Orders of the Day — Defence Loans.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 21st February 1939.

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Photo of Mr Albert Alexander Mr Albert Alexander , Sheffield, Hillsborough

We have come now almost to the end of the two days' Debate with regard to the proposals of the Chancellor to extend his borrowing powers for the purposes of defence. No one could grumble in any way at the manner of his presentation of the case from the point of view of lucidity and conciseness. I have read his speech very carefully, so that I might feel that I thoroughly understood what his financial proposals were, but when one comes to examine them in relation to the future, one moves away from the calm, concise and lucid statement of the Chancellor yesterday, and comes to feel that there are very great difficulties in front of us.

Since the Chancellor presented his case, there have been three outstanding contributions to the Debate. I think that the speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this afternoon, which I hope will be printed and broadcast, is a statement that ought to be got home to the whole country. The second speech I would mention is one that received favourable comment from Members in all quarters of the House, namely, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). I wonder whether the Prime Minister, in view of what he said in the Debate to-day, will do us the honour of reading that speech again, because, although he was evidently impressed by the financial references in it, he did not, apparently, accept one of the most forensic indictments of the Government's foreign policy leading up to the present demand for this loan that have ever been uttered in this House. The third speech—I will limit my references to three, though there were several others—was made last night by one of the Government's supporters, the hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson). In that speech we had a presentation of a manufacturer's point of view with regard to the costs of the armaments industry and the effect upon national finance, to which I hope the new Minister dealing with this matter, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, will pay special attention, and about which I hope to make some comment very shortly.

But I think the speech which stands out for sheer complacency is the speech of the Prime Minister. I took a very careful note of it. It is not easy, when one is winding up, to get an accurate note of what has been said from the Front Bench, but I took down as much as I could, and have studied it very carefully, and I think that the charge of my right hon. Friend as to its complacency was completely justified—complacency, principally, with regard to the organisation, the outlook and the material for our defence. We shall be coming very shortly to debates on the Estimates for the three fighting Services, and perhaps we shall then be able to put to the Service Departments more searching questions than we could expect the Chancellor of the Duchy to answer in detail to-night with regard to each of those Departments.

I must say, however, that the complacency of the Prime Minister about the results, as he put it, of their efforts at preparation and development for the last few years, simply amazed me. My own study of the situation, imperfect as of course it must be without the complete technical information that is at the disposal of the Government, would lead me to the conclusion that, so far from our being stronger in relation to defence today, we are relatively weaker in 1939than we were in 1931 and 1932, when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, as Foreign Secretary, had to make up his mind, with his Government, which way he was going to lead the League of Nations in defence of the Covenant of the League. He had a far better relative strength then to stand behind the principle of the Covenant than the Government will now have in regard to the increasing armaments which they are building up, because, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) said this afternoon, while we have moved forward in the last two or three years, especially with regard to the defence, all the other countries also have moved forward with us, and in some cases at a greater rate.

I cannot understand the Prime Minister's complacency, in the absence of any assurance at any time in the last few months that we had even begun to narrow the gap, in the air for example, between ourselves and German output and production. A great many statements have been made in the House of Commons during the past three years with regard to the aeroplane production of Germany. We have never seen any denial of the truth of those statements, and we have never had any assurance, that despite all our expenditure of money, that we have even begun to narrow the gap. Up to a few months ago, at any rate, it was fairly well recognised that the German production was still month by month outstripping the production of aeroplanes in this country. I feel certain that the Committee must have been impressed with the complete gloom at the conclusion of the Prime Minister's speech, which opened on such a complacent note.

I would ask the Committee to remember that the Prime Minister had been so impressed by the financial figures put to us by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh that apparently he thought we might in a few years' time reach a position in which we should not be able to meet out of tax revenue the actual cost of maintaining the three fighting Services. I ventured to suggest some two years ago that we might reach that position, in view of the way in which the Government's policy was leading. This year we hear from the Prime Minister that that position is already in sight. Probably the Prime Minister is quite right when he says that if you reach the position within a few years in which you cannot meet the maintenance charges for your fighting Services, without the capital expenditure, out of tax revenue, the provision that you are making for sinking fund to-day will not be of any real significance at all. That means the postulation of a very serious financial position indeed for the future, and I think we are entitled to ask on this side, and not to be ashamed of repeating the question. Who is responsible for bringing the coun- try to such a position as that? There they sit.

When I think of the manner in which the Prime Minister endeavoured to lecture us to-night, the scornful way in which he suggested that perhaps Labour would have departed from the belief of imposing peace by force—that was never the belief of Labour and never has been. You are reduced to this position to-day because the Governments for the last seven and a half years in which the Prime Minister has been concerned have betrayed the very alternative to such a policy. In fact, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said to-night, in the peace of Munich last September what you really did was to force a peace upon a comparatively small nation by the threat of force, apparently in order that the Prime Minister might retire in good order to prepare larger defences for the war which he began to believe would be inevitable. If that is not the position, perhaps the Chancellor of the Duchy will tell us what it is, for we are to-night being asked to pass this tremendous increase of borrowing powers, which, I take it, in spite of some questions which have been asked in the last few days, is really because, almost as soon as the Prime Minister returned from his last visit to the Fuhrer at Munich, he said, "It is now imperative that we should rearm with a larger programme and with much greater speed than we have ever yet armed." I think we are, therefore, entitled to draw the conclusion that, having with the French leader been responsible for enforcing upon Dr. Benes surrender to the German ultimatum under the threat of force, you have to ask our country here to undertake an expenditure upon armaments the like of which is unprecedented in peace time in this country. Those are the people who have brought us to this condition of affairs.

When we come to deal with the responsibility for the policy which has led us to this situation, we shall be told again and again that, of course, all parties are really responsible and that we have not been able to do all we would have liked to do because we let our armaments go down too far. As a fact, I put two things in reply to that. First of all, I do not admit that in 1931, when Labour left office, although it had then prepared by the removal of technical difficulties for a full world disarmament conference, the strength of this country relatively was any less than it was in 1914, in comparison with what the other forces in the world were at that time. Germany had no great armed force, you had not a hostile Japan, and certainly you had not a hostile Italy, and with all the visits and messages that have taken place between London and Rome since then, no one can say that you have not got to postulate Italy on the other side if there comes a break between the nations. In fact, therefore, I submit that in 1931 we were relatively as strong as or stronger than in 1914.

My second answer is that this Government and its immediate predecessor had been in continuous office, not for seven months, but for seven and a half years, that they had been there with the largest Parliamentary majorities in our history, and that they had been free to formulate and to carry through whatever policy was required in international diplomacy or in preparation for defence that they considered the nation needed; and the final sum total of it is that you come to the House of Commons in February, 1939, and say, "We must admit that we have led you to the brink of war, and we must now ask you to make the largest contribution to the public Exchequer in present taxation and in future commitments that you have ever been asked to make, and to put the nation in bondage." The Prime Minister said in Birmingham some considerable time ago now, when first dealing with the expanded armament programme, that while recognising the insensate folly of it, we had also to recognise that it meant the lowering of the standard of life of this country for a generation. The expansion of the programme since Munich, since the wonderful peace visit of the Prime Minister, means the putting of the nation in bondage, not for one generation, but for three generations.

If I may revert to a question that the hon. Member for the City of London (Sir A. Anderson) was courteous enough to give way for me to ask, I very much doubt, from the way in which the Government are piling up debt, whether that debt will ever be met. It will only be two or three years before we shall have reached a total of £9,000,000,000 of debt, £1,500,000,000 more than when the wicked Labour Government left office on a so-called financial crisis. I must say that it is a little hard, in such circumstances, for us to sit here and be lectured by the Prime Minister. I submit that it would not be unfair to say, having regard to the things that I have been reciting, which I believe to be facts, that we have been brought to this position by the moral cowardice of the Government at a time when they ought to have stood for the Covenant. [Interruption.] I overheard the Prime Minister say that when I charged him with moral cowardice, that meant that I would have led you to war. I am delighted to have the chance of meeting that challenge. It is the kind of thing that the Prime Minister is saying in the country.

What he really says in the country—he never says it quite in that way in this House—is that there were really last year two alternatives. One was to follow the basis of appeasement and try to maintain peace in that way, and the other was to regard war as inevitable and follow it accordingly. I deny that those were the only two alternatives. [An Hon. Member: "What is the other alternative?"] I do not often see the hon. Member opposite in his place, but I am glad to answer the question, what is the other alternative? The other alternative was to stick all the way through to collective security. If last year and at an earlier period the Government had been prepared to follow the advice given by Labour, on 7th September, and had organised the nations who were prepared to stand behind the Covenant, Hitler would not have marched, and you would have saved peace and Czecho-Slovakia.