War Situation.

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

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Photo of Mr John Davidson Mr John Davidson , Glasgow Maryhill

I am glad to have an opportunity of dealing with one or two of the matters raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Aberdeen (Flight-Lieutenant Boothby). I know that even right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite will find it rather peculiar that my hon. and gallant Friend, who so fully supported the past Governments which he now actively criticises, should discover that they were such a lot of old buffers. The hon. and gallant Member said that the proper strategy for the Government to follow was first to maintain and strengthen the Navy and, secondly, to give assistance to Russia; and he said that he believed this was responsible for many of the unhappy events of the past. I want to say that I do not quarrel with the Government if they have such a plan of high strategy, but if they have that plan, surely their other plans could have been so arranged that when we suffered the losses, expected by the hon. and gallant Member, we would not have lost such huge masses of military material and personnel. Surely, it cannot be suggested that the Government's strategy in maintaining those two main plans was such that they were actually prepared to lose at Singapore 73,000 fighting men, together with military equipment of a sort that our Armies have very seldom had before. Those who, like the hon. and gallant Member, put forward this reason for the unhappy events that have taken place know perfectly well that just previous to the fall of Singapore the garrison there was considerably strengthened. Therefore, someone was at fault. If we are prepared to say that we shall carry out those two parts of a main programme of high strategy, and if at the same time we are prepared, in every other part of the world, constantly to send men and material there and lose them, it will not be very long before we are in an even worse position than we are at present.

I do not consider myself competent to deal with matters of high strategy. I am an ex-soldier, and my hon. and gallant Friend is at present serving, and has had, I think, almost a year's service in the Forces. I feel that those who are serving in such capacities are much more able to advise the Government than I am. I want to put a question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Privy Seal and to ask for—what past experience tells me I shall receive—a plain and blunt reply. I want to ask why the position taken at recent very critical meetings of the House was not met. Why have the claims of the House for a complete change in the machinery of production not been met? Some of the changes that have taken place are not, to me personally and, I believe, to some of my colleagues, very welcome. They are not only unwelcome to me, but they seem unhealthy and ominous. I will give the House an illustration of what I mean.

Speaker after speaker has referred to the complete inefficiency of War Office administration during the past few years, and we have heard captains, majors and colonels in this House talking about the great amount of forms they have to fill in and the great waste of time it means. We have heard of the waste of time in the Army on "spit and polish," and we know that the Army is bored stiff with more saluting than shooting practice. We have heard complaint after complaint with regard to War Office administration, and yet, to appease a critical House of Commons, the Minister, who, generally speaking, accepts the guidance and advice of his Permanent Secretary, is changed for the man who could really be held responsible. It is not only a funny position; it is an ominous position for every Minister. How are they to treat their Permanent Secretaries in the future? Is there to be distrust brought into Departments, and will Ministers feel confident that nothing is being done to undermine them? Will Ministers be sure of the advice they receive? This is a departure from a practice of the House of Commons which has been observed for very many years. I want to ask my right hon. and learned Friend to submit to this House a reasoned answer as to why this change took place. I want to ask him why the demand of this House for a War Cabinet composed of Ministers unhampered with departmental responsibility has not been met. That demand did not come entirely from Labour Benches, but from some of the most competent authorities on industrial organisation in this House. The demand was made, and the Prime Minister, by giving an assurance that the views of the House would be considered, obtained a Vote of Confidence. But how have they been considered?

My right hon. Friend who took part in War Cabinet meetings unhampered with Departmental responsibilities has now had the Dominions Office placed on his shoulders. Of all people, the Minister of Labour is now in the War Cabinet. The Minister of Labour has to understand, study and consider every method of applying labour, obtaining labour and shifting labour from one place to another, and yet with all these responsibilities he has to accept the further responsibility of directing strategy. [HON. MEMBERS: "He was in the War Cabinet before."] Then all I can say is that he is retained in the War Cabinet against the desire of this House.

I now come to the Minister of Production. I do not think that any Member would have considered it a suitable reply to the criticism made in this House during a recent Debate, if he had known that the only change was to transfer the Office from one man to another. I want to know whether any additional powers have been given to the Minister of Production, and whether any regional organisations, with a certain amount of executive authority, are being set up, as was demanded by this House. I want to know whether the Minister of Production is merely to be placed in the same position as the last Minister, who had to fight and battle with every Department in order to get his own way. If the Minister who is to take over this office is to be placed in the same position as Lord Beaverbrook, we have made a wrong change, because he has not got the courage, the callousness or the disrespect for the fine feelings of others which Lord Beaverbrook had, which unfortunately he found very necessary in order to impress other members of the Cabinet.

The whole of the strategy in this war must be based on production. You cannot send arms to Singapore or to any other place, and you cannot supply your troops in Libya, if there is inefficiency in production here, if there is bad administration and a conflict between managerial staffs and workers' staffs, if there is absenteeism, and if, as was stated, there is a lack of production in Clydeside. If all these things are taking place at a time when the Government have power to conscript labour, the responsibility cannot lie with the people in industry, but must lie with the Government who are afraid to use their power. I will tell my right hon. and learned Friend, if there is a lack in production to-day as compared with one year, ago, it is because the workers of this country are beginning to disbelieve more and more the promises of the Government. What has happened to incite enthusiasm among shipyard workers, engineer workers, labourers and all the others taking part in industry? What has happened to incite their enthusiasm this week? A pledge was made to every ex-Service man and woman in this country that they would be well looked after at the end of the war, and that a Ministry of Reconstruction would be maintained in order to see to it that what happened in the last war would not happen again. That pledge has been sent back by the Prime Minister. I have to go to the people in Maryhill, Glasgow, and to the people in Clydeside and tell them that, so far as reconstruction is concerned, the Prime Minister has stated that while he is making these changes we shall have to expect some delay. We have had no word from him this week as to what exactly will take place as regards reconstruction after the war.

From all sides of the House there came a demand, which was ably expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sloan), that the antagonisms of peoples over whom we have had control for many years should be allayed and that some message should come from the Government that we were prepared to give them a much better deal than they could expect from the Axis Powers. What is the strength of the propaganda of Germany and Japan? They say to these people, "You have been exploited, and you have no say in the government of the country where you reside. You are merely serfs under the British administration. If you recognise that we will give you certain benefits, you should defend the Axis Powers." The antagonisms of the Indian people must be met, but they cannot be met by an indifferent British Government. Some responsibility must be placed upon the shoulders of the Indian people for their own lives and methods of living. As a student of politics, I fully realise that great difficulties and obstacles are in the way. They have always been in the way of any major reform in this country itself. Great obstacles and difficulties were raised when we tried to improve the Factories Acts, and they have been put in the way of every great reform, and particularly in the way of freeing people who have so long been governed by another nation. This is a total war.

If we have to make sacrifices, if British Tommies and British women have to sacrifice their lives, if their sons are taken away from comfortable homes and placed in the terrorism of war, if we have to give up hard-won rights—if these things are done by the common people to-day, surely the Government can say that we shall make some sacrifice in order to assist the people of India to resist aggression. It would be far better to have that great Empire as a friend and as a country which is able to say, "Even though it was during a war, on the advice and counsel of reasonable men in this country the British Government have extended to us a means of administering our own affairs so that we can look after our own people and not be a nation subdued and exploited for the benefit of a certain number of the community." I am not asking even my right hon. and learned Friend to create a revolution in India. I merely ask that these people, whom we expect and whom he expects to defend him and his, should have extended to them a reasonable right of government. If that is done, I am certain that we shall bring to our side one of the strongest Allies this country could possibly have.

Walking side by side with production inefficiency, we have the ghosts of Norway, Dunkirk, Crete, Greece, Malay States, Singapore and Benghazi. I appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend to represent to the Government the tone of the House during recent Debates, which is that even with production at 100 per cent. we must instal a machine whereby it will be fully utilised. That cannot be done with a War Cabinet containing Ministers with departmental responsibilities, and including the Minister of Labour, trying to solve problems affecting the Far East, the Near East, France and Russia and problems of world-wide strategy, and containing also the Minister of Supply, who is held back from obtaining 100 per cent. production because of the clashing interests of various Service Departments. That is bad organisation, and I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to draw these things and the desires of the House to the attention of the Prime Minister.