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 Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister has made a plain demand for a clear, honest, blunt Vote of Confidence or no confidence, and I think it is plain that the Prime Minister will get his Vote of Confidence, if indeed a Division is even challenged. Nevertheless, in the demand made by the Prime Minister there is a good deal of food for thought. One asks why the Prime Minister thinks it necessary to make the demand. On the face of things, in the country, in the House, and even in the Lobbies, there was not, and certainly is not, any ground for supposing that the right hon. Gentleman needs an explicit declaration of confidence in himself, either for home consumption or even for foreign consumption, because it must be plain to everybody that, in spite of many things around him, he enjoys confidence in this country to a degree which few statesmen in anxious times, or in any other times, have ever enjoyed, and intrigues themselves seem to have fallen into the background. Therefore, surely it is unnecessary to talk any longer about a Vote of Confidence. But a Vote of Confidence is still demanded, and as it has been once demanded, perhaps one would not think there was any great harm, difficulty or complexity about the demand being carried through, if it were not for this fact.

There are dozens of people in the House and millions in the country—I have been receiving telegrams from all sorts of people about it—whose feelings are on the following lines: "We have no difficulty about supporting the Prime Minister, but if we are asked to vote simply and solely on a Vote of Confidence—and the decision of the Chair, which I do not seek for one moment to challenge, means that we shall not be able to explain in an Amendment that we would like the Prime Minister to gather around him a little better Government—we are put in the position substantially of having to say that this is all couleur de rose or all black." Everybody knows perfectly well that it is neither one nor the other. One of the reasons put forward by the Lord Privy Seal for giving the Vote was that everybody knows it does not really mean that we think the Government are perfect when we pass a Vote of Confidence in them. These things are a question of degree. Dissatisfaction with a good many of the people whom the Prime Minister has around him is so great that many people would have felt very much easier if they had been able to record formally their vote on that point before going on to express their confidence in the Prime Minister. I do not think there is any doubt that those who are not given the opportunity of voting for Amendments will, nevertheless, if a Division is challenged, vote wholeheartedly for the Prime Minister, but still, that will give an air of slight unreality to the Vote—not to the Debate, because, in obedience to the Prime Minister's demand, most hon. Members have not been at all mealy-mouthed.

I want, however, to express grave anxiety about the personnel of the Government. Everybody agrees that it is absolutely vital at the present time to have the best possible Government, and I think everybody agrees that we have not got it; but still, it is suggested that we ought to be nice and content about it. To-day it is vital to have the best Government How much more vital will it be in a few months' time, or a year's time, when it becomes necessary for the Government to form a view as to their attitude to some new government in Germany, after a good many things have happened there which may be more or less genuine, which may be more or less faked, which may be more or less reactionary? At that time we shall want, above all things, a Government the whole of which we can really trust. I am not talking about mental calibre, because whenever I do that I become more than usually offensive, and I do not want to be so. But think of the outlook and the qualities that anybody demands in a Government. In this war, which now at any rate, quite clearly, is a war against Fascism, a long anti-Fascist record would be some recommendation. One has not even got to go back to July, 1939—one has only to go back a few months—with some of the Ministers to discover that their anti-Fascism, if it exists at all, has hardly poked its nose up above the ground from its roots. We would like some people with no record of flirtation either with Hitler or Mussolini. Some of them do not come out very well on that. A good anti-Japanese record would be something, and a good record of some understanding of and sympathy with the Soviet Union prior to 22nd June last. But I must not ask for miracles, so I will pass on.

I wish to deal specifically with three or four points which the Prime Minister put forward as an answer. The Prime Minister knows a number of things, and among them he knows that this feeling in the country is very widespread indeed. He wisely attacked before the original attack was made, which, I believe, is sound strategy. Therefore we have his points made available to us in advance, and we can consider them. His first point is that he will not be driven to provide or manufacture or find scapegoats for recent disasters. Here I would say that nobody is talking about recent disasters, at least, not so far as I know, and that the agitation to get rid of this group of people has been going on for many months. The agitation existed before the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, and I am not sure that it was not partly one of the elements which made the right hon. Gentleman Prime Minister. It is no good his looking at these people with a long, long unsatisfactory record and saying that they may be partly to blame for Malaya, but must not be made scapegoats for it. We do not ask him to burden them with Malaya. They have a much larger unsatisfactory record than that. They are recidivists rather than first offenders. I do not want it thought that scapegoats are necessarily a bad thing. To make a man, a scapegoat for something for which he is not responsible is bad, but to get rid of somebody who is partly responsible for it when there has been a disaster is not necessarily a bad thing. If you do nothing else, you can always send him to another place, and the difference between ourselves and the Soviet Union is that they send inefficient people to a somewhat different place. [Interruption.] It seems that hon. Members want to know where that is, and I will tell them that privately later, although I should have thought by now that they had discovered it.

The next thing which the Prime Minister says—and he says it with the generosity one expects from a man who has not much littleness of mind, whatever other defects he may have—is, "I take the fullest responsibility." It is very nice, fine and loyal that a big man should stand up and say that he takes the fullest responsibility, but if he had a good Government around him, there would not be such horrible things for him to take responsibility for, which, of course, would deprive him of the opportunity of that loyal gesture, although we should have a better government. He then says that these people are his loyal and trusted colleagues. I suppose that it would be ungenerous of me to quote to the House what he said about them before they were. However, he says that they are his loyal and trusted colleagues. I respectfully suggest that that is not good enough. These people are not his servants, but are the servants of the whole country. If they have not got the country's trust, the country's confidence and the country's loyalty, then, unless there is something very exceptional about them they should go. They are not our loyal and trusted colleagues. As a matter of fact, the Prime Minister provided the answer to this point himself, because when dealing with the allegation that these people were gathered around him as a government on a party political basis he said, "Yes, so they are."

I do not want at the moment to tear up the party system—it has been largely torn up already, and, therefore, it would not be worth my while bothering about it. But surely we can all agree that a system whereby people are selected at a vital period like this on substantially a party political basis, although by good fortune some of them may be good, is not the best method of selecting the best Government. Although I do not necessarily agree with what has been said by a great many people in the country about Ministers drawn from outside, it is a fact that a good many Ministers have by those means been selected irrespective of party.

A large number of people object to them on the basis of their record of lukewarm-ness, indeed even warmth, towards Fascism in the past. I would say one further thing about these people. I will recall what the Prime Minister said in one of his finer speeches when Hitler marched into Prague, or perhaps it was Vienna. At any rate the speech was made at a time of one of Hitler's long series of moves, which were welcomed by the gentlemen who are now waging this anti-Fascist war, and who are the Prime Minister's loyal colleagues. I remember the Prime Minister making his speech and pointing out that these things get more difficult as they go on. He said that when Germany wanted to march into the Rhineland a division would have been enough to stop him; that when Germany wanted to march into Vienna a corps would have been enough, that when Germany marched into Prague an army would have been enough, but that the next time it would have to be a European war.

It is very much the same thing as getting rid of these people. The longer they are there, and the more anxious the situation, the more difficult it will be to remove them, If I may make a joke about it, we at the moment cannot even have a division. I suggest that these people are a very serious and anxious menace. I do not wish to range over the whole field, because so many things have been discussed so fully by others during this Debate. I will mention one matter only, which is a little off the line—the question of British India, and the industrial and military help we can gain from the peoples of British India. I am not going to discuss this matter at length, because it has been discussed fully by others who under- stand it better than I. Sooner or later, by a gesture, or by pressure which will be turned into a gesture, the Prime Minister will have to do something about India, and it is these people NN he will be an obstacle, in the same way as in the case of a reactionary government being set up in Germany.

I do not want to be offensive, although I am afraid I cannot help it. If there was some compelling reason for retaining these people because of their particular abilities, one could understand it, but the trouble is that there does not appear to be any outstanding reason for retaining their services. We are told that the House is so poor that it cannot supply men to the their place. I do not believe that, because almost anyone could take their place, and in any case people can always be brought in from outside. We have had lots of Cabinet changes during this war. All sorts of people have been changed, and all sorts of people are wondering if they will be changed. There is no compelling reason why these people should not be changed. One wonders whether these people are not retained because someone is, thinking more about what is going to happen to them after the war than about winning the war.

Most Members, though not addressing meetings, will be moving about the country and seeing all sorts of people, even constituents, though constituents are not usually in their constituencies. That is the case with most Members who represent urban areas. They have wandered all over the place, and some of the most important people in the country have not got votes at all, but they have minds and ideas, and Members will learn a great deal in going about the country of what people are thinking. I address four to six meetings every week and get questions and conversations and learn a good deal. There can be little doubt that, apart from the political views of any particular section, if the country heard tomorrow that a group of these people?. were going in a reconstruction, there would be more enthusiasm, more improvement in morale, and more actual and direct improvement in industrial production Man any other single act that the Prime Minister could possibly perform. People faced with the problem of voting for a Vote of Confidence without an opportunity of expressing, by voting on an Amendment, that they have this very definite reservation in their minds will certainly choose without hesitation to cast their vote for the Prime Minister, but there is that other point in it too.