Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
Munitions Of War Bill—28 June 1915
On 28 June 1915, the House of Commons debated the Second Reading of the Munitions Of War Bill, introduced by Ronald McNeill, Conservative member for Kent East. The purpose of the Bill was to expedite the production of war munitions, such as bullets and rifles. McNeill delivered a long speech to which Labour’s Philip Snowden and James O’Grady responded. Snowden and O’Grady indulged in an acrimonious dispute over who, of the two, was the authentic voice of the trade union movement. The key point at the heart of their dispute was a matter of trust in the Government over compulsory arbitration. Snowden wanted a guarantee, written into the Bill, that compulsory arbitration would be for the duration of the War only. O’Grady, on the other hand, believed that compulsory arbitration was an integral component of Socialism. The key parts of McNeill’s speech are published below, followed by the contributions from Snowden and O’Grady. In his contribution, Snowden says that Britain had prepared for war with Germany five years before it occurred. No one, including Lloyd George who replied on behalf of the Government, challenged Snowden on his statement that Britain had prepared for war five years previously.
A brief, incomplete, biography of Philip Snowden.
Philip Snowden (18 July, 1864–15 May, 1937) was born in the village of Cowling, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His parents were devout followers of the religious ideas of John Wesley and as a boy Snowden was brought up as a Methodist. At the age of 15, he went to work in an insurance office. Snowden joined the Keighley Liberal Club and he agreed to present a paper on the dangers of socialism, but while researching this paper he became converted to this new ideology.
Snowden left the Liberal Party and joined the local branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In 1889 he was elected to the Keighley Town Council. He also served as editor of a local socialist newspaper. In 1903 he was elected as the national chairman of the ILP. Like Keir Hardie, Snowden was a Christian Socialist, and in 1903 together they wrote a pamphlet on their beliefs, The Christ that is to Be.
He made several attempts to enter the House of Commons. He was defeated at Blackburn in the 1900 General Election and at the Wakefield by-election in 1902; finally succeeding in the 1906 General Election at Blackburn. Snowden was a pacifist and refused to support Britain’s involvement in the First World War. He and his wife Ethel joined the Union of Democratic Control. (UDC). Other members included Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Fred Jowett, Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson, H.H. Brailsford, Bertrand Russell and Koni Zilliacus.
The UDC soon emerged as the most important of the anti-war organisations in Britain and by 1915 had 300,000 members. Frederick-Pethick Lawrence explained the objectives of the UDC: “As its name implies, it was founded to insist that foreign policy should in future, equally with home policy, be subject to the popular will. The intention was that no commitments should be entered into without the peoples being fully informed and their approval obtained. By a natural transition, the objects of the Union came to include the formation of the terms of a durable settlement, on the basis of which the war might be brought to an end.” Snowden also gave his support to the No-Conscription Fellowship, formed by Clifford Allen and Fener Brockway, an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service.
Like other anti-war Labour MPs, Snowden was defeated in the 1918 General Election. He was eventually forgiven and was elected to represent Colne Valley in the 1922 General Election.
James O’Grady KCMG (6 May, 1866–10 December, 1934) was a trade unionist and Labour Party politician. He was the first colonial governor appointed by the Party from within its own ranks. He was born in Bristol to Irish parents. His father was a labourer, and after leaving school at ten, O’Grady did various jobs before training as a cabinet maker. and became active in the cabinet-maker’s union.
A member of the Independent Labour Party and supported by the Labour Representation Committee, he was elected at the 1906 general election for Leeds East constituency. O’Grady was re-elected in the January 1910 and December 1910 elections. When the Leeds East constituency was abolished for the c1918 general election, he was returned unopposed for the new Leeds South East constituency. He held the seat until he stepped down from Parliament at the 1924 general election.
In the Commons, he spoke frequently, particularly on foreign affairs, and was noted as a strong supporter of the First World War. He was also Labour’s only Roman Catholic MP. Through his role in the Amalgamated Union of Cabinet Makers, he had been President of the TUC on 1898, continuing his union activities whilst an MP. After a variety of posts in unions related to the furniture trades, he became general secretary of the National Federation of General Workers in 1918.
In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government offered O’Grady the post of British Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and he accepted. But O’Grady did not in the end get the job, because the government postponed exchanging ambassadors. Instead he became Governor of Tasmania, taking office on 23 December. His next appointment was in 1931, as Governor of the Falkland Islands, but he retired in 1934 due to ill-health. He died later that year, aged 68.
Motion made, and Question proposed, “That the Bill be now read a second time”—(Mr Lloyd George).
Mr Ronald McNeill:
The right hon. Gentleman (Mr Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions) in speaking of the past said: ‘We assumed that victory was our due as a tribute of our fate. Our problem is to organise victory and not take it for granted.’—(OFFICIAL REPORT. 23rd June, 1915, col. 1186). Those last words are so true that in no offensive sense at all I should be included to say they were a platitude. It is our business to organise victory and not take it for granted. But of whom was the right hon. Gentleman speaking when he said, ‘We assumed that victory was our due as a tribute to our fate’? I do not believe for one moment that the majority of the Members of this House and still less that any considerable body of opinion in the country ever entertained any such delusion. I believe from the beginning of the War, although of course there was lack of appreciation of all that was required, that the country realised and that this House realised that we were up against an enemy for which we were quite unprepared and that it would require most strenuous efforts in order to accomplish the task which lay before us. I believe we did assure, certainly many of us on this side of the House assumed, though I do not know whether we rightly assumed it or not, that the Government, met no doubt with a terrible task for which we were by the very nature of our system unprepared in a great measure, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out last week, were doing everything that was conceivably possible to be done for organising victory from the first.
How do we stand today? The right hon. Gentleman last week used some very remarkable words. He said that several of the Powers had probably attained the limit of their possible output, but we had ‘only just crossed the threshold of our possibilities.’ That was a very remarkable pronouncement to make after ten months of war. I would ask the House to throw its mind back to that memorable week when the War broke out. Speculation was rife how long the War would last. We were divided, roughly speaking, into pessimists and optimists, accordingly as we expressed the opinion that it would take years or months. What does the House think would have been the attitude of mind of anyone here, or of any thinking person in the country, if they could have been told then that, by the end of the following June—that is to say, when we had had been fighting for ten months—a responsible Member of the Government would come down to the House of Commons and say, ‘We are now, after ten months, just crossing the threshold of our possibilities of producing the essentials for carrying on war’! I do not think that any person would have been made against us for such a prophecy, showing such a want of confidence in the power and zeal of the Government. It would have been put down, perhaps rightly so, to gross party feeling on our part.
Would it have been believed that practically the winter would be wasted, and when the spring campaign came—when we would know that energetic operations would be carried on by the enemy, and we should have to be prepared to meet them—there would be no readiness for it, but that, in the middle of the summer, when practically only a few weeks remained of what in the old days was considered the fighting season, we should have the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Munitions telling us that, if we produce our maximum within the next few months, we may then equal, or even surpass, the enemy! Yet, at the end of June, we are being told that, id we get to our maximum within the next few months, we shall be able to meet the enemy.
When the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the dire necessity and dire peril, and when he showed that he himself and the responsible Government were doubtfully and reluctantly, as I think, consenting to the measure before us, that was the moment chosen by the right hon. Gentleman—the Member for Rotherham (Mr J. A. Pease)—to make a speech, in which the Minister of Munitions was charitable enough to say he detected signs of friendliness to the Government. That right hon. Gentleman spoke about uttering threats to the nation. He raked up against his right hon. colleague that old stale slander about having accused the working classes of being drunken. This right hon. Gentleman , who had lately retired from the Government, and who ought to have had knowledge of the seriousness of the situation, seemed much more anxious, as I thought, to vindicate the Government, of which he was a member, than to do anything to help the present situation. He appeared to be very apprehensive lest some form of compulsion, either in an industrial or in a military sense, should be introduced, in order to get over the emergency of the moment. He talked about it being an inappropriate thing to introduce Prussianism into this nation at a time when we were fighting against it. I do not recollect that the right hon. Gentleman showed any very great indignation when the right hon. Gentleman opposite introduced compulsory insurance from Prussia.
I opposed it.
Mr R. McNeill:
I was not talking about the hon. Member (Mr Pringle); I was speaking of the more important right hon. Gentleman below me. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman, who has been responsible for administering a system of compulsory education, regarded that, to use his own phrase, as a ‘Bureaucratic tyranny.’ I do not wish to discuss the matter in detail, but I cannot see that in principle there is any great difference, or that there is Prussianism in asking a man to serve his country when its existence is at stake in any way the Government may want him; or whereas it is not Prussianism, but merely British tradition and a British principle to compel a man, whether he likes it or not, to send his children to a certain class of school or to insure himself against unemployment or sickness. I cannot say that I was greatly impressed by the eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman in that respect. I may say that I am one who has never at any time looked with pleasure or complacency upon the question of compulsion in any shape or form in this country. I am much more opposed to compulsion than the right hon. Gentleman, who has acquiesced in it in half a dozen different directions. Nevertheless, I am convinced by speeches we have heard from different parts of the House, and from a review of the whole situation, that what we require at the present moment is some such form of national service as was spoken of in a very eloquent and impressive speech only the other day by the hon. Member for East Northamptonshire (Sir L. Chiozza Money).
I am not going to argue the question of compulsion against the voluntary system, but I feel very strongly that hon. Members in different parts of the House, and people outside, make a very great mistake when they assume that those who are in favour of national service at the call of the State at such a time as this think that it is required mainly in order to fill up the ranks of our fighting forces at the front. If we require some form of compulsion or national service, it is not in order to get recruits but in order to make organisation efficient. It is not in order that we may have greater numbers under the command of the Field-Marshall, but that the work of all our people throughout the country should be given to the State in that particular form and in that particular place where it is most required at the present moment, and where it will be most useful
Before I proceed to make any observations on the speech of the Home Secretary I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr S. Roberts) upon the force and eloquence with which he represented the interests of the armament firm with which he is connected. I think the fear which the hon. Member expressed in regard to that part of the Bill which proposes to limit the profits of employers in munitions factories indicates that the firms with which he is associated were not at any rate partners to that understanding to which the Home Secretary refers.
Mr S. Roberts:
We were partners. It is only the wording of the Bill to which I referred.
The Home Secretary, with all his powers of persuasive presentation, has never had a more difficult task than he had this afternoon, and I think that his powers shone more brilliantly than on this occasion. But any Member of this House, listening to the explanation of the Bill which the right hon. Gentleman has given, might be excused for believing that it was the most harmless and inoffensive measure which was ever presented to this House. I do not complain that there were certain proposals in the Bill to which the right hon. Gentleman made no reference. We shall have an opportunity of dealing with those points on the Committee stage of the Bill. A great many compliments have been paid to the Labour party in this House from a quarter whence compliments are not usually given to trade unionists, and I might give my Friends a word of warning when compliments about trade unionism come from the quarter which has hitherto been hostile to trade unionism—(HON. MEMBERS: “No!”)—they ought to look carefully at the proposals which are under consideration.
My friends who have spoken have given what was described by one speaker as a welcome to the Bill. I want to say that there is far more involved in this Bill than the question of trade union interests, important though they are. I do not want in the least to minimise the influence of my trade union friends as leaders of the organisations of trade union interests, but I think that it ought to be stated that in giving their support to this Bill they do not speak with the authority of the rank and file of trade unionists. (HON. MEMBERS: Why not?”) I want to say further—(An HON. MEMBER: “Speak for yourself”)—that they do not represent the unanimous opinion of those who were represented at the conference at which this Bill was approved by a majority. If my information is correct, and I have no reason to doubt it, something like one-third of the delegates represented at that conference voted against these proposals; and, I may point out further, that the two greatest trade unions in the country were not represented at that conference—the miners and the textile workers—the two organisations which by their votes dominate the decisions of the annual Trade Union Conference. Therefore, though I readily admit the right of my trade union Friends to express their own minds as they think fit and to give their support to this Bill on their individual responsibility, I want it to be distinctly understood that they do not speak with the mandate from the trade unions which they are supposed to represent.
May I be permitted to say that I speak with the full authority of my union? The right hon. Gentleman knows quite well that that vote was not taken upon the provisions of this Bill; it was taken upon the understanding that was to come between himself and the representatives of the Engineers Society some time ago.
Mr Lloyd George indicated assent.
And I may also say that the voting on that question was a very small vote of the membership of the whole society. But, as I have said, though trade unions are vitally interested in this matter, this is not only a measure of importance to trade unions, but it is a measure of vital importance to the whole of the working classes of this country. Something else is at stake here than trade union rights and liberties—the whole question of the civil liberty of the people of this country—and therefore a Bill of this character ought to be very carefully and critically considered by this House. I am not opposed to organisation. I came into politics in order to advocate a new system of social organisation. Socialism, of which I have been an advocate for a great many years, is a system of industrial and social organisation. I believe that I am the only one among the Members of the Labour party in this House who has been an advocate of compulsory state arbitration.
Mr O’Grady indicated dissent.
My hon. friend the Member for Leeds East appears also to have been in favour of it. But this I do know, that on a great many occasions I have been criticised very severely and have had to encounter a great deal of opposition because of my advocacy of compulsory State arbitration. I have always regarded that as being the logical outcome of the Socialist principles which I have professed, but I have never advocated the national organisation of our industries, and the organisation of national service, I have never advocated compulsory State arbitration, under such conditions as are proposed in this Bill. I have never advocated compulsory arbitration except on a basis of trade union rights and trade union safeguards. I have never said that with State compulsory arbitration you should destroy all trade union rights. I have always advocated that we should be democratic, not that compulsory State arbitration should be in the hands of a Minister possessing powers which were described, both in the words of some other Member of this House and of the Home Secretary a few weeks ago, as despotic. I do not believe in strikes: I think that strikes are unthinkable at a time like this. I quite agree with what the Home Secretary said: If this War has to be continued, there can be no two options as to the need of doing what is necessary to secure the largest possible output of these instruments of war. But I certainly do not share the optimism which was expressed by the Home Secretary a few minutes ago, that by trade unionists sacrificing their rights at present they are not prejudicing their position after the War. I may have something more to say on that when I come to deal with the conclusion of the Bill.
I submit that the Government have not made out a case for this Bill. The Home Secretary himself said just now that the people who might be affected by this Bill are very small number indeed. An hon. Member speaking from the other side of the House in the early part of the debate this afternoon, spoke of the shirkers in connection with the provisions of this Bill. You can keep him at his machine, but it is simply the old story of bringing the horse to water, while you cannot compel him to drink. I submit, from the admission of the Home Secretary himself just now, that there is no need for this Bill. But one of my reasons for saying that the Government have not made out a case for this Bill is the speech of the Minister for Munitions last week, which was one of the most striking indictments of the whole Government that could possibly be delivered.
Nearly eleven months after the War he came to the House and said that it had been discovered the Germans had big guns. It reminds one of the statements which were attributed to the then Prime Minister at the time of the Boer War, expressing surprise when he discovered that the Boers had horses. The Minister of Munitions, in the peroration of his speech last week, referred to the preparations which Germany had been making for a long period of years, and if he did not state, at any rate he implied, that we had been unaware of what Germany was doing, and that we had not expected such preparations on the part of Germany. But, surely, the right hon. Gentleman spoke in ignorance of a statement made by one of his own colleagues not a month ago, when the Chancellor of the Duchy told the people that he was sent to the Admiralty four years ago in order to prepare for war with Germany in case Germany attacked this country! And was the right hon. Gentleman aware of the statement made by Lord Haldane, only a few weeks ago, that for five years Sir John French had been making preparations for precisely such a campaign as this? How, therefore, in view of these statements of his own colleagues, can the Minister of Munitions come to this House in the eleventh month of the War and say that they were not prepared for these things which have eventuated? (my emphasis).
No, what this Bill implies is this: It tries to put the blame upon the working man for the mismanagement and inefficiency of the Government. (HON. MEMBERS: No!) We were told by an ex-Minister, only a fortnight ago, that the War Office blundered in this matter. Those who say ‘No!’ shall know, if they will listen to just a few facts. The hon. Member for Sheffield, who now has left the House, said that these big shells can only be made by the old-established armaments firms. We have at Woolwich the best equipped armament works in the country. Has the War Office, have the Government, taken full advantage of their plant there? I will read a few statements which I find in a Woolwich local paper, dated 26 March, which is three months ago. These statements are in regard to the condition of things at the Woolwich Arsenal:—‘In the sighting room the old hands say they have never seen the shop so slack before.
I now come to the provisions of the Bill itself. The Home Secretary, in his explanation of the Bill, made a strong point of what he claimed to be the basing of compulsion upon voluntary arrangements. Can the right hon. Gentleman imagine any scheme of compulsory arbitration which is not based upon voluntary agreements? There is no system of compulsory arbitration in the world which does not, first of all, admit of a matter being settled by voluntary agreement between the parties. Therefore—I do not use the word offensively, because I do not think the right hon. Gentleman meant it—to say that it is a quibble. This is compulsory arbitration, it is compulsory arbitration deprived of its democratic character, and the men are coming into this system of compulsory arbitration practically with their hands tied behind their backs. A point was raised by my hon. Friend here as to what is meant by the extension of the King’s Proclamation of the power of compulsory arbitration to trades which are not yet included in the Bill.
I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s intention. Nobody who knows him would doubt for a moment his intention or would doubt for a moment that, if he were to remain in office always, he would endeavour to carry out to the very letter and in the very spirit every promise that he has made in this House. He said that it was not the intention of the Government to proclaim a whole trade because of some petty local dispute. But what we want is something more than intention—we want it explicitly stated in the Act itself, and therefore that is the point to which I will direct attention on the Committee stage of the Bill. the right hon. Gentleman knows quite well, and everybody in this House knows, that industrial disputes are now practically always of a very wide character.
Take the case in my own part of the country of a dispute in connection with one cotton mill. There was a threat by the employers to close down every cotton mill in Lancashire. Therefore, in order to prevent a strike or lock-out in circumstances like these, it would be open to the Minister of Munitions by King’s Proclamation to proclaim the whole cotton trade of Lancashire as being subject to the compulsory arbitration powers of this Bill. Take the case of the miners. A local dispute becomes a national dispute under the powers of Part 1. of the Bill. The Minister of Munitions will have the power to bring all the miners within the Bill, and thus, in regard to the two great unions which are opposed to compulsory arbitration, the Minister will have the power to bring those two great trades under the compulsory powers of this Bill.
I turn to Part 11. of the Bill. I was very glad indeed to hear what the Home Secretary said in regard to the real character of the trade union regulations. Though it may be possible to point out in particular individual instances that output is limited, it is not true to say that, over the whole field of trade unions, they restrict output. As a matter of fact they do not, and you find that output is always greatest where the trade is best organised. I am quite sure that my trade union Friends, in agreeing to the temporary suspension of trade union rules, are making very great difficulties for themselves in the future. It is no use saying that they will not be prejudiced in their negotiations after the War. They will be. Let us just imagine this: A trade union and the employers have a conference on the question of wages. What will the employers be able to say? If my hon. Friends say that the workmen can turn out ten of a certain article in a day, the employers could turn round and say that they turned out twenty and thirty of that particular article during the War. What are my hon. Friends going to say? They are raising great difficulties for themselves which they will have to face when the War is over.
I want to enter another word of protest against a matter which certainly demands consideration in Committee on the Bill, and that is the proposal to give the Minister of Munitions power to make any regulations he likes applicable to a controlled establishment. I do not think that is a power that ought to be entrusted even to the present holder of the office of Minister of Munitions. There is to be a very heavy penalty on any workman who breaks any of these regulations. Supposing one of the regulations insisted upon a minimum output, and a workman does not make that output, he could be brought before the Munitions Tribunal and fined £3, which, as I understand the Home Secretary—and I believe power is taken in the Bill—can be deducted from his wages. I am not prepared to accede to giving the Minister of Munitions the power of making regulations of that character, and I should like to see the regulations as a schedule to the Bill. I come to the question of profits. A sop which has been given to the workpeople to induce them to swallow unpalatable parts of the Bill. I understand the hon. Member for Sheffield to say there was danger that these munitions firms might be worse under the provisions of this Bill than they otherwise would have been. Let me mention this fact, that the last two years have been the most profitable period of trade we have had for something like forty or fifty years, and, therefore, those firms who have made large profits during the last two years are going to take advantage of that. If the get 20 per cent more than the average of the last two years—
Mr Lloyd George:
If they paid a dividend of 5 per cent they would pay 6 per cent next.
If they paid 10 per cent it would be about 121/2 per cent. I do not see the point of the right hon. Gentleman’s interruption.
Mr Lloyd George:
I understood the hon. Gentleman to say 20 per cent additional profit.
Twenty per cent of the actual profit, not additional. If a firm has made a net profit of a million pounds during the last two years, next year they will be able to distribute a million two hundred thousand and will be able to raise the dividend from say, 10 per cent to 121/2 per cent.
The Kaiser will put it all right when he comes.
I desire to refer to the Clause of the Bill which will not permit a man to leave his employment unless he gets a reasonable certificate. A man is to be compelled to stop there and cannot leave without that certificate from his employer, and if he does he is to be kept out of employment for six weeks, that is to say, six week’s starvation have to be imposed on that man. I just want to say a word about the Schedule in the Bill.
Mr Lloyd George:
My hon. Friend does not surely pretend that that is a fair representation of that provision, and if he is explaining its provisions I hope he will do so more fully. It is clearly rather important, because it means if he leaves for good reason he is entitled to put his case before the Munition Court and to get a certificate.
Yes. I have no desire to misrepresent any provisions of the Bill. The Second Schedule of the Bill deals with the suspension of trade union rules and practices. We were told by the Minister of Munitions the other day that trade unions must rely on the honour of a great nation for the restoration of those rights after the War. I prefer a very definite Clause in an Act of Parliament rather than the honour of a great nation. I venture the statement that there is nothing at all in this Bill which guarantees or gives an assurance for the resumption of those rules and practices after the War is over. We ought to try to realise, or, at any rate, to call before our imagination the industrial conditions which will exist after the War is over. The outbreak of peace will in some respects be as awful as the outbreak of war. You are allowing an influx of unskilled men and women, numbering hundreds of thousands, whose competition in the future will be a terrible menace to those skilled before the War. I fail to find in any words of the Schedule any guarantee that the employers will be compelled to observe the old conditions after the War is over. How that is going to be done I do not know, except continuing in some form compulsory arbitration, or, at any rate, conferring on the Government compulsory powers to enforce the observance of those rules when the War is over. Unless that is done in the Bill itself in words which are incapable of more than one construction then all that is said is so much waste paper.
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Snowden) knows very little of the trade union movement and he has no right to make the statement he has made with respect to the delegates who were at the conference with the Treasury. Let me indicate to the House how mistaken a man can be, however well intentioned his remarks are. He spoke of the vote in the conference with the Treasury, which, by the way, was a confidential conference, though probably somebody has been giving the show away. A certain vote was taken, and the hon. Member said that more than one third of the delegates voted against this Bill. That is absolutely a misstatement. Curiously enough I was one of the men who voted against the majority, and that is why I am making this statement, but the vote which we took was not upon this Bill at all. It was on the principle of applying compulsory arbitration to all disputes during the War. There were 16 who voted against the application generally of the principle of compulsory arbitration and 50 who voted to the contrary, but on this Bill there was not a single dissentient.
I want to remind my hon. Friend that after all it is impossible to get a poll of our men on this Bill. Time is a great factor in the matter, and to suggest that we should put this Bill before our members, and particularly before an organisation like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which has branches in Australia and in Canada, and to make the result of their vote decide on a Bill of this character, is not a practical proposition at all. Every single item of this Bill, with the exception of the principle of compulsory arbitration, has been voted upon by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in the form on the Treasury Agreement.
I want to tell the House this further fact that the only difference between this Bill and the Treasury Agreement, which has been adopted and carried by a majority, is the single question of compulsory arbitration, and I have advocated it for years because it is the logical outcome of my belief in Socialism, and for that reason too my hon. Friend should be in favour of compulsory arbitration as contained in this Bill. The point he makes is that under Socialism, with compulsory arbitration operating, a workman would go into Court fairly free, but under this Bill he goes in with his hands tied behind his back. We have not got the millennium yet, and we have not got the establishment of Socialism yet. We have got to deal with things as we go along, and as we find them and on the facts of the case. I want to suggest to my hon. Friend that the Courts before which the men will place their grievances are Courts on which the men will have their own representatives, and not as is the case now in most cases where arbitration is carried on either voluntarily or by compulsion. After all it depends on the Courts and, as the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr Duke) so well put it, I hope the Courts will be made more local than they are. I understood that under the Bill itself the Courts would be local Courts, to which the men could go and get these matters rectified without delay.
Mr Lloyd George was understood to say that that was the intention
But the strongest point made by the hon. Member for Blackburn, and put in a somewhat different way by the right hon. and learned Member for Exeter, was the difficulty of getting these cases tried at once. Let me go on to speak about the trade unions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, that up to the present we have been casting blame upon the workman. But who have been doing it? The late Government attempted to do it. I protested on that occasion, and I have protested since. But my hon. friend the Member for Blackburn has also blamed the workmen for the state of things which has existed in regard to the production of munitions of war. My hon. Friend wrote an article in the “Daily Despatch”, in which he said that the figures of drunkenness were appalling. Of course, he went on to water it down. But he made this declaration finally—I am speaking from memory, but this is the substance of it—-that while under normal circumstances the position is absolutely intolerable and something must be done. If that is not casting blame upon the workmen, I do not know what is. It is idle for my hon. Friend to challenge the Government; I challenged them before he did. We disagreed with the statement that was made, and we said so publicly. But for an hon. Friend of ours to come along and lay the blame on the Government without considering what he himself has done, and what he contributed towards it—-well, well, I do not know where we are getting in these matters.
Let there be no mistake about this Bill. I do not want to discuss it from an academic point of view. I want to put the plain practical aspect of it before the House, and particularly before my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. After all, the men are asked under this Bill to volunteer. To do what? To enter into a contract with the Government to do a certain amount of work for six months—to do it faithfully and well, if you like. That is an ordinary civil contract. I have entered into contracts with my employer when I was at the bench. If I did not fulfil the terms of the contract, what followed? I was hauled up before a Court—and before a Court which I thought was prejudiced. What is a man asked to do now? You go to him and say, “Will you volunteer to go and work on certain conditions?” What are the terms? The terms are specifically stated in the note that he signs. His trade union rates of wages and his overtime rates are guaranteed by the State. The only conditions he is asked to relax are those rules—built up, I agree, after centuries of fighting and suffering—having to do, say, with the prevention of semi-skilled workmen doing the work of skilled workmen. I might remind my hon. Friend that this Bill goes much further than the trade unions can carry their own members, because—this is the point—if unskilled workmen are employed on this work, they will not depreciate the rates of wages which have been built up by the trade unions.
So that, on the whole, I respectfully suggest to the House that the criticism of my hon. Friend—well meant, I do not dispute that—is not well founded. I have followed him, if I may respectfully say so, for a large number of years, and I agree with him in all points on the political policy of the organisations to which we belong. But I protest against the attitude which he has taken up on this Bill, because the effect of it is to sow dissension between trade union rank and file members and their elected, accepted leaders. I know he does not mean that. I suggest that, in these critical times, that is not only a bad thing from the point of view of trade unionism, but it is a very grave thing as far as the safety of the State is concerned. Moreover, has he the facts which are in our possession? Good God!—I say that quite reverently—we get letters from members of our societies, our fellow trade unionists in the trenches appealing to the leaders of the trade unions to do all they can to persuade our fellows in the workshops, even at the sacrifice of trade union rules, to set to and turn out these munitions, in order that they may get a “fair show”. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, that when these men come back from the field of battle, as I hope they will, and resume their membership of the trade unions, they will declare that the greatest work that the unions and their leaders ever did was to save some of their lives out at the front, by enabling them to have a “fair show”.
I know that this Bill is faulty in some particulars. We have not drafted the Bill. I do say, however, that there has never been a point which we have raised in conference with the Minister of Munitions, or with the other authorities, but there has been a frank attempt to meet our views. You will see that this Bill—and this is its virtue—deals with a perilous situation in plain and simple terms; and I venture to say that the workmen themselves, when they study the Bill, will agree that, after all, we did the best we could in the circumstances. They, like their brothers in the trenches, will, under the terms of the Bill, set to work, knowing that their interests are being safeguarded, and they will do their best to respond to the appeal made in this House and outside for patriotism, and work to help carry this country to victory in the present War.