War Situation.

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

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Photo of Mr Edward Burgin Mr Edward Burgin , Luton

) The hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Davidson) will forgive me if I do not follow him in the observations he has just addressed to us. It is right and proper in a democracy that in the House of Commons we should devote far more of our time to discussion than to decision. If that process, however, were devoted to the war effort, it would be fatal, and the question which I wish to put to the House is whether Members are satisfied that enough attention is devoted in the councils of the State to decision or whether too much is not devoted to discussion. Within this grim Chamber there is something almost unnatural and unreal. Our comfort, our conventions, our leisurely conduct of business are in sharp and startling contrast with the urgency, the need and the value of every passing minute on the fields of war. As the Prime Minister has said, from time to time when he takes journeys abroad from this House and goes to the Fighting Forces, he draws a breath of fresh air from the keenness and the sense of contribution which he finds when he reaches the outposts of defence and sees the men who are our shield. When you go from the rather unnatural atmosphere of this House to a big industrial centre you find another change. You find a sense of threat, a sense of frustration, a sense of impediment. How true that is was shown by my hon. and gallant Friend speaking as of olden times from Aberdeen. I would assure him that not only do the men in the Forces feel that deluge of papers and forms, but men in industry and business feel it even more.

What I find as a Member for an industrial constituency making a not unimportant contribution to the entire Allied war effort, what I find in the big factories, is a sense of inability to secure a decision under a long period of time. Matters are submitted and discussed and passed to and fro within the Department, but the decision is not reached, as in the House, at the end of the day. It is not reached that day at all, and there is a sense of frustration and impediment. In business, if you are competing on behalf of your firm with another big firm for the placing of a large order, it is not the slightest use arriving after the customer has placed his order with your competitor. It does not matter then how good your output is or how good the sales organisation of the firm is. If the customer has already placed his order with the other side, you are too late. This is a business war, and it is time that some of the mottoes of big business were realised and that the decision to take a particular course of action took less time to filter down to the officer upon the spot whose decision it is to implement that order.

There is something unreal in the House of Commons atmosphere. There is something unreal in the time we take in discussion and something unreal in the time within which a decision is reached. This House, of course, expected a Debate of a very different character from that in which we are now taking part. Not for the first time many of us who have desired to place Questions on the Paper, or to administer searching interrogatories, find ourselves requested not to do so in the interests of the State. I, for one, propose to defer to the Prime Minister's request and not to make a speech which traverses disasters in the Far East, and I think the House is to be congratulated on the extent to which, the Prime Minister with a full sense of responsibility having given that warning, the House has acceded to his request not to indulge in recriminations and searching inquiries; but many of us have memories. If many of these questions are not put to-day, it does not mean that they will not be put. It means that this is not the time nor the season to find reasons for set-backs and disappointments. No thinking man or woman can but have the greatest sympathy for the tremendous weight of responsibility that falls upon those who have the conduct of affairs of State, those who can never escape from the dread weight of responsibility. I would not add to that responsibility at all.

I welcome many of the changes which the Prime Minister, with an unerring sense of the demands that this House has made upon the Government, has granted. I welcome particularly the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal. I see in his appointment not only a deserved tribute to his own work and to the work he did for his country and his Empire in Moscow, but I see a most deserved tribute to the Russian people themselves. I do not believe there is a man living who knows more of the state and condition inside Russia than the Lord Privy Seal, and, as one who for 25 years has had an office and a correspondent in Moscow, who knows something of the language of that people, who has studied their history and who made a political and trade agreement with them while Minister of Supply, I have some special interest in following all that has to do with Russia. No more wonderful achievement in history has appeared than the series of successes which the Russian Army is gaining over the greatest military machine of all time. Long may the retreat of the Germans and the advance of the Russians continue. I regard the right hon. and learned Gentleman's appointment as a tribute to the great Russian people, and I think a very worthy one

When the Prime Minister asks that questions should not be put in this Debate with regard to events in the Far East, he is putting his finger upon a very delicate matter. There is something inconsistent between the conduct of free Parliamentary institutions and freedom of discussion in a democracy and the carrying on of a war against totalitarian peoples who have abolished and obliterated all ideas of freedom in their land. Therefore, many of us who felt we had a part to play in the national war effort have felt, perhaps in deference to that difficulty of discussing matters in the public forum of debate here, that we were better advised to submit memoranda and reasoned arguments to Departments and to Ministers rather than raise matters on the Floor of the House. If for some time past I have not troubled this House by making addresses to it, that does not mean that one has not adopted the other method, and done all that lay in one's power to bring facts and information and what were thought to be helpful criticisms to the notice of those to whom they were directed. There are many circumstances in which cold logic plays a more important part in assisting Governments to arrive at a conclusion than hot words and rhetoric in debate, and a case does not always become less valuable because it is well argued on paper.

In this Debate a number of references have been made to production, and I want to ask the House whether we are all convinced that we are right in addressing our critical faculties to the volume of production rather than to what we produce. I believe the House, when history comes to be written, will be staggered and surprised at the extent to which production estimates have been fulfilled. When plans were laid down for the production of given instruments of warfare, given types of ordnance, given classes of armoured vehicles, given classes of ammunition—and plans were made for their production in fabulous quantities over periods of time—I believe it will be found very largely that those production estimates have been reached and passed. But I believe the real question is not whether production as one total has reached a particular aggregate, but whether we are producing the right thing at the right time.

That comes back to this question, Are the right people placing the right orders? Certainly at the outbreak of the war there were neither the right people nor the right orders. Many of the weapons that are now common form and matters of daily requirement were not ordered at all in the early days of the war, and I think that a great deal of our inquiry might be directed not to production as if it were one global total but to whether the immense productive capacity of a highly industrialised country like our own is really being directed to produce that which lies in its power to produce, what is wanted by the General Staff, whether it ought to be wanted by the General Staff and whether it is produced at the right time. What a dismal calculation it is to think that so many months' production of equipment is thrown away by a misuse of the equipment once it has been delivered to particular units of troops by their being sent upon what is a forlorn hope.

If production does reach a particular limit and if that limit is satisfactory, if we are producing the right goods and if we are producing them at the right time, it is still necessary to see that the production, once it has been handed to the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, is used in an operation which is worthy of all the effort that has gone into that production. Great production of the right thing at the right time is not consistent with dissipation of those weapons, that ammunition and those stocks in forlorn hopes. There is profound dissatisfaction among the public at the handling of the war machine by the General Staff—profound. Let me remind the Prime Minister that in mountaineering, when you are crossing a snowstorm, it is not what is on the surface that illustrates the greatest danger but what is at a lower level. While the changes in the War Cabinet are no doubt welcome and show that there is a tighter bracing of the machine, it is at a lower level that we want inquiry and there is profound disturbance.

When I ask whether the right thing is being ordered, I want also to know whether anybody is paying attention to the provision of a larger mortar capable of hurling a larger shell. Have we learned the lesson of the fighting of those enemies who oppose us, and the immense use they make of the light mortar of a larger calibre than that with which our Army was equipped in the early days? Is the right proportion of tracer bullets being made among our.303s and.5s? Are we really learning the lesson that the tactics of the last two-and-a-half years have shown us? It is no use firing a machine gun, Lewis gun or Bren gun at an aircraft unless you can see whether your bullets are entering some vital part. Specifying tracer or illuminated or coloured ammunition is of enormous importance when placing orders for ammunition generally. I believe it is a well-accepted principle that the country will make any effort and sacrifice called for, provided only that people are satisfied about the use that is being made of the sacrifice that they are willing to stand.

My intervention this afternoon was not intended to cover the strategic field or the changes in the Government, welcome though some of those changes are. I wanted to raise an economic matter, and I will do so very shortly, because I do not wish to distract the House from other thoughts. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) in his speech yesterday, as in previous speeches, has, from the Front Bench of the Opposition, demanded nationalisation, and socialisation by State purchase, of certain industries. He has referred to proposals that are being made to the Government in that regard. Let me say at once that, so far as I and my hon. Friends are concerned, any contribution necessary for sustaining or increasing the war effort will be willingly agreed to. As a war measure there is no limit that I know of to which the economic interests for which I speak would not be prepared to go, but do let it be clearly understood that national ownership, national purchase and complete alteration of the ownership of industry is a controversial matter. Do not embark upon it as if it were something that could be slipped through during the course of the war, except to the extent to which it contributes directly and immediately to the prosecution of the war. [AN HON. MEMBER: "What about the nationalisation of labour?"] I do not want to be drawn aside from the very narrow point which I am trying to make. It is the right and duty of any Member or group of Members who feel that they can achieve an advantage by so doing, to make representations as they may see fit, but nothing in the nature of representations followed by commitments can possibly take place unless the matter is freely and properly discussed on the Floor of this House. I am merely putting in a plea that if proposals respecting any of these contested matters are made, those proposals should come to the Floor of this House. Do not let us, however, do anything to impair national unity by putting forward controversial matters at this time. Nationalisation, the State ownership of industry, is an enormous question. Do not let us embark upon anything that would weaken or hinder the entire national effort which is needed to win this war.

I conclude by simply saying that the one object which is before us is to win the war, on terms which are equitable for all those who contribute to the winning of it. Do not let us worry about more detailed war aims or peace aims than that at the moment. We are in a period of extreme difficulty. Trust the man at the helm, make clear to him the things that we desire changed, contribute the full benefit of the advice and experience of all in the House—let no one have the idea that this is a personal war from which the help of others can be excluded—let us not have any obstinacy in high places or elsewhere, but by realising more acutely the note of urgency and the note of need, let us do what each has in his power to contribute to final victory, bearing in mind that the speed with which that victory is obtained is almost as important as the victory itself.