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 James Milner Mr James Milner , Leeds South East

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it was from that very small beginning that a great many ill consequences have flowed. I will add no more to what I have said on that point. In the very short time during which I propose to detain the House I do not intend to go into detail as to whether the Prime Minister is right or wrong in demanding a Vote of Confidence. My own personal opinion is that, burdened as he is by fearful responsibilities at the present time, he is fully entitled to demand it, certainly on this occasion—but I venture to express the hope that a similar demand will not be made on too many occasions. No doubt on this occasion the right hon. Gentleman will receive his Vote, but he must still understand that the House and the country are far from satisfied with the conduct of affairs and that we expect him to take note of what has been said. My right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal assured us yesterday that the most serious note will be taken of the advice and criticism which have been tendered to him in this Debate, and it will largely be in the belief, and on the assurance that action will also be taken where necessary, that many of us will support the Prime Minister and give him the Vote of Confidence for which he asks.

Nor do I intend to enter upon the vexed question of production, except to say that we are spending £13,000,000 a day, we have been spending very little less for a good many years past, and so far we have seen very little concrete or military achievement for that expenditure. It has so often been said that the people of this country are willing to make heavy sacrifices—almost indeed, any sacrifice—but they do expect to see results. The answer so frequently given, that we are short of the munitions of war, will not, in my submission, carry conviction very much longer, particularly in view of the optimistic statements which have been made for such a long time past and which are so continually repeated.

It has been said that we cannot be strong everywhere, but in fact we have not been strong, nor are we to-day strong, anywhere. We have had ample warning, as the hon. Member for West Newcastle told us, of the intentions at some date of the Japanese, and perhaps it is now clear to many who did not appreciate it before that, just like Hitler, the Japanese have for years past been acquiring bases from which they could in due course launch their assault. I can even believe that we could not send all that was necessary to Malaya, but the question is, Did we do all that we could with the material at our disposal? In my submission, we did not do all that we might have done. It is clear from the answers to Questions and from this Debate that we did little or nothing to prepare the defences of Singapore on the landward side, and that in particular no attempt was made to recruit the population of Malaya. It is of little use saying that four-fifths or three-quarters of the world are with us if we do not organise them, and it is on that particular subject that I now want to say a special word or two about India.

As has frequently been said in this Debate, we ought to have been able to draw upon almost inexhaustible manpower in India to-day, much of it trained, and if the Government here and in India had done what they might have done even at the outbreak of war in the way of recruiting, what a great asset that would have been for us to-day and, perhaps even more important, what a great saving of our own man-power that would have been. Instead of which, if my information is correct, as I believe it to be, almost the same position has existed and still exists in India about which so much complaint has been made in regard to Malaya. That position is so calamitous that I cannot detail in public the information which has been given to me. I hope that at an early date the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for India, and the Secretary of State for War, will receive a deputation from a few of us who are interested and have some information to give him on this matter. But I will mention one or two points. The normal intake in the Indian Army is some 30,000 recruits a year, and yet, including territorials and called-up reservists, less than 100,000 have been recruited into the Army in the first 18 months of the war. That is out of a population approaching 400,000,000. Compare that with the position, for example, in New Zealand, which, out of a population of 1,500,000 only, had in the same time recruited something like 150,000.

The result, of course, is obvious in many directions. The result of the neglect in India has been that troops have been sent to Singapore with only a few months' training. Many of them are raw villagers, and many of them, I am informed on very creditable authority, have never seen or used a rifle before embarking. We all know how long the training of a soldier takes. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister told us on a previous occa- sion, and I think the Secretary of State for India has also said, that the difficulty was the lack of equipment. Hitler has told us, I think in "Mein Kampf," that it takes four years to train a soldier. We know that it takes a good many months with the most intelligent men, but it is not necessary to have equipment for the first few months, or even years, in training Indians to become soldiers. We can teach them discipline, marching, physical training, give them education of various kinds, build up their strength, feed them well, teach them to drive lorries and to operate various mechanical contrivances, and even teach them to shoot, with almost a minimum of equipment. Therefore, that excuse is not in the least valid.

It is also said that India is almost self-supporting in munitions. Yet I am informed that troops have left India less than a year from this date for theatres of war without even having tin hats. I cannot speak of the last few months, but I am informed that up to July, 1941, no tactical exercises had taken place for months, and in some cases for years, in one district of India and probably in others. There is a grave shortage of officers in every department. So one might go on. There are also other considerations with regard to India. I am informed that long after the United States had stopped sending scrap iron to Japan, India continued and that up to quite a few months ago scrap iron was being sent to Japan by the shipload from India. If those facts, and others which I hope to give the right hon. Gentleman, are true, surely the position of affairs is deplorable. The state of inertia and blimpism amounting almost to 5th columnness among our own people in positions of authority is fearful to contemplate and that with this enormous reserve of human and material wealth we have hardly tried to organise a millionth part of the help that is available there.

I say with regret that the example shown by the Viceroy up to quite recently when he continued running his garden parties and attending his tiger shoots as usual, was not showing the best example to officials and others. We must be thankful that even at this late date the same action has been taken by His Majesty's Government as was taken in 1917. In that year the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign was taken out of the hands of the Indian Government and placed in the hands of the War Office at home. We all know that recently, although little public attention has been directed to it, the conduct of the war in Iran, Syria and other portions of the Middle East has been taken out of the hands of the Indian Government and placed in the hands of General Auchinleck and the Government at home. I have said nothing of the political situation in India, but I would submit that from all we know and from what has been said in this Debate it requires the most urgent action, not consideration, but urgent action, on the part of the Government.

Now how is it that in so many Departments of State, in so many Ministries, in so many branches of the Services, we are not rising to the heights of which we know this nation and our people to be capable? I do not think it is altogether a question of machinery. A good deal of this Debate has revolved round the question of machinery, which is no doubt important as a basis on which to work. I think there are reasons even deeper than the question of not having adequate machinery. Somehow, whatever the reason be, most of us must feel that we and many others have not yet aroused ourselves to the urgency of the situation. Everywhere, in every sphere of life, assisting in the war effort to-day, there are many men, able men, struggling against inertia, against reaction and against red tape. Some of those able men are in the Government. There are others, some of them in the Government, who are not pulling their weight, who are hidebound, who are against new ideas, who cannot get out of the rut and who do not accept responsibility. That is especially so, in my small experience, among officials in the East; I think, also, in the Army. I am afraid I have but little regard for the brass hats, and I do not think they are a great deal of credit to us in the present war. The fact that we have had no fewer than four Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff does not appear to give grounds for a great deal of confidence. Where in this war have we shown any real initiative or any measure of improvisation or adaptation? For example, it may be an amateur suggestion, but I make it for what it is worth, in Libya, where such high hopes have been held out, why is it, when we have air and sea superiority, that we have not made an effort to land behind Rommel and the Germans? I believe that that coast is perfectly fit for landings for hundreds of miles. Why is it that one of our commandos, either with or without tanks—and the Japanese appear to have been able to land tanks in Malaya—has not landed and got to the rear and dealt a deadly blow at the German forces there? Why if we are out-gunned do we not mount larger guns on our chassis? I am told that we have chassis on which we can mount even such a powerful and excellent gun as the 25-pounder. Why do we not do it?

Is it not possible to raid, by parachute troops or otherwise, the guns opposite Dover, 20 miles away, bombing the area beforehand if that is necessary? In this country we have many thousands, maybe millions, of troops eating their hearts out, and in many cases little or nothing is being done to make use of them. What are wanted are greater speed in everything, a greater sense of urgency, livelier initiative, and greater appreciation by all that the times of business and pleasure as usual have gone. Particularly does this apply in the Far East. We must wake up, pull ourselves and our affairs together and throw ourselves more seriously into the fight. The Government's duty is to go to it and see to it that everyone else goes to it. If they do that, they will certainly receive the aid and encouragement for which the Prime Minister asks.