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Army Lectures, Ipswich (Cancellation)

Volume 389: debated on Wednesday 12 May 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— (Major Sir James Edmondson.)

I wish to raise a question with the Secretary of State for War upon a matter which I brought to his notice at Question time yesterday. On that occasion I asked him:

"for what reason, on or about 4th April, 1943, Mr. John White, of 20, Fonnereau Road, Ipswich, was stopped from continuing a series of lectures on land and monetary reform at the British Legion Hall, to soldiers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers sub-workshops units stationed in the district?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1943; col. 455, Vol. 389.]
I received an unsatisfactory reply, which is of course not entirely unusual. The Secretary of State explained in his reply that the lectures had not been conducted with the necessary prior approval and had been stopped for what he described as "good and sufficient reasons." He did not state the reasons, even though I asked him to do so. When I suggested that one of the reasons for stopping the lectures was that Mr. White was not on the panel and therefore was not entitled to speak, but that, Mr. White having given long service, his position should be regularised by being given an opportunity to come on the panel, I merely got an abrupt "No, Sir."

The lectures were all given voluntarily by Mr. White. So far as I know, he is a reputable citizen. He is chairman of the Anglo-Polish Committee and a member of the Rotary Club. He is interested particularly in monetary reform, and perhaps I can say with some gratitude that since my contact with him he has shown a greater interest still in the more fundamental question of the land. He gave the lectures voluntarily at the request of the commanding officer of the district. He has been giving Sunday morning lectures on general economics, covering questions connected with the land, the Beveridge Report and so on. These lectures started in November of last year and continued till March of this year, and they number about 11 in all. Suddenly the commanding officer gave him notice, regretfully from his own point of view, that the lectures must no longer go on, as he had received instructions to stop them. No reasons were given—I emphasise that. The officer said he had had instructions from a higher authority. The lectures had gone on for a period of over five months.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Beechman.]

If there was something very terrible about the lectures, surely something is lacking on the part of the authorities in not having discovered it before? It seems to me that to stop a series of lectures of this kind for apparently no reason except red tape is most unfair and disadvantageous to the troops, and likely to cast a stigma on a well-known member of my constituency.

Is attendance at these lectures voluntary or compulsory?

These lectures were attended by about 150 people. Great interest was shown. The men stayed on to discuss and argue out the points made during the lecture for as much as three-quarters of an hour on a fine Sunday morning. The questions I want to put to the Secretary of State are these: Why stop the lectures when they were going so well? If it was purely a matter of red tape, the situation could surely have been regularised. Mr. White could have been given an opportunity to apply for enrolment on the panel. When I asked whether, if he made such an application it would be granted, I got a negative answer. This is all over my constituency, and Mr. White naturally feels that there must be something more behind this, as indeed I do. I suggest to the Secretary of State for War that it was probably because Mr. White was making some very unfortunate—from the bankers' point of view—attacks on the monetary system, which I consistently make whenever opportunity offers. No complaint was made to him. The lectures were well appreciated, unlike so many I have heard of in many places where official lecturers are sent and bore the troops absolutely stiff, and when men ask questions they are told, "We do not know that" or that they have no right to ask that question. What a miserable way! I would sooner answer questions than make a speech. If I cannot do that, I would sooner ask them.

I have asked the Secretary of State why the lectures have been stopped, and he has said he has examined the reasons and that they are good and sufficient. I suggest he tells the House what they are. I should like to know. I should like to emphasise the desirability of having stimulating lectures for the troops and particularly to ask how, and under what regulations, these speakers are selected who may address the troops. Who decides, and on what grounds is it decided? Is it purely the political caucus in power for the time being which regulates the thing, or is it completely unpolitical and open to all kinds of competent speakers, not merely people who like hearing their own voices, but people who can be stimulating?

How did this course of lectures start, in the first place? How was Mr. John White brought in to become a lecturer to the troops?

Oh no. [Interruption.] This is quite a serious matter. I am not trying to be facetious. He was brought in to lecture to the troops, and not to bore them, as so many lecturers do. He was invited by the commanding officer to give his lectures.

On a point of Order. Is the hon. Member entitled to say that Members do bore the House?

How did the commanding officer know of the existence of Mr. White?

I cannot go into the historical record of everybody connected with the matter. I personally did not know that the lectures were going on until seven or eight had taken place. Mr. White is well known. Many of the soldiers go to meetings that I address, and they may have got his name there. But he was invited by the commanding officer to stimulate the interest of the troops in various matters, and he gladly gave his services for nothing, although he is a busy man. I want to know who empanels the speakers; why is Mr. White not entitled to speak; if he asks to be put on the panel, will he be refused; and, finally, for what reasons, other than red tape, were the lectures stopped, although they had been running for five months? The most desirable thing we can do at present is to afford the troops every possible opportunity of having stimulating lectures, which will make them au fait with the problems confronting the nation at present and arm them well to face their responsibilities when they come out of the Army.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) has made a very strong speech in favour of his constituent, but not nearly so strong as he usually does. He is fond of posing in this House as the enfant terrible, with the accent rather on the infant than on the terrible, in the sense that the late Ivan, Ruler of all the Russias, was. I think that there is more in this matter than appears on the surface. There are Members of this House, not many, I am glad to say, and many more people in the country, who are anxious to turn this A.B.C.A. into a political bureau for spreading doctrines, and doctrines which are not always desirable.

This is not a party matter. I think I am right in saying that until three weeks ago this gentleman belonged to no political party at all. At present he belongs to the Labour Party.

Whether he belongs to the Labour Party or not, he appears, oddly enough, to be particularly interested in the sort of subjects which the hon. Member himself is anxious to propagate, notably monetary reform, and probably taxation of land values and that sort of thing. In fact, I fear that the hon. Member and some of his friends are really anxious to turn this A.B.C.A. into something rather different, so that the letters will stand for the Advertising Bureau for Crankish Activities.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) is using the Adjournment to raise an individual case. What is under consideration at the moment is not the general education of the Army, but a particular case. Ought the hon. and gallant Member to be allowed to do a little stonewalling for the Minister before he replies?

Under the Rules of Order I cannot interfere. Anything is in Order on the Adjournment unless it involves legislation. I think it is desirable, however, to stick to the subject raised in a short Adjournment Debate as closely as possible.

I do not think that these are A.B.C.A. lectures. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) did not say that they were.

The hon. Member said in his speech that Mr. White should be recognised. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is what I understood him to say. Surely this matter of one individual raises the whole issue. It is an issue about which some of us are rather perturbed and anxious. There are a good many persons in this country who are trying—and I say it with some force—to use the Army Bureau of Current Affairs to propagate not only political but peculiar doctrines.

I have several names, but I shall not publish them now. I will give them to any hon. Member who chooses to ask me privately afterwards.

But this is nothing to do with A.B.C.A. It comes under the Army Education Scheme, which is quite different.

I think I am entitled to continue my theme in spite of the fact that some hon. Members do not approve of that which I am saying. I believe that certain persons in this country are doing their utmost to use this Army Bureau for the propagation of doctrines of a particular nature, some of them subversive and some of them honest political views, but which I claim ought not to be put to the Army through the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. We have had many occasions in the history of this country alone when the Government have endeavoured to instil into the Army, always with unhappy results, purely political views. It was done during the Covenanting days in Scotland, and it has been done in other countries, as in the recent case of Russia. For a long time political commissars were part of each unit and used to lecture to the troops, but Russia found it was a highly unsatisfactory method, with the result that the commissars were removed. I ask the Secretary of State for War, when he replies, whether he can possibly give some data about the number of persons who are employed in this A.B.C.A. force. Personally, I think there are too many camp followers in the Army at the present time. The duty surely of the Army is to fight. Since the beginning of the war far too much attention has been paid to education of all kinds in the Army. The primary duty of the Army is to fight the enemy, and I have always been nervous of this Army Bureau of Current Affairs, because I feared that it took the attention of the Army away from their primary duty. But it exists, and the fact is that we should all of us try to use it for the best purposes. I was asked, and I accepted, an invitation to go and give lectures on behalf of A.B.C.A. I asked whether they would be kind enough to give me some suggested subjects, and they gave me some, including the Beveridge Report and other subjects of a political nature, and I absolutely refused to discuss them at all.

On a point of Order. Does there not come a point where the strict exercise of an hon. Member's right can become an abuse of the procedure of the House, and have we not reached it? The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) has raised a particular question and asked the Minister to give an answer to that question, and if the hon. and gallant Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Major Petherick) has a number of other questions to ask, ought he not to ask his own questions in his own time and not prevent the Minister replying to my hon. Friend?

I am afraid that the Ruling is as it stood before. I gave a broad hint to the hon. and gallant Member, and I can do no more.

I propose to give the Secretary of State plenty of time in which to reply, and I am going to sit down in two or three minutes, when I have finished my speech.

On a point of Order. Is not this designed to stop the Minister replying?

I was saying that I was asked to give these lectures and that I lectured only on entirely non-political subjects. If at the end of my lectures on the war, I was asked questions of a political nature, I gave a fair answer, giving both sides of the question. That is the only way in which these Army lectures should be conducted. They ought to be strictly non-political, because there are innumerable subjects which are of interest to the Army at the present time, quite apart from political subjects. It is most important in every case that speakers should be chosen, even if they are politicians, who will treat their lectures as lectures of a non-political nature. I therefore ask for an assurance from the Minister that persons not associated with any political party, and who are chosen to lecture to troops, will have explained to them the fact that they must not give political lectures and that if politicians are chosen, they, too, will have it clearly explained to them that in no circumstances must they talk about political matters. I ask for acceptance of the views I have put forward.

Among the lectures which the hon. and gallant Member gave did he give a lecture on the Catering Wages Bill?

I certainly did not, and as apparently the hon. Member wishes to give the Minister even less time in which to reply I would like to urge upon my right hon. Friend again the necessity of seeing that lectures on matters connected directly with the war are given and that politics are carefully eschewed.

Let me start by clearing up a slight misapprehension which seems to have arisen with regard to the particular kind of lectures now in question. Hon. Members opposite are quite right: these lectures are not delivered under the aegis of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. The Bureau is entirely an Army internal affair. A brief is supplied by the Bureau once a week, and a platoon officer is supposed to give a preliminary talk to the troops from this brief and then encourage a discussion upon it afterwards. That is a compulsory parade, and it is conducted entirely by the unit officers themselves. What is in question now are the lectures delivered by civilians under the aegis of the Army Educational Department. I was asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Major Petherick) how many lectures were being given. I cannot answer that without notice, but I do know that thousands of lectures are delivered to troops every year.

Now perhaps I had better go through, the procedure for becoming a lecturer. One of the points that was raised by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) was the general principle governing the employment of lecturers in the Army. It is a very simple one. The responsible military authorities are the Army district and corps commanders, who have the final voice as regards who shall and who shall not lecture to the troops. I do not think anybody would query the reasonableness of that principle. At the same time the choice is not exercised capriciously, and I can give the hon. Member for Ipswich an absolutely categorical assurance that there is no political caucus sitting in the War Office or anywhere else exercising a veto upon the kind of people he wishes to have appointed to the panel. I will set out for the information of the House the procedure in rather more detail.

There are two main classes into which these lecturers fall. There are lecturers, or teachers, who have a certificate issued by a Regional Committee of the Central Advisory Council for Adult Education in the Forces. This certificate, before it is valid, has to be countersigned by the Service authorities concerned, on behalf of one of the formation commanders that I mentioned just now. Then these lecturers, who are nominated by the Regional Committees and countersigned by the Service authorities concerned, are placed on a panel from which units can freely obtain their services. This means, in effect, that if their lectures are dull or otherwise unwanted, the units will not ask them. There is a second category into which the lecturers fall. Local commanding officers of single units are entitled to ask a local lecturer who is not on the panel, of Whose suitability they are satisfied, to give a single lecture. If it is a case of a series of lectures, the authority of the Command or district headquarters must be obtained. Thus, in all cases, whether it is a single lecturer or one from a panel, the ultimate control is 'in the hands of the responsible military authorities. I submit that that is the right principle, because the people who command the Army are entitled to exercise discretion in this matter.

As regards what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth said about trying to prevent them becoming hyper-political or otherwise improper, the Central Advisory Council for Adult Education issues to its lecturers a set of confidential instructions giving them guidance as to the limits within which they will be allowed a free hand, which are pretty broad limits, but they are supposed to exercise discretion and in the main they do. Incidentally also I think the lectures are normally attended by officers who, if there are any improprieties or indiscretions, will naturally report them to the commanding officer. The commanding officer of the unit to which the hon. Member for Ipswich has referred, for reasons which I do not at present know, did not observe the rules. He invited this local lecturer, who was not on any panel, to give a whole series of lectures. When this came to the notice of the higher military authorities they decided that the lecturer in question was not a suitable person to give a series of lectures or to be included on the panel. I should have been very 10th anyhow to interfere with the discretion of the formation concerned, but, when the hon. Member for Ipswich asked a Question, I took the trouble—I paid that attention to his views; rather more than usual—

I certainly did not intend it to be serious. I did take the trouble to examine the reasons for their action. I hope the House will take it from me that I do not think it will be fair to anybody concerned to give these reasons in detail, and I do not propose to do so. I am asking the House to accept my assurance that I have seen the reasons and that I regard them as good and sufficient reasons.

I have seen the reasons which the local military authorities had before them when they decided that they would not give a permit for this gentleman to continue his lectures.

The House will not be surprised to hear me say that when it is a question of deciding between the opinion on this subject of the hon. Member for Ipswich and that of the local military authorities concerned as to the suitability of a lecturer I should tend to be predisposed in favour of the military authorities.

I should take the same view having examined the reasons, even apart from my natural inclination to disagree with the hon. Member for Ipswich.

Are we not entitled to find out whether the right hon. Gentleman has behaved intelligently, because on the surface of it he really has not? We would like to know the evidence.

That means that the right hon. Gentleman now leaves my constituent in this position. Having served his country well and given his services to the Forces for five months, he now goes before the whole constituency as a man who is not a proper person to address the troops. It is intolerable.

The hon. Member is free to think what he likes. I am sure that he will be well advised not to pursue this matter.

Why should not the right hon. Gentleman who is responsible to this House give the House the opportunity of judging whether the military authorities have good and sufficient reasons? His ipse dixit is not good enough. He is responsible in the exercise of the duties placed on him to this House, and he is not entitled to say, "I am satisfied."

There are certain circumstances in which I have to take the responsibility of giving an opinion without disclosing my reasons, and this is one of them. On the general question of lectures to the Army, I think I can fairly claim that my sincere endeavour has been to impose the fewest possible restrictions on the education and recreation of the troops. From time to time—and we have heard one hon. Member do it to-day—I have been accused of giving too free a range to lecturers and have been told that some of them run their particular nostrums much too hard. The hon. and gallant Member for Penryn and Falmouth took that point of view to-day. He has stated the same point of view to me in private before, and on the whole I think I would answer him by saying that, generally speaking, I would prefer to trust to the common sense and judgment of this very remarkable Army of ours. Hon. Members may remember a Postscript the other evening given by Mr. Herbert Agar, the well-known American publicist, and the praise he gave the Army for what they are doing in the matter of education and recreation and for the broadmindedness they are showing in the freedom of discussion they allow. In parenthesis, I would like to say that this freedom of discussion has not from recent events affected the fighting value of the Army deleteriously. The line must be drawn somewhere, and I think it has been fairly drawn in the present instance.

I say so, and I am prepared' to take the responsibility. Now I believe that the House as a whole will be willing to agree with me that discretion in this matter may be left—

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