Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Mr Clement Davies Mr Clement Davies , Montgomeryshire

The House to-day is meeting in an atmosphere entirely different from that which one might have expected if the changes announced since last week had not been made. Those changes are some justification for the criticism which has been put forward, from time to time, with regard to the organisation of the Govern- ment. The very welcome extended to the new Government is, perhaps, some measure of comfort to the critics, for whom was visualised a future at the bottom of the sea with a millstone around their necks because they ventured to suggest that the then form of the Government was not correct. May I, before I pass on to other matters, refer to the very excellent speech which has just been made by the hon. and gallant Member for Hornsey (Captain Gammans)? Like him, I wish to ask a great number of questions. Those questions are being asked throughout the country. They are being asked now, and the country was expecting replies to them from that Box to-day. The country is deeply concerned about those disasters, as the Prime Minister—very rightly facing them—today called them. The people are disturbed. They do not want to indulge in recriminations, nor to hold inquests for the sake of holding inquests, nor do they want to punish scapegoats. But they want to know how those disasters came about, whether the persons responsible for them are continuing in office, and are likely to continue a policy that will lead to further disasters.

There has been no information forthcoming with regard to recent events such as Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore, and the House is still without information as to earlier events. Nobody has ever yet stood at that Box and explained away the charges that were made by Lord Gort. There were charges made in those despatches, not only of lack of vision, but of neglect—charges that ammunition was not forthcoming, and that the one and only Tank Division did not arrive until it was too late. We have yet to hear who was responsible and whether the same mentality is still operating at the War Office. Again, with regard to the Navy, the country and the House are deeply troubled about the escape of those three ships out of Brest to Wilhelmshaven, and the House and the country are not satisfied that those ships are better at Wilhelmshaven than they were at Brest. Nor does the House understand quite why it will take some time to train the crews of these vessels at Wilhelmshaven when, apparently, they were ready for sea at Brest.

There is something wrong, but we are still waiting for the explanation of earlier events. We have never heard the explanation of Dakar; we have never heard the explanation of Narvik, and we do not know whether the same mentality, the same persons, in control at the Admiralty and responsible for the escape of these three ships, were responsible for the conditions of things in Narvik and in Dakar. Those are the questions which the hon. and gallant Member very rightly said are troubling the country. That is why people are wondering what is happening. Again, the country and the House are entitled to an answer.

There are four outstanding matters in government. One is personnel, another is organisation, the third is policy and the fourth outlook. There has been some change in personnel and some change in organisation. I am not deeply interested, and I do not think the House is, in personnel. So tar as one can see, the War Cabinet has much the same appearance to-day as it had last Thursday. One great man has gone, and another great man has entered, but otherwise it appears to be very much the same. May I add my own personal congratulations to those uttered by previous speakers? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal believe me when I say that those congratulations are in the hearts of every Member of this House, though whether they can utter them or not is another matter? We congratulate him on entering the War Cabinet. We have high hopes of him and we wish him well, but whether his presence there will make much difference or not remains to be seen. Whether he will be over-ridden or not remains to be seen. So much for personnel.

With regard to organisation, so far there has not been much change. The Prime Minister was at pains to-day rather to decry, I thought—I may be wrong—the organisation which was set up in the last war by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), but he might have added that that organisation at least won the war. That was the organisation which really got the production. The Prime Minister mentioned several disasters that occurred during the last war; but from the advent of that organisation not one of those disasters was due to the lack of supply, lack of ammunition, or lack of guns. They may have been due to other things; but there were mountains of ammunition, and thousands of guns. [An HON. MEMBER: "Eventually."] From the moment that that organisation was set up the change came, and it continued to the very end; and eventually the war was won. As far as organisation is concerned the present Cabinet is not an improvement upon the first organisation that the right hon. Gentleman set up on 10th May, 1940. That was an organisation of five; to-day, there is an organisation of seven. Not one member of that Cabinet, except the Prime Minister himself, held any executive office. They were all without Portfolio. I thought the Prime Minister suffered a little lapse when he said that the earlier War Cabinet was formed in the stress of the times, that the Low Countries and France were being invaded, and therefore one had to do the best one could. He did better on that Saturday, 1oth May, than he has done to-day. What is the position to-day? Some of the members of the War Cabinet still undertake heavy executive offices. I do not know how the Minister of Labour and National Service can possibly get through his day. Devoted, as he should be, during all his waking hours to dealing with questions of Labour and National Service, how can he contribute to the thought of the War Cabinet and its final decisions? I do not know what is to be the work of the new Minister of Production; that has yet to be explained; but if he is to ocupy the position recently occupied by Lord Beaverbrook, the whole of his waking hours should be devoted to running and supervising production. Thus as I say, in regard to organisation, we have not travelled far.

What concerns me more, however, is policy. Is there to be any change of policy, or are we to continue as we have been doing since 3rd September, 1939? One looked for tremendous changes of policy on 8th May. They appeared on paper on 22nd May. This House passed an Act, putting power over all persons and all property in the hands of the Government. On paper, it was all right; but has it been put into operation? What is the position of this War Cabinet on policy? Is it to be a mere meeting to record decisions already reached, or is it to be a deliberating, discussing body, meeting day by day, at which each member will have an equal say and an equal vote? If the master's voice is to be the dominating one, the other members will sink into insignificance. That, undoubtedly, is the impression the country got of the last War Cabinet. People are building high hopes that there will be a change now.

The Prime Minister has again misunderstood our criticism of his position as Defence Minister. For the first time since the Duke of Wellington we have a Prime Minister who is also a strategist, and the explanation that was given to us by the Prime Minister is not the explanation which was given in another place by Lord Chatfield, who has had experience of this kind of thing. We are asking that the Minister of Defence should be responsible to somebody. To whom is he responsible? To the House? If we ask a question about Singapore we are told that it is not in the public interest to tell us. If we ask a question about anything else, we are told that it is not right that we should be informed. But somebody ought to inform us, somebody ought to know and ought to be able to pass judgment. The persons who should pass judgment should be the independent body of men in the War Cabinet who know all the facts, who consider them all and either approve or disapprove of the action taken. That is why we have been asking that the Minister of Defence should be separated from the dominating personality of the Prime Minister.