HL Deb 23 June 1921 vol 45 cc789-802

My Lords, I desire to draw attention to suggestions that have been made that the response of the Miners to the proposals made by the Government might be larger if the men understood the terms offered them better; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is possible to take any steps for this purpose. I should like first to say that I put down this Question not with any intention of making more difficult the difficult water through which the Government is steering us just now (at least I hope it is steering us through) in this coal question; nor did I put it down as one associated either with owners or with miners, or even with any of the great industries in this country. I put it down as a member of the large general public, who find themselves sandwiched rather uncomfortably at present between these competitors.

In my Notice I draw attention to suggestions that have been made on certain lines. My interest in those suggestions was aroused by a letter which appeared in The Times of last Monday from Sir John Lister Kaye. In that letter he put in a strong plea for the 183,827 miners who had accepted the Government terms. He says in his letter that in his view— They have the right to claim that, having accepted the terms, they must be allowed to exercise their right to return to work in their various collieries at once on the terms and conditions which they have accepted. That, I think, is a proposition with which everybody would agree and which, I think, the Government would be only too glad to see carried out.

But, beyond that, Sir Joint Lister Kaye, in the same letter, made another plea, which was the particular plea which interested me. He said that out of the large number of 957,610 voters you have a certain number of acceptances, but you have also 341,272 men who abstained from voting altogether. His point was that if, by some machinery—which at that time he did not suggest—you could get these lymphatic non-voters more fully apprised of the position in which they find themselves, and of the terms from which they had turned away and if, having done that, you could give them a week or ten days during which they might have time to reconsider the position, not only as regards the community and as regards industry, but as regards themselves, it was possible that those 341,272 voters would cast in their lot with the 183,827 who had accepted the Government's terms.

I do not suppose Sir John was acting entirely alone. He comes of mining interests a long way back, and I have no doubt he has been in communication with other people who know a great deal about this subject, which I do not pretend to know. And I think it is very possible that the view is held by a good many people that the lymphatic non-voters did not vote, possibly because they did not take the trouble to master, or, having tried to master, did not understand, the terms; or, possibly again, because (which is very common) they did not wish to burn their fingers by voting in a way which perhaps their own particular friends were not taking; or (which is more likely still, and which I am told informally has been the case in some parts of England, Scotland and Wales) they were under the impression that, by abstaining from voting, they would be held to mean that they consented to the terms.

When I read Sir John Lister Kaye's letter, intuitively (I will not put it higher than that, for I have no special knowledge) I said, "Here is a proposal out of which, at all events, something might be made"; but I confess that in the first letter there was nothing resembling any machinery to achieve anything of this kind. I wrote to him and said, "I like your letter, but I wish to goodness you would tell us how you mean to do it. Who is to bring these people in?" Since then, in to-day's Times, you will see that he does carry his suggestion a long step further. In his letter to-day he says: If a Proclamation were to be posted at once at every colliery in the United Kingdom, and at the same time published in every newspaper in the United Kingdom, to the effect that His Majesty's Government is prepared, subject to the approval of the Miners' Federation, to consider that the 183,827 miners who voted in favour of accepting the terms offered by the Government and by the owners are justified in now, at once, returning to work in their respective collieries "— that would give au opportunity to the mine managers to explain in every mine exactly what the Government's terms were; and, if action could be delayed in sonic way, to keep things going for another week or ten days, it is possible that, by so doing, you could get the other people to join up with the 183,827 miners who have accepted the Government's terms.

What I like especially in this second letter is that he says nothing of this sort could possibly with any advantage be done unless it is done with the full and informed approval of the Miners' Federation. I myself attach immense importance to that being done. In this very serious quarrel I confess that from first to last I have, to some extent, been a miners' man. I think the miners were put in a very awkward position. I ant not distributing any blame, but I ant not at all disposed to praise the action which the Government took at the time of de-controlling. For that reason I attach enormous importance to the fact that this proposal, if there is anything in it, would have to be carried out with the full assent of the Executive Committee of the Miners' Federation.

Some people tell me that the Miners' Federation and those who direct this movement are, in the slang of the day, "out for" something quite different. They say it is not a mining question, but that what they are "out for," in the scientific jargon of the day, is altering the whole relativity of Capital and Labour. That is very possible, although I am not at all clear whether it is so. Let us say it is not so. I think it is just possible that the Miners' Federation would not mind if a proposal of this sort were taken hold of and carried out by His Majesty's Government, because it might possibly get them out of a situation which they regard as awkward, but out of which they do not see their way at present; so that they feel they must stand by what they said originally. I cannot believe that the people of this country are so determined to cut their own throats and everybody else's, financially at all events, by going on with this disastrous quarrel. I do not. say that the proposals I have mentioned are ideal, or even practical, but I should be glad to know whether His Majesty's Government have any intention of considering something upon those lines.


My Lords, I feel very great sympathy with the suggestion that has been made by my noble friend, Lord Ribblesdale, but before the Government reply there are a few remarks I should like to make. It may be very useful to make a very plain statement of the terms that have been offered so that the men may consider them. I see that good might come of that. but I confess that I have not. any very great confidence in an apparent result. The fact is that the men are very much more intelligent about these things than we give them credit for being. They have their own local newspapers. They are discussing this subject all day long. They know very well what these terms are. What they have been fighting for are not sixpences and shillings, not wages simply. but the conditions under which they carry an their industry.

It is a great mistake to suppose that they are penetrated by the spirit of Bolshevism. Of course, there are Bolshevists and violent men among them, but I do not believe that those constitute more than the merest fraction of the,Treat mass of the mining community, which I know fairly well. There are also people of very advanced views about the relations of Labour and Capital, who think this is a very good opportunity for making souse very sudden and great change. But these, again, are a minority. If you go about, not only among the miners but among the people who have. been most in contact with them, you will find this, which I believe is at the bottom of the whole of the present difficulty—they are dissatisfied with the present general scheme under which a small handful of people control what is an absolutely arterial industry to this country and that on which the lives and well-being of a million miners, with their wives and families, depend. They say that that asset is too great an asset, both as regards the nation and as regards themselves, to remain uncontrolled, as it does at present, in private hands. But it is a, long way from that proposition to the scheme which the Miners' Federation put forward for taking over the complete control of the industry by the miners themselves. They brought forward a Bill which I do not think was a well thought out Bill, and I am not personally in favour of it.

Then again there was the proposition of the Sankey Commission. It is a great mistake to think that was a proposition for immediate nationalisation. Very few people have taken the trouble to study the Report of the Sankey Commission. Had they studied it they would have found that it proposed to substitute for the present system what was really a great State Department, much like the Navy or the Army, arid to train very carefully the officials for it. It was a. Report which was against bureaucracy, of which people can see the results in its failure when applied to the direct management and control of an industry. But the Sankey Commission asked far a great deal of training on the part of the officials of the future Departments.

If yon want to bring this strike to an end and restore tranquillity, I say that you will have to do something more than merely get the men to go below the surface and accept wages again. They will be compelled to do that by the force of starvation. before very long, because you are entitled to fight this question, but you Neill have another strike of this kind before very long. Speaking in this House last July, I ventured to prophesy that a strike was inevitable, because the Government had suddenly decided to de-control the industry. Of course, that came about, and you had what always comes upon you if you do not think out what is lying ahead of you. To-day, we are not thinking out what lies ahead of us and if we induced the men to go back to-morrow we should still be in a position of great peril in regard to a matter that goes to our very life-blood.

I am not here to suggest any particular plan. There are many plans, and a great deal of information is now available, but I urge upon the Government that instead of taking the line of fighting this out when they can get a victory for which they will be sorry a little later, they should take the step which would satisfy the miners that they really are considering the very large question which has now been raised. We are not talking as we might have done ten years ago. We are talking to-day after the war, with new standards, about the new ideas in the minds of the workmen. Very well. Satisfy the workmen that you are in earnest in trying to find out whether there is something wrong, and, if there is, to put it right. There are very eminent men with whom you could co-operate in bringing about this investigation, and if you satisfied the miners that you were really sincere in it, I think you would not only bring this strike to an end more surely than in any other way, but you would do it with some security about the future. You would inspire that confidence which you are certainly not inspiring in the minds of the miners at the present time.

If that be so, it is a change of attitude on the part of the Government which is required. If that were accompanied by some very plain statement as to the effect on wages which my noble friend has suggested, I think it would be very good. But I confess that the one without the other does not give me any confidence that the result will be obtained. I rise only for the purpose of pressing upon the Government the necessity of realising that the question they are trying to settle is a much wider one than it is currently and popularly reputed to be.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to what my noble friend, Lord Haldane, has said, and in one matter I most strongly agree with him. I do not like the idea, of fighting this matter out, if it can possibly be settled in any other way. I do not know whether the condition of things to-day is such that any debate in your Lordships' House, or in another place, can help matters. I very much doubt it. My noble friend, Lord Haldane, has thrown out some suggestions, but I do wish, in regard to this matter, that he would not be so vague. He says that we are not thinking it out. Good Heavens!what else have we been thinking about for many months past? I had no intention of speaking when I came down and I may not put the case very clearly, but if I may offer my own theory of the situation, I sincerely believe that the miners, like a great many other people, have suffered a good deal of psycho- logical upset owing to the war and what followed the war.

I know they want new conditions of work. I wish they could have new conditions of work. But how are they going to get them? The noble Viscount himself will not have the miners' own scheme. Mr. Justice Sankey's scheme I have read over and over and over again, and it certainly would lead to bureaucratism. Take the case of export coal. The Sankey scheme suggests that no coal may be sold for export purposes at any price which shall give an advantage to the buyer or be a disadvantage to the seller. I forget the precise words; but the carrying out of any such scheme as that means an immense amount of bureaucratism, the creation of a large number of officials who do not exist to-day, in order to see that no unfairness is done. Whenever the Government undertakes business you will always have that. In ordinary private enterprise a man does no wrong according to our ethical code—and I think our ethical code, on the whole, is right as regards that matter—in selling at different prices to different people, even on the same day. He himself has to consider whether he is going to lose or gain by it, but the Government cannot do that. They have to treat everybody alike. I maintain that it is a hopeless idea that you are going to get an advantage by bringing Government control into this industry.

I think the position of the miners is a very natural one owing to the upset of the war. During the war prices of the commodity in which they are interested were controlled, but their wages were very much advanced, and I am afraid that they got into the way of believing they had only to ask to have. Now they are confronted by this problem. Our export trade has gone, apparently, for the time being. That is a disastrous thing for England. What is to become of our shipping if our export trade in coal goes? Every day that this strike is prolonged the potential demand for coal, after the strike is over, is less. There is not the demand for coal; there will not be a sufficient demand for it when this disastrous strike is finished to keep all these miners working, and that is the horrible tragedy of it.

I know we want a change. I sympathise wholly with labour in their desire to have greater control of industry. I wish people would think this problem out. But what incentive is there, from anything that has happened anywhere else in this wide world, to induce us to embark on a scheme of nationalisation? Does Australia, for instance, give us ally hope that it will be a good thing? Does New Zealand with her little experience? Does Germany in her management of the mines? I have never seen a more complete denunication of nationalisation than that which is contained in the report, made practically by Socialists in Germany, upon the nationalised mines of Germany since the Revolution. When you come to Russia—which is the great example—what is the condition of things? There, the one vital necessity is coal, and has been all the time; yet in the great coal-producing area of Russia they are not producing to-day more than one-fifth or one-sixth of what they produced before the war. There is no reason why they should not produce as much, had things been properly managed. With regard to their other great industries, they are producing in even less proportion. That is the result of Bolshevism. I am afraid that you would have very much the same result if you proceeded with any hurried scheme of nationalisation in this country, because by it you are going to remove the inducement to work. What is the answer to all this?


Think it out.


Yes; I have been doing my best to think it out. My solution —I dare say my noble friend will say it is impossible—is profit-sharing and co-partnership. I believe that by that, and that alone, will you arrive at what we want—the greater interest of the workers both in profits and in control, and a retention of that inducement to work which is the most important matter of all, and which hitherto every scheme of nationalisation has removed.


My Lords, in reference to what the noble Lord who has just sat down said, I would point out that we have all been considering this question for some time. The noble Lord is not the only member of this House who has taken a great interest in it. Not less interest has been taken in it by other members of your Lordships' House, and by the members of the House of Commons, and by the public. We have all considered it, and considered it seriously and carefully, because we know that it is a vital matter to the nation. But have the miners been considering it? I do not think the noble Lord sufficiently took into consideration the fact that the miners themselves have not really grasped the offer which has been made to them, and which they have refused. I maintain that the way in which that offer was put before the miners was quite sufficient to invite them to refuse it. I do not know who is to blame for the way in which it has been put before the miners. I suppose it is the Miners' Executive. But, whoever is responsible, it has been put before them as an owners' and a capitalists' offer, and capitalism is the very thing they have been fighting against tooth and nail all this time, and for which they have undergone endless privations.

Is it likely, being Britishers and having fought so long, that they are going to say, "I will give in"? If they were to say that, after putting up such a fight, they Certainly would not belong to this country. I think it is unfortunate that the offer should have been put before them as an owners' proposition, and some additional effort on the part of the Government should be made to state that it is a proposition with special new concessions granted by the owners—generous concessions—and a national subsidy of £10,000,000. I think if that had been put more clearly before the miners the result of the ballot would have been different. My view is that the miners themselves do not understand the question. They have been led away, possibly, by an element of Bolshevism.

I myself have had some experience of dealing with labour during the War. It may be within the recollection of your Lordships that I frequently brought forward Questions:in this House in connection with the manufacture of munitions. I was associated with more than one factory. One of the factories with which I was connected made aeroplanes. I took care that we worked hard, and got the best results. How was that done? By going to the factory myself. I remember being rung up on the telephone one day by the manager, who said: "If you do not come down they are all going to walk out of the factory." I said: "What are you there for? Why don't you go and talk to them, and explain matters. What is the trouble?" He then told me that they did not want to have a night shift, and that they complained that some were better paid than others. He went on to say that one or two of their leaders were going to walk out of the factory, and that the rest would follow them. I asked him if he had made any effort to explain to them that it was for their own good, and for their country's good, that they should stay at work. He said he had done so, but without result, and that if I did not go down there would be a strike. I went down immediately in a taxi-cab, brought the men out, and shook hands with them, and invited them to sit down and tell me what was the trouble. They told me, and in half an hour they had arranged the whole difficulty for me, and I had no more bother.

I am convinced that if the directors of factories would take more personal interest in their works, instead of leaving it to the managers—who have been promoted from among the men themselves, and who are not inclined to take an impartial interest, and to investigate and prevent troubles—a great many strikes, which now take place, would never occur. I would go further than the noble Lord, Lord. Ribblesdale, who suggested that you should give the men who are going back the chance of getting some portion of the Government subsidy. I would put the whole thing before the men again, and invite a second ballot, and let every man have a chance of knowing exactly what the offer is, and of voting upon it. If that were done I am convinced the result would be different.


My Lords, I think everybody will be obliged to my noble friend, Lord Ribblesdale, for making at this time any suggestion which may tend either to bring to an end or mitigate the terrible industrial strife in which we are now engaged. From the point of view of the Government there is a most deplorable ignorance in many quarters as to many political and social issues. I am afraid that at the last few elections there has been no sign that the virtues of the Coalition have either been sufficiently appreciated or understood by the large majority of the voters.

The suggestion of the noble Lord leads into considerations far wider than one specified industrial dispute. It raises the question as to how far the Government should make use of its position to spread information and views and opinions on particular questions. There is a great deal of hostility in many quarters to Publicity Departments. Only a few days ago the President of the Board of Trade announced not a diminution, but the entire abolition, of the Publicity Department of the Board of Trade. In these days of earnest desire for economy no Departments have been more criticised than these Publicity Departments.

The speech of the noble and learned Viscount seemed to me to cut away the ground entirely from the proposals of the noble Lord. Lord Haldane's contention was, in effect, that it would be perfectly useless to put before the miners particular proposals of the Government or the owners. According to him, it was not a question of pounds, shillings and pence. it was something far more pronounced, something affecting the whole relations of Capital and Labour, and, therefore, the suggestion of the noble Lord would not at all meet the view taken by the noble and learned Viscount. He again raises a far more difficult problem. If you connect the views of the noble Lord and the noble and learned Viscount you would have the Government engaged in a strenous system of publicity, possibly advocating its own view of these profound problems.


I said investigation.


The noble Viscount is interested not so much in investigation as in clarity of thinking. I rather regretted sonic of the expressions he used. When we are all hoping that these troubles will come to an end, he seems to suggest to those engaged in the dispute to go on, on the ground that the Government might make some change at the last moment. It throws, at any rate, an absurd light on the proposals of the noble Lord. If the Government themselves so thoroughly misunderstand the whole industrial situation, it would be absurd for them to try to explain it to the miners.

There is another difficulty which. I do not think is fully realised by the noble Lord. The first thing that strikes one is that in dealing with the miners you are not dealing with them individually but with their representatives, and it is extremely difficult and dangerous to go behind their representatives to the people themselves. We all remember one dis- tinguished man, who, not being satisfied with a decision of the Government of Italy, said he would go beyond the Government and appeal to the people. I never heard that his Proclamation was well received by the Government of Italy. If the Government say they will go direct to the men themselves and explain these matters to them, they will be accused by the leaders of not putting the issue fairly, or, through their ignorance, of spoiling the situation.


To the best of my control of English and putting English words together, I thought I made it clear that my proposals were entirely subject to the approval of the executive committee of the Miners' Federation.


The noble Lord spoke with absolute clearness and I think I apprehended him clearly. I am now dealing with the general proposition of the difficulty of dealing with the men and not with their leaders. Any trouble that would subsequently arise would, with absolute certainty, be put down to the fact that the Government intervened, and it would he said that it was their clumsiness which spoilt everything. The noble Lord —I give him credit for the suggestion—said this should be done with the leave, informally or otherwise, of the miners' leaders. I never like to say "No" to a valuable suggestion. What I think would be said of that is that the matter has already been put very clearly by the miners' leaders themselves to their men, and to suggest that the Government should do so implies a want of lucidity on the part of the miners' representatives.

I differ from the noble Lord behind me. I read the statement on the ballot paper as to the general nature of the terms which were offered by the Government and the owners to the miners. I think it was a model of lucidity, and I doubt very much whether some of the distinguished draftsmen present could have improved upon it. Certainly, the Ministry of Labour considered it an admirable and clear statement of the position, and doubted whether it could have been put any better. That would be the answer which would be given to the noble Lord.


It was published in the papers as the owners' terms.


If that was so it was published wrongly. I have here the proposal in the ballot paper which says "Government and the owners." Whether a. more definite statement can be made I do not know. Lord Ribblesdale will do the Government this justice, that constantly, in replying to Questions in Parliament and otherwise, statements, and I think clear statements, are given out and published in all the papers. Whether anything more could be done I do not know. If we have no autumn session members will be able to go to their constituencies and explain the matter, hilt I doubt whether any advantage would be obtained by adopting the noble Lord's proposal. As regards reading matter we have great difficulty, as we know, in the constituencies, of getting people to read anything. We have pushed under their doors thousands of pamphlets which are not used for the purpose of literature but for very much humbler purposes. I will not follow Lord Emmott into the effect of the strike on our export trade which is, of course, so great, but I will bring his remarks to the notice of the Department.


My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than one moment, but this is certainly the most urgent and grave matter with which we have to deal at the present time. I am not going to attempt to discuss the speeches which have been made by noble Lords on either side, but I feel that the point which was made by my noble friend was not the real point at issue. I do not think it is a question of lucidity of explanation to the miners that influenced Lord Ribblesdale in bringing forward this question. What he desires to obtain from the Government is an assurance that they will still use all their powers of intervention to keep the door open for a final and an early settlement.


That is quite a different Quest-ion from the one on the Paper.


It may be a different Question, or a different way of approaching it, but I cannot help thinking that it is a perfectly orthodox way of approaching it, because it would not mean, as my noble friend suggests, that the Government would be going to the men behind the back of the official organisation, for, as I understand it, before anything was done, the proposal would go directly and formally to the executive of the Miners' Federation, and, of course, if they refused to entertain it, then that effort would prove an abortive one. But I cannot help thinking that the miners' executive, just as must be the case with all the parties concerned now, as it is undoubtedly with the nation, are not only desirous of keeping the matter open for a settlement, but are becoming urgently desirous of bringing about a settlement. Looking at the matter from that point of view, I would urge my noble friend, from the responsible position that he occupies as a member of the Government, to use his influence, and to ask his colleagues to consider this as a possible effort by means of which the door may be kept open, and a settlement reached.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Viscount for his very clear reply to my Question. I am not going to make a speech now, but it is, of course, quite plain that, if Lord Haldane is right, the miners' executive may snap their lingers at my proposal. If, on the other hand, Lord Haldane is wrong, I believe that. something might still be done. This is not my suggestion; I am only representing it. I think it provides an opportunity, and I submit it, not only to His Majesty's Government, but to every thinking man—or rather, not only to every thinking man, but to every man who burns a fire, or who is interested in the trade of the country—that something of that sort is worth trying, even now.

[From Minutes of June 22.]