Ministerial Changes.

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir George Schuster Sir George Schuster , Walsall

I do not propose to follow the last two speakers in their detailed discussion of strategy, because I presume there will be other opportunities of discussing that in the light of greater knowledge of what has happened. I propose to bring the House back to what I imagine is the subject of chief interest, and that is the new set-up of the War Cabinet. I should like to express my own great appreciation of what the Prime Minister has done to meet the views that have been expressed from all sides. I feel that we can now regard the War Cabinet as a team which looks as if it will work as a team, and I hope we may regard this as marking a new phase, when we are making a fresh start and passing from the stage of defensive improvisation to something nearer the stage of offensive planning. Of course there is a long way to go yet before we can pass into the stage of full initiative, a grim period during which we have to hold on until we can recover the initial advantages which our enemies have by their long start. But we do know now that we have the potential behind us, that once our engine gets warmed up it will be greater in power than that of our enemies, so what we have to consider in a general way is what is necessary during this grim period of holding on, if this nation is to get through successfully. It seems to me that three things are necessary: We need the right direction at the top, we need technical skill in the production and use of our fighting power, and we need a united public opinion. All these three things hang together. We shall not have a united public opinion unless we have right direction at the top, and right direction at the top alone is not enough. We need a tuning up, a new grip on the situation, selfless devotion and imaginative initiative in everybody, in all ranks, right down from the top to the bottom, whether it be in the Government service, in civilian life, in the Fighting Services or in the work of production.

I should like to put before the Government to-day one or two things especially connected with public opinion, though in touching upon those I must touch upon the other two needs also. Public opinion has been disturbed, as many speakers have said both in this Debate and last week, and that is not merely because things have gone badly. The British public is quite prepared to face bad news and is often inspired by it, but it is disturbed now because people are asking themselves, "What does all this mean? How far is it going? Are the Government mishandling things? Are they really taking the war seriously?" I want to emphasise certain points.

In the first place, I believe that the public want to feel that they are being told the truth. They are beginning to doubt it. One can quote many cases. Take the campaign in Libya; the first optimistic statements when we were told that at last we were meeting the enemy on equal terms,-then Rommel's "come-back" and the explanation that after all we were not on equal terms, that the Germans had a 4½-pounder gun which could pierce our tank armour at 1,400 yards and that we had a 2-pounder which had to get within 800 yards range to be effective on theirs. That was a shock to public opinion. They felt they had been misled. We are now told by Lord Beaverbrook that we are going to get a still better gun. The implication is that it is there, that it is soon coming into action. How soon is it coming into action in Libya? Are the public again to be misled? Take another case. How many times have those of us who have been worried about the Indian political situation or who have pressed for a conception on a grander scale of what could be done to make India one of the great arsenals of democracy been told that all was well, that India has 1,000,000 men under arms, and that her industrial capacity is being developed to the utmost? The public are asking now, or they will be asking soon, "Where are those 1,000,000 soldiers, and how are they equipped?" I hope they will be satisfied. I hope they will not feel again that they have been misled. Take another point. Has the public really been asked to face what the shipping position may mean in the way of shortage of supplies during the grim period of hanging on which is now before us, and which will last until the full tide of American shipbuilding is flowing? Has the production programme been planned to cover the period? I should like to hear the Government tell the people plainly what they have to face until the balance turns.

As a second point, I believe the public want to see more discipline exercised. They want to feel that the Government are taking the war seriously, and that they are using their ample powers to enforce a uniform and rigid discipline throughout the whole nation. They want to see things tightened up. There is a feeling that far too many people are "getting away with it" in one form or another. The measures against the black markets are not severe enough. The penalties imposed are ludicrously inadequate. Too many petty ramps are going on. Pilfering on the railways is bad, as is well known. Thefts of food stocks are frequent. Black markets encourage these things. Perhaps the public exaggerate what is going on, but the feeling is widespread. Much more drastic action would be welcome. Then there is a widespread feeling that in spite of all the taxation and price control some people are still finding means of making money; that some of the Government methods, especially the cost-plus-profit method, are helping in this. I believe myself that the public's ideas on this are greatly exaggerated, but I want to urge the Government ruthlessly to search out and publish the truth on these matters and impose much more drastic penalties on those who take advantage of our present needs to defraud the Government. Even a few cases—such as when we hear of a contractor who has defrauded the Government still getting War Department contracts—do untold harm.

Turning to another side of the matter—the workers in factories—I believe that here, too, there is a widespread desire that discipline should be more strictly enforced, especially in the use of the Government's powers under the Essential Work Order. I have recently had a chance of interviewing workers' representatives in very many factories, and I am convinced that the feeling among the vast majority of the workers is that they want to do more. Such trouble as there is from slackness, bad timekeeping and absenteeism comes from a small minority, not more than 10 per cent. The majority would like to see discipline enforced, only making this proviso, that the enforcement is in the hands of people whom they can respect.

The third point that I would put to the House is that most people want action and not words, and I think we in this House flatter ourselves if we believe that the knowledge that Parliament is talking over things for three days is any great reassurance to public opinion. But behind all these things there is a wider and a, deeper feeling which must be recognised if we are to have a forward drive backed by the united opinion of the masses of the nation. Many of us feel that there are two conflicts going on in the world to-day. There is the open conflict of the democracies against the totalitarian aggressive Powers, but under- neath the surface there is another conflict—between those who feel that we have got to face a new world and those who still hanker after the old and believe in their hearts that-they can get back to it. I want to urge that we cannot go all out for the future unless we have the courage to let go our hold on the past. I want to urge the Government to show the country that whether it be in the technique of fighting, or in our social and economic policies, or in the relations between the countries of the Commonwealth, or in the relations of the Commonwealth to the world, its members are not tied down to old methods and conceptions, but realise that if we are to survive in this war or make victory worth while we have not only to face new methods but ourselves take a lead in creating them.

I want to deal with this conception to-day only so far as it affects immediate practical matters. As to the Fighting Services and fighting methods, it is no use thinking that a mere change in political direction is enough. Changes are needed right through, and especially in what I may call the middle piece of our Fighting Forces. I believe there are too many commanders with their eyes on the past, carrying forward the memories of old controversies between the various arms. There must be many officers, some old as well as young, who have learned their lessons in the present war and who could now give us a fresh initiative, and not merely equal the methods of the enemy but do better than them.

I want specially to express impatience with the type of argument which makes excuses for present failures by calling attention to the special difficulties. Of course we have only an improvised Army, and of course we are faced with much more difficult problems now in putting that improvised Army into fighting in the open mountains of Norway and the jungles of Malaya than we had in the last war, when we could put new divisions into some quiet sector of the trenches and let them settle down. It may be a comfort to remember those things if it helps to reassure us that we are not worse than we were 25 years ago. But it does not help in winning the war. We shall not win the war by being better than the British Army of 1916 or 1917, but only by being better than the German and Japanese armies of 1942. I want to ask whether we are doing our best to see that the right men are in the right places. I believe we have many first-class men, young and old, who have experience in this war; are they being given the jobs which they could hold? Are we preparing, with new imagination and initiative in other places, to make use of all the lessons that we should have learned—and they are very different lessons from the different countries—from all that has happened? Are we preparing in Ceylon? In India? Or even in our own countryside? I do not plead for the impossible, I know all about the limitation of resources. The only thing I am asking is that we shall be sure that we really are making the best use of the limited resources that we have.

Let me continue my theme in matters connected with the social and economic structure. Here again, we want an entirely new conception. I should like to say much on this application of the theme. The main point that I want to make in the short time at my disposal is to emphasise that if we are to call on the workers now for their utmost effort and if the Government are, as I have already pleaded, to enforce a stricter discipline, or—as I also think necessary—to take action to correct some of the wage anomalies which are likely to become an increasingly upsetting factor, then we must create the belief that the place of the workers will be recognised when the war is over. We must overcome the fear that things will happen again as they happened at the end of the last war. I have already pleaded in this House for the creation of a new spirit of partnership in industry. I recognise all the difficulties, but I believe it is possible, and that the war emergency is a great opportunity in that respect. Some tentative steps have been taken, for instance in the formation of production inquiry committees in the works. I want to see the Government take a much more vigorous lead in this matter and I appeal, too, to the leaders of industry on the spot to realise that unless we face this opportunity, and unless we can create confidence on the workers' side, we shall not get the full effort of work in this war, nor set ourselves on the right road to the future.

I want to turn next, always taking the same theme, to our relations with various countries of the commonwealth. Here, too, I think we need entirely new concep- tions. I want to speak particularly for a short time about India. My argument is closely parallel to that which i have just used about the workers. In India—and we must face this—there must be firm government during the war. We have to call for unity among all classes and parties, for suspension of constitutional and political controversy. We have to say to the Nationalists: "Set aside these things during the war. Forget your quarrels with us and unite in the face of common peril." How can we do that, how can we expect them to respond to that appeal, unless we can convince them that we are honest in our intention to work after the war for the political freedom they demand? I do not want to go over all the old ground; but, although I am pressing the Government—and I shall continue to press the Government—to go forward, I want to point out at the same time to some of the critics that the way forward is not quite so simple as they seem to think. It is all very well to say: "Promise Dominion status by a certain date." That begs all the questions and provides a satisfactory answer to none. I do not mind facing the future. If India can build up her own strength and unity, nothing on earth can stop her having independence if she wants it. I go further and say that it is our duty to do everything we possibly can to help her to build up her strength and unity. I cherish the hope that she will see that it is to her advantage to remain linked with our group. I want to emphasise the point that merely to promise Dominion status on a certain date will not meet the Indian demand nor will it solve the Indian problem. The real problem is of another kind.

Have people in this country fully appreciated the attitude of the Moslems on this issue? It so happens that, by a curious coincidence, I received only yesterday a personal letter from Mr. Jinnah, the Moslem leader. He has spoken publicly on these same lines before, so I suppose he would not mind my quoting his letter. He writes as follows: Let me impress on you that the Pakistan—partition of India—demand of Muslim India is not only a political reality, but it is our sacred creed and article of faith; and we shall not rest content unless we have achieved our goal.… Muslim India will never agree and submit to an All-India United Central Government and be treated as an All-India minority under the heel of a permanent Hindu majority, which virtually means a Hindu Raj. One may deeply disagree with that attitude, but one cannot ignore it. Here are fundamental controversies which cannot be settled by any easy formula or laboriously sorted out and reconciled during the emergency of war.

What ought we to do? The two essentials are to get a strong national Government at work during this war, and to convince India that we are determined to play our part in establishing her freedom afterwards. I want to make a specific proposal on this matter. The British Government have tried, and I believe honestly tried, to do what is possible in war conditions. The British Government have said: "Although we cannot, pending agreement, set up a new Constitution, we desire, within the framework of the existing Constitution, to set up during the war an executive Government which is really representative of the Indian peoples." A great advance—and its importance should be appreciated—was made last year to create such a representative Government. But it was not enough. The main political leaders would not join as members of the existing Council. They regarded it as subordinate to the Viceroy and not as a real Cabinet.

I want to urge that another effort should be made. Have we not a special opportunity now? Here, in the British Government, an important step has just been taken. The urgency of conducting the war has justified an exceptional form in the structure of Government. Would not the same urgency justify a similar procedure in India? Could there not now be set up a small War Cabinet consisting of the Viceroy and a few Ministers without Portfolio charged with the general direction of the war, and leaving departmental responsibilities unchanged to the existing Council members? Surely there is some hope that the main political leaders would join such a Cabinet. It would have an entirely new significance. To join it would give them a real share in power, yet would in no way commit them as regards the form of the final Constitution of India. Such a plan would face up to the urgent realities of the day—the vital need for co-operation in the war effort of British, Moslems and Hindus.