28 March 1979, Westminster, United Kingdom
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) was good enough at the beginning of his speech to make a few kindly references to myself. Therefore, it would be churlish if I did not comment upon them. I had intended to start my speech by making a few remarks on the speeches of the representatives of the smaller parties. However, let me say at once to the right hon. Gentleman that I was especially gratified that he quoted—accurately for a change—my words at the Moss Side by-election. So effective were my words on that occasion, and so overwhelming was the force of my argument, that a good Labour Member was returned to the House of Commons. I am not saying that it was entirely due to my words on that occasion, but it shows that the right hon. Gentleman has not picked on the most damning of all indictments against me for what I might have said.
I shall return later to the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition. First, I should like to refer to some of the extremely important speeches that have been made by representatives of the smaller parties in the House. I do not know whether all hon. Members understand that this is a House in which smaller parties have rights. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not know why Conservative Members should jeer so readily. It would be discourteous of me not to reply to those speeches.
I refer first to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I am glad that there were a considerable number of hon. Members in the Chamber for my hon. Friend's speech. All those who heard it, whatever their views, would have been deeply moved.
576 My hon. Friend proved again what we on this side of the House have always recognised—that he is a man of great courage and great honour. The House is wise to heed what he says.
I did not agree with everything that my hon. Friend said about the Government and our conduct in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend is one of my oldest friends in the House, and I believe that when he comes to review everything that he said he will recognise that there were some unjust comments on what has been done by my right hon. Friends. Nevertheless, I respect his speech. Of course, I would have preferred that my hon. Friend could have made a peroration in which he said that he would come into the Lobby with us, but even though that peroration was absent it does not detract from the admiration felt by every hon. Member who heard his speech.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) also speaks for Northern Ireland. He is well aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made a statement just under a year ago on many of the matters that the hon. Gentleman touched on. We are pursuing those policies faithfully and properly. Anyone who reviews what the Government have done in that area cannot doubt the straightforwardness and honesty with which we have approached the problems. I do not believe that the hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland, on both sides of the House, can question what I am saying.
I believe that the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and his party have made an error in the way that they propose to vote. However misguided the right hon. Gentleman may be if he adheres to his apparent resolution to vote in the Lobby with those who are most bitterly opposed to the establishment of a Scottish Assembly, hon. Members who heard his speech must acknowledge the remarkable allegiance that the right hon. Gentleman commands from his followers. It is one of the wonders of the world. There has bean nothing quite like it since the armies of ancient Rome used to march into battle. It is only now that we see the right hon. Gentleman in his full imperial guise.
Hail Emperor, those about to die salute you. 577 Which brings me to the Leader of the Liberal Party. He knows that I would not like to miss him out. I am sure that I shall elicit the support and sympathy of the right hon. Lady when I say that she and I have always shared a common interest in the development of this young man. If the right hon. Lady has anything to say about the matter, I shall be happy to give way to her. I should very much like to know, as I am sure would everybody else, what exactly happened last Thursday night. I do not want to misconstrue anything, but did she send for him or did he send for her—or did they just do it by billet-doux? Cupid has already been unmasked. This is the first time I have ever seen a Chief Whip who could blush. He has every right to blush. Anybody who was responsible for arranging this most grisly of assignations has a lot to answer for.
That brings me to the right hon. Lady. I have never in this House or elsewhere, so far as I know, said anything discourteous to her, and I do not intend to do so. I do not believe that is the way in which politics should be conducted. That does not mean that we cannot exchange occasional pleasantries. What the right hon. Lady has done today is to lead her troops into battle snugly concealed behind a Scottish nationalist shield, with the boy David holding her hand.
I must say to the right hon. Lady—and I should like to see her smile—that I am even more concerned about the fate of the right hon. Gentleman than I am about her. She can look after herself. But the Leader of the Liberal Party—and I say this with the utmost affection—has passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.
I hope that the House will excuse me if I refer to some of the speeches made by representatives of the smaller parties. Although there have been occasional mischievous attacks made on politicians in this House, and sometimes occasionally on myself, I believe that, especially in a Parliament where there is no absolute majority, it is the duty of the Leader of the House to be prepared to enter into conversation with representatives of all parties. What is more, there is not one spokesman or representative of any smaller party in this House who can say that I have misled him on any occasion in any conversation I have had with him. I 578 believe that that process assists the House in transacting its business, and I believe that the House of Commons will come to learn that.
Let me turn to the central theme of the right hon. Lady's speech. She quoted a book which was written by Anthony Crosland, who was a good friend of hon. Members who sit on the Labour Benches. I hope that she will not mind if I quote from a book, published not so long ago, by Reginald Maudling. I do not do this as a taunt, but I believe that it is of major significance to the House in deciding the vote and to the country at large in the more general debate over the coming weeks and months. It concerns a matter of major significance to our country over the past seven or eight years. Mr. Maud-ling wrote of his experience in the Shadow Cabinet: From the start, there was a tendency in the Shadow Cabinet to move away from the Heath line of policy further to the Right: to this I was totally opposed. In particular, I could not support the arguments of Keith Joseph, who was inclined to say that all we had done in the Government of 1970–74 was wrong and not true Conservatism. I totally disagreed with this, because it seemed to me that Keith was fully entitled to measure himself for a hair shirt if he wanted to, but I was blowed if I could see why he should measure me and Ted at the same time. I am sorry that we do not have the assistance of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). That was just a prelude, and Mr. Maudling continued: I could not help recalling Selsdon Park, and the swing to the Right in our policies which occurred then, and how long it had taken in Government to get back to the realities of life. I feared that the same thing was beginning to happen again. I believe that that is an authentic account of what happened in the Shadow Cabinet when the right hon. Lady, out of passionate conviction, led her party back to the Selsdon Park policies. That is the reality of the matter and the reason why the right hon. Lady has never succeeded in securing full political cooperation with the right hon. Member for Sidcup. There is still a great gulf between Selsdon Park Conservatives and those who learnt, in the words of Mr. Maudling, "the realities of life". That comes from someone with great experience in the 1970–74 Government.
Some of us believe that a major purpose in politics is to ensure that our country shall not again have to live 579 through the situation in the period 1970 to 1974. What the right hon. Lady is proposing, which is confirmed by Mr. Maudling's experience inside the Shadow Cabinet, is retreading that path. Nothing more disastrous could happen to our country, not only in industrial relations, which is perhaps most strongly branded on the public's mind, but in almost all areas. It was part of the Selsdon Park policy to abandon support for British industry, drive us into the Common Market on the most disadvantageous terms, and return to the naked laissez-faire policies of the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph). Those are the policies to which the right hon. Lady has led her party. I give her full credit. She does it because she believes in it. She would hardly deny it. Or will she deny it and pretend that on this issue she has some special new policy of her own?
The Leader of the Opposition has not been able to explain very successfully to the House her special policy for dealing with devolution. We have made a proposal, but the Leader of the Opposition said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) that she proposed—and I think that this is a fair summary of what she said—talks about talks about talks about talks. That is her proposal for devolution. In fact, I think that my summary of her reply is rather complimentary because what she really proposes is to do nothing at all—[HON. MEMBERS: "Good."] Conservative Back Benchers shout "Good" and the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) shouts louder than anyone, but the Leader of the Opposition has, on the devolution question, torn up all the original policies of her party—the ones on which they fought the last general election—and now she proposes to do nothing. She has no proposals for a Scottish Assembly or any form of devolution or progress in that direction.
If that is her course, she has come round in a big circle. I will not say full circle, because she has never been very much in favour of devolution. She has torn up the proposals that her party put forward in "The Right Approach" not so many years ago. At that time she said: 580 in our view the Union is more likely to be harmed by doing nothing than by responding to the wish of the people of Scotland for less government from the centre. What the right hon. Lady is doing is what she said a few years ago she was not prepared to do.
We believe that if this House says that it will wipe the Scotland Act off the statute book without proper consideration, very serious injury could be inflicted on the United Kingdom and on the Union itself. This House of Commons should pay resepect to the referendum, even if it does not comply with the full requirement of 40 per cent. laid down in the Bill. It was on that basis that we made our proposal to the right hon. Lady and to the other parties. If we win the vote tonight, we will renew these proposals. I hope that every section of the House, whatever its preliminary views on the matter, will be prepared to discuss these issues afresh, otherwise there will be a deep gulf and breach, which will grow in years to come, between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. That would be a highly dangerous development. I hope that Conservatives will have second thoughts on the subject.
In her speech today, the right hon. Lady sought to make us forget what happened in the years of the previous Conservative Government. She also sought to give a very peculiar impression of the kind of legacy the Conservatives left behind for the Labour Government who came to power in 1974. It is interesting to note the things that she did not mention at all. She did not say a word about the balance of payments. I do not know whether she regards that as a matter of any significance. The fact is that the deficit in our balance of payments in the year that she and her right hon. Friends left office was the biggest in our history—even bigger than the deficit that the Tory Party left us in 1964. But of course she wants all that to be wiped away from the public memory. She wants to have wiped away from the public memory also the real figures of the rate of inflation when the Conservatives left office—what is more, a rising rate of inflation. There was a rate of inflation of 14 per cent. in February, with 15 per cent. and more in the pipeline, and a prophecy then of 20 per cent.—
§ Mr. Rost
What about 8.4 per cent.?
§ Mr. Foot
We have heard the old parrot cry from all the right hon. and hon. parrots before, and I dare say that they will utter it again. We shall hear it all through the general election campaign, but it will not alter the fact that the Conservatives left us a rising rate of inflation, zooming upwards, with threshold payments inbuilt to make the rate of inflation continue upwards. That is what they left us, and what we have done is to bring the rate down to less than half what it was when the right hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends were put out of office. That is another of the major aspects of what has occurred that the Conservatives wish to leave out of the reckoning.
Worst of all, perhaps, the greatest disservice that the right hon. Lady does to the country in the way in which she presents the argument is that she seeks to pretend that all the burdens and problems that we have had to contend with in the past four years—and nobody can say that the storm has not been a fierce one—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] The Conservatives think that there is no storm blowing outside. So ignorant are they of the outside world that they think that there is a storm blowing only here. So incompetent and ill equipped are they to try to put things right that they do not even trouble to know what is happening in other parts of the world.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister goes to conferences to meet the leaders of the United States, Japan and other countries, all that the right hon. Lady and her friends can do in the House is to jeer and sneer as if those were matters of no significance. Moreover, the right hon. Lady does something worse. She says that in some way or other this country has been demeaned in the councils of the world during these past four years. There is no basis for that. It is not what the leaders of the other countries say; it is only what the Leader of the Opposition in this country says. That is not what the other countries have said about the policies that we have advocated at the summit meetings.
Why does not the right hon. Lady say whether she agrees or disagrees with the propositions that we have put at those summit meetings? It is because she wishes to mislead the people of this country into thinking that there is a problem only 582 here, that there is no problem in the wider world. We have had this from the Conservative Party on many occasions before. It has happened so often in our history, and I believe that it will happen again in the coming months when the public go to the polls to decide the issue. The argument must be lifted from the levels where the right hon. Lady would have it to the level of seeing what is happening to our country as a whole. Anyone who looks can see a very different story from the one told by the right hon. Lady today.
It is not the case that we have failed to grapple with all the problems in the past four years. We have started to deal with them, even with the limited power that we have had in this House. We have also, despite all the storms, despite all the setbacks, despite all the hardships, carried out major programmes of social reform at the same time. It is because we were determined to carry out those social changes, those social reforms, those improvements in the social services, despite all the difficulties, determined to share better the wealth produced by this country, even if that wealth was not as great as we wanted to it to be, that we have been able to weather the storm and prepare for other times.
So what will happen? What will once again be the choice at the next election? It will not be so dissimilar from the choice that the country had to make in 1945, or even in 1940 when the Labour Party had to come to the rescue of the country—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]
It was on a motion of the Labour Party that the House of Commons threw out the Chamberlain Government in 1940. It was thanks to the Labour Party that Churchill had the chance to serve the country in the war years. Two-thirds of the Conservative Party at that time voted for the same reactionary policies as they will vote for tonight. It is sometimes in the most difficult and painful moments of our history that the country has turned to the Labour Party for salvation, and it has never turned in vain. We saved the country in 1940, and we did it again in 1945. We set out to rescue the country—or what was left of it—in 1974. Here 583 again in 1979 we shall do the same—[Interruption.]