Leader's speech, Blackpool 1949
Clement Attlee (Labour)
Commentary:This was the final conference before the general election. In this address, Attlee outlined some of Labour’s achievements over the past year, which included the launch of the NHS, the implementation of the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries schemes, the nationalisation of gas, and the passage of the National Parks Bill. In foreign affairs, the key events were the recent agreement on the River Nile, and the departure of Eire and Burma from the Commonwealth.
I thank you very much indeed for that kind welcome, which has deeply touched me. I suppose this is now the fifteenth year in which it has been my duty to move the Parliamentary Report at Conference. Whenever I do it I am always conscious that the work that has been done over the past year has been the work of a team, a team of Ministers in the Government working together, a team of Members of Parliament working together, and a great team of our members throughout the country loyally co-operating. At this Conference in the next two days we will be considering a programme for the next General Election. That is right and proper. We are a democratic party. Unlike our opponents we do not ask for a blank cheque. We do not ask for blind confidence in a particular individual. We tell the country quite plainly what we intend to do if we are returned to power and, what is more, when we are returned to power we carry out our promises. We shall fight the next Election as we fought the last Election, on a clearly stated policy. But this time we shall also stand on the constructive efforts of our Party and the Government during the testing period of this Parliament.
Mr. Chairman, in that admirable address that you gave us you reviewed in broad outline the work of the last four years. In reviewing the work of, this past year we must not think of it as something isolated; it is just a stage in carrying out a programme, in putting into effect a well-considered programme based on clear principles, a balanced programme, a programme fitted to the needs of the times in which we live, and carried out under the exacting conditions of the aftermath of war. That programme has now almost completely been carried out. It is worth while dwelling on that point, because you know it is most unusual. First of all, it is very unusual for a Government to have a clearly defined plan and policy for its work during the life-time of a Parliament. Secondly, it is most unusual for a Government to carry out that plan. Governments in the past have been content with a haphazard policy. Their legislative programmes have often been based on the exigencies of the moment, on the particular pull and influence of powerful Ministers. Many Governments in the past came in with the resolve to do as little as possible, and many of them succeeded. Administration was carried on on the basis of continuing what already existed, perhaps putting a few patches on a fabric which was regarded as generally satisfactory. We came in under quite different conditions and it is not just what has been done that differentiates the work of the present Parliament from that of its predecessors, but its method of approach, the general attitude to the problem and the tempo with which that work has been done.
Let us look then at what has been done during the past year from that standpoint. Let us just see how that fits in with the general work of these four years. Look first at the social services. There we had a tremendous programme. In former days Governments that I have known if they introduced just one item of our social programme would have plumed themselves on being a great reform Government. A single effort would have completely exhausted them. But we have in this year completed this great programme. What has been done in this field has evoked the wholehearted admiration of other nations. I constantly meet people from overseas, from other countries and from the Commonwealth, coming to see the pioneer work that has been done here. In this year the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries schemes have come into full operation. May I say that the smoothness and the paucity of complaints with which those schemes have been launched are a tremendous tribute to the work of our Chairman. The National Health Service has been launched. Its success has shown how great was the need. It has been launched successfully despite all the violent attacks on Aneurin Bevan. He had a most difficult problem to deal with. I have never known a Minister of Health who was not criticised pretty violently by the medical profession. But when with a flourish the Leader of the Opposition mounted a tremendous attack on the cost of the Health Services the trumpets had to sound a retreat and there was a complete fiasco for Mr. Churchill’s unfortunate lieutenants who were left to lead the assault. But as has been well said, our success in these fields is shown to those of a mathematical mind by vital statistics and to all with warm human sympathies by the splendid condition of the rising generation of this country. Let me add here another great record, that of housing. Not enough to meet the nation’s needs, but that is not due to any lack of magnitude in the efforts or any lack of vigour in pressing on the policy. It is due to the immense legacy of past neglect.
Let me turn from the social services to another field, the field of nationalisation. During this year, to the Bank of England, Cable & Wireless, Coal, Electricity, Civil Aviation and Transport, we have added the Gas Industry, and Iron and Steel has now gone through the Commons and is in the House of Lords. That is a remarkable effort. I wonder how many of those who were at Blackpool four years ago thought we should have got thus far. I wonder what our comrades of 50 years ago would have thought of that record. It will, of course, take time for these great organisations to become fully effective, for we are not ashamed to say that in the practical working out of these services we must learn by experience. The foundations have been well and truly laid and we shall go on, in close consultation with the workers, improving these schemes. We have made a great framework of our nationalised undertakings. We have got to be quite sure we have the spirit to work them in the interests of the whole community. That depends on good organisation, on the right people at the top and also the right spirit throughout the rank and file.
It was a common cry of the Opposition that by bringing in these nationalisation schemes we were neglecting other fields of activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Measures such as the Criminal Justice Act, Legal Aid and a host of others which you will see set out in this Parliamentary Report and its predecessors, form a body of legislation which would have staggered the easy-going Governments of the past. It is notable that so many of these things that we bring in are greeted with enthusiasm by people of all parties as reforms long overdue. They do not like it when we say: ‘Why didn’t you do it?’ The fact is we get on with the job.
There is another field I would like to mention that we have not neglected, which is very important, and that is the amenities field. At one time they used to say Britain was the workshop of the world. Well, it is pretty dull to live in a workshop all the time and some parts of the country look as if they are pretty dull. But our ideal is a Britain for people to live in, to live full lives in, for people to work hard but to have full opportunities of enjoyment. The National Parks Bill has gone through and new towns have been planned. That baffling problem of betterment, neglected for years, has been tackled, and over a great range of activities we are trying to make this country worthy of the people who live in it.
I have mentioned these particular subjects, but at the background of all our work is the economic problem, the problem of seeing that you not only get a right division of the nation’s wealth, but get full production of the nation’s wealth. I do not think any Government has ever had a harder task than we have had in these matters. You see, when you depart from laissez-faire, allowing everything to go haphazard and Governments washing their hands of the economic consequences, you come down to the constant day-by-day work of economic planning which is a tremendous burden on the economic Ministries. No one whom we take seriously in the House of Commons suggests that you can throw over everything and go in for laissez-faire, but throughout these four years, particularly in this last year, we have had to have the constant adaptation of our economic efforts to a changing world. We are constantly trying to take away irksome controls, but retaining the controls that are necessary. I am not going to speak to you this morning at any length on this subject. I understand that Sir Stafford Cripps will be addressing you, but I would like to say that in reviewing what has been done in this past year you must always take it in proportion, considering what has been done in past years. That is particularly important when you view such a thing as the Budget. That Budget policy has been carried forward by successive Chancellors of the Exchequer on certain quite definite principles. There has been a continuous process of raising the standard of the less well-to-do and reducing the excessive claims of the very wealthy. There has been a constant solicitude for the people with family responsibilities. There has been the policy of maintaining real wages by stabilising the cost of living. Our policy on subsidies has been criticised, but it has been of maximum assistance in checking inflation and getting a steady recovery. But after all, we are looking constantly to this question of productivity - the size of the national cake, as has been said. This last year has seen some wonderful advances in productivity and a great response to the needs of the export drive. If you look at what is happening to the economics of this country it is surely very heartening. Look at the state of the land as compared with the semi-derelict state that we had in so many areas between the wars. Agriculture is healthy today. Visit the British Industries Fair. These great achievements have been brought about by the nation in an economy planned for the first time. Look again at the Special Areas and see what has been done there, how hope has succeeded despair. Therefore we can claim that in this field an immense work has been done. But we have to operate in a disturbed world. The continued unsettlement of the world, the delay in making the United Nations Organisation a success, not due to any fault of ours, has obliged us to spend more on defence than we could have wished. But we have not shirked our duty both to our own country and to the democracies and we shall not shirk that duty.
That brings me to external affairs. There have been difficult, intractable problems and the Foreign Secretary has shown immense patience and skill. He has combined firmness and conciliation and I rejoice that in these last months he has begun to reap his reward. Western Union, the Atlantic Pact, the Council of Europe, O.E.E.C., the lifting of the blockade of Berlin, are tangible results, the results of following a steady policy, often misunderstood and very often misrepresented by those who ought to know a great deal better. It is showing results and today more than ever before Britain stands out as the rallying point for all the democracies that are real democracies and not veiled autocracies. The Foreign Secretary has ever kept in mind the economic conditions that are needed as the basis of a sound and enduring peace. The recently announced agreement about the Nile waters is but one of the many projects that he has been pressing for to raise the standard of life in those countries where a higher standard is so much needed.
In the colonial sphere we have been carrying out a two-fold policy, the policy of ever giving more and more self-government to the peoples of the Colonial Empire and of developing the resources not only in the interests of the natives themselves, but in the interests of the whole world.
May I say a word on the sphere of Commonwealth relations. Here we had to meet problems which had grown very great, because our Commonwealth is a living thing that grows and changes and has to be adapted in that process. We have sought by constant consultation to strengthen the ties which unite this great family of free democratic nations who set an example to the world, of co-operation. We regret that Burma and Eire have left the Commonwealth. We rejoice that India, Pakistan and Ceylon, Asiatic countries now free and equal members with the others, remain in the Commonwealth.
Every Government has to work in the conditions which it finds. It cannot make those conditions for itself; it cannot command success where that action depends on other Governments. I claim that through these four years the Labour Government, loyally supported by the Party in the House, by the great Trade Union Movement, by the great Co-operative Movement, by the whole of our Movement in the country, has deserved well, has been faithful to its trust. It has given leadership to the country and where leadership is given there is loyal support. It enjoys, I believe, a wide measure of confidence. That unbroken series of by-election successes, even when the immediate conditions seemed most adverse, was a wonderful testimony. When the time comes to seek the support of the electorate again we shall stand on a great record.
I present to you, therefore, this Parliamentary Report as just a part of the work of the Parliamentary Labour Party throughout the past four years. I would like to express on behalf of the Government our gratitude to our members in the Commons, and in the Lords, for there they have a difficult task in all their work. May I mention one or two people by name. I would like to pay a tribute to our Leader in the House of Commons, Herbert Morrison; to Chuter Ede, his able lieutenant; to William Whiteley, the greatest Whip ever; and to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, Maurice Webb. I would like also to pay a tribute to that grand old veteran in the House of Lords, Lord Addison. But above all I would like to say a word on behalf of people who do not perhaps get so much limelight, that is, the ordinary loyal members. There were a great many appeals yesterday for tolerance. It is an excellent thing, but, you know, I do not think the critics always show very much tolerance for the loyal members. The loyal members are frequently abused for their loyalty, but I have been now in seven Parliaments and I have never known a finer and more loyal Party than we have in the House. We have had to shed one or two on the left and on the right and we sometimes have a few little differences among the others, but the difficulty of preserving unity in a Party varies with its size. I remember when we were only 44. A Party meeting was a much easier thing then. But when you have a Party of nearly 400 and when you have the responsibility of government it is a much harder job, and I would like to thank all our members very warmly. You have to have discipline whether it is in the Party in the House, the Party in the country or the members of a trade union or a co-operative society. Sometimes those who break away get far more publicity than the vast majority, who are loyal.
The last year of a Parliament is always the most testing one. The greater part of the programme has been carried. The Opposition, as the time for a General Election approaches, becomes more active. By magnifying every grievance it tries to deflect the minds of the electorate from the solid work done during all those years. It relies on forgetfulness and on a lack of sense of proportion, and above all it seeks to sow dissension in the ranks of the Government. That is a temptation for all Oppositions. It is particularly a temptation for an Opposition such as we face today that has no policy of its own, that has not the faintest idea as to what it would do if by some misfortune it were called into power. No case - abuse the other side. The moral for us is plain: it is to carry on and preserve our unity.
I think it is natural for many of us this week to recall the last time we met here in Blackpool. That was a fine Conference. We had just come through the ordeal of a great war. We had shared the responsibilities of government for five fatal years. We had then no illusions as to the difficulty of the task which faced the country and faced any Government called upon to take power. We accepted the challenge. We laid down the course we intended to follow. We won a great victory. We have faithfully carried out the policy that Conference approved, and that policy we believed, and believe, was the right policy for this country and the world, the policy of democratic Socialism in which we believe. The 1945 Conference was a historic Conference: it marked the beginning of a new era. This 1949 Conference will also be historic. It will go down to history as the Conference in which account was rendered of carrying into effect a great programme and in which the broad lines of Labour’s second programme were laid down. In between these Conferences great things have been done, but we have no illusions. The task before us is still very heavy. Let us accept again the challenge of the times in which we live. Let us accept it soberly, responsibly and with our faith undimmed. And let us remember always that our task is the creation of a society in which the citizens are conscious not only of their rights but of their duties, a society which is based not just on a particular economic system, but on the acceptance of a particular way of life. A Parliament and a Government can make new institutions, but only a great Movement inspired by ideals can make a new society. We can only achieve our aim if the men and women of our Movement are inspired by that same spirit of self-sacrifice, of service to their fellow men, the same vision and the same faith that inspired our early pioneers 50 years ago.