HC Deb 26 April 1939 vol 346 cc1150-8
Mr. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make on the Government's Defence policy?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. His Majesty's Government have recently given fresh consideration to the procedure applicable to measures which they might consider necessary to put the country into a complete state of preparedness for defence. The result of their investigation shows that the present procedure for the mobilisation of the forces is antiquated in character and quite unsuited to modern conditions, based as it is upon the hypothesis that war could only come after such a period of warning as would give time to change from a peace to a war footing.

Broadly speaking, under present procedure mobilisation, whether complete or partial, can only take place after the issue of a proclamation, which is different in the case of each service, declaring that a state of emergency exists. The issue of such proclamations was, no doubt, originally contemplated as taking place when the outbreak of war appeared imminent. But in present times war may not appear imminent, and yet the general conditions may be so uncertain that it is desirable to take certain precautions without the publicity and the shock to public confidence which would be caused by the issue of proclamations. Accordingly the Government have decided at once to introduce a Bill entitled the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces Bill which will simplify the procedure and enable His Majesty by Order in Council to authorise the various Service Departments to call up any class or description of Reserve and Auxiliary Forces. The Bill will be temporary in character in the same way as another Bill to which I shall refer later and we hope it will be passed without any delay, in order that we may be empowered to act under it at once. I may say that every other country in Europe has the powers which we seek to obtain under this Bill, and practically every one has availed itself of them at one time or other to effect a partial mobilisation of its forces.

The Government have given consideration, also, to the new liabilities which, with the approval of all quarters of the House, they have incurred in Europe within the last month, and to the means they have at their disposal to discharge them effectively. I need perhaps hardly repeat that the object of the assurances we have given to certain countries as well as of the conversations now proceeding with other Governments is not to wage war but to prevent it. Bearing this object in mind we cannot but be impressed with the view, shared by other democratic countries and especially by our friends in Europe, that despite the immense efforts this country has already made by way of rearmament, nothing would so impress the world with the determination of this country to offer a firm resistance to any attempt at general domination as its acceptance of the principle of compulsory military service, which is the universal rule on the Continent. There is an obvious weakness in a voluntary system which allows one man to devote himself to pleasure or to gain while his neighbour devotes his leisure and his holidays to training himself to be ready in war to risk his life and the future of his family for his country.

It is, I believe, generally understood and accepted that in time of war military service would be made compulsory from the outset. But hitherto it has not been thought necessary to introduce any such measure in peace-time, and I myself have renewed the pledge given by my predecessor that compulsory service would not be introduced during the life of this Parliament in peace-time. We are not at war now, but when every country is straining all its resources to be ready for war, when confidence in the maintenance of peace is being undermined and everyone knows that if war were to come we might pass into it in a matter not of weeks but of hours, no one can pretend that this is peace-time in any sense in which the term could fairly be used.

There is a second reason for a reconsideration of this matter in addition to its value as indicating our resolve effectively to play our part in ensuring peace. Under the BUI which I have already described to the House it will be necessary to call up certain Territorial and non-Regular Air Force personnel to reinforce our system of anti-aircraft defence throughout a period of uneasiness which may last for a considerable time yet. But it must be recognised that this will entail on the part of Territorials who are called up a sacrifice greater and more prolonged than was anticipated when they enrolled, and it would be neither fair to them nor to their employers that they should be expected to shoulder such burdens for long.

Accordingly, the Government have come to the conclusion that to meet these new and, I hope, exceptional conditions some measure of compulsory military training has, for the time being, become necessary. I say for the time being because I wish to emphasise that the Government's proposals (which will be embodied in a second Bill to be introduced at the same time as the first and to be entitled the Military Training Bill) will be of a temporary character. As will be the case with the Reserve and Auxiliary Forces Bill, it is contemplated that the powers given by the Military Training Bill will last for three years, but that if at any earlier date the Government are of opinion that circumstances have so changed as to make those powers no longer necessary, they can be brought to an end by Order in Council. On the other hand, they can be extended after the three years for a year at a time, but only after an affirmative Resolution has been passed by both Houses of Parliament.

I anticipate that the Military Training Bill will be introduced next week, and I do not therefore propose to enter upon any account of its details. I will, however, inform the House of its main features which are:

  1. 1. Power to call up for military training all men between the ages of 20 and 21.
  2. 2. The training to be given in this country only, unless war breaks out, when liability to serve abroad would apply to all alike whether already called up or not.
  3. 3. The men to be called up will receive six months training and at the end of that period they will be discharged and given the opportunity if there is a vacancy of entering the Territorial Army for three and a-half years, during which time they would be called upon to fulfil the normal obligations of a Territorial soldier, namely, a fixed number of drills a year and a period in camp. If they do not exercise the option they will pass to a special Re serve of the Regular Army. Arrangements will be made to cover the cases of men who, before reaching the age of 20, enter the auxiliary aims of the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force, where they would undergo comparable periods of training.
  4. 4. Provision will be made whereby individuals, when good cause is shown, may anticipate or postpone for a specified period the date of their calling up, so far as national interests permit.
  5. 5 Provision will be made for exemption by tribunals of conscientious objectors, on condition that they under take work of national importance.
The introduction of this measure leaves the voluntary system as the basis of the three Defence Services. The voluntary principle will continue for recruitment for the Royal Navy, the Regular Army, the regular and non-regular Royal Air Force and the Territorials, as well as for all branches of Civil Defence. It is of the utmost importance that the Regular and Auxiliary Forces should be maintained at full strength.

I will now mention another matter which has frequently been referred to in the course of discussions on the subject of compulsory military Service, namely, what is sometimes called the "con- scription of wealth." Wealth is, of course, very largely "conscripted" already—Income Tax, Surtax, Estate Duties, are at a high level; all have been increased year after year; further increases in Surtax and Estate Duties have just been announced.

We intend to take further steps to limit the profits of firms mainly engaged on the rearmament programme and the necessary legislation will be introduced at an early date. Already the Departments exercise the greatest possible care in fixing prices to ensure that only reasonable profits are made, but experience shows the difficulty of providing for all possible contingencies beforehand, and in the case of the I have indicated it is felt that a definite limitation of profits is the only method of achieving the desired object with certainty.

There is another aspect of this question which has to do with conditions during war, if war should ever come. I wish to make it clear that, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, the time when the country is engaged in a major war is not a time when individuals should be increasing their fortunes out of the conditions which war creates. It is their intention, therefore, that, if such a war broke out, legislation should be enacted which would impose special penalties on profiteering and would provide that any increases of profit or increases of individual wealth should be appropriately curtailed to the benefit of the State.

In conclusion, I would point out that the proposals I have just outlined have arisen, like other steps in the marshalling of our defences, out of the sequence of events. The acceleration and expansion of our re-armament programme, the increase in the strength of the Territorial Army, the decision to establish a Ministry of Supply with power to secure priority for Government orders, and now the proposal for compulsory training have all been designed with one single object, namely, to render this country able to carry out the engagements it has entered into, in the belief that in that way the peace of Europe can best be secured.

Mr. Attlee

Is the Prime Minister aware that this decision will break the pledge solemnly given to this country and reaffirmed only four weeks ago, that compulsory military service would not be introduced in peace-time, that it will increase the already widespread distrust of the Prime Minister, that, so far from strengthening this country, it will be sowing divisions in the ranks of this country and will gravely imperil the national effort, and that this departure from the voluntary principle will meet with strenuous opposition?

The Prime Minister

Of course I was quite aware that my interpretation of my pledge would be challenged. My own conscience is perfectly clear on the matter. I believe that when people have had time to consider the circumstances in which we are living they will agree with me that they cannot possibly be described as peace-time.

Mr. Attlee

Without entering into the quibbles as to the meaning of peace-time and war-time, I ask the Prime Minister whether the House will have an opportunity immediately of discussing these proposals, and, if so, on what Motion or in what form the Debate will arise?

The Prime Minister

I think it advisable that the House should have an opportunity at the earliest possible moment to debate the very important statement which I have just made, and I, therefore, propose to put a Motion on the Paper tonight, and to devote to-morrow to the discussion.

Sir A. Sinclair

Will the Prime Minister explain why there were no consultations with the Opposition parties or with the representatives of organised labour before this pledge was at least revised, if not abandoned, and whether we had not a claim to be consulted, arising not only from the strength of our convictions about the voluntary principle and the increasing success of voluntary recruitment in recent weeks, but also arising out of the response we have made to the appeals from the Government to help them in sustaining National Service?

The Prime Minister

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that if we did not consult him it was not out of any intentional discourtesy to him or neglect of the usual conventions on these occasions; but perhaps he does not realise how very quickly events have moved. It was, in our opinion, important that this decision should be made to-day. There was really not time to do more than I did, namely, to communicate our proposals to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition this morning, and also to the members of the Trades Union Council, whom I also saw to-day.

Mr. McGovern

May I ask the Prime Minister whether, as I twice heard the pledge, once from the late Prime Minister and later from the present Prime Minister after Munich, that the Government would not in peace-time introduce any measure of conscription, we can take it that the Prime Minister, in accordance with that pledge, will submit this proposal to a referendum of the country or to a General Election?

Mr. Lloyd George

I understand there will be a discussion to-morrow and I should like to ask only one question, the answer to which might be useful. Could the Prime Minister tell us whether the Government have formed an estimate—I have no doubt they have—as to the number of men who will be called up for training under the very limited proposition which is put before us?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The gross number of men, I understand, to be called up under the proposal is 310,000 per annum. Of course from that there will have to be deductions, which will reduce that figure very considerably.

Mr. Lansbury

In view of the fact that a large number of Members will, in all probability, desire to take part in this discussion, I would ask whether we can devote Friday as well as to-morrow to the Debate, and Monday if not Friday? This is a very big question.

The Prime Minister

I think it would be very difficult to give an answer now until we see how we get on.

Mr. Maxton

Will the Prime Minister say precisely what were the changes in the last three or four days that compelled the Government to rush to this decision without, as I understand it, observance of the courtesies which are usually observed in the way of consultation with Opposition parties? What were the decisive things that have happened in the last three days to make the Government rush to this hasty, and what I regard as disastrous and foolish conclusion?

The Prime Minister

In view of the Debate to-morrow I think it would be better to await that discussion.

Mr. Sandys

In view of the references made by Members of the Opposition to the Prime Minister's previous pledge, may I ask him whether the responsibility of the Government for defence is not a responsibility which overrides all other considerations?

Mr. Aneurin Bevan

Are we not to have an assurance from the Prime Minister this afternoon that the Debate will continue longer than to-morrow, because it must be clear to him that if we have a Debate lasting only to-morrow, the speeches will be almost exclusively confined to Front Bench speakers, and there are in all parts of the House many hon. Members much younger than Front Bench speakers who would like to have an opportunity of discussing this Measure? Will the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, give a pledge that the Debate will last over to-morrow, and, we hope, to Friday and Monday?

The Prime Minister

There are other events which are to take place this week, and I think it very desirable that the decision of the House should be come to quickly.

Mr. J. Morgan

Are we to understand that uncertainty prevails about the ability of this country to fulfil its obligations, and are these 310,000 young men to be a material guarantee to other countries that we are capable of carrying out our obligations to all other countries?

Mr. Gallacher

When the right hon. Gentleman is introducing the Bill—I want this to be considered very seriously—in view of the fact that he is calling up young men of 20, will he consider providing these young men with the opportunity of democratic rights, in so far as being allowed to vote is concerned, or are these young men to be called up, to give their lives if necessary, when the gang of robbers behind keep on piling up profits?

Mr. Bevan

Does the Prime Minister intend to move the suspension of the II o'clock* Rule tomorrow?

The Prime Minister

I would remind the House that there will be a further opportunity of discussing this matter on the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Stephen

Since the Prime Minister has adopted bit by bit the policy laid down for him by the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), does he not think that in decency he ought to get out of the Premiership and let the right hon. Member for Epping take his place?