Leader's speech, Scarborough 1948
Clement Attlee (Labour)
Commentary:Since its last conference, Labour had nationalised electricity and transport, and was seeking to add gas to the list. A number of key reforms – notably the National Health Service Act, the Industrial Organisation and Development Act, and the Agriculture Acts – had become law, and Labour was taking steps to increase the efficacy of democracy through such measures as the Parliament Bill and the extension of self-government to Burma, India and Ceylon. Taken together, these policies would enable the Party to achieve its vision of Socialism.
This records the activities of the third year of a great Parliament, the third year of a Labour Government in power. You have before you a description of our activities, and I do not think I should serve you well if I went through all that Report in detail. I should only be telling you what you know so well already. But I would ask you to study the record and note the great variety of problems which we have had to tackle and have tackled; because, to hear some of our opponents talk, you might think that the Government had neglected all other problems in order to pass Bills for the nationalisation of certain industries. We have not neglected any part of the field. We have undertaken a great instalment of nationalisation; in the period under review we carried nationalisation of transport and of electricity, and the Gas Bill is now surely on its way.
There are other very important economic matters which have been the subject of legislation. There is the Industrial Organisation and Development Act and the Agriculture Acts. There is a great group of social service and local government legislation. Perhaps the most outstanding of these is the National Health Service Act. Then there are reforms long overdue which we have had to take up owing to the neglect of past Governments - the Companies Act, the Crown Proceedings Act, and the Criminal Justice Bill now going through Parliament.
Then there are measures to make democracy effective - the Parliament Bill, Representation of the People Bill; also very notable measures in this period dealing with India, Ceylon, and Burma, in which we have carried out the longstanding policy of our Party in respect to the extension of self-government to our fellow citizens of the British Commonwealth. We have given proof - I think a unique proof - of the fact that a true democracy seeks to build up on terms of equality and the fellowship of free nations linked together by common consent.
I have mentioned only a small part of the legislative achievements of the past year, and I have done so not to make a boast but to pay a tribute to my fellow Members of the Labour Party in both Houses of Parliament for what they have done. In this I include Ministers as well as the rank and file. I have had more than twenty-five years in Parliament, and I have never known such good team work in the Labour Party as we have had in this Parliament. Of course, great publicity is given to any signs of dissent and disagreement or divergencies of view. There are sometimes divergencies that go beyond what is tolerable, and we have had to exclude some members, but I should like to stress the great loyalty of the vast majority of the Party and their steady service. You know that there is not much credit to be gained by working on Committees; there is not much limelight there, not even gaslight, but it is there that the hard work is done by the rank and file. I should like here to say how much we owe to the leadership in the Commons of Herbert Morrison - and of that wonderful veteran, Lord Addison, in the House of Lords, and of William Whiteley, the Government Whip, and his team.
The record of legislation is a great tribute to the democratic machine of Parliament. It is very easy to criticise our Parliamentary machine, but you will not find in all the world any other machine which enables minority opinion to find full expression and yet allows the Government to be effective. But the best of machines depend on the men who work them, and the larger the Party the more difficult it is to ensure that every individual has an opportunity of adding his contribution to the general pool. We do try very hard in the Party to give that opportunity. We have the Party meetings. I can remember when the Party meeting contained about thirty people. It is much more difficult when we may have nearly four hundred present. But it is an instrument of decision. We have set up numbers of committees, some on a regional basis, some on an advisory basis, to which members can go and to which Ministers can go so as to get a full interchange of opinion, and I do not think there is really very much need for members who want to make their weight felt to go outside, to issue manifestoes, or to form their little groups. Of course, we always have had a few individualists in our ranks. There is always one who thinks that ‘Our Johnny is the only one who is in step’ - or should it be ‘our Zilly’? I have always felt that the right course is to put my views before my colleagues, discuss with them, and then accept their decision. They may not convince me that they are right, but I believe that the foundation of democratic liberty is a willingness to believe that other people may perhaps be wiser than one self.
I should like to say here that we owe a great debt of gratitude to Maurice Webb and Frank Bowles. Maurice Webb has been suffering under very severe physical disability; he has carried out his duties with a very fine sense of devotion, and we all hope that his health will improve. I should like also to mention Carol Johnson and his team. I lay stress on the fine team work in the House, because we shall need that team work in the time ahead.
May I say that we get fine team work in the Government itself. It is the practice of our opponents for obvious reasons to try to disrupt our team - and I am sorry to say that some of our own supporters are also led away - by ascribing particular policies to particular members: Thus they talk sometimes about ‘Cripps’s economic policy,’ or ‘Dalton’s financial policy,’ or ‘Bevan’s dealing with the doctors,’ or ‘Bevin’s foreign policy,’ as if there was no co-ordination in the Government. Nevertheless there is co-ordination. Whilst every Minister is responsible for his own departmental decisions the collective responsibility both in home and foreign policy is with the Cabinet. We share the blame or the credit for every action of the Government. I take my full share of whatever is done by any of my colleagues.
I am not much, given to complacency, but I am proud of the Party and of the Government. In the face of great difficulty we are carrying out a clearly defined policy - a policy based on principles and applied to the facts of the situation. That policy today holds the field. There is no alternative policy before the country. I read with great diligence the speeches of Mr. Churchill, a most distinguished statesman, and of Lord Woolton, an expert salesman, but I have failed to discover any coherent alternative policy. Indeed, one of the features of the present Parliament is the incoherence of the Opposition under the somewhat intermittent leadership of Mr. Churchill. Sometimes the Opposition appears to demand the abolition of all controls; at other times they demand more controls. Sometimes they denounce the control of industry by the bureaucracy of the Civil Service and the dead hand of Parliament, and yet when, with their approval, the nationalised industries were entrusted to independent Boards, and not to Civil Servants, they demanded that all those activities should be brought under survey in detail on the floor of the House of Commons. There is only one constant feature in the Opposition's tactics and that is their attempt to make capital out of the grievances and hardships which the conditions of today produce. They attribute them all to the Labour Government. Lord Woolton has no policy to offer to the public; his only stock is stinking fish.
We intend to carry on the work to which we have set our hand and with your help we shall win through. We work in close co-operation with the great Trade Union movement, and let me say how much we owe to their steady support under great difficulties. We work also in close consultation with the Co-operative movement which has recently given a signal example of how they work with the rest of the movement. We are a great united community.
I am not going to enter into detailed questions. Yesterday the Conference discussed economic problems and tomorrow it will be discussing foreign policy. But before closing I should like to say a word on the spirit with which we approach our problems. We are engaged on a great venture - an unprecedented venture. We are seeking to build up a free Socialist society by the methods of social democracy. We have rejected all short cuts and suggestions that by laying aside our democratic principles for a time we can more rapidly achieve Socialism. Why is this? It is because the methods by which an end is sought profoundly affect the nature of the end attained. A society changed by undemocratic methods loses the habit of democracy. A society that casts aside in the struggle all moral principles loses those principles. We have seen that where this is done the return to democracy is first relegated to a distant future and then repudiated altogether.
Often the reactionary principles employed in a fight for power are not laid aside when that power has been obtained. Socialism is a way of life, not just an economic theory, and in the process of achieving Socialism we have got to be good citizens of the Socialist State. Socialism demands a higher standard of civic virtue than capitalism. It demands a conscious and active participation in public affairs. I think we have today a greater awareness of economic problems, a higher standard of education in public affairs than ever before. But that is not enough. We need today as much as in our pioneer days the idealism, the longing for a just social order, which aroused our enthusiasm and commanded our devotion in the days of adversity, and it is no less idealism for being married to knowledge.
When I look at this Report I see before me the achievement of many things for which we of the older generation have striven. There is for instance, the ending of the Poor Law. I recollect joining up with the Webbs and George Lansbury nearly forty years ago in a campaign for the abolition of the Poor Law. It is now accomplished. And yet some people say we move too fast. I recall at the street corner urging a national medical service, urging nationalisation of transport, electricity, and the rest. How formidable were the obstacles which faced us then. Yet they have been overcome, and we shall conquer our present difficulties, great as they appear. But we realise today that the things which have been accomplished are only milestones on the longer journey on which we have set out. The road winds steeply ahead from the point which we are reaching now, and we can see more clearly the hard and rugged features in the landscape which were formerly hidden from us in the mists of the future. Perhaps we realise that the road is longer than we thought in the eager days of the youth of the movement. That does not depress me, for in the Socialist movement our reach has always exceeded our grasp. We are content with no low ideal.
It has been said that one of the greatest dangers of civilisation today is that man’s conquests in the realms of science have outstripped his moral progress. It is the greatest task which lies ahead of all of us in the Labour and Socialist movement to see to it that the citizen’s sense of obligation to the community keeps pace with the changes effected in the structure of society. We need to stress duties as much as rights. The social revolution which we are peacefully bringing about must be established not merely in institutions but in the hearts of men and women. I look forward to the continuance of the spirit of enthusiasm, idealism, and self-sacrifice which has brought us thus far. It will carry us further on our journey to freedom.