HL Deb 17 November 1927 vol 69 cc131-42

LORD FORESTERhad given notice to call attention to the proposed visit to India of the Secretary of State for War; to ask His Majesty's Government what necessity there is for such a visit, seeing that it will involve the absence for some time of the Secretary of State for War; to inquire what arrangements will be made to carry on the important administrative work at the War Office during his absence; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, there has been a certain amount of correspondence on this subject in the Press, in which I have taken some part, and I noticed that on November 8 the Secretary of State for War, in reply to a Question in another place, stated that the proposed visit was only going to cost his fare, which would be roughly about £250. If the visit is a necessity it cannot be said that £250 is unduly extravagant, but if the visit is unnecessary—well, we all know the old adage that if you look after the pence the pounds will take care of themselves. I think that adage should apply to Governments as well as to individuals.

It is not generally recognised, I think, that the Government of India—and I think I am right in saying so—is entirely responsible for the pay and upkeep both of the Indian Army and of the British troops in India, so that any idea the Secretary of State for War may have of effecting economies in either of those forces—presumably at the expense of the fighting portion of them—would afford no relief at all to the British taxpayer. Since this correspondence started in the Press I have heard from various distinguished officers, not only retired officers but officers serving at the present time both at home and with the British troops in India, and also officers of the Indian Army, and I have heard no expression of approval or satisfaction about this visit.

The Secretary of State for War, when speaking the other day at the Mansion House, is reported to have used these words:— Our main difficulty is that we have not yet got the types of vehicles we require, and we are rather in the position of a man trying to run a 'bus service with experimental 'buses and, to some extent, experimental 'bus drivers. I do not know how many years it takes to design and produce an entirely new type of motor car, but I can certainly assure you that it takes very much longer to produce satisfactory cross-country armoured vehicles. If it is going to take such a long time to produce cross-country armoured vehicles I confess I fail to appreciate what possible benefit can accrue to the nation as a result of this visit, at any rate at the present juncture. In ordinary every-day life if any of your Lordships require a bricklayer's job to be done you would usually get a bricklayer, not a carpenter or any other tradesman, to do it; and I submit that this so-called mechanisation of the Army is a soldier's job, and not the job of a politician, and that a soldier should be employed to undertake it. We have had too many bitter experiences of undue interference in military dispositions by various politicians within the memory certainly of the majority of your Lordships here to-night. I myself can remember Majuba Hill, and all the way down from then to the first battle of Gaza in the recent War it would have been better to leave so-called military dispositions to the soldiers who understand them.

As I understand it, the duties of the Secretary of State for War are, broadly speaking, to act as an unprejudiced Chairman to a committee of experts—namely, the Army Council, to form a connecting link between the Government and the Army, and to defend the military policy of the Government in Parliament. These duties are better performed by a politician than by a soldier, and the Secretary of State is expected neither to be nor even to pose as a military expert. If the duties of his position include that of visiting the frontiers of our Empire and formulating schemes for their defence, it would obviously be to the interests of the nation if that position were held by the ablest soldier we have available.

Finally, I beg to ask the noble Earl who, no doubt, will reply, what arrangements will be made to carry out the new and most important administrative work at the War Office during the absence of the Secretary of State for War if he goes upon this visit. I venture to suggest that if the Secretary of State would forgo the visit and devote the time that would be saved thereby to the internal arrangements of the War Office itself and would leave the mechanisation of the Army to soldiers who understand the job the country would be in a far better position both as regards security and economy. I beg to move.


My Lords, I was not aware that my noble friend intended to bring forward this Question, but as I called your Lordships' attention to the same point two years ago I should like to say something from the more general point of view. I do not propose to follow my noble friend in the arguments he has used, mainly because I feel convinced that if, after what was said two years ago and the time that has elapsed since then, it has been decided by the Prime Minister that it is expedient the Secretary of Stats for War should go to India, there must be some strong and urgent reasons of public service which compel him to take that view.

Again, I would not in any way criticise the occasional visits of Ministers presiding over important Departments to what may be called the scene of operations, such as Mr. Amery is making at the present time or as the late Mr. Chamberlain made on a celebrated occasion to South Africa. But my noble friend Lord Balfour will, I am sure, bear me out when I say that up to the time of the War it was almost unknown for any Minister to absent himself from a Cabinet Meeting except on the most urgent public duty or owing to ill-health. But more recently attendance at such meetings has become dangerously irregular. Last January the question of China arose. I will not trouble your Lordships with dates or with statements regarding individuals because I have not the slightest desire to reflect on anybody, only on the system. But much comment was caused at the time, and I looked up the facts of the numerous Cabinets which were held in the month of January. The first meeting was called no doubt in a great hurry, and some Ministers must necessarily have been abroad or absent. But a number of Cabinet meetings were held in the next three weeks and I believe your Lordships will be astonished to hear that less than two-thirds of the twenty-two Ministers were, present at most of the Cabinet meetings when a most vital question was being considered—namely, whether we should begin military operations in China or not.

I would submit to His Majesty's Government that although it may be necessary that certain very prominent Ministers should occasionally go abroad on the public service, there ought not to be any conscious slackness in the attendance of Ministers at Cabinet councils. The confidence of the country is not maintained by any one Minister but by all. The paper I hold in my hand, which I have no intention of reading out, would show your Lordships that my suggestion is not in regard to one or two Ministers only but points to the fact that some of the most prominent were obviously unable to be consulted on one of the most important questions this Ministry has had to decide. Even if my noble friend Lord Onslow cannot deal with this question, I hope it will not escape attention.


My Lords, this question is more important than appears on the face of it. My noble friend mentioned something as having happened two years ago; I do not know what it was, but I presume it had reference to a Minister leaving the country. Once approve of the absence from his duty of a prominent Minister like the Minister for War we shall be creating precedents which may be used by another Government very much to the detriment of the public service. I do not wish to go into the question as to whether the Minister for War should be a soldier, a civilian or, as my noble friend behind me said, a politician. I do not know that there is much difference between a civilian and a politician and I do not presume that my noble friend meant that a politician was an inferior person to a civilian. But I think certainly that the proper head of the War Office and of the Admiralty is a civilian, for the very reason which my noble friend suggested—that he should be a link between his Department and another place and he should be able to collect the views of the experts and guide them into the best channel he can find.

It was never intended that the head of a Department should be an expert himself and should go about administering or looking for matters which require attention or should become a military expert. If that had to be done you had much better have a soldier at the head of affairs. I may be wrong, but I think that we should have done much better in the War had there been a civilian at the head of affairs instead of Lord Kitchener, who evidently forced his views upon the Generals who were on the spot. However great a soldier he may be, it is not possible for a man at some distance from a place to know exactly what ought to be done there. All those matters should be left to the Generals on the spot. If we alter all that and allow the Secretary of State for War to travel about the country and every part of the Empire so as to settle military matters, I think we shall be embarking upon a very dangerous precedent.

My noble friend has said that the English taxpayers will not benefit by any economies made in the Indian forces because the Indian forces are paid by the Government of India. I am not quite sure that I am with him there. I agree with economy wherever it is made and whoever benefits by it; but I am not for economy in the forces of the Crown, if it means reducing the number of the fighting forces below what is really safe, and certainly not in India. My own idea is that we have not enough soldiers in India. I certainly should not be prepared to support any Motion which would reduce any further the fighting forces of the Crown. It is not really true economy. If we had only had a stronger Army and a stronger Navy thirteen years ago we should have saved enormous sums of money. Therefore I earnestly hope, without in any way desiring to question the efficiency of the present Secretary of State for War, that he will stick to his job, which is to be in his place at the War Office and not go wandering about the confines of our immense Empire.


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the fact that the proposed journey of my right hon. friend had been dealt with in certain correspondence in the Press and I had noticed in that correspondence that the people who wrote—I think including the noble Lord himself—seemed to think that my right hon. friend was going to India on a holiday trip. I do not think the observations that have fallen from your Lordships in this debate have added to that impression, but if that impression should exist I think that what I am about to say will remove it from the mind of anybody in your Lordships' House or outside it.

In the first place I want to guard myself against giving your Lordships the impression that my right hon. friend's visit to India is in any sense of the word an official inspection of the British troops there. It is nothing of the sort. The Government of India are of course entirely responsible for the British troops in India. My right hon. friend is not going to India with a view to dealing with military matters of a purely technical character. Those matters concern the military authorities in India and the military authorities in this country. His reason for going to India is this. The British Army there consists of 60,000 officers and men of all arms and it must be obvious, when so large a proportion of the British Army is stationed in India, that there are very many questions which concern both the troops stationed in India and those stationed in this country. That cannot be disputed, but it has been suggested that all these matters are of a purely military and technical character which should be settled by the military authorities alone without reference to anybody else. That is not the case.

Besides the purely military questions there are very many important problems of organisation, of administration, of finance and also of policy, which depend for their successful solution both here and in India upon the closest co-operation between those who are connected with the government of the Army at home and those who are connected with the government of the Army in India. Of those in the former category I do not think any of your Lordships will dispute that the Secretary of State for War is the most important. I would venture to give your Lordships one or two illustra- tions. The question of the mechanisation of the Army has been mentioned. The lines on which the mechanisation of the Army is to proceed involve both financial and political questions of a very important nature. All those questions must be settled before any definite policy of mechanisation can be evolved. The noble Lord semed to think that the Secretary of State for War was going to usurp the functions of the Military Members of the Army Council and other distinguished and eminent soldiers in devising motor vehicles to mechanise the Army. If he had studied the Papers recently issued which dealt with the duties of the Master General of Ordnance and the Quartermaster-General he would have seen that this is by no means the case.

Let me mention the Cavalry as an illustration. We are now considering the question of the future of Cavalry and we have altered the composition of a Cavalry regiment to two sabre squadrons with a mechanised squadron of sixteen machine guns and mechanised first-line transport. We want India to agree that the British Cavalry in India should be similarly composed. It is desirable that the Cavalry in both countries should be on the same footing. It makes a considerable financial difference to our Estimates that we should keep our regiments at a strength sufficient to find drafts for India, and if Cavalry regiments of both countries had the same composition there would be a great simplification of organisation and some saving in money. Both noble Lords who spoke seemed to think that there is nothing to be gained and no financial saving to be made by the Secretary of State's visit to India. I venture to think that there will be a financial saving to the taxpayers of this country if the organisation in India and the organisation here are upon similar lines. It is impossible to suggest that the visit of the Secretary of State himself to India to consult with the Indian authorities in this matter will not be of the greatest benefit to both countries.

I will give your Lordships another illustration. The first artillery brigade the other day came at the head of the list for service in India during this season. That brigade was a mechanised brigade, but India was unable to take a mechanised field brigade on her establishment at that time and, therefore, we had to make considerable changes in personnel of officers and men in order to send to India what she required. In doing so we broke up a very useful formation. This kind of circumstance must constantly arise when changes of policy are under consideration, and when experiments are being made. I venture to maintain—and I do not think that anybody will disagree with me—that by discussion with the various authorities in India in regard to the common problems which have to be solved by the Army both in India and at home great good may be done.

Every member of your Lordships' House will agree that the Secretary of State for War or any other civilian member of the Army Council, even a humble person like myself, would be failing in his duty if he did not visit such military centres as Aldershot, Salisbury Plain, Catterick and so forth, and familiarise himself so far as possible with Army conditions. It does not mean that he is trying to make himself a technical or military expert, but I know from my own personal experience of visits to Aldershot and elsewhere that it is of great advantage. One is enabled to understand what the experts tell him and the advice given is very much better than one gets if one sits at the War Office and reads pieces of paper. I feel certain that my noble friend Lord Midleton and the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Haldane), when they occupied the office of Secretary of State for War, made frequent visits to military centres in this country; I should be very much surprised if they said that they never visited them.

Visits to India have, in the past, been practically impossible owing to the time which they took up, but now that the journey has been somewhat shortened in the matter of time there is no reason whatever why the Secretary of State should not visit India in the same way that he does Aldershot. I think he leaves next week and will be away for two months. That two months includes the Christmas holidays and I venture to think that my right hon. friend during his absence will have quite as strenuous a time as any member of your Lordships' House. The only public charge in connection with this visit—and the expense will fall either upon Indian or British funds—is the cost of his own passage and that will be defrayed from Army funds and amounts to £260.

I think it is right that I should refer to one fact in connection with this matter. The noble Lord who asked the Question addressed a letter to the Press some time ago, in which he suggested that the cost of my right hon. friend's journey to India must entail sacrifices to the Army, that the money spent on the Army would have to be curtailed in order to provide funds for this visit. It was suggested also in other quarters that officers and others might accompany the Secretary of State. That is not the case. I believe one officer will go with him, and that he will travel by the same ship, but he was going in any case. I was therefore glad to hear the noble Lord say that if the visit was necessary—and I venture to think it is necessary—the expense was not one which need be regretted, but that it would be a right and proper expense. Of course there is plenty of room for differences of opinion on policy as regards a journey of this kind, and noble Lords who do not agree that it is desirable are perfectly right to raise the question. But I do not think that a suggestion that a necessary journey should not be undertaken because some small charge would be involved is one that can be supported.

The other point in the Question is the representation of my right hon. friend during his absence. Your Lordships are aware that only a Secretary of State can perform certain actions. They are technical and have to be performed by a Secretary of State. In theory there is only one Secretary of State and any one of the seven can perform an action on behalf of any other. That is constantly done, as your Lordships are well aware. In this case when such action is necessary the Secretary of State for Scotland will act for the Secretary of State for War. Then, as your Lordships are aware, the Secretary of State for War is President of the Army Council and presides at meetings of that body. The Under-Secretary of State for War is Vice-President and during the absence of the Secretary of State will preside at the meetings. As regards the rest of the business, the short absence of the Secretary of State will not necessitate any change in the distribution of the work of the War Office. That will remain as laid down in the Order in Council of March 21, 1924, which distributes the work between the Under-Secretary of State, the Military Members, the Finance Member and the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War. I was very glad to hear my noble friend the Earl of Midleton, who I think criticised the prospect of the visit some two years ago, agree now that in the circumstances and as the visit has been approved by the Cabinet and the Prime Minister it should take place. I feel convinced that the visit of the Secretary of State for India to see the British Army in India will be of the greatest possible benefit to the Army as a whole, and I should like to say that personally I am sure it will enable us on the Army Council to keep in touch with the forces in India in a way which I am sure every member of your Lordships' House will agree is desirable.


My Lords, I cannot help feeling that my noble friend would have made a much more efficacious defence of the proposed visit if he had simply said that the Cabinet was so large that the absence of the Secretary of State for War would never be noticed. I personally am unable to get up much admiration for this new principle of peripatetic Secretaries of State. I can understand it is perfectly right that the Colonial Secretary should visit the Dominions, more especially because he happens to know something about them, and I can also understand that it is desirable that on certain occasions the First Lord of the Admiralty should proceed to distant stations because the Navy is administered from London. But what has the Secretary of State for War got to do with India? That reminds me that personally I cannot see what particular object is served by the Secretary of State for Air careering about all over the place, except that it provides a certain amount of copy for the sensational Press.

As for the Secretary of State for War moving about and going to visit these places, I submit that my noble friend has made absolutely no case at all. He talked about problems of administration and problems of mechanisation. What on earth does the present Secretary of State for War know about mechanization? He added, as if it were a new and startling fact, that there are 60,000 British troops in India. There always have been. Ever since the Mutiny there have been some- thing like 60,000 British troops in India, but no Secretary of State for War has ever for a moment suggested that it was necessary for him to go to inquire into their condition. I really think that this is one of the most fantastic proposals that has ever been made and I cannot understand why more antagonism has not been created by it. All I can say in conclusion is that had the late Marquess Curzon been alive this proposal would have gone very little distance at all. I cannot imagine for a moment that the Marquess Curzon would ever have allowed the Secretary of State for War to go to India at all.


He did not object two years ago.


He was not in India then. I do submit with great respect that my noble friend has made out absolutely no case whatever for this proposal.


May I ask one question before we leave the subject? I do not know whether it is quite clear to your Lordships. My noble friend says certain technical duties must be dealt with by the Secretary of State. Does that mean that the Secretary of State for Scotland will on occasion sign technical papers which cannot be signed by anybody else and that the War Office will be administered exclusively by my noble friend below me?


The Secretary of State for Scotland will, when necessary, act. The necessity has yet to arise.


But the Secretary of State for Scotland will not attend the War Office I understand.


He will when necessary.


My Lords, I think that really my friend Lord Newton has replied for me. I am not at all convinced by the answer that I have received from the noble Earl. I am very sorry that the two noble Lords who have both been Viceroys of India were not present to-night. I had the chance of talking with one of them and I think he quite agrees with me. I wish he had been here to address your Lordships, but I have no authority to quote anything of what he said. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.