Ernest Bevin’s speech to the House of Commons, 21 June 1944.

Bevin’s speech to the House of Commons, 21 June 1944. 

[This is the speech that Ed Miliband refers to in his rejection of the March budget, see Parliament Notes.  It lays down full employment as a priority:

“In laying down that it is the primary responsibility of the Government to maintain a high and stable level of employment, we are turning our back, finally, on past doctrines and past conceptions and looking forward with hope to a new era.”

The Welfare State is not enough:  “ it’s not enough to remedy, we should cure.”

It is more important to commit to full employment than to decide between private or public ownership of industry: 

“Some say that all benefits of enterprise arise from private industry, and some say they arise from public ownership. Well, I have seen a bit of both. I have seen enterprise absent from public ownership and I have seen enterprise completely absent from private ownership. Therefore, the question of how you can give effect to decisions as to who will own industry, is not prejudiced by this White Paper.”

Bevin puts down the Communist MP Willie Gallagher:

“We have had many marches of the unemployed.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West) And good marches, too.

Mr. Bevin The hon. Member may have enjoyed them but the unemployed have not.”]

Ernest Bevin introduces the White Paper on Employment policy, June 1944

Taken from Hansard, HC Deb 21 June 1944 vol 401 cc211-310

A NEW PRINCIPLE OF GOVERNMENT

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Ernest Bevin) I beg to move, “That this House takes note of Command Paper No. 6527 on Employment Policy and welcomes the declaration of His Majesty’s Government accepting as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war.” 

I think that this Motion is one of the most important that has been debated in this Assembly for many years. It embodies the most important principle that has come before the House for a very long period. In laying down that it is the primary responsibility of the Government to maintain a high and stable level of employment, we are turning our back, finally, on past doctrines and past conceptions and looking forward with hope to a new era. Unemployment has been the subject of many Debates in this House. We have had many marches of the unemployed.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West) And good marches, too.

Mr. Bevin The hon. Member may have enjoyed them but the unemployed have not. We have had these marches of hungry men, demonstrating their poverty in a highly civilised society, during a century in which wealth has accumulated at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world. From 1886, when the late John Burns led the London unemployed through Pall Mall, onwards to the Northampton bootmakers, right down to the miners, between the two wars, we have had this horrid spectacle of unemployed men, not refusing to work, but asking that society should so organise itself that work might be provided and their families maintained. During that period, all through the end of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th, there were tremendous agitation and disturbance. It is difficult to convince a great many people that, prior to the introduction of the employment exchanges and unemployment insurance, unemployment did not exist to the extent that it did afterwards. It did, but it was not known. Statistical knowledge was not available, and the public was not aware of the intense suffering that ensued. But during that period the House of Commons and the country became conscious, and realised that the State could not be inactive when faced with the evils arising from mass unemployment.

If we take the period from the seventies right up to the outbreak of this war, we have only had really full employment under three conditions—the making of armaments for impending war, during war, or on the discovery of more gold fields and the expansion of credit. On other occasions, unemployment in cycles has arisen from time to time. The problem became so acute that the State had to decide to introduce social services, and an attempt was made, following on the work, which I am sure the House has been pleased to see honoured, even late in the day, of Sidney Webb and Mrs. Webb in the break-up of the Poor Law, to regularise assistance in its various forms. It was followed by new measures, which were tried out during the depression. There were a tentative public works policy, training, transference schemes and, lastly, the Special Areas. But all these were merely measures to minimise the effect of unemployment, not a recognition that unemployment was and is a social disease, which must be eradicated from our social life. The State’s job up to this date has been to deal with the after-effects of the disease, and not to take active measures itself to promote and maintain economic health. This Motion is an assertion that, while there will still be difficulties to contend with, and the social services must continue to play their part, the first consideration must be the way to remove the cause. Having tried relief in all its forms, we now propose to diagnose, and we hope to cure.

The Government welcome the fact that Parliament is—I hope irrespective of party, and with widespread agreement—at last facing this problem as a fundamental issue. We are, indeed, grappling with the problem which is uppermost in the minds of those who are defending the country to-day, at home, overseas, and in those bitter fights across the Channel. With my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I had an opportunity of visiting one of our ports and seeing the men, of the 5oth Division among others, going aboard ship—gallant men, brave men with no complaint. They were going off to face this terrific battle, with great hearts and great courage. The one question they put to me when I went through their ranks was, “Ernie, when we have done this job for you, are we going back to the dole?”

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University) For you?

Mr. Bevin Yes, it was put to me in that way, because they knew me personally. They were members of my own union, and I think the sense in which the word “Ernie” was used can be understood. Both the Prime Minister and I answered, “No, you are not.” That answer of “No” to those brave men, going aboard those ships to fight, was an answer which, I hope, will be supported by the House, and I hope that policy will be directed towards making that answer a fact, not only for them but for future generations. There is an obligation on all of us to bend our abilities and our energies to finding the right solution, and not to dissipate energy merely in destructive criticism.

The Government have come forward not only with a statement of their objective, but with an outline of the practical measures for attaining it, which, with the support of Parliament, they intend to operate with full vigour. I am convinced that although of course Governments may change and, I hope, will change—I should not like this job for ever—any party which faces the people of this country at a General Election and refuses to accept the principle of full employment, will not be returned to this House. It may be argued that we ought to have laid down a carefully-designed blue-print, a plan worked out for every phase which might conceivably arise. But I suggest that, in a changing world, such a course is impracticable. It is in the attitude of mind, the direction of Government policy, in the whole of Civil Service, as well as Ministerial, support, that this problem must be faced with a view to adjustments being made, from time to time, in order to achieve the objective.

The Government do not claim that the White Paper is the final solution of this problem. The proposals do not raise the question, for instance, of whether industry will, for ever, be privately or publicly owned. Some say that all benefits of enterprise arise from private industry, and some say they arise from public ownership. Well, I have seen a bit of both. I have seen enterprise absent from public ownership and I have seen enterprise completely absent from private ownership. Therefore, the question of how you can give effect to decisions as to who will own industry, is not prejudiced by this White Paper. The proposals of the White Paper will operate, whatever the ownership of industry may be. There are those who have gone “cock-a-hoop” in certain parts of the Press, because they think that we who represent the Labour Party in the Coalition Government—and I do not apologise for it—and who have made our contribution to this White Paper, and to all the other great social changes which have come before this House, have abandoned our principle concerning what we think the right ownership for industry ought to be. What we have tried to do, is to devise a plan which, however you may decide the ownership of industry by adjustments which may have to be made, seeks to attain its objective.

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