Harold Wilson – 1984 Maiden Speech in the House of Lords


Below is the text of the maiden speech in the House of Lords of Harold Wilson, made on 14th March 1984.

My Lords, in hoping for the indulgence of the House for my maiden speech, I should perhaps confess that this is not in fact the first time that I have spoken from these red Benches. My first parliamentary speech in 1945, in the role of the then lowest form of ministerial life—Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works—was made from the Front Bench in here because, owing to the bombing of another part of the Palace of Westminster, their then Lordships graciously made this Chamber available. I was assigned to the task of directing the progress of the other building.

I should just like to mention that that was after Walter Elliot (remembered by the older ones of us here), seeing from Whitehall that the Palace of Westminster was on fire, ordered—simply ordered, without any authority—the fire brigade to let the other place burn, pointing out that it was only 100 years old, having been built after the Treasury, as usual, had tried to save money the wrong way and had burnt all those tally sticks. So the fire brigade managed to save at any rate this part of the building.

I do not know whether in a debate such as today’s I have to declare an interest as Chancellor of the University of Bradford—unpaid. But at any rate this debate on education gives a number of us—including myself—the opportunity to express our anxieties over present and forecast future difficulties that the Open University (OU) is required currently to face.

I had conceived the idea of the Open University well before anyone ever thought of making me Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I think that I called it the University of the Air, and I kept it under wraps right through the summer of 1964 before announcing it. I announced it finally, with the usual hand-outs, in September. So far as I recall, not a single newspaper reported the plan, except the Economist, then edited by Geoffrey Crowther, who was rapturous about the idea, and later he became the first Chancellor of the University.

In making that proposal, which, as I say, did not receive a lot of early support, I had particularly in mind the fighting men of World War II, many of who perhaps would have gone to university but for the war, and who had married and had family commitments: the Open University gave some of them a chance to earn wages or salaries and at the same time to study. I do not need to tell this House that the Treasury was implacably opposed. Well, of course—what would your Lordships expect? But so, I am sorry to say, was the Department of Education, which I understand has improved a little from those days. But the resources of civilisation were not to be discounted. I appointed my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge Minister of State in the Department of Education. It was no idle threat, I assure your Lordships, and she had to take charge of the whole operation, and the outcome was a triumph on her part.

At the same time broadcasting involvement was essential. Fortunately, at about that time the heads of the BBC wanted something from me. They came to see me, for a second channel. Well, we negotiated—if you can call it that. The condition that they accepted was an adequate provision of time for the new broadcasting university; and in fact their co-operation was invaluable in those years when it was an entirely new operation, as it has been in all those years since. I think that the university has also been quite useful to the BBC in providing a new area of training for its people.

I am not quite sure of the rules, but perhaps at this point I ought to record, or declare, a family interest. My elder son, who has been a maths don at four Oxford colleges, is an OU lecturer, and over the years he has given me a good deal of evidence that the course there is at least as tough and as difficult as they required for an Oxford degree; and our other son has graduated through the Open University.

The interesting fact is that today there are over 50 such universities all over the world, all modelled on ours, and for many years our balance of payments was fortified by sales of teaching material and, at least for a time, of equipment. Some of the engineering students needed to have engineering equipment and others needed equipment for similar studies. But it is, sadly, on the record that two or three years ago, when they cut back on university finances in our new universities, Her Majesty’s Government at the same time put the brake on so far as the OU was concerned.

I should like to refer to what happened to the British universities. There were big debates in both Houses. In Bradford, for example, all our students in, say, engineering (our main subject), are required to work about a third of their four-year course in British factories or firms. In a few years’ time—and here I am thinking in particular of those who come from the Commonwealth, or further afield—whether as civil servants who have to authorise the import of this or that particular piece of machinery, or whether as industrialists themselves, those former students, as a result of their presence here in this country, working in one British factory or another, may well dictate what equipment they should import.

Now I should like to turn to the Open University. I believe that the recent cuts forced on OU programmes will prove at least as serious as this short-sighted anti-Commonwealth attitude which we have seen developing in other ways and in other parts in recent years. The 1982 financial provision for the OU of £58.7 million has been cut to £58.2 million in 1983. You may say that this is not very much, £58.7 million to £58.2 million. But it is, of course, a much sharper cut than it appears to be because the figures make no allowance for inflation. Again, if we look at student grants, they amounted to £924 in 1980 and, at constant prices, to £814 in 1981. In real terms, they were 13½ per cent. lower. Over four years from 1980 to 1984, the university’s grant from Whitehall has increased by 24 per cent.—yes, thank you very much, certainly—while the retail price index has risen by 42 per cent., or two-four reversed.

The £50-odd million that I have mentioned may seem a large sum, but not if’ one realises that the university teaches three-quarters of the whole nation’s part-time university students. It is not sufficiently appreciated that there are these part-time courses and that three-quarters of them are taken in charge by the university. It is also worth knowing, and the Treasury, which perhaps has some responsibility in this area, ought to be pleased to hear—I hope that it will hear—that the Open University graduate costs the country only a little over half as much as a graduate from a conventional university.

I shall not weary the House with the whole catalogue of cut and cut again. I shall just instance computers. There are two novel and highly successful courses for managers and engineers in industry all over the country, not simply for those who can travel locally to a university. These same managers and engineers in industry have courses dealing with micro-processors and product design and development. It is a fact that already 30,000 engineers and managers have taken these courses through the OU. This year there are 1,100 undergraduates studying the digital computer. There are 2,300 studying the course “Computing and Computers” at a very low cost to the nation. This is a good investment.

Jointly with the Science and Engineering Research Council, itself of high repute, the university is now planning postgraduate courses which will bring working engineers, working scientists and managers up to date in the latest developments in both manufacturing and the industrial application of computers. Current plans are now at risk at the hands of the rather less than imaginative Treasury, which seems to resent the kind of world in which we all live; these threatened plans would provide for 60,000 citizens of this country operating in this field.

To cut these research facilities is, to use an old cliché, selling the seed corn, and this at a time when the university’s own industrial company—yes, it is a limited company—the Open University Educational Enterprise Limited, has handed over nearly £440,000 from interest and profits on its activities. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Perry, who has much more experience of this subject than any of us and who was really the creator of the Open University as we know it today, could confirm and verify with far more authority than I can command the alarming figures I have quoted, these current trends and the threat of more to come. He could estimate, I think, their significance for higher education in the widest sense. The facts show that over the next three years, to 1986, on the plans laid down by the authorities, the university will have to cut expenditure by £13.5 million.

What the statistics will not show are the disappointments and the broken prospects of a generation of students whose potential contributions to British industry and to British inventiveness and competitiveness in a growingly competitive world are being snatched away, from what industry and the education process could provide, by the Treasury, which could not, in my view, in terms of the problems I am describing—I may be a little biased but I have known the Treasury for 40-odd years, and I was First Lord of it once—with any marked success, run a fish and chip shop.

Noble Lords, at least those of my generation—I remind them of this before I sit down—will know the story of the man during the war who, having climbed the Duke of York’s steps and walked along to Whitehall, was asked by a passer-by “Which side is the War Office on?”, eliciting the reply “Ours, I hope”. After what I have described, based on firm and irrefutable facts and figures—there are lots more of them if anyone wants to have them—the need is for more work, more jobs and, if I may say so, more proof that Her Majesty’s Treasury is really fully committed in this war, this most desperate war, that we have in this country today, the war against unemployment.

I wish to conclude by referring briefly to this. During the war, I was involved at the head of a series of Government statistical departments. I have to emphasise—and I would be ready to give reasons for this estimate, perhaps when we debate economic affairs in a different way—that the real unemployment figure for Britain is not 3⅓ million. Not at all; that is a completely phoney figure. The real figure is at least 4⅓ million, if one allows for the fact that school-leavers, for example, have been given great help in the creation of training courses by leading firms. In every speech I make in America or when touring abroad, I always pay tribute to one or two in the constituency that I represented for what they do to create jobs that do not really exist for some of these kids. I am thinking of Messrs. Pilkington, British Insulated Callender’s Cables and our Ford factory. But, of course, if our industry is to flourish, and if we are to keep among the top nations in this new technological revolution, then it is essential that the Government stimulate education for industry.

I had the privilege, as I have said, of working for a time on Winston Churchill’s staff, before he sent me round to other departments to try to get their statistics as he would like to see them—not “cooking” them, but making them credible, understandable and comprehensible. Winston Churchill—there are many here who knew him better than I did—was undoubtedly a humanist. He did a great deal for people who were unattached to him. If he or Clement Attlee were alive today, if either was in charge, I can just imagine that a battery of brief and pungent directives would be flying around Whitehall headed “Action this day”. Many in this House have seen or received and shuddered when they got those documents, as I did. However, on youth unemployment, on stagnation in industry and on training for industry, I am certain that their message would have been “Action now” to stir our people and, above all, the younger generation to genuinely satisfying work and to training facilities that anticipate economic needs and opportunities of the remaining years of this century.

Is it too much to ask that the same power and sense of direction be now applied in our training and education systems, and in a relevant attack upon the factors that are producing youth unemployment, through the provision of adequate, however varied, educational opportunities on which not only the future of those children, the future citizens, depend, but on which the future of Britain herself in the next half century will most certainly depend?