Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Mr George Ridley Mr George Ridley , Clay Cross

I shall engage the attention of the House for only a short time while I attempt to deal simply with a single point, and if what I have to say is a modest footnote to the very thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Walsall (Sir G. Schuster) or mildly underlines the last point in the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr.C. Davies), I shall be pleased. I was profoundly and deeply disappointed because the Prime Minister's speech contained no reference at all to the question of India, which has become a vital point in our war fortunes. I would impress upon the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal, to whom I pay my personal compliments and congratulations, that this matter is of very vital urgency. I have never been a severe critic of Government policy in this matter, and I accept the view that Dominion status is now our policy and is a postwar objective.

There has been no more substantial change in British public opinion in the last 30 years than has been the case in relation to India. Thirty years ago we desired to dominate India. We were Imperialist, but to-day the majority of us at any rate no longer either feel like that or talk like that. On the contrary, repeated declarations have made it plain that our objective is now a self-governing India with equalitarian status with ourselves and the rest of the free Dominions. I understand that, but I doubt very strongly indeed whether India does. I have no wish to linger over the bitter controversies of the nineteenth century, but the memory of them lingers in the minds of many men. The fear is that when we say these things we do not, to the Indian ear, say them in convincing tones and accents. It is really no use the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for India being himself content with what he has said. He must also be satisfied that the Indian people understand the meaning of what he says and the purport of his own language and declarations. The Secretary of State has the good will of the House in this matter. Everybody understands the difficulties of his task, but these difficulties are not to be overcome by a splendid impassivity.

They require, on the contrary, an energised imagination. Since the last Debate, my right hon. Friend has shown himself amenable to some of the appeals that were then made, especially in the matter of the release of prisoners. But I ventured then to ask him not to sit with folded hands in satisfaction with what had been accomplished, but to restate with clarity and position the British purpose in relation to India, and to attempt to make some personal contact with the leaders of Indian opinion. I speak with no authority in this matter. I cannot, therefore, complain that my right hon. Friend apparently took no notice of what I said, but it is a fact that the British case has not been restated in terms that the world can easily understand, and, as far as I know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made no attempt to make any personal contacts with the leaders of Indian opinion. We are, therefore, I think unjustifiably, misunderstood and criticised in both India and America.

This matter has now become a matter not of academic philosophy, but of urgent and grim reality. India is in the theatre of war. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, who speaks with much authority and intimate knowledge on this matter, said, in the last Debate, that in the urgency of this great conflict, there was a challenge and an opportunity to make a fresh start in approaching all our joint problems. I believe that challenge to be now more insistent than ever and the opportunity never so opportune. India is menaced, and we are menaced in India. There is, therefore, a common danger that binds us together. I beg the Government to make such a declaration as will make it absolutely clear to all the world that our policy is a self-governing India with an equalitarian status. I should like to see my right hon. Friend fix a date for its accomplishment, and throw himself into this matter with such energy as will be abundant evidence, not only of our formal intentions, but of our deep sincerity.

It is evident from what has lately appeared in the Press that the Government have been giving some consideration to this matter, but that consideration, I cannot help feeling, has all the appearance of tardiness and reluctance. The Prime Minister has recently told the Indian Liberal leader that he hopes to answer "before long" a communication which reached him two months ago. I am well aware of the Prime Minister's many grave and vital pre-occupations, but I must urge upon him that before long it will be too late, with disastrous consequences to India and to ourselves. He can be, as was once said of Abraham Lincoln, the lord of his event. He can speak—he alone can speak—the word which I believe the vast majority of hon. Members want to hear him say, the word that will dispel all doubts about the honesty of our intentions and the validity of our declarations. I beg him to declare without equivocation that in the matter of India there is no intention of contracting-out of the Atlantic Charter, that post-war India is to have, in the Commonwealth, equality of status with ourselves and the rest of the Dominions, and that she will have all the rights which the Statute of Westminster gives to them and to us. Let him symbolise all that by accepting the suggestion of the hon. Member for Walsall that there should be an Indian Minister of Finance now. If he will do these things, he will have won credit for himself and, I believe, a thousand victories for our common cause.