HC Deb 21 February 1902 vol 103 cc742-5

I should like to say a few words on the general question, which, I think, ought to be said on an occasion like this. There has been a feeling of anxiety, I do not think of alarm, but of anxiety, with regard to the condition of our Navy. I think it is absolutely inevitable that it should be so. I think that, at a time when the outlook is as perplexed as it has been during the last year or two, when we have given such great pledges to fortune by the transfer of our troops over the sea, it is not only probable, but certain, that men will ask themselves whether our great arm, which alone enables us to undertake this enterprise, is as strong as it should be. I welcome that feeing of anxiety; I think it would betray la very unfortunate attitude of mind in the country if that feeling did not exist; and I venture to express my sincere hope that we may have a discussion on these Estimates which may be worthy of the subject. I do not know, judging from the Amendments on the Paper, whether that desire will be altogether fulfilled; but I do hope that, be that as it may, we shall have some real discussion upon this pre-eminently important question of the efficiency and sufficiency of our Navy.

I believe the Navy has two classes of enemy—those who say the Navy is all wrong, all rotten, and not to be depended upon in time of war; and the other class, more dangerous, and I believe more numerous, who say that the Navy is all right and that we need not trouble our heads about it. There is no human institution for which we can claim that perfection, and if there were, I am perfectly certain that institution would never be the Navy of this country. Circumstances change from day to day, the dangers which threaten us vary, if they do not increase, from day to day, and the navy which is not perpetually adapting itself to the circumstances of the hour, and trying to bring itself abreast of the efforts of others, is a navy which is not even standing still, but is going back. I believe that criticism is needful. I do not think that in the Admiralty, as I happen to know it, stimulus is much needed. If I may be permitted, I would say to those hon. Members with whom I have so often had the honour of collaborating in this great common cause, that, at any rate with regard to myself, having some small part in the administration of this great Department, there has been no cessation of my activity and of my hope. On the contrary, I would say that many of those subjects on which we worked together are now in process of accomplishment. Heavier armaments are being put into existing ships. A new and stronger type of destroyer is being created. It is admitted that the submarine is the reply to the submarine, and that this class of vessel cannot be regarded merely as the weapon of the weaker Power. Ocean trials of ships with the rival boilers have been carried out, and the volunteering question, to which so many of us have attached special importance, is now receiving consideration, with a view, I trust, to its early solution.

I only mention these matters because I wish primarily to assure hon. Members that there is progress, energy, and enterprise, in the administration of the Navy; but in saying that, I repeat that I welcome, and I believe every member of the Admiralty Board will welcome, criticism and discussion of these proposals. I think there are many Members of this House who will welcome the approaching addition to the Board of Admiralty of the very distinguished naval officer who has served his country with honour and distinction in every part of the world, and who is about to leave the Mediterranean Fleet in a state of efficiency, which he has done so much to promote and maintain. I think it is an advantage to the country that the services of Sir John Fisher should not cease to be available on his abandonment of the command of the Mediterranean Fleet; but that his great experience and knowledge should be at the service of the country at the Board of Admiralty. But I would say that whether he be there, or whoever is there, I am confident that the spirit which should animate, and does animate, the Board of Admiralty with regard to the preparation of the Fleet for sea may be expressed in one phrase, which is the preparation of the Fleet for war. The Navy has no other raison dêtre at all except as an instrument to be used in war. Anyone who touches even the fringe of the administration of that great service must feel haunted by the idea that all this will be tested one day. When the guns are shotted, when the war heads are on the torpedoes, when the sound of firing is heard in the Channel and losses are reported, and when men's hearts fail them, that is the time when all this will be tested, and I do truly believe that that is the conviction which is in the mind of every man who is concerned in the administration of the Admiralty. If it were not so, I am sure we might feel hopeless enough as to the safety of this country in time of war. I do not pretend for a moment that the ideal of which we are all in pursuit, and which we shall never attain, has even been approached as nearly as some may imagine. In a Navy like ours, where all has grown up by degrees, where many appliances must remain which were appropriate to the day in which they were created, but are less appropriate to the day to which they have survived, there must always be a certain proportion of our matériel, a certain number of our appliances, which are not what we should desire them to be. But I believe that by pruning, as we have been pruning on an almost unparalleled scale, the unprofitable elements of our Fleet, by perpetually practising in peace those things which must be done in time of war, by appointing those officers to commands in peace who will have to exercise authority in time of war, and by appealing, on every occasion when we feel that we are not strong enough, to the ready support of the country, which I know we shall always receive, we shall be doing all we possibly can to prepare the Fleet for that day of trial which we hope will never come, but which we all feel will be fateful and critical to us when it does come.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."