HC Deb 18 April 1946 vol 421 cc2928-37

1.40 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I am glad to be given the opportunity of referring to the arrangements for 8th June, because I have been asked by many of my constituents what precisely it is proposed that we shall celebrate on that occasion. On VE-Day we celebrated, and rightly celebrated, the brilliant victory of our Forces in Europe and on VJ-Day we celebrated, and rightly celebrated, the equally remarkable achievements of our Forces in the Far East. To try to celebrate anything a second time always results in an anti-climax, and, therefore, I ask what has occurred since the defeat of Japan that would justify us, at this time, in embarking upon fresh celebrations. So far as feeling in the country is concerned, I do not appreciate any desire for such celebrations; on the contrary, there appears to be prevalent an acute disappointment at the slow progress made at home towards reconstruction and equally severe disappointment at the slow progress towards the solution of the many difficult problems which confront our Government overseas.

When this proposal for 8th June was first made by the Government, it appeared to me to be a mistake, and I added my name in support of a Motion put clown on the Order Paper by the hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers) protesting against the Government's proposals. None the less, I was quite ready to believe that there would be many people throughout the country who would not share our views, but who would desire to partake in these celebrations. I have made very exhaustive inquiries throughout my constituency, and among hon. Members in this House and elsewhere, and especially have 1 inquired of members and ex-members of the Forces, and I have not yet met one single person who disagrees with the view expressed by the hon. Member for Orpington and those hon. Members who supported his Motion.

Therefore, I ask the Home Secretary, in view of this widespread lack of interest, to put it no higher, in the Government's proposals, who initiated them, where did the idea spring from and what steps have the Government taken to ascertain public opinion on this subject So far as London is concerned, these arrangements are being imposed upon it and Londoners are going to suffer a good deal of inconvenience. To quote only one instance, at the present time, Kensington Gardens which, at this time of the year are usually so lovely, are being rendered hideous by miles of barbed wire and rows and rows of latrines. So far as local authorities throughout the country are concerned, toe Government urged them to join in these celebrations. But they are, with the entire acquiescence of the local inhabitants, proposing to do very little, and many of them propose to do nothing at all except provide some fun for school children.

This summer, it is quite impossible for us to provide fitting hospitality for guests and for contingents from the Forces throughout the British Empire who will, no doubt, be invited to join us here. If this sort of thing is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. I am sure that nearly all of us thoroughly enjoy a military spectacle, and that we look forward to the day when we can again witness such wonderful scenes as are provided in Trooping the Colour. It would be refreshing for us to witness a grand military spectacle. But is it possible to stage such scenes at this time? Surely it would be a most lamentable affair if this pro- posed V-Day ended in a flop. If the Government were proposing to facilitate the expression of a spontaneous outburst of popular rejoicing, well and good, but: in my submission, that is far from the case now.

It is proposed that there shall be one day's holiday with pay on 8th June. I do not think that that is going to gratify anybody. Although the Home Secretary laughs, I think the people of this country are sufficiently intelligent to realise that, if there is a day's holiday with pay all round, it means that every one pays for some one else's holiday. (Laughter.) That is not an extravagant proposition. I submit that this proposal is ill-timed, and is not consonant with the Dunkirk spirit, for which the Prime Minister is so arduously appealing at the present time. The Government should reconsider the matter afresh, try to ascertain the real state of public opinion, and revise these proposals.

1.47 p.m.

Sir Waldron Smithers (Orpington)

I desire to support the request made by my hon. Friend and to ask the Government, in all seriousness, whether they will not reconsider their decision to hold these celebrations on 8th June. In order to be as brief as possible and for the convenience of hon. Members, all the information given by the Government is contained in the replies to two Questions—in Column 158, on 2nd April, and in Column 2485, on 16th April, of the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Some of my hon. Friends and I put down a Motion a few weeks ago asking the Government to reconsider their decision. It was signed by about 15 or 20 Members of Parliament. Since the Motion was put down, I and my hon. Friends who signed it with me have received letters from all over the country supporting us and saying that these celebrations on 8th June are out of place. I have heard that many cities and towns and several of the London Boroughs have refused or declined to take part in the celebrations, and, though I have said nothing to my own local authority of Orpington, they do not see fit to have any celebrations there at all. What will the world think of us in the present appalling political and food situation if we have this belated celebration which no one seems to want? We are now actually waiting for the news of the approval or disapproval of the American Loan and, surely, the Americans will say that we came to them cap in hand for a large loan to help to see us through our troubles, yet we can spend £168,000 of the Government's money on these celebrations, which is the figure, so far as I can extract it, from the answers to Questions—£135,000 for civil expenditure, and £33,000 for the War Office. To spend that is a waste of money and a waste of time.

In addition, there will be all the expense of people crowding into London, putting London to great inconvenience; and the shortage of food will create very serious difficulties. How can we in this country, with any good heart, enter into these celebrations, when millions of people, all over the world, are faced with starvation? This is not the time to stage a parade; it is out of place, and it is incongruous. I am told, from responsible quarters, that VE-Day and V J-Day cost us tens of thousands of tons of coal in production, and several scores of thousands of pounds in the iron and steel industry. One day's celebrations of this kind means more than one day's loss to industry. When the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers are appealing for more production it seems altogether out of place to encourage people to spend money and to waste time on celebrations. I would ask hon. Members to read the first leading article in "The Times" of this morning. It is one of the most brilliant articles that I have read for many a day. It gives good reasons why we should not hold these celebrations on 8th June. Instead of these celebrations, now is the time to pray for health and strength to face the grim period which lies ahead.

1.52 p.m.

Mr. Paget (Northampton)

I do not think that any of us would object to the school children having a holiday, and, perhaps, some celebrations on this day. After all, they have lived through very stirring times, they have suffered the hardships which those times involve, and I do not think that it is unreasonable that there should be a commemorative day for them. Equally, I feel that for the working population, as a whole, there is a lot to be said for a day's holiday in the summer. I do not follow the point of the hon. Member who opened this Debate that none of them would really enjoy their holiday, because they would realise that a holiday with pay was a holiday in which everyone was paying for someone else's holiday, It is not everybody who will be paying It is the employers, who are a somewhat small minority, who will be paying, and it is the employed who will be enjoying themselves. I do not think that the ordinary people in the factories have any real objection, or would have their enjoyment marred, by feeling that it was "the boss" who was giving them that day.

Sir J. Mellor

Would not the hon. Member agree that it all ultimately falls upon the consumer?

Mr. Paget

No, I would not agree. I do not want to enter into a difficult, economic argument, but I should be very surprised indeed if a single day's holiday in a year was, in fact, reflected by an increase of a single farthing in the price of any article. I think that it would come out of profits, and I can well believe that there are sufficient profits to pay for this one day's holiday. I rather hope myself that the Government will reconsider the proposals for pompous military parades and ceremonies of that kind. When we went into this war we said that it was not a war in which we were merely fighting to defeat another nation; it was not merely a conflict or—to use what used to be a current phrase—imperialistic rivalry, or anything of that sort. This was a war in which we were fighting to try to achieve a better world, a more decent world, a world in which people might live in peace and security. Some of us who were in the Forces believed that, and thought that we were fighting for a better world. Have we achieved it?

When we look across the water and see mass starvation—starvation not merely in the countries which were our enemies, although even there I do not think that the conception of Europe as being a series of sheep and goat pens is a very satisfactory one, but starvation among those who were our comrades in arms in this great struggle—is it really a time to rejoice? Is it a time to make a public parade of a victory which, in the largest sense, we have yet to win? Let it be a day's holiday, but let it also be a day in which we think of the sufferings imposed by this war on people who are not as fortunate as ourselves; a day when we should try to set aside something to alleviate those sufferings. I believe that that would be a more dignified and humane manner of marking the termination of these great events.

1.57 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

We have had three speeches raising this issue, and personally I do not complain of the tone that has been adopted, although I find myself rather more attuned to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) than to the two speeches delivered from the other side of the House. The hon. 'Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) asked me who initiated these proposals. The initiation came from his side of the House. So long ago as October of last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was being pressed by hon. Members on the other side of the House to initiate some parade in London which would enable the people of the capital, and the people of the country generally, to pay their tribute to the troops, and other people, who have been responsible for the great deliverance which was achieved during the course of 1945. I want to insist that that is the spirit which has animated the Government in preparing these proposals.

Sir W. Smithers

Surely, the position at home and abroad has materially deteriorated since then, and circumstances have altered.

Mr. Ede

The hon. Member for Orpington (Sir W. Smithers) was down in the depth of the dumps even before the dissolution of Parliament, and was foreseeing far worse evils than, in fact, have yet befallen us. He is one of those people who is never happy unless he is miserable. The spirit with which we approach this matter is that there was a very large number of people, some in the Forces, others in civil defence forces, others in the factories and workshops, and even in the home, whose united efforts enabled this country to achieve the greatest deliverance vouchsafed to us in the course of our history. Surely, it is desirable that there should be an opportunity for the community to pay its tribute to those people ho were responsible, under God, for that deliverance. That is what we want to secure.

VE-Day and VJ-Day were, to borrow a phrase of the hon. Member for Orpington in the nature of Mafeking nights. I am one who can, unfortunately, remember Mafeking night. I, as a Volunteer, was returning from a parade on Wimbledon Common on the night the deliverance was announced. For some reason the inhabitants of Wimbledon confused us with the troops who had relieved Mafeking. I am quite sure that those of us whose memories go hack to that night know that the spirit of VE-Day and VJ-Day was very different from the spirit of that time, and the spirit which, I am told, prevailed in England on the afternoon of 11th November, 1918. Even in the rejoicings of VE-Day and V J-Day there was a recognition of how near we had been to the pit. When this House went to St. Margaret's on VE-Day and we sang that wonderful metrical version of the 125th Psalm I am quite sure everyone of us felt it might almost have been written especially for that occasion. This is not a celebration of a victory in the way that, I think, some of the words we have heard uttered this afternoon might have indicated. It is a recognition an the part of the whole nation of what we owe—may I put it this way?—to one another, for what was done during the course of those six war years.

If, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, it is going to be a help if each pays for everyone else's holiday, then, perhaps, that is one way in which we can show this mutual recognition of what the most unexpected people did in the course of those six years. For, surely, one of the remarkable things we discovered was that ordinary humble civilians, whom one would never have thought capable of rising to great heights, did, in the stress of the circumstances, reveal a courage, a heroism and a devotion that entitles them to recognition by the rest of the community. We also, I hope, intend to recognise the proof that once again has been given of the wonderful doggedness of the British infantryman. I recollect speaking before the war on the Army Estimates, and complaining at the way everybody said that the next war would be one in the air. I said I was quite sure that the next war would be won by the indomitable British infantryman's once again refusing to know when he was beaten. It is well, I think, that we should make an opportunity for these characteristics of our race to be held in honour by the whole people. I do not, therefore, apologise for the fact that we have responded to the invitation that was put forward to us last Autumn to afford the people of this country an opportunity for showing their recognition of the spirit that was shown by the whole people.

To my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton I say this will not be merely a pompous military parade. We propose to see that in the marching ranks there shall be representatives of every one of the civil forces and of the industrial forces who unitedly enabled us to achieve the deliverance which we have secured for all mankind. While it is true that there will be representatives of all the fighting Forces and of as many regiments as possible in the parade, there will also be a recognition of every one of the civil units, whether civil defence or industrial, which contributed to the achievement of our deliverance. Therefore, I hope that this explanation will do something to remove the apprehensions which the people who indulged in conversation with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sutton Coldfield at present entertain, and I sincerely hope that in the course of his future wanderings about the country and talks with people, he will be able to give them a rather more balanced idea of what we propose to do.

Sir J. Mellor

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that up to this point he has said nothing to controvert the main proposition of my speech, which was, broadly speaking, that this further D-Day is not wanted by the people of this country?

Mr. Ede

The hon. Gentleman makes a dogmatic statement. The only thing one can do with a dogmatist is to contradict him, and I do not regard that as being very polite. I believe that, when the people of this country realise that our object is not to have a pompous military parade, a celebration of a victory—in that sense—but to give recognition to those people who saved us, their attitude will not be that as described by the hon. Gentleman. He raised one or two other points with which I want to deal—

Mr. Paget

Before the right hon. Gentle-ma n leaves that point, may I ask if steps will be taken also to recognise those who helped to save us and who are at present starving?

Mr. Ede

That, of course, is a matter that does not come within the scope of this Debate. I can assure my hon. Friend however, that nothing gives the Government more anxiety than the heavy responsibilities which we have to carry for certain of the people of Europe and the members of our Commonwealth of Nations; and that what we are able to do there will certainly not be hindered by anything that happens on 8th June. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield raised the question of Kensington Gardens. That is not a matter which comes directly under my Department but, clearly, it would be desirable that only one Minister should speak on this occasion. As far as Kensington Gardens are concerned, we propose to use them, as they were used on former occasions such as the Coronations, the 1919 victory celebrations and the Silver Jubilee, as a camp for the troops who will be coming from overseas and for our allies who take part in the procession.

The difficulty about Kensington Gardens is that the railings were removed during the war, and it is very desirable, not that we should prevent the troops from getting out, but that we should prevent certain people from getting in during the course of the occupation of the gardens by the troops. We have taken steps to limit the amount that is and will be shut off to the lowest possible minimum. I was a little perturbed at one time because it appeared likely that the children of the neighbourhood might be denied access to the Round Pond which I am quite sure every Member will know is a source of very considerable delight to the children who frequent the gardens. We have been able to take steps whereby the pond will remain open for the use of the children.

Although we have to erect barbed wire, we propose to leave as many gaps in it as possible until the actual arrival of the troops, so that the denial of access to the gardens shall be reduced to the very lowest possible minimum and that a complete exclusion from any part will only take place in the interests of, the troops when it is necessary to close the part of the gardens which has been allocated to them. It is also necessary to take certain steps to secure the Government property which is in use in preparation for housing the troops and for the construction of the various erections to which the hon. Member alluded. I am sorry to say that our efforts to keep the area enclosed as small as possible have resulted in some loss of Government property. It may be that some people think that some of this material is not even fit for salvage and are carting it off for bonfires. I hope that further depredations will not occur and that the people using the gardens will recognise that we are endeavouring, as far as possible, to allow them to retain access as long as possible, but that we shall only be able to continue to do so to the extent we are now doing if that concession is treated in the spirit in which it is offered.

I accept to the full all that has been said about the present condition of the world by the three hon. Members who preceded me in the course of this Debate. But that does not detract, for one single moment, from what the ordinary citizens of this country did during the turmoil of the last six years. I sincerely hope that 8th June will be a day on which we shall recognise the tremendous heights to which the ordinary citizens of this country rose and at which they maintained themselves during those six years, and that when we see those representatives of the people who secured our deliverance we shall think not merely of them, but of those who laid down their lives. I hope that we shall find in this day an opportunity for rededicating ourselves to the tremendous tasks that victory in war throws on the victors. It is a terrible responsibility to declare war. Never let it be forgotten that in the last two wars we declared war; we did not wait to be attacked. Those few of us here this afternoon who were present in this House on the night of 2nd September, 1939, can well recall the very heavy sense of responsibility that rested on the House that night. It is a still more terrible responsibility to be the victors in a war and to be responsible for the framing of the future of the world. I believe that if we take this Saturday, which has been purposely chosen as the Saturday before Whit Sunday so as to interfere as little as possible with the ordinary life of the community, to recognise the work of those who fought and laboured in the conflict and to rededicate ourselves to make this victory really worthy of the sacrifices which the whole country endured, that this day may well be one of the most valuable in the history of our great country.