Part of Orders of the Day — Civil Estimates, 1943 – in the House of Commons on 14th July 1943.

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Photo of Sir Arthur Salter Sir Arthur Salter , Oxford University

The Committee will, I think, be aware that there is a rather different tradition in America from that which prevails in this country, both as to collective responsibility and as to the freedom of individual officers to express individual opinions that may or may not ultimately prove to be the considered and final opinions of their Government. In any case, I am not in a position to state anything so definite as the policy of the British Government. I believe Members of this Committee will realise that the British Government would be unwise to state here and now, "This is the Mercantile Marine we intend to have after the war, and these are the methods by which we intend to secure that the Mercantile Marine is kept up to that figure."

I would ask Members to take a figure in their own minds, to work out the consequences and then to ask themselves what would probably be the reactions on the minds of other Governments and the peoples of other countries of announcing such a policy and whether what we all desire to achieve in the long run would be likely to be facilitated by that course of action. I do not believe that Members of the Committee, if they put that question to themselves, would have any doubt as to the answer. Here, perhaps, I should say at once that while I greatly appreciate what the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) said about my particular work in this war, I must disappoint him, if indeed he expected that I could add anything substantially to what my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker), said earlier in the Debate on behalf of the Government and about which my hon. and learned Friend commented with not only great but unmerited severity. I think it. is clear to Members of the Committee that we are still removed, if indeed we are permanently removed, by too short a space of time from anxiety about our war shipping problem for us to apply the different criteria and standards we need to apply in framing after the war policy. It is unfair to expect the Government at this moment to anticipate discussions with other Governments and to prejudice those discussions by announcing the kind of policy which has been asked for to-day.

For reasons which are, I think, sufficient, I am not authorised to add substantially, on the questions which have been mainly raised to-day, to my hon. Friend's statement. But there are one or two short comments that I might make on some points which have been made after he spoke. The hon. Members for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) and West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) both suggested something more in the way of an eloquent tribute to the heroism of the men of the Mercantile Marine. Speaking personally, I feel that I am now disqualified for paying such a tribute, for two reasons. The first is that, as has been said by several Members, what they rightly expect is that the Government will do something in the future to help them to avoid the disasters which followed the last war, and not just fine words. Tributes should, indeed, be paid, I feel that they come very much better from those in authority, for example, in the sister Fighting Services who have shared their hazards and hardships than from one like myself who happens to be in a position of safety in civilian employment. To my mind it would be impertinent for me to try to speak eloquently of the courage of these men. It is not, heaven knows, because I do not feel strongly enough about it.

The Debate has covered a very considerable range, both of subjects and of time. I hope hon. Members will not judge its value solely or mainly by the character of the answers they have had from the Government Bench. I think the utility will consist very largely in the questions that have been put, the arguments that have been used and the considerations that have been urged. When one is in a transition from a series of war problems to post-war problems, there is a great deal to be said for two Debates at some interval of time, in the first of which the questions are more important than the answers, and in the second of which the answers may be more important. Anyhow, for the reasons I have mentioned, we are not able to say more in substance than has been said by my hon. Friend on the questions which have been raised.

Because I think so much will necessarily depend upon the relations between ourselves and America, and the negotiations which will take place between us with regard to shipping matters, I should like to say something as to the character of the American contribution. In the first place, as one who has been at every stage in intimate and close contact with those who took the decisions to increase the American building programme, I want to say with conviction that whatever ambitions may now be suggested by the existence of a great Mercantile Marine, there is no doubt that the motive for the construction of that Mercantile Marine was clear, simple and definite. It was simply to create a vitally needed instrument of war and as such it has been used. That, I think, is something we should all remember when we pass to the consideration of what may be the secondary, and at the time unintended, consequences of the existence of that great building capacity and of that great Mercantile Marine.

I do not now propose to say anything about the British contribution to the solution of the shipping crisis. Many statements have been made. Members of the Committee realise and appreciate fully both the British contribution and that of those European Allies whose Governments have been situated in this capital. I should however like, taking that ass a background, to say something as to tie transatlantic contribution. I say the transatlantic contribution because, as I have been reminded, not only the United States but Canada, too, has made a very great contribution. While I have been stationed at Washington I have had the privilege of seeing very closely the Canadian shipbuilding and shipping effort in close association particularly with Mr. C. D. Howe, but also with other Canadian Ministers. I have also been in touch with my British colleagues who have been concerned with other aspects of the Canadian effort. I believe we all feel that that effort has been one of the most remarkable things in the history of the British Commonwealth. Take the shipping side only. Canada between the two wars built no ocean-going ships at all. She is now building, in addition to corvettes and other protective craft, approximately the same merchant tonnage as we in this country. She has shown an astonishing capacity to adapt her industrial production to what is most needed in the war. She has combined this with a broad visioned policy, both in the allocation of what she has produced and the financial terms on which it has been put into the war effort. I think the unadvertised but, I hope, not unappreciated generosity of the conditions and terms on which Canada has placed her shipping at our service, in the closest collaboration with us, is extremely remarkable, but it is paralleled by what she has done in other spheres of the war.

I entirely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hythe in remarking upon the efficiency of British shipbuilding, measured either by cost or by man-hours. When we are thinking of the difficulties of future competition we must, of course, remember that the share of world shipping will not depend solely, or perhaps mainly, upon the amount of tonnage which happens to be under the flags of different countries at the time when peace comes. It will depend upon the comparative cost of building and of operation, and the policy of the different Governments with regard to support and subsidy, and the general framework of international trade and agreement in other spheres.

That being so, it is as well to remember that we shall have the advantage of lower costs of production and operation. It will be necessary to enter into negotiations to attempt to arrive at agreement on quite a number of things with America, such for example as the position of shipbuilding after the war, which was the question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for North Newcastle-on-Tyne (Sir C. Headlam). American shipbuilding this year will be somewhere in the nature of 20,000,000 tons deadweight. It is clear that if we take that and add to it the shipbuilding capacities of other countries, including our own, capacity must not only be greater than but must exceed by many times, perhaps 10 times, the normal capacity required for peace-time replacements of obsolescent ships. Therefore, we must discuss with America and some other countries some of these problems before the time of peace. The figures I have mentioned, both as regards the amount of building and the cost, show that the interest and motive for such negotiations are not an interest and motive confined to ourselves. Other countries and certainly America will have an interest in coming to some arrangement with us.

I have been asked by several Members to refer more fully to what has been the nature of the contribution of America to the shipping crisis of the last few years. I would like to tell the Committee the history of that contribution. There have been two periods in this war when the shipping situation has been so serious as to threaten the whole issue of the war, and twice the balance has been restored (to use a transatlantic slang phrase, twice we have got out of the red) by the efforts of the United States. The first of these periods was in the spring of 1941, and I would like to remind the Committee of what the shipping situation was when in March of that year the Prime Minister asked me to go to Washington. Our imports of dry cargo goods amounted at that time to little more than half the rate of our pre-war imports. They were falling rapidly. We were losing several times as much as we were building, so that, bad as the situation was at the moment, the prospect was very much worse indeed. Our stocks were dangerously low and falling rapidly. It was quite clear that we were not only in grave danger but in fairly imminent danger either of famine conditions here or of closing our factories through lack of raw materials or being unable to supply adequately and enlarge our Armies in the Middle East and elsewhere. It was clear that action quite outside our own resources at that time was essential if these dangers were to be avoided. There was only one possible place from which aid on the scale required could conceivably come, and that was the United States of America.

The United States, however, had at that time quite a small Mercantile Marine, as the hon. Member for Sea-ham has reminded us. More important than that, it was building on a very small scale. Between the two wars America had practically gone out of the shipbuilding business until shortly before the present war. I believe that in the 10 years before 1936, apart from some tankers, only two ocean-going freighters had been built in America. Even in the Spring of 1941 the building was at the rate of less than 1,000,000 tons a year. It was clear that if the grave situation was to be met, that amount of building needed to be increased, not doubled or trebled or quadrupled, but multiplied at least by five. That was not all. America was a benevolent but a neutral country. The action of her Executive was restricted by the Neutrality Act, which made it illegal for any American ships to go into a war zone. The President had also to deal with a political situation at a time which we shall all remember and which certainly added to the difficulty of giving us the aid we required. He himself ardently desired to give it, and he was advised and assisted by such principal advisers as Mr. Hopkins and Cabinet Ministers, such as the Secretary of State for War, who is now in this country. He was also ardently supported by the heads of the Departments, true friends, such as Admiral Land and Admiral Vickery, who was entrusted with the building programme, and the Petroleum Administrator, Mr. Ickes, and his Deputy, Mr. Ralph Davies. It is astonishing how quickly, so advised and assisted, the President met our dire need.

Up to this moment, April, 1941, except that we had bought for cash a few old ships from America, we had no ships at all from the American Government, and the resources of the American Government were limited, as I have explained. Within a few months the President had removed the Red Sea from the war zone, and immediately large numbers of American ships under the American flag, with American crews, were carrying our stores to the Middle East. Almost at the same moment he directed the Maritime Commission to put no less than 2,000,000 tons, over 200 ships, into the war service, and shortly afterwards that figure was increased. By the early autumn we had had such assistance from America that our anxiety was completely relieved. Our 1941 imports, both dry cargo and oil, exceeded our consumption. Our stocks were higher at the end of the year than at the beginning. More than that, the prospects of the future looked assured. The American building programme for 1942 had been raised from the 1,000,000 tons of 1941 to no less than 8,000,000 tons. That 8,000,000 tons, with bur own and Canadian building, gave us then a rate about double the current rate of loss. So that we had the ships we needed, we had the prospect of additional ships as we needed them, and there was between ourselves and America a rate of building greatly in excess of the rate of loss at that time. In a word, the shipping crisis, which had been of the utmost gravity in April, had found the real solution, which looked as if it would have been and probably would have been a permanent solution for the scale and character of the war as it then was, that is to say, a European war and not a global war, as it became with the entry of Japan.

Then came the second period, which ultimately proved quite as serious, even more serious. Japan entered the war, losses increased immensely and now extended to American ships. In the spring of 1942, with the great losses off the American coast particularly, not only were we losing several times as much as we were building, but the United Nations as a whole were losing more; indeed, in spite of the increased American building, America herself was losing more than she was gaining. And from her diminishing fleet America had also to meet the demands of the Pacific war. By the summer we were again in an extremely grave crisis. America then raised her building from 8,000,000 tons to 14,000,000 tons. By the autumn, as the situation had grown for the moment even more serious, the losses continuing, and the strain of the North African expedition being added, the American programme was raised to nearly 20,000,000 tons. That increase was accompanied by a declaration of policy negotiated by Mr. Douglas with us and endorsed not only by Admiral Land but by the President, under which the increased mercantile building was declared to be regarded as available not for the American war effort only but for the war effort of the whole of the United Nations and allotted wherever it was most required. Following up that declaration of policy and that increase of building, schedules were worked out. Early this year we received a definite schedule meeting our needs and covering provision for the whole of the rest of the year, so that as far as can be humanly foreseen we have passed from the sphere of major negotiations to the sphere of daily co-operation in carrying out an agreement, formally made, sufficient for our needs, and with a definite duty resting upon the War Shipping Administration to carry it out in accordance with its letter and spirit.

That agreement has further been relieved of any danger it might have met by the great improvement in the general shipping position and the dramatic diminution in losses which has recently taken place. Doubtless we must expect losses again to be serious. We have not finished with the submarine yet, but we have a reasonable hope that month by month we shall continue to have more ships at the end of the month than we had at the beginning. The Prime Minister has indicated the great extent of our net gain in the month of June. That was an especially fortunate month, but it is not the only month in which the net gain has about reached seven figures. We have a reasonable hope now, I think, that month by month we shall not only have more ships, but as many more as are required, not only to carry what we are now carrying but to meet the extra needs of our expanding Forces. Indeed, if the situation continues to improve rapidly—and this is one reason why I was so happy to have an opportunity of speaking to-day—at no very distant date it may seem that what America did in increasing her building and in allocating her ships to us was both easier and less important than it was. I think it is well to realise that when she took that decision, when she increased her building to a scale beyond what the best experts both in this country and hers thought was possible, she acted in circumstances of extreme difficulty, and she did what has proved to be absolutely of crucial importance for the conduct of the war and our fortunes in that war.

We shall have, doubtless, many difficulties in the future, many extremely difficult problems to solve, and agreement will often be difficult. But I think we can all draw hope and encouragement for the future, and for the problems of post-war settlement and agreement, from one successful example of collaboration, that happily does not stand alone, in strengthening what was for so long the weakest link in the whole chain of the Allied war effort.