National Voluntary Service.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 6th December 1938.

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Photo of Mr Vernon Bartlett Mr Vernon Bartlett , Bridgwater

May I begin by appealing to hon. Members to remember that they all at some time have gone through the ordeal that confronts me now; and I am sure they will recall how alarming a place the House seems to a newcomer. But if one must make a maiden speech—and I suppose one must, although I hear that there are Members who have managed to avoid the ordeal for some time—I am glad to do so when I am able to congratulate the Government upon taking what I believe to be a very considerable step forward. After the disappointment we have had about a Ministry of Supply and so on, I feel that, at any rate, I can go further than the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery)—with whom, rather surprisingly, I can agree on much that he said—in congratulating the Lord Privy Seal on having produced a scheme which will have the approval of many Members of the House.

As I see it, the object of civilian defence is twofold: to deter those who might be attempted to attack us, and to make our defences as efficient as possible if we are attacked. It is probably true that nothing would make as great an impression abroad as the institution of conscription in this country. I speak with some diffidence from this part of the House, because I do not happen entirely to share the views of most Members on this side about conscription, or some form of compulsory military service. I have never been entirely convinced that it is so undemocratic. I am not entirely convinced that our present military system is a better method of breaking down those barriers of class, accent and prejudice than you find in the national militias of some democratic countries, such as Switzerland; and I think that, despite what the Lord Privy Seal said about make-believe, conscription here would have as great an effect abroad as conscription abroad has had here—which is saying a great deal.

But I realise there are two very powerful arguments against any form of compulsory military service. One is that it would arouse bitter opposition in this House; and, to my mind, it is more important now than at any moment since the War that there should be as great a measure of national unity as possible. The other argument is that compulsion of any sort, unless the Government contemplate the despatch of a large expeditionary force overseas, is more likely to be useless and wasteful than the scheme the Lord Privy Seal has in mind. In fact, I am afraid that some doubt about the effectiveness of the Lord Privy Seal's scheme must persist while we have doubts about the Government's foreign policy. Only in the last day or two we have had speeches—with which I am in entire agreement—by Members of the Government which suggest that even inside the Government there is still a considerable measure of difference as to what our foreign policy should be. If we are to have voluntary service, how can it best be organised in such a way that it does ward off potential aggressors and make us really stronger if that warning should not be sufficient?

One of my reasons for intervening in this Debate is that I have had more recent contact than most Members with the electorate, and I have come to certain conclusions which I venture to think are not entirely irrelevant to the Debate. The most important of those conclusions is that at no other time since the War have the people of this country been so desperately anxious to serve. In my opinion, that applies to people in all classes; and I will appeal to hon. Members opposite to remember with gratitude the patriotism of the poorer members of this national community, which in no way lags behind the patriotism of more fortunate people. They are just as anxious to serve as the more fortunate people, and yet they have so very little to defend. The Lord Privy Seal is rightly anxious to make the most of that spirit of national devotion, because, unless it can be maintained, the best-laid plans for voluntary service will fail; and we shall then find ourselves having conscription imposed on a resentful and suspicious people. I would suggest that it is essential that we should take much more vigorous steps to convince the general public that there is not going to be any profiteering in sandbags, aeroplanes, steel and cement and those other articles which, at the present time, are of even greater importance than the supply of well-trained man-power. I think the same suspicion of large-scale profiteering at the expense of the nation is one of the main causes of the hostility to the Milk Bill.

The Government would stand a much better chance of harnessing patriotism to useful purposes if they could dissipate this suspicion that they are more anxious to suppress criticism than to be guided by it. I have read in the last week or two at least half a dozen explanations of why I happened to be victorious at Bridgwater. There is dissatisfaction with the Government's agricultural policy; there is the abominable treatment of the Jews in Germany; the youth of my very excellent and able opponent; the fact that at an earlier period I used to be connected with the microphone. But I am convinced that none of them helped nearly so much as the Prime Minister's recent reproaches to the Leader of the Opposition in this House for expressing his belief that the Munich Agreement was a blunder. According to the OFFICIAL REPORT, the Prime Minister said: If the right hon. Gentleman really believes that, I am sorry that he should say so publicly. It is not one of the characteristics of totalitarian States, at any rate, that they are accustomed to foul their own nests."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st November, 1938; cols. 73–4, Vol. 340.] I honestly believe that there is a very widespread fear in the country that our freedom of speech, which is the foundation of pure democracy—that is to say, which is the foundation of our national greatness—is seriously threatened. I would suggest that if the Lord Privy Seal is to have that success that we all want, more should be done by the members of the Government to dispel that suspicion.

There is, I fear, another obstacle in the way of the Lord Privy Seal. I went, in my very humble capacity, on each of the Prime Minister's three visits to Germany, and I saw enough of the strain under which he worked and the responsibility he had to carry, or chose to carry, to come to the conclusion that it would be an impertinence for me to criticise the decisions he made, even though I thought they were mistaken. I tried to rub that in in every election speech I made, but, being new to the game, I was surprised to discover the extent to which my words were distorted—or, should I say, misunderstood? On one occasion, one of my opponent's supporters said at a meeting that I had said that the Prime Minister went to Munich like a dog with his tail between his legs. He added, "I say that he went like a bulldog," to which a farm labourer at the back of the hall said, "Why didn't they send a retriever, so as to bring us back something?" As in foreign affairs, so in home affairs, feeling is growing that the Government are showing haste and energy only in surrender. After the recent crisis we did expect a rebuilding of the Government, in order to make it national in fact, and not only in name. If Bridgwater is any guide, there is bitter disappointment that, with the exception of the appointment of the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal, there has been practically no change, except the fact that one Noble Lord aged 66 has retired and been replaced by another Noble Lord aged 67. I want to say nothing disrespectful to those two noble gentlemen, but surely much more understanding of public opinion, much more imagination, will be necessary if these civil defence plans are to be the success we all so desperately want them to be.

The right hon. Gentleman who preceded me referred with some contempt to this Handbook which is to be issued. Undoubtedly that is a step in the right direc1ion, but I wonder how many Members in this House could put their hands on their hearts and swear they read through every word of the A.R.P. Handbook, which was handed out to us at a time of grave national crisis, when it should have been studied with the greatest care. It sounds to me too much like an Income Tax return, this system that is being adopted. We are to have local committees, which will give advice, but I would suggest that if they are to be staffed with people with what are called Oxford accents, we shall find not enough people coming for advice to make the thing worth while. We have to avoid a repetition of the A.R.P. fiasco, with its buckets of sand and spades and retired majors. I would suggest to the Lord Privy Seal that when he launches his new scheme, he should launch it with the utmost possible display of pageantry. That may sound an unimportant thing, but I believe it is of the utmost importance that we should bring the danger home to the people, and I believe that that can be done only with a display of pageantry.

Herr Hitler has obtained power in Germany with the help, I think, of three qualities. One is the ability to play on the little resentments and jealousies of the masses. We certainly do not want to follow that. Another is an understanding of the feeling of the poorest people in his country because he himself tramped the streets of Vienna with no work and with an empty stomach. When I read and hear Debates on the Special Areas and similar problems I sometimes wish, certainly without any malice, that more of the right hon. Gentlemen who have to deal with these matters had been through similar experiences. The third quality that Herr Hitler possesses is his wonderful mastery of dramatic presentation. I do no see why in this present crisis we should not follow him in that respect. Nobody could enter this House without being impressed by the sense of pageantry possessed by our people. That is why everybody who goes through the ordeal that I am passing through to-day is in such a state of nerves about it, and I do not see why that sense of pageantry should not be directed towards the possibilities of the future as well as towards the traditions of the past.

I think, therefore, that enlistment under the new scheme should come at the end of a national voluntary service registration week. If possible let registration day itself be a public holiday—a public holiday perhaps repeated every year when the Register will have to be brought up to date. Let every method possible of influencing public opinion be used to convince the nation. and particularly the youth of the nation, that it is embarking on a romantic and dangerous enterprise which has become necessary for the protection of our liberties. Pageantry should also bring out the fact that the miners, the engineers, the transport workers, agricultural workers and other men in key industries are playing their part, so that they too do not lose this very important idea of National Service.

No psychologist and no publicity expert could be too big for this job, and I would suggest that the Lord Privy Seal should consider the appointment of a small expert committee to advise him on the most effective ways of projecting his scheme. I have made these few criticisms, I assure the House, in no carping spirit. I merely want to emphasise that the people of this country are desperately anxious for a strong lead, and I think that the welcome that has been given to the proposals put forward by the Lord Privy Seal does show that the welcome is immediate, generous, and general when any lead is given. I believe with passion that the worst possible policy is to minimise the difficulties and dangers that lie ahead. The international situation has deteriorated to an almost incredible extent in the last few months, and as far as I know them, the younger people are not frightened of dangers or difficulties; they are frightened only of muddle, cowardice and delay.