HC Deb 18 February 1954 vol 523 cc2279-92

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

On 1st January a quite remarkable broadcast took place, I presume with the permission of the Secretary of State for War. It was a Press conference at which a number of journalists addressed questions to the recent commander of a Commonwealth Division in Korea, General West. I want to make it clear beyond any shadow of doubt that nothing that I say tonight should be in any way regarded as a criticism of General West. He is a soldier, and his appearance at that broadcast must either have been with the permission of the Secretary of State for War or because he was carrying out an order given to him by a competent military authority. My remarks are not addressed to anyone but the Secretary of State for War, and General West is out of the argument.

I very much regret the absence of the Secretary of State for War, although I do not complain of it. It is quite usual for a Parliamentary Secretary to take an Adjournment of this kind, but as the Secretary of State for War is personally implicated in this matter I should have thought he would have made an effort to be here, particularly in view of the answer he gave to a Question in the early part of this week.

I then asked him the number of divisions which Great Britain would produce in the event of another world war. I was not in the least surprised that the right hon. Gentleman refused to answer. I expected that I would get such a refusal. The Secretary of State clearly realised what I was getting at, because he came down to the House with a copy of General West's broadcast. I asked him a supplementary question, in which I pointed out that General West had given the information in his broadcast and had said that in the event of another war—I will quote his words— and God forbid their being one, but if there was, well, then, of course, you know, England would produce 40 divisions and Australia would produce 20 divisions, and so on. What I want to establish is that General West, without any shadow of doubt—and I have now taken the opportunity of getting a second copy of the broadcast—said that in the event of war we would produce 40 divisions. The Secretary of State then went on to say: He said that this country would produce the maximum number of divisions possible in the next war, and the figure he quoted was about the number which we had in the last war and was given as an instance of the size and effort that should likely be made."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th February, 1954; Vol. 523, cols. 1793 and 1794.] I must not, within the rules of order, charge any hon. Member or Minister with deliberately telling an untruth, but the Secretary of State for War came down to this House with a copy of the broadcast. When, in answer to the supplementary question, he said that when General West said that we had 40 divisions in this country, which was about the number we had in the last war, either his veracity or his capacity to read are in question. I gave the Secretary of State notice that I was going to refer to him personally. I hope that if the Under-Secretary has some explanation—not for misleading me, because I am long past that stage—that he will seek a very early opportunity of explaining this. If one puts those statements in juxtaposition, I suggest that the personal honour of the Secretary of State is impugned.

I will ask one question which will go a long way to clear up the circumstances of the broadcast. The Under-Secretary will no doubt know that paragraph 547 of the Queen's Regulations requires an officer, or any soldier for that matter, who is going to broadcast, or to write an article for the Press to get prior permission. Was General West himself approached by the B.B.C. to make this broadcast? Did he ask permission, and was that permission given him, or was he ordered to make this broadcast as part of a policy devised and carried out in accordance with the Secretary of State's wishes? I would very much like the Parliamentary Secretary to answer that. I would give way to him willingly if he would clear that up because, on the answer hinges the rest of what I have to say. Did General West broadcast as a result of an order pr decision, or was he approached by the B.B.C. and seek permission?

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

I can give the answer to that now. He was approached by the B.B.C. and was in no way prompted by the Secretary of State to "plug" anything.

Mr. Wigg

When questioned on 19th January, 1954, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), the hon. Gentleman was a little ingenuous in telling the House that General West was giving the broadcast as a result of an approach by the B.B.C.; that it was not the other way round and that he was carrying out the orders of the Secretary of State. If the B.B.C. approached the General then we have not only the Secretary of State for War to take to account but the B.B.C. as well.

The country ought to know that the Secretary of State and the present Director-General of the B.B.C. are collaborators. They collaborated in a wonderful document called "Defence in the Cold War," in which there is an amusing description of the military situation. There are some very odd views put forward as to what the country ought to do. In some respects the joint views of the Secretary of State for War and the Director-General of the B.B.C. have been put into operation.

We have this picture. Here is the B.B.C. on an issue vital to the safety of this country, approaching the Secretary of State for War and seeking permission for General West to give a broadcast. General West then gives the broadcast and puts forward a number of views directly supporting the political policies of the party opposite, and the military views of the Director-General of the B.B.C. as expressed in "Defence in the Cold War."

This is indeed a very serious situation. If conscription—and the defence policy of the country—is to be maintained, it will not be because of slick propaganda tricks, but because the people understand it and are wholeheartedly behind it. I would have thought that it would have been commonsense to any democrat that, from the time of the Queen's speech, we should have had informal talks on the B.B.C. in which the issue of conscription could have been discussed sanely, wisely and dispassionately. In that way, the people listening could understand what it was all about, make up their minds, and would not be swayed either on the issue of two years' service or the size of the arms bill. They would not be swayed by clap trap, and would be able to make up their own minds. But on this occasion the B.B.C. went only to General West. This highly selective policy of the B.B.C. is more akin to the action of Goebbels than the Director-General of a broadcasting corporation of a great democratic society.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

If the B.B.C. is being criticised, I do not know whether the Secretary of State for War or the War Office has any responsibility for that.

Mr. Wigg

I am sorry if I failed to make my point clear, Sir Rhys. General West could not have appeared at the microphone without the permission of the War Office. The fact that he did so shows that the War Office gave permission. As it was an unscripted broadcast, it may be that the War Office knew nothing about the details of discussion that was going to take place. The B.B.C. has some share of responsibility, but the person mainly responsible is the Secretary of State for War, and it is in his interests to make sure that if military policy is to be discussed on the air it should be discussed in a balanced way. A balanced opinion should be put forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) should be able to put forward his views on the air. He has a point of view which is shared by a considerable section of our countrymen. I do not share it, but there are many who hold his view, and in a democracy he should be given the opportunity to express it. I do not agree with my hon. Friend on any speech that he makes on military policy, but at least he studies the subject, and he talks a great deal more sense on particular aspects of defence than many hon. Members opposite. At least he is trying to think the problem out in modern terms.

On this issue, which may involve the physical survival of this country, the job of the War Office and the B.B.C. is to educate public opinion and not to diddle it. This broadcast is an example of an attempt to "diddle" the public by putting on the air a general with a great reputation—who has just led, successfully, a fighting formation in the field—to advocate a political line which suits hon. Members opposite. If the position had been reversed, and a Labour Minister had brought along a soldier to support the point of view of the Labour Party, what a howl there would have been.

But the Minister has an Achilles heel. He has not got his recruits. The White Paper discloses a dangerous and disastrous position. In 1952 there were 52,000 Regular recruits, and in 1953 the figure was down to 42,000, and the Under-Secretary of State for War is not optimistic enough to think that even that figure can be maintained. He tells us that the figures of recruits are not keeping up to the required level. We get a picture of a Regular Army dwindling in size, and, as the Under-Secretary knows, with an age and service structure which is all wrong.

The political reputation and future of the Secretary of State rests on solving this problem. The only way in which he can get recruits is by persuading the young men that the Army is a worthwhile organisation in which they can be proud to serve, and which is making a contribution to their own well-being and that of their country. The great medium of the radio and television ought to be used for this purpose, but not only by persons like General West. If the Secretary of State wants to get recruits, a far better way than using generals is to use contented privates. He is not getting recruits because the rank and file of the Army are discontented. They are coming out in droves. Discontented soldiers make very bad recruiting sergeants. The right hon. Gentleman is cutting his own throat, and I do not mind that, but he is also cutting the throat of the Army, and I do care about that.

It was, indeed, an appalling decision that this broadcast should have been made without the Secretary of State having some regard for the implications of his policy. You are quite right, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, when you say that it would be out of order for me to press too hard about the position of the B.B.C.in this connection because, of course, the Minister has no responsibility for the B.B.C. Nevertheless, I must earnestly beg of him to go back to his right hon. Friend and to try to persuade him of the necessity to work out, not a balanced propaganda approach to the problem, because propaganda is the wrong word, but a policy of education. Public opinion in this country needs to be educated to the realities of the situation, needs to be brought face to face with these young men, needs it to be pointed out that we shall have conscription for a two-year period not for a generation but for ever unless we can recruit a Regular Army of sufficient size. The way which has been adopted is not the way to tackle that problem.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman enough time to reply, but I have one other point to make. Here, again, I trust that I shall not be too far out of order. In my view, the patronage of the B.B.C. in this form has now reached dangerous limits. I hope that on a future occasion, if Measures are brought before us, I shall be able to introduce some safeguards which will preclude those holding an office of profit under the Crown from drawing fees from the B.B.C. so that we can get as far away as possible from any concept of putting across a particular line, however attractive it may be. When I say I would debar any person holding an office of profit under the Crown from drawing fees from the B.B.C. or from commercial television, I include Members of Parliament. This is a wide sub- ject and I want to keep in order, but I hold this view with passion. If we are to have more of this type of broadcast—the General West broadcast—the cynicism which it will produce in the rank and file will hasten the time when there will be no Regular Army at all.

Anybody who has any knowledge of the Army and who reads the White Paper which was published today can see a picture before him of hundreds of thousands of young National Service men, with two years' service; of junior N.C.O.S, up to the rank of sergeant, with a maximum of three years' service; and, at the other end of the scale, a considerable number of people about 54 or 55 years old hanging on in the Army because they have no houses to go to and because they dread returning to civilian life.

The only way, both in the short run and in the long run, in which this can be put right is for the War Office to tell the truth. Let them by all means use the radio and television, but when they do so let them make absolutely certain that they do not do it in the way which was attempted in General West's broadcast.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

I read this broadcast in detail when I knew that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) had selected it as a subject for an Adjournment debate. I do not wish to spend much time on the hon. Gentleman's remarks; he was concerned with a wide variety of topics to do with the Army, and I am concerned with the broadcast and with what General West said. It seems to me that the broadcast was the straightforward and modest performance typical of any serving soldier of any rank. It was the modest performance of a man who had come back from combat service.

All reports show that the public greatly enjoyed it. All reports show that the reputation which General West has made in Korea for having gained the confidence and the affection of all who served under him was fully justified by the impression which he made on the public.

I was glad to hear the hon. Member say at the outset of his speech that there was to be no criticism of General West and that that was not a point in his argument. He went on to say that in his broadcast General West supported the political views of the Tory Party, that the broadcast was an attempt to "diddle" the public and, finally, that if we had more of the General West type of broadcast cynicism would be rampant in the rank and file and there would be no Regular Army at all. I have never heard such ridiculous rubbish in my life.

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the effect of raising this matter in the House at this time might be to damage General West's reputation. I believe that if this House were to express the sentiments of the British public today, we should not be criticising an excellent broadcast; we should, instead, be passing a vote of thanks to this able and gallant general for his services to our country.

10.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. R. H. Hutchison)

The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has turned his attention for a short space of time from his mammoth task of holding up Private Bill procedure to holding up General West's broadcast to criticism. He was good enough to send me the points which he proposed to elaborate this evening, and there is a little, but very little, in what the hon. Member has said.

Certainly this new method of unscripted broadcasts does introduce a new feature into publicity. I believe that this has come to stay. The B.B.C. likes these broadcasts, and the public likes them, if one may judge by the reaction of the public to General West's unscripted television appearance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War believes that they will do the Army good.

I never heard such fiddlesticks as the hon. Member produced about my right hon. Friend's honour being impugned in this matter. My right hon. Friend's answer to the Question the other day, about which the hon. Member is complaining, was absolutely straightforward, and there was nothing misleading about it at all. I will come to that particular point a little later.

It is obviously of value to the Army and to the public that Army happenings should be presented to the public and, most of all, be presented by somebody who has gone through these experiences. General West represented hot news from a hot war, and, as I informed the hon. Member, General West's broadcast was applied for by the B.B.C. and was in no way an inspiration of ours. It arose in this way. The General had previously recorded three minutes on "Radio Newsreel," and that was such an outstanding success that the B.B.C. said, "We must have more from this chap." There was nothing political behind the movement at all.

The General was asked, as is the usual practice, to avoid political matters. In the main, I think, he succeeded.

Mr. Wigg

In the main.

Mr. Hutchison

I repeat that in the main I think he succeeded. I am coming to the various points which the hon. Member has in mind. The hon. Member has been through this broadcast with meticulous care, sucking up points of criticism like a vacuum cleaner. I will come to the particular points of criticism later.

The main burden of what the hon. Gentleman said tonight was an allegation that the B.B.C. is biased towards my right hon. Friend. If it were, I could well understand it. But the hon. Member, in a debate two days ago, on Ashridge, confessed with pride and relish that he was biased from head to foot in everything he said and on all political considerations. But other people can sometimes be unbiased.

The hon. Member has a bee in his bonnet about this, and I think that he is a modern example of the historic difference between the Tories and the Whigs. The fact is that the B.B.C. is an independent body. It is as often accused by the Right of being too Left as it is accused by the Left of being too Right, and that seems to me to leave matters just about all square and honours even.

The liaison, about which the hon. Member asked, between the B.B.C. and the War Office is exactly the same as in the days when the hon. Member was closely connected with the War Office; it is through the Directorate of Public Relations. Successive Governments have traditionally given the B.B.C. complete independence in its programmes. My noble Friend the Postmaster-General has asked me to say that the present Govern- ment see no reason for changing that practice.

The hon. Member did not mention it this evening, but he has complained that the B.B.C. did not have a broadcast on the subject of the increase in the period of National Service from 18 months to two years, which was introduced by his party when in Government. But the B.B.C. is expressly charged not to give its opinions on matters of public policy. Whether it engages the hon. Member to give the Socialist point of view or somebody to give another point of view is its own affair. In the main, the two points of view are broadly balanced and the B.B.C.'s programme can be considered to be an independent programme. Perhaps the hon. Member's colleagues made no application to the B.B.C. at that time to have a broadcast on the subject.

Next, how does my right hon. Friend propose to deal with the problem of the unscripted broadcast? I think that this question was at the back of the hon. Member's mind, and it is right that we should think about it. I believe that no serious objection can be taken to anything that General West has said, and we do not think that any fundamental action is needed. One always learns from experience, and while there is no doubt whatever about the value of this broadcast and its general advantage to the Army, it is expected that such contentious questions will in the future be avoided.

I need not go into the general policy about communications to the Press. It is well known, it is laid down in Queen's Regulations, and the hon. Member has referred to it. Authority has to be obtained before a communication is made to the Press or a scripted broadcast can be given.

Up to a point that sustains the hon. Member's contention that one would not find in a scripted broadcast or a communication to the Press by a serving officer something in violent conflict with Government or War Office policy. The interview in question, however, was unrehearsed, and it was known to the public to be unrehearsed; it was in a quite different category. As I stated in a recent reply to Questions, we cannot be held to be responsible for what is given as a personal opinion in an unscripted broadcast.

I turn now to the more detailed and particular points of which the hon. Mem- ber complained: first, that General West had given the numbers of divisions which would be contributed if there were, unhappily, another world war. It is important to put this statement in its proper context and to notice the actual wording. The General was explaining the unlikelihood of there being another Commonwealth division, and pointed out that in a major war each country would make its own contribution.

Then, he said: Of course, England would produce, you know"— as though anybody would know— 40 divisions and Australia would produce 20 divisions, and so on, all merely illustrative. The figures are quite inaccurate. As the hon. Member must know, they were clearly figures picked out of the air to illustrate the sort of thing that would happen. What man in his senses would expect that Australia would produce half the number of divisions that Britain would produce. They were figures given purely as an illustration. That is how any unbiased member of the public listening to the broadcast would interpret them, and that is what the General told me he intended to convey.

Mr. Wigg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hutchison

Please allow me to continue. There may be a moment to spare at the end.

The hon. Member then complained about the General's remark about the Suez Canal. Here, again, we must put that into its context. The General said that we had not yet left the Suez Canal, he was "glad to say." The hon. Member sees some dangerous political inference in that statement. But everybody knows that we are at present trying to negotiate an agreement with Egypt about the Suez Canal, and who would not be glad that we had not departed from Egypt before having come to an arrangement or an agreement? There are those two illustrations; I could give others, but there is not time.

The hon. Member is making a mountain out of a molehill. The line of demarcation between military and political matters is very narrowly drawn, and it is as easy to slip over it as to slip out of order in this House. I do not think that the General slipped over it. The hon. Member thinks that he did. Be that as it may. I hope and believe that in the future any such quasi-political questions will be entirely avoided.

The hon. Member, with his position and close connection with the Army and War Office in the past, will realise how valuable it is that the Army and its doings in the far-flung fields in which it is just now should be presented to the public and kept in 1ihe public eye. I know from our meetings in the Select Committee that the hon. Member has the Army very much at heart, though his concern for it sometimes takes some curious manifestations.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.