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Army Officer's Letter To Press

Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 23 March 1943

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

I rise to bring to the attention of the House the subject matter of a Question which was put by me to the Prime Minister last Tuesday and to which the right hon. Gentleman gave a reply. May I be allowed to make a personal explanation to the House of the events leading up to that Question? I think I am entitled to do so, because I believe hon. Members will agree that in the answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave he did create an atmosphere of personal prejudice. The right hon. Gentleman said:

"This Question should normally have been addressed to the Secretary of State for War but since the hon. Member, no doubt from those motives of delicacy in personal matters which are characteristic of him, has preferred to put it to me, I will answer it myself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th March, 1943; col. 1033, Vol. 387.]
My answer to that is this: I had to put the Question to the right hon. Gentleman in his capacity as Minister of Defence, because it is not the Secretary of the State for War who is primarily involved in this question of the status of Members in all the Services. You obviously cannot have a different area of freedom in the Army from what you have in the Navy and the Air Force and, therefore, it would have been perfectly improper for me to have put this Question to the Secretary of State for War, having regard to its wide implications. I did try to put this Question as a Private Notice Question which, had it been allowed, would have been answered by somebody speaking on the Prime Minister's behalf when he was not here and, therefore, I should have been exempted from any charge of seeking to cause personal embarrassment. Furthermore, I took the added precaution of sending a personal letter to the Prime Minister which, I understand, through some misadventure, he did not receive, so I shall not refer to it any more. I only say that, in those circumstances, I ought to have been exempted from the tartness of the right hon. Gentleman's reply.

But when we come to the gravamen of the position, which will much more concern the House and the country than the right hon. Gentleman's relations with me, I think it ought to be made quite clear at the outset that we are not here discussing the status of a Member of Parliament. That is not involved. A Member of Parliament already has two important Privileges. He can decide that his service to this House takes precedence over a call to the Armed Forces; so he can decide not to serve. Or he can decide, having served, that at any time the atten- tion of the House ought to take precedence over whatever he may be doing in the Services. He has those two Privileges at the outset. But what a Member of the House has not got the right to do, in my understanding of the position, is to behave when he is an officer as though he is a Member of Parliament, and to behave when a Member, of Parliament as though he is an officer. He cannot enjoy both Privileges in each position; he can choose the one or the other. I am quite certain that hon. Members in this House who are in the Services at the present time would indeed like to be exempted from that position, because it would be extremely delicate for them in their relationship with their superior officer if in each instance of any disagreement they exerted their status as a Member of Parliament. The discipline of the Services could not be maintained if a Member of Parliament in the Services insisted upon his Member of Parliament's rights. He has his rights, and his rights are to come here to express his views if he wants to express them, but they are not, it seems to me, to use his position as a member of the Services to exert leverage not obtainable to anybody else. So I think we ought to dismiss at the outset the notion that may exist in certain quarters that we are here discussing the Privileges of Members of Parliament in His Majesty's Services. We are discussing a matter of much wider implication.

We ought to dismiss a further question, if I may be allowed to say so. It has been suggested that there is disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for War over the status of Members in the Services in this matter. I do not think there is any such disagreement. I think that a reading of the OFFICIAL REPORT will show that last June, as the Prime Minister said, the Secretary of State for War was perfectly clear about the position, that members of the Armed Forces are perfectly entitled to write to the Press and express opinions on all matters not immediately connected with military considerations, which is precisely, I think, what the Prime Minister said in his reply last week. So there is no conflict between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for War, whatever conflict may arise between the Secretary of State and the Army Council in subsequent exchanges. But, unfortunately, the condi- tion of affairs described by the two right hon. Gentlemen as the status of members of the Services is not the actual status which they enjoy. There is all the difference in the world between what they say are the rights of a soldier and the rights a soldier is actually accorded, and I would like to know, therefore, on what occasion has the Army Council taken steps to inform serving men of their rights in this matter? I can give illustration after illustration where commanding officers have refused to pass letters to the newspapers written by men in their command. Indeed, not only that, but Members of the House have been prevented from expressing, or at least asked by officers not to express, opinions when they are not actually in the House itself.

Only on military matters. I have had some experience of this when serving in the Army. No objection was taken to my writing letters to "The Times" on political matters. The only time I got into trouble was when I referred to something connected with the Army.

I am afraid the hon. Member's experience is not the universal one, because there has been interference. Furthermore, I want to strip this question of the rights of hon. Members, because it is a fact—and hon. Members are in a position to know it to be a fact—that it is the general opinion in the Forces at the present time that they are not permitted to engage in political controversy in the Press. Indeed, commanding officers in all the Services act on that assumption Therefore, the freedom which the Government declare that members of the Forces have got they do not actually enjoy. I want to know, as my first question, if steps have not already been taken, what steps are going to be taken to inform members of the Services that they are free to act in this way, because there is quite a number of my friends who would like to write if they were permitted to do so, and quite a number of members of the Services who are now hiding their identity furtively under noms de plume who would like to sign their names to articles in the Press.

That is a silly question. There are very many eminent journalists who are in the Services and whose services some day we may be very anxious to enjoy. The point I am striving to make is this—and I think the whole House should be seized of it—that it would be a very bad thing indeed if it went out to the Forces that certain members of the Armed Forces can enjoy privileges that are denied to others. Therefore, I hope as a result of this Debate—and I am happy to be the occasion for it—there will be sent out to the Services generally information telling them they are free to take advantage of this new immunity. If that is not to be done, we shall have to probe the matter still further. There is another aspect of this matter which is much more important. If we start off on the assumption that members of the Services are entitled to write to the Press in this way and that that is to be enjoyed by every rank in the Services, still that, does not make the action of the officer in question a proper one. He is engaged in a very important theatre of war. He wrote a letter to the "Evening Standard" which I have no doubt hon. Members in all parts of the House have read.

I would be entitled to make a comment on the views expressed in that letter, but in view of the time I shall not do so. I will merely confine myself to the propriety of the officer writing that letter at all, Some of my hon. Friends and I, a little while ago, asked for a Debate on the North African situation. I pressed for it on several occasions. We were gravely disturbed by the establishment of Admiral Darlan in North Africa. We could not have the Debate in public. We had it in secret. We have had no public Debate on that matter in the House. Indeed, the Prime Minister, on his return from Casablanca, implored the House not to discuss the matter at all. He said:
"I make an appeal to the House, the Press and the country, that they will, I trust, be very careful not to criticise this arrangement."—
He was referring to the tripartite arrangement in North Africa of General Giraud, General Eisenhower, and ourselves—
"If they do so, I trust they will not do it on personal lines, or to run one general against another to the detriment of the smooth and harmonious relations which now prevail among this band of brothers who have got their teeth into the job."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1943; col. 148, Vol. 386.]
Members responded to the Prime Minister's appeal. We have had no Debate on the matter at all. Furthermore, the Prime Minister and President Roosevelt have made the political dispositions of North Africa in military questions. We said it was undesirable for a general to commit us to a political policy. Nevertheless, the whole House submitted to what were regarded as the military exigencies of the North African situation, so that the setting-up of Admiral Darlan, the appointments of General Giraud and M. Peyrouton all were decisions taken by General Eisenhower as Commander-in-Chief having regard to what he considered the military circumstances of the situation. It is precisely upon the wisdom of what General Eisenhower has done that this officer comments in his letter. An officer's right to commend the policy of his Commander-in-Chief involves the right to criticise it also if he wishes. I have friends in North Africa serving with the Eighth Army, men very dear to me, sharing the same point of view that I do, who would like to have the right to write to the British Press and disagree with General Eisenhower. Here, therefore, we have the officer in question not merely not submitting himself to the discretion that the rest of the Services impose upon themselves, but taking advantage of his situation to write to an important London newspaper expressing views upon the behaviour of his own Commander-in-Chief and attacking General de Gaulle and his friends in London and doing precisely what the Prime Minister asked us not to do.

I am deeply distressed that the Prime Minister is personally involved in this matter. He must believe me when I say that and must not imagine that I have yet yielded to the political cynicism which has obviously overtaken him. It is undesirable that we should have these personal complications, but they are there, and they have their implications. Only Members of this House, having regard to the fact that we discussed this matter in secret, can now tell how far the terms of that letter agree with what the Prime Minister told the House of Commons in private Session. I can carry it no further, but the Prime Minister must realise that there will be a good deal of speculation. It is all the more undesirable that the officer, having special Privileges, should have seized this moment to express views calculated to set people who ought to be co-operating, at each other's throats. I do not want to carry the matter any further than that. I hope I have expressed it with restraint.

I want to sit down upon this note. Messages are broadcast every night asking that Frenchmen should resist Germans now occupying their country and asking that they should sabotage and resist being called up and sent into Germany. It is painful in the extreme that an officer serving in North Africa, who is a Member of this House, should take this opportunity to tell the world that, if those who respond to our appeals are shot, we shall understand and sympathise with those French officials who shoot them.

The hon. Member has mentioned that he wrote me a letter on 11th March, and he was good enough, after some conversation later on with an hon. Friend who helps me with my work here, to send me a copy of the letter. I only received the copy the day before yesterday, and he only sent me the copy, because the actual letter never reached me at all. I have a very efficient staff which deals with my correspondence, but no trace of the receipt of this letter can be found. The hon. Member, therefore, did not read the letter to the House as he was good enough to tell me he intended.

On the contrary. In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman had acquainted me with the fact that he had not received the letter, I accepted his explanation and that is the reason I have not read it.

Last week the hon. Member sent me notice that he was going to read the letter, but, having heard that it was not received, he did not intend to read it.

The letter was in no way relevant to the particular small point which led to some of our discussions. It offered no explanation why he did not address his Private Notice Question on 11th March to the Secretary of State for War, whom it concerned. Now he has explained that the reason he did not read it is because it had to be addressed to me in my capacity of Minister of Defence presiding over the three Services. But that was not the reason he gave when he rang up my private secretary on the afternoon of 10th March. He rang up to give notice that he was going to put the Question by private notice, and he gave the text of the Question. It was taken down by one of my secretaries, and a note was made of the conversation, and he was immediately told that such a Question ought to be addressed to the Secretary of State for War. What was the reason he gave? Was it that the Minister of Defence must deal with these matters? Not at all. He said it concerned the Prime Minister's son. That is a small point, but I think it justifies me in considering that there has been a certain personal flavour in the zest with which the hon. Member has brought this thing forward.

It is now perfectly clear that it is no use giving the Prime Minister any personal courtesy at all. I telephoned to his secretary before Mr. Speaker's decision had been given not to accept it as a private notice Question in order to give him the earliest opportunity. Why should I accept the dictation of his secretaries? Am I the servant of the Prime Minister's secretaries?

The only point of interest is that the hon. Gentleman has given a different reason for not putting the Question to the Secretary of State for War from the reason he gave to one whom I regard as a highly credible witness. There was no reason why the Question should not have been put in the ordinary course to my right hon. Friend, who would have dealt with it. I do not want to dwell unduly upon the personal aspect of the Question.

The word "unduly" is arguable, but I wonder whether, if this letter in the "Evening Standard" had been written by any other hon. Member of the House, it would have attracted the energetic attention of the hon. Member who raised this matter. There are, of course, elements on both sides of the Atlantic who indulge in this form of badinage. The President of the United States presents a much larger target than I do, as he has no fewer than four sons serving, whereas I have only one. When points are raised it is no use having all the points raised by one side and then to be told that one is dwelling unduly on those points when they are answered. I therefore leave the personal aspect while expressing all my acknowledgments to the hon. Member for his unfailing courtesy.

Further inquiries have been made into this matter, which has gained a great deal of publicity. It now appears that the hon. and gallant Member for Preston (Captain R. Churchill), being separated from his unit, asked the Assistant Director of Public Relations, who was in Algiers, to act as unit censor, to pass the letter, and to frank it with a stamp. It is in accordance with the normal practice for the holders of unit censor stamps to act for officers not belonging to their units when circumstances demand it. The Assistant Director of Public Relations acted in this case.

I think I might be allowed to proceed to unfold this matter. It is a small matter, but if the hon. Member regards it as important, I will gladly give way when I have finished my sentence. The Assistant Director of Public Relations acted in this case, and he passed the letter, censored it and stamped it. The War Office considered that he exercised his discretion rightly, having regard to the contents of the document.

Is it not true that those who hold censorship stamps usually accept the signature of the officer on the outside of the envelope and fix the censorship stamp right away without questioning what the contents of the letter may be?

I do not know whether that is true, but it ought not to be true if it is. In this case the letter was shown in an open way to the Assistant Director of Public Relations and was passed by him after he had examined it.

Having had considerable experience in the Post Office during the last war, I am asking on a basic principle whether the officer in question who stamped the letter read what it contained?

That is what I have been trying to say with as much plainness as the English language allows. That is my point. It is a new point and a different point from that which I was in a position to make on the information available last time. The letter was franked and censored by an officer entitled to take that step. Consequently, as far as the hon. and gallant Member for Preston is concerned, there is no case against him for having committed any irregularity.

Now the question is raised whether he ought to write a letter of this kind, even though it had been passed by the censor. The text of the letter has now been read by a good many Members, and the House can form its own opinion. Whether it is a letter with which we all agree is another matter. I always claim the right to speak for myself, but I in no way inspired the letter. I have no need to do so. The hon. and gallant Member for Preston took his own line just as much as any other Member of the House That it is a perfectly proper letter to have been written, I do not think anyone who read it could possibly doubt. So far as information in the War Office goes, there is no rule in North Africa, where the supreme command is American, such as that referred to the other day by the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor) which has obtained in the Middle East and which requires articles of a non-Service nature for the Press to be specially submitted to G.H.Q. To my mind, therefore, the only question open is whether letters for publication in the Press on non-Service matters should in all cases be subject to a rule of this kind. On this point the Secretary of State is consulting the authorities on the spot in North Africa. He has not pressed for an immediate answer to his inquiries, for the simple reason that at the present moment they are fully occupied in more urgent engagements.

A somewhat larger issue has been raised in the course of these colloquies by a reference which I made in my answer of 16th March to an answer given by the Secretary of State for War to a Question by the hon. Member for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss) on 16th June, 1942. Upon consideration it is clear that this reply might well have been fuller. It in fact consisted of a negative answer to a Question which happened to be a non-oral Question and therefore rather slipped through. The Question was whether there was any Army Regulation which prevented a soldier exercising his citizen's rights of writing to the Press on other than Army matters. The Secretary of State for War answered "No, Sir." On consideration, it is clear that the reply might well have been fuller. With a dozen or 15 Questions it is possible that the thing slipped through. I am bound to say, on reflection, that I do not think the matter could be left quite where it is. It was desirable that attention should have been specifically directed to the other well-known rule in paragraph 541a of King's Regulations, which forbids the publication by a serving officer or soldier of "literature in furtherance of the political purposes of any political organisation or party." No inconvenience has arisen in practice, however, from the answer of the Secretary of State on 16th June. In the first place, it attracted very little public notice, having been circulated with the Votes in the non-oral Questions. In the second place, the customary good sense of officers and other ranks of the Army has ensured that there could be no abuse of the latitude apparently open to them.

I think anyone who follows my argument will see that I should not think that was true. As I have said, the House can judge. The letter was a proper one, and there is no doubt it passed through channels which vouched for it, and what is the use of the hon. Member interrupting by saying "Except in North Africa"?

Is therefore the nature of the letter which was passed in North Africa as being a perfectly proper one to be written to serve as a model for other officers now considering similar letters?

There is no reason at all why such a letter should not have been written by an officer serving in this country to "The Times" or to the "Observer" or any other newspaper, and if it were passed by the censor in North Africa, the North African aspect goes. I am on the larger aspect, and I had not intended to be drawn back on to this smaller point, which has such a strange fascination for the hon. Member. But certainly the answer of the Secretary of State on 16th June, 1942, does require restatement in such a way as to show the full implications both of Articles 541 and 547 upon the writing of communications to the Press by Service personnel on controversial matters. It would certainly be very detrimental to the conduct of the war if we had a general diversion of the energies of the Army from the sword to the pen, and since this discussion has had such very wide publicity it is very likely that a number of officers and men will be encouraged to utilise the opportunity. Therefore, we must make a restatement of the rule upon this point in such a way as to show the full force of Articles 541 and 547. The Admiralty rules in this matter are somewhat stricter than those of the Army, and it is for consideration whether the Army and the Air Force practice should be brought into closer conformity with that prevailing in the Navy. So much I am saying for the ordinary serving officer or soldier, here or anywhere else, but the position of Members of Parliament as representatives of the electors is quite different from that of other serving officers and soldiers. Articles 541 and 547 clearly cannot be applied in their full rigour. Members have their political responsibilities and have an undoubted right to take part in political and party controversy. That is the whole nature of their function. The House has hitherto shown itself desirous that such rights should be fully maintained. We have seen in many of our Debates serving Members taking the freest part not only in political Debates but in the military aspects of affairs, including—and this, I think, is the most questionable case of all—giving information which they have derived from the unit in which they have been serving, and no great harm has come from it. The only remedy which the War Office has against Members of Parliament exercising their political functions apart from matters affecting military security is to suggest to them that they should devote their whole attention to their military duties. Hitherto, after 42 months of war, this has never yet been found necessary in the Army. It shows, I think, how very well the system has worked as far as Members of Parliament are concerned, in spite of some obvious anomalies and the obvious difficulty of reconciling the two functions of a serving officer and a Member of this House. It has worked in this way because of the good sense and discretion of those concerned, and in view of this I cannot believe that the House would wish any new or special restriction to be placed upon the discretion of Members of Parliament who are at the same time serving officers.

May I thank the Prime Minister for clarifying the situation? I should like to say that, as a serving Member of this House, I have always felt that my name should be Agag, and that anything I learned through the Army, unless I learned it also from other sources, I should not bring to the House, because that would not be playing the game. The one thing we serving officers feel so strongly is that we should be allowed to serve our country in the Army and at the same time that we should not be deprived of our privileges as Members of Parliament, but we should in nowise abuse them. I think officers have tried on the whole to act on those lines, and I trust there will be nothing to alter those lines on which we have carried on in the past.

Can we still take it, in spite of the modifications which the Prime Minister has just announced of what he said last week, that serving officers and men can still write for the Press without censorship on all matters other than military or "literature in furtherance of the purposes of any political organisation or party"?

That is so until and unless any further statement is made as to the tightening-up of these rules, which may be necessary if an agitation is going to be started or efforts are made to break through them. One had hoped the good sense which has hitherto prevailed would continue.

As all Members of the Services have been watching this matter closely in the last few days—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who says they have?"] Of course they have. Do hon. Members think the Services are run by morons? In view of the fact that this has happened, will the right hon. Gentleman provide some procedure by which the suggested modification is brought to the attention of the House before it is promulgated? No? So he is running away from last week?

Really, I do not know why I should be accused of running away, and of all the people to run away from the hon. Member is one of the last. So far from trying to run away from him, I should feel inclined to wait till Monday or wait till Tuesday.

I do not mean to say a word about the question of the disputed letter, but only to say very bluntly a thing which I think needs saying. Nobody who has watched the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan) and his evolutions in this House can doubt that he entertains a malicious and virulent dislike of the Prime Minister. Last week showed what I thought most of us must have thought to be an example of bad taste. He selected as an occasion for doing something which would embarrass and perhaps pain the Prime Minister the very first time at which he was able to attend the House after a long illness, following upon a long and dangerous journey undertaken in the interests of the nation. The Prime Minister needs no defence from me. History will judge and will be able to say what we owe to him. But there is just one thing: I do not think we ought to part on an occasion like this without someone saying, and perhaps I may say it because I am so completely outside this issue, and not a member of the Prime Minister's party, and that is with what disgust and almost loathing we watch this kind of temperament, these cattish displays of feline malice.

I want to ask the Prime Minister whether, in view of the fact that the "Daily Worker" has a cartoonist who deals with Service matters, he will except cartoonists from any tightening-up?

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

The Remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.