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 Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

We have listened to a very interesting and powerful speech, which is a model of the kind of speech that is helpful to the progress of the war. During the last two days a number of Members have made valuable contributions. Almost every speech has sung the praises of the Prime Minister. The nation believes in him, and regards him as its greatest asset. It is grateful for his inspiring leadership during the dark days that followed Dunkirk. But it is not only this country that looks to him for leadership. In the Dominions and the United States no one stands higher in the public esteem. The only people who would rejoice at the weakening of his authority would be our enemies. The Prime Minister, however, is very human. Of course, he has made mistakes, but he is a great House of Commons man. He owes what success he has had in public life to this. I hope he will listen to the speeches, take them in good part, and realise that suggestions like those of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) are made not in order to hinder him, but to help. We, as Members of the House of Commons, have a responsibility.

All war is a great upheaval, and the machinery of government, which works smoothly and well in peace-time, creeks badly in time of war. Our Civil Service, which is our pride in peace-time, is efficient, but it works slowly. It is full of safeguards, and does not seem to adapt itself to war conditions. Ever since the war began we have tried to change the machinery of Government. In the first year, during the war of attrition, very little was done. One of the first things the present Prime Minister did when he took over was to set up an inner War Cabinet. Already he has made interesting experiments, some of them new, some based on the experience of the last war. The first thing that occurred when he took over was that a national Government was formed. That was a change of method, and a change of heart. The Prime Minister made the interesting experiment of a Minister of State. That was a right example, as I believe, of a policy of devolution, as opposed to a policy of centralisation.

The essential for successful prosecution of the war is prompt decision. A good deal has been said, not only during this Debate, about the need for a War Cabinet composed of Ministers without departmental responsibilities. I remember that we had the same problem in the last war. In 1916 it split the Cabinet, and brought down Mr. Asquith's Government. There was one vital difference about the position then. In those days there were powerful personalities, with established reputations. It may be that such personalities exist in the background now, but they have not yet asserted themselves. In the Government formed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), we had such experienced people as Mr. Balfour, Mr. Bonar Law, the present Prime Minister, Lord Milner, and Lord Curzon, while facing them were personalities like Mr. Asquith, Mr. McKenna, and Mr. Runciman. But that experiment was made, and we have the evidence both of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs and of many of his critics that the system worked smoothly.

The real difficulty is that if you are going to have these powers of control over all the various Departments of Government vested in Ministers without departmental responsibilities, you must have men of exceptional ability and authority, whose decisions are likely to be accepted by the Ministers concerned. I see four of the Ministers who are in the War Cabinet now present. Two, at least, of them are without departmental responsibilities—the Lord President of the Council and the Lord Privy Seal. I think the only member of the War Cabinet who would have pretentions to be a superman is Lord Beaverbrook. He is already. Minister of Supply. I think it is worth considering whether he should be elevated to the dizzy position of Minister of Production, or, alternatively, whether he should be subject to the control of a Minister of Production. I cannot imagine him in a subordinate position. We have to be frank with ourselves. If we are to have a Minister of Production, it must obviously be the present Minister of Supply. I would just say this in parenthesis. In the last war we did have a Ministry of Production. We did not have a Ministry of Aircraft Production, because aircraft production played a comparatively small part in our war effort. The Navy, then as now, remained outside. If we are to have a Ministry of Production, the Admiralty must not be exempt. The whole production machinery will have to be brought under one man.

I think that all of us who were present during the period when the Prime Minister was absent abroad felt that during his absence the machinery of government was not effective for its purpose. There was a general feeling that there was no one with the real authority to handle the ever-changing position. We have been hearing justified criticism of what happened in Malaya and the Pacific during the early weeks of this year. I see that in another place Lord Chatfield, who was a Member of the Government in the first year of the war, was severely critical of the handling of the naval position in the Pacific, which brought about the loss of the "Prince of Wales." I think it is essential for the Prime Minister to dissipate the doubts that have arisen, not only as a result of the speech of the Noble Lord, but as the result of much of the criticism both in this House and outside. There is a feeling that some of these mistakes are due to the fact that too much power is concentrated in his own hands. If the Government are to work smoothly, either we must have what we had during the last two years of the last war, an inner Cabinet, with full authority, composed of Ministers giving all their time to a general survey of the war, or alternatively, the Prime Minister must divide his responsibility with other men.

The Prime Minister was right in going to the United States of America. His speech at Washington more than justified his visit, and, from all I hear, his conferences with President Roosevelt brought the two countries together in a way that would have been impossible without such a visit. It is possible, and more than probable, that the Prime Minister will have to go to America again. What is to be the machinery of government when the Prime Minister is absent abroad? The Prime Minister must be the person to decide who his colleagues shall be, but we in the House of Commons think—I think it is the general feeling of the House—that a system of government that works possibly well, in peace-time and to some extent is affected when the war is limited to Europe and the West, breaks down when you have, like to-day, a war which is worldwide.

The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister has made an interesting experiment in co-operation with President Roosevelt, something quite novel in administration, in setting up a Pacific Council. That is the kind of thing that we must visualise if the war is to be effectively prosecuted, and when we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) wisely pointed out, two separate theatres of war. I was glad that the Prime Minister thought that the Pacific was not a secondary theatre. On the contrary, it is just as vital in the struggle as our war in the West. I do not accept the doctrine that our first job is to defeat the Nazis and that the Japanese can wait to be dealt with afterwards. It is some comfort to us, with the Germans at our doorstep, but it really is poor comfort to our Australian, New Zealand and Canadian fellow citizens. I regard Australia and New Zealand as just as much part of the Commonwealth as either Wales or Scotland or any other part of the United Kingdom. When we were in danger in the Boer War and the last war, and again in this war, they never hesitated to come right across the oceans to our help.

We have to remember and rub in as much as possible that the Japanese are as great criminals as the Germans or any other of our enemies on the Continent. It was they who started the game of aggression and treachery. They never stopped re-arming, and the failure of the Washington Naval Conference was largely due to them. If we had had a definite policy 20 or 10 years ago, we might have avoided some of the happenings of to-day. Let us have no delusions. The Japs are a cruel and a savage people. They have no regard for life. They have made a fine art of assassination and suicide, and their treatment of the Chinese has been as brutal and as callous as any treatment in any war in the history of mankind. We have no right to say to the Australians that they must bide their time. Of course, they can take it. They are a brave people, but they have a vast Continent, the size of the United States of America, with only two persons to the square mile, with the large concentrations of population in five big cities, and they feel naturally alarmed, with the very small forces at their disposal to protect themselves.

I recognise that definite constitutional problems are created by the new proposals put forward by the Prime Minister, but I am sure that we are on the right lines. They may be novel. After all, our Constitution has always been elastic and has enabled us to adapt it to any conditions. I rather gather that neither Canada nor South Africa either desire or intend to be represented at the Cabinet table, and that the Australian and New Zealand Ministers will be present but will not be responsible for decisions. But the fact that they are there will give confidence to Australia and New Zealand and the Dominions that their problems are not being ignored, that we are not taking a narrow view of the war and that we are viewing the problem as a whole.

There is one vacant seat at the Cabinet table, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out. In the last war there was an Imperial War Cabinet, an outer Cabinet, in which there were representatives of all the Dominions, including—and I emphasise this—India. India has never played her rightful part in this war. She has stood aside as spectator, though not altogether, because her soldiers have fought now on every battlefield with bravery and courage and effectively. India now is almost in the danger zone. With Burma invaded, India no longer can feel outside the war. Out of 400,000,000 of people, 1,000,000 men is a small contribution. If at this stage we can only make some gesture that will make the Indians feel that they are partners in this great struggle, it may not only bring their effort to our side, but it will help to solve the problems of the future.

There is among Congress and political leaders of India a very real suspicion that the Prime Minister is the obstacle to any progress in constitutional change. The fact that he opposed the Government of India Bill during its passage through this House justifies that suspicion. The one man, the one personality, that can change the whole attitude of the Indian people to the war—I prefer to apply this particularly to the political Indian—is the Prime Minister. A statement now from him in emphatic terms that he is prepared to recognise the right of India to full partnership in the war would make a profound impression on the whole of the Indian people. We have our backs to the wall. We want help from every side. We must not allow colour prejudice or racial difficulties to stand in the way. Here is a practical proposal, and it would be a fine thing for the Prime Minister, with his great authority and international reputation, and the prestige he has throughout the world, to hold out the hand of friendship and offer political equality to the Indian people at this critical stage in the war, when their help in the Pacific and elsewhere would make such a profound difference to the success of the war.