Orders of the Day — Mercantile Marine.

– in the House of Commons on 19th March 1942.

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Photo of Sir A.P. Herbert Sir A.P. Herbert , Oxford University

I hope it will not be necessary to apologise for raising in Debate in this House the subject of the officers and men, or, as they are now called, the "seagoing personnel," of the Mercantile Marine, though I also hope I shall not fall too much into the error into which many of us fall of talking about shipping in one compartment and officers and men in another, as if neither had very much to do with the other. I shall readily apologise for my obvious incapacity to deal with so large and important a subject, but I am somewhat fortified by the recollection that, although I am a mere University Member and ought not perhaps to speak of these things, another mere University Member, the Junior Burgess of Oxford University (Sir A. Salter), is the Parliamentary Secretary for Shipping, and, I believe, is doing very distinguished work in that capacity; and in my humbler capacity I do see something of shipping and seamen. But I thought it would be right for the House, even in the informal circumstances of an Adjournment Motion, to try to send some message of good will, good hope, of boundless admiration and endless gratitude to the gallant officers and men who are carrying the Red Ensign through all the waters of the world, and through all the dangers that devils can devise. I think it necessary also to say that it is not perhaps wholly impertinent of this House to interest itself in their affairs. I had to say that, because some extraordinary observations have fallen from certain citizens outside who recently deprecated this House going even so far as to debate the affairs of the Mercantile Marine. It seems to me to be an entirely new and deplorable constitutional doctrine that members of any industry, however worthy, should endeavour to dictate to this House what subjects we should discuss and what subjects we should not discuss, especially if that industry has in the past often come to Parliament for assistance and without doubt, and rightly, will come again.

First, may I give a brief sketch of recent events in this affair? A little more than six months ago Lord Marchwood, better known to most of us as our familiar and genial friend Sir George Penny, raised the question in another place whether the Government would appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the affairs of the Mercantile Marine. On the same day I had the honour to put on the Paper of this House a Motion in similar, but different terms, asking for a Royal Commission to inquire into the future of the Mercantile Marine. I had the honour to have then the support of 100 Members of this House. I have not the faintest idea what their position is now, and I am not committing them in any way. I have not in my miscellaneous life been able to do any canvassing or organising or anything of that sort. Well, some rather curious results followed. There was a great deal of not merely unfriendly comment but of abusive comment from shipowners, from the Seamen's Union, and from the National Maritime Board, in which both these bodies are joined together. The National Maritime Board, in what appeared to me to be an extremely wrong-headed and petulant announcement, said among other things that the idea of a Royal Commission was hopelessly out-of-date and obsolete, that the seamen did not want it, and that expert opinion would not like to be set aside by "amateurs, however well-meaning." There was also some suggestion from a shipowner about persons seeking "political self-advancement." None of these terms would be applicable to Lord Marchwood, who is a master mariner and a very unself-seeking patriot.

On the other hand, Lord Marchwood and I received, and I imagine many Members received, a surprising torrent of letters from seamen and officers actually on the seas or just back from the seas, putting a very different complexion on the whole proposition. These letters were far from suggesting, as the National Maritime Board did, that there should be "a truce to suggestions which, however well-intentioned, inevitably caused doubts and apprehensions in the minds of merchant seamen." I have brought here only a very small collection from a great pile of letters from seamen, signed by their own hands, not by one seaman, but by entire crews. I do not want to make too much of this, and I am not going to throw about a lot of easy accusations, but I must quote some of the letters, because I want, for the purpose of the argument I shall develop later, to counter the suggestion that either the National Maritime Board or the representatives of the Seamen's Union are entitled to say at almost a moment's notice that on any particular subject the seamen dislike this or like that. Here is a letter signed by several men, from able-bodied seamen, donkeymen, greasers Clown to deckboys, saying: We wonder in view of the recent regulations, etc., if any definite steps will be taken to improve the vile living aboard the average tramp. Life, in so far as food and accommodation go, is almost intolerable, and far below the standard of the maritime boards of other nations.