HC Deb 24 March 1952 vol 498 cc51-69

4.29 p.m.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I want to raise the question of Mr. E. P. Young. Last Wednesday my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo) asked the First Lord, in a Question, why Mr. Young's name had been removed from the Navy List, and the First Lord gave an answer. I want to develop the matter rather further than it could be developed in Question and answer.

What is the story? The story, so I understand, is that on 6th February Mr. Young received a letter from an Admiralty clerk stating that he was to be removed from the Navy List. He wrote back saying that he was somewhat surprised to hear this, as it was the first intimation he had been given that his name was to be removed. On 14th February he received a letter from the Secretary to the Admiralty saying: Your political activities in recent years are not in keeping with the conduct expected of a naval officer. I would ask the House to note that it referred to "political activities." On 1st March he received a further letter stating: Owing to your political affiliations and activities my Lords will have no further use for your services. My Lords have refrained from severing your connection with the Navy for as long as possible. Those, are, briefly, the facts of the situation.

Let me say, before going any further, that I and my hon. Friends on this side of the House dissociate ourselves completely from the views of Mr. Young. I am not speaking now because I am in agreement with his views; that is not the point at all. I think that it can be said that we know more about Mr. Young than hon. Gentlemen opposite. Indeed, Mr. Young was at one time a member of the Labour Party, and he was expelled from the party; and we have every reason for thinking that we were right in so doing. But that is not the point. The point is that the Government in this case are taking action designed as far possible to limit the free speech of a British subject. [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] Well, designed to limit the power of that British subject to make his views heard with effect.

I cannot understand the position of the First Lord. He says that Mr. Young's views are repugnant to the Royal Navy, and so the Admiralty must not be associated with them. But surely the Admiralty is not associated with all the views expressed by all retired naval officers? After all, there are one or two naval officers on the other side of the House, who, from time to time, may question decisions made by the First Lord; and it cannot be said that all the speeches made by all retired naval officers, not only in this House but outside it, are always in accordance with the views of the Admiralty. I find it very hard to believe they are.

In fact, retired naval officers have the right—or they have had up to now—to free speech, without its being assumed that the Admiralty is in any way associated with the views they express. I raise this question because, after all, the House of Commons is the traditional guardian of free speech, and we have a right to discuss any matter which is likely to curtail the freedom of speech of anyone in this country.

What is the position? What law has been broken? Has Mr. Young broken the law? If he has broken the law it is quite open to the Law Officers of the Crown to see that Mr. Young is prosecuted for breaking it, but I can only suppose that he has not broken the law because no such prosecution has been made. The House may remember that Mr. Jorrocks said, "The law is a hass"—and it may be that Her Majesty's Government think the law is an ass in this case. If that is the view of hon. Members opposite, they should have brought in legislation to change the law, to make it possible for Mr. Young to be prosecuted—if they wish to do so. However, they do not take that action. Instead, they take what I am afraid I must describe as a mean, petty and vindictive action.

I am very surprised at this, because anybody less vindictive than the First Lord it would be difficult to imagine in this House, and I am very sorry that it should have to be him one attacks for action of this kind, rather than anybody else; but I do think that the action is open to the use of these various adjectives.

It is not only what I think. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may say, "Here is an hon. Member opposite taking these views, but we can disregard his views; they do not matter very much, for he is prejudiced in this case." Let us take a great supporter of hon. Gentlemen opposite, the "Daily Express," a paper with which I am not always in full agreement. The "Daily Express," in a leading article, has said: Mr. J. P. L. Thomas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, has acted foolishly in stripping Commander Edgar Young of his naval title. Mr. Young has not been harmed by this action. He has been helped. He has been elevated to an importance he does not merit. He has been promoted to martyrdom. The only harm done is to Britain. The harm which comes from singling out a man and punishing him not because he has done injury to the State—or, indeed, ever did do injury to the State. But because he holds political convictions with which the States does not agree. I think that that is a very fair summary of the situation.

Here is a man with whose views the Government do not agree. The Government cannot find that, in expressing those views, he has broken the law. The Government cannot feel able to bring in a law so as to make him liable to prosecution; they therefore do the only thing they can think of—remove his name from the Navy List to show that they dissociate themselves from his views.

For hundreds of years the British people have fought for freedom of speech. They fought for it first against their rulers, in order to obtain it; and when they had obtained it, they fought for it against foreigners, who were going to try to take it away from them. In that second fight the Royal Navy has played a glorious and, indeed, a decisive part, for had it not been for the Navy's actions that freedom might have been taken away from us. I hope that the First Lord will not proceed in this action, for by doing so, by trying to make the Royal Navy into an instrument of attack upon free speech, he is, in fact, doing the Navy a very grave disservice.

4.36 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (Ayrshire, South)

I want to support the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale). Like my right hon. Friend, I have no personal knowledge of ex-Commander Young at all, except that he used to be an indefatigable letter writer to the columns of the paper which I edited for a considerable time; and, far from agreeing with ex-Commander Young I usually disagreed with his point of view, especially during the war, although, being a little more tolerant than the present Government, I allowed him to express his opinions in his own way.

We have here a very remarkable anomaly. An ex-commander, who becomes a Communist, may be removed from the Navy List; but if a Communist is in the Navy he cannot be removed from the Navy. [An HON. MEMBER: "He can."] Well, he can, but how? I have repeatedly put this question to the Service Ministers. Is the fact that a man is a Communist a disqualification for his being in the Navy or in the Air Force or in the Army? The fact is that it is not a crime for a man in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force to have Communist sympathies or even Communist membership.

If this action is regarded from the point of view of security, we find that here is an ex-commander who, apparently for security reasons, is removed from the Navy List; but, according to the present ruling in the Navy, a Communist may be in any ship, in the latest aircraft carrier; a Communist may be in a submarine, a Communist may have access to any amount of secret information, and know more about our secret weapons than even the First Lord of the Admiralty—and he cannot be thrown out. We actually conscript Communists for the Navy. Here is surely an anomalous situation. If we are to clear out Communists from the Navy List, how do we defend keeping them in the Navy?

I submit that my right hon. Friend, who takes an entirely different view from ex-Commander Young, as we all do on these benches, has proved his case in stating that this is a petty, mean and vindictive action—the persecution of a gentleman who happens to hold critical views of the policy of the Government. I know prominent members of the Conservative Party in my own County of Ayrshire who are on the Navy List, some of whom are very prominent in public life, who certainly take a different point of view from myself. For example, the present Convenor of the Ayrshire County Council and the ex-chairman of the county council are both on the Navy List, but they are allowed to hold very strong political opinions. I say that ex-Commander Young cannot be accused of offending against security, and that if the Government cannot hold their own against him it is a very poor outlook for the country.

We have been told that members of the Services are non-party, but if there is to be discrimination, and if a man who is accused of being Left Wing or Communist can have his name removed from the Navy List, what about the extreme Right Wing of the Tory Party? We have had cases of people connected with Fascist organisations. Is the same treatment to be meted out to them? If not, the Government must abandon the claim that we are a free democratic people and that we have regard for the principle of free speech in our public life.

4.42 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I had no intention of speaking this afternoon, but having heard the two last speeches about Mr. Young, the Communist, I must say that I agree to a very large extent with what the hon. Gentleman opposite said. I have discussed this at very great length with a number of naval officers, and, although I dislike agreeing with the hon. Member for Ayrshire, South (Mr. Emrys Hughes), there may come a day when he and some of his friends—the Bevanites, or whatever they are called—are in power, and I fear for the day when I, as a brigadier holding Tory views, may cease to be entitled to hold my rank.

I hope that today the First Lord will give us some better reason for taking away this officer's rank than that he is a Communist. I think it is well known in the House that my views are more anti-Communist than almost anybody else's, but I fear for the day when the hon. Member for Ayrshire, South, and his friends may be in power, when I may lose my own rank.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. C. E. Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

Like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke), I had no intention of intervening in this debate had it not been for the last three speeches, which have now made thoroughly confused an issue I had thought quite clear, and I should like the First Lord to clear it up. As I understood the position, there was never any question of restricting Mr. Young's freedom of speech. All that the removal of his name from the list of retired naval officers meant was that he could no longer express views thoroughly repugnant, I think, to everybody in the House under the title "Commander, R.N. (Retd.)."

In precisely the same way, having been expelled from the Labour Party—which I did not know until the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) mentioned it a few minutes ago—Mr. Young was equally unable to express views which could be regarded as having any support of the Labour Party of those days.

Mr. Callaghan

That is not the position, is it? Surely the hon. Gentleman is not arguing that a man whose name is on the Navy List, and who expresses views, is expressing the political views of the Admiralty? The analogy with the Labour Party is quite false. A man who is a member of the Labour Party expresses Labour Party views. When he is an officer of the Royal Navy he is entitled to express any views he likes.

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

I am only asking for information. As I understood, it was felt undesirable that Mr. Young should continue to express views totally repugnant both to members of Her Majesty's Forces and to hon. Members of this House while he was calling himself "Commander, R.N. (Retd.)." What views he likes to express and what speaking engagements he likes to undertake as "Mr. Young," without any association whatever with the Navy, seems to be quite immaterial, so I cannot see how any hon. Gentleman opposite can argue that there was any restriction on Mr. Young's freedom of speech.

Mr. Foot

Would the hon. Gentleman explain how he thinks this decision is made about the views that are supposed to be repugnant to the Royal Navy? How is the matter decided? Is a Gallup Poll to be taken? How is it to be determined what views are to be subject to this procedure?

Mr. Mott-Radclyffe

If Mr. Young is, or has been, a member of the Communist Party, and if he expresses views which are well known to be in line with the Communist Party views, I should have thought that on almost every ground it would be highly undesirable that he should continue to express those views while calling himself on any poster "Commander R.N. (Retd.)." I should have thought that that was common sense.

This issue now seems to have become thoroughly confused, and various hon. Members appear to think that freedom of speech is involved. I must say that I cannot myself see that it is in any way involved. Mr. Young's future writings, speechmaking and public engagements are in no way restricted. I do, however, ask the First Lord to clear up the position.

4.46 p.m.

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas)

I must say at once that I am very glad indeed that the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) has raised this subject on the Report stage of these Estimates. As he himself said it is much easier to argue the matter at greater length on an occasion like this than during Question time in the House. This is a question of principle, and he is perfectly right to probe it on this occasion, which is conveniently afforded to him so swiftly after last week's Parliamentary Question.

Officers have been removed from the active and retired lists before, but, as the right hon. Gentleman said, this is a political case, and, therefore, the House should examine it all the more closely. I can assure the House that the Board of Admiralty have taken into full recognition the fact that this is a question of principle and all that that involves. Against that must be set the activities of Mr. Young in the past under previous Governments, and his further activities since the present Government came into office.

Perhaps it might help the House if I briefly summarised Mr. Young's activities. Mr. Young assured me, through the papers of last Thursday morning, that he was not a member of the Communist Party. If that means that he has never signed the pledge of that party, of course I accept his word for it. Nor, indeed, on this occasion does it really worry the Board of Admiralty or myself in the least whether he is an actual member of the Communist Party or not. What worries us is what he has said and what he has done while holding the rank of a retired officer.

At his own request Mr. Young was placed on the retired list in 1934. He was not recalled to active service during the last war owing, apparently, so far as I can make out from the war-time Government files, to his political activities. This last decision seems to have been fully justified, because Mr. Young himself, in a speech in Edinburgh in 1940, when obviously referring to his position on the retired list of the Royal Navy, is reported as describing himself as "an ex-hired assassin," which is hardly complimentary to his former colleagues in the Service who were then loyally serving their country.

In the "Daily Worker" of the 10th of this month, I am informed that Mr. Young is Chairman of the Bulgarian Friendship Committee, a leading official of the British Roumanian Friendship Committee and the British Soviet Friendship Committee, a member of the Society for Cultural Relations with the U.S.S.R., and that he was head of the British delegation to the Congress for German and Soviet Friendship in Berlin in 1949. He was also a regular visitor to the Soviet satellite States and a regular speaker at a number of pro-Russian demonstrations in this country.

All this, Mr. Young, so far as I know, and speaking apart from the Admiralty, is entitled to do as a citizen of this country, and the action of the Board of Admiralty in removing his name from the retired list of officers does not—and I stress this point because it was raised by the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in this debate—put any curb whatsoever on his political activities or upon his freedom of speech.

In fact, if he was ever halted in his words by the fact that he was on the retired list of the Royal Navy, he is even freer now to say what he wishes to say in the future. It merely means that his speeches against the policy of his own country—and he has been just as bitter against those whom he has called Messrs. Attlee, Bevin and Cripps as against members of my own party—do not have the additional weight of coming from a naval officer, as this is particularly misleading to the uninstructed members of his audiences behind the Iron Curtain.

Mr. Dugdale

I am not quite clear about this. Are his speeches considered to be worse than those of Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, and was he removed for a long period from the Navy List? I do not actually know for how long he was removed.

Mr. Thomas

So far as I know, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile is making no speeches at all at the moment. He is aged and has been for some time in retirement in the country.

Mr. Dugdale

My point is that at one time, when he was a retired officer, he did make such speeches and was associated with certain views. Was his name at that time removed from the Navy List?

Mr. Thomas

His name was not removed from the Navy List at that time or any other time. I cannot be responsible today for the decision of past Administrations.

Mr. Callaghan

No one is asking the right hon. Gentleman to take responsibility for the decisions of the Administration of which he was a member from 1940 to 1945. What we do ask him is why is he breaking with the precedent that was then established?

Mr. Thomas

The Government was then a National Coalition Government.

Mr. Callaghan

The right hon. Gentleman himself was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty.

Mr. Thomas

For part of the time of the Domvile case, yes. The decision was not to take the name of Sir Barry Domvile off the Navy List at that time, and had I been there myself all the time I might have wished to take a different decision. But on this occasion and at this time I claim that we are right and justified in removing the name of Mr. Young from the retired list of the Royal Navy. It is not the first time that such a thing has been done. It has been done in respect of the active list for political reasons before.

Mr. Callaghan

The active list?

Mr. Thomas

I stress the active list. We have not been I consider mean, petty or vindictive. The Board of Admiralty could have taken away Mr. Young's retired pay. He served with distinction in his early years in the Royal Navy and we took this into consideration. Therefore, I consider that the adjectives, "mean, petty and vindictive" are not justified so far as the attitude of the Admiralty about Mr. Young is concerned.

I hope that the House will be practical in this matter. What weighed with the Admiralty, particularly at this time, in dealing with this case is that, with the agreement of the leaders of all the political parties at Westminster, we are today building up a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to which, incidentally, Mr. Young is bitterly opposed, and we are also uniting the Commonwealth for the preservation of peace by deterring any would-be aggressor.

Mr. Foot

Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that any member on the retired list who opposes the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the building up of the Commonwealth organisation is in danger of being removed from the Navy List? If the right hon. Gentleman does not mean that, why does he mention it?

Mr. Callaghan

In view of the fact that a number of very distinguished retired admirals have opposed very bitterly the appointment of a Supreme American Commander, does the right hon. Gentleman propose to deal with that?

Mr. Thomas

I do not think that argument really holds today. Certainly, the Prime Minister had always been one of the strongest supporters of what has now come to be called N.A.T.O. What I am saying is this: what is the effect on the nations building up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation when they see Mr. Young speaking as a naval officer and making the speeches which he has been making of late—activities which have increased since the present Government came into power? He gave evidence in the Communist trial last month in Paris and published articles at the end of last year in the organ of the Communist-controlled Australian Waterside Workers Federation and is, therefore, becoming an increasing embarrassment to our embassies abroad, both outside and inside the Iron Curtain, particularly as he speaks and writes as a naval officer. The late Mr. Bevin warned the embassies to be circumspect in dealing with this gentleman in the past, and the need for that has grown more vital still.

Mr. Percy Wells (Faversham)

The name of the late Mr. Ernest Bevin has been mentioned. Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that Mr. Bevin never suggested that Mr. Young should be struck off the retired list?

Mr. Thomas

The decision does not rest with the Foreign Office, but is in the hands of the Board of Admiralty. The Board of Admiralty have thought it necessary to strengthen the hands of our embassies abroad and also of the United Kingdom representatives in the Commonwealth by making it possible now to say that Mr. Young has no right to speak as a naval officer.

I have been reproved, as the right hon. Gentleman said, by the "Daily Express" for giving Mr. Young more publicity than he deserves, but all I can say is that, on the whole, the more publicity we can give to the fact that Mr. Young has been removed from the retired list of the Royal Navy—the more publicity at home and abroad—the better I shall be pleased and the better pleased will be the Board of Admiralty. We want to make it clear that in our opinion the time has come to stop him borrowing the prestige of the Royal Navy to support his propaganda, and I am grateful to the House for giving me the further opportunity of making this statement today.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Callaghan

I can only speak again with the leave of the House. If I have it, may I say that I think many of us on either side of the House feel far from happy at the reply to which we have just listened. What is the purpose of removing Commander Young from the Navy List? It is, as I understand, to ensure that when he describes himself as "Commander Young" his views shall not be believed to be those of officers serving in the Royal Navy or of most of the citizens of this country. I ask the First Lord this question: What happens if Mr. Young goes on describing himself as "Commander Young, Royal Navy, retired"?

Mr. Thomas

I can answer that question. We have no powers to stop him, but there is this difference: that when a foreign nation asks why these speeches are being made by a naval officer on the retired list, our representatives abroad and at home can say that his removal has taken place, which produces a very different effect on a foreign nation from what is happening at the present time.

Mr. Callaghan

When I asked that question, I thought I knew what the answer would be. The plain truth is that the Admiralty have no powers to stop this gentleman describing himself in his true features and name. He is a commander of the Royal Navy who has retired. No one can take that away from him. I believe that he retired as a lieutenant-commander and that he has been promoted to commander since, and, therefore, if anything is taken away from him he becomes a lieutenant-commander.

Brigadier Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right in saying that nothing can take his rank away. If a man is dishonest, after a conviction, his rank can be taken away.

Mr. Callaghan

I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I shall come to that point in a moment.

What does the First Lord think he has achieved, except a certain amount of publicity for Commander Young, about whom I express no opinion because I do not know the gentleman and, as far as I know, I have never met him? The First Lord has also made the Admiralty look rather silly because the Admiralty has not dealt with the question of pay. Commander Young still receives his retired pay. When our embassies write to ask why this gentleman is describing himself as "Commander Young, R.N. (Retired)," presumably the First Lord will write back and say, "We have taken him off the Navy List, but we do not think the crime is as bad as all that and we are still paying his pension."

I now come to the point made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke). If Commander Young has committed a criminal offence, he should be fairly tried by the Admiralty. A well-known disciplinary code is laid down. He can have a court-martial or a disciplinary court, or he can be invited to make representations. There is a well-known process, and every occupant of the Front Bench opposite knows what it is. What the First Lord has given way to is the political spleen of a few elderly retired naval officers in the Army and Navy Club.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas

I have always found the hon. Gentleman most helpful to the Navy in the past. He must not jump to the conclusion—I noticed the tendency in the Navy Estimates a few days ago—that those who followed him and his colleagues at the Admiralty have no opinions of their own. I assure him that they have very strong opinions. We reached this decision on our own opinions. There is no question of our having given way to elderly officers in military and naval clubs.

Mr. Callaghan

I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that, and I assure him that I shall continue to be as helpful to the Navy in the future as I have been in the past. However, he is not being helpful to the Navy in doing this, and he is not being helpful to the cause of democracy in this country either. I take the greatest exception to the line which is being followed. There is no doubt where the complaint originated. The First Lord knows exactly the quarters in which originated the desire to take this gentleman's name off the Navy List.

There is one thing which the First Lord did not explain. If he has reached this conclusion today—he says it is his own conclusion, and I accept that—why did he take a different decision while he was a member of the Board of Admiralty at the time that Admiral Sir Barry Domvile was interned during the war? What are the different circumstances?

Mr. Thomas

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not a member of the Admiralty at that time. I gathered that he thought I was there from 1940 to 1945. I was there from 1943 to 1945. At no time was Admiral Sir Barry Domvile's case brought before the Board of Admiralty while I was a member of it.

Mr. Dugdale

Whether the right hon. Gentleman was or was not a member of the Board of Admiralty then, I do not know, but I do know that the present Prime Minister was Prime Minister then and was in charge of defence. Surely he would have been consulted and would have taken the same attitude?

Mr. Thomas

I think I am right in saying that the case of Admiral Sir Barry Domvile came before the Admiralty when my right hon. Friend had left it and had been succeeded by Lord Alexander of Hillsborough. I am not trying to make party politics out of this.

Mr. Callaghan

I do not think that anybody thought the First Lord was making a reflection on Lord Alexander. I think Lord Alexander was right. Whatever any officer does, he should be allowed to remain on the Service list until he is convicted of some offence which has brought dishonour upon his Service. In such circumstances the Admiralty should, clearly, be free and entitled to remove him from the Navy List.

What I am complaining about is that no real investigation has taken place in this case. In spite of the procedure under the Naval Discipline Act and Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, no one has been given an opportunity of investigating the evidence upon which the Board of Admiralty has acted. The Admiralty have achieved no useful purpose by what they have done. This gentleman can continue to describe himself as "Commander Edgar Young, R.N. (Retired)," until the end of his life. The Admiralty have not achieved anything, but have made themselves a laughing stock and have brought discredit to the cause of democracy.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

On what Vote is Commander Young's pension carried?

Mr. Thomas

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that it is Vote 13.

Mr. Benn

Vote 13 covers "Non-effective Services" and, as far as I can tell, makes no provision for anyone who has been struck off the retired list. Subhead A is "Retired pay, half pay and gratuities to officers of the Royal Navy," etc., and Subhead B is "Commutation of retired pay," etc. Might it be that in moving these Estimates the First Lord is asking the House to provide money for Commander Young?

Mr. Thomas

I took opinion as to the Vote to which Mr. Young's case related and I was assured that it came under Vote 13. I believe that the hon. Member will find that to be the case.

Mr. Benn

Will it not be difficult for the First Lord to get our embassies abroad to explain to those who inquire that he has just made a speech asking the House to provide payment for a man who is or was a commander of the Royal Navy, retired?

Question, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.

Resolutions reported.

  2. c65
  4. c66
  6. cc66-7
  8. c67
  9. VOTE 9. NAVAL ARMAMENTS 41 words
  10. cc67-8
  12. c68
  14. c69