HC Deb 17 May 1915 vol 71 cc2102-10

Whereupon Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to raise a matter which is of great urgency, and, as I think, of equal gravity, but before I come to the subject itself I should like to give an assurance that I am going to particularly avoid reference to anything which could reasonably be interpreted as contrary to the public interest. There are a number of Members in this House who desire very earnestly indeed to raise at once the question of munitions of war, and I am told that some responsible person has expressed the desire that we should refrain from doing so on the Motion for the Adjournment to-night, and, as I understand, on any succeeding night. [An HON. MEMBER: "NO!"] Well, at any rate, to-night. I do not think there is any Member, no matter where he sits in this House, who is not as anxious as anyone in this country can be to avoid doing or saying anything that can possibly be used against the interests of the country or against the best prosecution of the War. I frankly admit I can conceive the enormous difficulty there must be for any Member of this House to deal freely and openly with matters of public importance, and to do it without perhaps saying things and making references which quite properly might be described as contrary to the public interest. I, as much as anyone else, most ardently desire to avoid that. But I do submit, and I believe I shall carry every Member of the House with me in this, that where a matter is raised of real gravity it is intolerable for Members of the House, representatives of the people, to be muzzled absolutely by the desire of anyone, however good the object may be.

10.0 P.M.

We must be afforded the opportunity of raising matters which may arise from time to time, and I am going, with all respect, to make a suggestion to the Chief Whip of the Government. It is that the Government shall to-morrow afford us an opportunity, which we have a right to ask now, because we are living under extraordinary conditions. We admit that the Government themselves have been driven to take extraordinary measures, to which the House has readily assented, and, therefore, I feel that the freedom and privileges and rights of private Members in this House which constitute a matter of the greatest public importance, must be safeguarded by the Government at once by a special measure which will occur to everybody—a measure which I suggest to the Government to-night, and which, if necessary, I shall put in the form of a private question to the Prime Minister to-morrow. The proposal I venture to make is this, that, under these exceptional circumstances, when no responsible Member of the Government can pretend that the problem of the output of munitions of war is not one of urgent gravity, the Government, should agree to-morrow night to recommend a Motion for acceptance by the House that, on the proposal for Adjournment, strangers be excluded from the House. That is not a novel procedure. I believe I am correct in saying it has been pursued on three or four different occasions in past years. But whether it is or not, we must be given an opportunity for which I plead now with the Government. I venture to hope that the Government will undertake to do this tomorrow. It may be quite possible that the Chief Whip of the Government is not in a position to give me an answer now, but I do want to impress upon him the gravity and urgency of the whole House having an opportunity to discuss this question to-morrow on the Adjournment. I beg to give notice that, at the end of Questions to-morrow, I shall put a question to the Prime Minister as to whether he will, in his judgment, recommend the House to agree to the exclusion of strangers on the Motion for Adjournment to-morrow night.


I do not understand that the hon. Baronet, who has just spoken, gave any notice to the Government that he intended to raise this question on the Adjournment, and, therefore. I feel to a great extent that any discussion that may take place upon it now can hardly have any fruitful result immediately. I agree with the hon. Baronet, so far as he suggests, that we should have an opportunity before the House adjourns of discussing the question of the War position. I am sure that the Government will not complain that we have been unduly pressing in regard to the discussion of any question of vital importance, and, therefore, I think it would give satisfaction to all concerned, and especially to the country outside, if the Government would make a reassuring statement with regard to certain points which have been discussed outside the House. For myself, I do not agree with the suggestion of the hon. Baronet that anything should be discussed in private. It would be better to let it be in public. The more confidence you have in the people, the greater will be the response you will get. To suggest the discussion of anything in private at the present time would be likely to give an altogether false idea to the outside world as to what the questions were which we were raising.

I hope, indeed am pretty certain, that the Government will be able to give us a reassuring statement on any point that we may bring before them. But I would say this, there is a point at which responsibility must be borne by members of this House as well as by the Government. Up to the present time we have allowed the Government to bear it, but I think they have not given us as much information as they should have done on certain matters of great importance. It is to be regretted that the Government have not appointed a Business Committee to deal with business methods in connection with the administration of the War Office. We have pleaded with them now for nine months that that should be done. We have, it is true, got a Committee of Members of the Cabinet to deal with the question to which the hon. Baronet alluded, but we are not supposed to know the names of the different Members, and it seems to be a sort of game of musical chairs in the Cabinet, Members moving from one chair to another. I suggest that the time has arrived when we really ought to have a proper business committee to deal with business matters at the War Office. With regard to the complaints that have been made as to the response on the part of the workers in reference to the production of munitions in Scotland, I would appeal to the Government and to the Chief Whip to convey an idea more fully to the working men in Scotland of what the position is; it may be on the serious side. If they do that, the greater will be the response; there is no doubt with regard to that. There is reason to complain that they have taken so many men from the munition works and allowed them to enlist in the Army. Thousands have been taken from the Elswick factory and thousands from other factories. These are points on which we would like a little more information.

I am coming reluctantly but certainly to the conclusion that in this great national crisis it ought not to be entirely on the leaders of one political party that the responsibility should rest. So far as I am concerned, I care nothing about party at this moment. I think it is a question, and I say it the more freely as I am a supporter of the present Government, whether we are not getting nearly to the time when we ought to consider whether it would not be an advantage to the nation to have a Government of national representatives, including opponents as well as friends. I believe it is obvious that now we are in for a struggle much longer than was ever anticipated either by members of the Cabinet or others, and I have come reluctantly to the conclusion, if we are to settle the matter and to prevent discussion on questions which may be supposed to be of a party character, then the Cabinet should be absolutely representative of all parties in this country. In that way it would inspire greater confidence in the future than has been the case in the past.


I should not have said a word to-night but for the two speeches just delivered from each side of the House. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury having listened to those two speeches, earnest and moderate as they were, must have recognised that there is a very strong feeling in the House upon the matter which has been quite lightly touched upon. The hon. Gentleman is aware that I had intended to make a Motion upon the Adjournment to-night, but in deference to the wishes which have been expressed in certain quarters I have deferred doing that until a future occasion. I only wish to add to what the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir H. Dalziel) said so weightily, that this is really a very serious question for Members of this House, and I do not think anybody will be satisfied if the House adjourns without a full opportunity being given to the House, if necessary, as I think in all probability it will be necessary, to discuss this matter to the fullest possible extent.


I have listened with great anxiety to the remarks of the hon. Members who have preceded me in this discussion. I sincerely hope that the Government will not attach too much importance to the remarks that have been made in the course of this discussion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) has again advocated the formation of a "Business Government," which I understand to mean not only what it is usually supposed to mean, but a Coalition Government, consisting of Members chosen from all sides of the House. The proposal for a Coalition Government is not likely to find much support in this House. The House has a wise instinct which warns it against such Governments. I remember that a "Business Government" was unsuccessfully advocated in this House for some time by a Gentleman named Bottomley, who is now continuing his advocacy elsewhere, and he finds an unexpected supporter in my right hon. Friend.


I was not speaking about the general views which one might entertain in ordinary times of a Business Government. I was speaking about a situation which did not exist when the gentleman my hon. Friend refers to was a Member of this House.


I have listened to the explanation of my right hon. Friend and I do not think it tended to further his case. I cannot myself find any grounds for believing that such a discussion as has been initiated to-night, and which it is proposed to continue to-morrow night, will do more good than harm. I have a grave misgiving that whether it is continued in public or in private it will be likely to assist the enemy and not to assist our country in the great struggle in which it is involved. For these reasons I sincerely hope that the Government will not attach too much importance to the observations which have fallen from the hon. Members who have spoken, and that they will keep their own counsel and do that which they regard as being in the best interests of the country, and I believe that they will find they have the overwhelming support of the country.


I do not know for whom my hon. Friend (Mr. Radford) is entitled to speak. If he is familiar with the current thought of the House, I can only say that the results of my inquiries are vastly different from his. To say that there is an overwhelming opinion in this House against a Government which is above party, and in favour of the Government sitting on these benches, shows an unfamiliarity with the opinions of Members of this House which astonishes me. I ventured to put a question to the Prime Minister some days ago, and since then a very large number of Members have made it their duty to speak to me privately and give me their views. I could astonish my hon. Friend with regard to the views held by many of his own friends who sit near him. My opinion is, and I give it quite frankly, that a united Ministry—call it what you will—is coming, and will come before very long. I have not often taken upon myself the râle of a prophet, but I venture to say that the position will compel the formation of a Government which represents the House more fully than the present one. I do not say that because I am dissatisfied with any particular Member of it, but I want to point out that even to-night a demand has been made upon this House which one might readily obey if it were made by a united Government, but which it is difficult to obey coming from a party Government. We are all thinking of a certain position. It was said that when Queen Mary died the word "Calais" would be found written upon her heart. If you could look inside the hearts of most hon. Members of this House to-day, you would find that the one word impressed upon them was the word "shells." There is no blinking it.

A request has come that the Members of this House should not put certain questions to the Government or expect an answer. Nobody has made that request to me, therefore I do not know exactly how far that may go. I take it to be a request that we should not press anything on the Government, or ask them to answer. When demands are made upon us to keep silent upon matters which are moving our inner consciousness, and on which the Government have had a large measure of support at very short notice, it would be easier to give that support and keep that silence if the appeal came from a united Front Bench than when it comes from one party, and that my own. If I am in order, I shall raise this question of the strengthening of the Government by the calling in of Members of the Opposition and other parties to share responsibility with my own leaders upon the Adjournment of the House on Wednesday if the matter is not discussed to-morrow, because I feel certain that when we come to make the demands which must be made upon this country, both for men and materiel before this War is won, those demands should come with all the strength of the Ministry of a united Government to a united people. In Belgium the clerical Government took in the Labour leaders, including one of the most famous Socialists in the world, Mr. Vandervelde. You find the same thing in France. I do not say that we have a weak Cabinet here, because I believe we have one of the strongest Governments that have ever in English history adorned the Treasury Bench. That is a very different thing from saying that a party Government is the best instrument to conduct a war or to organise the nation for conducting the War and dealing with affairs afterwards. I only mention the point because my hon. Friend (Mr. Radford) has referred to it, and because a false impression might get abroad that the majority of hon. Members think with the hon. Member.


I am rather sorry that such a matter as this with regard to the supply of ammunition should be sprung upon the House. Whatever the effect of this discussion on Members who are in the House now, there cannot be any doubt that the impression which will be made on the minds of the people by the newspaper reports which may appear to-morrow will be to widen that uneasiness that has already been created by a report from the "Times" correspondent at the front. This kind of thing is vicious and evil in the most extreme degree—I mean the raising of discussions, upon points which have been dealt with by men in whom this nation implicitly relies and places the greatest possible confidence—I mean the Secretary for War and General French. From my experience with regard to the raising of the question of ammunition, it has been an exceedingly unpleasant matter and it has not altogether produced any good result so far, but has created a certain amount of ill-feeling and uneasiness in the minds of the workpeople, and it would be infinitely better, instead of prating about it in this House, to leave it to those who are responsible to take charge of the whole business, as I believe they are doing, and to indicate that we have full confidence in their ability to obtain a full supply of ammunition that is necessary to bring the War to a successful issue, instead of constantly raising the matter and nagging at those who are responsible for carrying it through. I am convinced in my own mind that no possible good can come from debating this question, and that ill-feeling will be created amongst the workers, who are busy in their thousands producing this ammunition, because the newspapers and people in the House and in the country are beginning to think seriously that they are not doing their duty, and that would be exceedingly unfair to these men, many of whom are working all the hours that God sends, seven days a week, for seven or eight months. It is really taking the matter a little too far when we are asked in this House to discuss a matter of this importance. It is a matter that everyone in the country is seized with. I am sure the hon. Baronet (Sir R. Cooper) will agree with me that every Member in the House views this matter with as great seriousness as himself. I, at any rate, and others who may think with me, have confidence in those who are at the head of affairs and who are looking after the production of ammunition, and it is only because I believe we have this confidence that we think it is ill-advised to raise these matters in the House of Commons and debate them and create uneasiness in the minds of the people.

With regard to the remarks of the hon. Member (Mr. Booth), I am in agreement with him. There are men of ability in this House who are prepared to give the whole of their leisure in any conceivable way that will help the country to come out of this successfully. The assistance of these men is not asked for, because it is not required. I believe that the Government that is in existence now may have been all right in time of peace, but to-day we are in a time of war, the greatest war that ever this world has seen, and surely if there is any argument for the strengthening of the Cabinet it must be that here we are faced with unprecedented circumstances, and surely an argument of this weight and force should appeal even to the Prime Minister, who so far has turned a cold shoulder to this proposal. I think we shall eventually have to have a coalition Government. Other countries have seen fit to do it. It is not that I have any objection either to this or to any other Government that might have been in power at this time, but I know there are men in the House who have great ability and are willing to render every conceivable service they can, and the least the Government can do is to take them by the hand and strengthen the Cabinet, so that we may feel that not only have we the Liberal party unanimous in this House, but those who sit on the opposite bench, even the Irish Members as well. I would agree that every party in the House should have its representatives in the Government, so that it might be able to face the whole world and the whole Empire and say that at last we have a Government stronger than anything this country had ever seen in its past, and I feel that we should thus have a Government which would, without possible question, carry this thing to a successful issue.

Mr. GULLAND (Lord of the Treasury)

All I can say is that I shall convey to the Prime Minister the very varied views which have been expressed by hon. Members.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty minutes after Ten o'clock.