European Situation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 6th April 1939.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Vernon Bartlett Mr Vernon Bartlett , Bridgwater

I remember that on the occasion of that very difficult ordeal, the making of my maiden speech in this House, I had the honour of following the right hon. Member for Spark-brook (Mr. Amery), and I was then astonished to discover the extent to which I agreed with him, and again to-day I would like to state that I am proud to say that I agree with him in a very great measure, because I think he is one of the most sincere men in this House, and that is not a reflection on other people. I am speaking to-day because I feel most strongly that it is time that we in this House realised that a world war is actually in progress, even though it may happen that, so far, there has been very little bloodshed. I believe that we have got to learn to think strategically, and I confess, as one who spends a good deal of time reading foreign newspapers and listening to the menacing broadcasts, the insulting broadcasts, about this country which reach us, that I think it is time that we altered our whole conception of defence. The failure of this Government to think strategically in the last few years has lost us the most important positions in the Mediterranean, in Northern Africa, in the Far East, in South-Eastern Europe, and now, as we read in the papers only this morning, in Spain.

As I see it, the only hope of Germany to destroy this Empire is to win what they themselves call a Blitzkrieg, a lightning war. If Germany cannot win a war in a very few weeks, then our much greater resources, and probably our greater number of allies, will be the decisive factor in victory. As I see it, we have to do everything to make sure that in the first few days or weeks of war, if war were to happen, we should not be found unprepared. As far as foreign policy is concerned, there are obviously two things we ought to do, in my opinion. One is, with the very greatest speed, to make an alliance with Russia; because whatever we may think of the internal situation of Russia there can be very little doubt that the Russian Army to-day is much more effective than the Tsarist Army of 1913, and yet, as we know, even after the Americans were fully in the war, when Russia went out of it and the Germans were able to transfer their divisions from the eastern to the western front, just 19 years ago, we very nearly lost the war, because Germany was no longer fighting on two fronts. I, personally, am very grateful that the Government have concluded this Agreement with Poland, because that, to my mind, is a great deterrent, but I think we have got to see that that is expanded as quickly as possible to cover Russia.

The second thing that ought to happen is, surely, that our foreign policy should be one that wins the fullest confidence of the American people. It is certain that Herr Hitler and President Roosevelt between them have abolished the American conception of isolation. That is a remarkable change, to which we pay far too little attention. The realisation that even if Germany were to succeed in a Blitzkrieg, in a lightning war, and in frightening the British and French people so much that they would demand peace, which I do not believe would happen, the knowledge and realisation that behind the British and French people were the great people of the United States would be the greatest of all deterrents for Germany. In other words, it seems obvious that our foreign policy must make quite sure that if Germany tried to declare war she would have to fight on two fronts, and would have the prospect of having to face the great resources of the United States.

I wanted to speak to-day on the question of domestic or home defence. I confess that I am horrified that we are going away for the Easter holidays at a moment when every Member of this House is deeply disquieted by the news from abroad, and at the difference between the temper of the preparations for war in this country and in Germany. In those totalitarian States we find the whole national industry concentrated on the preparation for war, but we are still going ahead with no decision on deep shelters, the question of a Ministry of Supply or the concentration of food reserves, and we are still told that we must not interfere with business as usual—although from all I hear there is very little business with which to interfere.

The result is that when we appeal to the small nations of Europe, which are desperately anxious to maintain their independence, and of which there is not one which is not terrified of being dominated by Germany, when we say that after years of very indecisive foreign policy we now propose to build up again this idea of collective security which the Government, throughout years, have done nothing to defend but, on the contrary, have done a great deal to destroy, and when we say, "At last we have learned our lesson and we want to build a system of collective defence," hardly one of them has sufficient confidence in the power of the British Empire to come down definitely on their side. I saw a statement in a paper a day or two ago by the President of the Norwegian Parliament—andwhat country is closer to us than Norway?— that the Scandinavian countries did not want guarantees of help from the great Powers because they had seen lately to what such guarantees amounted. The arrangement with Poland seems to be a great step forward but, welcome though it is, it will not alone give us real security. I do not want to take up the time of the House talking about foreign affairs, but I suggest that there must be two developments. If we are to avoid the outbreak of a lightning war we must have our manpower prepared. Each man and woman in this country should know roughly what they are called upon to do.

I am afraid that I am very new to the Rules of this House, but I am told that in a Debate on the Adjournment we must be very careful to say nothing to suggest the institution of new legislation, and I do not want to do that, but I know that any idea of compulsory military service is bitterly opposed by the people who have put their trust in me as a Member of Parliament. I am fully prepared to meet that committee of the people who sent me to this House; in fact, I am anxious to meet them. If, by supporting conscription, I lose their confidence, I shall be very ready to resign at once, but there are times when the only voice to which one should listen is that of the dictates of one's conscience. I believe that one of the great deterrents at the present time to the Powers that are determined to destroy the British Empire would be the institution in this country of some form of compulsory military service. If we had to accept some form of compulsory national military service in a moment of crisis if war were to break out, the Government would probably get that accepted by the country almost without conditions. I am not sure, but I think there would be, nevertheless, throughout the Labour party and the Liberal party a great feeling of discontent about it. I do not believe it is fair to arrive at a moment of great national crisis and then ask the people to accept compulsory National Service. I think it is better to face up to that issue before the crisis arrives, and I do not think it is fair to ask the people to make that great change in their whole national make-up. I believe the only States which have not got some form of compulsory national service are Luxembourg and Monaco. [An HON. MEMBER: "San Marino."] It is accepted as a normal system by a great number of thoroughly democratic States, but it marks a very great change in our make-up.

I am convinced that it is not fair to impose that upon the British public without a very drastic change in the composition of the present Government. If you have conscription of man-power, you must also have the most rigid conceivable system of conscription of wealth, because there is not a Member of the House who wants a repetition of the war profiteering that we had between 1914 and 1918, and also, I think, you would have to have a very considerable change in the composition of the Government. Too many supporters and members of the Government have suddenly discovered the benefits and the blessings of collective security. They have been converted with a. rapidity which is only exceeded by that of Saul on the road to Damascus. During these Easter holidays, if we are given Easter holidays, I would suggest that Members of the Government should reflect very seriously whether there ought not to be a drastic change in the Government which involves not only bringing in other Members, but getting rid of certain Members in it who in the past have done a great deal to destroy the League of Nations.

After all, every one of us who was in the last War, and every one who has children who may have to fight in the next, knows that the only constructive and decent thing that came out of the war to end war was the Covenant of the League of Nations. We have seen that Covenant torn by article by article, and now we are paying the price. Every one of us wants national unity. We are faced with the gravest crisis the Empire has ever been called upon to face. Let us have a united nation. We cannot have a really united nation, whatever the votes of the House, whatever the comments of the national Press, unless we have a Government which has the absolute confidence of the great mass of the people. Therefore, may I express the hope that by the time we come back after the holidays the Government will have realised that if, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook hinted, we must adopt a different system of bringing our man power into the service of the State, we can only do it by a complete change in the outlook of the Government. It is time we got rid of some of these people who for years have done nothing to build up the collective system which we must have if the Empire is not to be destroyed.