HC Deb 09 March 1944 vol 397 cc2343-52

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

Mr. Huģh Lawson (Skipton)

I am very much obliged to the Financial Secretary to the War Office for coming down and giving me the opportunity of raising certain points on the question of political activities in the Services. I feel that I must apologise to the House for raising such an important matter on the Adjournment Motion, but it appears to be the only way in which I could raise it, though I am sorry it has come at such a late hour. Within the time we have, I do feel that I must put these points, and I want to do so not because they affect me in any way, but because they are matters of very general concern to all hon. Members of this House, and also to the public generally, particularly those in the Fighting Services. Though the matter under consideration applies only to the Army, I feel that the principles involved apply to the other Services as well. It seems to me that the issue is very simple indeed. I think there are two fundamental human rights involved. The first is freedom of speech and the second is the right of free association for political purposes.

I do not think there is any need in this House to say that these rights are important, but I would like to point out that these are rights which I think we can claim are absolute rights. They are not, for instance, like the rights we all have to pass over the King's highway, which is hedged in by rules that we must drive on a certain side of the road and, when a signal is given, we must stop. These are rules made so that we can pass more easily. But these two rights, freedom of speech and political association, are derived from something much more fundamental than that, and I would particularly appeal to the Financial Secretary to remember the history of the Labour Party, which is based on these rights. I want to say this, that I think this House gets its authority from a consideration of these rights. If it were not for the conception of freedom of speech and political association, this House could never have come into being, and therefore, nothing that this House can do can in any way impair these rights. Democracy, in other words, cannot remove democracy. When we turn from this to what is actually in the King's Regulations, I think we find the situation is somewhat different and I would remind the House that paragraph 541A reads as follows: No officer or soldier … is permitted to take any active part in the affairs of any political organisation or party.… Specifically, speaking in public is referred to. That is a Regulation which was drawn up, I think, for a peace-time Army, and it seems to me that a soldier or officer in joining the Army enters into a voluntary contract, if you like, with his employer, the State, to refrain from doing certain things. If he goes into that with his eyes open, that is his own business. It is not a thing that I personally would have done, but in war-time the situation is entirely different. Large numbers of people have been called up to join the Army and there are very large numbers of others who, while having volunteered, have only done so because of the dire necessity of the nation and have done so with, shall I say, mental reservations about this particular paragraph. I want to suggest that in war-time the spirit of these Regulations cannot apply.

This matter was raised previously in this House and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War made a statement which I would like to quote. On reading the OFFICIAL REPORT, it seemed to me that this statement was received by the House with general agreement. He said: I think it is extremely desirable that we should not be too literal in our interpretation of the King's Regulations.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th October, 1943; col. 691, Vol. 3921 That seemed to me very sensible, but I would remind the Financial Secretary that King's Regulations still stay as they are and a commanding officer must use these Regulations; he cannot refer to what some Minister is reported to have said in a newspaper. So that is the anomalous position in which we find ourselves, and in order to get it clarified I have asked the Financial Secretary to the War Office if he will answer me on certain points. I am, therefore, going to read out the questions which I have asked the Financial Secretary to answer.

  1. "1. Is the Secretary of State's reply to the hon. Member for Bridgeton's question on the 12th October, 1943, that we should not be too literal in our interpretation of King's Regulations still the policy of the Government?
  2. "2. Would the following be a reasonable interpretation of 'not too literal' in this connection, that during the war all ranks should be allowed to (a) be members of political parties, (b) be honorary office bearers in political parties, (c) speak at political meetings when in civilian clothes, (d) publish signed articles, pamplets, etc., on political matters, (e) go as delegates to political conferences, (f) where branches of political parties do not exist, to organise the same whether in this country or overseas. Subject always that these activities were only undertaken in the time that was free from military duties, and that they were not used to discuss the affairs of the unit in which the soldier was serving.
  3. "3. If the Government do not accept the above, what are its reasons, and what are the alternatives?
  4. "4. What is the Secretary of State proposing to do to remove the anomaly whereby the Secretary of State in his speech says one thing and the King's Regulations say another thing and, when I have put down questions asking him if he will issue a Regulation of Army Council Instruction to clarify the position, he has said there is no need to do so?
  5. "5. Does the Government differentiate between what is allowed to a Member of Parliament who is a soldier, an adopted candidate who is a soldier, a person who was not a candidate who has been adopted for a specific constituency and is on the approved list of candidates of a political party, and, lastly, any other soldier?
  6. 2346
  7. "6. Will the Secretary of State reconsider his decision not to issue an Army Council Instruction setting out the conditions in which the soldier may be granted special leave to attend a Selection Board?"
Having put those questions—and what I want is a "Yes" to all of them—I want to support the general case for political freedom with one or two specific points on this matter of the political freedom of those in the Forces in war-time.

The first thing I would say is that we have developed in the Army this idea of education for citizenship through the Army Bureau of Current Affairs and kindred things. If you are having education of any sort, it is not the slightest good having the theoretical without the practical. It is no use learning from books, you have to put it into practice. Similarly, it is not the slightest good having political education unless you are going to put it into practice. Again, I think the Regulations at present are very far from being impartial. They discriminate in this way. If your political persuasion belongs to a party where candidates are normally chosen because of wealth and influence, you do not need to take part in political activity at all. All you need to do is to appear on the day of the selection board and it is quite possible to be adopted without having anything to do at all with politics. Whether that is right or wrong is another matter, but, in a democratic party, the only person who will ever get the chance of being adopted as a candidate is one who has proved his worth to his fellows by political activity. In this connection I want to say that if I have not broken King's Regulations in this matter consistently, for a good number of years, I would not have been asked to contest a seat and so be speaking here to-night. It does discriminate against those who can give only their personal services to a party and who are not in a position to use money or have any social position.

We have been at great pains in this war to provide machinery so that at the next General Election men and women in the Services can vote. If we have done that, surely the logical corollary is that if there is the right to vote there is the right to do these things which alone make voting a reasonable and an intelligent thing. Having taken some interest in politics, I do feel very strongly on that point. Again, during this war controversial legislation has been postponed. We have been told "Oh, no, this cannot be gone into until after the next General Election." If we have postponed our controversial legislation, surely during the few weeks before the next General Election—which will certainly take place while many men and women are still in uniform—there will be an election campaign when we shall be asked to consider controversial matters. Therefore, if we are going to have any value from that election, we must realise that as the war gets nearer to its end the importance of allowing political activity in the Forces increases. I do, therefore, suggest that these are very weighty reasons why we should amend this Regulation. We give a soldier a right to stand for Parliament but we do not at present give him the right to do those things which bring him to the position where he can be accepted as a candidate. I have come in a reasonable and friendly manner into this Debate, but I want to say to the Financial Secretary to the War Office that we do not accept for one moment the fact that this Regulation has any force or validity. It may have been all right in peace-time but I, and many members of His Majesty's Forces, just do not accept it now. Whatever happens to this Regulation I, for one, will continue to do all I can to work against it, and I will recommend all my friends in the Armed Forces when they ask me about this to carry out the fundamental principles of democracy and break this Regulation.

Mr. Granville (Eye)

I do not want to stand for more than a few minutes between the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson) and the Financial Secretary to the War Office. I hope the Minister will tell us that the Government intend to scrap these Regulations, because it is useless to have them on the stocks when you cannot carry them out. I read in a newspaper recently that troops had held a general election at a base in Cairo. At that election I think the Labour Party were returned at the top, while the Conservative Party were at the bottom of the poll. I would like to know whether that election was held under these Regulations? I am glad that it was held, because the troops were showing an interest in this war, which is supposed to be for democracy. The time has come when the Government ought to be bold and scrap these Regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Skip-ton also referred to the possibility of a coming General Election. I understand that a register is being prepared on the ration card basis, and that it would be possible to hold a General Election within the next four or five weeks. What do the Government propose to do if there is a General Election in May or June of this year and the Services are to be given an overseas vote by proxy? If the Government say that these Regulations are to be carried out the Forces will be denied any possible activity in party politics. I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to answer the two points I have put. First, whether the election by the troops was held under the Regulations and, second, what do the Government propose to do if there is a General Election in two or three months' time? Are the troops overseas to be given a blind vote or to take an active part in that Election?

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I want to support the case put forward by the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. H. Lawson). I raised the matter some time ago, in relation to a young man belonging to my own party, and I was very upset and angry about it at that time. One of the annoying things about the whole business is that the two cases which have become the subject of definite War Office action apply to the smallest party group in the House. That does not smell right. It is not right and proper that the only two cases which have become the subject of definite War Office action should be those of a young private in the I.L.P. and a young Member of Parliament representing the Common Wealth Party. When the Minister answered the original Question I believed that something was going to be done, and I am still hoping that when the Army Annual Bill comes before us either that Regulation will be wiped out or some substantial alteration will be made in it to accord with the actual facts in our time, when a big proportion of the male adults of our country of an active age are in one or other of the armed Services. To say that they wilt have no say whatever in the political activities of the country is to me an impossible thing to say and at the same time claim to be a democracy.

The Financial Secretary to the War Office (Mr. Arthur Henderson)

My hon. Friend very courteously gave me advance notice of the various points that he intended raising and I shall hope to deal with all of them as far as time permits. He stated that the basis of this discussion revolves round the application, or even the existence, of King's Regulation 541A. He quoted part of it but not the really operative part of it. He merely referred to the question of making speeches, whereas the real operative part is the restriction on taking an active part in the affairs of a political organisation or party. My hon. Friend made a statement which I hope on reflection he will regret having made. He said his advice to serving troops would be that they should not accept King's Regulations—

Mr. Lawson

This Regulation.

Mr. Henderson

—and, if necessary, should break it. He and I have both served in the Forces and he knows as well as I do that that is only encouraging Service personnel to commit acts of indiscipline. The constitutional way of dealing with the problem is to seek to amend the Army Annual Bill. I do not think it very desirable on the part of any responsible Member of Parliament to encourage serving soldiers to break this or any other Regulation. The hon. Gentleman raised the case that was raised in the Question of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) on 12th October, when my Tight hon. Friend said, in reply to a supplementary question, that it was extremely desirable that we should not be too literal in our interpretation of King's Regulations. On 8th February, in reply to a question of the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend explained what he meant. He said: By a too literal interpretation of that Regulation I meant to the extent of making every minor infringement of it into a major disciplinary offence."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th February, 1944; col. 1608, Vol. 396.] That statement means exactly what it says, and I have nothing to add to it or to withdraw from it. The hon. Gentleman asked that new Regulations should be issued so that Commanding Officers will know what they are to do about this Regulation. I do not believe that they are in much doubt what the Regulation means. Nor can I think that anything that my right hon. Friend said can be held to countenance the doctrine that King's Regulations can be interpreted loosely at the will of the individual. At the same time, it is obvious that the enforcement of this or any other King's Regulation must be left to the discretion of the commanding officer concerned, subject to my right hon. Friend's statement. In the preface to the King's Regulations there is this sentence: Officers are expected to interpret them reasonably and intelligently with due regard to the interest of the Service. My hon. Friend has asked me a number of questions which I hope I shall have time to answer. The first was, "Can all ranks during the war be members of political parties?" My answer is, "Yes, they always have been allowed and still are allowed to be members of political parties." The second question was, "Can they be honorary office bearers?" My answer is, "Yes, provided they do not infringe 541A by taking an active part in the affairs of the organisation."

Mr. Granville

Is attending an annual meeting taking part?

Mr. Henderson

Making a speech would be regarded as taking an active part. My hon. Friend also asked, "Can they speak at political meetings when in civilian clothes? Can they publish signed articles and pamphlets on political matters? Can they act as delegates at political conferences? Where branches of political parties do not exist can they organise same?" My reply to these four questions is, "No, because they come within the prohibition contained in 541A, as each act would constitute taking an active part in the affairs of a political organisation or party."

I am also asked whether the Government differentiate between what is allowed for (a) a Member of Parliament, (b) an adopted candidate, (c) a person who, while not a candidate who has been adopted for a specific constituency, is on the approved list of a political party, and (d) any other soldier. The position of M.P.s and adopted candidates is governed by the War Office letter dated 11th April, 1940, which I have referred to in the House on previous occasions. It inter alia authorises M.P.s and adopted candidates to address public meetings in their constituencies and to send messages, letters, etc., for publication in the local Press in their constituencies. The only difference is that an M.P. may either wear uniform or plain clothes, whereas the prospective candidate must not address meetings while in uniform. As regards a serving officer or soldier who is not a prospective candidate but who may desire to announce himself at a by-election, he may publicly announce himself or allow himself to be publicly announced as a candidate or prospective candidate provided he receives the permission of the Army Council. The object of that is to ensure that the correct formalities are observed. In fact, that permission is automatically given, but it has to be given before the public anouncement is made.

My hon. Friend suggests that a further A.C.I. should be issued setting out the conditions under which a soldier should be granted special leave to attend a selection board. That is not necessary, as a commanding officer has every discretion to give leave, up to 28 days, subject to military exigencies, and I do not think he would withhold permission in a bona fide case.

Finally, my hon. Friend has made an appeal for the maximum political freedom for all ranks. I personally do not believe there is any country in the world where there is greater political freedom than our own. It is inherent in the way of life for which we are fighting and sacrificing in the present conflict, but the Army traditionally, with very limited exceptions, has always kept out of party politics. It has always accepted the position that it is its duty to give complete loyalty to whatever Government is in power, irrespective of party complexion, and I, for one, hope that the Army will never deviate from that position. That being so, it must involve some limitation of the political activity of those who are serving in the Army. As to the next General Election, in the past special instructions about political activities have been issued on the eve of a General Election, when the vast majority of the men in the Service are affected. This will be done on the eve of the next General Election. I can assure the House that, consistent with the reasonable requirements of discipline and with the interests of the Service, the fullest opportunities will be given to all Service personnel to exercise their rights as citizens for election purposes.

Mr. Driberģ (Maldon)

With regard to the publication of signed articles on political matters, the Minister may recall that an emphatic "Yes" was given in this House by the Prime Minister. Provided there is no propaganda for the policy of a particular party, men are left free to publish signed articles on broad political matters of a controversial nature.

Mr. A. Henderson

It is a question of fact whether they will come within 541A. If it be an article which is outside 541A, they can do it with impunity.

Mr. Granville

Does what the Minister said about prospective candidates apply to candidates from political parties, or to independent candidates as well?

Mr. Henderson

It applies to all prospective candidates.

Question, That this House do now adjourn; put, and agreed to.