HL Deb 10 July 1940 vol 116 cc863-74

4.23 p.m.

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government if their attention has been called to an article which appeared in the Daily Worker of June 22, and whether any action has been, or will be taken with regard to this newspaper. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it will perhaps be remembered that I raised this subject two or three weeks ago, and I received the stereotyped answer from my noble friend that the question would be carefully considered and that if the newspaper transgressed in any way, attention would be given to the matter. I do not myself study the Daily Worker consistently, but I gathered information about this particular article from my noble friend Lord Elibank. It came to my notice only a day or two ago, and that accounts for the delay in my bringing the matter forward. As everyone knows, the Daily Worker is the organ of the Communist Party, and its great mission—I do not know whether self-imposed or not—is to foment the class war. The particular article to which I desire to call attention is one of the usual type; it is extremely vituperative, and full of all kinds of charges against the Government. The Government are accused of being composed largely of Fascists; they are accused of being influenced and stimulated by profiteers and financiers; they are said to be engaged in ruining the lower classes and in conducting the country straight to ruin; and it is stated that the only thing to do is to turn them out as quickly as possible. It is also suggested in the article that the so-called "officer class" should be abolished and that the factory workers should be provided with arms. If this happy state of things is brought about, then the so-called "People's Government" will enter into negotiations with the democracy of Germany, and peace will at once result.

I should like to remark that if this surprising event did occur, and if a new Government were formed with, shall I say, the noble Lord opposite, Lord Marley, or Sir Stafford Cripps at the head of it, does anyone really suppose that it would have any effect upon the war? There is an extraordinary delusion in people's minds, fostered by our propagandists, that we are fighting this war solely on behalf of democratic institutions, and that Hitler is naturally at war with us for that reason. It may surprise the noble Lord opposite, but I maintain that Hitler is no enemy to democratic principles. His Government is founded upon the model of the Soviet Government, which excites the admiration of many people in this country who belong to the Socialist Party.


No, no.


He has copied this model so well that now his Government is almost indistinguishable from the Soviet Government. Any one who has gone to both countries, as I have done, must have realised that there is almost no difference between the two systems; the only difference that I can discover is that whereas the Jews are persecuted in the most inhuman way under the Nazi Government, in the Soviet Government they enjoy considerable influence and some of them are members of the Government itself. Democracy, however, has nothing to do with the question at all. We are not fighting the battle of democratic institutions, although one might suppose so from some of the propaganda which is produced. What we are fighting for is our existence as a nation. We are fighting for our lives and for everything that we possess, in view of the unprovoked attack which has been made upon us. There are, at this moment, three men whom I should describe as international bandits—Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Their object is not to attack democracy; their object is to take possession of all the small countries in their neighbourhood and to hold them down as slaves, in the same way as in the cases of Czecho-Slovakia and Poland. That is what Hitler is contemplating so far as we are concerned. The painful part of the whole business is that these three men have been extraordinarily successful—probably far more successful than they expected. They have overrun almost the whole of Europe. They have been uniformly victorious. They hold the European coastline from the North Cape right down to Spain, and they are in an almost impregnable position. I may add that their diplomatic successes have been no less great than their military successes. The result is that this country is in the most perilous position in which it has ever been, and no one can contemplate the future without the deepest anxiety.

The only consolation that I can find is the attitude of the nation itself. It is quite plain that the British nation is not going to be deterred by fear; it is going on steadfastly with its work. Although they have at present the whole of Europe against them, our people are not going to be daunted in defending their lives, their property and their institutions. I have nothing but admiration for the attitude of the vast majority of the British public at this moment. The only people who are taking no part in helping the Government in the struggle at the present moment are those who are represented by papers like the Daily Worker. I have the highest admiration, as I say, for the attitude of our people at this moment, and I would add that it is at these moments of crisis and danger that the British nation shows to the best advantage—to far better advantage than in times of prosperity.

Whilst I admire the tremendous effort that is being made by this country, in view of the terrific odds against it, there are certain features which I feel are open to criticism. We are also engaged in what I would term a subsidiary campaign against what is known as the "Fifth Column." Can there be any more ridiculous designation than "Fifth Columnist"? If it means anything at all, it means a person who contributes a fifth column to a newspaper; and the journalistic profession might almost be inclined to regard it as an insult. This campaign presents certain features which I certainly do not feel enthusiastic about. There is, for instance, a tremendous drive going on for the purpose of interning aliens, and a noble Lord on this side, if I am not mistaken, wants to intern every alien in the country, or at least every alien of enemy birth. I do not know whether he is present here this afternoon, but he would perhaps be surprised to hear me say—and I am not speaking without experience—that I look upon the wholesale internment of alien civilians as a huge and stupid mistake unworthy of a civilised Government.

Of course one recognises perfectly well that in time of war enemy aliens have to be interned, but what I object to, and shall always object to as long as I am able to speak at all, is that there is a complete absence of discrimination in the matter. I am not like one or two noble Lords—perhaps there are more—who look upon Germans and Austrians as national enemies because they are Germans and Austrians. I quite recognise that the majority of them are hostile to us, but on the other hand there are considerable numbers of both Germans and Austrians in this country who are even more bitterly opposed to the present German Government than we are, and I maintain that it is absurd folly to intern these people, who might be of considerable use to us, and who, although perfectly innocent, have to undergo a very hard time.

I have heard that Sir John Anderson the other day announced that he was going to exercise further discrimination and alleviate the position of aliens to some extent, but I cannot see any evidence of it. On the contrary, it seems to me the Regulations affecting these unfortunate people are going to be more stringent. The civilian enemy alien up till recently was entitled to receive a visit from a friend, but now he is not allowed to see anybody at all except his solicitor or next of kin. I happen to know an unfortunate alien, a man who has worked hard for this country and who was recently employed by one of the Government Departments, who was suddenly re-interned the other day, and this man has not got enough money to pay a solicitor and has no next of kin at all. You may say that is a rare case, but I am quite sure there are many in that position.

Anyhow, the fact remains that an enormous number of people have been interned who are perfectly innocent, and the Government know quite well that they are innocent; but the order goes out that all men of a certain age have to be interned. They are interned, and once they are interned it is with the utmost difficulty that they can be got out, even if they are completely innocent. At the present moment a number of people are interned who were interned at a previous period of the war and released because there was nothing whatever against them. Now they are interned again, and it is a matter of conjecture whether they will get out at all, because the number of aliens who are interned now is very large, and there is no system of examination which might lead to their liberation. It seems to me that the disadvantages of this system greatly outweigh the advantages.

Then there is the question of refugees. I find it very difficult myself—and I do not think I am more gullible than other people—to believe that these people, who come here in order to avoid German tyranny and German brutality, are going to work in favour of the German Government. Of course there may be exceptions; no doubt there are, but I believe the vast bulk of these people have no desire to give any assistance at all to the present German Government, and many of them would be only too glad to work for us. It is said that there are spies among these refugees. There may be, but on the whole I am inclined to think that Hitler and Hitler's Government would not think it worth while to employ them. They are the sort of people who, I should think, would find it very difficult to obtain any information at all, at all events any information of any value, and Hitler has a source from which he can get as much information as he chooses without any trouble whatsoever. In Ireland there is a German Minister, with an enormous staff. It is open to any ill-disposed individual to go to Ireland; he has only to give the Minister this information and it goes straight to Berlin, and there is no chance of its being intercepted. The same thing applies to the Italians: they also have a Minister in Ireland, who no doubt is used in the same way. I have not the smallest doubt in my own mind that long ago they concocted through the German Ministry in Dublin an elaborate plan for the invasion of the country should they think it necessary to do so.

So much for the interned aliens. Well now, a word with regard to the native—I refuse to call them Fifth Columnists; I will say common or garden traitors. What about them? It looks to me as if we were proceeding entirely on the wrong lines. I would have absolutely no mercy on traitors at all. I feel extremely indignant at the totally inadequate sentences passed on these men, especially when I compare them with the punishments inflicted on people who have committed offences simply through stupidity. And I should like to restrict the powers of these people to utilise legal methods of delay. I do not think they ought to be dealt with by an ordinary tribunal at all; I think any person who, with reasonable grounds, is suspected of active sedition ought to be brought before a Court-Martial; whereas there are a lot of people in this country who are so imbued with the sanctity of human life and the safety of the individual that I am quite sure that if you caught a parachutist red-handed they would demand that he should be tried at enormous expense by the highest legal authorities in the country. All this sort of rubbish ought to come to an end, and anybody who is convicted of attempts against the Realm ought to be punished without mercy.

Then I come to another class of persons. At the present moment there is a great demand for the internment of one class or another, but the people who are being interned and harassed are the wrong people. In spite of what the Daily Worker says about the Government being under the domination of Fascists, Fascists seem to be especially selected for punishment. But, whether they are Fascists or not, I cannot believe that some of the people who, I hear, are being arrested are people who mean any mischief at all. I think they are probably people who in years past were anxious to arrive if possible at an arrangement with Germany. I do not mind owning that I was one of those people myself up to a certain time ago. I see no crime in that. If a man contemplated a possible arrangement with Germany before Munich I do not see any crime in that. I admit that he was mistaken. But then you might say, if you want to be logical, that there are plenty of people besides obscure Fascists in this country who ought to be dealt with. You might say, in view of what has happened, that British Ministers ought to be interned because they made a mistake with regard to Hitler; but fortunately we have not got as far as that.

But I cannot help thinking that the whole plan of waging war upon these people because it is vaguely supposed that they have had some communication with Germans or Germany years ago is a mistake, and there is no justification for arresting them now.

The point I am coming to is that, whereas we are very busy attacking these people, many of whom I believe to be perfectly harmless, the really dangerous people are left alone. The really dangerous people are those who sympathise with the Daily Worker and whom the Daily Worker supports. These are the people you want to go for, and I do not see much evidence of anything being done about them. I only say, in conclusion, that it seems to me perfectly monstrous that a miserable rag like this should be allowed to appear, when its sole purpose is to discredit the Government and the efforts the Government are making in defence of this country. It is perfectly ludicrous, and almost impossible to explain. I can only explain it on the theory that the Minister responsible is afraid of somebody—afraid of the Press or something of that kind. I hope my noble friend will be able to give me a more satisfactory reply than I elicited the other day.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I rise for a few minutes to support the question put on the Order Paper by my noble friend, and I shall try to confine my remarks to this question. It is about six weeks since I raised in your Lordships' House the general question of Fifth Columnist activities, and at that time I urged upon the Government that there were two papers—Action, for which the British Fascist Party was responsible, and the Daily Worker, for which the Communist Party was responsible—which were publishing articles and issuing things which were intended to undermine the morale of the people of this country, to undermine the efforts of the Government and, you might say, of the bulk of the population of this country in their attempts to arm and get ready for the great contest in front of us. About ten days elapsed, and a special Regulation was passed by the Home Office which gave it the fullest power to suppress any newspaper which undertook propaganda of that nature. Naturally, one supposed that a paper like the Daily Worker, a copy of which I have in my hand, and which, as I say—and I read a good many articles at the time—was pouring forth this poisonous stuff, would immediately be suppressed and put out of action. Nothing happened. As far as the newspaper Action is concerned, that I believe died a natural death owing to the arrest of the leader of the British Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. The Daily Worker, it is true, stopped issuing the same type of article, but there was, as usual, a great deal of insidious newspaper propaganda which could be read between the lines. It seemed to me that if the Home Secretary had this power, in view of all these articles that had gone before he might have taken steps to suppress this paper.

As my noble friend said, the paper has again come out with a manifesto of the Communist Party in its issue of June 22 which is headed, "We Must Learn the Lesson of France—A New Government Must Come to Power," and then it proceeds to set out this manifesto. The manifesto is a long one, and my noble friend has already given a general account of it, but I should like to refer particularly to clause 4, which says, "Arm the workers in the factory." When we take that, with the heading in huge type, "We Must Learn the Lesson of France," it makes a great many of us in this country very nervous and very anxious as to what may happen. Why "Arm the workers"? We all know what happened in France. France has for a long time been riddled with Communism and, I might almost say, corrupt politics. Anyone will tell you in France—I have heard it over and over again in France, and I have heard it in this country from French people—that it is Communism which has undermined the morale of the people of France. It was Communism which caused the collapse of France in its military undertaking quite recently. If we are going to allow this sort of thing to go broadcast through our country, and do nothing to stop it, the consequences may be serious.

In another place a few days ago, on July 4, the Home Secretary said, with regard to leaflets containing this manifesto: There is no difficulty in dealing under the existing laws with people who are so misguided as to distribute these leaflets, but the manner and scale on which they have recently been distributed raised issues of a wider character, and these issues are now receiving the consideration which they undoubtedly deserve. If the leaflets deserve consideration, how much more does this newspaper which goes into the hands of I do not know how many thousands of people every week, passed from hand to hand amongst the families of our working people. How much more necessary is it to deal with this paper and suppress it. I have personally no particular feeling against a Communist as a Communist if he likes to hold those opinions, any more than I have any feeling against a British Fascist quâ British Fascist if he likes to hold those opinions; but when both these sets of people and both these sets of opinion are directed against the State, tend to undermine the State, and become a great danger to the State, then I, like thousands of other people in this country, have a great objection to either Party and feel that, at any rate, what they print and publish ought to be suppressed.

That is all I have got to say to-day. I want to support my noble friend in the question he has put, and I hope very sincerely that the Government and—I say quite deliberately—the Home Secretary will take matters like this very seriously in hand. I do not live in London the whole time. I am backwards and forwards between Scotland and other parts of the country and London, and I can assure your Lordships there is the greatest dissatisfaction all over the country with what I might call the slack administration of these matters. This is felt to be of the most serious import to-day.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends considered this Motion yesterday when we saw it on the Order Paper, and decided not to say anything about it, but a remark has been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, which, coming from your Lordships' House, might receive credence outside, and I think it needs correction at once. Lord Elibank said that the reason for the collapse in France was the Communist Party. I would point out to the noble Viscount that from the beginning of the war the French Government proceeded to suppress the Communist Party. I do not know how many Communist deputies were arrested, but I think they caught twenty or thirty. My noble friend Lord Cecil says more than that. They caught all they could lay hands on, and others were on the run. The surrender in France—and this is historic—was not made by the Communists; it was made by Marshal Pétain who is a Catholic Royalist, General Weygand, who is a Catholic Royalist, M. Laval, who has belonged to every Party in turn, but is certainly not a Communist. Your Lordships' House has to be dignified, and therefore I do not give my opinion of him, which I am sure all your Lordships share. In addition to those I have named there was M. Marquet, Mayor of Bordeaux, a renegade Socialist, but not a Communist, and M. Baudouin, an international financier, a great friend of the Italian bankers, with great banking and financial interests in the Italian Colonies. Those were the people who made this disgraceful surrender in France. Those are the men who betrayed France.

We have no brief in my Party for Communists. We have had great trouble with them, and if the noble Viscount would talk to some of my trade unionist colleagues in the Party he would learn from them of the trouble they have had with Communists here. But they have dealt with them here without extreme measures. I do not take the Daily Worker and I have never seen it. I therefore do not know what it says, and I do not very much care. It does not represent the views of any of my friends. That is why we did not intend to intervene in this matter, but when the noble Viscount, from his position of authority as a Peer in your Lordships' House—he will forgive me if I put it this way—falsifies most recent history, I really think some correction is needed. It was not the working classes in France who failed, it was the men on the Right who represent big business. In the interests of harmony in your Lordships' House I do not propose to draw the moral.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure after the statement just made by the noble Lord, although it is not in order to speak a second time, that you will allow me to reply to what he has said. I think that the noble Lord is not fully cognisant of the conditions in France before the war and of what actually happened. It is perfectly true that there were two phases. The first phase was the phase where the Army collapsed at a certain point in the defence owing to the morale being bad. Now that morale was undermined by the Communism which had spread through France to an enormous degree, and when the noble Lord says that French Communist deputies were arrested, and that there was no Communist left, surely as an old member of another place and as one who has sought the suffrages of the electors on a great many occasions, he is quite aware that you could not have 70 Communist deputies in the French Chamber of Deputies unless there were thousands of Communists in France who had elected them to fill those seats in that Chamber. It was those who spread the doctrine through the country which, as is generally known, undermined the position.


On a point of order. The noble Viscount has already made one speech; he cannot make a second speech on the same question.


I have been attacked, and I beg of your Lordships to allow me one minute and I will then finish. The second phase was this, that those people referred to by the noble Lord—Marshal Pétain, M. Laval and the others—when they found Communism to the extent that I have described, went over to the other side in order to save from the Communists what possessions they happened to possess.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I hope I may be excused if I do not join in the tilt which has just taken place with regard to the sad happening in France, but merely express a hope that some day, whatever the origin of what occurred, the true spirit of the people of France may once more emerge and our traditional friendship be restored. I should like to agree at once with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that whatever Government was in power in this country, even such a Government as is indicated in the article in the Daily Worker, it would make no difference whatever to our purpose, our determination and our decision to pursue this war until victory has been secured for our arms. Nor, I would like to add as my personal opinion, would any newspaper be able to sway public opinion from that purpose. I think that the points which have been raised latterly are not perhaps directly a consequence of the question that was put on the Paper, but I would like to say to my noble friend Lord Newton that we feel that not too much importance should be attached to the newspaper referred to. It has, after all, a very limited circulation, and it is, I am informed, experiencing considerable difficulties with its readers in expressing a policy which appears to change from day to day in accordance with the orders that it receives from the Communist Party in various countries of Europe.

At the same time His Majesty's Government, whilst with no intention whatever as far as possible of interfering with the liberty of the Press, as was made quite clear in the House of Commons last week, or with the traditional freedom of the Press, are determined to show that they feel a distinction must be drawn between legitimate criticism and propaganda such as is calculated to impede our war efforts by weakening the resolution of the people. Therefore, I think your Lordships will understand there are very good reasons why His Majesty's Government should keep, and are keeping, a very close watch upon the Daily Worker with a view to appropriate action should it prove necessary in the national interest to take such action.

The substance of the manifesto in the Daily Worker on June 22, which has been referred to to-day, has been reproduced, as has been stated, in leaflet form. Special attention has been given to the steps which are being taken for the distribution of these leaflets. There is a difference between the sale of a newspaper which people may desire to buy and the distribution of leaflets which are thrust upon unwilling recipients. In many cases the distribution of these leaflets has roused very strong natural resentment amongst the public. It is necessary therefore that appropriate action should be taken by the police which will prevent these misguided people from distributing such leaflets to unwilling recipients. Such conduct may in present circumstances lead to public disorder and to a breach of the peace and in such circumstances it is the duty of the police to take action under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936.

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