Ministerial Changes.

Part of War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 24th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr David Gammans Mr David Gammans , Hornsey

After the Prime Minister's speech to-day I do not think anyone will wish to embarrass the new Government or to hold any unnecessary inquests. I feel, however, that there are one or two points which should be raised in a Debate of this sort, if one is to interpret the disquiet which exists in many parts of the country at the present-time. During the past few months we have had three military setbacks. The first is our disappointment with regard to the campaign in Libya. But that I trust may yet right itself, and we may yet succeed in our original plan to destroy Rommel and clear the Axis out of North Africa. The second setback was when the squadron of German battleships sailed up the Channel under our very noses. No one will under-estimate the importance of that exploit, but, when all is said and done, it is one of the mischances of a war of this sort. I do not think it is generally realised what a great strain exists on our Navy, and also the fact that we ourselves have done this very same thing several times in the Mediterranean under conditions of climate and air support which were less favourable than the Germans enjoyed the other day.

I feel that the greatest reverse we have suffered, which is both a military and also a political disaster, is the conquest of Malaya and the loss of Singapore. I say that not merely because I lived in that country for 14 years of my life, but also because I have seen in Manchuria, in China and in Japan just what Japanese rule can really mean. Even now some people do not realise the significances of the loss of Malaya. We have already lost in that country alone nearly half the world's tin and rubber. The loss of Singapore has opened the gateway to the Dutch East Indies, and that has lost us the greater part of the world's rubber. Perhaps even more important, it is providing the Japanese with certain raw materials without which they could not have carried on prolonged war. However long the war may go on, the Japanese no longer have to worry about tin, rubber, iron ore, fats or oil, and it was upon the blockade that we were relying in our long-term strategy to defeat Japan. Five million British subjects are now under the control of the enemy. But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was the scene on that Sunday morning when the Union Jack was pulled down on the flagstaff on Fort Canning in the middle of Singapore, and that great city, which Raffles founded and our own kith and kin built up, came for the first time under the Rising Sun. Do not let us underestimate the significance of that event. Our contact with Asia has been a long and on the whole an honourable one, and during all those years the Union Jack has never once been lowered. The story of that scene at Fort Canning on that Sunday morning will reverberate in the bazaars of India, on the plains of China and in the islands of the South Seas when every one of us has long since been dead and gone.

Some most disquieting stories have appeared in the Press about Singapore. Some of them bear little relation to the facts. For example, all the talk about recruiting enormous numbers of Chinese and Malays quite ignores the fact that we have not had enough arms to arm our own people. For some years before the war I commanded a company of Chinese volunteers. What we have to remember is that there are many races in the world, especially in the tropics, which have no desire for military service and show no aptitude for it, and we could never manage, even with great inducements, completely to fill the ranks of the Chinese volunteers. Then we have the story about the Chinese population not co-operating with the administration—about our being divorced from the native populations—which I do not accept even if it comes from the "Times" correspondent. It is simply not true. The fact of the matter is that no civilian population, however brave, will stand up to continuous dive-bombing and shelling. We have found that ourselves in this country when the air raids started and people had to go round to our factories and persuade our workers to continue with their work after the sirens had sounded. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The trouble with Singapore is that, once we lost control of the air, the city was dive-bombed and shelled continuously. Our record in British Malaya is one of which we have every reason to be proud. The fall of Singapore closed a chapter in our Colonial history, but there is no reason why the chapters that follow should not be more glorious and more honourable than those that have passed.

I need not remind the House that the stock of the Government up to now has been low. The nation is worried, anxious and perplexed, and I think one of the reasons is that the Government have failed to take the country into their confidence to the extent that they might have done. We can run the war in one of two ways, either by dictatorship, in which case we should muzzle the Press and shut the House of Commons, or by carrying the country with the Government, telling them why things are done and, if mistakes are made, admitting that they are made. At present I feel that we are making, or tending to make, the worst of both worlds.

Too often the language of our official communiqués is so misleading that they become a sort of dismal joke. I should like to support the suggestion made by my hon. and gallant Friend opposite, which the House accepted with some derision, that there is a lot to be said for periodical statements on what has happened by a responsible member of the Cabinet, possibly by the Minister of Information himself. There is a lot to be said for trying to co-ordinate the uncoordinated propaganda which is poured out from the Ministry of Information and other Ministries exhorting people to save this and do that.

In some ways I feel that I understand this war less and less as it goes on, and I wonder whether I may try to express my perplexity in the form of one or two questions. First, with regard to the Far East, what was the object of reinforcing the Hong Kong garrison? I think it was obvious from the experiences in Norway, Crete and Greece that you could not expect to hold an isolated island of that sort with a teaming civilian population unless you had control of the air. The second question that perplexes me is, How did the Japanese manage to make that initial landing at Khota Baru? It is a low shelving shore, with a North-East monsoon blowing on it, and yet they got ashore and captured the aerodrome in the first 24 hours. Was there any sort of defence at all? The third point I should like to raise is one upon which the Prime Minister touched this morning, though he told us he could give us no information. What has gone wrong with that land campaign? Singapore was lost on the mainland. Once they had got to the Straits of Johore we were done. What went wrong? At times we appeared to be retreating at the rate of 50 miles a day, giving up the most perfect defensive positions in the world, giving up ravines and single-line tracks of railway and of road. So far as I know, the Japanese never had more than 100,000 men there, and we had 60,000. Well, the British Army has fought against far bigger odds than that in the past and has beaten off the enemy. I hope that as soon as the facts are avail.-able the Prime Minister, if possible in Secret Session, will give the House some explanation of that occurrence.

The other point that worries me is, What was the object of putting those new British divisions into Singapore at the last moment? The Prime Minister told us to-day that nine convoys arrived with 40,000 men. Surely we must have known that when we had lost control of the air—and we lost that very early on—to put men into Singapore was just Handing them over to the Japanese and repeating the errors of Hong Kong. And why were the nine Malay Sultans left behind? Surely the Government must have realised that it means inevitably that these unfortunate rulers will be subject to blackmail, if not worse, to throw in their lot with the enemy. Here in Europe when countries were overrun their rulers felt it was advisable to get to liberty so that they could enthuse and lead their people. I should have thought that the same policy should have been adopted there. This all raises, surely, the question whether, even with our difficulties and our limited resources, there has been a sound strategic plan for the defence of the Pacific. Would it not have been better to concentrate our limited Forces? Does it not appear now that they are scattered all over Asia and that they will be nibbled up one by one?

Now, as to the war generally. The point that worries me is, first of all, our bombing policy. We were promised, back in the late summer, that the bombing of Germany would be more and more intensified. Well, it has not come off, and I am wondering whether the weather is entirely the reason. Is anything wrong with our methods of attack on ships? We seem to hit the ships, but we do not seem to sink them. Have we as good a torpedo as our enemies have, and have we as good an aeroplane as we need? Is it not possible to do more with raids on Europe? Here, in these narrow seas, we are supposed to have control of the sea. When the boot is on the other foot we see what can be done, by what the Japanese have managed to do with control of the seas in the Far East. Lastly, what about the equipment of our Air Force and our Armies? We are told that it is increasing in quantity, but is it of the right type?

Those are many questions, and I do not expect the Government to be able to answer them all, but I would like to know the answers to some of them, because they are being asked all over the country. I would strongly urge the Government, if it is possible, to carry the House of Commons with them and to tell us the answers to some of those questions. That would enable us to do what we really want to do, back up the Government in our constituencies and throughout the country. There are other directions in which I feel perturbed. I think it is true that, in the long run, the Government do the right thing; but too often they do it too late and too timidly. The country is asking whether the Government have any plan. Can the Government control events, or are they always controlled by them?

The other day I gave a lift to a soldier, and he said to me one of the most remarkable things I have heard during this war. He said, "You folks do not realise that the wonderful success of the Russians has done a lot to the British people. It has restored our faith in government again." I asked him what he meant, and I asked, "Have you no faith in your own Government?" "To be perfectly honest," he answered, "not much. In Russia there appears to be a Government that can take a long view of events, can plan and can carry out their plan with ruthlessness, courage and imagination." I do not want to enter into an argument whether that is or is not right, but the words "restore our faith in government again" reflect what the people of this country are asking at this moment. I could give many examples about what I mean by being too late. It is not so long ago that the Minister of Agriculture came here and said he was about to introduce a Bill to stop shameless speculation in land. That is all very well, but people ask why he did not do it a year ago. In August, I think it was, the Minister of Home Security brought in the National Fire Service Bill. People pointed out that the City of London and about five provincial towns had had to suffer from fire before we did what we should have done before the war started. There was the delay in the formation of the Royal Air Force Regiment. If it is right to form that regiment now, was it not right to do it after Crete?

Another problem which faces us at this moment is the payment of Income Tax by wage-earners. Could not the Government have brought in a system of weekly payments when they introduced the principle of taxing low incomes? Other points have been the failure to cope with the black market, and one which has been raised here lately on several occa- sions concerns the employment of A.R.P. workers in their on- and off-duty periods in the war effort. We have been promised this for some time past, but nothing much in fact seems to have happened. The last point I wish to raise is with regard to what I might call the Government administrative machine. Everywhere one goes one finds delay, timidity and frustration. A man does not automatically become a half-witted moron because he joins the Civil Service. The fact is, I think, that during the past 20 years, and especially since the time when a previous Prime Minister nailed to our national mast-head that deplorable banner of "Safety First," the way to promotion within all Government services has not been the way of initiative and daring, but the way of being a safe man. That spirit in peace spells stagnation, but in war it surely spells death and disaster. I think it is a fair criticism of the present Government to say that they have failed to exorcise that spirit from the public administration. They have failed to imbue our administrative services with what might be called the offensive spirit in the widest sense of the term. The trouble is that no one to-day ever gets the sack. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Perhaps that was an indiscreet remark, but until the administration services realise that people will get the sack unless they take risks, I cannot see any hope. There is nothing wrong with the people themselves, but a lead in that direction must come from the Government.

We are at one of the crises of the war. The people feel dispirited and, I think, humiliated. They will welcome the new Government and the promise of what it stands for, but I feel that what they will want now above all is action, dynamic action. They want, as one speaker has pointed out to-day, a spirit of ruthless-less in our administration. I feel that their cry is the cry of the soldier, "Restore our faith in government again."