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3 October 1950

Speech Archive

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Leader’s speech, Margate 1950

Clement Attlee (Labour)
Location: Margate
This conference was the first since Labour won the general election of February 1950 with a small majority. It also followed the dollar crisis and the subsequent devaluation of the Pound, a move Attlee claimed was vindicated by the fact that Britain’s foreign payments were almost balanced. A further key event was the passage of the Iron and Steel Bill through the House of Lords, while in the international realm Britain had signed the recent Atlantic Pact, which built on the Brussels Treaty to further strengthen collective security. Meanwhile, India had voted to become a republic but to remain in the Commonwealth.
May I thank you very much indeed, on behalf of my wife and myself, for, your kind words and for that very kind welcome.
I now have the pleasure of moving the Parliamentary Report. That Report covers a very eventful period since we last met at Blackpool. It falls into two parts: there is, first of all, the final chapter of a great volume, and that volume is entitled ‘The Achievements of the Parliament of 1945, and the second part is the first chapter of the volume of the Parliament of 1950. Between those two parts came the General Election.
The Chairman, in his admirable and com­prehensive address yesterday, dealt very fully with the achievements of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Government between the years 1945 and 1950. By the time we had reached the period which this Report covers we had completed the major part of our programme. There remained the Iron and Steel Bill, which was going to and fro, so to speak, between the House of Commons and another place. With its passing by the House of Lords we completed our programme, and the Iron and Steel Bill is now to be implemented in accordance with plans.
There were a number of other useful legislative measures though not major measures, but the period under review was really over-shadowed by the increasing severity of the dollar crisis. Far be it from me at this Conference to go into all the technicalities of the dollar crisis in the field of foreign exchange, but in face of the existing situation the Government took the decision to devalue the £. That was roundly condemned by the Opposition, but it has proved to be wise and successful because in the course of this period we have, in effect, pretty well balanced our foreign payments. That was a pretty remarkable achievement. Devaluation, of course, was only one item. The main result was brought about by the good hard work of the people of this country, of all classes, of all types of workers, with efficient leading by the Government.
We had at that time also to undertake some slowing down of our investment programme, ­but we made no cuts in the social services. We did not cut into the fundamentals of the welfare state. Here again the Opposition said that what we did was quite inadequate, and so did a great many of the pundits in the press; but when the Budget came along it was found we had judged just about right. Incidentally, you might draw an interesting contrast between the demands that were made for cuts then and the lavish promises put forward by the Opposition when it came to the Election. But this difficult problem has taken a great deal of handling, and I would like, particularly, to pay a tribute to the work of our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps, who has had a very heavy burden, and we all hope that when he returns from a rest his health will be fully restored.
Then the other matter that concerned us in that period was the growing intensity of the international position. It saw the strengthen­ing of the forces of collective security by adding to the Brussels Treaty the Atlantic Pact. There the Foreign Secretary did great work and gave a great lead, and that work is being implemented today in the building up of strong forces for the stopping of aggression. That period also saw an important phase in Commonwealth affairs in the decision of India, although becoming a republic, to stay in the Commonwealth.
So this memorable Parliament worked towards its close, a Parliament, I think, of unparalleled achievement. Towards the end of a Parliament, when major measures have gone through, there comes a kind of election atmosphere; sooner or later an election becomes inevitable. I would like to say that I have never known a Parliamentary Labour Party work together better and more loyally than that Parliament of 1945. We did, at the end of it, shed a few misfits, who were people who were really in line with the Communists, and at least one who was really in line with the Conservatives. We thought it better that they should go to their real affiliations, and the verdict of the constituencies has amply confirmed the action. We shed a few misfits but we shed very few tears.
The work in the House of Commons was good and the work in the House of Lords was good. We have a comparatively small band there, led by a magnificent veteran, Lord Addison, who has just serenely passed through an operation and is very well, so he tells me. There again, very good work was done.
May I say too, from the point of view of a Prime Minister and a Party leader, that I do not think any Prime Minister or Party leader has had such continued loyal support from his colleagues. A leader depends entirely on his colleagues in the rank and file as to what he can do. We have had wonderful support and a wonderful unity of spirit throughout.
In February a number of our old colleagues who had done yeoman service retired from the Parliamentary Party, and unfortunately a number of good members lost their seats. We increased our vote but we lost a number of seats. There is one point that I notice in some quarters is sometimes forgotten: we won the election. It is very rare for a post-war government to win an election, after five years of pretty hard toil.
We came to a new Parliament and there we found quite a novel and difficult position. I have been a member of two minority Labour Governments, and I hope and trust I shall never be that again. I have been one of a splendid majority and I have been one of a very, very small opposition, but I have never been in the position in which I find myself today. There is no exact historical parallel for the present position. There have been small majorities in the past. There was one government which had a nominal majority of five or six, that lasted for a number of years. That was in the days when political affiliations were very fluid. You found a great many members in those days describing them­selves as Liberal Conservatives or Conservative Liberals. There are a certain number of those in the House today. Therefore, there was always in those days the possibility of some re-shuffle and of an alternative government being formed with a party. That is not so in the present House of Commons because our majority, though small, is solid, and our Party is united. In fact, the only danger from the voting point of view in this House is not a question of opinion but a question of health. I would say that in this present Parliament our Members have shown a wonderful devotion, and our Whips have done a wonderful job. 
May I here pay a tribute to our great Chief Whip, William Whiteley. We are all sorry he cannot be with us. I was still more sorry for the reason: the illness of his wife. I am sure we would all like to wish her every success in getting through this illness.
We have accepted the responsibility of carrying on government under difficult conditions. There can be no question of a coalition in peacetime. I think you will agree that the electors did not wish for another election immediately. Clearly, the right thing was for the Party with the majority to govern. But on what principles? Why, on the principles of the Labour Party, of our socialist policy; certainly not on the Conservative policy, and certainly not on the Liberal policy – whatever that may be. There does not exist something that is called a ‘non-party policy.’ I am rebuked freely in the press for lack of statesmanship, on the ground that I and the Government are carrying out Labour Party policy in respect of the Iron and Steel Bill. The alternative is not ‘non-party policy,’ it is carrying out the Conservative policy, because a negation can be a policy quite as much as a positive policy. Really, you can see that from our opponents.
Herein these publicists show their quite unconscious bias, because they always regard conservatism as normal and socialism as abnormal. It is our task to change that so that people will consider it normal to have a Labour Government and an aberration to have anything else. Therefore we have no intention of carrying out the policy of the Opposition. If they support us in some matters, well and good. If they oppose us, well and good; it is their function. I am not impressed by curious arguments which try to show that the electors decided on this or that particular topic because some 2½ million of them voted Liberal. What people mean who vote Liberal is anybody’s guess. In any case, General Elections are not plebiscites. We believe in carrying out the constitutional practice in this country, and that is that the majority should govern, having due regard, of course, for the opinions of the country and to circumstances. But the intention is that the Labour Government should govern.
It is not my purpose to tell you when there will be a General Election – the General Election will come at the right time – but to turn to the period of the 1950 Parliament. Coming late, as it did, in February, obviously there could not be an extended legislative programme. There was the Budget, always a difficult thing to get through at any time in the House of Commons. It is a remarkable thing how, with so small a majority, we got that through, and got it through without any defeats.
The whole of this position, however, has really been overshadowed by the increasing need for strengthening our defences. The Chairman, in his speech yesterday, showed what the basis of our Labour policy has been ever since the end of 1918. It is unpleasant to all of us to have to devote so much of our resources to defence, but we have a clear responsibility to this people and to the world to see that freedom shall not go down for lack of defences. The Government is not afraid of taking unpopular steps where those steps are right and we know we have the support of the great mass of our Party.
I do not want to anticipate the debate on our programme or the debate on foreign affairs and defence which we are to have this week, but I should like to say this: that the course of the next few years may well decide the future of civilisation for decades or for centuries. We here, gathered at this Conference, must all of us appreciate the importance of the task which we, in our generation, are called upon to perform. We are called upon to give a lead to the peoples of the world because of the strength of our movement in this country and because our policy of democratic socialism is the only dynamic alternative to totalitarian communism. Only through that policy can we get peace and social justice. We have said again and again in times past from this platform that while we need defences to prevent war, our Movement is out to deal with the causes of war; and this Party and this Government has always bent itself to the task of seeking to raise the standard of life of the peoples all the world over, so as to try to destroy the soil in which the seeds of war flourish.
Now there is no other alternative. Capitalism, you know, has lost faith in itself. When this Party was formed 50 years ago there was still the buoyant optimism of liberal capitalism. Except by socialists, its moral and its economic bases had hardly been questioned. Today, in the minds of those who support that system, there is question. It is not thought to be the answer. It certainly cannot give the enthusiasm that is needed if you are to conquer the very dangerous fanaticism that seeks to overturn the whole of the basis of our Western civilisation.
We have that faith. We have our socialist faith, built up on our belief in the brotherhood of man. We may fail in our practical efforts – it is very hard, we all know, to translate these things into everyday life – but that is the ideal that is always before us. That is what we are seeking to achieve: a real brotherhood of man. We have our faith in freedom. We have our belief in the dignity and worth of the indi­vidual in society. We have our faith in toleration. We have our faith in social justice. We will conquer in that faith.
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