HC Deb 16 January 1940 vol 356 cc31-3

3.28 p.m.

Mr. Hore-Belisha

Mr. Speaker, I rise by your leave, and in accordance with the custom of the House, to make a statement as a retiring Minister. I would have preferred at this stage to have left the matter of my departure from the Government upon the published correspondence and upon the message which I gave to my constituents, that I had no thought at the moment but that of winning the war. I am guided, as we must all be guided, by that overriding consideration.

For two and a half years—busy and urgent years, full of activity and rapid change—I have held the high office of Secretary of State for War. The reorganisation and development of the Army during this period have been carried out with a degree of agreement that offers a remarkable contrast to the stormy history of most reforms. I would not wish to have the recollections of that endeavour marred by any atmosphere of bitterness or controversy. I did not select my collaborators because they were readily complacent or supinely acquiescent; I selected the strongest men I could find; and I respected them most when they were most outspoken in Council. It was not a dull or stagnant administration. If from time to time there have been differences of opinion, if there have been differences of outlook or of temperament or of understanding, these have been no deeper than must occur in any association of men bent upon pressing tasks of more than transitory importance. Our achievement, for what it has been, has been the result of our common efforts, and it is neither the sole inspiration nor the exclusive realisation of any one of us.

Particularly is this so in regard to what is called the democratisation of the Army. This year there may be 3,000,000 men under arms. I have always looked upon it as an ideal that the Army should be a part of the nation, and not apart from the nation; that it should be a career which every young man could enter with the knowledge that he could rise according to his character and ability, regardless of his status or his means; and I have hoped that in some way we might thus gradually bind all the members of the nation more closely in mutual under- standing. At any rate, I worked for that, and those with whom I was associated worked with me. It did not occur to me to consider that we were making the Army too democratic to fight for Democracy.

I hope it has been realised that a Secretary of State cannot divest himself of accountability to Parliament for all matters, both great and small, concerning the Army and this is so whether the question be the provision of defences, their adequacy and the speed of construction, or the well-being of the soldier, the conditions of his service and the matter of his equipment. One of the traditions—and indeed the regulation—of the Army for which I have always had the greatest respect, and which has seemed to me to furnish the securest safeguard against the abuse of position or rank, is the requirement that any complaint or grievance can be directed to a superior officer, if desired for transmission to the highest authority; and this is none the less so if the superior officer is the Secretary of State. I mention this because I desire to clear those who have worked with me of an aspersion. I am reluctant to believe that any of the high officers with whom I have been associated would have been so unfaithful to the code, which imbues the whole Army, as to make any representation irregularly, or that, if he ha.d done so, it would have been countenanced. I look back to the period of my close connection with the Army, on which I have directed so much of my thought and good will—as I still shall direct these—as a period of hard work and of much happiness.

There has been, so far as I know, no conflict of view or policy with any of my colleagues in the Government upon any point, affecting my Department or otherwise. There has been no lack of confidence, and we have worked in one relationship or another for many years, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister testifies, in a spirit of loyalty. He will recognise that I have relied on his support in the task, which he entrusted to me, of preparing the Army for war; and I acknowledge that until Thursday week last it was readily forthcoming. A Prime Minister is free, in the exercise of his impartial judgment, to make what appointments may seem to him good. His reasons may or may not commend themselves. Conversely, it is the duty of others to accept posts, of however great or however minor importance, if they can do so in circumstances which permit them to give of their best to the service of the State.

Why then did I decline to effect the exchange which the Prime Minister offered, and to accept the important office of the Board of Trade? I will give in a sentence the explanation to the House. I did so because I could not feel the assurance that the considerations which had persuaded the Prime Minister to make the change would allow of my energetic discharge, in the national interest, of the other office. Is it necessary for me to say that I offer my successor any help or counsel that I can give him, in my capacity as a Private Member, in an office which will always have my interest and regard? War compels and unifies the whole effort of a nation, and I trust that it is in that spirit that I have spoken.