Debate on the Address.

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 12th November 1936.

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Photo of Mr Stanley Baldwin Mr Stanley Baldwin , Bewdley

I am not disposed to quarrel for a moment with my right hon. Friend. The practical difference between the right hon. Gentleman and those who take that view and ourselves is that such action would increase the pace more and more, irrespective entirely of the effect on commerce, industry and finance. We are fully determined to press forward the plans already worked out, to modify, to extend them if necessary in the light of developments, but we do not feel justified in bringing about the dislocation of trade which must follow any attempt to proceed upon the more lavish scale advocated in some quarters. We started late, and I want to say a word about the years the locusts have eaten. I want to speak to the House with the utmost frankness. There can be no difference of opinion in this House, either on those benches or among my own supporters or among my hon. and right hon. Friends who have been taking a prominent part in this Debate, on this point, that in those years, from 1924 to 1929, when we did cut down the Services, we all did it, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after due and full consideration, and we did it because we still had hopes of disarmament, because we believed that there was no danger of a major war within a decade and because we were very anxious to conserve the finance of the country.

The difference of opinion between the right hon. Gentleman and myself is in the years 1933 onwards. In 1931–32, although it is not admitted by the Opposition, there was a period of financial crisis. But there was another reason. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken more than once about the anxieties which were caused after the events in Germany in 1933, and the neglect of the Government to do anything or make any preparations in 1933–34. He was more modest to-day; he spoke of a couple of million pounds. I would remind the House that not once but on many occasions in speeches and in various places, when I have been speaking and advocating as far as I am able the democratic principle, I have stated that a democracy is always two years behind the dictator. I believe that to be true. It has been true in this case. I put before the whole House my own views with an appalling frankness. From 1933, I and my friends were all very worried about what was happening in Europe. You will remember at that time the Disarmament Conference was sitting in Geneva. You will remember at that time there was probably a stronger pacifist feeling running through this country than at any time since the War. I am speaking of 1933 and 1934. You will remember the election at Fulham in the autumn of 1933, when a seat which the National Government held was lost by about 7,000 votes on no issue but the pacifist. You will remember perhaps that the National Government candidate who made a most guarded reference to the question of defence was mobbed for it.

That was the feeling in the country in 1933. My position as the leader of a great party was not altogether a comfortable one. I asked myself what chance was there—when that feeling that was given expression to in Fulham was common throughout the country—what chance was there within the next year or two of that feeling being so changed that the country would give a mandate for rearmament? Supposing I had gone to the country and said that Germany was rearming and that we must rearm, does anybody think that this pacific democracy would have rallied to that cry at that moment? I cannot think of anything that would have made the loss of the election from my point of view more certain. I think the country itself learned by certain events that took place during the winter of 1934–35 what the perils might be to it. All I did was to take a moment perhaps less unfortunate than another might have been, and we won the election with a large majority; but frankly I could conceive that we should at that time, by advocating certain courses, have been a great deal less successful. We got from the country—with a large majority—a mandate for doing a thing that no one, 12 months before, would have believed possible. It is my firm conviction that had the Government, with this great majority, used that majority to do anything that might be described as arming without a mandate—and they did not do anything, except the slightly increased air programme for which they gave their reasons—had I taken such action as my right hon. Friend desired me to take, it would have defeated entirely the end I had in view. I may be wrong, but I put that to the House as an explanation of my action in that respect.

There is one other thing I will say. I shall always trust the instincts of our democratic people. They may come a little late, but my word, they come with a certainty when they do come; they come with a unity not imposed from the top, not imposed by force, but a unity that nothing can break. I believe today that, whatever differences there may be among us in the country on various questions—as there must be—the conviction is biting deep into our country, with all its love of peace, that there must be no going back on our resolution for such rearmament as we deem necessary to meet any possible peril from whatever quarter it may come. That feeling is coupled with the feeling which we all have that we are as anxious as ever to see all the countries of Europe considering disarmament, especially in the air. But until that day comes, nothing will shake the resolution either of the Government or of this House or of our people.

I am afraid I must trouble the House with a few words more about a Ministry of Supply. This is the real point of difference between my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping and the Government. The attitude we have taken is not particularly my attitude or the attitude of any individual; it is the considered judgment of the whole Cabinet. In the light of all the facts there are before us, we take the full responsibility for it, and I think I might very briefly allude to the principal reasons. That has been done once, twice, three times, but I would like to run through those reasons again. Before doing so, however, I would like to deal with one question which I do not think my right hon. Friend mentioned to-day, but which I know has been in his mind. I do not know whether he still attaches importance to it, but some little time ago he did. He said that the Ministry of Supply, if there was one, could set up a council of business men to advise it. I appreciate as fully as anyone the value of the advice which business men can give, but all my experience goes to show that that advice, if it is to be to the point, must be directed to specific matters, matters about which a man with business experience can speak with practical knowledge.

Now, we can get all that without a Ministry of Supply and without a council of business men. Let me take the case of aircraft. What did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air do? He did what I told you a few moments ago. He did not set up a council of business men, but sent for the motor manufacturers, put before them the specific problem of the production of aircraft engines, both now and in time of emergency, and asked them to address their minds to the specific question, What could the motor industry do by way of contributing to the solution of the problem? Concurrently, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, realising that, as is common knowledge, the question of the supply of machine-tools is a key question, did not wait for advice from business men in general; he sent for the machine-tool makers, put to them the problem of the supply and asked them to formulate the steps necessary to supply what is needed for urgent munitions work, paying attention, as far as possible, to the needs of the private home and export trade. Those are two examples of plain, practical, common-sense action, based upon the precise needs of the moment for the Forces of the Crown. I do not believe that a Minister of Supply or of Munitions could take more effective action—he might take very similar action—unless we had reached the stage at which the situation called for measures of the kind demanded only by an actual emergency. That is the broad line of difference between those who want to see a Ministry of Supply or Munitions set up immediately and those, like ourselves, who do not.

One suggestion has been made which, if ever it was valid, I think is not valid to-day. It was suggested in a previous Debate that a Minister of Supply is needed because there are conflicting demands on the part of the Service Departments, but that is not the case. Through the Supply Board, and through the operation of the effective system of co-operation which has been established between the three Supply Departments, there is, in my view, no conflict of demand that cannot be settled. The real conflict is not between the three Service Departments, but between the demands of private industry and the demands of the Service Departments as a whole. I do not deny that there is some conflict here, and in particular cases it may constitute a real difficulty; but I feel that the right course to pursue in the circumstances is to put the problem to those actually engaged in the particular trade concerned, and where there are difficulties, to enlist their aid in devising arrangements, which, while they will give us as far as possible what we need for defence, will do so with a minimum of dislocation of our ordinary and particularly of our export trade. We do not need a Minister of Supply for that. We can and we are achieving results through the work of each of the three Departments, aided where necessary by the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. Nobody knows better than my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping, with his great experience as Minister of Munitions, that those questions of supply are very detailed subjects involving very matter-of-fact and day-to-day questions, such as, raw materials, factory equipment, labour strength and so forth. They do not necessarily involve questions of major principle; they are in the nature of executive action, and what is needed for their effective treatment at any rate for the present, is a due degree of driving force at the top and adequate co-operation below.

I have only one or two more observations on this subject. The Government are engaged, as the House knows, in carrying out an extensive and expensive programme. Its size involves heavy demands on industry; the cost must make heavy demands upon our resources. The question is which is the best way in the present circumstances of carrying out our programme. Our method may be described as one of voluntary co-operation between all concerned, while coordinating our efforts and interfering as little as possible with normal civil industry. The other method is to ask Parliament now to confer on the Government compulsory powers forthwith. But I do want the House to realise how extensive those powers if taken would have to be. The powers of the Ministry of Munitions in the War covered pages and pages of D,O.R.A. Regulations. The scope of the powers must extend to industry as a whole. You cannot do it in fragments. It must extend to industry as a whole. What I fear, in fact what I feel confident of, is that if that were done now, it would create such uncertainty and uneasiness throughout the whole trade of the country that it would check the development of enterprise and stop the trade expansion and I hardly dare to reckon how it might react on finance.

These are grave risks and at the moment the Government are not prepared to take them. It is very easy to be led into supposing that dictatorial methods are necessarily more effective than the co-ordination of free effort, but we must not imagine that other countries whose governments do not submit their plans for defence to Parliament and do not require the approval of the legislature for the power which they exercise, whose Ministers are never criticised and have not to explain themselves, therefore escape all trouble. The last War showed one thing plainly and it was that at times when we might have suspected that the enemy was prepared to the last button, that all was going happily with him and that he had no difficulties, he was, even then, struggling with handicaps and confusions of which we knew nothing. It is a mistake to suppose that our methods are necessarily inferior to other methods which are largely concealed from the public gaze. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epping seldom speaks nowadays without a quotation from the Latin tongue and I rejoice that it should be so. He gave us one to-day, and I, at this point, would like to give another: Omne ignotum pro terribili. which I might translate thus: Things you know nothing about are always bogies. Experience in the House of Commons has taught me the lesson that more is to be gained in this country by relying on willing co-operation than by adopting dictatorial methods, until they are forced upon you and become essential. The House of Commons and the British people are very alike. The exercise of compulsory powers inevitably involves, at any rate at first, a most serious dislocation of industry, a dislocation which may be out of all proportion to the benefits obtained. It may well be that, instead of being hastened, production for some time may be retarded. But it is certain—and I must repeat this—that it would so dislocate the ordinary free working of industry as to reduce our effective financial strength; and that financial strength, so carefully nursed and looked after through all these years, is one of the strongest weapons we have if war ever comes upon us.

I have said earlier that I am not prepared to discuss in detail the number or quantity of particular weapons of offence or of defence. The reasons for this are well known and no one knows them better than my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping. When he and his friends came, as everyone knows, to see me in July last to give me their views upon the situation and lay before me certain information which they had as to what was going on abroad—views and information which I was very glad to have—they made it perfectly plain that all they had in mind was to convey their knowledge to me. They did not ask that I should, subsequently, tell them anything I could not tell openly to the House of Commons. I think my right hon. Friend knows that we hope to have the pleasure of seeing him and his right hon. and hon. Friends again when we can give them the results of the careful examination which we have made into all the points of detail. I should like very much, once more, to say to the Opposition that if the Leader of the Opposition and any friends of his want, at any time, to come to discuss with me or with any of my colleagues some of these problems, whether they wish to give us information or to ask for information, they will be equally welcome.

It is common knowledge that the rulers of the totalitarian States are in the happy position of not being criticised for what they may do or fail to do. They are under no obligation to make their plans known or to disclose their progress or lack of it. I am the last person to want to be in a similar position. I have made known on many occasions my views on democracy. But I think it not unreasonable to ask that, in these matters of defence, where necessarily we are not at liberty to discuss details, there should be extended to us, and particularly to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, a certain measure of trust and confidence. I do not want to magnify or to minimise the seriousness of the position. I am giving the assurance to the House that I aim reasonably satisfied with the progress that is being made. If, for any reason, whether through a shortage of labour or a shortage of material or any other difficulty, the time should come when I and my colleagues feel that sterner steps are necessary to complete the programme that we have in view, I shall not hesitate to come down to this House and ask for all the powers I need, whenever that time may come. I promised my right hon. Friend to say a word on another matter. I am in a position to say that my right hon. Friend's estimate of the German metropolitan first-line air strength is definitely too high. That is the best information we have. I regret that I cannot give exact figures.

I am grateful to the House for having listened to me for so long. I do not often trouble them with a long speech, but I felt that to-day I must give them such information as was in my power and tell them frankly the position of the Government with regard to certain questions. I would only repeat—and I do so for the third time in this speech—the words with which I opened. I know they will find an echo in every breast in this House. The whole of our efforts in the field of diplomacy and foreign policy will be aimed at bringing agreement and peace to all foreign Powers. At the same time all our efforts will be devoted to this great question of defence—the protection of our own people—and we will not relax our efforts for one moment, because we know that while we shall work for the blessings of peace, there can be no peace, in Europe certainly, unless