HL Deb 03 August 1943 vol 128 cc946-54

LORD STRABOLGI rose to move to resolve, That this House, while welcoming the statements of the Minister without Portfolio at Liverpool on 17th June last on the subject of plans for the demobilization of the members of the Armed Forces on the conclusion of hostilities, is of opinion that further information on this subject should be given on behalf of His Majesty's Government as soon as possible.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg your Lordships' permission to move this Resolution which appears on the Paper under my name. The opinion expressed in it, I may say, is shared by my noble friends on these Benches who were good enough to ask me to bring this matter before your Lordships, and, particularly, before the Government. At first sight, to speak of the problems of demobilization might appear to be premature and the fruit of undue optimism. I hope that I shall not be accused by my noble friend Lord Croft of undue optimism about the outcome of the war. I think that he and I see eye to eye there, and that we both recognize that there is still a very hard and bitter struggle in front of us, both in Europe and in Asia. But for reasons which I hope to give briefly, I think that some details should be given as soon as possible, and as soon as they are decided upon, to the public. This should be done for the education, so to speak, of public opinion, and for the information of officers and men in the Services so that the situation may be understood. I believe that those of your Lordships who have—as most of you have—means of contact with the Armed Forces will agree with me when I say that a good deal of prior information and education, and even propaganda, will be required if we are to avoid a lot of misunderstanding and discontent.

In addition to the great statement made by the Minister without Portfolio, Sir William Jowitt, to which I refer in my Resolution, we have had views expressed on this matter by the Secretary of State for War in another place, and yesterday by my right honourable friend, the Minister of Labour, in Edinburgh. It is clear therefore that these important Ministers do not consider the subject premature for examination and public discussion. Well before the end of the last war, as your Lordships will remember, a wonderful scheme for demobilization was worked out in Whitehall. On paper it looked perfect. There was to be selective release from the Colours, preference being given to what were called key-men, and to men with their own businesses to return to, etc., etc. It was a perfect example of mandarins in action, and the scheme broke down completely in practice. Those key-men whom it was proposed to release first were, in many cases, the ones called to the Colours last. Therefore in practice it meant that men with the shortest service were to be released first. This led to a lot of heartburning and discontent, and the whole scheme had to be abandoned. Inevitably, there was suspicion also of favouritism and preference being extended in the case of men with influence. Once soldiers and sailors get an idea of that kind into their heads there is always trouble.

I understand that the Government have learnt from that unfortunate experience, and that this time they accept what I suggest to your Lordships is the only fair rule: "First out, first home." All this talk of key-men and of men who can aid the economic life of the country and provide employment for other men—the whole complicated system should give way to this simple idea. That idea, put in other words, is that men with the longest overseas service should be released first. My right honourable friend Mr. Bevin, I see, put it a little differently in "his speech at Edinburgh. He said: "First in, first out." That, I presume, means the same thing. I will go so far as to suggest that the only exceptions which should be allowed to this rule—and these very sparingly—should be in the cases of students who have joined the Forces during their studies. Then, for the sake of 1he country, it may well be that these potential professional men should be given some preference in order to enable them to become prepared and qualified to fill the notable shortages which exist in certain professions. But here again the reasons will have to be explained well in advance. You must not face men waiting to go home with a scheme which has not been explained to them and which they have not had opportunity to think about and to discuss.

I notice that some suggestion has been put to the Minister without Portfolio that there should be differentiation between men who have served in different theatres of war overseas. Sir William Jowitt had, apparently, been pressed on this point for he asked in his speech at Liverpool how could you distinguish between service which is spent in North Africa, Iceland, Madagascar or anywhere else. I entirely agree. And I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for War agrees also. You cannot differentiate between one theatre of war and another so long as it is overseas. Then men who have given good service in Britain during the whole war, and who no doubt in many cases tried to get sent overseas, have nevertheless had advantages over men serving abroad, and I think it would be regarded as just and equitable that these men should stay in the Forces for the time being. They could be given extra leave and other privileges. But these men who have been serving overseas, in whatever theatre of war, should be given—and I think everyone will agree to this—first preference in the matter of release. All the information which I have received on this subject—and I have had a good deal of correspondence since the Motion appeared on the Paper—is that the overbearing thought in the minds of all men in the Forces directly hostilities cease will be to get home. They will not ask whether there are going to be jobs or anything else for them—all they will want to do is to get home. It is a very human impulse, and it is the impulse which was felt by the men at the end of the last war. I do not think that there will be arty change in that regard.

But there will be complications, and this is why I, with all humility, plead with the Government to make up their minds as soon as possible and let these things be talked about, argued about and thrashed out in the light of open day. There will be, I think, two complications in regard to demobilization. Firstly, we may need Armies of Occupation, and, secondly, the Eastern War, that is the war against Japan, may go on for some time after all serious fighting has ceased in Europe. I believe that the second obstacle will be the more difficult with which to deal. We are pledged—and all Parties support the pledge, and I am sure the public supports it too—to carry on the war against Japan with all our resources and armed might after the end of the European fighting, if the Japanese are still in the field. Yet, as was suggested very plainly by the Prime Minister in a famous speech in another place recently, it will hardly be possible to ship more than a fraction of our great Armies in Europe to the East, and the men already in India and the East generally will have to continue on active service. Many of these men will have been abroad for years. I am not overlooking the six-year rule, which I think works very well, or the special case of the men in the Royal Navy; but the fact remains that the bulk of the men in the East will have to remain out there, and indeed be reinforced.

Now, what is to be the solution there? By mere luck in the drafting office one man will be serving in India or Burma or China when the fighting stops in Europe, while his brother is fighting in Europe and immediately, or very soon afterwards, will expect to be demobilized and returned to his home. How are you to compensate the man who is in the East? I can see only one solution for this. Some of your Lordships may have other ideas, but I put forward this suggestion. After the fighting ceases in Europe, if the Eastern war continues, and in any case to find the garrisons which will undoubtedly have to remain out there for some time as Armies of Occupation, the pay of those Forces should be raised. The pay of the Forces who will have to continue the fighting in the Eastern theatre of war should, I suggest, be raised to the American or to the Dominion level, or to the average rate of skilled wages in Britain. Soldiering and sailoring are highly skilled jobs. Sailoring always has been, and is more so today than ever, and soldiering is now highly skilled work also. We should then try to get as many volunteers as possible.

There are precedents for that. Your Lordships will remember that when the European situation was rather dark, in 1912 and 1913, before the last war, men serving with their regiments in India whose time expired were given bonuses if they re-engaged for another two or three years. There is a precedent, therefore, for what I am suggesting, but instead of a bonus I suggest that these volunteers should receive the pay which I have mentioned; and in any case, of course, the men who are compelled to serve out there will also have to have this higher rate of pay. I believe that that would do away with a good deal of feeling of natural disappointment, and would help us through this difficult period. I need hardly remind your Lordships that matters have changed a good deal in the East. Whereas it used to be cheap for a soldier to live out there (and he could do himself very well on his Army pay in the old days), now everything is much more expensive in Eastern countries; especially have those small luxuries, which mean a great deal to the serving man, gone up in price enormously.

With regard to the first point, the question of the Armies of Occupation, Sir William Jowitt, in his Liverpool speech, expressed the opinion that we should not be able to abandon some form of conscription for some time after the war. I suggest that we had better make up our minds to this, and the sooner the better; and it should be done, if possible, by agreement between the principal political Parties. We should begin to prepare people's minds for this idea that we cannot abandon compulsory service directly this war is over. The idea that we can do so is, I think, very unsound indeed. I remember very well what happened after the last war. Everyone immediately insisted on conscription being abandoned; very few members even of the Party opposite recommended its continuance, and public opinion was against it, because the public had not been warned and educated in time. The position will be even more difficult after this war than it was in 1918 and 1919, but we shall have to face the fact that some system of compulsory service will have to be continued for a considerable time. If we can keep the numbers of the levies down, so much the better; but the principle had better be accepted and acted upon by agreement between the Parties, and the people should be informed of this in good season.

Why should young men who, because of their age, will just have missed their calling-up notices for the Forces, be relieved of all obligation, while the veterans who have been for many years abroad, often in vile climates—men with family responsibilities and so on—have to continue to safeguard British interests and preserve peace? In any case I suggest that the broad outlines of the policy which we believe that we shall have to carry out, making allowance for circumstances as far as they can be foreseen, should be decided upon at as early a date as possible, and made known and publicized. In particular we should allow the men in the Army to discuss them and to thrash them out with their officers to guide them and help them towards an understanding of the difficult problems which will have to be solved, and to assure them, as I am certain that we can do, of the good will of Parliament to all our men in the Forces, and of our desire to give them the best possible treatment in very difficult circumstances. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House, while welcoming the statements of the Minister without Portfolio at Liverpool on 17th June last on the subject of plans for the demobilization of the members of the Armed Forces on the conclusion of hostilities, is of opinion that further information on this subject should be given on behalf of His Majesty's Government as soon as possible.—(Lord Strabolgi.)


My Lords, I think I am correct in saying that this is the first time that your Lordships have discussed the general subject of demobilization in this House, although various statements about it have been made from time to time in another place. I have listened, as no doubt all your Lordships have, with close and rapt attention to the speech which has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, in moving the Resolution which stands on the Paper in his name. I was anxious to hear any reasons which the noble Lord might propound which would call upon the Government to give further information as soon as possible on the subject of demobilization. Lord Strabolgi referred to the speech which was made in Liverpool on June 17 by the Minister without Portfolio, who indicated some of the difficulties which would be experienced in preparing detailed plans for demobilization. My right honourable friend further stated in that same speech that he was convinced that in any scheme one cardinal rule must apply—namely, that the scheme must be fair and regarded as such by all the many millions whom it would undoubtedly concern in the future. He pointed out that he saw very strong objection at the present stage of the war to involving the Armed Forces of the Crown in rival controversies over various schemes of demobilization.

I can see no reason—and the noble Lord will forgive me if I say that I have heard none as the result of his speech—which leads me to suppose that the state of the war has altered so fundamentally in the last few weeks, (that is, since the Minister without Portfolio made his speech), that an additional statement is now called for from the Government to let the world know here and now their intentions for dealing with demobilization. For myself, I cannot believe that public discussion of this matter is really desirable at a time when the war has not yet ended. Although it may be true to say that at the present time we are in one of those periods when startling events may be anticipated, it should certainly not be thought that we are at the end of our struggles, for surely the military power of our enemies is still very formidable. I have heard it said that there is an assumption in the mind of some persons—I agree that they are very few in number—that the war will end simultaneously all the world over. That is an event which is most unlikely to occur, and that fact tends to complicate any scheme or plan which we may have for demobilization. I think it is sometimes forgotten that the military forces—and I use that phrase in its widest possible sense—are literally composed of the whole nation, and therefore any plan which may be devised for demobilization —and no plan can be just extemporized— must be fair and equitable and regarded as such as between man and man. It must also possess the merit of simplicity and be capable of being clearly understood by the dullest as well as the brightest among us. Finally, any plan must take into consideration the military necessities, which must always be paramount.

I should not like it to be thought that the Government are unaware of the importance of this issue. We should realize, better indeed that anyone else alive, the immense work of reconstruction that lies ahead, and that the task of rebuilding the world is going to be far more difficult than merely arranging for its destruction. Whatever plans we may finally adopt and publish must, as I see it, be subject to criticism and examination and must stand the test of close scrutiny. Above all— and this is what the noble Lord said as well—we must avoid those pitfalls into which we fell, and which produced results causing such widespread dissatisfaction, at the conclusion of the last war. May I remind your Lordships—for this is an important matter—of some of the undertakings that have already been given by Ministers? It has been said that no fighting man can expect to be demobilized at all if and so long as his services are required for some definite military purpose, but, subject to that broad principle, it is accepted that his discharge will be based in the main on age plus length of service. We have also given an undertaking to consider the claims of service overseas, but there is a very large number of reasons, which I could give but which I will not go into this afternoon, which would show some of the many complexities of that particular issue.

It is true that there is much to be said for meeting the claims of industry by authorizing men who have been absent for the shortest possible time from that industry to be the first to be demoblized. The noble Lord mentioned this matter in the course of his speech, but such a scheme is quite obviously grossly unfair, and it would not for one moment be accepted either in this House or anywhere else in the country. There may, however, be certain special classes in which key-men should and must be released at the earliest possible moment, but this category must be kept at its lowest number in order not to damage or to wreck the general scheme which will undoubtedly be published. No one need doubt that the Government have every intention of producing a scheme for general or partial demobilization, but it would in our judgment be folly to publish any plan here and now, when no one can possibly foresee what the circumstances will be when the war comes to an end. I can, however, give your Lordships this assurance—and beyond it I am not prepared to go to-day—that all our plans and all our motives will be directed to securing a scheme which is based on equity and justice, in fact, based upon the principal foundations of British law and fair play.


My Lords, I hope the noble Earl did not think that I brought forward the Resolution in any spirit of hostility. I thought he was rather resentful in his reply, but he reassured me by the substance of it. Perhaps I do occasionally manage to hide my gratitude from the Government, but on this occasion I have no complaint at all. I am very grateful for the reply; I think it is very satisfactory. I understand that the plan in broad outline will be made known as soon as possible, but the time has not come yet. I quite agree with what the noble Earl said that the end of the war is not yet here—I said the same, not so eloquently, in my opening remarks—and I can only hope that these plans will be available at the earliest possible moment. In view of what the noble Earl said, I do not desire to press the Motion, and I beg leave to withdraw.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.