Nigel Lawson – 1974 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Nigel Lawson, the then Conservative MP for Blaby, in the House of Commons on 1 April 1974.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye for the first time, on All Fool’s Day, too—a date whose appropriateness to the occasion of a maiden speech needs no underlining.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I could not pretend to be able to follow all its twists and turns, but I am particularly glad to have had the opportunity of speaking after the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne), whose presence here is a symbol of a form of security of tenure which all of us have deeply at heart, although he has perhaps caused a lot of trouble at the United Nations.

The new constituency of Blaby, which I have the honour to represent, is in South Leicestershire. It is roughly 60 per cent. of the old Harborough division, whose Member, happily, continues to serve here as Member for the new Harborough division. Therefore, for me to pay the customary tribute to my predecessor would in the circumstances perhaps be in questionable taste—rather like publishing an obituary of the living. Therefore, I shall simply say that it is my ambition to serve my constituents as well as my hon. Friend did when they were his constituents.

Blaby is in a real sense the centre and heart of England. It is there that those two great Roman roads, Watling Street and the Fosse Way, cross. To come to the present day, it is in Blaby that the M6 meets the M1. As hon. Members of a monetarist persuasion will instantly recognise, that leads me logically to the subject of the Budget.

As a former professional Budget-watcher it was easy for me to recognise the parentage of this beast. It is by the TUC cart horse out of the Treasury grey mare. Therefore, I was not in the least surprised to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer say that later in the year he intends to introduce a Budget of his own. In view of the speeches made earlier today, many of us on the Opposition side of the House would rather it was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who introduced the subsequent Budget. However, I have always believed that every Chancellor should be allowed at least one Budget of his own. I am sure that will be the case on this occasion.

In his Budget speech the Chancellor said: Unless we can somehow halt the accelerating inflationary trends in our economy, the resulting political and social strains may be too violent for the fabric of our democratic institutions to withstand.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March 1974; Vol. 871, c. 290.] Those were sombre words, but I fear that the right hon. Gentleman did not exaggerate. Yet there was nothing in that long and complex Budget which did anything to halt the Gadarene stampede to which he referred. Indeed, some measures in it may actively make matters worse. It seems that everything has been staked, indeed gambled, on the success or failure of the so-called social contract between the Government and the trade unions—the philosophy, we are told, on which the Budget has been based.

A social contract is all very well, but, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), I found it difficult, in looking at the Budget in detail, not to be a trifle sceptical about it. Are we supposed to believe that the stony heart of the militant shop steward will melt at the thought of paying more for his cigarettes, petrol and beer in order to allow his wife to pay a little less for bread and milk? Perhaps this rather touching picture of male altruism is well founded, but I doubt it. It seems to me more likely that the Labour Party, which has always had a strange predilection for sacred cows, has gone one step further and now believes in sacred milk, too. Are we to believe that the great mass of trade unionists will suddenly be reconciled to the paths of moderation in wage claims by the knowledge that in future 33 per cent., and not 30 per cent., of any wage increase will be taken from them in tax? That applies to a married man, with two small children, earning as little as £25 a week. If hon. Gentlemen do not believe it, they should look at Table 17 in the Red Book.

Are we meant to suppose that trade union activists will feel that an extra 2½ per cent. rise in the cost of living imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer “at a stroke” is a small price to pay for the promise that one day there will be a wealth tax?

The social psychology of clobbering the rich is a subject deserving of study. As one close student has written, there is a curious tendency within the Labour Party towards a suspicious, militant, class-conscious Leftism. That is the observation of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Environment in that classic work, “The Future of Socialism”. Can it be that fostering this suspicious, militant, class-conscious Leftism is compatible with the stirring cry for national unity which the Chancellor made the theme of his peroration in his Budget speech?

Perhaps, after all that, it is not to the Budget that we should look for the key to the so-called social contract, the sop to the trade unions. Perhaps, instead, that key, that sop, is to be found elsewhere—in the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act and the “Footwork” that we are told will replace it. At first sight, that seems to be a more plausible candidate, but, even so, there is something curious about it.

When I was listening recently to the eloquent oration of the Secretary of State for Employment, I was struck by the passage in his speech in which he accused the previous Conservative Government of having conceived of the statutory incomes policy as a kind of blunderbuss to brandish in the face of the Trades Union Congress and say to it ‘Stand and deliver’.”—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 697.] Most people in the country, and certainly the great majority of my constituents in Blaby, would say that if there is anyone these days who is inclined to say “Stand and deliver”, it is the big trade unions. One of the more endearing characteristics of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) is that he is inclined to live in the past. No doubt he imagines, even today, that he is marching alongside the Tolpuddle Martyrs or fighting the Taff Vale decision. But the rest of us know that times have changed and with them the balance of industrial power—and the balance of weaponry, as some of his right hon. Friends can testify. Some of us recall, during the celebrated “In Place of Strife” saga, the plaintive cry addressed by the Prime Minister to Mr. Scanlon, “Get your tanks off my lawn, Hughie”. I am afraid that Hughie’s tanks are still on the Prime Minister’s lawn and, in the light of that, the present Government’s intentions towards trade union law in general and picketing in particularly are thoroughly alarming.

If I may draw an analogy following the “blunderbuss” of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale, there is in the United States considerable concern over the constitutional right of every citizen to bear firearms and the violence and bloodshed that result from it. Sensible people there are campaigning to try to get the right limited by law. The position of the Government in a similar situation boils down to saying, “Of course people will be frustrated if they have only rifles, and this will lead to violence. For real peace and good order you should let them have machine-guns, or even bazookas.” That is a serious point. The central problem of our time, however much hon. Members on the Government benches may try to hide away from it, is the problem of the abuse of trade union power. If a social contract is to mean anything, it must mean that that power has to be used responsibly, but we will not ensure that by enlarging that power, or making its abuse still easier.

The link between trade union power and wage inflation sheds a spotlight on the basic fallacy that underlies the social contract/egalitarian approach. The mechanism of wage inflation rests on two simple and unequivocal facts. First, there are more groups of workers who feel strongly that their relative pay in relation to that of other groups of workers should be improved than there are groups who feel that their relative position should be allowed to deteriorate. Secondly, many of these groups—not all—have the economic and industrial power to be able, at least in the short term, to force the relative improvement they seek.

No amount of egalitarianism—of clobbering the so-called rich in the sacred name of the social contract—can make the slightest difference to this central issue. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer can have Mr. Harry Hyams hanged in public—and drawn and quartered, if he so wishes—but it will not make a jot of difference to the differing views of ASLEF and the NUR on the relative standing of their respective members. Why should it? Again, the right hon. Gentleman can, if he likes, impose a 90 per cent. capital levy on second, third, fourth or even fifth homes, but it will not make the slightest difference to the view taken by mineworkers about their position in the industrial league table. Again, why should it?

Let us suppose that it made sense for the Government to base all their hopes on the all-important struggle against inflation on the social contract. The crucial fact remains that there can be no such thing as a contract, social or otherwise, unless there are sanctions against those who break it. The question is—and this is the crux of the matter—what are the sanctions to be against the TUC or its member unions if they break the social contract which the Government are currently endeavouring to negotiate?

There are three, and only three, possible answers. The first is that the Government could stand by and allow the strongest groups to grab what they can, but refuse to increase the money supply accordingly. They could let events take their course so that there are bankruptcies, falling real wages and large scale unemployment among the groups which are less strong. The second possible sanction is to take the “free” out of free collective bargaining, which would envisage a return to the statutory incomes policy and all that—assuming we ever leave it. The third possibility is to take the “collective” out of free collective bargaining, and move to curb trade union monopoly power—which sooner or later is bound to happen.

The question to which we want an answer is which of those three possibilities is to be chosen by the Government. It must be one of those three choices. What is to be the sanction against breach of the social contract? Trade union members have a right to know the small print of the contract which they are being asked to enter into. But, above all, we in this House and the country have a right to know, and I trust that we shall be given the answer before this debate draws to a close tonight.

Before entering the Chamber tonight, I took the trouble to read an essay which appeared in the Spectator on the subject of maiden speeches. It was written by my predecessor as editor—Iain Macleod, whose loss to this House, to the Conservative Party and to the country is still deeply felt by all of us. His principal piece of advice—indeed his only practical advice—was that a maiden speech should on no account exceed 15 minutes. I apologise to the House, for I fear that I may have transgressed that advice, but I shall try to do better next time.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East) The conventions of the House require that I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) on his maiden speech. He delivered it very well and was rather witty at the expense of trade unions. He talked about militant shop stewards. But his view of the trade union movement is as inaccurate as his recollection of the figures contained in my right hon. Friend’s Budget speech. I do not recognise the trade unionist whom the hon. Gentleman described as being the militant trade unionist who would not be prepared to sit back while some of the lower paid and weaker elements in our society got a rather better deal such as that which my right hon. Friend has offered them. Nor do I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the accuracy of the figures which he quoted. He said that a married man with two children and an income of about £30 a week would pay more in income tax. He is wrong—

Mr. Lawson rose—

Mrs. Short I am not giving way.

Mr. Lawson The hon. Lady is wrong—

Mrs. Short I repeat, I have not given way to the hon. Gentleman. A married man with two children earning that sum will pay £47 per annum less in income tax. In fact, he can earn £3,000 a year and still pay less tax—

Mr. Lawson rose—

Mrs. Short No. I will not give way.

Mr. Peter Rees Give way to a maiden.

Mrs. Short I hope that the hon. Member for Blaby will be a little more accurate in future when he quotes figures—

Mr. Lawson rose—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. George Thomas) Order. If the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) does not give way, the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) must himself give way.