§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY)
My Lords, it is my duty to read to your Lordships a Message which I have in my hand from His Majesty the King:—
"The Emergency Powers Act, 1920, having enacted that if it appears to His Majesty that any action has been taken, or is immediately threatened, by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life, His Majesty may, by Proclamation, declare that a state of emergency exists; and the immediate threat of cessation of work in coal mines having, in His Majesty's opinion, constituted a state of emergency within the meaning of the said Act,
2 "His Majesty hint deemed it proper, by Proclamation made in pursuance of the said Act, and dated the 30th day of April, 1926, to declare that a state of emergency exists."
I beg to move, That His Majesty's Message be taken into immediate consideration.
§ Moved accordingly, and on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, it is now my duty to move that an humble Address be presented to His Majesty in reply to the Message, and it is in the following form:—
"That this House do present an humble Address to His Majesty thanking His Majesty for His most gracious Message, communicating to this House His Majesty's declaration that a state of emergency exists within the meaning of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920."
Before I say a word on the Motion which I have just submitted, I should like to inform your Lordships that it has been thought expedient not to take this afternoon the discussion upon the Regulations which His Majesty has by Order in Council made. I had intended, as your Lordships will know who have had the opportunity of seeing the Notice on the Paper, to take this afternoon the discussion on the Resolution which is necessary in order that the Regulations should 3 be kept in being, but it appears to be for the convenience of your Lordships not to pursue that course, and that discussion will take place, therefore, with your Lordships' consent, to-morrow. To-day the Government will confine themselves to asking you to agree to the Address which I have just read.
§ LORD PARMOOR
May I ask a Question? The first Notice on the Paper to-morrow stands in my name. I quite agree that it would have to give way. I see there the noble Viscount (Lord Cecil of Chelwood) who is going to Geneva at the end of this week. Would it be convenient to him if I put it down after the other Motions for Thursday? I am told that they would not take long. I hope that would suit the noble Viscount.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE DUCHY OF LANCASTER (VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD)
I think so. Perhaps the noble Lord would allow me to have a word with him presently?
§ LORD PARMOOR
Yes, but subject to that we would take it on Thursday, because we could hardly take it after the other discussion to-morrow.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The formal and bald terms of the Address which I have read, merely thanking His Majesty for the Message which I communicated to the House, does not, I need riot say, convey to your Lordships the real feelings of the Government in approaching this subject. It is a formal expression of thanks. To have any correspondence with reality it ought to be combined with a statement of our profound regret at the emergency which has transpired. I do not desire to dwell upon the great gravity of the situation because every one of your Lordships realises it. I will confine myself this afternoon to a brief statement of the situation as it has arisen and to the consequences which, in the opinion of the Government and I believe in the opinion of both Houses of Parliament, must necessarily ensue.
In its acute form this question goes back to last summer. Your Lordships will remember that last summer the coal 4 industry reached a condition of crisis. That crisis came upon the country with a certain amount of surprise. No one was really prepared for it. It appeared that there was a demand from the owners to abolish the minimum wage and to increase the hours from the existing seven hours a day to eight hours a day which they considered was absolutely essential in order to carry on the industry. As your Lordships will remember, that was I ejected by the. Miners' Federation and a strike was threatened. In order to consider those circumstances the Macmillan Committee was appointed. That Committee reported but the breach was not healed. A strike was still imminent. But the Government were satisfied that public opinion was not fully informed as to the situation. No one was prepared to deal with the gravity of the crisis. There was a great deal of ignorance as to the exact state of things and the exact circumstances in which the industry stood.
The Macmillan inquiry, although we have no reason to complain of it, was conducted in great haste. It was not complete; and it appeared to us that a full inquiry was absolutely essential. The Royal Commission was appointed and was to take something less than nine months in making the investigation and presenting a Report. In the meantime it was agreed that a subsidy should be paid to the industry in order to cover the difference between the hitherto existing wages of the men and the proposals which had been made by the masters. That was the situation last August. The subsidy was agreed to; but there were obvious dangers in that expedient, on which I need not dwell at length to your Lordships. The principle behind the subsidy was exceedingly difficult to apply. Why should the general taxpayer make good the deficiency in the proceeds of the mining industry? Why should the general taxpayers, many of whom were very poor people, poorer than the miners, sustain the wages of the miners and the profits of the owners? The principle was an exceedingly dangerous one. Moreover, the precedent it set was very formidable, for if that expedient is lightly adopted, why should it stop at the miners? Why should it not be extended to every industry which is in difficulties?
5 Nevertheless, I think the subsidy was rightly decided upon. Public opinion was not prepared, no one was prepared and it was necessary to inform public opinion. Consequently, the subsidy was agreed upon. No one can complain of the work of the Commissioners. They showed great industry and despatch. They produced an extremely able and comprehensive Report and they did so by March; so that there was still nearly two months before the time which had been fixed for the subsidy to expire. What was the character of that Report? I need not say that I shall not go into it in detail, but in a sentence the Report showed that something like three-quarters of the mining industry was conducted at a loss—so formidable was the gravity of the situation. In order to remedy this state of things the Commission recommended considerable measures of reorganisation and re-arrangement in the conditions of the industry. They recommended, amongst other things, that the property in the minerals should be nationalised and that the distribution of coal should be carried out in certain instances by municipalities. Those were very important recommendations.
When the Government came to consider the Report they resolved to accept it as a whole without distinguishing one recommendation from another. But I am bound to say that we came to that decision, many of us, with considerable misgivings. Perhaps I feel it personally more than anybody else, but both the matters that I have particularly named—the nationalisation of the minerals and the municipal distribution of coal—appear to me open to very grave objection. We were presented with a, very formidable problem. It was quite clear that the only chance of obtaining general consent to the recommendations of the Report was that the Government should make no exceptions, that they, for their part, should accept the whole Report and should express, in terms that were quite unequivocal, their resolve, if the Report were accepted by the two parties, to carry the recommendations so far as they were called upon to do so into effect.
How did the other parties approach the recommendations of the Report? The owners, on the whole, seemed to accept the Report. There were certain limitations, but, broadly I think, upon a fair reading of their declaration, we may say 6 that they seemed to accept the Report. It was true that they held a special view as to whether the minimum rate of wages as it is called—though it is not a true minimum—should be settled by the districts or nationally. They held that view, I say, which I do not believe was the real view of the Commission as described in the Report, but as your Lordships are aware, after negotiating with the Government the owners finally receded from that position and whereas at first they had seemed to minimise the national character and to exhalt the district character of the settlement, yet in the end they agreed to negotiate nationally without reservation. I think it a pity, perhaps, that that conclusion was not reached a little earlier, but undoubtedly that conclusion was reached and from that moment I do not think it can be fairly said that the owners failed to accept the recommendations of the Report.
That brings me to the last phase of the crisis—namely, to Friday in last week. On that day the owners made a definite offer to the Federation, speaking broadly, of the following character. They proposed that wages should be reduced in accordance with the 1921 settlement. Your Lordships are doubtless aware that there was an arrangement in 1921 and another arrangement in 1924. Under the 1921 arrangement the minimum — which is, broadly speaking, the actual wages, because most of the mines are down on a minimum—was fixed at 20 per cent. above the 1914 standard. In 1924 this was raised to 33⅓ per cent. above the 1914 standard and the Commission in their Report recommended that the wages should be reduced again from the 1924 standard—I am speaking broadly—to the 1921 standard, that is from 33⅓ per cent. to 20 per cent. above the 1914 standard. That, as it works out, is practically 10 per cent. reduction in the wages. The owners offered on Friday morning last that reduction of wages combined with a temporary increase of hours from seven to eight hours a day.
Your Lordships will realise that that was not a proposal of the Government. It was a proposal of the owners. The Miners' Federation rejected it. There was a deadlock on Friday. The owners, I have no doubt acting according to what they believed to be their duty, had made this offer and the Federation had rejected 7 it. It appeared to the Government that if they were to intervene it was necessary to simplify the issues and to get back absolutely to the Report of the Commission. The Commission had made recommendations which may be divided into two categories. There were the recommendations for the reorganisation of the industry. These were calculated to bear fruit, but not to bear fruit immediately—we hope to bear abundant fruit, for one must hope that they would put the industry on its But that was not and could not in the nature of the case be an immediate consequence. That was part of the recommendations. There was the other part which was to deal with the immediate position, with the financial collapse of the industry, with its bankruptcy, as it were, and for that purpose the Commission had recommended a reduction of wages or, in the alternative, if the parties liked, a lengthening of the hours. But it was a reduction of wages which the Commission actually recommended. It was necessary for the Government to bring the Miners' Federation back to exactly what the Commission had recommended.
Your Lordships no doubt have followed the matter in the published account of the documents that passed from one side to the other and you know the character of the proposal that the Government made. I may, however, read one passage from one of the communications which passed on Friday evening:The Government will be prepared, if the miners will accept the Report, including the wages recommendations, to set up an Advisory Committee, upon which the miners as well as the owners will be represented, to advise the Mines Department as to the steps that can be taken to put into operation whatever proposals for reorganisation are of benefit to the industry.The point was this. Doubt was expressed whether the reorganisation offer was a genuine offer, whether it might be expected actually to eventuate. Therefore, in order to place that beyond possibility of doubt, this Paper was submitted to the Federation. If they would accept the Report, including, of course, the essential passages about wages, then the Government would take immediate steps to set on foot the reorganisation.
That was not a thing that could be done in a moment, but a beginning could be made. That is all that could be done. The promise to make an 8 immediate beginning was to fulfil to the very last point which possibility permitted at that moment the recommendations of the Commission. Nothing more could be done except to establish forthwith a body to start upon the reorganisation. It was impossible to conceive of a more complete and absolute literal fulfilment of all the Commission recommended than that which was expressed in that passage. That was the offer made. The offer of the Government to simplify the issue, to bring the Federation face to face with the issue in its most naked form, failed. They were not prepared to consider the reduction of wages on any such terms. There was no alternative unless we had been prepared indefinitely to prolong the subsidy. From no other source could be found the means to bridge over the interval which divided the mining industry from bankruptcy. The money must be found somewhere and unless it were found according to the method which the Royal Commission had recommended it could only be found by a prolongation of the subsidy. His Majesty's Government were resolved that it would be wholly beyond their duty, a violation of their duty, to prolong the subsidy.
I said at the beginning how dangerous it was even in its very inception, in the circumstances of the ignorance of the public and of all concerned of the facts. However, to bridge over the difficulty and on behalf of peace we went the length of adopting the expedient of the subsidy with, as I have said, grave misgivings. But to go on when the facts were absolutely known, when there was no longer any doubt, when it was obvious that without either a reduction of wages or a lengthening of hours the financial stability of the industry was impossible, that would have been to adopt a course for which we should have been rightly condemned by the public opinion of this country. Upon that position the Government stood and in the last document which passed, the document of Sunday evening, your Lordships will find exactly the same proposal made in rather more elaborate language.
The point is so important that I will venture to quote a few words from the Paper which was sent at one o'clock in the night between Sunday and Monday:— 9His Majesty's Government believe that no solution of the difficulties in the coal industry which is both practical and honourable to all concerned can be reached except by sincere acceptance of the Report of the Commission. In the expression acceptance of the Report' is included both the reorganisation of the industry, which should be put in hand immediately, and, pending the result of reorganisation being attained, such interim adjustment of wages or hours of work as will make it as economic as possible to carry on the industry in the meantime. If the miners or the Trades Union Committee on their behalf were prepared to say plainly that they accept this proposal, the Government would have been ready to resume the negotiations and to continue the subsidy for a fortnight.I will explain in a moment the reason of the conditional words "were prepared," but your Lordships will see that the same proposal was again urged upon the miners, or rather upon the Trades Union Committee because by that time the Trades Union Committee had taken over the negotiations on behalf of the miners. Precisely the same offer was made: If you will accept the Report, then we will be prepared even to go the length of prolonging the subsidy for a fortnight so that the matter can be settled upon a firm footing, and on matters of reorganisation a Committee will be set up immediately. As your Lordships are aware that policy has hitherto failed. By the time that document was handed to the Trades Union Committee another fact had supervened and we had come face to face with the general strike.
§ LORD OLIVIER
Was there not the noteworthy fact that notices had been given before to the miners that they would cease work on Friday last?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I suppose the noble Lord refers to the notices which the mine owners gave?
§ LORD OLIVIER
Yes. The noble Lord said nothing had transpired until Friday last and he entirely omitted mentioning that.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
If the noble Lord asks the reason, I think it is quite evident that as the subsidy came to an end at the end of the month it was necessary for the mine owners to give notice that at the end of the month they could not carry on on the old terms. 10 The money would not have been there. I have no responsibility whatever, nor has His Majesty's Government., for the action of the mine owners, but that appears to be the reason for their action and the course appears not at all an unreasonable one to take.
§ LORD OLIVIER
I only wanted to suggest that this was a material fact in the history of the case to which the noble Marquess is coming.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
A material fact quite within the knowledge of the noble Lord. We were then face to face, as I have said, with the general strike and that made it impossible to go on so far as the Government were concerned because a general strike altered completely, fundamentally and violently the issue. It was no longer a trade dispute. In such a dispute every one of us would desire to extend patience to its most extreme limit in order to come to an arrangement. None of us but must have the deepest sympathy with these working miners. It is true that their wages are low and to make them lower is undoubtedly a very hard measure. If it had been merely a trade dispute the Government were most anxious, if they could do so by any action of theirs, to make it as easy is possible and, if they would accept the Report, even to prolong the subsidy for a fortnight so as to give a little more time for coming to a settlement.
But when the general strike began, when it was sought not to convince the owners by the ordinary methods of a trade dispute but to put duress upon the public to force the British people to compel the owners to take an impossible course for themselves, the British taxpayer to find the money—when that kind of duress was proposed His Majesty's Government, who, after all only represent the people, had but one course open to them. They were obliged to say to the trades union leaders: "We cannot negotiate in the face of a general strike. You must abandon that and go back to the trade dispute. You will find us completely unchanged and we shall still he anxious, as we are most deeply anxious, to have peace in the coal industry, but if you adopt the method of a general strike then you will find not only the Government but Parliament and the 11 people united against you. We cannot give way." That is where we stand. I earnestly hope that even yet wiser counsels will prevail and that we shall be able once more to adopt the rôle of mediator, which we have abandoned with the greatest regret, and that by our efforts peace may be re-established. But if it is not to be peace why then, my Lords, the Government will do its duty. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House do present an humble address to His Majesty, thanking His Majesty for His most gracious Message communicating to this House His Majesty's declaration that a state of emergency exists within the meaning of the Emergency Powers Act, 1920.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
My Lords, in the earlier part of his speech the noble Marquess gave us what was, I think, a very fair summary indeed of the events that led up to this lamentable issue. There were points upon which I do not quite agree with him. My study of the Coal Commission's Report had not led me to think that in the attitude taken towards it by the coal owners and in their declarations there was that cordial acceptance of the defined view of the Coal Commission about the hours of labour that, I should have wished to see and that, in itself, if there had not been other things also, would have led to a certain attitude of suspicion on the part of the miner. But pass that by. The Government intervened and worked with admirable energy. I think the country appreciates the obvious sincerity and devotion of the Prime Minister to the task to which he set himself. There were meetings and there were conferences. People were not negotiating in the dark. The mine owners, as my noble friend has said, had already announced their ultimatum, and an ultimatum on the other side had also been launched. The trade unions, rightly or wrongly—it was for them to decide—said: "We shall all stand together with the miners and this time you will have to deal with a combination such as you have never had to deal with before." There was full warning of that and everybody knew it.
Then there were the meetings of Friday, of Saturday and of Sunday, and at one o'clock in the morning on Monday a communiqué was issued from Downing 12 Street giving the results. The noble Marquess has read the first part of that communiqué but he has not read the second part, and I will take leave to read it. It is very short and it contains what seems to me to be the mischief of the whole situation. When you get a predicament such as the Government have to face with a Report of this kind, a very exhaustive Report, containing many detailed proposals, with the coal owners on one side and the miners, very suspicious, on the other, with a subject so immense that it must necessarily take time to thrash it out, what was the obvious course? The obvious course was to induce the parties to talk together and to take time to consider it in common and to prolong that discussion. It has been passively assumed by the noble Marquess that the fact that a general strike has broken out was a reason for discontinuing all attempts at further negotiations. That was what I interpreted him as meaning that the Government felt itself driven to—they could not negotiate if a general strike took place. I should have thought that the fact that a general strike took place was the very reason why they should go on. It is all very fine to talk of a general strike as a thing that you will punish, but how are you going to punish the people of this country? Remember who these strikers are? They are the men who fought for you in your great wars.
§ VISCOUNT HALDANE
Noble Lords question that, but I wish that they had seen as much of the miners as some of us have seen, and not only of the miners but of the whole industrial population. They stood firm, they saw you through the Boer War and through the Great War, and they saw you through because they were the embodiment of the national spirit and national determination—a spirit that does not take defeat easily, and is not likely to take defeat easily in the struggle that has broken out. I am not here to go into the question of who has been right in this matter. I am not here to discuss the merits of the matter. We shall have other opportunities very shortly of doing that. But I am here to say that it was, the duty of the Government to lose no opportunity of bringing the conflict to a close as soon as it could possibly be brought to a close, by con- 13 tinued communications of some kind with those with whom they were negotiating, and in such a fashion that at last there might be some chance of this complicated and intricate matter being brought to a decision. As I have said I do not think that the fact that a great strike has broken out is any reason for discontinuing these things.
But then, see what the Government have said in the part of the communiqué which the noble Marquess did not read. In the first place there was what he did read, which was excellent so far as it went; but then they went on to say this:—If the miners or the Trades Union Committee on their behalf were prepared to say plainly that they accept this proposal"—excellent so far as it went—the Government would have been ready to resume the negotiations and to continue the subsidy for a fortnight. But, since the discussions which have taken place between Ministers and members of the Trades Union Committee, it, has come to the knowledge of the Government., not only that specific instructions have been sent (under the authority of the executives of the trade unions represented at the conference convened by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress) directing their members in several of the most vital industries and services of the country to carry out a general strike on Tuesday next, but that overt acts have already taken place, including gross interference with time freedom of the Press.We all know that a well-known newspaper did not come out on Monday because of a dispute raised by the employees as to the character of an article which it proposed to publish. The communiqué proceeds:—Such action involves a challenge to the constitutional rights and Freedom of the nation. His Majesty's Government, therefore, before it can continue negotiations, must require from the Trades Union Committee both a repudiation of the actions referred to that have already taken place and the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the instructions for a general strike.If any step could have been chosen which was more likely to put an end to every chance of peace than that latter part of the communiqué which I have just read, I do not know of it.
From that moment it became hopeless, in the tone and temper that was prevailing then, for further discussion to take place, and I cannot help thinking that other hands than those of the Prime Minister were engaged in the composition 14 of those concluding words. In the letter of reply, signed by the Secretary' of the Trade Union Congress, it was said, as to anticipation of what had been announced for Monday night, that there always were anticipations and the Trade Union Congress could not control them; that as to sporadic interference with individual liberty in objecting to publish newspaper articles, that was a thing of which they knew nothing and for which they were not responsible, and they had not given any such instructions. In that condition of things it will not do for the Government to say: "We are not responsible; we have done our best." They could have done something better than they did and that was to have omitted the last part of the communiqué. They had made perfectly clear what they meant in the earlier part and then they introduced words which made the outbreak and continuance of a general strike inevitable.
I am not here to express any opinion on the merits of the contentions of the two parties; of the Trade Union Congress or of the mine owners—but I do say this, that in a situation so complicated it was the duty of the Government to leave no stone unturned in order to prolong the conversations. The conversations had already resulted in fining down the width of the issues between the parties and some progress had been made towards further discussion. It is obvious that in a ease of this kind a great deal of time is needed for further discussion and anything was worth while which would have averted a condition of things in which hardly a train is running to-day and great sections of the public are in conflict—labour is in conflict with capital. In this condition of things what is the course which is expedient? What is the course which is honourable? The course which is honourable is to look first to the good of the community. Of course, in every strike of this kind the public suffers, and public opinion forces a settlement and the public always pays for that settlement. I have known a number of strikes and I have never known one which was not settled at the expense of the taxpayer and of the community.
I think the real course here was to have worked out this Report and to have taken such steps as could be taken immediately, and with that in view to have continued communications. I do not know what 15 would have been the attitude of the Trades Union Congress, but I do know that there are some very able and reasonable men among them. I do know that these have gone on talking over communications and that they would have gone on talking further if opportunities had been allowed them. But then comes this unfortunate communiqué of the small hours of Monday morning which puts an end to the whole matter. My Lords, is it too late now? A strike has broken out—a grievous strike. The country is threatened with a great evil which it is the duty of the Government to avert if they can. It may be that they have committed themselves so far that they cannot go back on the concluding part of the communiqué. Then let us make the best of the situation. Let the Government not preclude conversations from now going on. Let them not say that the whole thing is at an end and that it is war. I am not sure what the result of this war may be, but I think it is possible that later on the Government may come to the conclusion that it has been a far-reaching one. Even if the unions were defeated on this occasion such is their resolution that they may resume the struggle at the most favourable opportunity. Let no one make the mistake of supposing that these men will flinch from a prolonged struggle. But the men are Englishmen who resemble, in their capacity for seeing both sides, their neighbours, and the situation is one which can be possibly averted if the parties come together again. I myself do not despair of the possibilities of that.
I do not know what the attitude of the men will be. I am not suggesting to the Government that they should make overtures inconsistent with what they have already said, but I suggest that they should lose no opportunity of getting into communication with those with whom they are at feud at the present time with a view of bringing this great strike to an end. I do not know what will be the attitude of the working men now that they see the difficulties of the situation. I do not know whether you might not come to some arrangement under which, it may be, the community would have to bear some share of the burden by which a temporary period might he tided over, but I am certain that the course which has been taken is a rash course and that in 16 the interests of the nation it is very undesirable that anything further should be said on behalf of the Government which involves persistence in the tone of the concluding words of the communiqué of the early hours of Monday morning.
§ THE EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH
My Lords, the noble Marquess was only discharging his duty, if I may venture to say so, in giving to this House a complete narrative of the negotiations which have unfortunately for the moment—and I agree with my noble and learned friend behind me in hoping for not more than a moment—broken down. My noble and learned friend made various criticisms, some of which, I think, were not unjustified, upon the course of those proceedings. But I shall, if I may, in the very few moments that I shall trespass upon your Lordships' time, concentrate attention, not upon the past, but upon the situation in which we actually stand.
A general strike has been declared, and declared by the responsible and representative Council of all the great trade unions of the country. Now there is a very broad and obvious distinction between a general strike and those particular strikes or lock-outs in various industries which have from time to time taken place and which have been painfully frequent in our industrial annals. What distinguishes a general strike from all others is this, that it is a blow, not struck by one combatant at the other, but directed, whether in intention or not in intention by its inevitable results, at the very vitals of the whole community. I did not hear any words from my noble and learned friend behind me that seemed to indicate that he appreciated the gravity of that aspect of the matter. But can there be a more singular and a more lamentable fact than that at a time when we are all, in the international sphere, hymning the praises and propagating the doctrine of disarmament, here at home in England and in Scotland, in the freest of all the free countries of the world, we should be witnessing a resort to an unexampled step—one of the cruellest, because the most undiscriminating, of all forms of warfare?
That, I declare, seems to me to be not only a very regrettable fact, but the one 17 which for the moment dominates the situation. For the essence of a general strike is this, that it inflicts the maximum of inconvenience, of material loss and of suffering, apart from the actual privation of the necessaries of life, upon the innocent mass of the common people, who are not parties to the industrial dispute, who have taken neither the one side nor the other in it, and who have no interest in it whatever, except the common interest which we all have, as members of a great community with interdependent relationships, in the misfortunes and the embarrassments, whoever is responsible for them, of one of our greatest industries.
Now, that is the nature of the campaign which, as I think, unhappily and inadvisedly, was initiated to-day, and I do not see—as I shall show presently, I am not insensible to other aspects of the situation—I do not see how it was possible for any Government not to take up, and to take up promptly and effectually, a challenge so given. They are, after all, to whatever Party they belong, the trustees not only of the lives but of the interests and the common civilised course of commercial and social life of the whole community, and I think we should be wanting in the most elementary instincts both of self-respect and of self-preservation if we did not support heartily and unitedly all efforts, within the bounds, of course, of reason and prudence, which are taken to assert that paramount interest—the interest of the community over all the classes of which it is composed.
Let me add in that connection that I think it is of the utmost importance that, whatever steps are taken, should be taken riot by irresponsible outsiders, but under the direct authority and responsibility of the Government themselves. And I should like further to say, lest there should be any misapprehension as to what I, at any rate, mean, that I repudiate, as every sensible man ought to repudiate, the foolish suggestions put forward in some quarters that this general strike is intended, or at any rate calculated, to be the first step in a wider campaign which has revolution as its method and anarchy as its goal. Nothing can be further from the facts. Whether they are right or wrong in their judgment, a responsible body like the representative Council of 18 the Trades Union Congress—who have shown, as I am sure the noble Marquess will be the first to acknowledge, during the last week or ten days a sincere and strenuous desire to bring about peace and to settle this controversy—are the last people in the world to be accomplices in any such enterprise. They may have erred, and I think they have erred, in judgment, but it is an error in judgment which can easily be retraced, and in the meantime it is the bounden duty of the Government and of all sections of the community to maintain the elementary rights, of freedom and citizenship in this country.
I do not want to leave the matter there. Although, as I said at the outset, the noble Marquess and my noble and learned friend were perfectly justified in giving a narrative of what has taken place and criticisms upon that narrative, I do not think this is an appropriate occasion to go into the precise history of the matter. Quite apart from the general strike, it is a very grave and serious situation, one to which I can remember no parallel, in which we find ourselves today. A year ago, or rather less than a year ago, a respite in this controversy in the coal industry was granted with the authority of Parliament, at a cost to the taxpayers of £24,000,000. What for? Not merely, we assume, to put off and postpone the day of decision, which sooner or later must come. What, then, was it granted for? It was granted in order that in this industry, which in the meantime was being kept artificially alive—for that is the true fact—at the expense of the taxpayer, plans would be matured for the reorganisation which it admittedly needs—no one disputes that; it is conclusively proved in every page of the Report of the Royal Commission—and for what I might call a new departure, a more wholesome, healthy and economic life.
The melancholy fact with which we are confronted—and it is a fact that nobody can dispute—is that those nine or ten months having elapsed arid that vast sum having been contributed by the taxpayer for the purpose which I have described, the respite has been perfectly fruitless in constructive results. Is that disputed? It cannot be. At the moment there is an impasse as complete as there was a year ago. I am not at all dis- 19 posed to press unduly the case which might be made and, indeed, has been made against His Majesty's Government. I am not disposed to do so because I am not myself without experience in this matter. Fourteen years ago we had a very similar state of things in the coal industry. I was then the head of the Government. The miners on that occasion were pressing for a minimum wage. They took the initiative and put forward their demand. It was rejected by the owners, and I and my colleagues strove for the best part of a month with daily interviews, conferences and negotiations between the two parties, to bring them to agreement. And we put forward on our own responsibility an alternative scheme. Our efforts failed. The time expired; the strike began, and it lasted I think, for six weeks; and a most serious state of things it was, not so serious of course in one aspect as that of to-day because, although there was great sympathy with the miners among the various trade unions of the country—a sympathy which I confess I very largely shared—there was then no question of a general strike. Still, the situation was a very grave one.
After work had ceased we tried again to bring them together, unavailingly. Thereupon the Government took what I believe to have been the right course then, and I am not at all sure it will not prove to be the right course now. We took the matter into our own hands. We brought in and passed through both Houses of Parliament a Bill, which was accepted with a great deal of reluctance and a certain amount of assent on the part of the owners and was repudiated upon a ballot by the miners—but we brought in a Bill to establish a minimum wage to be fixed district by district according to the special conditions, and there is no trade in which the conditions vary more than the coal industry. The lines of the Bill may not be fresh in the recollection of some of your Lordships, so may I recall them. It was not a compulsory Bill; it did not compel any mine owner to keep his mine open. It did not compel any miner to go down into the mine and to work in it. What it provided was that if a mine owner opened and worked his mine and if a miner took employment under him and went underground, it should be an implied condition 20 of the contract of service between the two that the miner should be paid at least the minimum rate which, according to the scale prescribed or to be prescribed in time by arbitration in the various districts, was appropriate to the case.
What was the result? I think I told your Lordships that the miners at first rejected the proposal by a ballot. That did not prevent us going on with it. I see my noble friend Lord Balfour in his place. I dare say he remembers that he moved the rejection of that Bill on Second Reading and perhaps he does not. I remember it very well because he made a most formidable attack upon it. Nevertheless, the Bill passed. And it passed through this House, which was a much more remarkable achievement because, it proceeded from a Liberal Government at a time when our relations, if I may put it mildly, were not of the sweetest. But it passed into law. Within two months of the passing of that Act, the miners, after an inconclusive resolution where the majority was not decisive, accepted it, and from that time onwards the minimum wage worked in the coal mines—I am speaking of the time up to the outbreak of the War, and it would have gone on afterwards but for the abnormal conditions produced by the War itself—without any friction or trouble of any sort or kind.
I do not rehearse or refer to that little chapter of history in any spirit of self-glorification, but to say what I think might be useful. The word reorganisation has been constantly used in connection with this matter. As we know from what the noble Marquess has told us, it played a prominent part in the vocabulary of these negotiations. There is nobody, of course, who faces the facts, which so few people are ready to do, or has read the Report of Sir Herbert Samuel's Commission, who does not know that reorganisation in being translated from a phrase into a fact means, in the coal mining industry, the abandonment of uneconomic working—working which can never be made economically profitable under any conditions or on any scale of wages that you like to frame. You have to face that. It is very difficult either for the masters or the men to face it, but it has to be done. That is the essential preliminary, in my opinion, to any effec- 21 tive reorganisation of the industry. It involves very great difficulties. It cannot be done in a fortnight. All these nine months, or at any rate some part of them, ought to have been occupied in working out that problem, if it can be worked out It involves displacement of labour. It involves temporary unemployment. It involves a number of practical difficulties both of management and of finance to which no one is more alive than I am.
But do not conceal from yourselves the fact that you will never get to the root of this matter either as regards wages or hours until you have faced frankly and squarely and with an intelligent appreciation of all relevant and governing conditions, the necessity for reconstruction for the districts, for the mines upon which both capital and labour are being wasted, for the avoidance of duplication, for the concentration of management, and for a number of more or less intricate technical matters. It is not a dying industry at all. On the contrary, even in the course of the last few years, with many rebuffs and disadvantages, we have had opened out in Yorkshire and elsewhere new seams of coal which have been worked with great profit, with good wages and under the best possible conditions. It is not a dying industry, but it is an industry that needs to be reconstructed and put upon a new basis.
I say that in order to come, if I may, to a practical conclusion. I share entirely the view of my noble friend behind me (Viscount Haldane) that this thing ought not to be regarded as at an end. By "this thing" I mean the attempt to arrive at a real, or at any rate a provisional settlement, which will put the matter on its proper footing. I think it is highly desirable that the general strike should cease. I am going to address this suggestion to the owners, or those who represent the owners. Whether the notices they have given are, technically, what are called lock-out notices or not, they should facilitate— as they would facilitate in my opinion—the way to a real accommodation by making it clear to the men that those notices were of a provisional kind and were not in any way to be regarded as hampering the final conclusion. I think myself that a subsidy is vicious in principle. I doubted very much at the time whether as a practical expedient is was justifiable. I think it 22 vicious in principle and that it is the worst example for the industries of this country; yet in these exceptional conditions and for the purpose of bridging over the interim period between the present moment and what I hope will prove to be a real settlement, I should certainly not be indisposed to allow a temporary continuance in some form or other, the least noxious form that can be devised, of something in the nature of a subsidy.
My sole object in intervening in the debate was not merely to strengthen the hands of the Government, which do not need strengthening, in the defence of this menacing attack—for such general strike is—on the interests of the community, of the poorest part of the community as well as the richest, but in order to contribute, if any of us can do so, some real solid suggestion towards an issue from the gravest industrial situation that has ever confronted us. I trust that not only in this debate but in the deliberations of His Majesty's Government and in such approaches as they may make, or as may be made to them on behalf of the interests concerned, they will, as I am sure they will, bear in mind that the door ought not to be closed but ought to be left open, that there should be, as I believe there is, a total absence of rancour and ill-will upon the one side or the other. This is a dispute which has been conducted in the greatest good temper and good feeling between the combatants and, if those conditions are satisfied, I am not without hope that within a very short distance of time we shall find ourselves once more within at any rate a measurable distance of industrial peace.
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, I do not know if I may intervene for one or two moments in order to explain the position of the shareholders' representatives in connection with this dispute. I think I am the only individual in either House of Parliament who has been through all the negotiations that have taken place in connection with this deplorable dispute and the present still more deplorable situation. I have lived among miners all my life. I have been elected over and over again to represent mining constituencies, both in another place and in the county council, and I am glad that my leader has alluded to the fact that between those who are 23 called coal owners and the miners there is not at the present time any rancour or ill-temper.
But a situation has arisen which more than one individual has referred to as due to no fault on either the part of the owners or the miners. The position was well described by Mr. Thomas in another place as one which, whatever the result, would aggravate the economic facts, and one that would have to be faced later on if there was not a quick determination of the present situation. It is true that it is an economic position that has to be faced. Before passing to speak of the attitude that the Trades Union Congress has taken up I want to say this in regard to the Government, that in the negotiations which have recently taken place Mr. Baldwin has shown nothing but tact and patience and he has conducted the negotiations in a way that has won the admiration both of the miners and the coal owners.
The Trades Union Congress, in my judgment, made a lamentable error in declaring, out of sympathy with the miners, a general strike. It was very plain to those who heard Mr. Thomas's speech yesterday that the Trades Union Congress was influenced by two circumstances which they have absolutely misunderstood. One was in regard to the fact that notices had been issued by the owners, which the Trades Union Congress representatives regarded as prejudicing negotiations. Another point was that the only offer that had been made by the coal owners was made at 1.15 on Friday last, and that it was not fair to the miners to have placed upon them the decision upon an offer made at the eleventh hour when they had not time to consider it.
What I have to say in regard to the notices to which the noble Earl has just referred is this. The House will recollect that under the arrangement which the coal owners made with the Government last July the owners had no agreement whatever with the men. What we undertook with the Government was to continue to pay a certain rate of wages, which the Government had arranged with the men should be paid to them. With the help of the subsidy we carried out the obligation that we entered into with the Government. The country, as a whole ought to have realised that there was no agreement which had to be terminated 24 by notices from the employers. That was obvious to the men, and, in an interview with their representative only a week or two ago, they admitted that we had no alternative but to give them the notices and they indicated that they expected those notices. And those notices, such as they were, were only an indication that at the end of April the subsidy ceased and that we wished to enter into negotiations with them with the view of making a new agreement, a new national agreement in regard to wages.
We informed them that we should post at the collieries the terms which we were prepared to offer on the 1st of May. We asked them in the interval to come and talk over what rates of wages should be posted at the collieries, and especially in the export districts, which could not carry on even for a short space of time without that subsidy. The men declined to meet us in the districts, although it was only in the districts that we could talk over these questions face to face, and determine with them what rate of wages we could offer, because so much depended upon the men's attitude in the districts. We recognised that in the export districts a large number of collieries would have to go out of operation in any event. Losses were obviously coming upon those collieries, and it was necessary for the men to realise that a large number of them in any event would be thrown out of work, and that according to the wages which would be offered in the districts so would be the number of collieries affected and the number of men who would be thrown out of work.
As the men declined to meet us in the districts, and would only discuss wages nationally on a uniform minimum basis, we arranged that we should post up at the earliest possible day the best offer which we could make. The offer was made on the basis of the seven hours' statutory working day which at present operates, and Mr. Evan Williams, speaking to the men on April 13, made it quite clear that it was no use our then making any better offer. These are the words he used on April 13:—The question of the length of the working day—the distribution of the hours—is one which, of course, requires legislation, and it is perfectly clear … that it would be only upon an agreement between you and us that Parliament would inter- 25 vene upon a question of that kind.… If the attitude you indicate is in effect that you are not prepared to consider either the increasing of the length of the working day—Mr. COOK: Hear, hear.The CHAIRMAN: or of the working week, or of any distribution of the hours, with the object of giving greater flexibility for working more hours on one day or less on another, or in any way that may be agreed—if that is your view, that you say you are not prepared to consider any variation of any kind in the present position in regard to working hours, then I do not think it would be wise for us to take up any time in discussing that matter. I take it from what you indicate now that that is the position you take up?Mr. Cook: That is soTherefore it was perfectly obvious to us that the only offer which the men were prepared to entertain at that moment was that of the wages which we could offer to pay in the districts under the existing hours.
We placed before the men, we handed to every man, the terms upon which we could open collieries, and in the exporting districts, where the notices were imperative, we stated that instead of asking for any profit we would carry on on terms which left us no profit whatsoever in the industry as ascertained by the accountants on either side from the books of the companies during the months of December, January and February. We all knew that prices had receded since that time, and in many districts the offer we made to the men involved from 1s to 2s. per ton loss in even carrying on the collieries on the offer we made on April 22. Therefore it is quite wrong to suggest that no offers were made to the men until last Monday. The reason that another offer was made to the men on Friday on the basis of an alteration of the law was that the Government indicated to us that they thought, as the men were not prepared to accept the substantial reduction of wages which our offers in the exporting districts indicated, that we ought to offer them what wages we could on the terms of a national minimum wage. Although it was much against the grain to offer a national minimum wage, when we believed the minimum ought to vary district by district, rather than let it be a stumbling block we agreed to offer a minimum wage which the noble Marquess has explained to the House.
26 But I ought to make it quite clear, in regard to the giving of notices to the men, that there were many districts which gave no notices at all. Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Cannock Chase and Warwickshire never gave any notices to the men at all, but the men all came out on Monday without any notice having been given by the employers and broke their contracts with their employers, although those districts, for a time at any rate, were prepared to pay the wages even without the subsidy. I hope it is realised that the Trades Union Congress, in making a point that we made an offer only at the last moment, was in error. The Trades Union Congress, in believing that negotiations were prejudiced by the character of the notices which were put up, is really wrong because the men knew absolutely what the economic position of the industry was and they knew what percentages could be paid by the results of the ascertainment of their own accountants taken from our books.
The one great difficulty with which we have been faced and which the public has not fully realised, is that the miners have been absolutely consistent all the way through in these negotiations in refusing to entertain any question of either alteration of wages or extension of hours with the view of meeting the situation. The point was made abundantly clear at every meeting which we had with the men and it prevented negotiations coming to a satisfactory conclusion. We met the men on March 25, I think it was, on March 31, on April 1, on April 13 and on April 22, and on every one of these occasions the men said exactly the same thing to us: We are not prepared to consider any recommendation of the Coal Commission which deals with the reduction of wages or the extension of hours.
The Prime Minister asked us to meet together in his presence on April 23 and on page 14 of The Times of April 24 you will find the words which Mr. Herbert Smith, the Miners' President, spoke to Mr. Baldwin. He said:—We are open to discuss wages nationally. We are open to discuss an agreement nationally. We are not open to consider an extension of hoursAnd he went on to say—and we do not see any possibility of asking our men to submit to a reduction of the low wages they get at the present time.27 That was quite definite, and the whole position has been made difficult throughout these negotiations because the men on their side, whilst anxious for the reorganisation which the coal-owners have accepted along with the other recommendations of the Coal Commission, have not been prepared to deal with those paragraphs in the Report which called for some sacrifices from them.
Mr. Evan Williams, speaking on April 13, used these words to the men:The Commission suggests a good many things that we ought to do in regard to the matter, and we have accepted that position and expressed our willingness to do what we can—what it is possible to do, what it is practicable to do—in those directions. The Commission made certain suggestions in regard to the things which affect you directly, and it seems to us that in the resolutions of your conference, which you submitted to us last week, in effect you say that you are not prepared to do any of themThe resolutions were those passed by the representatives of the trade unions who conferred with the men, and they sent us a letter on April 9 to say that they would consider only the question of a national minimum wage but that they would not consider any extension of hours or any alteration of wages.
Yesterday in the House of Commons, however, a different tone pervaded the speeches made on behalf of the Trades Union Congress, and Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, so far as I could understand him—and I listened very attentively to all that he said—expressed his view that the miners were adopting that attitude with regard to hours and wages only for negotiating purposes. If the miners are prepared to come down from their pedestal, if I may use the word—though it is a natural ambition on their part that they should work as few hours as possible and receive the same rate of wages as they have been having—and will discuss this matter again openly, it seems to me that there will be a possibility of the two sides coming together and trying to deal with the economic situation. At any rate, it might lead to an alteration of the attitude of those who are parties to the national strike, which is so regrettable and which is opposed not only to the interests of the nation but to the interests of those who are hoping to maintain the rates of wages that they have hitherto 28 been receiving. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald said that no doubt the Trades Union Congress were influenced by the feeling which pervades all sections of the working classes that reductions are in the air, and they wished to prevent those reductions taking place. It seems to me that the one way to accelerate the reduction of wages is by means of a national strike which will cause our industries to be held up. I am hopeful that wiser counsels may prevail and that this deplorable situation may terminate as rapidly as possible. At any rate I shall do my utmost to do what I can to maintain a position of a conciliatory character and I hope that before long better counsels may prevail and we may be brought together
§ THE MARQUESS OF LONDONDERRY
My Lords, it is with great diffidence that I venture on this very important occasion to address your Lordships, but I do feel that it is the paramount duty of every one of us, and especially of those who are associated with the coal industry, to do whatever lies in their power to avert the great catastrophe that is hanging over our heads at the present moment. The noble Lord who has just spoken has given to your Lordships various facts and details which it is well for your Lordships to know, but I somehow feel that in a short time we shall have passed far beyond those details, which may be said perhaps to be the origin of the dangers with which we are threatened. The ostensible reason for the situation in which we find ourselves is the dispute that has long been pending and has finally developed to its present dimensions in the coal industry. It certainly seems a trivial excuse, if I may use that expression, for the devastating catastrophe which is hanging over our heads at the present moment; and, indeed, it is trivial in itself, however important the Mining Association and the Federation may be to those who are actually engaged in the industry, for the leading men of both organisations are at present merely figures representing a struggle of a far deeper and far wider significance.
The great problem that we are in process of solving, and the solution of which may cost us so dear, is whether Government as we know it is based on foundations capable of sustaining the obligations and the responsibilities of 29 modern life. This sectional quarrel shows us that there is in the minds of the working people of this country a growing apprehension that a direct attack is being made upon our standard of living—an apprehension which must, in my judgment, be for ever removed or recurring catastrophes of this description will mark our history until we no longer exist as a Great Power. This is not an occasion for apportioning blame to any person or, perhaps, to any organisation, and certainly we should not give ourselves over to counsels of despair. There are many shades of differing opinion in this country that are united in their desire to arrive at a solution and yet find themselves paralysed and their efforts neutralised by some fear of receding from a position that has once been taken up, and these trivial influences have the opportunity of wielding a power far beyond their intrinsic significance.
The British nation is being held up to the ridicule of the nations of the world. After all, what has been our position through many centuries? We have been leaders in every direction. Our habits, our ideas, our institutions, are the models in almost every country. We have proclaimed throughout the world our mission of bringing peace through all its confines. We have restrained the strong and we have supported the weak. And we have not done these things through some strange accident but we have attained this position by the inherent genius of the British race, which has set up the highest standards and has displayed real talents of administration. And yet, notwithstanding the position that we have achieved and that has been accepted on al sides, we are confronted with a situation which, if allowed to develop, will brand us as hopelessly incompetent in the management of our own affairs. We are confronted with immense difficulties. In the first place the Government is threatened with a national strike, with the holding up of the vital services of this country. They are in a position from which they cannot possibly recede. They cannot possibly recede from that position without handing over the reins of Government to another Government, and what will that Government he, and if confronted, as they would be, with exactly the same problem, how would they deal with it? Therefore in my judgment it is 30 incumbent upon every right-minded citizen not to bring forward recriminations, not to say what ought to have been done, but to range himself behind the Government in establishing the power which we expect the Government to have.
In my opening remarks I said that I felt that any one of us who is associated with that industry, which unfortunately, although similar in a great many respects to other industries in this country, has been the medium by which this situation has been reached, should do everything in his power to avert this great catastrophe with which the country is threatened. I come to the owners. I would not on this occasion think of touching upon any controversial subject with regard to the trade, hot, I would ask you, What can the owners do? They have taken up a position of continuing the industry as long as they possibly can, and only saying at the last possible moment that they cannot continue that industry without a very severe loss. When I come to the men, what is their difficulty? What is the difficulty which faces the workers throughout the country and impels their leaders to take up a position from which they refuse to recede? It is the question of wages, and if you think of all the disputes with which we have been confronted, it has always been a question of wages. Whilst it is a word which is not an attractive one to use, it is the index of the standard of living in this country, which we one and all, and your Lordships most certainly, are determined to maintain at a level which we believe that the situation which we have achieved, and civilisation, not only expect but demand.
Therefore, when we consider the controversy with which we are faced, it is necessary that we should realise the suspicion which underlies the action of all labour in this country. The position of a Labour leader is by no means an easy one. Tie achieves the position which he holds by certain great qualities, by certain great talents, but by certain great weaknesses. By those weaknesses I mean the exploitation of the most advanced section of those whom he seeks to command, and we find that most of our Labour leaders at the present moment are in a hopelessly difficult position. They have achieved almost the summit of their ambition, and are now called 31 upon to carry out the undertakings which, in perhaps their more irresponsible moments, they have given. We must remember that if they falter in their doctrines there are many others who are ready to take their places, and therefore we are confronted with men at the head of organisations of Labour who are not leaders in the real sense of the word, but who, by the power that they have achieved, speak ostensibly in the names of people whom they represent in no sense of the word.
We find ourselves threatened by a general strike, which is entirely against the ideas of the great majority of the people of this country, and I feel that it is necessary for us, as far as we can, to make a bridge which will enable Labour to come forward and to show that it is thoroughly loyal in itself to the institutions of this country. In these debates it is important that those of us who venture to address you should have some solution of the difficulties with which we are faced. I venture to say that it is impossible for the Government to recede from the position that they have taken up; I have endeavoured to point out that the owners are in a position in which they can make no further advance whatever; but in this dispute, which is the origin of the situation in which we find ourselves at the present moment, if the men's leaders can be persuaded to discuss the question of wages, and to discuss the question of hours, and by that a bridge can be made for the purpose of negotiating with the Government, I believe we shall go a long way towards solving the difficulties with which we are faced.
It is not my intention to detain your Lordships. That I believe is the road along which the solution of these difficulties lies, and I only hope that those leaders of the men who have been in responsible positions in the Government, and who know the difficulties which face all Governments, and who know the importance of a Government maintaining the rights of those whom it governs—I hope that they will be able to come forward and furnish a means of negotiation between the warring parties in this great dispute.
§ LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM
My Lords, I do not wish to detain you more than one moment, but I should like to 32 suggest to the Government a way by which I think this dispute might be ended in a very short time. I suggest that the Government should do a very simple thing, that they should bring in a short Bill which might be passed in both Houses in possibly two days, and certainly in three days—a Bill to repeal the Trade Disputes Act, 1906. All that is necessary is to say that the Trade Disputes Act, 1906, is hereby repealed—a one clause Bill which would be passed in this House in one day, and in the other House probably in one day and certainly in two. As your Lordships know, under the Trade Disputes Act a number of people may congregate anywhere they like, and, by what is known as peaceful picketing, prevent any one doing that which he is desirous of doing. Before that Act was passed any congregation of more than three people was illegal, and therefore it was possible to prevent people who are, I believe at the present moment, desirous of doing their work, from being interfered with, and, in addition, if a trade union did any illegal act its funds could be taken.
As the law is at the present moment the funds of trades unions cannot be touched, however wrongly they act, and by what is wrongly called peaceful picketing they can prevent people from doing their work. I saw something of it in the strike in 1914, when I was Chairman of the Great Northern Railway. The "peace' consisted in knocking people about, destroying their clothes, and preventing them from doing that which they wished. Unless something of this sort is done we shall be open to a recurrence of these things. Once the trade unions think that, by making a general strike and putting people to inconvenience, they can gain something, they will do it. And the only way that I can see to prevent this is to repeal that pernicious Act, which was passed some years ago. I certainly shall introduce a Bill to repeal it myself, if the Government do not do so
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (THE EARL OF BALFOUR)
My Lords, I think the House will probably expect some member from this Bench to get up before the close of a debate which, from the difficulty of the position in which the country now finds itself, derives an importance even greater than that which is conferred upon it by the speeches which 33 have been delivered this afternoon. Those speeches have been of great interest, and—though I do not know what the powers of reporting and of diffusing reports may be at the present time—I hope the debate will be read, that it will be considered by all Parties, and that they will judge from that, as I think they can judge from it, what the real merits of the present critical situation are.
I do not propose to make a speech on the subject. The matter which is most in my mind, which, I think, is most in the minds of all of us, has already been dealt with by the Leader of the Liberal Party in a speech which, in spite of its moderation of tone, was of extraordinary cogency, and every word of which, in; so far at least as it referred to the general strike, met, I think, with agreement in almost every quarter of the House. The case could not be put better. Certainly I am incapable of adding anything of importance to it, and it is, after all, the real case which is before us at the present time. There are no doubt subsidiary and not unimportant subjects which have been raised by the various speakers who have addressed your Lordships, on one of which at all events I will venture to make a very short comment.
It was the noble Earl, the Leader of the Liberal Party in the House, who, I think, expressed his disapproval of the policy of the Government in regard of the subvention of the coal industry. He said, what everybody will agree with, that it was a dangerous course. He said, what everybody will agree with, that it is a precedent that might easily be abused; but I think, if he will remember what he himself said, that the present crisis through which we are passing is one absolutely without precedent in our history, and I believe it is without precedent in any industry of any country—if he will reflect on that I think he will see that, in spite of the perfectly sound and solid objections which almost everybody feels to the policy of public subvention of an industry in difficulty, the policy of the Government was not only desirable in the situation as it appeared to us at the time, but was of the greatest possible value, even when we look back upon it with the knowledge which comes from experience, and for which no skill of anticipation can be a substitute.
34 Where should we be now at this moment if the £24,000,000, which some regard as wasted, had not been spent on giving the nine months interval for the Coal Commission to make their investigations? Even now there are some questions in dispute, some points unsettled, with regard to the condition of the coal trade, but where should we have been unless we had had the authoritative decision of a Commission, whose industry, whose ability, whose insight into the situation has been disputed by nobody, by no Party, by no party to the dispute—not even, so far as I know, by the most vehement of controversialists; where should we be if we had not that Report before us on which to frame our judgment on the present situation? Now we know exactly where the industry stands. Now we know, on authority which cannot be disputed, which is open to every man to test for himself, which has been commented upon, has been critically examined by all Parties, all sections of the community—now we know for certain that the position of the industry is such that it cannot under existing conditions be carried on except at a loss. And we know that the only possible way of making the industry self-supporting, until the reconstitution takes place, is by some modification either of the hours or of the remuneration of the miners.
The miners reiterate, and reiterate again, and reiterate yet again, that they will have no modification either of hours or of remuneration. But the country now knows that, though that may express a most desirable ideal, though, indeed, it is the ideal which we should all like to see carried out, it is in existing circumstances an absolutely impracticable ideal, and no number of strikes, no arraying of hostile forces, not even a revolution, were a revolution possible or practicable, could alter that economic fact which stares us in the face, and which we should never have realised in the same way in which it is realised now, had it not been for the complete, able, lucid, arid impartial Inquiry, which was only rendered possible under the existing circumstances by the subsidy.
I therefore personally have never wavered in my view that, though the subsidy was a most regrettable necessity, a necessity it was; and I believe that when the historian comes to look back 35 upon the issue, whatever it may be—and I pretend to no power of prophecy—he will say that by giving that chance to the whole community and to the whole world in so far as it takes an interest in our affairs, to understand the real inward verities of the very difficult and complicated situation, an immeasurable benefit was conferred on the community, an immense strength upon those who really are struggling to arrive at a fair and a possible solution. I therefore confess that I listen with very great indifference to the hostile comments, plausible as they seem, which commonly take the form in such conversations as I have had on the subject of saying: "You have spent £24,000,000 sterling in getting this Report and you are no better off than you were before the Report began to be considered" On the contrary, we are; we know what is possible and what is right. It must be, and is, a strength to everybody in the very difficult situation in which every man now finds himself, that he has the economic case which is now being fought over placed before him in a light so clear and so unmistakable.
Unfortunately, we have got beyond the economic case. The Leader of the Liberal Party, my noble friend Lord Oxford and Asquith, has told us in language which I am sure will not be bettered and will not be easily forgotten, what the position is that knowingly or unknowingly—I believe largely unknowingly—the trade unions have placed us in. They seem to regard this as—in fact I think their secretary contended that they were—merely carrying out a trade dispute. That is an impossible position to maintain. The ordinary machinery of a strike in which the employers and the employed fight it out and finally, after much mutual injury, come to an agreement is, as we must all admit, a very wasteful and very costly method of settling trades disputes; but, after all, it is a trade dispute; it is nothing more, or very little more, than a trade dispute. When you see what has happened already in the last twenty-four hours, the inconvenience, the worse than inconvenience which has been inflicted on vast and perfectly innocent sections of the community—as the noble Earl said very often the poorest of the poor—how can you call that a mere trade dispute?
If you consider its ulterior consequences, if you conceive the position in 36 which we would be placed were the Government to recede from their position, were they to hand over the trust which the country has imposed upon them to the trade unions, who, even if they consisted of people of exceptional moderation and ability, have not the machinery for governing a great country, after all—if we were to hand over all our responsibilities to them, under the guise of having settled a trade dispute in a particular fashion, we should really have accomplished one of the most disastrous and tragic revolutions of which history gives any account whatever. It is an impossible thought. Whatever else may be done, that cannot be done. I think we all feel, certainly I do, that while the coal issue is one of the biggest and most difficult industrial problems that any Government has ever had to face, it sinks into absolute insignificance compared with that other problem of the governance of this country, which I believe, quite unwittingly in the main—there are some who know exactly what they are doing—has been brought upon us by men, I well believe, of moderation and thought, of excellent intentions and with no desire but to stand loyally by their unions, but who, in carrying out those estimable objects seem not to understand that they are upsetting the slow labour of centuries by which this people have built up their liberties.
That is really the issue before the country. That is the issue which I do not think the noble Viscount opposite realised in the observations he made. It is the issue which my noble friend Lord Oxford and Asquith brought before us in his admirable speech. It is the issue which I am sure is present to your Lordships' House, and I hope and believe that the spirit displayed in that speech, echoed as it was in every part of your Lordships' House, animates not merely those to whom it was addressed but the whole community throughout the country. If that is so, I have good hope that this quite unexpected and absolutely unexampled crisis in our constitutional history will be passed over without permanent damage to our Constitution. I regard that as the vital issue before us and the issue which is raised, after all, by the Resolution which has been moved at the instance of the Government. That is the great issue.
37 In regard to the other issue, certainly the Government are most anxious to do everything in their power to carry out their side of the bargain. They are most anxious to do what they have said they are ready to do—which is, among other things, to further the reconstruction of the mines. But I am afraid I see no possibility of this economic problem being solved, whatever happens, unless some modification is found to be possible in the attitude of the men. That is the plain issue on the economic side with which we are all faced. It has been discussed hour after hour in Downing Street under the presidency of the Prime Minister, whose admirable labours in the cause of peace are recognised, I am delighted to see, by men of all Parties and opinions. It has been discussed over and over again. Every argument has been before those who have discussed it. Every opportunity for making suggestions has been open to those engaged in these discussions. But hour after hour has passed and no solution, no beginning of a solution so far as I know, has been suggested which does not involve some concession on the part of the men with regard either to hours or to wages during, at all events, that interval which must inevitably pass whatever you do and however you hurry on the process, before the process of reconstruction can be brought to a successful issue. Those are the two plain issues that are before us now. The economic issues can only he solved by sonic modification either of hours or wages. The other issue, the greater issue, the issue of the Constitution of this country, can only be solved if the country realises the danger before it, takes the only steps by which that danger can be avoided and perseveres in those steps to the end
§ On Question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente, and Address ordered to be presented to His Majesty by the Lords with White Staves