War Situation.

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

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Photo of Sir Stafford Cripps Sir Stafford Cripps , Bristol East

I almost feel that I ought to ask for the indulgence of this House, since it is very nearly two years now since I last had the honour of addressing its Members. I am sure that the Government will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken for a speech which was most helpful in its terms, and for a type of criticism which I, at least, shall always welcome in this House. Indeed, during the course of this Debate, the great majority of the speeches have been of that character. The right hon. Gentleman speaks as an expert cook, which we all know him to be—at least, those of us who look at the picture papers. I can assure him that the Cabinet are quite prepared to let him taste the pudding when it comes to be cooked. I am also certain that every member of the Cabinet will be prepared to accompany the right hon. Gentleman to the funeral of that person whom I hope we may now describe as the late and not lamented Colonel Blimp. I will go in detail into the matters to which he particularly referred, if he will now excuse me from answering them at this moment.

The House will, I am sure, realise that though I will do my best to deal with some of the important questions that have been raised in the course of the Debate, it is not possible for me to deal with them all, especially as my return to this country has been so recent and my entry into the Government even more recent. I have not been able yet to acquaint myself with the vast mass of detail that it would be necessary to know in order to deal with many of those questions. This applies particularly to definite and specific points as regards the production programme, military matters and strategy, of which I confess I have not at present a very profound knowledge. I think it would be most useful to the House if I were to attempt, in the first instance, to deal with the general approach of the Government to the present situation, and then to deal with some of the more specific matters which have been raised. Let me start by saying to the House in all sincerity that I am most anxious to make the criticism and the co-operation of the Members as fruitful as possible, from the point of view of our joint effort to win the war. I shall regard my position as Leader of the House as having for its object the interpretation of the views of the House to the War Cabinet and also the views of the War Cabinet to the House.

There is one matter which I am sure all Members of the House will bear in mind. All of us desire unity in our efforts. We know the need and the crucial necessity at this moment for that unity; but unity is not the same as uniformity. There must be unity in our purpose, though we may have wide disconformity or disuniformity in the methods we suggest of reaching our objective. Nevertheless, we have to work out our solutions together, and both sides—or all views and opinions—must compromise in the eventual working-out of a common policy of action which is to be put into operation. There are some who wish for rapid and violent progress, some perhaps even in the Cabinet itself, and they cannot have all they wish, but no more can those who desire to remain static have their wish either. One side must go forward, just as the other must hold back, if we are to march forward along a common front. I have in the past been a critic myself of many things and Governments, and I fully appreciate the fact that both critics and supporters alike are out to help to win this war and to make, each one in his own way, that contribution which he best feels able to make to the united war effort.

I believe, moreover, that this House of Commons has a vital and all-important part to play in our victory. We may not see eye to eye as to the best and quickest path, and we may and will have many differences and discussions as to how we may go forward most rapidly to the desired end, but as long as we are determined upon the goal which we intend to reach, these differences and discussions should not decrease but should invigorate and revitalise our efforts. Perhaps it may be thought that with a totalitarian Parliament the conduct of the war might be easier for those who are in charge of it. But we are fighting for something different from totalitarianism, and for something that we believe to be better. If, however, we are determined to preserve and use to the full our machinery of democracy, we must not be afraid to examine its working, with a view to creating from it a machine of the maximum efficiency for our purpose, whether that purpose be victory in the present or reconstruction in the future. We must no more allow deficiencies or antiquated methods to interfere with our democratic machine than we must with our military machine, and I am certain that we can make this House of Commons an even greater and more inspiring body for the people of this country than it has ever been in its history—and it has had a long and distinguished history—if we are prepared to adapt our methods and our mentality to the urgent needs of the present time.

The Prime Minister, in opening this Debate, and many of the Members who have followed him have stressed the darkness of the present stage of the war, despite the gallantry of the many Allies who are helping us to-day in the Far East—the Dutch, the Chinese, the Americans. It is rightly stressed that the onslaught of the Japanese, added to the already enormous effort of Germany and her satellite Powers, has cast upon us a burden that is heavier than any which we have yet borne. It is not the last straw, and it will not break the back of the British people. We are no less confident to-day of our ultimate victory, but for weeks and it may be for months we shall pass through times of acute anxiety and difficulty, and it is because of this present state of affairs, and the prospect of the coming months, that we must brace ourselves anew in our effort for victory. The circumstances are grave, and the Government are convinced that it is the wish of the people in this country to treat this grave situation with all the seriousness and austerity that it undoubtedly demands. For two and a half years now the great majority of the people of this country have been working their hardest in their various spheres to give every help that they could, but there still remains a minority of people to whom the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) referred, who appear to regard their personal interests in a manner which is not consonant with that totality of effort which is required if we are to come through the present difficulties with success. The Government are determined that such an attitude cannot be permitted to persist. It creates an attitude and spreads a sense of frustration and disappointment, and it must be dealt with ruthlessly wherever and whenever it occurs.

We are not engaged in a war effort in which we can have as our motto "Business as usual," or "Pleasure as usual." The Government propose to take such measures as may be necessary to prevent the abuse of the wishes of the majority of the people by any small or selfish group. Such incidents as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) in his opening speech, dog racing and boxing displays among them, are completely out of accord with the true spirit of determination of the people in this crisis in their history, and steps will be taken to see that such and similar activities are no longer allowed to offend the solid and serious intention of this country to achieve victory. Personal extravagance must be eliminated, together with every other form of wastage, small or large, and all unnecessary expenditure. In the realm of the war effort itself no person can be allowed to stand in the way of efficiency or swiftness of production, and we must, without regard to the interests of individuals, key up the tempo of our war effort on every side.

A number of hon. Members have commented in this regard on the presentation of the home news over the wireless and have stressed the need for giving the public as true a picture of events as possible, while, of course, guarding against the disclosure of facts which would be of assistance to the enemy in the prosecution of the war. The Government are wholly in accord with the necessity for presenting a true picture to the people, because they are confident that the people of this country are firm and courageous enough to face the facts, however unpleasant they may be. At the same time, the House will realise that care must be taken not to create an atmosphere of undiluted depression when events are temporarily against us. We must stress throughout our absolute conviction, which I am sure we all hold, of our ultimate success, provided that everyone plays his full part in this achievement. In that setting, I am sure that the public are anxious for, and would welcome, a properly-balanced statement of the actual position; and I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Information the question of what improvements can be made in the presentation of the home news as it is sent out over the wireless.

I come to a question which has vexed the minds of Members on all sides of the House—the question of India. The Government are much concerned, as is everybody else, about the whole question of the unity and the strength of India in the face of the dangers which now threaten that country, and they very fully realise that it is important that this country should do its utmost in the present circumstances to make a full contribution towards that unity. I think, however, that it would not be profitable to debate so important and vital a question now in a partial manner; but the Government hope that such a Debate will be possible very shortly, upon the basis of a Government decision in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman has also raised the question of Colonial policy. I cannot deal with that now, but there is a new Secretary of State for the Colonies, and I am sure that he will reconsider the methods of administration and the policies of the Colonial Empire.

Two further points were raised as regards India, with which I would like to deal now. The first was, whether the training of Indian troops has been adequate. That was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner). The second question was, whether the industrial development was adequate. That was raised by the hon. Member for Walsall (Sir G. Schuster). On the question of troops, the man-power is available in India. The training facilities are adequate, too. The difficulty has arisen over equipment. As soon as that can be supplied, the number of troops can be increased. Industrial development is a matter which the Government regard as of great importance; and, although there are, as the hon. Member will know, difficulties, in view of the great effort of production which has to be made in this country and in other parts of the Commonwealth, it is a matter into which I will inquire, with a view to seeing whether something should be done to expedite that development.

Next, I come to a question which has been much raised and commented upon—what happened in Malaya. As the Prime Minister has said, there are no details or particulars available; and until they come, it would be neither right nor fair to make any comments on the situation. If I may take just one example of the criticism in this matter, some hon. Members have suggested that it was not right to send troops there at the last minute, in order to try and save the situation. Had facts turned out otherwise and those troops had not been sent, I wonder what would have been said in this House. There would have been universal condemnation of the Government for not making an attempt to save that most valuable base in the Pacific.

Another question which has been raised by a great number of Members is the question of the policy as to the continued use of heavy bombers and the bombing of Germany. A number of hon. Members have questioned whether, in the existing circumstances, the continued devotion of a considerable part of our effort to the building-up of this bombing force is the best use that we can make of our resources. It is obviously a matter which it is almost impossible to debate in public, but, if I may, I would remind the House that this policy was initiated at a time when we were fighting alone against the combined forces of Germany and Italy, and it then seemed that it was the most effective way in which we, acting alone, could take the initiative against the enemy. Since that time we have had an enormous access of support from the Russian Armies, who, according to the latest news, have had yet another victory over the Germans, and also from the great potential strength of the United States of America. Naturally, in such circumstances, the original policy has come under review and is, indeed, kept constantly under review. I can assure the House that the Government are fully aware of the other uses to which our resources could be put, and the moment they arrive at a decision that the circumstances warrant a change, a change in policy will be made.

Some doubt has been expressed by some hon. Members, as, for instance, by the hon. Member for Llanelly as to whether there is that degree of co-ordination of the three Services through the Chiefs of Staff and in the field which is satisfactory at the present time. No doubt, as long as there are three Services, there will be occasions when it may appear that co-ordination has not been 100 per cent. perfect, but I can assure him and other Members that every effort is being made, and is continually made, in order to improve that co-ordination. The Chiefs of Staff Committee is based upon the principle that each one of the three Chiefs of Staff is responsible for advice as to all three Services. That is to say, the Committee is jointly and severally responsible for giving advice as to the three Services, and that factor, which was instituted in 1926, has developed a great degree of co-ordination and co-operation. It has been realised in the action that has been proceeding in the Libyan campaign, where actually in the field probably a higher degree of co-ordination than ever before has been reached between the Army and the Air Force, and I can assure the hon. Member that everything possible will be done to increase, where it is possible, that active co-ordination. The right hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) suggested that it was desirable that the Chiefs of Staff should meet alone. He will have heard the figures given by the Prime Minister, that in 90 per cent. or more of the cases when they meet, they do in fact meet alone, and it is only on very special occasions that the Prime Minister presides at their gatherings.

I will deal now with the question that was raised by the right hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) as regards the publicity of what is happening at Hong Kong. He raised the question of the desirability of making public news with regard to the treatment of the population in Hong Kong and Malaya by the Japanese. If the rumours which he had heard were true, he thought it was desirable that the public should know the kind of people whom we were fighting against. I think that anybody who has followed the course of the Sino-Japanese war for the last four and a half years should have no doubt as to the sort of people against whom we are fighting in the Far East, but so far as the rumours to which the right hon. Baronet referred are concerned, he will realise that there are in this country many hundreds of thousands of people who are intimately affected as regards the position through relations and friends, and it would be neither right nor kind to give any publicity to any such rumours until they can be completely substantiated. The Government have, therefore, not considered it right to encourage in any way the dissemination of those rumours Moreover, we hope that, whatever the conduct of the Japanese may have been in the past, they may show themselves now more humane and decent in their behaviour to captured populations and prisoners.

The question of production was raised, and I want to deal with two specific points, both of which, I think, were raised by the hon. Member for Llanelly, and by other Members. The first was as to the lack of use of the smaller workshops and factories situated about the country. The House will appreciate that where great quantities of material are being dealt with, it is not easy to fit small units into the productive machinery, but, nevertheless, it is essential that some means should be found of making the fullest use of this not inconsiderable part of our potentialities, and I will undertake to look into this matter with the appropriate Ministers in order that it may be reconsidered with a view to trying to get out some scheme which will be more effective than the present. Secondly, a suggestion was made that the joint effort of the workers and the managers might be increased by a fuller co-operation between the two parties in industry. This point was raised by the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh and others. The Government are fully conscious of the most valuable part that the skill of the workers can play in assisting the management, and they have already, as the House is aware, in some cases taken steps by setting up workshop committees in order to realise this valuable co-operation. They are anxious that this co-operation should be encouraged to its fullest extent throughout every industry in the country, and upon this question, too, I will consult my colleagues to see whether anything further can be done. My own experience in managing a war factory during the last war taught me personally the immense value that such co-operation could be.

One hon. Member raised the question as to whether we were at the present time retaining within the Civil Defence services a body of persons who might, in view of the temporary cessation of bombing, be utilised in other spheres. He will appreciate that it is necessary to have a full organisation in constant readiness in case there should be a recurrence of attacks upon this country, but at the same time we cannot afford to remain static in our arrangements if by taking a negligible risk we can improve our position in production by making alterations. Again, I am prepared to go into this matter with my colleagues to see whether, under existing circumstances, the time has come when some more flexibility can be introduced to permit persons to get away for more useful productive work.

There is a number of points dealing with Cabinet reorganisation which were put to me by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green, and I should like to answer these questions. The first was whether the new Minister of War will sit in the House of Commons, and the answer is that he will as soon as a seat can be found for him. I might, perhaps, while dealing with that point, make some answer to the criticisms that have been made as to the method of selection of a Minister for that post. Members have complained, one or two, that it was not in accordance with precedent, that it was going outside tradition and that it might have its dangers. Surely this is the time when we can depart from precedent, when we can take risks, and, if the Prime Minister thinks as he does, that the person is the right person for the job, I do not think any of these considerations should stand in the way.

Then I was asked by the hon. Member for Maryhill (Mr. Davidson) and others as to what functions the Minister of State would exercise as regards production. He will exercise functions of supervision, co-ordination and the giving of vigorous initiative over the whole field of production. It is probable, or it is hoped, that it will be unnecessary to define these powers with any greater degree of accuracy, because the less the definition, the wider the powers. But if it becomes necessary to do so, that definition will be given. The question as to the exact delimitations must, however, be left over until the Minister of State has returned and the matter can be fully discussed with him. I was asked a question by my right hon. Friend as to the relationship between myself and the Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons. I shall deal with all matters concerning the Business of the House, and the Deputy Prime Minister will, in the absence of the Prime Minister, answer all other questions addressed to the Prime Minister.

One or two hon. Members raised questions as to how the War Cabinet would function, and I think that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) was one of them. The War Cabinet is not set up as a body to record decisions taken elsewhere. It has and exercises the fullest powers of deliberation, and the members of the Cabinet have every opportunity of forming independent views upon any question of strategy or any other questions prior to the taking of decisions. As the Prime Minister has said, the responsibility is a joint and several responsibility. The Prime Minister as Minister of Defence operates under the authority of the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee, and in every case the final decision is that of the War Cabinet itself.

I come to the question of reconstruction, as to which a number of Members have been somewhat concerned. The question has been asked as to what is to be done in future with regard to post-war reconstruction, and the necessity has been stressed for making some preparations for the economic and social changes which will probably take place in the new circumstances of the post-war world. In this relation a Department of Reconstruction was set up and was under the direction of the Minister without Portfolio. It is the intention of the Government to continue that Department, since the Government realise fully the importance of the functions which it has to carry out. The precise arrangements as to the responsibility for its direction have not yet been decided by the Government.