National Voluntary Service.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr William Cluse Mr William Cluse , Islington South

The first point which arises in my mind in this Debate is the continuous suggestion from the other side that the Labour party is only critical and is not prepared to assist the Government in the dangers with which we are now faced. We have had in the past great experience of that kind of suggestion. At by-elections we are accused of being warmongers, and in this House we are accused of being pacifists. The Labour party is neither a pacifist party nor a warmongering party. The Labour party has taken up the attitude for some considerable time, and has put it forward in all its pronouncements, that it is perfectly willing to take its full share in the defence of this country if the country is attacked from abroad, and that position should be understood in the country and in this House. Where we differ from the ordinary statement of belief in national defence which comes from hon. Members opposite is that here we know, as the result of almost deadly experience, that in times of national crisis and in times of war the desire of the people to assist in the defence of their country has been used to take away the liberties of the working men at home.

That is why we are not concerned on this question so much as to whether it should be a compulsory or a voluntary register. There is really no difference in it of any consequence, because most of the working people of this country are compulsorily registered, and those who have any money are compulsorily registered under the Income Tax returns. It would be a great advantage, I think, if we were able to find out by a register the number of people there are nowadays who either get their living willingly by living upon other people or who get their living in some unproductive fashion or another. It would he a great advantage to the country to know how the nation gets its living, and if it came down to details, we should have some very valuable information. Therefore, my first point is to try and rebut the idea that the Labour party wishes to throw sand in the machine of national service. It wishes to do nothing of the kind, but it wishes, in assisting in a war against Fascism, not to produce Facism in this country and thereby endanger the liberties which the workers have achieved over years of effort.

As to the position of the Government, we are tremendously surprised that on the other side of the House we find this division as to compulsory or voluntary service. The Lord Privy Seal, in an effort possibly to provide arguments against compulsory service, seemed to belittle the nature of the crisis. Apparently he wished to bring it home that the gaps were not very many and could easily be filled, and that there was no necessity for either compulsory military service or compulsory registration. My complaint all through the crisis and up to now is the lack of frankness displayed by the Government. People were scared—I was going to say scared stiff—but no doubt the fact that for the first time in our history the ordinary population of this country were served out with gas masks and saw trenches being dug created a tremendous feeling of apprehension, and out of that feeling of apprehension came the worship of a figure which was projected into the public mind of someone who believed in "peace in our time."

Now that the crisis is past, most people are forgetting about it. The country is very apathetic in normal times. It woke up during the crisis, but it is going back to the apathy which existed before the crisis. Like most of us here, I am very much concerned as to the situation to-day, and it is for us on both sides of the House to spread that interest in the seriousness of the present position from within the walls of this House throughout the country. That could be done if the Prime Minister was more frank in his statements, but he is not very frank with us when we ask questions as to foreign policy, and we have a duty while here to find out whether or not there is anything going on behind the scenes. We are not aware whether this latest passive defence scheme, as it might be called, is the result of some serious crisis looming behind the curtain, or whether it is simply, if one can call anything nowadays normal, the development of the Government's policy in producing defensive measures. We do not know. Our leaders are not informed. We are asked to give wholehearted support to the Government, and yet we are not taken into the Government's confidence.

If the whole of the Labour movement, the Co-operative movement, and the political movement of our party outside, who in previous and recent by-elections have proved that we represent half the voting population of this country, are to be induced to go wholeheartedly for the organisation of the defence of this country against attack from the totalitarian Powers, we should know and the public should know. Military preparations cannot be divorced from policy. Why does not the Conservative party through its Press or through its leader tell the world the position to-day as we know it? Why is not the public informed that actually we are just feinting for time to get our defensive weapons ready against an almost certain attack within, perhaps, a short period of time? If we told the people this we could rely, I believe, upon a great burst of popular voluntary effort on the part of the people. Instead of that, we read of some new diplomatic thunderbolt, some new difference between the gangsters as to who is to have first grab at the spoil, and the public, not knowing the dangers of the future, do not understand the events of the present. I hope that as a new mood on the part of the Government they will let the public know the danger and that the Prime Minister, while doing his best to fence off by diplomatic language or arrangement the danger, will at the same time develop throughout the world an endorsement of democratic principles which will within a short time set up such a barrage that even the dictators will be afraid to attack, and our country will see the possibility of peace in the future.