MR. HORE-BELISHA'S RECORD M R. HORE-BELISHA'S speech to his constituents at
Plymouth was a political event of more than ordinary importance. It gave him the opportunity to make an apologia pro vita sua—or, at any rate, a justi- fication of the most important part of his career. The opportunity was much needed, for at no time since the War has the War Office been so much the focus of public interest as now ; and after what seemed a brilliant start in the capacity of War Minister, Mr. Hore-Belisha's reputation suffered a severe set-back with the Sandys affair in the summer. Later revelations of the unpre- paredness of our air defences in the September crisis threatened to overwhelm him in a personal disaster which, but for Munich, might well have been also a national tragedy : if, indeed, knowledge of British weakness against air attack was in any way responsible for the decisions taken at Munich, this unpreparedness was a crucial factor in world history. The question arose, and is still being argued with vigour in influential quarters, whether at a time of national crisis the Secretary of State for War was worthy of the national confidence. Our lack of anti-aircraft guns was certainly his responsibility in constitutional theory : was it so in political fact ? If not, last Friday's meeting with his constituents gave Mr. Hore-Belisha a supreme chance of vindicating himself.
In his speech he passed in review practically the whole ofhis career in his present office. It was, indeed, a notable record to which he was able to point. When he took up office in the middle of 1937, he found an alarming lack of recruits for the ranks, and a no less disconcerting reluctance to seek the King's commission. Today young officers are available in plenty; and while the ranks are not yet filled, the tendency towards numerical insolvency has been reversed, and the ground lost in previous years is gradually being made up. For this change Mr. Hore-Belisha is entitled to claim the chief credit. The reforms which he has initiated in the con- ditions of service for all ranks have had the effect of making the Army what it ought to be, a public service which can compete on equal terms with civilian careers for capable and energetic young men. And he has made a change of even more profound importance than that. His predecessor appeared to think in terms of 1914-1918. The military chiefs of the Army whom Mr. Hore- Belisha found in possession thought in the same terms. The more intelligent of the younger officers doubted both the possibility and the, desirability of our playing the same part in a future as we played in the last War, while the mass of the younger generation betrayed an overwhelining repugnance to the prospect of following their fathers' footsteps through the murderous swamps of the Somme and Passchendaele. In the multitude of counsellors there was confusion, and no progress could be made until the Army was given a direction and a purpose. This Mr. Hore-Belisha, in his historic speech last year introducing the Army Estimates, supplied. Home defence ; the defence of our oversea dependencies ; the maintenance of our lines of communication ; and, last in order both of time and importance, the dispatch of a force to assist Continental allies—such were the purposes for which the Army was said to exist. This recognition that it is impossible for this country to be at once a great sea Power, a great air Power, a great military Power and a great manufacturing Power, and that it is essential for her to be the first, the second and the last, infused a revivifying breath of realism into our military counsels.
There are other, items to be set on the credit side of the account. The Minister's accessibility to new ideas made possible not only those major reforms in the status of the Territorial Army which have taken place, but also a number of those relatively minor changes which may, and do, mean so much to the men who are actually doing the routine work. Finally, there is to be mentioned the reorganisation of the anti-aircraft divisions, which, together with the increase in their number from two to five, gives them for the first time their true place in our defensive system. This record, on the face of it, would entitle Mr. Hore-Belisha to a high place in the roll of British War Ministers. If it were the whole story, Mr. Hore-Belisha would in some respects be an even greater Secretary of State than Haldane, for he has exer- cised a control over the personnel of the War Office which the latter failed to achieve.
But it is not the whole story. The fact remains that, as the whole world now knows, our air defences last September revealed a sorry state of muddle. So far as these concerned the Army, the chief faults were that there were not enough anti-aircraft guns, and that many of those in existence were obsolete in pattern and defective in equipment. The answer to the charge of neglect in this respect, which Mr. Hore-Belisha has made before, is that when he took office he found the cupboard bare, that it was technically impossible for him to have produc- tion of sufficient guns organised in time, and that the gaps will soon be closed. The whole case for and against Mr. Hose-Belisha must clearly rest on the extent to which this defence of technical impossibility is valid. It is unfortunate that in his Plymouth speech he evaded the issue.
Without technical knowledge available to few, and secret information available to fewer, it is impossible to form a final judgenient on this matter. But there are certain known facts which are of considerable assistance. First there were Mr. Churchill's admonitions throughout the summer. There is the fact that well-known men with some technical knowledge and with a bias in favour of the Secretary of State have criticised him on this question. And there is, finally, the fact that in June the War Office appointed as Deputy-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to assume responsibility for anti-aircraft defences, an officer with no previous experience of them, who was not to take up his post till November. Without any disrespect to the distinguished officer selected, this appointment, sanctioned if not made by a man with a Cabinet Minister's knowledge of the European situation, argues an astonishing and dangerous. indifference to the factor of time. This, and a certain tactlessness which seems to arise from lack of the simple virtues of kindli- ness and sympathy, may well give the public cause to doubt whether, at this time when confidence in the Defence Ministers is a prime necessity, it is altogether justified in reposing it in Mr. Hore-Belisha. But his great work must not be forgotten, and to find an adequate successor to him would not be easy. It is best to hope that he will have another chance, that he has learnt a lesson, and that he will not quickly forget it.