War Situation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 25th February 1942.

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Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

I think that since I left the War Office I have made no reference whatever to any matter which interested me while I was there. My own personal views should not be made a subject of controversy. But I can answer that question with an unqualified affirmative. I advocated this with all the fervour at my command, but it must be remembered that then we had had no actual ex- perience of war. It is in the light of that experience that I am advocating it now, and I am sure that everybody who has served at the War Office would concur, without reservation.

The same considerations apply to the Navy. It seems to me, in that case, that to divide control and to put reconnaissance for the Navy into one department, and the active operations into another, is bound to give rise to misfortune and to misunderstanding. We are having an inquiry into the passage of the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" through the Channel. That inquiry would not be necessary to determine responsibility at a particular moment as between the Navy and the Air Force, if both Services were under a single command. The inquiry would not be necessary at all, because you could affix the responsibility. Why are these questions never settled? They have been agitated in my time, and they have been under consideration ever since. I will tell the House why they are never settled. We are building up a system of government under which individual responsibility is being reduced to a minimum. No one knows in any given set of circumstances where it is to be placed, whether on the Admiralty or on the Air Force, on this Minister or on that Minister. There is a complete interlocking of committees, and these grow with the passage of time. Thus you never have improvisation in our war system. The Japanese seize sampans and rafts, and they move formations with great rapidity, but if we wish to move divisions of the Army, very careful consideration has to be made of shipping and all other matters, and delay is caused which results very frequently in the missing of an opportunity. I think we should restore spontaneity to our Government and give to Ministers the responsibility which traditionally they should have.

Of course, there is no man more ready to assume responsibility than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He described to the House yesterday the system by which defence is conducted in this country. Every Prime Minister will naturally establish the system which suits him best, and I would be the last to wish to make a point of criticism. I do, however, say that two principles should prevail, and if they are broken danger may well result. The Chief of Staff is the adviser of his own particular Minister, who takes the responsibility to Crown and Parliament for all that transpires in his Department. In their corporate capacity the Chiefs of Staff advise the War Cabinet. When they are called upon to give an opinion upon a military subject, it seems to me desirable, wherever the practice can be followed, that they should meet alone without the presence of any Minister. I only assert those two principles. There may be exceptions to them, but, generally speaking, a lack of observance of them and the introduction of a political element into military considerations may have unfortunate results.

Finally, there is our economic policy. The objectives must be the maximum production and the minimum consumption, in order to release labour and shipping and provide the maximum of weapon power for our Fighting Services. Events will impose many cruel necessities upon us, but we have not yet of our own volition accepted the implications of total war. Those commodities which are not rationed should be licensed. Half of the expenditure of every person, on the average, is laid out upon unrationed or unlicensed goods. If you do not license goods which are not rationed you do not compel the possessors of those goods to use up their own reserves, and consequently you make demands upon labour for the replacement of those goods, in the shops. Industry is as much, or should be as much, a fighting arm as the military services. Each individual industry should be integrated. The firms should be mobilised in the service of the State, and no private consideration whatsoever should prevail. There must, however, be—and there is not—a fair and adequate scheme of compensation for all those on whom the rigours of war impose loss. Such a system does prevail in Germany and should prevail here. The hardships of individual shopkeepers and others who are displaced should be recognised. But industry must be brought into the service of the State without any qualification, and there must be no using up of articles which have to be replaced by the use of labour.

If the reconstructed Government can make announcements upon these lines of policy, I am sure that a new zeal will communicate itself throughout the whole nation and the whole Empire. The spirit of the people and of the soldiers wants to be lifted up by some clear announcement of policy under these heads. This is the opportunity. We welcome this Government, but it has to stand or fall by the manner in which it meets the needs of war.