Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

Since we last met here there has been a major reconstruction of the War Cabinet and among Ministers of Cabinet rank. There will be further changes, not only consequential changes, among the Undersecretaries, but these I have not yet had time to consider in all their bearings. After nearly two years of strain and struggle it was right and necessary that a Government called into being in the crash of the Battle of France should undergo both change and reinvigoration. I regret very much the loss of loyal and trusted colleagues, with whom I have come through so many hard times and who readily placed their resignations in my hand in order to facilitate a reconstruction of the Government. They had, of course, no greater share of responsibility than the rest of the Administration for the disasters which have fallen upon us in the Far East. Nevertheless, I am sure that we have achieved a more tensely-braced and compact Administration to meet the new dangers and difficulties which are coming upon us, and I believe that that is the general opinion of the House and of the country

Attention is naturally concentrated upon the War Cabinet, and no doubt comparisons will be made with the War Cabinet of the last war. I have on previous occasions given my reasons why I do not believe that a War Cabinet entirely composed of Ministers without Departments is practicable or convenient. In other ways, however, the resemblance is fairly close. During most of the period from December, 1916, to November, 1918, the Lloyd George War Cabinet consisted of six or seven Ministers, of whom one only had departmental duties, namely, Mr. Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House, and Leader of the Conservative party. In addition, Mr. Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, although not in name a member of the War Cabinet, was so to all practical purposes and was in fact a far more powerful politician than any of its members except the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new War Cabinet consists of seven members, of whom three have no Departments. One is Prime Minister, one is Deputy Prime Minister with the Dominions Office, and one is Foreign Secretary. In the seventh case, the Minister of Labour and National Service replaces the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the former model. I think this is right. In the last 25 years labour has made immense advances in the State, and it is desirable, both on personal and on public grounds, that this office, which serves all Departments, should be included.

There may prove to be other points of resemblance. It is now the fashion to speak of the Lloyd George War Cabinet as if it gave universal satisfaction and conducted the war with unerring judgment and unbroken success. On the contrary, complaints were loud and clamant. Immense disasters, such as the slaughter of Passchendaele, the disaster at Caporetto in 1917, the destruction of the Fifth Army after 21st March, 1918, all these and others befell that rightly famous administration. It made numerous serious mistakes. No-one was more surprised than its members when the end of the war came suddenly in 1918, and there have even been criticisms about the character of the peace which was signed and celebrated in 1919. Therefore we, in this difficult period, have other things to do besides that of living up slavishly to the standards and methods of the past, instructive and on the whole encouraging as they unquestionably are.

Let me explain how the duties are divided. The members of the War Cabinet are collectively and individually responsible for the whole policy of the country, and they are the ones who are alone held accountable for the conduct of the war. However, they have also particular spheres of superintendence. The Leader of the Labour party, as head of the second largest party in the National Government, acts as Deputy Prime Minister in all things, and in addition will discharge the duties of the Dominions Secretary, thus meeting, without an addition to our numbers, the request pressed upon us from so many quarters that our relations with the Dominions, apart from those between His Majesty's various Prime Ministers on which the Dominions are most insistent, shall be in the hands of a member of the War Cabinet.

The Lord President of the Council presides over what is, in certain aspects, almost a parallel Cabinet concerned with home affairs. Of this body a number of Ministers of Cabinet rank are regular members, and others are invited as may be convenient. An immense mass of business is discharged at their frequent meetings, and it is only in the case of a serious difference or in very large questions that the War Cabinet as such is concerned. The Minister of State, who will soon be returning from Cairo, has, as his sphere of superintendence, the whole process of production in all its aspects. The White Paper which has been issued upon this subject is superseded and withdrawn, and I am not sure that the new arrangements will require to be denned so formally in a paper constitution. In these circumstances the Supplementary Estimate which was presented on 17th February for the purpose of asking this House to give financial effect to the arrangements set out in the White Paper of 10th February is no longer appropriate, and accordingly it is proposed, with the permission of the House, not to proceed with that Estimate. While the new revised arrangements now contemplated are taking shape, we shall arrange and see what are the best plans, financial and otherwise, appropriate to the altered circumstances. The special spheres of the remaining members of the War Cabinet are denned by the offices they hold.

My right hon. Friend the former Minister without Portfolio, who has played a fine part in all affairs connected with this war, was busy with future plans for post-war reconstruction. The reduction in the size of the War Cabinet, which was held to be desirable in many quarters, has led to the elimination of this office. I must ask the House for a certain amount of time, though there will be no delay, before I am able to submit a scheme for this essential task of preparation for reconstruction. Even though we must now prepare ourselves for an evident prolongation of the war through the intervention of Japan, the whole of this preparatory work, of this preliminary work, for the post-war period must go forward, because no one can be sure that, as in the last war, victory may not come unexpectedly upon us. The seven members of the War Cabinet can sit together either as the War Cabinet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, responsible to the Crown and to Parliament, or they can sit in a larger gathering with representatives from the Dominions and India. Both series of meetings will continue regularly, as before.

The Pacific War Council has also come into being, on which the representatives of the Dominions specially concerned, namely, Australia and New Zealand, of India and of the Netherlands, sit under my chairmanship or under that of my Deputy, the Dominions Secretary. I am very glad to say that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek has just accepted an invitation which I tendered him that a representative of China should join this Council. I recently explained to the House the relation of this body to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in London and the relation of both of these bodies to the combined Chiefs of Staff Committee in Washington. I can only say that all this inevitably complicated machinery, where many are concerned and oceans divide, is working swiftly and smoothly. The results, as I will presently explain, depend upon factors far more potent and massive than any machinery, however well devised, which we can immediately bring into being.

I will now, with the permission of the House, speak a little about my own part in it. At the time when I was called upon by the King to form the present Government we were in the throes of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. I did not expect to be called upon to act as Leader of the House of Commons. I, therefore, sought His Majesty's permission to create and assume the style or title of Minister of Defence, because obviously the position of Prime Minister in war is inseparable from the general supervision of its conduct and the final responsibility for its result. I intended at that time that Mr. Neville Chamberlain should become Leader of the House and take the whole of the House of Commons work off my hands. This proposal was not found to be acceptable. I had myself to take the leadership of the House as well as my other duties. I must admit that this Parliamentary task has weighed upon me heavily. During the period for which I have been responsible I find to my horror that I have made more than 25 lengthy speeches to Parliament in Public or in Secret Session, to say nothing of answering a great number of Questions and dealing with many current emergencies. I have greatly valued the honour of leading the House, which my father did before me, and in which my public life has been spent for so long, and I have always taken the greatest trouble to give them the best possible service, and even in very rough periods I have taken most particular care of their rights and interests.

Although I feel a great sense of relief in laying down this burden, I cannot say that I do so without sorrow. I am sure, however, it is in the public interest, and I am also sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps), the new Lord Privy Seal, will prove to the House that he is a respecter of its authority and a leader capable of dealing with all the incidents, episodes and emergencies of House of Commons and Parliamentary life. I shall, of course, as Prime Minister, remain always at the service of the House should the occasion require it, and I shall hope, from time to time, though I trust not too often, to seek their permission to give them a general appreciation of the progress of the war.

Let me now speak of the office, or title, which I hold as Minister of Defence. About this there seem to be many misunderstandings. Perhaps the House will bear with me while I explain the method by which the war has been and will be conducted. I may say, first of all, that there is nothing which I do or have done as Minister of Defence which I could not do as Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, I am able to deal easily and smoothly with the three Service Departments, without prejudice to the constitutional responsibilities of the Secretaries of State for War and Air and the First Lord of the Admiralty. I have not, therefore, found the need of defining formally or precisely the relationship between the office of Minister of Defence when held by a Prime Minister and the three Service Departments. I have not found it necessary to define this relationship as would be necessary in the case of any Minister of Defence who was not also Prime Minister. There is, of course, no Ministry of Defence, and the three Service Departments remain autonomous. For the purpose of maintaining general supervision over the conduct of the war, which I do under the authority of the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee, I have at my disposal a small staff, headed by Major-General Ismay, which works under the long-established procedure and machinery of the pre-war Committee of Imperial Defence and forms a part of the War Cabinet secretariat.

While, as I have said, I take constitutional responsibility for everything that is done or not done, and am quite ready to take the blame when things go wrong—as they very often do, and as they are very likely to do in future in many ways—I do not, of course, conduct this war from day to day myself; it is conducted from day to day, and in its future outlook, by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, namely, the First Sea Lord, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and the Chief of the Air Staff. These officers sit together every day, and often twice a day. They give executive directions and orders to the commanders-in-chief in the various theatres. They advise me, they advise the Defence Committee and the War Cabinet, on large questions of war strategy and war policy. I am represented on the Chiefs of Staff Committee by Major-General Ismay, who is responsible for keeping the War Cabinet and myself informed on all matters requiring higher decision. On account of the immense scope and complexity of the task, when fighting is going on literally all over the world, and when strategy and supply are so closely intermingled, the Chiefs of Staff Committee are assisted by a Vice-Chiefs of Staff Committee, which relieves them of a great mass of important questions of a secondary order. At the disposal of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and of the Vice-Chiefs Committee are the Joint Planning staffs and Joint Intelligence staffs of the three Services, consisting of specially-selected officers. In addition, there are the three General Staffs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, between whom constant collaboration proceeds at all levels where combined operations are involved. I think it necessary to put this matter in some detail before the House, because, although it sounds complicated, it is necessary to understand it.

Each of the three Chiefs of Staff has, it must be remembered, the professional executive control of the Service he represents. When, therefore, they meet together, they are not talking in vacuum, or in theory. They meet together in a position to take immediate and responsible action, in which each can carry out his share, either singly or in combination. I do not think there has ever been a system in which the professional heads of the Fighting Services have had a freer hand or a greater or more direct influence or have received more constant and harmonious support from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet under whom they serve. It is my practice to leave the Chiefs of Staff alone to do their own work, subject to my general supervision, suggestion and guidance. For instance, in 1941, out of 462 meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, most of them lasting over two hours, I presided at only 44 myself. In addition, however, there are, of course, the meetings of the Defence Committee, at which the Service Ministers are present, as well as other Ministerial members, and there are the Cabinet meetings at which the Chiefs of Staff are present when military matters are discussed. In my absence from this country, or should I be at any time incapacitated, my Deputy has acted and will act for me.

Such is the machinery which, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, I have partly elaborated and partly brought into existence. I am satisfied that it is the best that can be devised to meet the extraordinary difficulties and dangers through which we are passing. There is absolutely no question of making any change in it of a serious or fundamental character as long as I retain the confidence of the House and the country. However tempting it might be to some when much trouble lies ahead to step aside adroitly and put someone else up to take the blows, the heavy and repeated blows, which are coming, I do not intend to adopt that cowardly course, but, on the contrary, to stand to my post and persevere in accordance with my duty as I see it.

I now turn to the general situation of the war. It had always been my hope that the United States would enter the war against Germany without Japan being immediately involved on the other side. The greatest forbearance was shown by both the English-speaking countries in the face of constant Japanese encroachments. These efforts proved vain; and, at a moment fixed by the war leaders in Japan, the sudden violent attacks were made upon Hawaii, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and Malaya. Thereupon, an entirely new situation supervened. The conversion of the giant power of the United States to war purposes is only in its early stage and the disaster at Pearl Harbour and our own naval losses have given Japan for the time being—but only for the time being—the command of, or, at least, the superiority in, the Far Eastern seas.

Great Britain and the British Empire were engaged almost to their full strength, in their powers and in their equipment, with Germany in the Atlantic, with Germany as a potential invader and with Germany and Italy in the Libyan Desert, which protects Egypt and the Suez Canal. The shipping to nourish the large Armies we had in the Middle East has to go round the Cape and, as I said the other day, can make only three voyages in the year. Our shipping losses since the war began have been very heavy. In the last few months there has been a most serious increase in shipping losses, and our anti-U-boat flotillas and naval light forces of all kinds have been and are strained to the utmost limit, by the need of bringing in the food by which we live and the materials for the munitions with which we fight and the convoys which carry our troops so continually and in such great numbers to the various seats of war.

In addition to these actual burdens and perils, there remains the front, from the Levant to the Caspian, covering the approaches to India from the West, as well as the most important oilfields of Baku and Persia. A few months ago it seemed that this theatre would become dominant in our thoughts. At the same time, a heavy invasion enterprise was mounted by the enemy against Egypt. The extraordinary successes of the valiant Russian Armies, whose prowess we all honoured yesterday, has given us a breathing-space in both directions. As lately as October and November we were not only fully extended but, indeed, over-stretched, and I cannot imagine what our position would have been if we had yielded to the pressure which at one time was so vehement to open a new front in France or in the Low Countries.