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 Hon. Hugh O'Neill Hon. Hugh O'Neill , Antrim

The Prime Minister certainly cleared the air with regard to the question of a Vote of Confidence. A good many Members had thought before the Debate began that it was perhaps not very wise for the Government to ask for a Vote of Confidence, and before the Debate began the Prime Minister himself said that he would demand a Vote of Confidence if the criticisms in the course of the Debate appeared to be so strong and assumed a more or less hostile character and that he would then table a Vote of Confidence. He went further than that in his speech and said that in any event he was determined upon a Vote of Confidence. I think that he made out a pretty unanswerable case for it, but he seemed to me to put rather too much stress upon the constitutional doctrine that the Government must stand or fall as a whole, and he seemed almost to say that he was hardly at liberty to make any changes in his Government except after a hostile vote of the House. Surely that is carrying the constitutional doctrine rather too far. I think that there is no doubt that if the Prime Minister thinks it necessary, he can bring about the resignation of members of his Administration, just as in recent times the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) resigned his position as Secretary of State for War, not, as we all know, because he himself wanted to resign, but because the Prime Minister put it to him that his resignation would be acceptable to him.

I ask the House what would happen if this Vote of Confidence in the Government were to be defeated. It would mean, of course, the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister and the Government. What would happen then? There is no lack of confidence in the Prime Minister as Prime Minister. That has been made clear a hundred times in the course of this Debate, and I do not think there would be any very great competition to succeed the present Prime Minister. Therefore, what would obviously happen would be that the present Prime Minister would be sent for by the King and asked to form another Administration, and no doubt he would do so with a certain number of changes. In this Debate there has been much criticism from all sides, and I think there is a strong feeling both in this House and in the country that there should be some changes in the personnel of this Government, and I hope that when he has got his Vote of Confidence, as of course he will, the Prime Minister will not ignore that obvious expression of opinion.

Despite all the anxieties that one has over the present situation, I cannot help feeling in general more hopeful about the eventual outcome of this war than I have ever done since the war began. In the course of the last few weeks two outstanding events have happened which are bound to have a tremendous effect upon the result of this conflict. The first, and I put it first because it is the most important of all, is the fact that at last the United States of America are definitely in the war as our Allies; and not only are they in the war, but I have a feeling that they are in the war much more whole-heartedly than they were in the last war. The other outstanding fact is the successful resistance of Russia to the German onslaught. With regard to the participation of the United States in the war, I should like to say how very glad I am to feel that it should be the part of the country which I represent which has been the site of the advent of the first part of the American Expeditionary Force to this country. The people of Northern Ireland are delighted to welcome the American troops into their territory. While referring to this subject I cannot help saying that I though it was, to put it mildly, rather out of place that the Head of the Government in Southern Ireland should complain that he had not been consulted about the American Expeditionary Force coming to this country. Is is usual for belligerents in the course of their military operations and plans to consult neutrals as to what they should do? No, Sir.

The first troops of the American Forces to come to this country will, I hope, be followed by many more troops in all parts of the world. As a result of America's participation in men and in munitions, with her tremendous industrial power, the result is bound to be that the successful end of this war is much nearer. After all the months and months of isolationism and disinclination on the part of sections of the American population to come into the war, it is a splendid, magnificent thing to think that now they are in it, our full Allies in the war and in the peace which will follow the war. The results cannot be anything but stupendous. There is one further point which I should like to stress as regards American participation in the war. Up to the time the United States came in, if Britain had been invaded, if we had been conquered, the war would have been over, but now that America is in the war, if we are invaded, if we are conquered, the war does not end, because we have great Allies, the United States and Russia, to carry it on, with the rest of the Empire, to a successful conclusion, no matter what should happen in this island. That is a stupendous fact.

In spite of the fact that one cannot help feeling more hopeful than one felt some months ago, nevertheless this Debate has brought out very clearly and very emphatically the grave anxieties which Members of the House feel with regard to the situation in the Far East. I was appalled, as we all were, when the Prime Minister announced a few weeks ago the loss of the "Prince of Wales" and the "Repulse." Hon. Members who are experts on naval matters have raised this question in the course of this Debate, and I do not intend to refer to more than one aspect of it at the moment. The Government have been asked whether the decision to send those great ships to the Far East was a naval decision or a political decision. If it was a decision backed and approved by the Lords of the Admiralty and the Naval Staff, well, there is nobody to blame; but if the decision was not approved by the Lords of the Admiralty and the Naval Staff, if they were against it, if it was purely a political decision, then the situation becomes very much 'pore serious. It seems to me to raise this issue, which I have often felt one has to contemplate, particularly in war-time: Suppose the political heads of a Government press some matter of policy so strongly that the experts disagree. Ought there not to come a time, if the matter is serious enough, at which the experts, the staff officers, should go so far even as to take their careers into their hands and resign rather than agree to a line of policy which it is felt is wrong and contrary to the best interests of the Service?

While on that aspect of the matter, I cannot help referring to an issue of that kind which occurred in this country only two or three years ago, over the decision of the Government of the day to hand over the ports in Southern Ireland to the Southern Irish Government and to give up the rights in those ports which had been retained by the British Government, in the Treaty of 1921, because it was then felt that they were strategically of tremendous importance. Did the Naval Staff of that day agree to those ports being abandoned as harbours by the British Government? This incident took place about one year before the cutbreak of this war. I am not sure that I am right, but so far as I can remember the First Sea Lord at that time was Lord Chatfield. Did Lord Chatfield agree, in that matter of grave policy of handing over the ports? If he did not, was it not a matter of such importance to the strategy and safety of these Islands that the head of the Naval Staff should have resigned rather than agree? There would rave been no necessity for resignation, because if the Admiralty Chief of Staff had gone to the Government and said that this thing was strategically impossible and was so important to the country that the Admiralty could not possibly agree to it, the whole thing might have been dropped and nothing more been heard of it.

I would like to put one other point, and it is with regard to the formation of an Imperial War Cabinet. I was very glad indeed to hear that Australia was pressing this matter and to hear the Prime Minister say that the Government would give Australia the seat in the War Cabinet which she demanded; but I have felt for the last year or more that, for some reason, the Government have been very sticky in the matter. The hon. Member for the Eye Division of Suffolk (Mr. Granville) has raised the matter over and over again in Questions and speeches in this House. I myself asked a Question of the Prime Minister many months ago. There appears to have been a kind of reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to come out in favour of Dominion representation in the War Cabinet. Now that it has come, I hope that the representatives of the Dominions in the War Cabinet, the Australian representative now and others that may follow him, will, in order to make the scheme workable, be plenipotentiaries. They must have full power. If they have not full power, the extraordinary anomaly will arise of a War Cabinet having to postpone decisions which require to be carried out quickly because some of its members need to seek authorisation from the Governments which they represent. That would be an impossible and intolerable situation. I hope that the eventual construction of the Imperial War Cabinet will work out much as it did towards the end of the last war, and that it will be able to take quick and important decisions. If it functions in that way, it will undoubtedly be one of the things which will help us most towards final success in the war.

We are facing an extraordinarily difficult situation. We are going through a very nasty patch in the war. Our chief anxieties are from a new enemy, an implacable enemy, efficient and steeped in fanaticism, attended with a disregard of death which cannot be anything but formidable. In spite of all this and in spite of the further anxieties and difficulties which we have to face and to which the Prime Minister referred, I feel strongly that the turning point in this war came when Hitler decided to attack Russia. I feel certain that as soon as we reach full and efficient co-operation among all the different Allies, and if we have learned the lessons taught by recent disasters and setbacks, there will assuredly come a time, whether soon or late, when once again all will be well.