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Conduct Of The War

Volume 360: debated on Thursday 9 May 1940

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.18 p.m.

At an earlier stage of our proceedings to-day, Mr. Speaker, you indicated that you had no particular wish to have served up to you the undelivered speeches of the last few days as a kind of undigested hash.

I do not intend to convey that impression. I said that a rehash was not in order on the question then under discussion.

I am very sorry if I misunderstood you. At the same time I hope I can give you the as surance that I do not intend to do that this afternoon in any case. It is true that as the Debate proceeded on its rather intense course, I did have various things in my mind which I would have said if I had been fortunate enough to catch your eye, and it is true that the fact that I was not fortunate means that the House perhaps is being unfortunate now. I probably would not be speaking now if I had spoken then. Nevertheless, I do not want to go over the old grounds which were traversed yesterday and the day before, but I would like to give expression to some reflections which have been passing through my mind since the Debate yesterday and the Division last night. I think there has been a general feeling, which I myself have shared, that the Debate and the Division were rather shocking, and that it must have come as a terrible shock to the country and indeed to the world to have such violent differences of opinion expressed at a time like the present, when we are all of us in the very greatest peril. But I do not think that the results are altogether on the debit side of the balance sheet.

I think it is a very remarkable thing that, throughout the proceedings of the Debate of yesterday and the day before, whatever differences of opinion there might have been there was unity in one thing—a determination that this House and this country would carry on this war to a victorious conclusion. I do not think you could have had a Debate such as we had in any one of the dictatorship countries and the fact that this House of Commons could arise in its corporate capacity and urge, not surrender, but greater activity and decision is something that may justly strike fear into the hearts of our enemy. Still, it was a shocking thing. But I am afraid that the Debate and the Division was quite inevitable.

In my view it was inevitable, in the main, for one reason, that is that there has been in this House over number of years a too highly perfected machinery of party discipline. The reason that this Debate had to take place was that there was no other way in which Members of this House, who held genuine convictions and who had serious and genuine grounds for uneasiness, could bring them to the real attention of the Government. On other occasions when there has been criticism from these benches the whole machinery of party has got into gear, and by a variety of devices and stratagems criticism has been suppressed, those who voiced it have been denigrated and the whole thing glossed over. The lesson we have learned from the Debate is that if you sit on the safety valve of a boiler the boiler will, in the end, blow up. And that is what happened in the Debate. Regrettable though it was I think it was absolutely inevitable. But there are one of two other lessons which we can learn from the Debate. The most important of them I believe to be this: It is that there is a genuine demand and a desire from this side of the House that Members opposite should be associated in the Government of the country at this time and I think Members opposite will recognise from the course of the Debate that we have that desire, that we wish to see them taking their share in government, not because we want to dress up the window or disarm criticism but because we recognise their energy and ability and their love for their country. We wish all who love their country to combine at the present time to save their country. That is one lesson of the Debate. I believe there is another lesson we should learn. There is some talk in some of the newspapers to-day about reconstruction of the Government but I think every Member of the House knows that the thing has got beyond talk of that kind. Effective reconstruction might have been possible some months, ago, or even some weeks ago, but the opportunity was lost. I think it is quite clear that there must be a new Government and that it must be, very probably, under new leadership.

Reconstruction and the shuffling about of the furniture again simply will not do this time. I know one of the things which is in the mind of many hon. Members on an occasion like this is the question of the alternative. They say there is no alternative. That is always said on these occasions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that that belief existed even in December, 1916. There was a general opinion that there was no alternative to Mr. Asquith. Mr. Asquith, like the present Prime Minister, was a very able man. Mr. Asquith, like the present Prime Minister, had a loyal and devoted following. A number of people felt that perhaps he was not the right man to run the war, but still they felt that there was no alternative. In these days we are all accustomed to think of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs as the man who won the war, and perhaps he himself has from time to time contributed to give us that idea, but I do not think that was the case in December, 1916. My right hon. Friend had a great position in the country, but if there was unity of opinion on one point in the House of Commons it was that neither the Liberal party nor the Conservative party would conceivably serve under my right hon. Friend. That may be putting it rather strongly, but it is broadly true. I think we need not have any fear of finding an alternative now.

The events of the past few days are bound to exacerbate feelings and create anger and bitterness. I hold that we should do all we can to avoid the expression of such feelings. I have differed from the Prime Minister and opposed the Prime Minister on one line of policy, sometimes with vehemence and sometimes with bitterness. But I have never believed that those who were supporting him were actuated by any unworthy motives, I do not believe it now; and those who supported him in the Debate should not believe that those who are opposed to him have been actuated by unworthy motives. I myself have been accused of nourishing a somewhat curious unaccountable personal spite against the Prime Minister. I can assure the House that that is complete nonsense. For a variety of reasons, with which I need not bother the House, I have always had a high personal regard for the Prime Minister, but I do not think that that should cloud my opinions about public policy.

I have not been engaged in politics for very long but I have been connected with politics for the whole of my life, and one of the lessons which I had to learn first in my own home was that a public man was different from a private person, that a public man had to expect to be wounded; but he had also to expect to wound if it was in the public interest for him to do so. I believe that it has been in the public interest and in the interest of this country that we should have had yesterday's Debate. I believe that the leadership of this country since the beginning of the war, and in some respects before the war began, has been at fault. That is not because I have any dislike of the Prime Minister; that is quite absurd. I would say one thing more. I believe that the Government has not only to be reconstructed but that there has to be a new Government. This has to be done as quickly and as expeditiously as possible, and I believe that it is and will be the duty of the present Prime Minister, however difficult it may be for him and however much he may feel that he has earned a rest, to serve in that Government.

3.30 p.m.

I want to make only one or two comments in much the same way as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hull (Mr. Law). Before the Prime Minister accepts last night's Vote as a vote of censure from this House, it would be well if he remembered that many of those who voted against him last night from his own party were professional rebels, men that you might call in the City "bears," who have gone "bear" on the European situation, and have proved right. It was made very difficult for some of us who criticised the Government, and hoped for stronger action, to vote for the Government last night, but the attacks upon the Prime Minister rose to such a degree of unfairness that many of us who were wavering finally decided to go into the Lobby and vote for the Government.

I understand there is no desire for that Debate to be re-hashed, but what has caused me to rise at this late hour is the presence of that very distinguished statesman the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I hope so much that his genius, his gaiety of heart and his indomitable spirit will be used in the future conduct of this war. If my rght hon. Friend will accept those very complimentary things, I would like now, with great diffidence and some apprehension, to ask him whether he would not consider, so great being his reputation and so great his gifts, being a little more helpful to the cause of administration and not quite so brilliantly mischievous. In his speech yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman was such a model of timing, style, irony and eloquence, that it makes those of us who are back benchers despair of ever reaching anything like his standard; and yet, as he stood up yesterday in the role of public prosecutor, in the role of Torquemada denouncing the victims before they were taken to be roasted or twisted, I wondered whether he thought at all of the part that he has played in the complicated situation of the last three or four years. I will pass over the fact that to-day Turkey is our Ally, although the right hon. Gentleman set Greece on to Turkey to destroy her. One may say that it is luck that Turkey is our Ally to-day. The First Lord of the Admiralty last night used the word "luck." I remember that when Premier Gounaris came to London, with the Turkish Army outside Smyrna, I lunched with him, and he said, "I have been trying to see Mr. Lloyd George, he will not see me, he will not say go on, and he will not say stop." Ten days later, or a fortnight later, after the attack by the Turks on the Greeks, Gournaris was taken out and shot through the head. It is not only Hitler who will see dead men's ghosts arise. Gournaris' was a very tragic story, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree.

Then we came to that moment when the Germans entered the Rhineland. That was a tragedy because if ever there was a time when we should have met firmness with firmness it was then. The whole world was poised to see what would happen, and it occurred to the right hon. Gentleman that it was an opportunity for him in his own unique way to help the national cause. He wrote an article—and I have the greatest respect for all men who write articles for newspapers—which appeared in the foreign Press of the world. In it, he said that the last war had not been caused by Germany; that it had been caused by Austria and that Austria only wanted a little scrap. In one sentence the former Prime Minister of Great Britain wiped out the guilt clause which he had invoked and insisted on at Versailles. He did not come to this House and say, "I wish to remedy the blunder of some years back." He did it with a gesture of the pen—with what Shakespeare called "the licence of ink."

Not content with that—because those who write articles for newspapers know that a writer must fill a certain space—he then wrote these words: "If a European war results from the present conversations"—that is the conversations which were taking place between the British and French General Staffs—"not a corporal's guard will come from any Dominion to help this country." We came last time in our hundreds of thousands from the Dominions, not because Britain was right or wrong but because it was the call of the blood. Do you think that, right or wrong, we would not have come again? To think that of all men, this great man—in some ways the greatest of our generation—should have repaid the effort of the Dominions with a slur like that. I was one who came last time, and my son, if he were old enough, would fight again. If England were ten times wrong they would all come again, and nobody in this House knows that better than the right hon. Gentleman. But with that vitality and persistency which made him so formidable and which still make him so formidable a statesman the right hon. Gentleman went on. There was a little trouble in Austria, and the right hon. Gentleman stood up in his place and said that it might as well be understood that if there was war over Austria, not one British soldier would go to Austria's aid.

I do not doubt the truth of that, but if we were dealing with this madman Hitler, as we were, what encouragement the right hon. Gentleman gave him at a very critical moment. He relieved Germany of the war guilt clause at a time when the German troops in the Rhineland did not know whether to stay there or retreat. He declared to Germany and the world that not a corporal's guard would come to this country's aid and that England would be left alone. I do not know how Hitler could have been more strongly encouraged. So we came to Czecho-Slovakia. Yesterday the right hon. Gentleman spoke of Czecho-Slovakia with sympathy. It was, let me repeat, a speech which delighted us all by its style. But let me recall what the right hon. Gentleman did at the time. Again seizing the pen he delivered a violent attack on Dr. Benes. Poor Benes. I think the right hon. Gentleman when he spoke of him said that he had never kept his word.

Once more there was encouragement to Hitler and Hitler went on. Yesterday the right hon. Gentleman was chief mourner—

I must correct what the hon. Member has said, because this is very important. The Austrians were a German people and they wanted at that time to enter into an arrangement with Germany. I thought it was a great mistake that we stopped it. But Bruening was in at that time and not Hitler. With regard to the Sudeten Germans a promise of autonomy was given by Dr. Benes to the four men who drafted the Treaty, and I was one of them. That was not redeemed, and I think there is a good deal, I will not say of justification, but of cause for trouble there. I think that if he had kept that promise Hitler would never have had the excuse for intervening, and I stand by that.

I accept everything the right hon. Gentleman has said. My only objection to the Czecho-Slovakian incident was the time chosen. At a moment when a friend of this country is in difficulties it it is not the time to investigate his mistakes, but either to stand by him or fore sake him. The speech to which I refer, which the right hon. Gentleman made, was when Hitler was in power. With his great experience of men and nations, and of public opinion and international opinion, a name such as his counts so much. The people of foreign countries do not follow our politics too closely any more than we follow the politics of theirs. But when the name of Mr. Lloyd George appears denouncing this Government at a critical moment as being poltroons—

Oh, he said much worse than that—cowards, hypocrites, slavers in the market in the business of selling small countries. The right hon. Gentleman would have been the greatest cartoonist of all times if he could have drawn what he thinks in dreams of imagery. But how often that message went out, and how can these nations distinguish, when he attacks the Govern- ment, that he is not attacking the nation. At the same time how much more he could have helped if he had confined his remarks to the House of Commons rather than to the foreign Press. I think he is too big a man to use the foreign Press to disparage the Government in power. I know he will forgive me because he is a great man. He is a man with a big heart, with enough charm to charm a sparrow off a twig. I know that I shall feel badly in some ways that I choose this moment to make this speech because I admire his spirit and respect his record so much. I wonder in the difficult days which lie ahead if, even at his age, he will consider reforming a little bit. I plead with him to go to the penitent bench, realising that he has sinned very deeply, and realising that if he changes he can help this country so much. Those of us on this side of the House want his assistance. We want that great brain and gaiety of heart, but not if he is going to rock the boat every time there is a storm.

3.44 p.m.

I really do not feel that my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) needs the remonstrances which have just been addressed to him. I venture to think that he never rendered a greater service to this country than in the magnificent speech he delivered yesterday, particularly in the closing words of that speech. I think that the phrase which came out as being more important in the Debate than any other, and which will ring throughout the country as it rang through the Chamber last night, were the words of Cromwell quoted by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery): "For God's sake go." I think that is the view of the people of this country at this moment towards the Prime Minister and his Government. It is no good imagining that you can carry on under the present leadership. I understand that consultations are going on with those who supported the Government last night, to whom the promises were made that if they voted for the Government certain concessions would be made and reconstructions take place. Consultations are going on as to whether it is possible, by getting rid of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Air, for the Prime Minister to be allowed to carry on with partially fresh colleagues. I venture to say that that is all perfectly useless and will not work at all. We have come to a stage now when there has been a complete parting of the ways. Let me say to the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) that I hope those Privy Councillors and those young men in uniform who are supporters of the Government and voted against them last night will appreciate being called professional rebels. I think it was a very unfair and unjustifiable charge to make.

The First Lord of the Admiralty in the magnificent speech he made last night made it clear that he strongly disapproved, as we well know, of the policy of the Government up to the time when he joined it. He referred to the Prime Minister's appeal to his friends and said that the Prime Minister had friends when things were going well. I would like to know when things were ever going well under the present Prime Minister. I have never heard of any period during the time he has been in charge when we were not going from one tragedy and disaster to another. We ought to get this point clearly into the minds of Members who would like to see the Prime Minister remain in power. He cannot remain in power because, if he did, the party truce would come to an end. Things have gone too far and it would be impossible to continue it. There would be violent controversy and opposition in the House and in the country. It is clear what the country thinks, rightly or wrongly, and I hope that in the quiet consultations that will take place in the next few days the real peril in which this country would stand if it were to continue as a divided nation will be borne in mind.

With whom or with what has the hon. Gentleman entered into a truce? I had not noticed any.

Would it not be better for the hon. Member to give it its proper name? It is an electoral and not a party truce.

I agree, but Members of the Opposition and of my party have done everything we can to encourage, stimulate and support the Government in the prosecution of the war. We are only too anxious to see the war won and greater vigour devoted to it. Personal matters ought not to be allowed to enter into the question at this juncture. It seemed to me last night that the Prime Minister was putting his personal position above the interests of the country. That is the way in which it will appeal to a great many people. I want the Prime Minister to go, not because I have any personal animosity to him; I have nothing but the kindest feelings towards him as a human being, but to him as a statesman I am very hostile indeed. It is purely in the political sense and for political reasons that we want to see him go. I hope sincerely that the position in which we are at this moment in this House, and the position of parties towards each other in the country, will be realised, and that when we meet again after the Recess we shall find a new Government, if not in office at any rate well on the way to office, a National Government with representatives of all interests and all parties, not picked or selected by the party whips or anything of that kind, but composed of people put in because they are the best people for the job, and for no other reason whatsoever. I hope we shall find that we can then go forward in a great united national effort to win this war at the earliest possible moment.

3.51 p.m.

As a fellow journalist, I wish to say a word or two in answer to the very kindly and very friendly observations made about me by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter). I have no reason to quarrel with the tone of his remarks, and I am hoping that he will extend to me some sympathy, because one of the difficulties when you have to write an article at a given date is, as he knows, that it is not always easy to find the necessary matter. I have had to earn my living exactly as he has, although it has not been as sumptuous a success. I only want to say that I would rather at this moment not go into particular instances, because if I did so, I should be guilty of the very deed that the hon. Member has admonished me for having done. If I were to go into all the things that have been done during the period between the signature of the Treaty of Versailles and the beginning of this war, the things I should have to point out would show that the faults were by no means all on one side, and I do not think I should be very helpful. He has provoked me to do so—very much so.

The Treaty of Versailles was not carried out by those who dictated it. A good deal of the trouble was due to that fact. We were dealing with Governments in Germany which were democratic Governments, based on a democratic franchise, with democratic statesmen, and it is because we did not carry out the undertakings we had given to those democratic Governments that Hitler came into power. There was a good deal that was done to Germany, more particularly with regard to disarmament. The solid promise that we gave, not merely in the Treaty itself, but in a document which I took part in drafting, which was signed by M. Clemenceau on our behalf, that if Germany disarmed, we should immediately follow her example, was not carried out, and there is no Government that is more responsible for that than the present National Government which came into power in 1931. They had their opportunity. America was ready, Germany was ready—it was a time when Herr Bruening was in charge—but we refused to carry out the terms after Germany had been completely disarmed. We had the certificate of the ambassadors to say that disarmament was completed, but in spite of that, we did not carry out our part.

The same thing applies to minorities. I repeatedly called attention to it. Mr. Benes, in the conference in Paris—I am sorry to have to go over this at the present moment, but I am not in the habit of failing to reply to attacks—was responsible, first of all, for giving a direct pledge to the conference that if Sudeten Germany were to become part of Czecho-slovakia—the same thing applied to the Hungarians and to the Slovakians—the same autonomy would be given to them as in the Swiss Confederation of men of different races under the same flag and forming part of the same federal constitution. It was not carried out. The last conference I attended as Prime Minister was at Genoa in 1922, three years after the signature of the Treaty of Versailles. I begged that the promises which had then been given to the minorities, to the Hungarians and to the Germans—the same thing applies to Poland and to the Ukranians—should be carried out. It was not my fault that they were not carried out.

I do not intend to apportion the blame at this particular moment, but ever since the signature of the treaty I did my very best, as Prime Minister, and I did not alter my policy in the least when I became an independent Member of the Opposition or when I was Leader of the Liberal party. Of course, as an independent Member of this House I could not bring the same pressure as I did when I was Prime Minister, but I urged the conquering powers who were then all powerful to exert their authority to compel these countries to carry out the pledges which they had given. I pointed out over and over again that if they did not do so, it would end in a great European war and that there would be trouble. My predictions, unfortunately, have turned out to be true, and when the history of the whole of these transactions comes to be written, if the hon. Gentleman will take the trouble to read it, he will rind that most of this trouble has originated in the fact that the victors in the late war did not carry out solemn pledges which they gave in a Treaty which they themselves dictated. They had the opportunity. Germany was prostrate. The creation of this terrible power in Germany, the spirit which is behind it, and what makes it so formidable at the present moment is due to the fact that we did not carry out our pledges. What is the result? Democracy has been swept away in Germany; democracy has been attacked by Germany. That spirit in Germany was created by the fact that the dominating democracies in Europe did not keep faith. We are now confronted with the most terrible answer that has ever been given to those who have broken faith and broken covenants. I do not apologise in the least for the fact that not only when I was Prime Minister but afterwards I did my very best to persuade them to carry out the pledges which they had given solemnly in writing to the world.

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

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute before Four o'Clock, until Tuesday, 21st May, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.