War Situation.

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

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Photo of Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , Edinburgh East

It comes nearly to the same thing in the end. I will begin with the Army. The traditional view in the Army of the common soldier is that he is just a common soldier, and as such can be equally well employed upon any task which needs to be done at the moment. It may be sweeping floors or handing round Brussels sprouts in the officers' mess. I am not suggesting that there are not many wise heads in the War Office who know better and do better than that or that there are not many enlightened commanding officers who have a much better judgment and a much better response to the needs of the moment. But we have the opinion of the Beveridge Report to show that a great deal of that "Blimpery" still remains. I will read one or two short passages from the Beveridge Report. It speaks of the continuing failure to use men of engineering skill according to their skill, which has surprised us by its extent. In another part of the Report, referring to the importance of being able to repair machinery, it says: To obtain without damaging repercussions the skilled men they need, the Services must be economical not only in skilled men, but in men without special skill who are of good physique. There is needed a scrutiny of the use of all man-power in the Services and not of skilled men alone. I will take another matter relating to the Army. I believe there is a desire, genuinely felt, to give commissions to competent men who start from humble positions in life, but this purpose is, in many cases, frustrated by purely financial considerations. I have received letters from people pointing out that the initial cost of obtaining a commission in clothes alone greatly exceeds the Government allowance. Thus a man is put into debt directly he takes a commission. Over and above that, it is well known that his recurring expenses, owing to the charges that fall upon him by convention and tradition, are such that he has the greatest difficulty in providing for himself and for those at home. In my constituency, recently, a woman told me that her husband had been offered a commission but was reluctant to take it because he realised she would be considerably worse off if he did so than she was before. Those are two illustrations of how this principle affects the Army. I put it to the Government that all this "Blimpery" must be got rid of. What I want to know is whether the new Secretary of State for War will do this.

I feel that here I ought to diverge a moment to say a few words about the appointment of the new Secretary of State for War. Certainly, it is not a personal matter with me, because I know Sir James Grigg very well, and I believe him to be a forcible and fearless man who, if anyone can, will cut through red tape and bring good results. The Prime Minister, whom he served at the Treasury for many years, is, no doubt, well aware of all those qualities. But I hope this appointment by the Prime Minister will not be taken as a precedent for similar appointments. Certainly, it would be a very dangerous thing if a Minister during all his term of office were subjected to the risk of being supplanted by his own Permanent Secretary. However, the appointment has been made, and the occupant of the position is one who possesses great courage, and I hope he will prove equal to the task of getting rid of "Blimpery" wherever it manifests itself in the Army.

I turn now to the Colonial Office. For years past many of us have been saying that the administration of our Colonies was a scandal. For one thing, in something like a century preceding 1929 there were practically no labour legislation and no social services in the Colonies. There may have been in one or two cases, but, broadly speaking, there were not. The coloured man was the bottom dog who could be exploited to an almost unlimited extent by his white master. We who made those criticisms said that the prestige of the British Empire was at stake. As a result of what we said, and of the facts that intervened, some impression was made, and some action has been taken recently. But if we had said that the existence of the British Colonial Empire was at stake, I think we should have been told that we were talking nonsense. I say in all seriousness that in this war at the present moment we are in the act of losing a part of our Colonial Empire, and losing it, in some measure, because of the very "Blimpery" against which we have been campaigning. When I say that, I say it with very considerable authority behind me. I read in the "Times" a week ago to-day an account of the reasons why the campaign in Malaya and Singapore had been so unfortunate. I find that the "Times" contributor says: Early on in the war, of the labour force of 12,000 Asiatics employed at the Naval base, only 800 were reporting for duty. There was no native labour at the docks. Soldiers had to be taken from military duties to load and unload ships. Another part of the report says: Unlike Tobruk, Singapore had a civil population of 700,000 people. Unlike Moscow, the bulk of this population were apathetic spectators of a conflict which they felt did not concern them. That is what the correspondent of the "Times" said. Why was it that the Malayans felt this conflict did not concern them? I have called the main reason "Blimpery," but the "Times" in its leading article used more dignified language, although, I think, if Members listen to it carefully, they will find that it means precisely the same thing. This is what the "Times" stated: Recent events have confirmed longstanding doubts whether either the spirit or the machinery of the British Colonial policy had adapted itself with sufficient rapidity and flexibility to a changed and changing world. That is rather a long paraphrase of the description I gave when I was defining "Blimpery" earlier in my remarks. It may be when the war is over we shall get back this part of our Colonial Empire, but, if we do, it will only be on conditions which justify our being allowed to hold it in the interests of the world and in the interests of the people who live in those parts.

I turn from the Colonial Empire by natural transition to the question of India. I will not deny that there have been great Englishmen and great Scotsmen who have rendered notable service to India in the past, and a great number of the British community who are continuing to do so. Having said that, I maintain it cannot be denied that "Blimpery" has played a big part in our relations in India. On previous occasions I have urged immediate action on the Prime Minister, and the same advice has come from all parts of the House in this Debate. What inducement is there, it was asked, for Indians to fight on our side? When that was said, there was a pertinent interruption to the effect that the inducement was to be safe from Germany. There is some relevance in that point but I will put this consideration to the House. It would probably have been well for the denizens of the pool if they had kept King Log, and not found themselves, later, under the rule of King Stork. I wonder whether the House imagines that King Log could have used that as a very valid argument to induce his subjects to accept his rule. I think, in fact, it would not have achieved its purpose.

I am glad to see it stated in the Press that the Prime Minister is shortly to reply to the appeal of the Indian Liberals. I trust that when the reply is made it will carry this very difficult problem a big step forward to a satisfactory conclusion. Members in all parts of the House have shown that it is of vital value to the British Empire that the immense population of India should be enthused to fight for the defence of their country and to act in accord with us in repelling the aggressive actions of the Axis Powers.