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General Election (Service Uniforms)

Volume 411: debated on Wednesday 13 June 1945

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The right hon. Gentleman who leads the Opposition had the desire to put a Question on the Paper to me—[Hon. Members: "Speak up"]. We have all got to save our voices now. The question was whether I had any further statement to make with regard to the wearing of Service uniforms during the period of the Election. But it appears that as there is a Question on the subject on the Paper for to-morrow, that proceduce would not be in Order. Therefore, I fall back, with the indulgence of the House and of the Chair, on making a short statement as follows: After gathering views from many quarters of the House, including Service Members of distinction, many of whom do not wish to wear uniform as candidates, I propose to leave unaltered the regulations about the wearing of uniforms by candidates. This means that the old rule will hold good, that no one in uniform will be permitted to take an active part in political proceedings. However, as stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday, members of the Armed Forces in plain clothes will be permitted to take part in meetings. I hope that that will meet with the wishes of the House, and that the House will realise that my whole endeavour has been to meet its wishes in an effective manner.

Is it understood that members of the Services in uniform are allowed to attend political meetings and to ask questions, although they must not preside at the meetings or speak at the meetings in uniform?

That is quite right; except that it leaves open the question of whether asking questions takes a form which may be construed as taking an active part. No doubt we are not going to scrutinise each other very much in these matters, but there may be forms of altercation, which I think should hot be left entirely outside the purview of the military authorities.

In view of the fact that there seems to be general agreement with the course that is now adopted, what inquiries were made before the right hon. Gentleman came to a contrary decision? I understood that this matter has been given very careful examination, but I cannot think who was called into consultation. As far as I can make out, almost everybody in this House, ex-Service Members and Service Members, are all convinced that the right hon. Gentleman's present act is wise and that his other act was extremely ill-advised.

I am the person responsible, and it has never been any part of my submission to Parliament that I do not sometimes take a view which does not wholly accord with the view of the majority.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this decision will avoid great confusion, and will give great satisfaction to many serving Members, and that what he has announced to-day is in direct conformity with an urgent memorandum issued by the War Office nearly three weeks ago? Is there any legal objection to photographs of candidates in uniform being used?

What my hon. and gallant Friend has said corresponds exactly to what he told me yesterday in another place, and it had an influence on me, coupled as it was with the views of a great many Members of this House who have won distinction, who said that they did not propose to wear their uniforms. I had thought that as up to the day of Dissolution people had been going about in uniform, Members probably would not wish to be suddenly debarred, but it appears that everybody likes to be debarred; so why not debar them? As to photographs, I cannot conceive that it would ever be considered an offence for a person in this country to have himself photographed for the purpose of encouraging his constituents, in any garb or portion of a garb which conforms to the ordinary ideas of decency.

May I ask whether under this rule which has just been announced a soldier who happened to be on leave could knock at his neighbour's door and ask him how he was going to vote?

I should think, taking a shot at the question without having had the advantage of all the legal advice at my disposal, that canvassing outside the very narrow limits of friends and members of families would be "taking an active part." He can ask a man how he is going to vote, but if he did that several times over and then went on to a committee room and had him marked down it would be "taking an active part."

Is it surprising that my right hon. Friend has again changed his mind? Has he not been doing it for years?

I have found that to move constantly and change with environment, is one of the best ways in which man can put himself in relation to nature.

Would the right hon. Gentleman like to comment on the remarkable change of attitude on the part of the Tory Party, which used to revile him, but now tries to cash in on him?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the statement of the American philosopher who said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?

Can it be made perfectly clear that so long as men do not interrupt too much they will be allowed, whilst in uniform, to ask questions? In peace time it was allowed, although possibly it was against the rules, and no harm ever came of it.

I should think this is just one of those many things which can be left to the discretion and good sense of the British people; and as I am answering a question on the subject I should like to say that in view of the general agreement on the course now adopted I think there is no need for me to be present, as I promised to be, at any discussion which may take place this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty will undertake the responsibility.

He is called the best First Lord since the right hon. Gentleman himself left the Admiralty and yet he has only been in the job ten minutes. Lord Beaverbrook said that last night.

If any candidates wish to send out photographs of themselves in Army uniform, would it be possible to make provision that the letters on their shoulder straps should be shown in the case of those warriors, because a lot of those warriors really should have A.P.C. or R.A.S.C. on their shoulders?

I hope that those letters are not going to be spoken of in any spirit of disrespect in this House. The R.A.S.C. and the A.P.C. have proved their worth.

In respect of photographs, is the Prime Minister setting aside the statement of the Secretary of State for War, that to circulate photographs for election purposes, while not illegal, would be improper?

We are now at the Election, or very near it, and anybody can have himself photographed in any dress or any posture he chooses and circulate the photographs to as many people as are interested in looking at him.