Ministerial Changes.

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

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Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

We have just listened to a sound, sensible, and constructive speech; and I hope the Government will convey very carefully some of the many sensible sug- gestions, I will not say to the B.B.C., but to the appropriate Minister, the Minister of Information. The power and influence of broadcasting, for good or bad, are immense; and I think the hon. and gallant Member for Totnes (Lieut.-Colonel Rayner) pleaded very well for a change of heart and a different weighting of the character of the broadcasting that takes place. This is the appropriate moment at which to express approval of the Prime Minister's imaginative change in the structure of his Government. I have a very shrewd idea that he is sensitive, perhaps unduly sensitive, to criticism; but I believe the House of Commons made a really useful contribution to the successful prosecution of the war by ventilating the theory, not confined to this House, but general in the country, that the time had come for a change. The change has been made. In the last war there were two major changes in Government—the first Coalition when Mr. Asquith coalesced with the Conservative party, and the second Coalition led by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I Rope that this will prove to be the Victory Government; that these new minds, and, I hope, new methods and the new spirit the Government will command will result in victory. There was the old controversy over a War Cabinet composed of Ministers without Portfolio and Ministers with Ministerial responsibility. In the characteristic British way, a compromise has been reached—a half-way house between the two ideas. I think now that the Government can get on with the war and that they will have the House behind them. They did not have the House behind them a week or two ago. I think that I can say, speaking generally for Members of the House, that we feel that this new experiment will have a clear run and enjoy the confidence of the House and the chance to carry the war through to a successful issue.

There are, however, one or two matters which many of us would like to have cleared up. What exactly is the relation of the new Leader of the House to the Deputy Prime Minister? It did not appear to have been made quite clear at Question Time. Who is to lead the House and who is to answer Questions as to the timer table each week? Will it be the Deputy Prime Minister or the Leader of the House? I understand it is to be the Leader of the House, and we are very pleased to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his new post. He is a proved Parliamentarian, a skilled negotiator, and well qualified to guide the House. We hope that he will have every success. I want to ask also about the Ministry of Production. We gave this new experiment a welcome and already, I understand, it has disappeared into the limbo of the past. We should like to know, in due course, what is exactly the position of the new Minister of State who is returning to Parliament? Is he to be a co-ordinator and have a staff, and will he be clothed with powers more or less similar to those which Lord Beaverbrook was to have had according to the White Paper? The problem of production has not fallen into the background. It remains as vital as ever. The need for settling priorities and stimulating effort by producing the right relationship between the various Departments and the use of labour remains as important as ever. Before this Debate is over either the Leader of the House or some appropriate Minister should give the House some enlightenment.

We would like to know more about the question of a Ministry of Reconstruction. Are we to lament over a Ministry of Reconstruction which has disappeared? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall (Sir G. Schuster) that, if we are to get real heart into the people of the country and to get them to do their best, we must make them feel that we always have in front of us the picture of the world in which they are likely to live and one which can be defined when the war is over. The work of the Department has been rather mysterious. Its duties have been vague. It may have been camouflaged, but it did show us, at any rate, that one Minister had the responsibility of looking ahead. Most of us here consider we are entitled to know what is to become of the problem of reconstruction and of the post-war world. Is it to disappear with my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, who was keen on his job and was so conscientious when he was the head of the Department? Although we have not had an opportunity of discussing this work, we hope that with the introduction of this new Government the problem of the post-war world will not be allowed to sink into the background.

While there are such laments as those I have mentioned there is one interesting innovation in the construction of the new Government and that is the new Secretary of State for War. I have had many happy years' association with his predecessor the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Captain Margesson), whose speech last week was a masterly statement, skilfully prepared, of the work of his Department. But in wartime personal considerations must not come in, and incidentally, it is good to spread Ministerial experience. Ministers who find for the moment that they are on the scrapheap must not take it too much to heart. They may have opportunities later on for the use of their abilities. But it is right in war-time that experiments should be made and new blood introduced. There is one peculiarity about this appointment. It introduces an entirely new precedent. For the first time, we find a civil servant put in the place of his own Minister. On its merits, I think it is a bad precedent, but in war-time we must not be too particular about conventions; all we must concern ourselves with is the winning of the war. If it is true, as I understand, that the new Secretary of State for War stands for vigour, personality and courage, then, as far as this House is concerned, we welcome his appointment, but I put in a note of warning. It is, in principle, a bad thing for the permanent official, who should know no politics, to be promoted over the head of his political chief. It should be understood that the House accepts it merely because of the exceptional conditions of war and the need for the best men, whoever they may be, whatever may be their political parties, and whether they be business men or civil servants.

I want particularly to welcome the new Secretary of State for the Colonies. Re is a man who, at the time of Munich, showed great courage, and he has proved himself to be a man of imagination and ability. He has at the present time some most difficult problems to face. Our Colonial Empire has been put to a very severe test and much of the system that has been built up during the last 100 years now stands discredited. That system has not stood up to the test of war. Dur- ing the last few weeks we have become more Empire-conscious than we have been for many years past. The happenings in Malaya and in other parts of the Colonial Empire make us think seriously and question the whole system. I take it that the appointment of the Noble Lord, with his wide outlook and generous sympathies, is a symbol of the Government's intention to show some imagination and to make some new approach to the whole problem of our Dependencies and Colonies.

To the observer, it is significant that, apparently, the native population have been standing by as idle spectators of what has been happening in the Colonies. I have read a very interesting letter in the "Times," written by an hon. Member opposite, which perhaps puts a new light on some of the happenings in Malaya, but still, the fact remains that at the most critical moment in a life-and-death struggle the native population have not been taking an active part. One gets the impression that they think it is only a question of changing a white for a yellow raj. The situation in the Philippines is significantly different. In the Press we often read praise of the magnificent fight made by the Americans in the Philippines, but we ought to remember that it is not the American troops who are doing the bulk of the fighting. The bulk of the fighting has been done by Filipinos under General MacArthur, who is a general employed by the Philippine Government. The Filipinos are putting up a magnificent fight for their own country and are cooperating with the Americans in a way that has inspired everybody who has been following the Pacific struggle. Somehow or other we have got to make the native populations, whether in the Pacific or in other parts of the Empire, whether in Burma or in India, realise the significance of the Japanese attack. The British, no doubt, have their faults, but we give justice and protect the life and property of the people under our control.

The Japanese, as is known by anybody who has studied the happenings in China during the last four or five years, are a cruel and brutal enemy, ruthless and savage in their methods, and they stop at nothing. They take murder and rapine in their stride. The appalling stories that have reached me of the treatment of the civil population in Hong Kong want a lot of explanation. I thought that we were to have a Secret Session, and if there had been one, I would have mentioned to the Government some of the stories of most sinister, appalling and horrible incidents that are gradually being spread about the country. I am informed that, rightly or wrongly, the Government are preventing the circulation of these stories because of the bad effect they might have on morale, not only in this country, but in Australia and the East Indies. I do not believe it is right to spoonfeed our people. If these stories have a foundation in fact—and I believe they have—they are bound to creep out sooner or later. If they do not come to us direct, they will come through America and the Dominions. Nothing destroys public confidence more than the suppression of news, nothing destroys faith in the Government more than an attempt to stop unpleasant things from reaching the ears of the people. On the contrary, as my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal said in a broadcast, there is a real danger in quiet times like the present, when we are free from bombing, that, in spite of rationing and the other discomforts of war, people may feel too comfortable and too complacent and not be stimulated to make their best effort.