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Leader's speech, 1955

Anthony Eden (Conservative)

Location: [Location]

Commentary:

This conference was the first since Eden replaced Churchill as Prime Minister. It also followed the Conservatives’ general election victory of 26 May. According to Eden, the government was making progress in solving Britain’s economic difficulties, but it still needed to increase production and further improve industrial relations. He also outlined measures designed to reduce the burden of National Service. A key event in international politics was the Geneva Summit, the aim of which was to find ways of easing international tensions. Here, Britain, France, the USA and the Soviet Union discussed a range of issues, including German unification and defence. In the Middle East, meanwhile, the Arms race between Egypt and Israel was causing concern.

A year ago I was sitting, Madam Chairman, where you are. I had no idea then, nor, I suppose, had you, that within twelve months a General Election would have been fought and I should be addressing you in my present capacity.

Sir Winston’s brave message at that time is still fresh in all our minds, and I am sure, now that the formal Conference is over and we are at a public meeting (to which I am allowed to be admitted), I am sure that you would wish that we should send him a message of greeting, gratitude and good wishes from us all.

I hope you will forgive me, but I do not propose to spend much time this afternoon talking about the political past, even the immediate political past. Of course, it would be very nice to sit down and do a little purring together - and we could. It would be gratifying for each one of us to do it. But my main purpose today is to look forward and not to look back.

Therefore, about the General Election I have only a few words to say. First that, believe it or not, the decision to hold it was not an easy one. Apart from weighty national arguments I was conscious of at least two hoodoos: no Government in the history of this country, since universal franchise was in operation, had ever increased its majority; and that our Party - so I was told by everybody except Lord Woolton - did not like holding elections in the summer. As against this, I felt, and still feel that we had a message to give the country to which the electors would respond. And that was not some brave new elixir, but a message of service to our countrymen. We described to them what we had done, what the difficulties were, and what we proposed to do, and they have given us a mandate to get on with the job.

That is what we mean to do, and it is about the future that I am going to speak to you now.  But I think I ought to recall this: a decisive element in our victory was unity. Never forget that. I have little doubt that the contrast we presented in this respect, shall we say, to the state of affairs elsewhere, did win us much support. We must now expect our opponents to learn their lesson and we must not forget ours while they learn theirs.

Yet, despite our faith, despite the fervour of our voluntary supporters, despite the hard work of each one of you, the results of the General Election could not have been won without the loyalty and spirit of our organisation, presided over by the penetrating and avuncular genius of Lord Woolton.

Lord Woolton, I am told, you know, that others are now beavering away to discover whether they can emulate what you have done. Some assert that it is mainly a matter of money and machinery. They could not be more wrong. As one who has watched you and your work closely during all these years, I would say without hesitation that your greatest gift to our organisation has been the sense of leadership and comradeship which brought a human understanding into the working of every single part of our machine.

People speak of what you have done as creating some slick, Twentieth Century Party organisation. I hope you will forgive me if I say that that also is not the full explanation. It is the man much more than the method which has wrought these wonders. We thank you very much, and we thank Lady Woolton too, for her patience and for her kindness to us all and for her unfailing cheerfulness.

We salute our new Chairman. Many of you know him well. He is young, energetic, and has the intelligence to grasp all the intricate problems which will fall to him as Chairman of the Party. He knows some of them already, so some of the headaches will be familiar. I am sure that he will give us brilliant service. To him and to Donald Kaberry, who has the fine qualities of that staunch county from which he hails, we wish all success and all good fortune.

Our first task at home is to do battle with our economic problems. These are formidable but they have been worse. They can be solved if we take the necessary measures now. And that is precisely what we propose to do. We shall only be able to fulfil our hopes for social improvements of all kinds if we can build a stable and progressive economy. The action which our wise and experienced Chancellor took last February and again last July has had its effect. That is what we would expect, for we have the utmost confidence in him.

In this connection I have just received the provisional trade figures for September. I thought you would like to have them: Imports £304,000,000; Exports £243,000,000 (These figures are approximate); Re-exports £11,000,000.

The trade gap for September was therefore £50,000,000 compared with £68,000,000 in August and £108,000,000 in July. The September gap is actually about the same as the average monthly gap last year, and these exports of £243,000,000 for September bring the total figure of exports for the first nine months of this year to the formidable total of £2,123,000,000, which is nearly six per cent above the first nine months of last year.

These results are encouraging. They show that the action which we have already taken has been right. But we cannot be sure that this will be enough alone. Nor is this a business where any doubt can be allowed to creep in. Therefore, we must do more in the way of corrective measures. We have been at work examining all this during the last weeks, and our plans are now ready. I cannot tell you this afternoon what additional measures we propose to take. That statement will be made as soon as Parliament meets, and we shall give priority to dealing with these matters.

Now there is another consideration. In our efforts to carry through this work, many Departments of State will have a part to play. This will be a combined operation. I think it important that the same team of Ministers should handle unchanged the essential work we have to do in these coming weeks. For this reason I have asked my colleagues to remain at their posts for the present. And that’s that.

These measures of which I have just spoken must be largely concerned with reducing excessive home demand on our resources. But it is just as important to increase the efficiency of our production. We want not only to export enough in order to pay our way, but to have a surplus, and we want to use that surplus at home and to do all those things which you have rightly asked for at this Conference, and most important of all to get ahead with schemes for development in the Commonwealth and Empire.

And yet, as you well know, the Government can only create the conditions. It is industry which must create the wealth. British industry has been doing powerful work, men and management alike deserve praise for the increase in production which has been won.  The figures I have just given show it. We ought not to forget that the greater part of industry has been running with smoothness and goodwill.

As you know, I have personally had talks in the last few months with the leading employers and trade unionists, representatives of all sections of industry. Our invaluable Minister of Labour is following up this matter, and we hope that the discussions which are now going on will lead to constructive ideas and action.

We also welcome the steps which have been taken in the last few months by the TUC in this field of industrial relations I am particularly anxious to see the growth of what I call ‘partnership in industry,’ and I use the word ‘partnership,’ as the Minister of Labour did yesterday, in its widest sense. I include in it joint consultation, the giving of full information to employees about the affairs of the companies in which they work, and also profit sharing in a number of forms, particularly when it offers opportunities for employees to hold shares, and so acquire a real stake in the enterprise in which they work.

Now I would ask every firm in this country to consider carefully and urgently whether they cannot introduce further measures to promote the sense of partnership of which I speak.

In this and in other ways I believe that we can, over the years, bring greater peace throughout industry and at the same time we shall do something more than that. We shall make work a more satisfying part of life and thereby raise the whole quality of our free society.

Well now, from questions of peace in industry I must go for a moment to questions of peace in the world, and I begin by saying that I am sure we all wish the Foreign Secretary all possible success at his Conference this month. We know that he will do all that man can do.

After the Foreign Secretary and I had concluded our work at the Conference of Heads of Governments at Geneva in July, I used some words at the final session which I would like to quote to you. They were these: ‘If we can continue our work together in the spirit of this meeting, what is hopeful purpose today should become solid performance as events unfold.’

I see no need to change those words or to modify their emphasis in any way.

Since the Conference closed, volumes have been written about it in many lands, some acclaiming with enthusiasm the Geneva spirit, others decrying the results as of little value, or even harmful. It doesn’t seem to me to be necessary to take such an extreme view either way. Indeed, to do so is to misconceive both what was done at Geneva and the work we now have to do. The meeting of the four Heads of Governments didn’t resolve any one of the stubborn problems which still confront the world. But it wasn’t meant to do so. All that it could do was to chart a course - to prepare an agenda if you like - to make it possible for the Foreign Secretaries to meet and get to grips with problems which so far we have not been able to discuss across the table with any useful result at all.

Now, I want to give you two examples of what I mean from my all too long experience of this business. In the spring and early summer of 1951 there was a conference in Paris at the Palais Rose. They had 74 formal meetings, believe it or not, and at the end of them, after four months of weary work, they had not managed to agree on an agenda. That was good going.

And again, there were nearly 400 meetings with the Russians about Austria before any progress at all was made, and after our Berlin Conference last January, which I remember so well, and Soviet Russia’s stubborn refusal there, nothing seemed less likely than that Austria would be free this year and all the foreign troops withdrawn. Yet that is what has happened.

Well, what moral should we draw from all this? That we must not be surprised at setbacks. They are inevitable. We must not be exasperated at what sometimes seems the unintelligent repetition of old arguments till we are weary and sick of them. The processes of diplomacy are slow but behind all this repetition of public and private argument, conciliation may grow and the power of peace, prevail. No doubt the discussions later this month will be difficult. It is quite possible that after weeks of negotiation they will be adjourned without any progress made. I cannot tell, but of this at least I am certain, that the international anxieties in Europe and the Far East are less immediately acute today that they were when you and I met at Blackpool a year ago. And that let me tell you, is something to be able to say.

But this does not mean that the Great Powers of the world have changed their purposes. I do not think that they have. But it could be, you know, that the knowledge of the weapons which some of them now command is helping to create a feeling of ‘maybe we had better go along without trying to get all we want, because to try to get all we want might blow us where we don’t particularly want to go.’

If this degree of wisdom has been learned, it is likely that any Government which today has far-reaching ambitions in an imperialist sense will say to itself ‘better go slowly,’ or, in the words of the Persian proverb: ‘Patience is from God and haste is from the devil.’ And if the world has learned only that in this year of grace 1955, it deserves a friendly mark in history.

I wish I could stop there. But the Middle Eastern situation is serious and could be dangerous. Everyone knows of the tension between Israel and Egypt, and how each country tries to build up its armaments to be stronger than the other. There are grave risks in this. Not only because we are faced with the crudest form of arms race, but because there is always the danger that the one which believes that it is today the stronger may be tempted to strike first. That is how wars have often begun in the past.

We have worked for a long time past by all manner of methods to try to bring about a reduction of tension in that part of the world. We have also tried to hold the balance even as regards the delivery of armaments. But now, if a Great Power from outside steps in with supplies on an infinitely larger scale, the risks are going to be intensified. That is inevitable. Here is, surely, an occasion where the Great Powers ought to agree to exercise restraint themselves and to join together to restrain others. That seems to me what the spirit of Geneva ought to mean.

As I look back over recent years, certain influences have moulded our diplomacy and helped to chart our progress; I’d just like to mention them.

First, most important of all, the constant unity of the Commonwealth, which has become a more active influence in world affairs in recent years. You know there is no doubt that the judgment of its members played its part in South East Asia when a year ago we faced in Indo-China a crisis which endangered the peace of the world. The influence of the Commonwealth will always be felt rather than enforced in world affairs. But it is nonetheless important for that.

In this connection, I am sure you will all have been happy to read of the meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers, which is to take place in London next summer.  I look forward to it with pleasure and confidence. I know, from many discussions I have had over years gone by with almost every member of the Conference, how valuable their joint advice can be to us and to the world.  There is really nothing like it.

And then there is our close partnership with the United States of America. And here I must express on behalf of each one of us our deep regret at President Eisenhower’s illness and our warm-hearted wishes for his speedy recovery. For it is fair to say that no foreigner in his lifetime has ever been more truly loved by the British people. We feel that he is in part ours too, and I know our American friends will understand that.

It is my unshaken faith that so long as the friendship of our two nations endures, the peace of the world will not be broken.

Finally, there is the unity of Western Europe, the unity which has grown and found expression in trade, in travel, in treaties.  All that is good, very good, because it is an expression of a political reality.

These are the prevailing forces in world affairs. Watch them closely. So long as their influence does not wane, we are moving along the path to peace.

I would have liked to discuss disarmament with you. I hope to do so - or the Foreign Secretary will - in greater detail later. This afternoon I will only say this.

The first aim is to reduce tension at points of contact. It is for that purpose I submitted a plan at Geneva.  The next chapter depends on progress with German unity.  We in the West and the Russians have different views about this. In my judgment, European security can never be based on the division of Germany for an indefinite period. It was with this end in mind that we put forward at Geneva a plan for a Five Power pact to give confidence and security to all.

Finally, looming over everything, there is nuclear warfare and the hydrogen bomb. The bomb which has compelled the nations to talk against a terrifying backcloth of universal destruction. Here, of course, it is the problem of supervision and control which is all-important. Many ideas have been canvassed. But I do not think that any one country has found a final solution yet. We have put forward constructive ideas on several occasions. No doubt they can be improved. We are ready at any time to discuss them and other thoughts and projects to find a solution, as we must do.

Peace in the modern world is closely associated with defence. I have always held that to build up the defensive military strength of the West would improve the international situation. And so it has turned out. It was the conclusion of the Paris agreements, whether some people like it or not, it was the conclusion of those agreements that made the Geneva talks possible at all. One certain way to reverse the process of easing tension would be to slacken our defence effort and to try to negotiate from weakness. We have no intention of doing anything of the kind so long as the responsibility lies with us.

Of course, that does not mean that our defence programme has got to be inflexible. The Minister of Defence and I and the Service Ministers have been examining our long-term plans for the defence forces. These, I may tell you, present some pretty baffling problems. We have got to take into account our overseas obligations. We have got to consider the cost of our programme, haven’t we? And every new weapon, with its improved performance, and probably with additional gadgets as well, is sure to do one thing, it is sure to cost more than the weapon that was there before. We have to weigh the demands that defence makes on our resources of manpower and materials. And we have to be sure that our forces are fitted in size and in equipment for what they have to do.

Our examination of all this vexing business has made good progress since the General Election last May. The Minister of Defence has been tireless in his efforts and I am now reviewing with him our research programme, to make quite sure that our main effort is concentrated at the right places.

Last June, some of you will remember, we transferred from the Ministry of Supply certain functions connected with iron and steel and the engineering industries. That has proved, I think, a wise decision. It has meant that the Minister of Supply can now devote more attention to the provision of military equipment. It has also meant that his Ministry has become mainly a fourth Defence Department within the co-ordinating powers of the Minister of Defence. Now as you will see, all this takes us a further step towards our objective, which is to secure a closer integration of our forces and of their supply.

Now the Minister of Defence, if he is to do his work effectively, must he able to direct policy over the whole of this field, and I am considering what further changes of organisation can be made to enable us to handle smoothly and effectively these vital questions of defence policy.

Our detailed plans for all this readjustment of the defence forces will be explained and examined when the White Paper and the Service Estimates are put before Parliament early in the New Year. But I wanted to tell you now what it is we are trying to do.

And now there is one special matter to which I must refer, and that is the manpower in the forces. We have made enough progress with our other plans to make it possible for me to say something definite on that topic today. I feel it my duty to give to the country the conclusions the Government have reached at the earliest possible opportunity.

Now what is the position today? At present there are about 800,000 men and women in the forces, of whom about 280,000 are National Servicemen. Her Majesty’s Government have decided that by the end of the financial year 1957-58, the strength of the Services shall be reduced to about 680,000 men and 20,000 women. This will be a reduction of about 100,000 upon the present figure. But over the five years, from March 1953 to March 1958, it will he a reduction of 170,000, or more than 20 per cent, a very substantial figure by any standard you care to apply.

Well now, how to effect this reduction.  The reduction must be gradual. Nothing could be more inefficient or cause more disorganisation in the forces than sudden and violent fluctuations in manpower.  We have had this before. The decrease will be about 20,000 in the next six months and about 40,000 in each of the following financial years.

We are confident that we can discharge our Treaty obligations and maintain our position as a world power despite this reduction in numbers.  Now the precise extent to which the reduction will affect National Servicemen will depend on how successful we are in encouraging regular recruitment. We want all the volunteers we can get. And with this end in view, the Government are again considering pay and conditions of service for the regular forces - it is good economy - and our decisions about these will be announced at the time of the Service Estimates at about the beginning of the year.

I have been considering for some time what is the most efficient and fairest method of bringing about the reduction we propose in the burden of National Service, and it is a pretty intricate question. I do not believe that a system of selective service or of balloting would be acceptable to the people of this country.  We think that is so and I am glad you agree. The effective choice lies between reducing the period of service and reducing the number of young men called up every year. The difficulty about an immediate reduction in the period of service - and I don’t conceal it from you - is that it would inevitably lead to a reduction in the numbers of the fully trained men, whom we most need. That is because the cut would fall upon the most useful period of a man’s service. At this moment in the international situation, and having regard to the state of our overseas commitments, this is a reduction for which I am not prepared to be responsible. And so we have decided that for the present the reduction will be brought about by calling up fewer young men each year.

The age of call-up will rise, the period of service remaining at 24 months. But we hold ourselves free to decide in the light of future developments in the international situation, whether the reduction we intend to make in the size of the forces shall continue to be brought about in this way or by reducing the period of service. The option will remain open to us. I think that was the fairest system we could possibly devise. And so this year there will he only three registrations instead of the usual four, and the age of call-up for the balance of this year will be about 18 years and five months.

Plans are also being made for a reduced call-up next year. If the whole of the proposed reduction in the size of the forces were to be carried out by allowing the age of call-up to rise, the normal age of call-up would reach 19 years. But it will still remain possible for men to apply for early call-up when good reasons exist.

We realise that we must make sure that those called up are used efficiently, and vigorous steps are being taken to investigate cases where it is alleged that men’s time is being wasted. And we have also decided - I hope you will think rightly - to reduce the burden of part-time service for National Servicemen, because the roles of these forces have been changing. Some men are required for the Mobile Defence Corps, some are needed to man the Control and Reporting Organisation of the Royal Air Force, some to bring active formations up to war strengths - two reserve divisions are earmarked for NATO. But the conception of reserve forces waiting to take part in large-scale conventional warfare is, in our judgment, out of date. Therefore, in the event of a nuclear war the primary role of the reserve army would be to help to maintain the life of the nation and to deal with raids and sabotage.

For those purposes we need a different type of training and organisation and it will be introduced. The present requirement for part-time training of National Servicemen is 60 days including three camps, spread over three and a half years.  We consider that this requirement should be reduced to a maximum of 20 days including one camp.

There are, however, two or three categories to whom this will not apply. Except for these categories, National Servicemen, who have already done one period of continuous training will not be required to do further training, and that decision will apply from 31st December this year.

As I have said, this decision with regard to the reserve forces links them with the work of civil defence. It is obvious with the development of nuclear weapons there are new problems to be faced, and we are at work on these, In the first place, we must think of this question as one problem of home defence, which is a better term than civil defence, a defence in which both civil and military forces have to take part.

I have made certain arrangements within the Government, to co-ordinate planning and training for this purpose under the Minister of Defence. A full-time Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, will be appointed in the near future.

We shall intensify our research work to find means of reducing the damage caused by nuclear attack, and that applies particularly to what is called ‘fall-out.’

All these matters, believe me, are much more important than the provision of large material resources.  Much useful work is being done by voluntary workers. I thank them for what they are doing.

Finally, I would like to give you some reflections on our country’s future as I see it. We are today in an exciting but difficult transition period. It is quite true that employment has never been so high, quite true that prosperity has never been so widespread. Perhaps the British people taken as a whole have never enjoyed a happier summer than this one, under those ‘wicked Tories.’  But we are looking ahead and in this highly competitive modern world, our island has always to be in the lead, or our people have no future.

At the moment one of our greatest difficulties is that we are short of an essential raw material, coal, and to import coal is difficult and places a strain on our balance of payments. I do not want to blame anyone for this because, you know, the reasons for it are many of them complicated and go back quite a long way. Personally, I consider, and I am not ashamed to say it, that in present conditions of a wide demand for labour, it is remarkable that so many miners stand so loyally to their task. But still the problem is there.  If we could get 20,000,000 more tons of coal a year - the Chancellor will agree - or its equivalent in other fuels, the outlook would be transformed. Now, in time, that is going to happen.

The new discoveries on which our scientists and engineers are engaged are going to change the whole pattern of the future for this country and other countries too. That prospect is continually widening, and no one can tell what the final meaning and message of all this is going to be.  But, of course, we must keep right in the front.

In these last weeks I have seen more of the work which is being done in this nuclear world. I can assure you that it is immensely impressive. We have all to re-think many of our problems, domestic as well as international, and we are doing so. But meanwhile, there is one problem which has been pressed upon me from all sides: the shortage of young scientists and designers. It isn’t any part of my purpose to enter into arguments about the value of one form of education as against another (As Chancellor of a University I should get into great trouble if I did).  But of this I am certain, unless we can hold our own with the other great nations - Russia and the United States in particular - in scientific research and its application in engineering design, we shall fall behind in the industrial race.  At this moment there are not enough young men in this country studying these subjects. If they will come forward, if with their help we can continue to keep abreast of every new development, we shall be ready, whether the new world bursts or creeps upon us. It is for these reasons that I have agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer - and I am deeply grateful for his help - that whatever the difficulties, balance of payments or others, nothing will be cut away from the necessary work in this nuclear sphere, or in the training of our scientific manpower.

Now I have finished and I have spoken to you - I apologise for the length - for almost an hour, you may have noticed I have tried to give you a close account of some of the work which our Government has been doing since it received your mandate last May. If I were to tell you of the many other things you would be here for at least another hour, but I thought you would wish to have directly from me at this great Conference some account of our stewardship. 

You may also have noticed that I have not mentioned the words ‘Socialism’ or ‘Nationalisation.’ You know, truth to tell, I think they are just a little bit out of date.

If we are as a country to rise to the heights which we can attain, and of which I have tried to give you some glimpse as I see them in the nuclear world, if we can do that we shall need certain qualities from our people. We shall need imagination; we shall need inspiration; we shall need individual effort and enterprise and a willingness to sacrifice at times our personal position or authority in the wider interests of the nation’s good. We shall need all these things and more. We believe that our Party has the political mission to fulfil them, and we believe that because it has that mission we were returned at the last General Election; and because it has that we belong to this day and age.

Now, what I am asking from you this afternoon is your help, when you go back to the constituencies, to enable my colleagues and myself to go on with this work so that we can - as I believe it is well in our power - lead the world in this new scientific age and discover something of the mysteries which today cloud the vision of man.

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