Below is the text of the speech made by John Stokes, the then Conservative MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge, in the House of Commons on 1 November 1978.
It seems quite a long time now since I heard the Gracious Speech read over six hours ago. Apart from the excellent speech of the leader of my party, my main recollection of all the other speeches I have heard is of their length. I hope that in my case I can speak to the point and not perhaps at such excessive length.
I found it hard to reconcile the complacent tone of the Gracious Speech with the state of affairs in the country today. I wish to speak with extreme seriousness for a few moments, quite broadly, on the present state of our country. There was no recognition in the Gracious Speech that the nation is demoralised and that our proud national spirit is to some extent diminished. Nor have the Government brought forward any new measures to fulfil their fundamental duty to defend the realm and maintain law and order in our land.
The second paragraph of the Gracious Speech reads:
“My Government will continue to safeguard the nation’s security and make a full contribution to the North Atlantic Alliance”.
I do not believe that the Government are continuing to safeguard the nation’s security to anything like the extent that they should, nor do I believe that they are making “a full contribution” to NATO. We know this from the complaints that we have heard from Dr. Luns and others.
Some weeks ago I was with our forces in Germany. As everyone knows, they are short of almost every kind of equipment, notably tanks and aircraft, but also vehicles. Many of those which they have are older than the men who drive them. The forces are also short of arms, ammunition and petrol for exercises and manoeuvres. Even more disgraceful, we found that in many units the soldiers were short of certain mundane articles such as boots, socks, and jerseys.
The troops feel that they are to some extent neglected, and I am afraid that this is true. All ranks have lost faith in the Government. That is a deeply serious matter. They have no confidence that they will be paid properly. I have never come across such bitterness, not only among the serving men but among their wives. Yet now we hear that there is to be yet another defence review and that still more cuts in our defences are envisaged.
Our forces may soon be reduced to the size of those of a small country such as Denmark or Belgium. In spite of these serious deficiencies, I am glad to say that I found the morale of our troops high. I am certain that this is due to the inspired leadership of the officers, warrant officers and NCOs—leadership which, in my view, is far above that which we see in all walks of civilian life.
Turning to the situation at home, the Gracious Speech says on the second page:
“My Government will seek to ensure that respect for the law is maintained, and will give full support to strengthening the Police Service.”
Yet, as we all know, there is probably more violence now in this country than at any time since the fearful disturbances of the Middle Ages.
Violent crime, including the most distressing crime of rape, continually increases. Many people in my constituency—and I know that this is general throughout many towns in England—are fearful of leaving their homes at night.
Protection by the police of private property against burglary or theft has almost broken down, and respect for authority and for the law has woefully diminished. There is general lack of discipline in the community. Vandalism and thuggery continue in many of our towns. The situation in our prisons is clearly dangerous and getting out of hand. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary does nothing. He hardly even wrings his hands. I doubt whether he could keep order in a nursery.
On the economic scene, we observe a Government presided over by a Prime Minister and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who have seen both prices and unemployment double since 1974. If anyone had prophesied that situation in 1974, he would have been considered a dangerous lunatic. But I believe that there will be no escaping these trends for the nation as long as this Government remain in office.
Production and productivity are still appallingly low, and unless the situation is improved rapidly there is nothing to prevent the nation from becoming the poorest in Europe. I have recently been in France and Germany. As more and more people now realise, they are increasingly drawing ahead of us in prosperity. One can see it in many ways. When one returns to this country, one’s first feeling is “My goodness, what a poor, shabby nation we have become,” starting at our railway stations, getting into our dirty trains and seeing our dirty streets in London or Birmingham or many of our big towns. If we cannot even keep our trains and streets and public places clean, there is clearly a decline of very serious proportions.
The conduct of foreign affairs is, after defence and law and order, one of the most important functions of government. As the House knows, I am a student and lover of English history. I am sorry to say so, but I believe that under our present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs the nation has reached its lowest point in esteem in many centuries. The Government seem to have ceased to believe in us and in our nation. Yet, if we do not stand up for ourselves, no one else—neither the EEC nor any other nation, and certainly not the United Nations—will stand up for us. What strikes one so forcefully in France is that every Frenchman puts France first, second and third on the list. Do we really think that our Government have the same feeling towards our beloved country?
In Rhodesia, where I was a few weeks ago, we have the extraordinary and, I believe, almost unprecedented spectacle of our Foreign Office supporting terrorists who have been trained by the Cubans and armed by the Russians. These are the people who are being backed by our Government, particularly by our Foreign Secretary, against the interim Government of Rhodesia composed of blacks and whites. No doubt there are reasons of State for that. No doubt it is not just wishy-washy sentimentality. No doubt this is meant to placate America, which has always hated the British Empire, has never had the slightest idea of how to handle black people, and which certainly can teach us nothing. It may also be an attempt to placate Nigeria and some of the black countries in Africa. But if we do not respect ourselves as a nation, and look after our own people in Rhodesia, no black nation and no black people will have any respect whatever for us.
I therefore very much hope that next week, when these grave matters come before this Chamber, my party will have the courage of its convictions, above all, listen increasingly to what most people in England are saying and vote determinedly against the continuation of sanctions.
Finally, we see in education an attempt to devalue examinations and to water down everything of merit. Under this Government, the country is rapidly losing its way, its sense of direction and its sense of purpose. If this goes on, I believe that we shall end up as a sort of second rate Socialist State with lower and lower standards and, of course, less and less freedom. The Government seem quite unaware of the grave deterioration which has taken place, certainly since 1974 and probably earlier. The sooner we have a General Election, the better.
I noticed a poll in the West Midlands today—and I have some interest in that part of the country—which put my party 18 per cent. ahead. I am not surprised. That is a feeling which I have had all along. I am certain that if an election were held in the next few weeks, we should, at least in England, gain a substantial majority, and then the task of national recovery will have to begin.