12 November 1936, House of Commons, London, United Kingdom
I have, with some friends, put an Amendment on the Paper. It is the same as the Amendment which I submitted two years ago, and I have put it in exactly the same terms because I thought it would be a good thing to remind the House of what has happened in these two years. Our Amendment in November 1934 was the culmination of a long series of efforts by private Members and by the Conservative party in the country to warn His Majesty's Government of the dangers to Europe and to this country which were coming upon us through the vast process of German rearmament then already in full swing. The speech which I made on that occasion was much censured as being alarmist by leading Conservative newspapers, and I remember that Mr Lloyd George congratulated the Prime Minister, who was then Lord President, on having so satisfactorily demolished my extravagant fears.
What would have been said, I wonder, if I could two years ago have forecast to the House the actual course of events? Suppose we had then been told that Germany would spend for two years £800,000,000 a year upon warlike preparations; that her industries would be organised for war, as the industries of no country have ever been; that by breaking all Treaty engagements she would create a gigantic air force and an army based on universal compulsory service, which by the present time, in 1936, amounts to upwards of thirty-nine divisions of highly equipped troops, including mechanised divisions of almost unmeasured strength and that behind all this there lay millions of armed and trained men, for whom the formations and equipment are rapidly being prepared to form another eighty divisions in addition to those already perfected. Suppose we had then known that by now two years of compulsory military service would be the rule, with a preliminary year of training in labour camps; that the Rhineland would be occupied by powerful forces and fortified with great skill, and that Germany would be building with our approval, signified by treaty, a large submarine fleet.
Suppose we had also been able to foresee the degeneration of the foreign situation, our quarrel with Italy, the Italo-German association, the Belgian declaration about neutrality - which, if the worst interpretation of it proves to be true, so greatly affects the security of this country - and the disarray of the smaller Powers of Central Europe. Suppose all that had been forecast - why, no one would have believed in the truth of such a nightmare tale. Yet just two years have gone by and we see it all in broad daylight. Where shall we be this time two years? I hesitate now to predict.
Let me say, however, that I will not accept the mood of panic or of despair. There is another side - a side which deserves our study, and can be studied without derogating in any way from the urgency which ought to animate our military preparations. The British Navy is, and will continue to be, incomparably the strongest in Europe. The French Army will certainly be, for a good many months to come, at least equal in numbers and superior in maturity to the German Army. The British and French Air Forces together are a very different proposition from either of those forces considered separately. While no one can prophesy, it seems to me that the Western democracies, provided they are knit closely together, would be tolerably safe for a considerable number of months ahead. No one can say to a month or two, or even a quarter or two, how long this period of comparative equipoise will last. But it seems certain that during the year 1937 the German Army will become more numerous than the French Army, and very much more efficient than it is now. It seems certain that the German Air Force will continue to improve upon the long lead which it already has over us, particularly in respect of long-distance bombing machines. The year 1937 will certainly be marked by a great increase in the adverse factors which only intense efforts on our part can, to effective extent, countervail.
The efforts at rearmament which France and Britain are making will not by themselves be sufficient. It will be necessary for the We~tern democracies, even at some extension of their risks, to gather round them all the elements of collective security or of combined defensive strength against aggression - if you prefer, as I do myself, to call it so - which can be assembled on the basis of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Thus I hope we may succeed in again achieving a position of superior force, and then will be the time, not to repeat the folly which we committed when we were all-powerful and supreme, but to invite Germany to make common cause with us in assuaging the griefs of Europe and opening a new door to peace and disarmament.
I now turn more directly to the issues of this Debate. Let us examine our own position. No one can refuse his sympathy to the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. From time to time my right hon. Friend lets fall phrases or facts which show that he realises, more than anyone else on that bench it seems to me, the danger in which we stand. One such phrase came from his lips the other night. He spoke of "the years that the locust hath eaten". Let us see which are these "years that the locust hath eaten" even if we do not pry too closely in search of the locusts who have eaten these precious years. For this purpose we must look into the past. From the year 1932, certainly from the beginning of 1933, when Herr Hitler came into power, it was general public knowledge in this country that serious rearmament had begun in Germany. There was a change in the situation. Three years ago, at the Conservative Conference at Birmingham, that vigorous and faithful servant of this country, Lord Lloyd, moved the following resolution:
That this Conference desires to record its grave anxiety in regard to the inadequacy of the provisions made for Imperial Defence.
That was three years ago, and I see, from The Times report of that occasion, that l said:
"During the last four or five years the world had grown gravely darker..... We have steadily disarmed, partly with a sincere desire to give a lead to other countries, and partly through the severe financial pressure of the time. But a change must now be made. We must not continue longer on a course in which we alone are growing weaker while every other nation is growing stronger"
The resolution was passed unanimously, with only a rider informing the Chancellor of the Exchequer that all necessary burdens of taxation would be cheerfully borne. There were no locusts there, at any rate.
I am very glad to see the Prime Minister [Mr Baldwin] restored to his vigour, and to learn that he has been recuperated by his rest and also, as we hear, rejuvenated. It has been my fortune to have ups and downs in my political relations with him, the downs on the whole predominating perhaps, but at any rate we have always preserved agreeable personal relations, which, so far as I am concerned, are greatly valued. I am sure he would not wish in his conduct of public affairs that there should be any shrinking from putting the real issues of criticism which arise, and would certainly proceed in that sense. My right hon. Friend has had all the power for a good many years, and therefore there rests upon him inevitably the main responsibility for everything that has been done, or not done, and also the responsibility for what is to be done or not done now. So far as the air is concerned, this responsibility was assumed by him in a very direct personal manner even before he became Prime Minister. I must recall the words which he used in the Debate on 8 March 1934, nearly three years ago. In answer to an appeal which I made to him, both publicly and privately, he said:
Any Government of this country - a National Government more than any, and this Government - will see to it that in air strength and air power this country shall no longer be in a position inferior to any country within striking distance of our shores.
Well, Sir, I accepted that solemn promise, but some of my friends, like Sir Edward Grigg and Captain Guest, wanted what the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, in another state of being, would have called 'further and better particulars', and they raised a debate after dinner, when the Prime Minister, then Lord President, came down to the House and really showed less than his usual urbanity in chiding those Members for even venturing to doubt the intention of the Government to make good in every respect the pledge which he had so solemnly given in the afternoon. I do not think that responsibility was ever more directly assumed in a more personal manner. The Prime Minister was not successful in discharging that task, and he admitted with manly candour a year later that he had been led into error upon the important question of the relative strength of the British and German air power.
No doubt as a whole His Majesty's Government were very slow in accepting the unwelcome fact of German rearmament. They still clung to the policy of one-sided disarmament. It was one of those experiments, we are told, which had to be, to use a vulgarism, 'tried out', just as the experiments of non-military sanctions against Italy had to be tried out. Both experiments have now been tried out, and Ministers are accustomed to plume themselves upon the very clear results of those experiments. They are held to prove conclusively that the policies subjected to the experiments were all wrong, utterly foolish, and should never be used again, and the very same men who were foremost in urging those experiments are now foremost in proclaiming and denouncing the fallacies upon which they were based. They have bought their knowledge, they have bought it dear, they have bought it at our expense, but at any rate let us be duly thankful that they now at last possess it.
In July 1935, before the General Election, there was a very strong movement in this House in favour of the appointment of a Minister to concert the action of the three fighting Services. Moreover, at that time the Departments of State were all engaged in drawing up the large schemes of rearmament in all branches which have been laid before us in the White Paper and upon which we are now engaged. One would have thought that that was the time when this new Minister or Co-ordinator was most necessary. He was not, however, in fact appointed until nearly nine months later, in March 1936. No explanation has yet been given to us why these nine months were wasted before the taking of what is now an admittedly necessary measure. The Prime Minister dilated the other night, no doubt very properly, the great advantages which had flowed from the appointment of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence. Every argument used to show how useful has been the work which he has done accuses the failure to appoint him nine months earlier, when inestimable benefits would have accrued to us by the saving of this long period.
When at last, in March, after all the delays, the Prime Minister eventually made the appointment, the arrangement of duties was so ill-conceived that no man could possibly discharge them with efficiency or even make a speech about them without embarrassment. I have repeatedly pointed out the obvious mistake in organisation of jumbling together - and practically everyone in the House is agreed upon this - the functions of defence with those of a Minister of Supply. The proper organisation, let me repeat, is four Departments - the Navy, the Army, the Air and the Ministry of Supply, with the Minister for the co-ordination of Defence over the four, exercising a general supervision, concerting their actions, and assigning the high priorities of manufacture in relation to some comprehensive strategic conception. The House is familiar with the many requests and arguments which have been made to the Government to create a Ministry of Supply. These arguments have received powerful reinforcement from another angle in the report the Royal Commission on Arms Manufacture. The first work of this new Parliament, and the first work of the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence if he had known as much about the subject when he was appointed as he does now, would have been to set up a Ministry of Supply which should, step by step, have taken over the whole business of the design and manufacture of all the supplies needed by the Air Force and the Army, and everything needed for the Navy, except warships, heavy ordnance, torpedoes and one or two ancillaries. All the best of the industries of Britain should have been surveyed from a general integral standpoint, and all existing resources utilised so far as was necessary to execute the programme.
The Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence has argued as usual against a Ministry of Supply. The arguments which he used were weighty, and even ponderous - it would disturb and delay existing programmes; it would do more harm than good; it would upset the life and industry of the country; it would destroy the export trade and demoralise finance at the moment when it was most needed; it would turn this country into one vast munitions camp. Certainly these are massive arguments, if they are true. One would have thought that they would carry conviction to any man who accepted them. But then my right hon. Friend went on somewhat surprisingly to say, 'The decision is not final'. It would be reviewed again in a few weeks. What will you know in a few weeks about this matter that you do not know now, that you ought not to have known a year ago, and have not been told any time in the last six months? What is going to happen in the next few weeks which will invalidate all these magnificent arguments by which you have been overwhelmed, and suddenly make it worth your while to paralyse the export trade, to destroy the finances, and to turn the country into a great munitions camp?
The First Lord of the Admiralty in his speech the other night went even farther. He said, 'We are always reviewing the position. Everything, he assured us is entirely fluid. I am sure that that is true. Anyone can see what the position is. The Government simply cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get the Prime Minister to make up his mind. So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent. So we go on preparing more months and years - precious, perhaps vital to the greatness of Britain - for the locusts to eat. They will say to me, 'A Minister of Supply is not necessary, for all is going well.' I deny it. 'The position is satisfactory.' It is not true. 'All is proceeding according to plan.' We know what that means.
Let me come to the Territorial Army. In March of this year I stigmatised a sentence in the War Office Memorandum about the Territorial Army, in which it was said the equipment of the Territorials could not be undertaken until that of the Regular Army had been completed. What has been done about all that?
It is certain the evils are not yet removed. I agree wholeheartedly with all that was said by Lord Winterton the other day about the Army and the Territorial Force. When I think how these young men who join the Territorials come forward, almost alone in the population, and take on a liability to serve anywhere in any part of the world, not even with a guarantee to serve in their own units; come forward in spite of every conceivable deterrent; come forward - 140,000 of them, although they are still not up to strength - and then find that the Government does not take their effort seriously enough even to equip and arm them properly, I marvel at their patriotism. It is a marvel; it is also a glory, but a glory we have no right to profit by unless we can secure proper and efficient equipment for them.
A friend of mine the other day saw a number of persons engaged in peculiar evolutions, genuflections and gestures in the neighbourhood of London. His curiosity was excited. He wondered whether it was some novel form of gymnastics, or a new religion - there are new religions which are very popular in some countries nowadays - or whether they were a party of lunatics out for an airing. On approaching closer he learned that they were a Searchlight Company of London Territorials who were doing their exercises as well as they could without having the searchlights. Yet we are told there is no need for a Ministry of Supply.
In the manoeuvres of the Regular Army many of the most important new weapons have to be represented by flags and discs. When we remember how small our land forces are altogether only a few hundred thousand men - it seems incredible that the very flexible industry of Britain, if properly handled, could not supply them with their modest requirements. In Italy, whose industry is so much smaller, whose wealth and credit are a small fraction of this country's, a Dictator is able to boast that he has bayonets and equipment for 8,000,000 men. Halve the figure, if you like, and the moral remains equally cogent. The Army lacks almost every weapon which is required for the latest form of modern war. Where are the anti-tank guns, where are the short-distance wireless sets, where the field anti-aircraft guns against low-flying armoured aeroplanes? We want to know how it is that this country, with its enormous motoring and motor-bicycling public, is not able to have strong mechanised divisions, both Regular and Territorial. Surely, when so much of the interest and the taste of our youth is moving in those mechanical channels, and when the horse is receding with the days of chivalry into the past, it ought to be possible to create an army of the size we want fully up to strength and mechanised to the highest degree.
Look at the Tank Corps. The tank was a British invention. This idea, which has revolutionised the conditions of modern war, was a British idea forced on the War Office by outsiders. Let me say they would have just as hard work today to force a new idea on it. I speak from what I know. During the War we had almost a monopoly, let alone the leadership, in tank warfare, and for several years afterwards we held the foremost place. To England all eyes were turned. All that has gone now. Nothing has been done in 'the years that the locust hath eaten' to equip the Tank Corps with new machines. The medium tank which they possess, which in its day was the best in the world, is now looking obsolete. Not only in numbers for there we have never tried to compete with other countries - but in quality these British weapons are now surpassed by those of Germany, Russia, Italy and the United States. All the shell plants and gun plants in the Army, apart from the very small peace-time services, are in an elementary stage. A very long period must intervene before any effectual flow of munitions can be expected, even for the small forces of which we dispose. Still we are told there is no necessity for a Ministry of Supply, no emergency which should induce us to impinge on the normal course of trade. If we go on like this, and I do not see what power can prevent us from going on like this, some day there may be a terrible reckoning, and those who take the responsibility so entirely upon themselves are either of a hardy disposition or they are incapable of foreseeing the possibilities which may arise.
Now I come to the greatest matter of all, the air. We received on Tuesday night, from the First Lord of the Admiralty, the assurance that there is no foundation whatever for the statement that we are 'vastly behind hand' with our Air Force programme. It is clear from his words that we are behind hand. The only question is, what meaning does the First Lord attach to the word 'vastly'? He also used the expression, about the progress of air expansion, that it was 'not unsatisfactory'. One does not know what his standard is. His standards change from time to time. In that speech of the 11th of September about the League of Nations there was one standard, and in the Hoare-Laval Pact there was clearly another.
In August last some of us went in a deputation to the Prime Minister in order to express the anxieties which we felt about national defence, and to make a number of statements which we preferred not to be forced to make in public. I personally made a statement on the state of the Air Force to the preparation of which I had devoted several weeks and which, I am sorry to say took an hour to read. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister listened with his customary exemplary patience. I think I told him beforehand that he is a good listener, and perhaps he will retort that he learned to be when I was his colleague. At any rate, he listened with patience, and that is always something. During the three months that have passed since then I have checked those facts again in the light of current events and later acknowledge, and were it not that foreign ears listen to all that is said here, or if we were in secret Session, I would repeat my statement here. And even if only one half were true I am sure the House would consider that a very grave state of emergency existed, and also, I regret to say, a state of things from which a certain suspicion of mismanagement cannot be excluded. I am not going into any of those details. I make it a rule, as far as I possibly can, to say nothing in this House upon matters which am not sure are already known to the General Staffs of foreign countries; but there is one statement of very great importance which the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence made in his speech on Tuesday. He said:
"The process of building up squadrons and forming new training units and skeleton squadrons is familiar to everybody connected with the Air Force. The number of squadrons in present circumstances at home today is eighty, and that figure includes sixteen auxiliary squadrons, but excludes the Fleet Air Arm, and, of course, does not include the squadrons abroad".
From that figure, and the reservations by which it was prefaced, it is possible for the House, and also for foreign countries, to deduce pretty accurately the progress of our Air Force expansion. I feel, therefore, at liberty to comment on it.
Parliament was promised a total of seventy one new squadrons, making a total of 124 squadrons in the home defence force, by 31 March 1937. This was thought to be the minimum compatible with our safety. At the end of the last financial year our strength was fifty three squadrons, including auxiliary squadrons. Therefore, in the thirty two weeks which have passed since the financial year began we have added twenty eight squadrons - that is to say, less than one new squadron each week. In order to make the progress which Parliament was promised, in order to maintain the programme which was put forward as the minimum, we shall have to add forty three squadrons in the remaining twenty weeks, or over two squadrons a week. The rate at which new squadrons will have to be formed from now till the end of March will have to be nearly three times as fast as hitherto. I do not propose to analyse the composition of the eighty squadrons we now have, but the Minister, in his speech, used a suggestive expression, 'skeleton squadrons' applying at least to a portion of them but even if every one of the eighty squadrons had an average strength of twelve aeroplanes, each fitted with war equipment, and the reserves upon which my right hon. Friend dwelt, we should only have a total of 960 first-line home-defence aircraft.
What is the comparable German strength? I am not going to give an estimate and say that the Germans have not got more than a certain number, but I will take it upon myself to say that they most certainly at this moment have not got less than a certain number. Most certainly they have not got less than 1,500 first-line aeroplanes, comprised in not less than 130 or 140 squadrons, including auxiliary squadrons. It must also be remembered that Germany has not got in its squadrons any machine the design and construction of which is more than three years old. It must also be remembered that Germany has specialised in long-distance bombing aeroplanes and that her preponderance in that respect is far greater than any of these figures would suggest.
We were promised most solemnly by the Government that air parity with Germany would be maintained by the home defence forces. At the present time, putting everything at the very best, we are, upon the figures given by the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, only about two-thirds as strong as the German Air Force, assuming that I am not very much under stating their present strength. How then does the First Lord of the Admiralty [Sir Samuel Hoare] think it right to say:
On the whole, our forecast of the strength of other Air Forces proves to be accurate; on the other hand, our own estimates have also proved to be accurate. I am authorised to say that the position is satisfactory'. I simply cannot understand it. Perhaps the Prime Minister will explain the position. I should like to remind the House that I have made no revelation affecting this country and that I have introduced no new fact in our air defence which does not arise from the figures given by the Minister and from the official estimates that have been published.
What ought we to do? I know of only one way in which this matter can be carried further. The House ought to demand a Parliamentary inquiry. It ought to appoint six, seven or eight independent Members, responsible, experienced, discreet Members, who have some acquaintance with these matters and are representative of all parties, to interview Ministers and to find out what are, in fact, the answers to a series of questions; then to make a brief report to the House, whether of reassurance or of suggestion for remedying the shortcomings. That, I think, is what any Parliament worthy of the name would do in these circumstances. Parliaments of the past days in which the greatness of our country was abuilding would never have hesitated. They would have felt they could not discharge their duty to their constituents if they did not satisfy themselves that the safety of the country was being effectively maintained.
The French Parliament, through its committees, has a very wide, deep knowledge of the state of national defence, and I am not aware that their secrets leak out in any exceptional way. There is no reason why our secrets should leak out in any exceptional way. It is because so many members of the French Parliament are associated in one way or another with the progress of the national defence that the French Government were induced to supply, six years ago, upward of £60,000,000 sterling to construct the Maginot Line of fortifications, when our Government was assuring them that wars were over and that France must not lag behind Britain in her disarmament. Even now I hope that Members of the House of Commons will rise above considerations of party discipline, and will insist upon knowing where we stand in a matter which affects our liberties and our lives. I should have thought that the Government, and above all the Prime Minister, whose load is so heavy, would have welcomed such a suggestion.
Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of danger greater than has befallen Britain since the U-boat campaign was crushed; perhaps, indeed, it is a more grievous period than that, because at that time at least we were possessed of the means of securing ourselves and of defeating that campaign. Now we have no such assurance. The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences. We have entered a period in which for more than a year, or a year and a half, the considerable preparations which are now on foot in Britain will not, as the Minister clearly showed, yield results which can be effective in actual fighting strength; while during this very period Germany may well reach the culminating point of her gigantic military preparations, and be forced by financial and economic stringency to contemplate a sharp decline, or perhaps some other exit from her difficulties. It is this lamentable conjunction of events which seems to present the danger of Europe in its most disquieting form. We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now. Surely, if we can abridge it by even a few months, if we can shorten this period when the German Army will begin to be so much larger than the French Army, and before the British Air Force has come to play its complementary part, we may be the architects who build the peace of the world on sure foundations.
Two things, I confess, have staggered me, after a long Parliamentary experience, in these Debates. The first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world. Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers. That, I am bound to say, I never expected. I never would have believed that we should have been allowed to go on getting into this plight, month by month and year by year, and that even the Government's own confessions of error would have produced no concentration of Parliamentary opinion and force capable of lifting our efforts to the level of emergency. I say that unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel in its long history.