HL Deb 17 November 1915 vol 20 cc388-400

THE EARL OF PORTSMOUTH had the following Questions on the Paper—

To ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. If they will give the names of the Committee of the Cabinet proposed to be set up by the Prime Minister to whom is to be referred the strategic conduct of the war.
  2. 2. Will the powers of this Committee be limited to the discussion of strategic plans or will its decisions have executive effect.
  3. 3. Will the composition of such Committee be permanent during the war or variable from time to time at the discretion of the Prime Minister both in numbers and in personnel.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, it will not be necessary for me to put my first Question, because the noble Marquess the Leader of the House has already told us the names of the War Committee. I have nothing to say regarding them, except that I think this House has considerable reason to resent the fact that not a single member of the Committee is a member of this House. It may be said that Lord Kitchener still remains nominally Secretary of State for War, but the noble and gallant Earl is away, and I do not suppose that any one knows when the important duties with which he is now engaged will be concluded and he will be able to be present at the debates in this House. Considering the number of gallant officers—the Field-Marshals and the distinguished naval and military officers—who are in this House possessing practical experience, and considering also the great sacrifices that this House among its members and among its families has contributed and is contributing to the national cause, I do think it is to be regretted that we are not to have any member of the War Committee in this House able to take part in these debates.

It would almost appear as if there was some sort of malignant consistency on the part of the Prime Minister that seems to drive him, having done his best to destroy the efficiency of this House in ordinary times, to degrade its debates in time of war, because, whichever way you put it, when the principal and most responsible people connected with the war are unable to speak here I submit that I am not using language of exaggeration when I assert that these debates are somewhat degraded. It cannot be satisfactory to your Lordships that official information or replies vouchsafed to us can only be the second-hand information of those who are prepared to accept responsibility without knowledge and decisions without a share in the deliberations. We are to be privileged to listen in the future to no doubt very skilful and eloquent speeches from the Front Bench opposite, but those speeches will emanate from what I can only describe as a newly-created official class—a class of whom I do not wish to speak in those terms, but who have been described by Sir Edward Carson as nonentities (members of the Outer Cabinet), and I am sorry to say—because I think that anything which destroys the prestige and character of the Government is a misfortune—that as such they are regarded by the country at large.

The necessity—and this is a point on which I wish to concentrate attention this afternoon—the necessity for a small Cabinet with real and direct responsibility is constantly being brought home to us by the series of events that are taking place, but I do not think that it has ever been brought more forcibly home to my mind than by the speech which was made by Mr. Winston Churchill in retiring from the Government. With all deference to Mr. Churchill, I confess that I agree very much with the view taken by Lord Morley—that the statements of retiring Ministers are not very edifying documents. They are apt to flavour too much of egotism, and as they are of an ex parte character one wants to hear the other side before forming a judgment. I think it was unfortunate and unfair that the names of Lord Fisher and Lord Kitchener should have been brought into the speech at a time when neither of them was able—nor, I should think, would they have thought it wise—to explain matters. Lord Kitchener, if not directly, was certainly indirectly stated to have been a party to the disaster at Antwerp. I might instance many cases to show where want of direction and of concentrated Cabinet responsibility has produced very unfortunate results. Let me, however, say a few words in regard to this point from what happened at Antwerp.

Taking the facts of the Antwerp misfortune to be as Mr. Churchill stated them, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that they reveal the terrible penalty which the nation has had to pay for not having a small and responsible Cabinet. I take the facts related by Mr. Churchill without comment and from his speech. It is not only what he says but what he omits to say that is important, but there is one broad general fact outlying the whole, and that is that there was no direction and no coherent plan in regard to Antwerp. The Belgian Government, as we know, telegraphed their decision to evacuate the city. The French and English troops were at that time both heavily engaged, and every man was needed in the fighting line. But what was the attitude of the Government, or rather, so far as we know, of a certain portion of the Cabinet? We were told that they suffered—I do not wonder at it—a great deal of mental distress. But instead of accepting the decision of the Belgian Government to withdraw, which would have been common sense, what did they do? They allowed the First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Churchill) to leave his post in Whitehall and—accompanied by no skilled adviser at all, unless you call Colonel Seely a skilled adviser—rush over to Antwerp to persuade the Belgian Government to hold out, and he promised them assistance. The Cabinet let Mr. Churchill have his Naval Division. I know from those who took part in the proceedings at Antwerp and whom I have seen, officers and others, that many of those who were sent out in that Naval Division had been only a week in the Service and, as I know from an eye-witness, in many cases the men were without guns and in others where they had guns the officers had to show the men how to load them. This was the force, unsupported by artillery, that the Government put into the trenches against the finest siege train in the world.

It is common history now what was the result of this folly. The Belgian Army lost some 30,000 men, and Sir Harry Rawlinson's Division, who had to cover the too-long-delayed retreat, suffered so heavily that it was stated in Sir john French's report that they "failed to take the crucial position of Menin," and thus rendered any further advance upon the part of Sir John French impracticable. That is a terrible story, and I confess that when I read the speech of Mr. Churchill I felt, clever and able and from a certain point of view courageous as it was, that it showed a lamentable want of steady purpose and control on the part of the head of the Government and a want of coherence on the part of the Cabinet. All the brave and gallant young lives who fell at Antwerp; Admiral Cradock, his ships and men; the thousands dead, dying, and daily coming home invalided from the Dardanelles, that seem to rise like ghostly spectres out of a mist of purposeless and inexplicable blundering—these, I must confess, are much more to me, and I am sure to the country, than any egotistical concern of Mr. Churchill's reputation.

But in my opinion the real responsibility for the blunder at Antwerp, and for a great many more which I need not trouble your Lordships by enumerating, rests with that creation of the modern politician that tinder the shelter of a large Cabinet Your collective responsibility protects one and all from any personal responsibility or personal liability. The noble Marquess the Leader of the House complained of some criticisms that were made the other day by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke upon the conduct of the Prime Minister. He said he could not understand why Lord Willoughby de Broke should have specially singled out the Prime Minister for criticism in regard to matters which came under Departments with which Mr. Asquith was not himself concerned. That seems to me to explain the extraordinary view which this Government take of Cabinet responsibility. The Prime Minister, it is true, has no Department, but at a time like this he is responsible for the conduct of every Department; and the points which Lord Willoughby de Broke brought forward were not merely points of detail, but questions like munitions, the conduct of the war, and so on. Neither the noble Marquess the Leader of the House nor my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal has any Department. Because they have not a Department they are, according to this theory, immune from any personal responsibility at all. They are not even members of the War Committee as it is now set up. Therefore if we are to take this extraordinary theory they will be able to shelter themselves first behind the fact of not belonging to the War Committee, and, secondly, of not having any Department over which to preside. Surely that is carrying the question of Ministerial responsibility to a farce. And with regard to collective responsibility, what have we recently heard? Why, that you may dismember the British Empire without consulting the Cabinet, at all. We have been told by the Prime Minister that the offer to Greece of Cyprus was made, as it had to be made, on the spur of the moment and after short consultation, and that the bulk of the Cabinet were not consulted about it until after the offer had been made.

The apologia for a large Cabinet was, I think, specifically made by my noble friend Lord Lansdowne in this House on Monday of last week. I hope I shall not be trespassing upon your Lordships' time, but I feel obliged to read what the noble Marquess said upon that matter. He said— I think we shall none of us dispute that a body of twenty-two public men is not a body well constituted for the purpose of directing the course of a great war…. When you have to deal with the formation of a Coalition Government it is not very easy to keep the numbers of the Ministry within narrow limits, and for this reason. The noble Marquess proceeded to say that in the choice of personnel you must select as far as possible representatives of the different interests and opinions concerned; and he added— You are in effect telescoping two Cabinets into one, and the task is not a very simple or easy one. That may be so, but I think those remarks of the noble Marquess explain the absolute and profound difference, the wide gulf, which seems to exist, between the view of the official and the politician and the deep and powerful conviction of the people.

If in regard to this creation of a Cabinet political considerations are to enter into the matter, I might say that among the Party organisers on the Unionist side there is a growing resentment that their leaders should have joined the Coalition without making terms, and have committed their Party to all the heritage of failure and mismanagement of the late Government. The feeling is that they might have remained outside and continued to afford the country the advantage of patriotic and responsible Opposition, and the alternative, if emergency arose, of another Government. We have heard a good deal—Lord Newton referred to it last night—of what is called "irresponsible criticism." I am convinced of this, that whatever irresponsible criticism exists in this country is largely due to the fact that there is not a responsible Opposition and that you have a Coalition Government. What I wish to emphasise is the fact that in the view of the public the only justification for the Coalition was the formation of a National Government best able to finish and to win the war, and I can assure your Lordships that in the country there is a very strong distrust of a combination of the two Front Benches.

The noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, admits that a body of twenty-two Men is not suited to direct the course of a great war. Surely that is a sufficient and conclusive reason, if national interests are the first consideration—and I maintain they are the first and the only consideration—why you should have a small Cabinet. Remember what the public position is. We are fighting for our existence as an Empire, and our weapons are the lives of the bravest and best of our fellow-countrymen. At such a time it seems to me strangely out of touch with the reality of things, or with the intense feeling that exists in the country, for any Minister in the same breath to condemn a Cabinet of twenty-two politicians and yet to attempt to excuse this inefficient instrument of Government on the grounds of political convenience—because, to put it plainly, you are harassed by Party considerations, keeping this man in the Cabinet because he has claims, and not daring to exclude another because he may become a powerful critic. That in reality, put in plain language, is the explanation of the apology for telescoping two Cabinets into one.

I ask in my second Question whether the decisions of the War Committee will have executive effect. I am told that the small Committee can take action by itself, but that if it does it has to make the Cabinet aware of its decision; and that it is only in cases when an entirely new departure, a great change of policy, has to be resorted to that the concurrence of the whole Cabinet is required. I confess I do not understand the position of a Cabinet Minister, in a Ministry whose prime executive action is to conduct a war, who is not a member of the Inner Cabinet. Why should he be a Cabinet Minister at all? Party matters are completely and absolutely in abeyance, and many of the Departments presided over by Cabinet Ministers have nothing to do with the prosecution of the war. The Inner Cabinet, we are told, can take action by itself, but if it does so it has to make the Cabinet aware of its decision. Lord Lansdowne said that it is only in cases where an entirely new departure, a great change of policy, has to be resorted to that the concurrence of the whole Cabinet is required. First of all, I do not know how you are to draw a line in regard to the prosecution of the war and say what is a great change of policy and what is an entirely new departure. Events take place and have to be acted upon, and they lead to great changes—where they begin and where they finish is very difficult to define. I should be glad if the Government could tell us what new departure or great change of policy in war, where actions and not words are essential, is likely to be made effective by postponing executive action until you have obtained the concurrence of sixteen or so gentlemen, each claiming an opinion of his own but none of them au courant with the circumstances which have led the Inner Cabinet to take its decision. Lord Lansdowne says it is impossible to lay down by-laws for the guidance of the Cabinet or of a Committee of the Cabinet. With that view I entirely agree. But when we are told, in regard to the extraordinary machinery that now exists, that we must trust to the common sense of the people concerned, my reply is that this proposal of an Inner Cabinet combined with collective Cabinet responsibility is itself opposed to common sense. War is a business, and a business where success is the sole criterion, and success depends for its realisation upon anticipating events and not waiting upon them. I beg to put the Questions standing in my name.


My Lords, the noble Earl has explained why he does not think it necessary to ask the first Question which stands in his name on the Paper; and knowing, as he does, the composition of the new War Committee, I think we are entitled to conclude that he does not desire to take exception, except in regard to one point which I will mention in a moment, to its personal composition, nor to the statement made by the Prime Minister in another place that the number of those who might be called in at a particular meeting of a Committee would depend on the special subject which had to be discussed—as, for instance, that when the interests of India were specially concerned the Secretary of State for India would naturally be called into Council. Nor, I may take it, does the noble Earl object to the further statement which was made by my right hon. friend, that the Committee would be assisted in its deliberations by representatives of the permanent staffs of the principal Offices concerned, such as the War Office, the Admiralty, the Munitions Department, and the Foreign Office.


But the persons called in would not have any executive powers; they would only be called in as advisers, I take it?


That applies, of course, to the permanent officials, but not to those Ministers who may be called in for a particular occasion. A question in that sense was put to my right hon. friend in another place two days ago—it was asked what the responsibility, for instance, of the Foreign Secretary would be when called in—and the Prime Minister replied that the Minister called in would share the responsibility of his colleagues for the decision which was reached.

The sole complaint which the noble Earl has made of the composition of the War Committee is directed to the fact that your Lordships' House is not represented upon it. The War Committee must not be regarded as a representative body in a technical sense, which, I think, supplies the real answer to the noble Earl's complaint. I cannot help thinking that the noble Earl spoke almost in a jocular sense when he indicated the possible belief that the Prime Minister's hostility to your Lordships' House in quite different connections had caused him to refrain from asking any member of it to join this Committee. It is not necessary, I am sure, to assure the House that there is not a shadow of foundation for such a suggestion. So far as the personality of more than one member of your Lordships' House is concerned, I have every reason to believe that the Prime Minister would have been exceedingly glad had it been possible to see them members of the Committee. But as it is, for purposes of debate in this House or for replying to questions, I am afraid the noble Earl must put up with us as we are.

The noble Earl went on to develop the proposition that the formation of the new War Committee involved the creation of an Inner Cabinet, with a considerable number of amorphous beings clinging on to it whose position was one altogether divested of responsibility. That is an interpretation of the facts which we are altogether unable to accept. The War Council is in no sense an Inner Cabinet. There are a large number of subjects of high importance with which it does not deal at all, altogether apart from the limitations imposed upon its powers of action as mentioned in the speech made by my noble friend (Lord Lansdowne) on the 8th of this month, from which the noble Earl opposite quoted—the cases of new departures to which he referred. The noble Earl must remember that there is a large number of questions—questions of foreign policy, questions of great intricacy referring to trade with neutrals, questions dealing with the claims of labour, and a host of other matters of a domestic character—which do not fall within the purview of the War Committee at all. My noble friend beside me reminds me that the whole of the recruiting question is one which does not come in any degree within the competence of the War Committee as such. Therefore when the noble Earl speaks of an Inner Cabinet in the sense in which that term has been used as a sort of cant phrase for the more influential members of previous Cabinets he is really not by any means accurate, for the reason which I have stated.

Then the noble Earl expressed himself as unable to comprehend how new departures could be divided into those of prime and those of secondary importance. It is not possible to give instances in the past, for very obvious reasons, and I do not think it would be profitable to attempt to suggest imaginable instances for the future; but I think everybody here is competent to suggest for himself the kind of half political and half military departure which must obviously be the work, if it is to be taken, of the Government as a whole. In spite of the difficulty which the noble Earl feels, I believe that the House will recognise that the distinction will clear itself up in each case as it is presented. On a small scale the same question occurs perpetually to the head of every great Department—to the Secretaries of State, to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and others. The question continually presents itself to the head of a Department as to whether a matter is one which he can settle for himself with his departmental advisers, or Whether he is bound to refer it to the Cabinet. Decisions of great importance are often taken by individual Ministers on their own responsibility without reference to the Cabinet, and a man has in those cases to form the best judgment he can of the necessity of submitting the question to the whole body of his colleagues. Similarly, I have not the least doubt that when a particular step of importance is discussed at the War Committee it will not be difficult for the members of that body to decide whether it is one on which they would desire to obtain the sanction of the whole body of those with whom they are working.

The noble Earl went on to discuss at some length the speech made by our right hon. friend Mr. Churchill, whose co-operation we on this Bench are so unfeignedly sorry to lose. I do not in any way feel called upon to discuss the statement which my right hon. friend made in another place. As a mere matter of order it would not be proper to do so; but apart from that fact, which is one which in this House we are often apt to push aside, it would not be proper for me to make any general comments upon my right hon. friend's speech. So far as discussion is concerned, I am bound to say that I prefer the silence of Lord Fisher even to a speech from the noble Earl opposite.

On the principal question of Antwerp, however, I desire to say this. The whole story of the evacuation of Antwerp is incomplete, and will remain incomplete for some considerable time. Mr. Churchill's reasons for alluding to it at the length he did in another place was founded on the belief that as an individual he had been calumniated in the Press and in public discussion generally by being described as a person who entirely ignored professional advice and rushed as a civilian, without such advice, into military enterprises; and he evidently held that he was justified in adducing facts which would destroy that belief. As regards the Dardanelles, of which the noble Earl opposite went on to say something, borrowing, as I think he did, a picturesque phrase from a leading article which I remember to have read a few days ago on the subject, I do not feel that it is necessary to say a word, because that was one of the subjects which Lord Fisher, who is as much entitled as anybody could be to speak on it if anybody now ought, refrained with deliberation from discussing.

But, my Lords, on the general question of the joint responsibility of the Cabinet, I think I must complain that the noble Earl contributed an almost burlesque version of what I said the other day in reply to Lord Willoughby deBroke when he made a special attack upon the Prime Minister. There never was any question in my mind, and I do not think any question appeared in what I said, that the joint responsibility of the whole Cabinet is absolute. It cannot be parted with by any Minister who remains a part of the Government, and it is true that it may be regarded as being possessed in a special sense by the Prime Minister of the time. The point that I animadverted to in the speech of Lord Willoughby de Broke was that he chose explicitly to single out the Prime Minister, not for criticism, but for personal attack on matters in respect of which he might just as well, and I should have supposed with equal satisfaction, have singled out the Ministers who were departmentally concerned with the particular acts which he mentioned. I certainly went no further than that.

In enforcing once more, as he did at the end of his speech, the need for a small and concentrated Cabinet which should be solely responsible for everything, the noble Earl did not tell us of what numbers he would desire that such a Cabinet should be composed. If it was to be a larger body than the existing War Council, it would probably have occurred to him that for the purposes of exercising the particular functions of that War Council in relation to strategy and consultation with military authorities, it would be too large. Those of us who have, previously to the formation of this body, been responsible on what was first called the Dardanelles Committee and afterwards spoken of generally as the War Committee for the immediate conduct of the war found that the body as constituted was too large. It was probably about the size of the Cabinet which the noble Earl had in his mind, and those of us who were members of it—my two noble friends behind me will, I think, bear out what I say—found that owing to its being composed of as many members as it was—ten up to a dozen—it failed in that particular application to the needs of the moment which ought to be the special work of such a body, and which we hope will be more easy for the new War Council to perform. Therefore the noble Earl would have to cut his small and concentrated Cabinet down to very small dimensions.

But then he would be confronted with a further difficulty. A Cabinet of such very small dimensions which in these days is to exercise something not far removed from a dictatorship would not find it possible to combine with all the vast amount of daily and nightly work which it would have to perform the preparation of material for defending itself against Parliamentary or other criticism. If you are going to have the country governed by a body of that size you must turn it into something like a genuine dictatorship, and it is one of the postulates of a dictatorship that it should be immune from criticism. A dictator cannot spend his time in preparing elaborate defences of his acts. The result, therefore, of the formation of such a body would be, in the first place, the silencing of the Press. Fleet-street and Printing House-square and all the other emporia where distilled wisdom is distributed to mankind might as well put up their shutters. Your Lordships might as well put up your shutters, and so might the House of Commons, because it is ridiculous to suppose that five or six gentlemen engaged in carrying on the business of the country could in such circumstances come down here and make elaborated defences in the course of debates such as those which, I dare say greatly to the public advantage, we have been assisting at during the last few days.


Mr. Pitt had a Cabinet of seven or eight, but not more.


The noble Earl's historical knowledge is quite correct, but I think he will see that the activities of the Press and the activities of Parliament in those days were on a very different scale from those which exist now, and if the noble Earl is going to multiply his existing Cabinet by a figure representing the difference between the necessary work in Parliament and the necessity of replying to a constant stream of criticism, he would find that his Cabinet would probably number more nearly one hundred than the modest number which he desires to see.

I think the House may rest contented that to the best of our poor abilities those Ministers who are not members of the War Council will endeavour at need to state the case for such acts, military acts, naval acts, or acts of policy, which our fellowcountrymen may desire to call in question. We are kept perpetually and regularly informed of what occurs, and I have no reason to suppose that even if we were sitting on this Committee we should be able to deal with more knowledge than we have as to particular questions which are likely to be discussed or which ought to be discussed within the walls of Parliament. I am afraid, therefore, that I cannot accept the general criticism of the noble Earl as being well founded; and I feel certain that if he finds that an added efficiency is given to the conduct of the war by the appointment of the War Council nobody will be more pleased than he.


The noble Marquess has not answered my third Question, whether the composition of the Committee will be permanent or variable.


I thought I answered it at the beginning of my remarks, when I said that the Ministers representing Departments specially concerned in particular subjects would be called in when those subjects were under discussion by the War Council. As regards what the precise composition of the body may be during the whole course of the war I am not entitled to speak, because I have no knowledge at all; but I have no reason to suppose that the body will not maintain its present composition for as long a time as we are entitled to look forward.