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Leader's speech, Margate 1947

Clement Attlee (Labour)

Location: Margate

Commentary:

Attlee’s second speech to the Party Conference as Prime Minister spells out what he sees as his government’s two main objectives: to tackle the difficulties facing Britain in the aftermath of the war, and to begin the groundwork for a new social order characterised by freedom, peace and justice. He is also keen to stress achievements, and to demonstrate the commitment to, and success of, planning measures and also internationalist goals.

It is a relatively short speech. As with Attlee’s other addresses it is primarily focused on the party, an attempt to dampen expectations and to communicate the complexity and weight of government. But it is also an affirmation of determination and faith despite difficulties. Again, however, some of the speech is clearly a response to general criticisms of the government. For instance, in the context of a discussion of international solidarity Attlee insists: “…we are seeking earnestly to build up harmony and world peace, and I utterly deny the charge made by some people whose subservience to one great power makes them charge us with subservience to another. We are subservient to none. We seek to collaborate with all’. Elsewhere he says “We are not, I think - despite some prognostications in the newspapers - yet half way through this Parliament. We intend to complete our programme”.

Attlee suffered an extremely hostile press. But in his speeches to the Party he tends to rebut accusations somewhat obliquely (in a way that runs the risk of emphasizing rather than overturning them) and to avoid making strong, direct counter-attacks. For him the speech is a formal report presented to the party for its approval.

It is twenty-two months almost to a day since the Labour Government was formed, and in this Report we give you an account of our achievements, a second installment of the carrying-out of the programme which we placed before the electorate. This record is one of which I think we can be proud. We have admittedly placed before Parliament a heavier and more important programme of legislation than has been submitted in any previous Parliament. Our opponents say that it is too heavy. But the times in which we live demand great changes, and there was a great legacy of past neglect which we inherited. Let me give you but one instance the problem of the mines.  That had been ripe, and over-ripe for decades. It was left to us to deal with the muddle of the past. That has meant a heavy addition to our legislation and it has meant also that we have been hampered by the neglect of the past in the reconstruction of the present and in our work for the future. No little of our troubles in the industrial and economic sphere is due to the fact that the mines were neglected. Now we have taken action we can see a change in the scene.

There were great measures of social reform prepared during the Coalition Government. Many of those could have been brought forward during the war. They  were not brought forward. We have had to do that work: in fact, in twenty-two months we have had to do the entire programme that the Conservative Party had at the last General Election - a Five-Year Plan. We have a young and eager Parliament and a nation demanding great things. Therefore I make no apology on behalf of the Government for having given Parliament plenty of hard work. After all, work is what we are asking of the nation. It is just as well that Parliament should set a good example.

I have received complaints of rushed legislation, of insufficient time to discuss great measures. I have been nearly twenty-five years in Parliament and I have never known an Opposition fail to make that complaint. We had a good many years in opposition, and the work of opposition takes a great deal of learning. You have to learn how to make the best use of the time, and we are resolved to give the Conservative Party the opportunity to become thoroughly versed in the part.

I should like to pay a tribute to our members in the House of Commons and also in the House of Lords. They have been diligent. They attend much better than in any previous Parliament I have known. They are loyal. Of course, in a Party like ours there is always a great deal of freedom. They have been co-operative and they have collaborated with Ministers. And, after all, Government is not just a matter of Ministers giving orders. It is essential in a Parliamentary democracy that the Members of Parliament should be co-workers with .the Ministers. Let me pay a tribute particularly to two men who I think have done a great job in this Parliament - Neil Maclean and Maurice Webb. They have had the job of presiding over Party meeting; and, having had a longer experience than most of that particular work, I congratulate them. There has been immense activity in Parliament, and work on Committees, official and unofficial; and I should like to thank all my colleagues in Parliament, my colleagues in the Government and our members through­out the country for the help and support they have given to the Government. The record is before you. You know it quite well - and if you don’t, you should.

But quite as important as legislation is administration. Much of it is less spectacular but equally important. When you pass great measures, you set in train a whole mass of actions which have to be taken by Ministers. Health, Social Insurance and Education Bills all mean an immense amount of administra­tive work. You have to get those things through and coming in at the right time, and I congratulate those who have been in charge of the measures we have taken through on their implementation and on the work they have done. I claim that in every sphere of Government you have seen our Socialist impulse, our Socialist outlook.

We have had some difficult times because some of our Ministers have been away ill. We are all very glad to get Herbert Morrison back again. He seems to have plenty of vigour. And I am glad to say, too, that the health of the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, has been better. The strain on him and on other Ministers is very heavy. And let me say a word for our Civil Service, who get more kicks than they should: The strain on the Civil Service is heavy. Civil Servants play their part splendidly. When I see, demands from this Conference and so many resolutions that this must be done immedi­ately and that must be done immediately, I want just to warn you not to overstrain the machine but to leave it to the Government to decide on priorities.

Let us look at our purpose, our achievement and the work that lies ahead. First of all, what is our purpose? We came in with a double purpose, first, to deal with the very difficult conditions, internally and externally, resulting from a long war, and second, to lay the foundations of a new social order evolving from the old. We had to effect two transitions, one from a war to a peace economy and one from a capitalism based on private enterprise and private property to a Socialist economy based on the control and direction of the wealth and resources of this country in the interests of all the people. Neither of those transitions could be effected in a few days or a few months; it takes a long time. We had three great advantages in tackling this task and seeking to achieve our purpose. First, we had our Socialist faith as our guide and inspiration; secondly we had a clear programme integrated into a definite plan; and thirdly we had a fine Majority in Parliament. I would like to stress here the integrated plan. Our action in bringing great spheres of economic activity under national control and ownership was not the result of some academic theory; it was the essential part of our plan, a plan conceived in relation to the actual conditions of the world today and the actual problems we had to solve.

How far have we advanced in achieving that purpose? In face of many difficulties we have effected a smooth transition from war to peace over a very wide field. You had demobi­lisation. You have not yet had the slackening of controls and you will have to have controls as long as there are shortages - and that is admitted even by our opponents, who like to clamour for controls to be abolished but quite often ask for them to be put on when they are asking questions in the House. It is admitted that freedom is relative: one man’s freedom may be the enslavement of thousands. We have to try to get an equal measure of freedom for all. We have had to face world shortages and local shortages, a very difficult foreign exchange position and an uneasy situation in foreign affairs. They have always interrupted the plan. The plan must be worked in relation to the actual conditions of the time, many of the features of which cannot be foreseen. We might have had less difficulty if we had been content not to try so hard to get all the things we wanted done. Then you would have had other evils, other complaints and unemployment. The very vigour of our plan has made difficult the exact integration of every part of it.

I am not going to deal with all our achieve­ments or I would take too long. I want only to indicate those general lines on; which we are, building the foundation of the future. There is the control of finance. There is the smaller tribute paid today by those who work to those who own. The Budgets of the Chancellor of the Exchequer have effected a great Control of finance, and a better distribution of pur­chasing power among the masses. The second thing is the transfer of basic industries into public ownership. A third is the control of the land and the planning of the country, not only to the economic advantage of the country but to make it a happy and a beautiful place for our people to live in. There is the direction of capital into the places where labour is. We are not going to have the Depressed Areas again. That is planning. We have an agricultural policy going forward, and it is first time in my recollection that any Minister of Agriculture has had his policy approved by all the workers in agriculture - farmers, workers and the rest. We have had the great building up of the social services, of health and education. There are many other matters too numerous to mention, but that is not a bad achievement for less than two years.

Overseas we have been carrying out Labour’s policy. What is Labour’s policy overseas? We have sought to help all our fellow men towards self-government and towards higher economic standards. These problems are not easy. We have sought earnestly to deal with the great problem of India, the problem of Burma, the problems in the Colonial Empire. You heard the account of what is being done in that sphere. We are seeking to promote the economic development of the world in the interests of all peoples - not for some favoured few, as Mr. Nash pointed out so well. We have got away from that idea. We are seeking to develop the resources of the world for a higher standard life for all.

In foreign affairs we have been following a policy based on support of the United Nations organisation. We have had a great many Ministers besides the Foreign Secretary going overseas and taking part in international conferences. People’s eyes are too apt to be fixed on certain political discussions and to ignore the work going on in the Social and Economic Council and in the international field. A number of our Ministers, young as well as old, have taken part. And well they have done; and I would like to express my confidence in Ernest Bevin and his collabora­tors. I say that we are seeking earnestly to build up harmony and world peace, and I utterly deny the charge made by some people whose subservience to one great power makes them charge us with subservience to another. We are subservient to none. We seek to collaborate with all.

Finally I will say a word on the work that lies ahead. We are not, I think - despite some prognostications in the newspapers - yet half way through this Parliament. We intend to complete our programme. That programme is only an installment of our long-term plan. We intend, with your help and the help of the people of this country, to carry that long ­term plan to completion. Can we carry it out? Well, we can legislate and we can administer, but the implementation of our plan does not depend on the Government alone, or Parliament alone, or the Civil Service alone; it depends on the co-operation of the people of this country. We have gone far now in deciding fairer distribution of the national cake. We must increase the size of that national cake. We must have hard work, good management, true economy and a full use of science if we are to increase the wealth of this country and raise the standard of life of our people. And we must co-operate to this end with other countries. We must raise the amount of available wealth in the whole world. We must march forward together.

When we took on this great responsibility I said ‘We face great difficulties. We have a great opportunity.’ That opportunity has come to the British Labour Movement. It has come to the British people. It is for us to demonstrate to the world that democratic Socialism is the way to peace, the way prosperity, the way to freedom and the way to happiness.  Today there is no coherent alternative policy to Labour’s in this country. Our opponents are bankrupt of ideas. They seek to deck out that shabby garment of competitive capitalism and organised selfishness with shreds and patches taken from our programme. But they lack the essential inspiration. They lack the moral ideal that informs our policy. They lack, in a word, our Socialist faith - the faith that has carried us to power after years of striving, the faith that can remove mountains, the faith in the common people, the faith that we can build a world of peace, a world of justice, a world of freedom, a world of happiness for all. In that faith we shall conquer.

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