THE TRANSPORT BILL.
IT is not wonderful that the Ministry of Ways and Communications Bill, generally known as the Trans- port Bill, is encountering increasing opposition as it goes along. Considering the way in which the Government have managed it, we should have been surprised if any- thing else had happened. The Bill contains principles on which we, for our part—and we fancy that the public took very much the same point of view—were ready to be convinced. Although we greatly disliked nationalization and unnecessary State control as the result of experience, we were prepared to be convinced that the Government had so deeply committed themselves during the war that there was no way out of the tangle except through the nationalization of the means of transport. We were even ready to believe that some other industries, such as coal, must be taken over. But everything depended upon the assumption that the Government had so clear and bold a policy, informed with knowledge, determination, and enthusiasm, that they ought to be allowed to try their hand at nationalization. In desperate circumstances— and industrial conditions to-day are undoubtedly desperate —it often happens that what may not be precisely the best plan will work best, because the authors of it believe in it and are resolved to make it a success. As the means of transport had been taken out of private hands during the war, and there was only too likely to be chaos if the Government control were suddenly removed without any transition period, some kind of central co-ordinating authority was and is obviously necessary. If the Govern- ment thought that a farm and close enough co-ordination could come only through nationalization, we could 'la offhand take the responsibility of denying their argument.
But what has happened since the Transport Bill was laid before the country ? It is impossible to discover in the debates in Parliament or in the answers of Ministers to deputations that any clear policy emerges. No one knows really what the Government think ; and the explanation, we fear, is that the Government themselves do not know what to think. Again, although the Transport Bill involves immense expenditure—State bankruptcy would not be an impossibility if there were a failure—the Bill actually does not make financial provision. It is not merely that we are not told what the cost would, be; there is no attempt even tobsuggest how the money would be found. Indefinite and gigantic powers, with authority to spend money on a large scale (though that authority has been limited since the introduction of the Bill), are placed in the hands of one man. Sir Eric Geddes, who in a curious phrase is spoken of as the "Minister-designate," might conceivably use those powers to the benefit of the country, but can any one say that it is certain that he would do so ? And if he should not do so, could any one say that a successor to such a prodigy would ever be found ? Such statements on railway finance as Sir Eric Geddes has made are 'hope- lessly cloudy. So far as the public can judge, it seems that nothing has been charged against the Government for the use of the railways during the war. Till this charge is made, it will be impossible to know what real loss the railways have made during the past five years, or whether they have made any loss at all. On July 10th Sir Eric Geddes stated that a loss which had been originally esti- mated at between ninety and. a hundred million pounds had since been raised by his financial experts to a figure varying between a hundred and four and a hundred and nine millions. The net deficit to be paid by the taxpayers for the present year, he said, would be sixty million pounds, as mentioned in the Budget. This has been generally taken to mean that about fifty million pounds of the total loss would be met by the new methods of economy which Sir Eric Geddes has several times explained. In the second reading debate on the Transport Bill, how- ever, Sir Eric Geddes reduced the saving possible by economies to twenty millions. Where are -we?
For such reasons as these we have come to the conclusion that the Transport Bill ought not to be passed in its present form. Just as in the case of the coal industry we were convinced against nationalization, on which we at first kept an open mind, by the evidence laid before the Sankey Commission, so in the present case we are convinced against the Transport Bill by the vagueness, hesitation, and con- tradictions of the Government since the Bill was introduced. The only conditions—clearness, enthusiasm, and deter- mination—which could have made such a Bill likely to be successful have been proved wanting.
When Sir Eric Geddes explained the Bill on March 17th he said that it was neceaaary because there was no prac- tical alternative. But surely there are numerous alterna- tives to a measure which has inspired the Government to such confusion. Upon the introduction of the Bill we strongly objected to the provision enabling the new Ministry to purchase various means of transport by Orders in Council. To commit the country to great expenditure by Orders in Council is a most dangerous procedure. Orders in Council commonly receive little attention because Members of Parliament are too tired or too careless to examine the papers laid, upon the table. Upon the first reading in the House of Commons the Government withdrew this objec- tionable provision, but the very fact that it had ever been inserted indicated that the Government had nationalization in view. They wanted the power to buy any and every means and apparatus of transport—railways, tramways, canals, docks, harbours, and piers. In the third reading debate in the House of Commons Sir Eric Geddes and Mr. Boner Law both declared that there was "no alternative between this Bill and nationalization." Between the first and third readings a nationalizing Bill had somehow become an anti-nationalizing Bill. The House of Commons was plainly alarmed at this mental sloppiness, and very likely the Bill would have been thrown out there and then if Mr. Bonar Law had not informed a deputation of Members that the Government would fall if the Bill did. not go through. He would not state even then exactly what the Bill meant. "I cannot say," he remarked," that it necessarily leads directly or indirectly to nationalization."
If after these strange events we had still been in doubt about• the desirability of the Bill, we should have been driven into opposition by the apology for it which Lord Lytton offered in the House of Lords on Monday. He said that this country, in its workings of the railways during the war, escaped disaster such as has visited the tiansport system. of Russia "only by the very narrowest margin:" These are astounding words. The praises of the British railway companies were on the lips of every one during the war. Probably among Londoners the best known and most praised instance of skilful management was that of the London and South-Western Rail way, which moved millions of troops and a considerable pro- portion of materials of war while still continuing to convey almost as many private passengers as before the war. This is not merely a popular impression. The Select Committee on Transport declared in its Report published last year that during the war British railways were unsur- passed.. It is to the enterprise of the London and South- Western Railway Company that the country owes the deep- water dock at Southampton. One hardly knows how we should have managed without that dock in the early stages of the war.
At this point, while we are thinking of docks, it is con- venient to say that as a body the managers of the docks all round the coasts and in the rivers of Great Britain and Ireland managed their work with exceptional skill. When the Government were considering the best possible means of dock management for war purposes; they came to the conclusion that they could not do better than leave the existing managements untouched. When private officials have passed through such a triumphant test as that, is it not illogical and perverse to decide that now that the war is over State control over the docks shall be substituted for private control ? In its present form the Bill deals with all railways, light railways, roads, bilges, ferries, vehicles of traffic, harbours, docks, and piers. The greatest of the dangers in the pro- posal that all these things should be placed in the hands of one Minister is that there might be a conflict between the interests of the roads and those of the railways. Sir Eric Geddes has won his spurs as a railwayman. It is said, therefore, that he would pet the railways at the expense of the roads. The fact that Sir Eric Geddes is a high-minded man who means well for his country would very likely induce him under the pressure of such a suspicion to act in the contrary direction and prove his impartiality by favouring the roads. Though that might be his intention, things might not work out thus in practice. There is such a thing as unconscious bias • and in any case no one man should be called upon to administer taneously two such enormous interests as are represented by the railways and the roads. The Bill compels him not only to take up the position of both plaintiff and defendant, but to be judge into the bargain. It is too much. In our opinion the roads are more important than the railways. We live in an age of motor transport, and the development of the roads is a very much bigger question than the rehabilitation or extension of the rail- ways. In France the prosperity of the peasant depends largely, if not primarily, upon the magnificent roads. Along a road, with a hard surface and good gradients the cultivator of the soil can convey his produce to market with the minimum of motive-power, whether that power be supplied by an animal or an engine. Narrow, winding, and steep roads with bad surfaces are ruination to the small farmer, the tradesman, and the small manufacturer all over the country. We quite agree that the roads are so important to the welfare of the nation that the responsi- bility of the State for them should be complete and direct. All that we are contending against is that the proposed Minister of Ways and Communications should be respon- sible for both railways and roads, since their interests are necessarily conflicting in many respects. The Road Board ought to be marked out as the central authority. The fact that ten million pounds was assigned to the Road. Board for the repair of roads this year shows that it was accepted at first by the Government as the natural authority for road management on the grand scale, and it would not have been deposed if Sir Eric Geddes had not captured the Government and imposed upon them hit grandiose scheme of the Transport Bill. According to the Bill in its present form, the Road Board, is to come uncle] the Ministry, just as the ultimate control—very lightly exercised—which the Board of Trade has over docks and harbours is also to be transferred.
It may be asked who would decide if there were a hope- less dispute between the official responsible for the railways and the official responsible for the roads. That such a question should be possible shows how far we have drifted away from ordinary Constitutional practice. The recon- ciler, the co-ordinator, of rival Departments must of course be the Cabinet. Up to three years ago it would not have occurred to anybody to think that there could be any doubt of the answer to such a question.
"Efficient distribution," a phrase used by Lord Lytton in the House of Lords' debate, is of course essential to our industrial revival. Failure to distribute adequately, whether in Russia or India or elsewhere; is indistinguishable from famine, and as a matter of faot is generally called famine. Where we disagree with Lord. Lytton is in his contention that efficient distribution postulates this large measure of State control. It may be that the railways must be nationalized because they cannot be saved from nationalization. Though we cannot yet feel certain about this, we are quite prepared to believe it. There is some reason for saying that the railways were to all intents and purposes nationalized from the moment when the Government made a present to the railway workers a' thirty million pounds without consulting the companies. From that moment it may have become impossible that the railways should ever be handed back to the companies, for, as the Times reminds us, the Act of 1844 explicitly guarantees the position of the railway shareholders, whose money was forthcoming as a result of an appeal by the Government to their patriotism. But if nationalization is necessary in the case of the railways, let it be confined to the railways, or at all events to the railways and the canals. In any case Six Erie Geddes has two years before him in which to experiment. Whether the Transport Bill passes or not, Government control of the railways is mire to continue for two years. If at the end of that time the Government are able to point to a remarkable achievement in getting the railways back to a profitable, or let us say only it promising, condition on a peace basis, they would be able to appeal to the nation for wider powers with every prospect of acquiescence. ,