HC Deb 16 April 1914 vol 61 cc464-72

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."


I wish to draw the attention of the House to the amazing answer given to me this afternoon by the Prime Minister in regard to the repudiation of the assurances given to General Gough. I regret that owing to a misunderstanding which prevented his being informed until a late hour to-night the Prime Minister is not able to be present, but I think the facts are quite sufficient to warrant my raising the subject immediately. The House was informed this afternoon that the repudiation of the pledge—a repudiation so serious as to involve the resignation of one Cabinet Minister and of the two military heads of the Army Council—has never been communicated to those whom it directly affects. We were told that in the circumstances, and having regard to all that has happened and the answers which have been made in this House, it did not seem necessary. Surely it is an astonishing new doctrine that public servants should ascertain their duty and their liabilities from and shape their conduct upon, not the written instructions which they have received and which have never been countermanded, but what they may pick up in the newspapers about speeches and interjections of Ministers. How can any Government service be carried on in that way? Supposing the Secretary of State for War were to promise an increase in the soldiers' pay forthwith, would the Army Pay Department be entitled to pay that out on the following morning on seeing it in the newspapers? Of course not. But supposing a special exception is to be made in the case of General Gough, how is General Gough to learn from all the speeches which have been made and from all the obiter dicta which have fallen from Ministers what his position is? To what is he to go for guidance? Is it the newspapers? Is it the speeches as Ministers made them, or is it the faked versions of those speeches which appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT? He has a great variety of statements from which to make his choice. On the 25th March those assurances were declared inoperative. The Foreign Secretary emphatically preached the gospel of coercion. The Postmaster-General, at Swadlincote on 14th April, said that if Ulster persisted coercion would become not merely legitimate but necessary. At Longford, one of the hon. Gentlemen behind me, who knows the policy of the Government better than the Government themselves, announced that the Government were ready to take the risk of putting down rebellion in Ulster by fire and sword rather than consent to any scheme of permanent exclusion. I admit that if General Gough in his studies should light upon those passages he would have good ground for thinking that the assurances given him had been repudiated. But these are not the only speeches that have been made. The Irish Secretary, since that repudiation, has definitely stated in this House that Ulster must be won, and that could not be done by force; that Ulster could not be driven into a constitution to which she was averse. That would comfort General Gough, although I admit it is vague. There are more definite statements with regard to the two paragraphs containing the assurance. Lord Morley, on 31st March, said:— I do not repent of stating them as my own view of the Government policy. He went on to say that— Two eminent colleagues—referring to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—used language in the House of Commons to the effect that, like myself, they did not find anything in the two paragraphs which differed materially from the rest of the Memorandum. The difference was apparently in the order in which that Memorandum appeared in the White Paper, after a certain letter from General Gough. The late Secretary of State for War glories in the paragraphs, and describes them as the true Liberal view. More than that, no Minister has repudiated General French's interpretation of the meaning of these two paragraphs, namely, that they did not mean enforcing the Home Rule Bill, if it became law, upon Ulster. The late Secretary for War explicitly said that General French's gloss was nothing more than a re-assertion of these two paragraphs. I say that upon those statements alone General Gough is fully entitled to assume that the only repudiation that has in fact taken place is the repudiation of the sequence of certain documents in the White Paper, a matter which does not concern him at all, and that the assurance given to him on paper is still valid to-day. Of course it is valid to-day! It is valid to him, and it is valid to the whole Army.

I would remind the House that when the hon. Member for Roxburghshire (Sir J. Jardine) raised this question the other day as to whether General Gough's position was different to that of any other officer in the Army he was told that it was not. The Government knows that the assurance is valid to-day. I know there was a repudiation. It was a parliamentary repudiation. It was an expedient to meet the whirlwind raised by the hon. Member for Stoke on 24th March. The hon. Member has no great reason to feel satisfied: he has not gained his point. In fact, the situation to-day is still the same as it was on 24th March. The assurance stands—is bound to stand as long as the Government exists, because it was the assurance of the whole Cabinet! No "cock and bull story" about an independent Secretary of State perverting the whole object of the Government by inserting these paragraphs will stand for a moment. We all know there was a very serious crisis in connection with the Army at that time. The Secretary of State himself said, "A situation of grave peril in the Army undoubtedly had arisen," and added, that he reported at frequent intervals to His Majesty. If so, he reported at even more frequent intervals to the Prime Minister. He, the Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty were discussing this matter practically the whole of the Saturday and the Sunday before. On the morning of 23rd March, it was perfectly clear, and we all know it, that the Government had decided that they had made a grave blunder, that they could not face the exposure of the facts, that they had to be smoothed over, and General Gough had to be induced to accept reinstatement on any terms.


On a point of Order. The hon. Member opposite rose to raise the point of the repudiation of the pledge given to General Gough, he is, however, raising the general questions which are covered by the Blocking Motion (No. 21) on the Paper. The hon. Member is entitled to deal with the one, but I submit he is not entitled to go into the details covered by the Blocking Motion?


The hon. Member up to the last moment or so was perfectly in order. In the last few sentences he has covered the ground which is covered by the Blocking Motion.


I certainly do not wish to raise the point as to the action of the officers which is covered by the Blocking Motion. I only want to deal with the assurances given by Ministers and only referred for a moment to the conditions under which they were given. I want to remind the House that these assurances were first of all given verbally at the War Office. Can any Member of the House believe for a moment that they were given without the full knowledge and sanction of the Prime Minister? They were given verbally in the presence of witnesses, among whom I believe was the First Lord of the Admiralty. Does any Member of the House suggest that because they were given verbally and not in writing they are not to be binding? The ex-Secretary of State for War then went to the Cabinet where he was for three-quarters of an hour, where he repeated in detail the assurances given to General Gough verbally, and I notice that at Ilkeston the other night he laid great stress upon his extraordinarily retentive verbal memory.


Is the hon. Member stating to the House what the Secretary of State for War said at the Cabinet?


No, but what the Secretary of State for War said on 25th March, when he informed this House that he had stated to the Cabinet what he had been just telling the House—and he prides him- self on his memory. He was three-quarters of an hour with the Cabinet, and the Cabinet did not dissent from the view he took. If they had dissented, the right hon. Gentleman could never have added these two paragraphs. He came back from his interview with His Majesty. Let me quote his own words at Ilkeston:— When I came back my colleagues had dispersed and I found only the Prime Minister and Lord Morley. And I notice the Press reporters drew attention to the fact that the First Lord of the Admiralty also stayed behind, though I notice that with a modesty and self-effacement not very usual with that right hon. Gentleman he has never drawn attention to that. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say:— It seemed they had been considering the substance of what should be given to the officers. One of the Ministers stayed behind, and the right hon. Gentleman and he concocted these additional paragraphs. Could that have been done if there had been really a difference of policy? and on a matter on which the right hon. Gentleman had been to see the King at frequent intervals, as he stated in this House, would he not have gone and informed the Prime Minister, who was in the same house, if not in the same room? It seems absolutely clear from these facts that there was no difference and could be no difference in policy, and that the assurance given by the right hon. Gentleman was the assurance of the whole Cabinet—and the story of the change of policy will not wash. The facts are that the Government made a mess and they had to get out of it as best they could. They were all agreed on policy. They may jettison the ex-Secretary of State for War, but they cannot get over the facts. It is not the Army that caused the trouble, but the Government's own action, and any attempt they make now to make their Parliamentary repudiation a reality would at once bring about a complete disclosure of the whole situation, which it would be impossible for the Government to survive. They can come down to this House and tell this House that they meant to dishonour their cheques and so win the approval of high-minded, high-principled supporters opposite. They cannot, in fact, dishonour their cheques because they could not stand the exposure that would follow.


There is one observation which I think all who are present will agree with in the statement of the hon. Member (Mr. Amery), and that is that there is a great difference in the circumstances under which we are discussing this subject to-night from what was the case on the 24th. Circumstances have changed in one remarkable aspect, and that is that whereas the hon. Member opposite and his Friends imagined that they had a splendid argument and a splendid position, namely, to use all these officers for their own party purpose—


The hon. Member is now contravening the blocking notice on the Paper.


I have said all I wished to say upon that point.


You are saying what is untrue.


I am sure that on some future occasion, probably next week, I shall have an opportunity of quoting some of the speeches of hon. Members opposite in justification of my statement. The suggestion now is that the new Secretary of State for War should make the very blunder that caused the resignation of the previous Secretary of State for War. I understand that the suggestion is that the Prime Minister as Secretary for War should make some communication to General Gough withdrawing the paper that he has lodged, I understand, in some bank in London. I should imagine that was committing again the very offence which the recent Army Orders were intended to mitigate or prevent in the future. Such a communication would be in opposition, as it was in opposition, to the Army Regulations and to all law relating to military affairs connected with the work and the duty of officers in the position of the General indicated. We shall know now that it is not proper, and it is recognised on both sides of the House that it is improper, to seek in any way to secure the ideas of a commanding officer before the event as to what he proposes to do in a hypothetical case should he be ordered to do so. That having been laid down and decided and accepted by the hon. Member who has introduced this subject, accepted by everybody opposite, and now the request is that we should break through the rule again, that some communication should be made to this officer relating to the possibility of an order later on, and that we should really reconsider circumstances which have not arisen. I suggest that there is no necessity to make any communication to those officers, for the simple reason that we may take it for granted by the way in which this subject has been dropped like a red hot coal by the Opposition—[An HON. MEMBER: "Wait and see!"]—we may take it for granted that these officers know their business, and they have no intention in the future, whatever the speeches of the leaders on either side may be, to interfere in political questions nor become the tools of any party. We may take it for granted that whatever orders are given by those in authority will be carried out. They will maintain civil authority, if it is necessary to do so, not only in England, in the case of labour disputes, but they will be used also in Ireland in the case of political disputes. We may take it that that is the position in the future. Whatever may have been the position of affairs in the past, in the future these officers will do their duty like men. They will carry out the oath they have given to serve His Majesty in accordance with the law. That applies both to the officers and men who serve in both the Sister Services of His Majesty. We may take it for granted there will be not the slightest prospect of these men refusing in the future to perform their duty, no matter what Government is in power. There was a fear and there was a hope on the part, of some that might have occurred, and there was even the possibility of such an occurrence a short time ago, but I venture to say that the recent discussion has obviated the possibility of any such occurrence in the future, and we may take it for granted, after the way in which the Opposition have recently, during the last few days, both in the Press and in their speeches—[An HON. MEMBER: "They ran away at East Fife!"] Of course, they ran away there. [An HON. MEMBER: "And Tariff Reform last night!"] I am not concerned about Tariff Reform, but, of course, yesterday there was another illustration of bravery of a sort. I venture, therefore, to suggest that when one looks at the Order Paper and the Questions, and sees the way in which this subject is being dropped at the present time by hon. Members opposite who thought they had a splendid weapon with which to beat the Government, we need never imagine that there is any likelihood of any such danger occurring in the future. It is a moral certainty that the Government will be able to proceed with their proposals relating to Home Rule. [HON. MEMBERS: "McKenna!"] They may be certain, whatever this House does, whatever laws it may pass, either this year, next year, or in the future, that after recent occurrences and after the discussion that has taken place in the public Press, there is not the slightest possibility of officers refusing to perform their duty whenever called upon to do so. [Interruption.]


As the hon. Gentleman gave his notice publicly to the Prime Minister this afternoon, I think it is better to explain to the House why my right hon. Friend is not here now. Later in the afternoon—the hon. Gentleman described it as a misunderstanding—the hon. Gentleman wrote to the Prime Minister to say that he did not propose to raise the question at the end of the sitting. It is quite true that still later in the evening the hon. Gentleman sent a further communication saying that he had changed his mind—[Interruption]—because he had been under the belief that another hon. Member was going to raise another matter.


Why did not you say so at first?


You did not give me time. But then the Prime Minister had made other arrangements, and could not come down. As regards the substance of the hon. Gentleman's statement—

It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock