Motion of Confidence in His Majesty's Government.

Part of Orders of the Day — War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 29th January 1942.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby

The Prime Minister, for reasons which he explained and which for my part I think conclusive, has asked the House of Commons for a Vote of Confidence. The Motion, as the Lord Privy Seal said yesterday, does not ask us to declare that the Government is perfect, or that there is universal satisfaction with all aspects of its policy, or with all the members of its personnel. All Governments make serious mistakes, all Governments have grave defects, and Coalition Governments have more than most. The Prime Minister by his speech has asked the House of Commons to judge, not by a fantastic standard of perfection, but by the general record of the Government's conduct of the war since he and his colleagues took office 20 months ago. I find it difficult to believe that any hon. Member, on that record, could refuse the Vote for which he asks. The Prime Minister on Tuesday reviewed the great changes which have happened in the war in the last two months. Whether I cast my mind back two months to the Japanese attack, or six months to Hitler's attack on Russia, or 15 months to Mussolini's invasion of Greece, or 20 months to the days of Dunkirk, Bordeaux and Vichy—of whichever date I think, I cannot persuade myself to take a gloomy view of the war situation or to condemn the Government's general conduct of the war.

The Prime Minister has never offered us soft perspectives or easy hopes, but on Tuesday he felt able to say that he felt the broadening swell of victory and liberation bearing us onwards safely to the final goal. When my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) says, as he said yesterday, that the war situation is steadily deteriorating, I think not only of that saying of the Prime Minister's on Tuesday, but of another authority whose knowledge and realism my hon. Friend will not dispute. If there is one set of men in government who understand the hideous prostitution of human heroism and scientific genius which we call modern war, it is Premier Stalin and his General Staff. Their opinion, if anyone's, is entitled to our respect. They say not only that we are certain of victory, but that final victory may come this year. They confidently expect that by this autumn we shall smash the Nazi war machine. Well, if it is possible for Premier Stalin to entertain such hopes, that is due not only to the magnificent resistance of the Russian Armies and the Russian people, which we all so much admire; it is due also to the fact that for a year we held the pass alone. It is because, since May, 1940, we had fought what Mr. Lees-Smith called "a long series of delaying actions," and because in those actions we have won successes that gave us time to mobilise our power.

Dunkirk; the Battle of Britain; the Battle of London; the Battle of the Atlantic; the destruction of 400,000 Italians in the first Battle of Libya and in Abyssinia; the great military result obtained in Greece and Crete—and it was a great result, in spite of the mistakes we made; the actions in Syria, Iraq and Iran, by which we saved Turkey from encirclement and Russia from a dangerous onslaught from the rear—these were all defeats for Hitler, they were all successes for us of the highest strategical importance. They were successes won while we were still alone, and still far weaker than our enemies in numbers and in arms. They were the successes by which we saved the cause of freedom from defeat until Hitler's attack on Russia gave us new Allies. Since that attack, the Government have given very considerable help to Russia by land and sea and air. We all wish it could have been more; the Government wish so. Some people think it could have been more, particularly in the early stages of the war. I am among them. I think it would have been more but for the disastrous advice which they received about the power of Russia to resist. But in any case, since October, we have sent Stalin what he asked for, and I believe, as I said in October, that the help we gave, together with our action by land, by sea and in the air, may well have meant to our Russian Allies the difference between victorious resistance and perhaps defeat.

Since the attack on Russia we have had the second Battle of Libya. It is not yet concluded. But of its first phase we can certainly say three things: that even if Rommel recaptures Cyrenaica, it has meant a diversion of Axis troops and tanks and aircraft which might have been of immense service to Hitler on the Russian front. It has been an episode of the first importance in the long struggle for the North coast of Africa, which we shall win, and upon which our hope of final victory will much depend. And we can say that up to the capture of Jedabya it was not only a success, it was a smashing victory. That record of successes, and the stupendous change in the perspectives of the war since the Government came to power, entitled them to claim that they have made a wise disposition of the Forces, the transport and the supplies at their disposal, and it is on that record that we have to vote. For my own part, I think it is the duty of hon. Members to give the Government the support for which they ask.

It is also the duty of hon. Members, and I am sure the Government agree, to express the anxieties or doubts which they may feel or which may be felt by their constituents outside. And I think the Prime Minister would make a grave mistake if he fastened his eyes only on the general desire of the House to give him its confidence and did not note the very real and deep anxiety which exists, in the House and outside, on certain points.

There is anxiety, deep and real, about production. I know that-the total of our output is now enormous and is constantly increasing. I know that in modern war, with the sinkings of raw materials, with constant changes in the types of tanks and aircraft, big dislocations in the factories cannot be avoided. But know, we all know, and the Government know, that there are great dislocations which ought to be avoided; and they are becoming a very serious matter in the factories and the workshops of the land. I beg the Government to listen to the warnings of the Trades Union Congress. The Trades Union Congress have proved their patriotism; they have made great efforts to spur the workers on; they are particularly well informed. And they would not say, without strong reason, that they were very perturbed at the numbers of reports of slackness which they receive. I have had occasion in years gone by to make a study of armament production in the last war, and I am afraid that we are repeating now, in different forms, some of the mistakes which we made then. There is a view held vehemently by many people who do not belong to the Labour party that big private enterprises, cartels and corporations are being allowed to pursue policies which do not help to maximise our war production. No one can talk to the workers in the shops and doubt that neither the Government nor the employers take them sufficiently into consultation. There is still friction, waste and overlapping due to the fact that we have three big Supply Departments, instead of one. I am very glad that the Government said yesterday that they had an open mind about a Minister of Production. I hope that the Prime Minister will tell us to-day of his decision to appoint one and that with the help of that new Minister he will institute at once the changes and investigations for which the Trades Union Congress have asked.

There is grave anxiety about India. I will not repeat what was said so well on Tuesday by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence), but I do hope that the Prime Minister will read and ponder the appeal which my right hon. Friend then made. There is a very widespread feeling that some new action must be taken, and taken quickly, about India. There is a feeling that only the Prime Minister can take it; that he of all men can best persuade the Indian people that we are in earnest in giving the pledge we have made. I hope the Prime Minister will agree that a happy solution of the Indian problem is what my right hon. Friend called it—"a vital part of our war effort"—and' that it will not brook delay.

There is another matter about which, for my own part, I have long felt anxiety, anxiety which the Prime Minister's speech has alleviated but not altogether removed. That is what I call the political machinery for directing and controlling the main strategy of the war. We are no longer alone. We are part of what the Prime Minister called "a vast confederacy" of peoples; and the problem is to call forth the maximum effort of each nation in that confederacy and so to direct its effort that it shall produce its maximum effect. Very much depends on properly co-ordinated political direction and control. No one Government, no one Cabinet—I say it with respect—however powerful and however wise, can do it for the rest. If the Governments act in isolation, the result is chaos and defeat. There must be political machinery. Not too much of it—there must not be "more harness than horse," as the Prime Minister said. But there must be enough, because without proper harness the horse cannot pull its load. We have not had enough harness.

Let me give what some hon. Members may regard as a somewhat theoretical illustration. I have talked to many Norwegians who took part in the fighting during the campaign in that country, and I have never been convinced that, if the right action had been taken, the Battle of Norway could not have been won, and that Norway might not have been in our possession ever since. I have talked to Greeks who fought in the Albanian Mountains; and I believe that, with the right kind of extra help, extra help which it might have been possible for us to give, the Greeks might have driven Mussolini's 20 divisions into the Adriatic Sea. I be- lieve still more strongly that Crete could and should have been successfully held. I believe that, in all those cases, our defeats were due, apart from all other factors, to the lack of adequate political machinery for consultation and co-ordination. It may have been impossible to get it; I am not discussing that. I am only saying that if we had been able to understand the situation as it really was, if we had had a full grasp of what our Allies might have done, if we had been thinking of their territories, their resources, their forces—those 20 magnificent divisions of the Greeks—if we had come to think of them as being as important as our own to final victory, we might have got a different result.

I have studied with great care the speeches of both the Prime Minister and the Lord Privy Seal, and they have left me still wondering whether the same kind of thing has not happened about Malaya and Singapore. I believe that the nation is gravely perturbed and greatly puzzled about what has happened over Singapore. They understand quite well that the Government never expected Thailand to play the jackal part of Bulgaria. They understand that the disasters of Pearl Harbour and the Gulf of Siam deprived us of the command of the sea and enabled Japan to send great convoys to Singora. But they remember also that we have taught the whole Commonwealth to think of Singapore as the very crux of our defence in the Pacific. Looking on at the long, unequal struggle of our men down the peninsula for the seven weeks during which they have fought their way back from the Thailand border, people have asked themselves, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminister (Sir J. Ward-law-Milne) asked yesterday, "Was there really nothing that we could have done to hold that vital country against the Japanese?" The Prime Minister and the Lord Privy Seal answer, "Nothing. Every aircraft and every tank we could spare had to go to Libya and Russia; and in any case we had not got the ships." I say, frankly, that they do not leave me wholly convinced. Our Forces have not been driven back from the Thailand border by the weight of enemy tanks. Most of Malaya is not a tank country at all. The "Times" special correspondent has said in a series of admirable articles that nearly all the fighting has taken place in the jungle and off the roads; that tanks and armoured cars have only played a "very secondary part," and that even artillery have only "rarely been able to operate," that the Japanese infantry advanced because they had a great preponderance of numbers, and because their air force had the mastery of the air. Time and again, the correspondents say—this is the "Times": Our troops understand the Japanese tactics and can effectively counter them when they are not greatly outnumbered by the enemy. But with superior numbers the enemy could outflank our forces. They could land on the coast behind our lines. They were constantly surrounding our units or cutting them off.

In the same way, the Japanese air force outnumbered our squadrons and, still more important, were superior to them in the quality of their machines. We had Buffaloes as fighters and some Blenheims. So weak were our fighter forces that we did not dare to risk them up the line. We never used all those aerodromes. They are a present for the Japanese to bomb Singapore. We kept our fighters back for the defence of the fortress of Singapore itself. The question is: What extra force on the ground and in the air we should have needed to hold the Japanese. What strength had the Japanese? If I am rightly informed, about five or six divisions against our two in the line and our one in reserve. If we had had three or four or five more divisions, we should have had equality, we should have been able to guard our lines against infiltration and to defeat landings in the rear—and I mean ordinary divisions, not tank divisions or divisions specially equipped. And as regards the air, such experts as I have been able to consult believe that if we had had a small number of modern fighters, four or five or six squadrons of Hurricanes, we should have been able, not only to fight the Japanese air force in the forward areas, but to smash it there. The Buffaloes, when they have had Tomahawk protection, have done extremely well against the Japanese bombers over Rangoon. If I have read the communiqués aright, in three days last week they destroyed 41 Japanese aircraft, and probably 10 more, for a loss of two pilots and three machines. They destroyed 35 per cent. of the raiding forces, although they were outnumbered by four to one.

The question is, Could we have found four or five more infantry divisions and half-a-dozen squadrons of Hurricanes, and could we have sent them there? Well, the Indian Army is 1,000,000 strong. Most of it is still in India, and I find it very difficult to think that we could not have taken five more divisions from there and could not have sent them with virtually no shipping problem at all. Could we not even have concerted a plan with General Chiang Kai-Shek, who has shown in every way his great desire to help? Malaya and Singapore are his vital interest as they are ours. As to the Hurricanes, the Luftwaffe is certainly no stronger than it was in August, 1940. It can no longer concentrate against this Island. Its main strength must be in Russia, Libya and elsewhere. Our fighter force is far stronger than it was when it won the Battle of Britain. I believe we could have sent the squadrons from here without a shadow of a risk. Could we not have found the ships, as we did find them, perhaps too late, on 12th December? I find it hard to believe, though I will accept the Government's assurance if they give it, that even in September so small a quantity of tonnage could not be found.

I have raised these matters not to play the history game, not to engage in idle or controversial reconstruction of the past. I have done so because I want to draw what I believe profoundly to be the true moral of these events. I believe that if we had had proper political machinery to decide such questions as these about Malaya and Singapore—I am not blaming the Government—but if we had been able to have a War Cabinet with the authorised spokesmen of the Dominions, the Prime Ministers, or their deputies from Australia, New Zealand and India, we should have sent the five divisions and the Hurricanes. For such questions, and innumerable others which will arise, it is impossible—and again I say it with all respect—that a Cabinet of United Kingdom politicians, sitting in London, should see these problems as people see them who are nearer to the spot. I believe that for many months the Commonwealth taken a grave risk, a political and military risk, in not having an Imperial War Cabinet. The case for it was made in another place by Lord Bennett yesterday. It has been made by responsible Australians of all parties. It was made by the leaders of every Dominion a quarter of a century ago. That case, practically and theoretically, is unanswerable. I understand the reasons which made the Governments of Canada and South Africa oppose it. I understand the embarrassment their opposition caused to the Government here. But great things are now at stake, and I hope the Governments will think again and that an Imperial War Cabinet will shortly be formed on the basis of the decisions that were taken, after mature experience, in July, 1918. In the meantime, I welcome very warmly, and would do nothing to upset, the arrangements on which the Government have decided for Australian and New Zealand representation in our War Cabinet. It is a great step forward.

I welcome too, and very warmly, the Pacific Council of which the Prime Minister spoke. I hope it will include China. The Prime Minister told us that if he had learned anything in the United States which he could express in one word, it would be "China." That illustrates extremely well the argument I have tried to put about the effect of geographical environment upon the human mind. For five years China has fought our battle in the Far East. But for her resistance, we should have been ejected long ago. But China is also the gateway to our future victory. We shall not subdue the Japanese by fighting back, island by island, from the Solomon Islands to Formosa and Japan. When we have given China 5 per cent. of President Roosevelt's tanks and 5 per cent. of his modern aircraft we shall sweep with her across Northern China to the narrow Straits behind which lies Japan. At every stage, and on every issue, China is a vital factor in the Pacific and I hope she will be in the Pacific Council from the start.

I believe that we need a European Council. Some people say that the Allied Governments in this country are political ghosts, who have no real importance or power. I think they show their ignorance of the facts. If we were in Secret Session, I think I could show the Government, from past events, that this Council, or some new and better machinery of European collaboration, is required. I think it is urgently required because of what may happen in Europe in 1942. I hope the Government will not think I have over-emphasised the importance of this matter, or that I want to over-elaborate the machinery of collaboration which they should set up. I appreciate very highly the splendid start the Prime Minister has made by his journey to America. I only want to urge on him and on the Government that the job is not yet finished, that the matter is one of continuing importance, that it still requires his personal attention, that it may be a vital factor in ensuring the rapid victory of the great confederacy of nations he leads.

Because what is the salient factor of the present situation? It is that, if they could only use it, the United Nations now have predominant material, as they have always had predominant moral power. On the most conservative computation the United Nations have 18,000,000 men in arms, mobilised, trained, equipped. The Axis cannot have more than 15,000,000; and 3,000,000 of them are the reluctant serfs of the senile criminal in Rome. Our production of arms has great defects; but with the production of Russia it must now equal or very nearly equal the output which Hitler can achieve: and on top of that we have the 45,000 tanks and the 60,000 aircraft which President Roosevelt has promised for this year. We have still vast unmobilised resources; the Axis Powers have none. We have on the Continent of Europe many divisions of men organised, with secret stocks of arms, waiting to rise and carry on the guerilla warfare which in China and Russia has proved so devastating to our foes. There is a crisis in the German High Command; the death of Reichenau, whom I have always thought of as the nastiest but the healthiest man of my acquaintance, has proved that that is true. There is an incipient crisis in Germany itself. That is shown by the promotion of Himmler and Heydrich to supreme control. The Axis have two mortal dangers from which we are immune—morale and oil.

The European peoples, like Premier Stalin, are hoping and expecting that we shall strike this year. Upon our share in their liberation will depend, not only the duration of the struggle, but our power in the peace conference and in the years beyond. Now is the time to prepare the master plan. Now is the time to strike again at their supplies of oil. Now is the time, by a tremendous effort of political education, to show the misguided enemy peoples that our victory is in their true interests as it is in ours. The Prime Minister has many different duties, and they are all important. But his supreme task is to draw together, to co-ordinate, to guide, the immense material and moral forces which we now control. Let him go on where he left off across the Atlantic; let him listen to the friendly voices in the House of Commons, and then let him go forward to set the whole world free.