A VITAL QUESTION
By IRENE WARD, M.P.
WHEN the day comes for the vital decisions on which world reconstruction depends to be taken, no one doubts that those then in authority in this country will fulfil their task to the best of their ability. But before this nation faces the issues in- volved, there are certain questions to be asked and answered. For the British people the one which is of paramount importance, both in its relation to the past and in its implications for the future, is " How far wt e defects in the British parliamentary and political system responsible for the outbreak of the present war? " An impartial analysis may be cruel in its revelations, but without it we shall only be rebuilding on foundations of sand. The answer may indict the parliamentarians of all parties, the Conservative and National Governments and their leaders, powerful civil servants and diplomatists, and personalities who have held the confidence of the country during the past twenty years. However painful, however disillusioning and hurtful to our national pride, the people must insist, through the publication of all papers, on being presented with the full and unexpurgated facts, in order that they may be sufficiently informed to ensure that, if culpable, the operative machinery of Government for the future will be incapable of permitting the mistakes of the past.
For purposes of illustration, emphasis on the period concurrent with Hitler's advent to power suffices ; but it may well be that ever since the last war the set-up of the parliamentary and Civil Service machine militated against preventing the war of 1939 from breaking out. Whether failure was due to the leading personali- ties who conducted our affairs and were known to the world outside, or to persons of authority inside the machine of Govern- ment who exercised great power but were scarcely recognised by the man in the street, only the impartial examination of witnesses and the production of documents can enable us to decide. But assuredly, arising out of the bittcr lessons we are now learning, there are now in the minds of many pertinent questions to which the whole nation must demand an answer.
The Prime Minister's prestige has, in no small degree, been built up on the fact that he warned the country of Gerthany's war preparations, and that though his thesis proved right, he was kept in the political wilderness and no practical action iPparently was taken, either in public, or private, to prepare the enuntry to meet the German menace. By whose authority? Because the information which from time to time he gave the °:wnatry through the medium of the House of Commons was not nebulous vision, but documented evidence such as could only be Provided through an authentic source, Mr. Churchill had obviously been correctly briefed. If he was aware of the true Position, it follows that the information must have been available
to his predecessors in office and to the Cabinet. How, therefore, were the Ministers of the Crown briefed to deny to the people the truth of the facts? And can it with truth be asserted that Parliament has, in fact, supreme control of the policy of the country and the executive? If it is possible under our present system, whether from lack of judgement, idealism, inertia, in- competence or malice, or from party considerations, to let Great Britain rush headlong to disaster without the nation itself taking its own decision, then we cannot accept with a clear conscience responsible leadership in world affairs of the future.
That there will be much to soften post-war judgements is undeniable : a free debating-chamber, a free Press, the difficulties of international negotiation when our foreign policy was a matter for political controversy, all play a vivid part in the story of the past, but can documentary evidence prove that the nation is indeed master of its own destiny, and that it is impossible for vital facts to be withheld or distorted when from time to time it is called upon to shape its ends?
It must be assumed that Lord Vansittart, judging by his writings since he left the Foreign Office, gave warning of the probability, if not the certainty, of war with Germany, and he
must have been supported, if my information is correct, by the service chiefs. The clarity of these warnings, the facts on
which they were based, and the dates on which they were delivered, must be in the archives. Who was responsible for dis- regarding them? There must be records of the Foreign Office views on the League of Nations, and whether Sir Samuel Hoare's famous speech at the Assembly in 1935 met with the approval of the Foreign Office and the Service Departments. Did the politicians over-rule the advisers, or was there a clash of opinion among the advisers? And, if so, who finally approved our policy on that occasion?
Throughout the whole Civil Service the view is held that men who expressed in the past—indeed, express at the moment— views which are unacceptable in certain quarters, received or receive no promotion. If this be true, such a position cannot commend itself CO the country. Fear of destroying the strength
of the Civil Service machine, with its freedom from political interference, must not be responsible for preventing men in the service from giving of their, best. Dictatorship in the service by the service would destroy one of the vital foundations on which the integrity of the British Civil Service depends. These allegations must be justified or refuted.
It is imperative to inquire into the influence on policy exer- cised by the Treasury. If the Treasury view was that there would be no war, the whole emphasis of the " power behind the throne " would be to limit the fmanzial expenditure of those Government Departments concerned with the machinery of war.
It may well be proved by the production of the relevant papers ithat these very Departments whose evidence pointed to the inevitability of a clash were starved by the Treasury, whose controllers, out of touch with real events and protected by our system from direct Departmental and Parliamentary attack, were influencing policy without in effect being capable of weighing the evidence. Further, the power of the Head of the Treasury to influence appointments in the Civil Service in accordance with his views can also weaken the voice of the Departments in the advice tendered to the political chiefs, who by all tradition must listen to their voice.
And again, no one has yet told us the true facts about the collapse of France. It is impossible to believe that information was not available in the Foreign Office from some source or other, and yet until the last moment our whole war strategy— both Service and industrial—was based on French collaboration. There are people who say they supplied conclusive evidence of the French position which was disregarded. Is it true? And who took the decision to ignore the presented facts? It is difficult to believe that our Intelligence Service was completely ignorant of the French position and the sinister influences at work in France. Indeed, it is now common knowledge that the French were reluctant to engage in a war against Germany ; were the politicians unable to appreciate the situation or deliber- ately blind, and what were the facts placed before the Cabinet?
From the history of the last few years, if we are ruthless and wise, can be learnt invaluable lessons. Indeed, perhaps the whole future of the British Empire depends on our wisdom. It is true to say that if personalities and political considerations have militated against the proper functioning of the parliamen- tary machine in this country, we cannot have tendered that first- class advice to our Dominions and Colonies which they have a right to demand from us, and on which their very existence may depend. We have a right to be proud of our tradition, of our parliamentary system and, indeed, of our democratic faith, but if as seems not improbable, the machine they have created has sent us ill-informed and ill-prepared into this war, we must demand a drastic re-organisation of our whole machinery of Government. If on the publication of all the facts faithfully documented—and there must be no protecting of persons— evidence shows that Parliament and the people have not been masters in their own house, public opinion must insist on the creation of safeguards as a protection for the future. These should not be beyond our powers to devise.
It is impossible, perhaps, even though the advantages to the war effort itself might be overwhelming, in the middle of a war to examine and recast our whole system, but there must be no reconstruction, no commitments abroad or at home, until, devoid of sentiment and with a full sense of their responsibilities to future generations, the British people have passed their verdict.