HC Deb 02 August 1951 vol 491 cc1631-46

12.16 p.m.

Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)

May I, at the outset, point out that there is no representative of the Colonial Office here today? This matter which I am raising primarily concerns the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the right hon. Gentleman is not here, nor is any member of his Ministry. I do not know whether the Secretary of State for War is going to deal with this.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Strachey)

indicated assent.

Mr. Gammans

The Colonial Secretary rang me up the other day inquiring what were the matters which I proposed to raise, so that he might try to answer them in detail, but the right hon. Gentleman is not here, and I do not know whether the Secretary of State for War has been informed of the matters which I propose to raise and is in a position to deal with them. I would point out that it is an extraordinarily discourteous way of dealing with an Adjournment debate of this sort, and I hope that some adequate explanation will be forthcoming why the Secretary of State for the Colonies is not here.

I need not detain the House for very long, because I am not going to say anything new. All the matters to which I want to refer today have been brought up on this side of the House time and again during the last five years, and it is because we are dissatisfied with the action which the Government have taken, or rather with their lack of action, that we feel that we ought to try to extract from them, before the House rises for the Recess, some more authoritative statement than we have had so far.

It is astounding to us on this side of the House that at this time, when we at home and the people in the Colonial Empire are faced with the menace of the complete destruction of their liberty and of all that we understand by it, so little use has been made of colonial man- power and so little opportunity has been given to the colonial peoples to play their part in the common defence of what we both believe. It is astounding to us that practically nothing has been done. Time and again we have made representations, and time and again the Government have made promises, but they have done nothing effective.

I hope that no one in this debate will raise any question that we are asking the Colonies to fight for us or that we are fighting for them in this worldwide struggle against Communism. I would point out to the Government that it is not very much use trying to improve the social conditions of the colonial peoples by granting them self-government if all this is to be swept away in the march of Communism across the world, and certainly all hopes of self-government for the people of Africa, Malaya and the West Indies would just disappear if Europe were to be conquered by the Communists. The frontiers of a self-governing Nigeria, the frontiers of the Gold Coast, are today on the Elbe, and it is well that we and the Colonial people should recognise our common interest and our common danger.

There is one other aspect to all this, namely, that it is the declared policy of all political parties in this House that the peoples of the Colonial Empire shall gradually attain self-government. I would venture to point out that one of the requisites of self-government, one of the responsibilities and rights of self-government, is the rights of people to be able to defend themselves; and unless in the course of our evolution towards self-government we provide the people of the Colonial Empire with the opportunity, knowledge and training to defend themselves, we are detracting from an essential principle of self-government.

Let me make it clear at the beginning that, when speaking about military service, I mean voluntary military service. We in this country are subjecting ourselves, I think quite rightly, to compulsory military service. We are not asking the people of the Colonial Empire to do that. All I am pleading is that they should be given the opportunity of standing by our side in this common defence.

Let me run over briefly what we have suggested in the past five years. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will deal with these points one by one when he replies. The first thing we suggested was that a large field army should be raised in the Colonial Empire. Here we especially think of Africa, but not entirely of Africa. In a debate not long ago, I said to the right hon. Gentleman that I was convinced that we could raise very quickly in Africa two complete divisions, with a chance of more to follow.

We shall not raise two divisions, certainly we shall not raise more than two, unless the War Office are prepared to tackle the question of officers and their training. I do not believe that the present system of the seconding of officers from the British Army is satisfactory. To my mind the only proper solution is that officers should be raised for the Colonial Army alone, as used to be done in the case of the Indian Army.

This is a rather dull and drab world today. We could place before the youth of this country a chance to serve in a great Colonial Army. If that were done, I believe that we should attract the best of the youth of our land, as in the old days of the Indian Army, for a field army in Africa and elsewhere, where there is a great reservoir of capable and loyal raw material only too willing and anxious to have the opportunity to enlist.

Remember what the two African Divisions did in Burma. When war broke out, there were 42,000 men in the Colonial Army. When the war ended there were more than ten times that number. If that could be done during the war something of that sort could surely be done now. It is not only the military service that I think would be of value. If it were combined with vocational training, which we had not really the time to undertake during the war, it would, over a comparatively short period, have a great effect in raising the whole level of technical knowledge in the Colonies.

What is being done about this field army? There are a few battalions of the King's African Rifles and the Royal West African Frontier Force. I notice that two battalions of the King's African Rifles have gone, or are about to go, to Malaya. That is rather interesting and somewhat amusing. It was not many months ago that the right hon. Gentleman assured the House that to send any was completely impossible and undesirable. Now they have gone.

These battalions in West and East Africa are widely scattered in isolated detachments. They get little brigade training; they certainly get no divisional training. Surely, if that field army is to be capable of taking the field really effectively, we should, somewhere in Africa, preferably in East Africa, create a great imperial Aldershot, to which these men could go for proper divisional training. I hope that we shall hear something about that from the right hon. Gentleman. I hope, in that connection, that he will tell us what has happened about the West Indian Regiment. He has been asked many questions about it, and the last answer he gave was that the colonial Governments concerned were being consulted. Have they been consulted, and if so with what result?

The second aspect which we on this side of the House have raised is whether or not it would be possible to enlist some garrison battalions from among those peoples with a less warlike tradition, battalions which would be primarily used not so much as a field force but for relieving the British garrisons all over the world. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman would tell us today how many battalions and batteries of the British Army are scattered all over the world doing purely garrison work.

I know there is one in the West Indies. I see that the Scots Guards have just gone to Tripoli. Several battalions have gone to the North African shore, and there are battalions in Aden. These men are doing purely garrison work. They have no divisional training, no brigade training and no opportunity to study the latest weapons. My contention is that their places could be taken by special recruited battalions from all over the Colonial Empire.

If that were done, I would guarantee that the right hon. Gentleman could raise another division of British troops from that source alone. Goodness only knows, when we consider that we are only going to send four and a half divisions of troops to Germany after five years of conscription, we could certainly do with another division of British troops either in Germany or in the central strategic reserve in this country.

During the Whitsun Recess, I went to the Suez Canal zone and spent a couple of days with the British Army. What interested me especially was to find—I did not know it before—that there were six battalions of Mauritians doing garrison duty, about 6,000 men recruited in Mauritius solely for garrison duty. The sort of jobs they were doing were protecting the barbed wire, looking after the stores and doing a vast variety of work which would otherwise have to be done by the men from this country. What can be done with 6,000 Mauritians can be done on a wider scale in almost every part of the world in which the British Army is stationed, I should be glad to know how successful the Mauritians have been, and if they have been successful, as I think they have, why that opportunity should not be extended elsewhere.

The third aspect of this matter is the question of direct enlistment in the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army. Let me take the example of the West Indies. In the last war more than 5,000 men from the West Indies enlisted in the R.A.F. Some served in this country and others all over the world. Today, if a man, a British subject in the West Indies, wants to enlist in the R.A.F., he has to come to this country at his own expense to be medically examined.

We have raised this matter several times. A miserable kind of unimaginative reply has always been given. It is causing grave annoyance in the West Indies that loyal British subjects are denied the right to enlist except at tremendous expense to themselves. Whether the right hon. Gentleman realises it or not, the thought is that there is a colour bar against men from the West Indies. I believe that we ought to enable anyone from the West Indies or any other part of the Empire who wishes to enlist to be medically examined on the spot.

I know that there are difficulties, but when one considers our worldwide commitments today and the shortage of manpower, one realises that there are many parts of the world in which men from the West Indies and the tropics could serve with great distinction without any question of climate entering into the matter.

Then there is the position in respect of the Royal Navy. I believe that we have four or five sloops on the West India Station. These are manned by men from this country. Yet in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica—every one of the West Indian Islands—there are people with the tradition of the sea. I guarantee that the Government could go to the West Indies and raise the whole crews of those sloops to serve constantly in those waters and relieve the men from this country to come back and serve here in the way that I have indicated.

To return to the question of the Suez Canal, as the right hon. Gentleman knows there are some tens of thousands of Egyptians employed by the British Army in the Canal Zone in various capacities. Some of them are in workshops, but many thousands of them are driving motor lorries. These men are civilians. Suppose the Army were mobilised and at war. Suppose some of the Army had to go to Persia. What would happen about the drivers? The Army is completely immobile. They could not take civilians, and in any case they are not British subjects.

When I asked the right hon. Gentleman the other day what he proposed to do about this matter, he said that arrangements had been made. I suppose that what he really meant was that men will have to be sent out from this country. Why is it that we cannot enlist men from the Colonial Empire to do what these Egyptians are doing? Why cannot we enlist Maltese? They served with great bravery and distinction during the war. There is a great unemployment problem in Malta, and I am sure it would be possible to raise not only in Malta but in Cyprus and in every part of the Colonial Empire, men with the necessary ability to take the place of those Egyptian drivers. I hope that we shall hear something about that matter.

My last point relates to re-armament, and it does not concern the right hon. Gentleman directly. I suppose it concerns his right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply. I hope he has got some sort of brief from the Minister of Supply, because this matter has been raised, I think, on both sides of the House and it has certainly been raised by me on several occasions. My point is this: Why are we not making better use of colonial manpower in our re-armament? To take this country to start with, we are bringing people from Italy to work in the mines and, I understand, on the railways.

Why not enrol Maltese—our own British subjects? No satisfactory explanation has ever been given. But it is in the Colonies themselves that we can make most use of manpower for re-armament if we have the wit to do it.

My suggestion, which I have made before, is that a number of re-armament orders should be placed with the Colonies. In some cases it may mean building shadow factories. We are doing that here. We are putting up the money for that in this country. Why not put up the money in countries where there is a great surplus of manpower? Before the war, in India we had small arsenals dotted all over the place. They used to make rifles and small arms ammunition, and in fact they did better than that. Why cannot that be done in a Colony like Jamaica which has a chronic unemployment problem? Why cannot we have a factory there to make some of the new 280 ammunition, or the.303 for that matter? Barbados is another Colony with chronic unemployment. Whatever may be done locally, those people cannot be absorbed in their own Colony. In Malta, too, there is a serious unemployment problem.

When I asked the Secretary of State about this, he gave an answer which—I do not know if he knows it—caused very great offence in many parts of the Colonial Empire. He said that they should concentrate on primary production. The Colonial Empire is not prepared to concentrate only on primary production. They do not see why they should be denied the chance to have secondary industries. Here at a time when we are re-arming and our own manpower is fully engaged, we do not seem to have the wit or the imagination to take advantage of the colonial resources.

All sorts of excuses have been put forward in the last two or three years when this matter has been raised. We have been told that the Colonial Governments must be consulted. We were also told once that the Government thought it a good idea to raise a Colonial Army but that it was no good raising an army without equipment. I suppose that is true, but I would point out that for the first year, or perhaps even longer, battalions could be raised and trained with very little equipment. That is an excuse, and it is certainly not a reason.

Another alibi is that the matter does not concern the Department with which the matter is raised. The Secretary of State for the Colonies says, "The raising of soldiers is nothing to do with me." When the Secretary of State for War is asked about an armaments factory, he says, "It is nothing to do with me; it is for the Ministry of Supply." The Secretary of State for War, who is now with us, embodies all his colleagues and I trust that he can deal with all these matters.

That is the background of what I want to submit to the House. We have had all these excuses. What is the real reason for this inactivity? To be quite frank, it appears to us that the real reason is a lack of imagination and of administrative competence on the part of the Government in getting the various Departments together. It is certainly a lack of drive. It is to give the Secretary of State—speaking, I hope, on behalf of the whole Government—a chance to answer these criticisms that we are having this debate today. I hope that he will be able to deal effectively with the points I have raised and to satisfy us that he is about to do much better in the future than he has been able to do in the past.

12.36 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) for having raised this matter, not only on this occasion but on a number of other occasions, because he has pressed this subject in the House over an extensive period.

It seems to me that there are two overriding considerations which the Government have to take into account. One is the shortage of manpower in this country, and the other—a matter to which the Government have devoted some attention —is the development of the Colonies. These two matters in this case seem to be closely related. To take the question of the shortage of manpower in this country, we are endeavouring to stretch our available manpower to the very utmost. There is a shortage of recruits to the Armed Forces and we are having to use all sorts of methods, such as the National Service scheme and so forth, to extend the armed preparedness of this country. We seem at the same time to be overlooking the fact that there is a very large source of manpower available in the Colonies on which we might draw.

We are seeing development taking place in the Colonies where the people are very anxious to take more and more responsibility for their own affairs. That is a right and proper development which the Government have done a great deal to encourage, but it surely tends to emphasise the need for allowing these people to extend their opportunities to take responsibility by letting them realise the full consequences of self-government and all that it implies, which must necessarily include the opportunity to defend themselves as well as to develop their country. I suggest that this is a subject to which my right hon. Friend should give a great deal of careful thought and attention.

There are two ways in which this problem could be tackled. Both of them have been touched on by the hon. Member for Hornsey. One is to form units in the Colonies themselves. The other is to give facilities in addition to those which have been given so far to those men who wish to volunteer to come to this country and join the Armed Forces here. There are difficulties in the way of that, as we know.

One is that facilities have not been provided in the Colonies themselves for the screening and recruitment of men to ensure that those who do come here will be a credit to their own Colonies and will be able to fit into the highly developed and well-trained forces when they come here. Mistakes were made during the war, in the case of Jamaica, for instance, when opportunities were given to men to come to this country and it was found when they arrived here that they were not suitable. That points to a great need for a proper screening system.

This would help to bridge the gap at the present time when our own productive demands in this country are so great. If we are to use the whole of our available manpower in this country and in the Colonies to the best advantage, we should concentrate here on the production side and recruit men from the available sources from overseas—there is vast unemployment in some of these Colonies like Jamaica and others mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey—giving them the chance to do the job in the Armed Forces for which they could be trained quickly. We know that they have not the plant and machinery in their own Colonies to extend production. They have not the implements to farm efficiently even for increasing supplies of their primary products. But they can be trained rapidly to fit into an armed force, which would free our people here to concentrate on the job which they can do best—that is, to increase production both for civilian and for defence purposes at home.

It seems to me that there are overwhelming advantages in following some such suggestions as have been put forward in this debate, both for the men themselves and for their countries and that, consequently, these suggestions should 'be investigated with the greatest care. We know that those who were in the Armed Forces during the war benefited tremendously from the discipline, the training and the sense of objective which they gained, and to some extent from the educational training which was given.

We know that afterwards a certain amount of difficulty arose when these men returned to conditions which they had known before joining the Forces— to the farms, the villages and to their homes; and they suffered from a great sense of dissatisfaction because the schemes for re-settlement were not developed as carefully as they should have been. If the scheme suggested by the hon. Member for Hornsey is adopted, I hope the Minister will also take into account the need to extend the re-settlement provisions so as to ensure that these men fit into civilian life when they return to it after their service.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

I think the House will agree that there are great difficulties in sending colonial troops to serve abroad in time of peace. That does not apply to all Colonies, but it applies to some. Whether or not we share racial prejudices, it is stupid to ignore them, and we must bear those difficulties in mind. There are also difficulties from the point of view of the family life of the troops concerned.

At the same time, it seems to me that that does not exempt the right hon. Gentleman from the need to have available and ready expeditionary forces which can be used when an emergency occurs. was very glad indeed to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) deal with the question of divisional training. The mechanisation of the various activities in the army has increased enormously. Training in the mechanical side and the wireless side of an army is immensely important. Unless we have a real basis for that, based on solid training in peace-time, we cannot hope to have any kind of expeditionary force available for many years after the beginning of a war. That is one of the ways in which we ought to be considering the development of the Colonial Forces at the present time.

With backward countries, one of the obvious problems is to bridge the centuries in a short time, and undoubtedly this kind of training would have an enormous effect in doing that, provided always, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. G. Cooper) said, that consideration is given at the same time to the employment of these men when they have finished their military service. That is extremely important and any satisfactory use of Colonial Forces must be based on the consideration of what is to happen to these men when ultimately they are released.

From Roman times onwards, the use of the veteran has been one of the greatest problems to face a great Power, and an intelligent policy of resettlement—whether it be in towns, with the special skills learned in the Army, or whether it be on the land— is the very core of the use of a Colonial Army. This is a long-term policy and it is that kind of policy which makes it so vitally important, as my hon. Friend has said, that there should be the very closest co-ordination between the Defence Services, the Defence Ministers, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Minister of Supply and so on.

Finally, I suggest that we shall not get these forces at all until we adjust the level of pay. That is something which has not been done sufficiently for the Colonial Forces and, in particular, for the East African Forces since the war. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will have something to say about that, too.

12.45 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Strachey)

I make no complaint whatsoever that this subject has been raised again this afternoon, because it is one of great interest and great importance. In the spring we debated it at greater length than we can today, but it is interesting to look at the subject again now. Not a very long time has elapsed since the debate, but there are one or two things which have occurred since that time and which I can report to the House.

First, I shall deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey (Mr. Gammans) about who is to reply to the debate. It was the choice of the Colonial Secretary that we should reply. His view was that this is essentially a defence matter and a defence subject, and I have little doubt that had he not been out of the country, as the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence would have been here. On the whole, I think it is a subject upon which the reply should be made on behalf of the Service Departments, although, of course, it intimately concerns the Colonial Office as well.

Coming to the matter of the hon. Member's speech, the first point he made was that he wanted to raise a large field army in Africa—or mainly in Africa. That is a rather more wholesale way of going about it than we think practicable at the present time. It is, of course, a question of degree, but I could not follow him when he said that if we went at it on this scale very little equipment would be needed. If we were to raise a large field army, very considerable amounts of equipment would be needed and, as the House knows, our re-armament programme is strained to the full to equip, one after another, the formations, the divisions, the ships, which we are raising here.

Mr. Gammans

I did not say that no equipment would be needed. What I said was that at least a year's training could be done with new recruits before very much equipment would be needed.

Mr. Strachey

For a year, perhaps, that might be so, but it would be much more than a year before we could spare from our own needs here the equipment for a large field army raised in this way, and that, I think, is one of the reasons we could not give this matter priority over our existing re-armament tasks.

On the other hand, it is far from the case that we are doing nothing about this, and I would remind the House of what the hon. Member himself mentioned—that two African battalions from East Africa are going to Malaya. I do not know what words of mine he had in mind when he alleged that I had said that this was quite impossible. Last night, in readiness for this debate, I re-read my speech of 11th March, and I found no such words. As the House is aware, these battalions are going to Malaya and I think they prove very useful there. Moreover, that means that two further battalions are being raised in East Africa for East African purposes to replace the battalions going to Malaya. As a result, there is a net increase of two battalions and the African Forces are to that extent immediately being expanded.

The hon. Gentleman touched on another point which I think is of importance— that of the officering and noncommissioned officering of these Forces. Partly, indeed, this must be done from British sources, from British officers who take up this work; and it is most valuable, and indeed indispensable, work for them to take up; but it must also be done in the training establishments in the Colonies and in the territories themselves.

If anything in the way of a large field force is ever developed in Africa, it will undoubtedly be necessary that very considerable training establishments should be set up there. I have seen in Malaya the Malay Regiment and the very fine Malay officers who are being trained, many of whom are now fully trained and operating in that country. As the House knows, battalion by battalion that force is being increased in size today.

On the broader issue, I entirely agree with the hon. Member that the raising, in the world as it is, of these forces in the Colonies and territories is a step towards their self-government. It is, if it is properly done, in the right way and with the right methods, undoubtedly a progressive step which enables those territories to take another step forward on the road to nationhood, and I welcome it for that reason.

The next specific point to which the hon. Member referred was the West Indies. The position there is that we contemplate a second battalion being raised there, and so far as the Government here are concerned, we are definitely in favour of that. We are now discussing it with the local Governments in the West Indies, and I have good expectations that those discussions will bear fruit.

The hon. Member next passed to the question of garrison duties by forces raised in this way. There again, it is a question of degree, and he instanced the case, for example, of the Canal Zone, where we use a very considerable number of Mauritians for this very purpose raised in this way. Surely that shows that we are certainly not against the raising and use in suitable circumstances of men from different Colonies and territories for these purposes. After all, as I told the House last March, there are between 60,000 and 70,000 men under arms of all kinds in the Colonial Forces today, which is not an inconsiderable figure, and it certainly shows that we are more than willing to raise and use these forces whenever we see suitable opportunities.

I should like to contradict the statement that Middle East Command would be immobilised if it had to move to some other area without the Egyptian drivers and other men of the same type whom it employs. As I have said before, we have that problem thoroughly in mind, and we have arrangements which certainly mean that that Command is not immobile.

Mr. Gammans

May I put it this way? Certainly it would be immobile there until the drivers went from this country?

Mr. Strachey

I do not think that the hon. Member must assume that; but it is a fair point, if he likes, that if we had the Mauritians—or they might not be suitable, but enlisted men from some area of the Commonwealth—doing this function, there might be a saving of British manpower; and in suitable opportunities we are certainly thoroughly in favour of that. It is done very often by raising enlisted personnel, as it is done in Malaya. There and elsewhere we find R.E.M.E. workshops and the like manned by locally enlisted men doing this work, and certainly saving the manpower available from British troops.

Then he passed on to the question of direct enlistment, in particular in connection with the Royal Air Force. The Secretary of State for Air tells me that he is contemplating— he cannot give any commitment, but he is contemplating— the question of facilities for recruiting outside this country, which would be, of course, a quite new departure, and an experiment which, I think, will be very interesting if it proves possible to make it.

The hon. Member then passed to an even wider field, that of colonial manpower, not directly in connection with the Services themselves but in connection with the re-armament programme, and he pressed quite strongly the theme which he has raised before—and other hon. Members have raised it—of the import of manpower into this country from the colonies and territories.

In that connection my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr. G. Cooper) and the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson) —and they were right to say so —emphasised that both in military training and in industrial training we do impart some real benefits to the native population whom we train. There again, we get social progress as a by-product, but a most welcome by-product, of the whole process. I am told by the Minister of Labour that, on the whole, the type of manpower, which would not be skilled, of course, which we could import from those areas would not be very suitable for our purposes in this country.

Then the hon. Member for Hornsey asked why, if we do not want to bring the men to the factories here, we should not take the factories to the men, and establish industrial production, secondary industries and the like, in the West Indies or other suitable places. Again, in suitable circumstances there is no need to rule out that possibility, but I would repeat, as I said in the last debate, that it does seem to me that today, when the whole world is suffering from the most acute shortage of materials, of primary products, it would rather be putting the cart before the horse to establish industries in those areas.

Mr. Gammans

I am sure that it is only because the right hon. Gentleman does not know those territories that he says that. In Jamaica, Barbados, Malta, the limiting factor is the land. It is not possible to get any more out of that land. There still remains the unemployment problem.

Mr. Strachey

With respect, I was at the Ministry of Food, and far from the view that those territories could not expand sugar production, they were very strongly pressed to expand their sugar production, and are doing so. As the hon. Member says, primary production, agriculture, mining and the like, in those territories is their best bet. I know that people do think that there is something inferior somehow about agriculture—primary production—as against industry, but it is a most extraordinary delusion.

It is a delusion born from the fact, if I may say so—and I am bound to say this, though it does raise a political point —that in the past those forms of primary production were greatly exploited. The terms of trade were so favourable to industrial countries that the primary agricultural producers and the men engaged in mining very often get a very poor return. But certainly things are not like that today. On the contrary, the terms of trade have swung very far in the other direction, and it is the industrial user who, one may almost say, is in danger of being exploited today.

I am quite sure that the standard of life in those areas can be raised far quicker by a rapid expansion of agriculture and by primary production, which today are extremely profitable with a very high rate of return, and it is in this field, both for our own re-armament programme and for the interests of those territories, that I see their future. It is surely a great delusion to think that all progress comes from the factory. Today the farm, and the tropical farm above all, is one of the most important and, I believe, one of the most lucrative parts of the productive machine of the world. It is in that, and in getting metals, that I should like to see that main economic contribution, in their own interests and in ours.