Orders of the Day — National Service Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st March 1947.

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Photo of Mr Campbell Stephen Mr Campbell Stephen , Glasgow Camlachie 12:00 am, 31st March 1947

I have been in the House a long time, and I have opposed every conscription Measure that has been brought before the House during those years. Of all the previous Bills, there is none which has filled me with so much dismay and regret as the present Measure. One hon. Member has said that if this Bill had been, introduced by a Conservative Government, every Member of the Labour Party would have opposed it. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. There might have been a few Mem- bers in the Labour Party who would have taken a different view, but, from my experience, I can say with truth that in the past there was no division in the Labour Party on this matter, and they went into the Division Lobby as a united party against conscription. It is entirely contrary to the traditions of the Labour Party. Let me quote Keir Hardie's words. I would put them to those hon. Members who are supporting this Bill. He said: Compulsory military service is the negation of democracy. That is despotism, not democracy. No liberty loving people will tolerate having these old forms of servitude forced upon them. Conscription is the badge of the slave. That is the view of the founder of the party. Let me quote another eminent Socialist, George Bernard Shaw, who said: Now compulsory military service is the most complete slavery known to civilised mankind. Why does mankind force itself to glory in it? Certainly, conscription is contrary to the traditions of the Labour Party. I would like to make one more quotation to prove my case. I wish to quote a former Prime Minister, the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, when he introduced the conscription Measure in the last Parliament, and when he appealed to the Labour Party for support for that Measure. He said on 27th April, 1939: I want to conclude by making an appeal to the party opposite…. I think we fully realise what this word compulsion ' connotes in their minds. They hate it. They have believed, and I dare say do believe now, that once you introduce compulsion it is difficult to stop it. It might spread until it affected every aspect of the national life…. It is a limited measure which is designed only to meet immediate and temporary needs. It will be framed specially to emphasise its temporary character."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th April, 1939; Vol.346, C. 1315.] These words make it plain, even to the few Members of the Labour Party who support this Bill, that it is contrary to the traditions of the party. What happened when the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain intimated to the House that the Government were going to introduce conscription? He said: … Despite the immense efforts this country has already made by way of rearmament, nothing would so impress the world with the determination of this country to offer a firm resistance to any attempt at general domination as its acceptance of the principle of compulsory military service … Then the present Prime Minister rose to his feet, and put this question: Is the Prime Minister aware that this decision will break the pledge solemnly given to this country and reaffirmed only four weeks ago, that compulsory military service would not be introduced in peacetime … and that this departure from the voluntary principle will meet with strenuous opposition."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 26th April, 1939; Vol. 346; c. 1151–1154.] It was the demand of the Labour Party that the Government should not introduce a conscription Measure without taking the opinion of the country, and I say to the Government today that they have no more right to put through a conscription Measure in peacetime without getting the consent of the country at a General Election. They have no mandate for the Bill which is before the House. When the General Election was taking place, there were two ideas, as I saw it, in the minds of most of the ordinary working people in the country. One of those ideas was expressed in a letter, handed to me by one of my constituents, from her husband pleading with her that she should do everything she could among her neighbours to get them to support a Labour candidate in order to get a Labour Government, because, he said: If old Churchill gets back again we will never get out of the Army. There was that idea, that because of the internationalist viewpoint of the Labour Party in years gone by, a Labour Government would more speedily bring back the men from the war when peace was secured. Also based upon the internationalist viewpoint of the Labour Party was the belief that, in days to come, a Labour Government would make another war impossible by bringing the workers of the world together in true international relationship. Those were two ideas which helped to give the Labour Government its majority in the country.

This Bill goes in the face of that opinion in the country which gave the Government their majority in this House. I want to consider this question. The Government came into power in the very difficult circumstances which succeed a great war. In those circumstances they find it difficult today to maintain the Services at the standard they believe necessary. Therefore, they say: "We are driven by the logic of events, in order to secure our Services on an efficient basis, to introduce this Measure." Well, I question the statement made by the Minister of Labour in the opening sentences of his speech today. I question the necessity for this Measure. The right hon. Gentleman said it was necessary in order to get the Forces that we need. I question that the Government need the Forces they say they consider they need today.

I ask: Against what possible enemy have we to make provision, necessitating the passing of this Measure? The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) was perfectly frank and pointed at Soviet Russia as the possible enemy. But he will note that when a Member of the Government replies neither he—nor, indeed, any other Member of the Government—will agree with such a contention for one minute. The Prime Minister himself has said that it would be utterly impossible for us to contemplate a war with Russia when our resources are compared with theirs. There is the other possibility, though the Government will not admit it, that we, as the ally of America, might be in a war with Russia. Everyone in the House knows that that is one of the ideas dominating the whole of our circumstances in this country today—the provision of forces. The Minister of Labour knows it. his Parliamentary Secretary knows it, the Minister of Pensions knows it—they all know it. But I do not believe that the people of this country will contemplate the possibility of our going to war with Soviet Russia as the ally of America. The people of this country intend that this country shall not be in another world war; they intend the war that has just finished to be the last, at least so far as we are concerned.

No answer has yet been given to the speech made by the hon. Member for Norwich (Mr. J. Paton) the other week with regard to the impossibility of defending this country in face of the atomic bomb. All these armies, air forces, and navies provide no real defence, so far as this country is concerned, in the new age which we have now reached. If the military minds who are advising the Government do not see it, at least the people who have been trained in Socialism during the past years have, by this time, sufficient intelligence to know that we cannot provide a defence against the atomic bomb, with such a big population in so small an island. I. remember in the last Parliament, when the Conservative Party were in power, before the war came, when we were contemplating how, in this country, we were to get protection from bombing, hon. Members of the Opposition then pressed very strongly the view that people would have to be evacuated from the large centres of population. I say to the Government now, that if we enter another world war, even with America to help us, the people of this country must he evacuated from this island to another continent if they are to be given any chance of life at all.

A force of a million is to be maintained, with another half million to provide them with the munitions of war. That makes a million and a half for whom we have to make provision. Yet the Government are faced with an economic crisis. Do the Government think that the people of this country will be content to produce the necessary increased effort in order to provide for a useless force, which will provide no protection to them in the event of another world war? The working people of this country may be fooled to some extent for a certain time, but at the last General Election they showed that they had learned the lesson of the first world war. I believe it is quite hopeless to expect the necessary increase in production if the Government proceed with a Measure like this.

Who are the young people that the Government will take? Who are these 200,000 young people who are to be made conscripts? They are the sons of those men who are being asked for increased production. Do the Government think that those men are contemplating the taking of their sons into the Navy, the Army and the Air Force with equinimity? Do the Government think they agree with it? If the Government think they agree with it, then the Government should go to the country and ask them for their mandate. But the Government know that the workers hate the very thought of conscription in peacetime. The Government will ruin this country completely if they allow the Service chiefs to drive them on in this way. I do not believe the Cabinet have come to this decision without being strongly influenced by the Service chiefs. The Government have been afraid to face up to the Service chiefs, because they have been out of office for such a long time The Government have been easy prey to the Service chiefs, and I am confident that they will fail the people of this country completely by imposing conscription in peacetime. There is already conscription from the war to carry us on to the end of 1948. That is enough to be going on with; that is enough to have at our disposal.

I say to the Government: Adopt a sound peace policy; appeal to the workers of the world at international conferences. The Government have given many instances of their new point of view. There is, for example, the way in which they indicated their willingness to give independence to India and to Burma, the way in which they are ready to hand over former Imperial policy. Go a little bit further; get rid of many of those Forces which will be absolutely useless as a means of defence. If the Government do that, I believe there will be a response throughout the world, and we shall be on the way towards achieving real peace. I do not believe that the workers here or elsewhere are willing to enter a third world war, even though a Labour Government in Great Britain and a Democratic Republican Government in America asks them to do so. The imposition of conscription in this country as a permanent feature of our life is the most shameful thing that a Labour Government could do. I hope that, even at this late hour, the Government will withdraw this Measure and give to the people of this country the opportunity of freedom that they should have.