HC Deb 22 July 1941 vol 373 cc853-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Whiteley.]

Captain Cunningham-Reid (St. Marylebone)

The greatest menace to this country to-day is the continuation of the "old school tie" predominance in politics. It has developed a practice that overlooks inefficiency and administrative shortcomings, provided that the offender conforms to the standards laid down by the "Margesson school. "By the" Margesson school" I mean the system whereby the discipline of Government Ministers and M.P. supporters is controlled through the Government Whips' office, a system perfected by the right hon. and gallant Member for Rugby (Captain Margesson), who, for so many years, was Chief Whip. Few Conservatives could hope for advancement unless they were approved by the "Margesson school" and conformed to the necessary standards. These standards do not necessarily include ability, but, with few exceptions, it is essential that candidates should be popular types of men who belong to the so-called hereditary ruling class, and it has been noticed that, if they also happen to be hunting men, then their careers in the Government are assured, starting in the Whips' office as Junior Whips—an appropriate hunting term.

Of course, it is also demanded that they should be good party men, which, in plain language, means that they shall be docile, that they will do what they are told, and that they will not ask awkward questions. All this may sound fantastic, but nevertheless it is true, and in some ways it is reasonable, and from the Chief Whip's point of view, it is quite understandable, because his is the responsibility of seeing that there is no trouble for the Government or, anyhow, as little trouble as possible. The Chief Whip was not likely to recommend to the Prime Minister of the day that some brilliant, stormy petrel, with the strength of his convictions, should be given a Government appointment; to have somebody within the nest who might take a strong and independent line would he just asking for trouble. That is why the present Prime Minister, Lord Beaverbrook, and, I understand, Lord Rothermere, were constantly excluded from succeeding Governments.

Then, again, one can appreciate that in the Whips' Office it is essential that there should be good team work, and as the Chief Whip very naturally chooses men to help him whom he knows and whom he can trust, that is to say, his friends, he does so, sometimes, regardless of whether they have political aptitude or keenness. Prior to entering the Whips' Office the present Chief Whip had attended 88 Divisions out of a Session of 414 Divisions, so it will be seen that it is not conscientious application to House of Commons duties that is considered to be of paramount importance. To that extent, I ought to be in the running for a Whip's job, because I think there was a period when my Division record was worse than was the record I have just mentioned of the right hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. J. Stuart).

I wonder if my reasons for non-attendance at that period were the same as his. Was he, like myself, disgusted, and disheartened, by the determination of the Baldwin-Chamberlain crowd not to prevent Germany from re-arming and by their corresponding determination to go slow with our own re-arming? Though what happened at Munich was deplorable, nevertheless I feel that it was essential, in view of what had gone before. But when M.P.s, unimportant to the Whips, such as myself, attempted to make our voices heard we were prevented by the Whips' Office by various means, and even during the seriousness of war, such means are still continued. One had supposed that the Conservative Whips' Office was by way of being representative of a democratic party, within which every Member had an equal chance, and where one was not hindered in expressing one's views. Here let me say that I am well aware that the "old school tie" caucus will contemptuously dismiss the contribution I am now making as sour grapes. Well, let them do it; it will make no difference to the facts that I intend to put before this House.

The Whips' Office being the main stepping-stone to all other Government appointments, is it to be wondered at, realising how Conservative Whips are chosen, that many key positions to-day are held by "jolly good fellows"? But when you come to examine their ability for such vital war-time responsibility, that is a very different matter. There are first-class men in this House of Commons to-day who, although they may not conform to the outward conventional standards required by the Whips' Office, and although they may have few friends and no relations in high places, possess attributes which would help this country to avoid defeat, and which it would appear, to my simple mind, are more important than being just a "jolly good fellow." I refer to attributes such as efficiency, alertness, driving power and toughness. How many of the millstones hanging round the Prime Minister's neck to-day have those qualities? One senior Minister, by being in office with both Baldwin and Chamberlain, has lost all his independence. He now agrees with everybody. He was head of a vital war Department that has important and essential work to do day and night, but he had become so complacent that even when matters were serious he used to go home to the seaside nearly every night and week-end. That Minister is still in the Government to-day.

The Government Whips' Office is nearly as powerful as any Prime Minister, because, as I have indicated, it is this office that suggests and provides for all Government key positions. This office has the inestimable advantage of being comparatively inconspicuous. It is the only Government Department that does not have to give an account of its stewardship. It is more silent than the so-called "Silent Service." The power that it wields behind the scenes is positively extraordinary. It has been observed that the most independent of characters get drawn under its spell sooner or later. Has the Prime Minister been affected? Our system of Government is such that a Prime Minister, of necessity, becomes dependent on his Whips' Office. The Whips' Office provides the barometer of political weather. It warns the Prime Minister if a legislative storm is brewing, and suggests procedure for overcoming it. The untimely end of a Government is often avoided by the tactics of the Whips' Office. Its advice is taken on Ministerial appointments, and, as the Whips have always been sticklers for team work, one realises that they naturally lean towards men who will create no trouble once they are within the inner circle. No man worked harder or more successfully than the right hon. and gallant Member for Rugby to keep the present Prime Minister out of office when the right hon. and gallant Member was Chief Whip. Nevertheless, it is significant that when the present Prime Minister became Prime Minister, he not only kept on the right hon. and gallant Member as Chief Whip, but eventually put him in supreme charge of our Army: the very same man who was in the inner councils of the Baldwin-cum-Chamberlain rule of unpreparedness, the same man who showed such faulty judgment in being a party to excluding the present Prime Minister from office when his influence might have done immense good, and might even have saved this country from war.

The Baldwin-Chamberlain influence does not end there, for, although in the present Government there is a sprinkling of Conservatives, Liberals and Socialists who have not been tainted with the influence, as many as 50 Ministers who held office when ineptitude and complacency let us down so badly are still in the Government to-day. In this latest shuffle round that we heard about on Monday only one of the old gang has been removed, and that has been set off by the fact that one of what I might call the new gang has also been removed and he has been dispatched to the wilderness of the B.B.C. The "old school ties" are still bunched together to the extent of 60 per cent. of the present Government. They hold 60 per cent. of the key positions.

One is entitled to ask why should the products of the "Margesson school," that has always been satisfied with muddling-along standards, provided that the pupils were of the approved type, suddenly, miraculously be able to transform themselves into men of energy, imagination and driving power? It is asking too much. Only a very few of these legacies are fitted to cope with the present crisis. It is very difficult to teach old dogs new tricks. Only a few of these old dogs are likely to learn the new tricks. It is fresh minds, with new tricks, that is going to win this war. Therefore, I ask, is it not time that the Baldwin-Chamberlain old boys reunion broke up and were replaced by all and sundry, regardless of the colour of their ties, provided that they are of outstanding ability in particular spheres and possess the necessary thoroughness and ruthlessness to better the Hun?

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

If there is to be no reply to the hon. and gallant Member's criticism of the Whips' Department, with special reference, as the hon. and gallant Member definitely showed, to the Government Whips' Department, I rise to remove the possibility of any misunderstanding. To-day, with the House constituted as it is, with Members on this side not being looked upon as definitely in opposition to the Government, I simply want to make it perfectly clear that when the hon. and gallant Member refers to the way in which Whips are appointed by the party to which he "belongs, his description does not apply to those Whips who are Members of the Labour party. Labour party Whips are appointed by democratic vote of the whole membership of that party in this House. It is a pleasure for me also to Be "able to say that those members of this party who at present are acting as Whips on the Government side have that imprimatur placed upon their appointment by the fact that they also had their appointments arrived at under that proper democratic principle.

Mr. Mander (Wolverhampton, East)

I only rose with the same object as my hon. Friend, namely, to clear up any possible doubt. He used a phrase which I did not quite follow. He said that he and his hon. Friends were not definitely in opposition to the Government. Is that really a fair and comprehensive statement of the position? Would it not be fairer to say that he and his hon. Friends are supporters of the Government?

Mr. Mathers

I wished to indicate that, although we are sitting here, we were not in opposition to the Government in the way in which we are generally looked upon, when the House is normally constituted, as the Government Opposition. I am sure that the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) recognises, as do all of us, the position in which the major parties in this House are operating at the present time.

Mr. Mander

My hon. Friend really has not met the point. Does he still maintain that the correct description is '' not definitely in opposition"? Would he not say that he and his friends support the Government, in which one of the outstanding ornaments is the Lord Privy Seal?

Mr. Mathers

I am sure that it is not necessary for me to make the position any more clear. I hope that it is well under stood how and where we stand, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for East Wolverhampton will, in the same way, make his own position clear.

Mr. Mander

We who sit on this Bench are whole-hearted supporters of His Majesty's Government.

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