but a proof of what I have before now alluded to, namely, the double risk which I ran, and ran willingly, in the cause of peace —the risk I ran by negotiating under the threat of a general strike, although I was not aware until later of the time at which the definite instructions had been issued to call out the men, and the danger of negotiating in confidential discussion, without the aid of shorthand notes. That I did, as, indeed, the other side did, deliberately, because it is well known to everyone who has taken part in negotiations of any delicate kind that you will make much more progress if you can get talking together in a small body with no thought of the outside world, which you must have to a certain extent if notes are being taken. You will make much more progress in that way than in the other.

The meeting which I and my colleagues, the Secretary of State for India, the Minister of Labour, and a permanent official, had with the right hon. Gentleman and the other representatives of the Trade Union Congress on Saturday night was concentrated upon the question whether another fortnight would be given to further negotiations, and whether in that time those negotiations would be fruitful. That, of course, meant a continuance of the subsidy, and it was the more essential to those who represented the Government to see where we were likely to he at the end of the fortnight, because, if there was a reasonable prospect of agreement being reached, there is no one in this House who would not have voted for a continuance of the subsidy for that time. On the other hand, unless there was, shall I say, a very fair chance of success—no one could guarantee a success to that issue being reached—then I doubt very much whether we could have got the assent of the House, and I doubt very much whether the Government would even have recommended it to the House.

Our difficulty has been throughout the week that we have found it impossible to obtain either from the miners or from the Trades Union Council on their behalf, a full and free acceptance of the Report, with all its implications. The difficulty is that a full acceptance of the Report recognises that, given certain conditions of assurances as to immediately proceeding with the recommendations concerning re-organisation, the miners were to make some sacrifice, and we had never moved them from the position that they would not abate the present position either as regards wages or hours under any circumstances. That was the difficulty.

The object of our discussion on the Saturday night was to see whether the miners' attitude on that particular point had been so far modified as to give us an assurance that a settlement would be reached at the end of a fortnight on the basis of the Report. It had already, as I have told the House more than once, been made plain that the Trades Union Council were not acting as plenipotentiaries, but as friends of the parties, and were unable to make a conclusive bargain without the assent of their principals. While we were glad to have this assistance, the consent of the miners was an essential part of a real agreement being reached. The Trades Union Council, whatever they might do, were not in a position to take an ultimate decision. They might take their own decision, but they could not take a decision binding the miners without consulting the miners first. Eventually, the impression which I and my colleagues formed in order to report to the Cabinet the result of our meeting, was reduced to a formula, and J propose to give the House the terms of that formula, which were drawn up in the early hours of Sunday morning— The Prime Minister has satisfied himself, as a result of the conversations he has had with the representatives of the Trades Union Council that if negotiations are continued, it being understood that the notices cease to operate, the representatives of the Trades Union Council are confident that a settlement can be reached on the lines of a Report within a fortnight. This was to be brought, on my part, before the Cabinet, and, on the part of the gentlemen who were meeting me, before the miners, to discuss with them and report to us; and they hoped that when we parted at that early hour they would be able to let us know some time later that they would get in touch with the miners at the earliest possible moment. Next day I called a Cabinet for noon, and got a message soon after that to the effect that it would be later in the day before an answer could be given, because the Miners' Executive, with the exception of Mr. Cook, had left London on the Saturday evening, for their districts, I presume.

I have never, and I do not now, impugn the good faith of those who were negotiating with us, but it does show that those gentlemen who were negotiating with us on behalf of the miners were lacking in something when they were discussing with us on Saturday, and the representatives had already left London for the districts. As a matter of fact, it was not until Nine o'Clock on Sunday night before the miners' representatives were all back in London. They were telegraphed for, but as a- matter of fact it was Nine o'Clock on Sunday evening before negotiations could be resumed with the Trade Union Council. When we met, Mr. Pugh informed us that he and his colleagues accepted the substance of the formula which each of us had taken away early that morning, but he desired, and his colleagues desired, to know what was the meaning of the phrase "confident that a settlement could be reached." Discussion on that point naturally developed almost at once into the old question of what assurances could be given that the unmoving attitude which the miners had up to then adopted would be changed; in other words, that they would accept fully the whole Report, and there was a good deal of discussion about that. My colleagues and I were most anxious at that time—although between the time that they had adjourned at about quarter past one in the morning and the evening when we met we had learned for the first time not only of the threat of the general strike, hut that telegraphic instructions had been sent out ordering the men out at a settled time—vet we were most anxious to make a final effort to obtain those assurances. But after long discussion, it was manifest that the uttermost point to which the representatives could go was indicated in a formula which was written down, in consultation with those gentlemen we were meeting, by Lord Birkenhead in his writing. I never wrote anything myself from first to last. We, all of us, had been working very long hours on end, and everyone knows that in negotiations where you have not got reference to shorthand notes' you cannot ever get a case, however honourable the parties may be, in which the recollection of details at this moment or that tallies exactly one side with the other. I wish to say that I differ materially in one or two respects from what has been stated in this House. The formula to which I now allude is as follows: We will urge the miners to authorise us to enter upon a discussion with the understanding that they and we accept the Report as the basis of a settlement, and we approach it with the knowledge that it may involve some reduction of wages. I want the House to pay particular attention to that, because if, as I understand, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. Thomas) really meant Sunday night in the observations he made before I came into the House, it is that formula that he is referring to, and not the first one to which I have alluded, and that is the formula which, according to his own words, he accepted The hopeful impression which I had formed during the discussions on Satur- day night were lessened during Sunday and lessened for this reason—and this is only a confirmation of what I have said in another speech: I had known on Saturday of the threat of a general strike, but we only knew on Sunday that the orders had been issued, making that threat definite. I was afraid on Sunday, especially when I heard that the miners were not in London, because, as I have said all along, it was the threat of a general strike which destroyed our negotiations, and destroyed the atmosphere we were in, because the moment the miners—and the miners are human just the same as I am—knew definitely that the strike was coming on in support of them, was it likely that they would move one inch from the position they had taken up?

As the House knows, it was between the meeting on Saturday night and Sunday that events occurred which made the whole question of negotiation so infinitely more difficult—especially the position of the Government. When we separated, the Trade Union Council were taking that second formula to discuss with the miners. I do not know—nobody will know now—what chance that second formula had at. that moment of being accepted, but it is clear that when we withdrew at the same time as they did, and we got the news that the general strike had begun in the way I have described, by an attack on the liberties of the Press, we had reached a point when it was impossible for the Government to make any further progress. Let me remind the House of the concluding paragraph of the document which we issued that night to the body with whom we had been negotiating. We said this: Before the Government can continue negotiations— There was no question of breaking off— they must require from the Trade Union Committee a repudiation of this action"— action which had been condemned on that side of the House in the course of the first Debate— we must have a repudiation of this action and an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the instructions for a general strike. Speeches have been delivered to-day by most responsible people connected with that Council who were within close distance of Downing Street at that time, and it would have been a simple matter for them to have undertaken to repudiate these acts—I am sure everyone deplores it—and to have called off the general strike which has come in in the way of a settlement. But that was not clone, and I want to remind the House once more that there are two issues here, quite distinct, which people are apt to confuse. There is the miners' strike or lock-out or stoppage or whatever you may call it. That is one thing. On that negotiations can take place, were taking place, and, some day, will take place. But there is an entirely separate and dintinct thing. That is the general strike, and until that is out of the way all progress is blocked completely. It has been said in this House that those who organised that strike did not intend it to be a strike against the Government in fact, whatever the intentions, it becomes a strike against the Government of the day whether the Government be represented by me or by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon (Mr. Lloyd George) or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberavon (Mr. MacDonald)—whichever of us be here—and if so be it was not intended as a strike against the Government, how better can they show good faith in making such a statement than by saying that now they have found it is becoming that, they call it off so that negotiations may proceed.


At no time during this week was there occasion for passion or temper, and there is still less at this moment. Therefore in giving what I hope to be an answer to the right hon. Gentleman and my version of the incident, I want first to say that much as I deplore the present situation, much as I strove to avoid it, hateful as may be the consequences, I would not regret those consequences so much as I would if, at the end, I was accused in any way of breaking confidence. I have been for too long engaged in confidential talks with general managers, and never once has there been a charge made against me that I broke confidence. It is necessary, therefore, to remind the right hon. Gentleman of the circumstances of this afternoon when he was not present. A large number on both sides of the House are here who were not present, and there are also some who were. I am much more concerned in one who is present now, the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University (Lord H. Cecil) because he will at least confirm, or otherwise, my account of the circumstances which led up to what happened this afternoon. Like, the Prime Minister I had no knowledge—and neither had my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, nor my right hon. Friend the late Home Secretary—of this incident, because neither of them dealt with it in their speeches, but the Noble Lord, taking a detached view as a Member of the House of Commons, gave his impression of what led up to this matter and concluded by giving the reasons why he supported the Government. In the course of his speech he said that, so far as he knew, and from all the information at his disposal, the miners had never deviated, and there was no hope of a settlement being arrived at on the merits of the Report. I am summarising his statement.

11.0 P.M.

A number of Members from that side cheered the statement and conveyed, at least to me—and I am speaking for myself—the impression that if that were the fact, the Government were justified in their action. So far, I hope I have correctly interpreted what led to the incident. If that be so, I then felt that if this dispute and all its consequences were to turn on that, that indeed was not my impression of the rupture, and I took the opportunity then to make the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has quoted. Having said that, it is perfectly true that there were no shorthand notes of what I would call the private conversation. It was neither the Prime Minister nor anyone from my side who suggested that. We both concurred in the view, and we concurred in it for this reason, that my experience of negotiations on disputes, with shorthand notes, is this, that people are generally more inclined to talk to the notes than to talk business.

I was much more concerned with business than with notes, and, therefore, I readily and absolutely concurred in the suggestion, as did all my colleagues. Therefore, we started off free from the notes. The Prime Minister said that at two o'clock on Saturday morning we left, not with the terms of agreement, but with, to use a, phrase, a formula that represented the general view of what was common agreement. It has been read out by the Prime Minister, but please let the House observe that it was not a formula or a document than was for our private use. It was a formula or a document that we had first to submit to the negotiating committee, then to the General Council, and then to the miners. Please observe, when you talk about secret documents, that it was a document, in substance, that had to be submitted to a Committee, then to a General Council of 24, and ultimately to the whole of the Miners' Federation. So that I put it to the House no higher than this, that at least indicates that it represented what would ultimately be, if agreed upon, the terms of a document mutually agreed. We left with that understanding, and I want to remind the Prime Minister of this incident. Having examined the document, we started to discuss procedure for the next day on the basis of the time-table. He said, "I have got my Cabinet to summon. They have got to endorse my view. You, gentlemen, on your side, have got to meet your people. When shall we meet?" Remember, I said, "Well, one can never gauge time-tables. We have got to meet the General Council: we have got to meet the miners, and one cannot say to an hour or two." But there was a sort of indication between us that at least about three o'clock in the afternoon we would meet—before, if possible—but it was understood that Downing Street would be communicated with.

So far we are in agreement. This was now two o'clock in the morning. At nine o'clock our General Council met, and it is Perfectly true the first question asked when we met was this: Telephone to the Miners' Executive and tell them to be here about 12, because we will certainly want to consult them, it being agreed, and understood, by the Government, as well as us, that it was useless to agree to anything unless the miners themselves agreed. When we met, it is quite true we were told that the Miners' Executive had left London. I noticed some consternation when that statement was made by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister knows that I gave him, when we met at nine, the explanation, which he accepted, and it was this. The lock-out notices had not been posted in all the districts. That was the method adopted by the coal-owners.

There were some districts where no lock-out notices were posted, and other districts where they were. The miners' executive did not know this until Saturday night, and, therefore, rather than have confusion and chaos, they decided on Saturday night to go to those districts, so that they could inform them, not knowing anything that negotiations were likely to take place. They went to their districts, but immediately they got our telegram telling them to come back, they promptly jumped into cars or took train, and came back to London on Sunday. So far the House will observe there is common agreement. It is true we met at 9 o'clock, but it is equally true—and the Prime Minister can tell you—that it was 6.30 we asked you to meet us. Is that not; true?


You said you wanted some dinner.


Let us be quite clear, because this is too serious for humour. At 6.30 we telephoned you to say we were ready then to meet you, and would await your convenience. At 20 minutes to 7 we got a reply, "Wait, and you will get the answer." I myself answered the telephone and said, "Then tell us whether we will meet before or after dinner, because it is better to know, so that everybody will know where they are." Remember, we had been at this not a few hours but the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Therefore, 9 o'clock was agreed to. Very well. Let me put it to the Prime Minister that his memory is slightly at fault on this point. He has documents to which he can refer. He said, "I have looked upon the Trades Union Congress as a mediating body with no authority to take a decision."

We are agreed on that point. That is true up till Friday. The Minister of Labour has got papers there—I am quite sure it was sent—and the effect of it was that from now this ceases to be a miners' dispute, and the General Council are empowered to act with all authority. The thing is clear in my mind, and I am speaking clearly. I repeat that the right hon. Gentleman received a letter.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Sir A. Steel-Maitland)

May I just make this statement. You told us then that you were empowered to act for the miners. We met that Saturday evening. We asked whether you have power to take a decision in the case of the miners, and we were told that you had no power to take a decision.


I will now ask the right hon. Gentleman, who has got it there I know, to read us the letter he received.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Neville Chamberlain)

I know sufficient of the circumstances. I remember perfectly well that the first question the Prime Minister asked your representatives was, "Are you empowered fully to speak on behalf of the miners, and take the decision on their behalf?" The answer was "No."


Very well, I must now remind the right hon. Gentleman who has just heard his colleague say that so far as he knows it is on record. He knows perfectly well that it was in confidence that conference. Let me make this point I think there was common agreement on this point. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will read the letter and then give his interpretation of it.


I will read the letter, and give my interpretation of it. If the right hon. Gentleman will give me his copy of the letter I will read it or he can read it. Here is the actual letter. This is to the Prime Minister, and is dated Saturday, 1st May:

Dear Sir,—I have to advise you that the executive committees of the trade unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, including the Miners' Federation of Great Britain, have decided to hand over to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress the conduct of the dispute, and the negotiations in connection therewith will he undertaken by the General Council. I am directed to say that the General Council will hold themselves available at any moment should the Government desire to discuss the matter further. That is the letter. We met that evening, with the full negotiating committee and with our full committee. Before, so to speak, the private and confidential meeting occurred, while the full committees on both sides were met there was an official reporter present to take down. This is what I have here: The PRIME MINISTER: Well, Mr. Pugh, I received your letter. I understand from it that you have the authority of the Miners' Federation to act for them in this, and negotiate for them if necessary. Mr. PUGH: To negotiate, Sir; but I think in the sense that we cannot negotiate independent of them. The PRIME MINISTER: Does that mean that if there were to be negotiations you would negotiate or they would negotiate, or representatives from both sides? Mr. PUGH: They will be brought into the negotiations, of course. I mean we cannot negotiate independent of them absolutely. The PRIME MINISTER: I just, wanted to be clear about that, because you said to hand over 'the conduct of the dispute and the negotiations,' and we read that to mean you were going to negotiate. Mr. PUGH: We are going to negotiate, yes. The PRIME MINISTER: That is what I mean. Mr. PUGH: But not exclusively ourselves. Lord BIRKENHEAD: You cannot take the decision? Mr. PUGH: No, we cannot take the decision—the direction of affairs if you like we will put it, but before we came not the decision. May I just add that that was before the confidential part began?


Having the notes in your hand, you will, I am sure, because we all want to do the right thing, read on, and you will then find another quotation. [Interruption.] Oh, yes, we are going to have it all out now. You will find another quotation which explains this—and I ask the House in fairness whether anyone on our side could have done any other thing. Of course, we were the negotiating body, but we would have been road, we would not only have been fools, but we could not have helped, unless in our negotiations we brought into consultation the people with the technical knowledge. [Laughter.] It does not matter. I merely state the facts. Now I proceed from that situation, which was the situation on Saturday to Sunday morning 2.30. I have explained the circumstances of the delay, and I come at once now to the point of breaking off, because this is the important point of the Noble Lord's speech. At nine o'clock we met the Prime Minister, who asked us about the delay. I gave him the explanation that I have now given to the House, and he readily and frankly accepted it Is that not true? We then proceeded to discuss the document, having, as he said, accepted it, accepted what he says was a formula which common sense tells you needs explanation, and we proceeded to discuss points of explanation at 11.15. Then a note was brought to us by his secretary saying that the Miners' Executive had arrived. We then promptly said, "We need not go on discussing this any more; you want the miners' acquiescence.' I said, 'Certainly; but do not let us waste any more time because they have arrived and we will go upstairs; put it before them, and recommend it." We went upstairs; we started to discuss it with them, we were talking with them about half-an-hour or three quarters of an hour when a message from the Prime Minister came up to us saying that he desired to see us. I said, "Let us finish this point before we go down," not dreaming that there is anything else. It is no good the Chancellor of the Exchequer talking about something else. I am talking of what happened, and the Prime Minister knows what I am saying is quite true. He sent his secretary up, and I said, "Let us finish this point." The secretary came back and said, "The Prime Minister wants to see you at once." We said to the miners, "Hold on. Let us go down," and we went down. I would not have accused the Prime Minister of having a wrong impression, but I ask attention to what happened subsequently.

We went down. Lord Birkenhead and himself were present. The right hon. Gentleman said, "Gentlemen, I am sorry to say that our efforts for peace are unavailing. I have a letter to give you, but I feel in honour hound, having regard to all our efforts, at least to say a word to you personally." He said, "Something has happened at the "Daily Mail," and the Cabinet has empowered me to hand you this letter," and he said —and this is very important, because none of us knew what was in the letter he handed to us. We shook hands and he said, "Good-bye; this is the end." When we went upstairs the miners were then sitting there to agree with us.


I do not dispute what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He will remember what I quoted earlier to-day. I said when I came in that our efforts were unavailing because what happens so often the men of peace have been defeated by the hot heads.


That is quite true. We shook hands, and then took the letter, by which the negotiations were broken off. I read it, and it contained what the House knows. "And now," the Prime Minister said, "we ask immediately for a repudiation of this action," and what the Prime Minister did not tell you I had better now tell you. He did ask in the letter for a repudiation of something which he knows we knew nothing about, because we were in consultation at the time, and immediately we did repudiate it. Is not that true? Immediately we acquiesced in the Prime Minister's suggestion and said that we did repudiate it, and we actually went to the length of instructing a deputation to go down to the Prime Minister, but when we got down from one room to the other we were told by the attendant that everybody had gone to bed, the place was in darkness, and we could see nobody. Is not that true?

I have given a fair and, I hope, unvarnished account. The House has heard it, and the Prime Minister has heard it. I have nothing more to say, except that, like him, I regret it. At one minute to 12 on Monday night I would have grovelled for peace; I would have grovelled to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because I hated war. Unfortunately, it was refused. The consequences no one can tell. Bitterly as I am disappointed, keenly as I feel it, I am not going to allow passion or temper or even the wonderful response of our people, beyond all expectation, to allow me to bang the door against the peace which I hope will speedily come.


I only want to ask a question. I do not propose to intervene at this stage, because we have had a very detailed account for the first time of very vital matters affecting this dispute, and it is very difficult for the House of Commons to take any of these statements without having an opportunity of seeing them in print. I shall be very sorry, as one who has taken part in a great many negotiations and knows the difficulties of expressions of opinion without having an opportunity of examining the statements. I should like to ask whether it would be possible in the course of proceedings to-morrow to have a discussion upon this subject, because two or three very vital discoveries and revelations have been made to-night of what took place.


When we have disposed of the Amendments to the Motion, we can revert to the Main Question, when that matter can be raised.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.