Beveridge Report (Army Bureau of Current Affairs)

– in the House of Commons on 2nd February 1943.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Photo of Mr John Dugdale Mr John Dugdale , West Bromwich

I desire to raise the question of the action of the Secretary of State for War in withdrawing from circulation the Army Bureau of Current Affairs summary of the Beveridge Report. As one of the few Members who have had experience in Army education, I would like to make a few observations on A.B.C.A. in general, before coming to the actual ban. The Secretary of State has given us to understand that before A.B.C.A. was invented, there was very little discussion of current events in military units. That is not the case. There was frequent discussion, both voluntary and compulsory. Officers have frequently initiated discussion on subjects of varying character, related to current affairs. I have an experience in mind which illustrates the difficulty of such discussions before the system of A.B.C.A. was started.

A young acting company commander, aged 20, called his men together and, when they were all seated on the grass, said: "I am now going to read you a speech of the Prime Minister. Any man falling asleep while I read this speech will appear in company office to-morrow morning." Having said this, he read the speech. Questions were asked. The net result was that this boy was asked questions which, with the best will in the world, he was totally incapable of answering. He just could not do it, because he did not know anything about the subjects on which the Prime Minister had been talking. I do not blame him. The A.B.C.A. pamphlets which have been started by the War Office have served a most admirable purpose. They have given officers impartial knowledge on subjects on which they previously had little knowledge and have enabled officers to lead very useful discussions among their men. I submit that A.B.C.A. is liked by the officers and by the vast majority of the men.

I come to the actual subject of the ban which the Secretary of State has issued. I will take his arguments. First he said that he had not issued a ban at all. I quote from what he said: In the first place, there has been no ban on discussion of the Beveridge Report in the Army. Any soldier can read the Report or the abridged form of it as much as he likes, and the Command Education Authorities are being encouraged to provide lectures on the subject by qualified lecturers, both military and civilian, under the ordinary Army Education Scheme. I submit that that is a travesty of the facts. What soldier will spend two full days' pay, to start with, on buying a copy of the Beveridge Report? Would the right hon. Gentleman spend two full days of his own pay in buying a copy of any report of any kind? Of course he would not, and the Service man will not do so either. The right hon. Gentleman said that under the Army education scheme, lectures might be held. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that those lectures cover 10 per cent. or at the most 20 per cent. of the people in the Army. The other 90 or 80 per cent. will not have lectures or discussions of the Beveridge Report, except through the medium of A.B.C.A. Let me now take the second point of the right hon. Gentleman, which is that discussion must be objective. The right hon. Gentleman said: To me it seems obvious that it is absolutely vital that these briefs should not only be completely objective but should in addition be generally accepted as being so. I have in my hand a copy of this particular pamphlet. I have taken the trouble to read it and to look for controversy wherever I could. I have found a remark which might be considered to be controversial amongst a certain section of a certain party in this House. I would like to read it to hon. Members to see whether they agree. The most controversial remark I can find is this. In relation to the need for the prosecution of the war, the pamphlet says: This does not alter three facts: that the purpose of victory is to live into a better world than the old world; that each individual citizen is more likely to concentrate upon his war effort if he feels that his Government will be ready in time with plans for that better world; that, if these plans are to be ready in time, they must be made now.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Dugdale:

I have quoted what might possibly be considered to be a controversial statement. On the ground that it is controversial this particular A.B.C.A. pamphlet has been withdrawn from circulation. I take another of the right hon. Gentleman's arguments. He said, in answer to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell): I do not set myself up as an arbiter in the least. As one of the original parents of the A.B.C.A. Scheme, I am extremely sensitive of any possibility of its being involved in controversy so that it becomes a failure. Seldom can parents have done more harm to any scheme than he has done to this by his action. I find it difficult to believe that he is indeed the parent of this scheme. I find it difficult to believe that a child of so equable a temperament and so free from prejudice can be an offspring of the right hon. Gentleman. But it may be so. I come to his last argument, I think the most important for us. He maintains that discussion may take place but that it should take place at a later date. I will for the last time quote the words he used. He said: …I took the view that compulsory discussion of this subject in the Army ought to be postponed until there has been at any rate a preliminary Debate in this House on the subject. For one thing it might easily have conveyed the impression that the scheme set out in the Report was settled Government policy, whereas in fact no decision of any kind has been taken."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th January, 1943; cols. 11 and 12, Vol. 386.] I do not think it is past even the wit of the War Office to be able to make it quite clear that the Beveridge Report is not settled Government policy. Even supposing that there was a mistake and men did think it was settled Government policy, since when have the British people, in or out of khaki, had to wait until the Government decided on a certain policy before they could discuss it? The conclusion to be drawn from the right hon. Gentleman's statement is that the people in the Army must wait until the Government have a definite settled policy and will not alter it; only then may they come forward and give their views. I do not believe this is the procedure to which this democratic country is accustomed. I feel it is most unusual. I would say that we need the opinion of these men and women on the Beveridge Report and on many other matters too. Who are they, these men and women who are not allowed to discuss the Beveridge Report in the only way in which they can discuss it? [An HON. MEMBER: "Is that the only way?"] The only official way, the only way in which they can discuss it as a group, together. In theory, the troops may discuss anything they want to discuss, as we all may; but, in fact, the time at their disposal for discussing anything is very limited in a regiment which is at all active, and discussion will not take place unless there is a time set apart and the men can carry on the discussion under some recognised system.

Photo of Mr Peter Thorneycroft Mr Peter Thorneycroft , Stafford

Surely the hon. Member is aware that in any unit discussion on matters of public interest can go on all the time, quite unconnected with the A.B.C.A.? Surely he does not suggest that it is only when an A.B.C.A. publication is produced that matters are discussed?

Photo of Mr John Dugdale Mr John Dugdale , West Bromwich

Obviously it is possible to have a discussion whenever two people are gathered together. Matters are discussed. But discussion on other subjects, such as India and the U.S.S.R. which, Heaven knows, are controversial enough—and even on the military aspect of the North African situation—has taken place under the A.B.C.A. system. That was because the War Office thought it wise to encourage such discussion. The War Office are discouraging discussion on this matter. Who are these millions of people who are not to discuss the Report? Are they some depressed class, some outcasts? Not at all. They are the flower of the nation, and we want to know—or we ought to want to know—what they think on any given subject.

In civilian life, before the war, these men and women had various occupations. Some were active Churchmen, others active trade unionists, others active members of political parties. To-day they have put aside all these things, but they have not agreed to put their thinking powers into cold storage, as the right hon. Gentleman would have them do on this question. I would compare his action, and the idea underlying that action—that people should not discuss a matter until it has become settled Government policy—with the action of groups who are very interested in the Beveridge Report and who have circulated Members far and wide on the implications of the Report, expressing definite views on it, although it has not become Government policy. The reason for the action of the right hon. Gentleman is not far to seek. A small but powerful group in this House dislikes the Beveridge Report and wants to see everything done to prevent public opinion in favour of the Report being formed. Among them is one, very closely associated with the right hon. Gentleman himself, who is in a very powerful position in the War Office, but who is not a Member of this House.

Photo of Sir James Grigg Sir James Grigg , Cardiff East

If the hon. Member is referring to the Under-Secretary of State for War, I have said, over and over again, that this decision was arrived at without any assistance from him and was entirely my own. I would ask the hon. Member not to make libels on a Member of another House, who was for many years a very honoured Member of this House.

Photo of Mr John Dugdale Mr John Dugdale , West Bromwich

I hardly consider that a remark of that character can be called a libel. I do not propose to pursue it, however, in view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has given his assurance that it is not correct. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw it."] As the right hon. Gentleman considers it a libel, I will withdraw it; but others, with better information on this subject, may be able to substantiate it. I am not an old Parliamentarian; and I do not profess to have a very great know- ledge of Parliamentary institutions; but this I know, that many thousands of men and women serving in the Armed Forces are to-day suffering great hardship in the defence of freedom—freedom to think, freedom to read, above all, freedom to express their thoughts. We in this House are the guardians of their freedom. It would ill become us if by any action of ours we took away from them, or even seemed to take away from them, the very rights which they are fighting to preserve.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

It was some weeks after the incident which we are now considering that I put down a Question to the right hon. Gentleman asking how many copies of this particular A.B.C.A. Bulletin had not been returned. He was unable to give me an answer, saying they were still coming in. A week later I asked him again, and again no answer was forthcoming from the War Office, because the returns were not complete. They were still coming in, week after week. Either the posts are very slow nowadays or some orders are obeyed very slowly in the Army, and the moral seems to be the old copybook maxim, "Do not give orders which you know are going to be disobeyed." In other words, this exceedingly foolish blunder, this inconceivably stupid action, as it was described the other day by the Bishop of Bristol, seems to have done in its limited sphere as much harm to discipline as it has certainly done in a much wider sphere to morale in the Army. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's analysis of the right hon. Gentleman's pitiably weak reply and explanation the other day of his action in this mutter. I would merely add to it that what the right hon. Gentleman seems to require in his encouragement of free discussion in the Army on the Beveridge Report or anything else is that it should be uninformed discussion. He does not mind if they discuss it so long as it is not informed discussion, so long as it does not have any basis in the facts, admittedly the rather complicated facts, with which this Report is concerned.

He required also that it should be objective. The main part of the pamphlet was an explanation by Sir William Beveridge himself of the actual terms of his Report. The introduction, which is anonymous but is presumably by some official connected with the War Office or A.B.C.A., is presumably the part of the pamphlet in which objectivity or non-objectivity would be most apparent. At any rate that is what one hon. Member fastened upon a week or two ago when he referred to it as "laudatory." I have examined that introduction very carefully. It has five sections, of which two can be described as favourable to Beveridge, two can be described as anti-Beveridge in that quite fairly they put certain points against the Beveridge Report, and the fifth can be described as impartial, summing it up. It seems to me that that is quite a reasonable degree of objectivity to have obtained in a two-page introduction to this large subject.

The War Office contains as in a microcosm a picture of the great conflict that is going on in our society and in the world at large. There is a constant conflict within the War Office between the forces of black reaction and the forces of light. [An HON. MEMBER: "When were you last in the War Office?"] I know a great many people inside the War Office. There are many very liberal and intelligent tendencies in the War Office. Many admirable instructions and orders are issued. A.B.C.A. itself is an example of that excellent and thoughtful liberal tendency in the War Office, but those tendencies are obstructed all too often at two levels. They are obstructed at a low level by a minority—I do not say that there are a large number now—of commanding officers who are opposed to these tendencies. They are obstructed at a high level by men of the type of the Noble Lord already referred to in this Debate. I naturally, with my hon. Friend, accept the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that Lord Croft had nothing to do with this ban and that he himself alone is responsible for it. I can only congratulate him upon thinking up for himself something which must have been so pleasing to that noted reactionary with his former Fascist sympathies.

I shall sit down as soon as I can so as to allow the right hon. Gentleman ample time to reply. I do not think that he needs very much time. I hope that he will simply admit frankly that a mistake has been made and assure the House that it will be repaired at the earliest possible moment.

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

Many people, not only in this House, but throughout the whole country, regard the agitation that has been aroused by this question as a storm in a teacup of a most ridiculous nature. It is a matter of opinion whether my right hon. Friend was right or wrong to take this action. Personally, I think he was right. The hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) compared the discussion on the Beveridge Report to A.B.C.A. discussions which have taken place with regard to the U.S.S.R. and India. I would point out to him that both on the U.S.S.R. and India His Majesty's Government have a policy. People may agree with them or they may not, but they have a policy.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

The present week's A.B.C.A. Bulletin deals with the political and economic situation in North Africa. Have His Majesty's Government a policy on that?

Photo of Sir Godfrey Nicholson Sir Godfrey Nicholson , Farnham

That may be very clever indeed, but the fact remains that His Majesty's Government have been conducting political and military operations in North Africa according to a certain line of policy. Action has been taking place in North Africa, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) is not aware that things have been happening there. Things are not happening with regard to the Beveridge Report, yet. There has been no action taken by His Majesty's Government. It is still in the realm of consideration, so that I think that that argument falls to the ground. I rise to protest against the fuss made about this incident. A large number of writers to the papers have written it up as if it was a fundamental attack upon British liberty. The hon. Member for West Bromwich was typically extravagant in the way he talked about the Army, of how intelligent they are, members of churches and trades unions and so on, and yet apparently they are so ignorant that they must be forcibly compelled to discuss this Report. Presumably because we want to know their opinions, which are to be sent back to His Majesty's Government in order that they may make up their minds on the Beveridge Report. This is a ridiculous exaggeration of a small and trivial incident. You can see the ridiculousness of it at the way the hon. Member for West Bromwich claims that Lord Croft is one of the many figures in this immense army of reaction which the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) describes with his intimate knowledge of the War Office. I suppose he is referring to the 1922 Committee, which has no opinion on the Beveridge Report and of which Lord Croft is not a member. Some of the papers have published articles implying that this incident is something which is striking at the very root of our war effort.

I think that my right hon. Friend was right. But even if he was not right, at any rate it is his business and job, and if there has been anything underhand at the War Office, it was in the printing and dissemination of this Bulletin in such a hurried manner that he had not time to look at it first. If there is any investigation to be made in the War Office, I suggest to my right hon. Friend that it should be made on this line. I wish to assure him that there is a large mass of solid but not very vocal opinion in this country which considers that very much too much importance and attention have been focused on this trivial incident, and I for one assure him of my full support.

Photo of Sir James Grigg Sir James Grigg , Cardiff East

I entirely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Farnham (Captain G. Nicholson) that a great deal of unnecessary fuss has been made about this incident, and I will say quite frankly now that I find in the speeches we have listened to and in the articles in the newspapers commenting on my answer in the House a fortnight ago very little which occasions me to add to what I said then. I am one of the original founders of "A.B.C.A.," and Mr. Puaca took me to task, saying that I was one of the original parents. I am certainly one of the founders of the "A.B.C.A." scheme and feel perfectly entitled to ask the House to believe—and give it my full assurance—that I took no action and will take no action that I do not believe necessary in the interests of that scheme, which I am as anxious as anyone else to see developed on lines which are regarded by all reasonable persons as sound and healthy.

Whatever the hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) may think about it, there does exist—and I find evidence of it in my post bag and in what Members say to me in the Lobbies—a suspicion or, at any rate, a fear that this scheme can be used to propagate one particular set of views, and this, besides being contrary to the spirit on which the present Government is founded, is definitely not in the interests of the Army educational scheme, which will then become the football of those holding extreme party views. The reason I deplore the fuss which has been made about this is that more has been done by the creators of the fuss to make the "A.B.C.A." scheme the football of extremists on either side than I could ever have believed possible. Neither "A.B.C.A." nor the rest of the Army education scheme, which is much more extensive than the hon. Member for West Bromwich supposes, are intended to be Left book clubs, nor are they intended to be branches of the Primrose League. Nor are they designed to be a vehicle for the propagation of the views of the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) or those of Mr. William Hickey.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

Who is not here to-day.

Photo of Sir James Grigg Sir James Grigg , Cardiff East

What they are intended to do is to educate the soldier in the best and proper sense, drawing out from that best of good fellows the best that is in him; and to do this our schemes, whether "A.B.C.A.," "The British Way and Purpose," lectures, technical classes or post-graduate schemes for legal education and that sort of thing, must be free from any possible suspicion of party or partisan bias.

Perhaps the House will allow me to recount an incident which came to my notice yesterday by letter, which will illustrate the kind of dangers which are inherent in discussing in the Army matters like the Beveridge Report in advance of some discussion in this House designed to clarify the attitude of the Government. In a certain military hospital it was the custom to hold lectures, for patients, under the Army educational scheme. Among the patients were a number suffering from nervous ailments. An outside lecturer was invited to come to lecture to the patients, and he appears to have considered that the Beveridge Report was a suitable subject for his audience. In the course of his remarks, he appears to have held up the industrial assurance companies as something very close to racketeers. That is the statement contained in the letter sent to me. My inquiries are not completed yet, and, therefore, I cannot verify it, but there seems to be no real reason for supposing that the statement was untrue. This particular lecturer held up the industrial assurance companies as something very close to racketeers, and naturally applauded the Beveridge Report recommendation for their suppression. Unfortunately, one of his listeners was an employee of one of those companies—and I believe there are many thousands of such in the Army. As can be imagined, the effect on the patient of being told that his employers were little short of racketeers and that his employment should be abolished was not at all sedative. But then, I am informed that one of the modern ways of dealing with neurasthenia is what is called shock treatment. I do not seek to draw any particular moral from this incident, except the one I have mentioned, namely, the intrinsic complexity and difficulty of so vast a subject, and the pitfalls in the path of those who want to compel soldiers to discuss it. It does, however, strengthen my conviction that my original decision was right.

The hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) invited me simply to admit error. I will do nothing of the sort. I am absolutely convinced that my original decision was right, and nothing that I have read or heard since induces me to alter that view. That decision, I may remind the House, was based to a considerable extent on the fact that A.B.C.A. parades are compulsory, and that they take place on a prescribed subject and on a brief supplied officially to the officer and not to the soldiers.

I have only two things more to say. The first is to point out the danger of any "homes for heroes" promises to the Army before we have an authoritative statement on the prospect of being able to carry them out. That, I think if anything, is calculated to destroy morale and to create difficulty here and hereafter. The making, or anything which looks like the making, of promises on insufficient ground is one of the most fatal things I can imagine. The second is to repeat what I said before, that there was a good deal of misunderstanding about the original decision. The hon. Member for West Bromwich sought to answer the question, When is a ban no ban? That is not very satisfactory. There was no ban on discussion, and in spite of his efforts to prove that discussions in the Army only took place if the soldiers were compelled to discuss, there was no ban on discussion of the Beveridge Report. Once it had been made clear that there was no ban, as it was by my answers a fortnight ago, it was clear to me that most of the criticisms disappeared, and I think I may certainly claim, from the reception of the answers I made in the House a fortnight ago, that the great majority of hon. Members accepted and approved of the explanation which I made then. Certainly, I have no regrets about it, and I would like to repeat once more, in view of the fact that the hon. Member for Maldon thought fit to sneer at the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for War, that the decision was entirely my own, and I am not such a weakling that the decisions which are arrived at at the War Office are not my own decisions.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.