War Situation.

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

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Photo of Mr Alexander Sloan Mr Alexander Sloan , South Ayrshire

I am sure that the House and the country in general are profoundly disappointed at the speech of the Prime Minister yesterday. There was in the country a feeling of expectation that this rhetorical wizard might be able to allay the feelings of dismay which had spread throughout the land. I say "might" advisedly because the glamour of his oratory is being seriously diminished and he is again assuming that role of Jonah which has dogged him throughout his political career. He did nothing to disperse the gloom. If anything, he deepened the feeling of despair and proved, beyond peradventure, that gross incompetence has been in the saddle, that precious lives have been needlessly thrown away, that hard-earned equipment, turned out by the sweat and toil of our industrial workers, has been thrown into the whirlpool, that whole armies have been taken prisoner, and that the whole strategy of the war has been in the hands of bunglers and muddlers. He told us that in carrying through the reconstruction of the Cabinet he had dropped a number of Ministers overboard. He made the amazing confession that those he had sacked had no greater share of responsibility for all the sins of omission and commission than those he had retained. I wonder then on what principle he booted them out. How did he come to the conclusion, if they were all right, which crowd he would drop and which crowd he would retain? This is surely the most amazing piece of effrontery that has ever been displayed before this House.

I wonder whether the reorganisation will prove of any benefit at all. This switching-off of heads every time we meet with disaster has, so far, led to no improvement in the Government or in the country. I wonder that he made such a vital blunder in strategy as to appoint the right hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) as Leader of the House. It is a change which will very quickly "debunk" the amazing theory that has grown up round the Prime Minister that he is indispensable. The Prime Minister cheers us up by telling us that in the last two months there has been a most serious increase in our shipping losses. He tells us that the enemy have for the time being—whatever that may mean—what he calls a waning command of the sea, and that their command of the air makes it costly and difficult for our reinforcements to establish themselves and secure dominance. Most damning of all, he tells us that we sent to Singapore, which all the experts now declare was so vulnerable and indefensible, nine convoys of reinforcements comprising 40,000 men with their equipment to hand themselves over to the Japanese. It is in keeping with the statement the Prime Minister made a few days before the two battleships were sunk, that they had just arrived off the coast of Malaya at the opportune moment.

Let somebody who can pierce the armour of the Prime Minister and gain his confidence tell him that his stock has slumped badly and that the time has gone when he can blame everybody in the Cabinet except himself. His star is in the descendant. It has not as yet perhaps assumed the velocity of Lucifer when he fell from heaven, but his descent will grow in speed and he will end up with a sorry splash. When people are in a corner they invariably resort to comparisons, and he compares his War Cabinet, and its disasters and its muddling, with those of the Lloyd George Cabinet of the last war. I find it difficult to understand what consolation he expects the British people to derive from that. It does not console us much to remember the stupid, idiotic mistakes of the last war. I noticed that, although he referred to the slaughter of Passchendaele and Caporetto and the destruction of the Fifth Army in March, 1918, he refrained, either by accident or by design, from mentioning Gallipolli, Mesopotamia and Archangel.

I am not of a critical turn of mind. I have always believed in the application of sweet reasonableness. Therefore, I recommend to the Government drastically to overhaul its propaganda. I believe that infinitely more could be accomplished by the written and spoken word than by guns and tanks and bullets. This war can be shortened, it may be by years, by the application of sound common sense. It is a very natural desire to demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and two lives for a life. It is human to ask for revenge, for the extermination of the German or the Japanese, and even for visiting the sins of the fathers on the third and fourth generations. This propensity to revenge is as old as man himself. Mr. Stalin has stated that the U.S.S.R. does not seek the extermination of the German people and that punishment will be reserved only for those who have precipitated the war and caused so much misery in the world. Cannot we have such a statement from our Government? We require a complete statement of war and peace aims. We extracted a statement from the Government with considerable difficulty when the war was confined to Europe, but it was of a nebulous character and required a great deal of elucidation. The field has been broadened and the Far East is now the cauldron of the hell's broth that is brewing.

Demands have been made for a statement on India. I think the Government would be wise to study well the speech of the hon. Member for Clay Cross (Mr. Ridley) yesterday. The Prime Minister knew that this was a very important question which was exercising the minds of a vast number of people in this country and in the world. It is significant that he made no reference to it except that the Pacific Council would include representatives from Australia, New Zealand, India and the Netherlands. Could we have a little more information on this point? Could that very cryptic reference be extended just a little? If India is not to be free, how can she be represented on the War Council? If India is to be represented, by whom or by what is she to be represented? Is it the Indian people who are to be represented or is it the British Government's nominee? If so, that is a farce and a blatant insult to the Indian nation. India will not enter any council or take part in any movement with the British, unless and until the question of India's freedom is resolved. Since 26th January nation-wide demonstrations have taken place in India celebrating Independence Day which they declared in 1929. The Indian Movement has never looked back since then. They have never wavered from their determination. National independence is the objective of the overwhelming majority of the Indian people. It has intensified their unity and helped them to realise that their struggle for freedom is part of the larger world freedom.

Chiang Kai-shek made a very important statement at the week-end. In his message to the Indian people he suggests that at this critical moment the people of China and India should exert themselves to the utmost in the cause of freedom for the whole of mankind. He hopes and believes that Britain, without waiting for any demand on the part of the Indian people, will as speedily as possible give them real political power. He believes that this will be the wisest policy and will redound to the credit of the British Empire. Was this an inspired statement, and is there a possibility that the age-long difficulty is about to be solved? If so, why cannot the Prime Minister say so? Why cannot he make a virtue of what has undoubtedly become a necessity and make one of the most important political announcements of all times? India is only one part of a huge area including scores of millions of people who require freedom. If, as has been claimed, this is a war for freedom and democracy and the rights of nations to govern themselves, we cannot limit our freedom to certain people. If we are to fight for freedom for the Poles, the Czechoslovaks, the Belgians and the Greeks, we must not limit our horizon now that the matter has been forced upon us. We must widen our perspective. We must establish freedom wherever it does not exist, and if we have stumbled across areas which stand as much, or more, in need of freedom than some of our European countries, we must act as if we mean what we say and say what we mean.

The public conscience has been shocked since the limelight has been turned upon Singapore. We are, in the main, an easygoing people. Malaya and Singapore were merely names of far-off places in foreign lands. They conveyed little to the average mind. The general public do not study Stock Exchange reports. They are entirely ignorant that rubber, tin and oil are the attractions there. They are in the main completely unconscious that this area is the greatest sink of corruption in the whole world. They are unfamiliar with the fact that these ornaments of British capitalism have done more to degrade Britain in the eyes of the East than any scoundrels since our depredations in Africa. These tin, rubber and oil companies have exploited the bodies and souls of the natives of the Far East. Those natives have lived in poverty and misery, and the only crime they have committed is to be born in the richest country in the world. Those companies have made fabulous fortunes. They have paid dividends of 50 per cent. and over. Some hon. Member interrupted when another hon. Member making his maiden speech, spoke about dividends of 25 per cent. but there is no doubt that dividends of 50 per cent. have been made by the rubber, tin and oil companies of the East, at a time when the natives were working for wages ranging from 2½d. to 2s. per day in their own land. How is it that the natives of Singapore were so indifferent to the fate of that island? How is it that they would give us no assistance in its defence? There is an indictment of our Government in Singapore in the following paragraph from a despatch from the "Times" correspondent in Singapore: In Malaya there was no time for the static to be replaced by dynamic and able leadership. The Government had no roots in the life of the people of the country. With the exception of a certain section of the Chinese community—some inspired by free China's struggle for survival, others by Soviet precept and example—the bulk of the Asiatic population remained spectators from start to finish. Their inclination was to get as far away as possible from the scene of hostilities. Is there any cause for wonder? Their land was invaded by an Imperialist-minded army, but they were already dominated by another of the same type. What material difference would it make to the Malayans? Merely exchanging one set of vultures for another, not the difference perhaps of a bowl of rice. Listen further to this correspondent: After nearly 120 years of British rule the vast majority of the Asiatics were not sufficiently interested in the continuance of this struggle to take any steps to secure its continuance. And if it is true that the Government had no roots in the life of the people, it is equally true that the few thousand British officials in Malaya and the few thousand British residents who made their living out of the country—practically none of whom looked upon Malaya as being their home—were completely out of touch with the people. British and Asiatics lived their lives apart. There was never any fusion or even cementing of these two groups. British rule and culture and the small British community formed no more than a thin and brittle veneer. Surely this is about the most complete and damning indictment of British Imperialism ever written. Whatever may be the opinion Of the people in this country with regard to the after-war settlement of Malaya there is no dubiety in the minds of the swindling gang of sharks there. They are less concerned about the loss of life than about the loss of assets. They measure the extent of their disaster in terms of £ s. d.; they do not assess them in terms of soldiers' lives, in the number of merchantmen who are blasted to pieces, the number of navy men who go down with their ships or the number of airmen who go down in flame. The measuring rod they apply is the extent of the damage to their property. Here is an extract from the Press on the subject: A fall in market capitalisation of more than £10,000,000 occurred in leading oil shares on the the London Stock Exchange yesterday. Burma slump of 6s. 3d. to the lowest level for 10 years lopped £4,000,000 off the market valuation of this share alone. That is the sort of thing that appeals to their mean little souls. Or take this from one of the financial papers to show that they are not concerned about the position now but concerned about the position in which they will find their assets, their rubber plantations, their oil wells, their tin mines after the war. They will be off for a little holiday just now, but after it is all over they will go back. They think they are just going to walk back and start where they left off. That, of course, is significant not only in Malaya but of this country, where employers of labour have more concern about what is going to happen immediately the war is over than about what will happen during the period of the war. The paper says, after dealing with the question of the share market: To visualise the state of affairs on the plantations themselves is obviously impossible. Of course, they are not there to see. The Japanese will not let them go to have a look. Nevertheless, from all that is known of the character of the fighting, all the way down from Kedah to Singapore, it is possible to draw certain reasonable conclusions. They are active, these fellows, they can visualise happenings. The speed of the advance and the fact that there has been no pitched battle on a broad front leads to the assumption that the actual destruction of rubber trees has been comparatively slight. They kept to the main roads, I suppose, and did not go into the fields. Young trees would mostly escape unscathed while old trees of considerable growth would be welcome as an aid to skirmishing troops. Provide them with good hiding places. It is therefore a fair inference that the major damage inflicted has been the destruction of rubber stock, factories, equipment and buildings in general, apart from coolie lines, which would in the main probably be left intact. On the whole it seems a reasonable conclusion that if the enemy were ejected after a brief occupation the plantations would revert to their owners without having suffered much damage apart from the capital loss of destroyed buildings and plant. Nor would a lengthy occupation by the enemy necessarily imply irreparable damage, for if as seems probable the Japanese are bent on doing their utmost to carry on the industry then reasonable maintenance and repair will be indispensable. So they have it both ways. If the Japanese go quickly, there will not be much damage done, and if the Japanese keep there for a certain time they will keep the factories in operation and the plantations going. They do not imagine that they will suffer any great loss. I think that the opinion and the good sense of the majority of the people in this House will be that Malaya can never go back to where it was the week before last. Many statements have been made that we are fighting the war for democracy, justice, righteousness and truth. We have signed the Atlantic Charter; if Article 3 means anything, it is that all people shall be entitled to the form of government that they desire to set up in their own lands, and that foreigners of any and every description, whether the great white sahib who has for so many centuries exploited the people of the East, or any other type of man, shall not be entitled to go into another man's land and use it for the purposes of exploitation.

We ought to have from the Government a statement of aims in regard to the Far East. The question of India is pressing, but the question of Malaya and the other islands is not less pressing. I would ask the Government what agreement, if any, is to be carried through with the Dutch. Are we to expect that British lads shall give their lives fighting in the Far East to re-establish not only British capitalism but Dutch capitalism? If a factory is destroyed, it can be built again, but when you have given your life you have given something which can never be restored. Take the case of Java; it has 50,000,000 natives and fewer than 200,000 whites. The natives are compelled to work and produce profits for the whites, and it is a matter of indifference whether the whites are Dutch, British, Belgian or any other kind. How can we have any ultimate settlement of the Far Eastern question, in which there shall be no more Singapore? This naval base was built 19 years ago. A friend of mine, Mr. Hughes, who is Editor of "Forward," writes in this week's issue that on the very week when Singapore was commenced he wrote that the Japanese would look upon the building of Singapore as an act of aggression against themselves; further, that during the very same week the financiers of the City of London loaned to the Japanese £25,000,000 to build a navy for the purpose of destroying the Singapore, base which was costing us £20,000,000 to build. This game has gone on, and the poor people out there have been made the shuttlecocks of European finance. We ask that the reply to the Debate shall include an answer from the Government as to what is to be the ultimate settlement of these questions in the Far East.