2015 10 -Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry.


On 22 August 1916, Winston Churchill, at that time a Backbench Liberal Member for Dundee, a constituency he had represented since 1908 (he won the seat in a by-election) addressed the Commons on the progress of the War. (He had switched from Tory to Liberal in 1904, been a minister but lost his position as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disastrous Gallipoli landings.)  His speech, published below, focused largely on the effect of the War on prices and in it he advocated government control to curb excessive rises. A reply to Churchill by Philip Snowden will feature in the next (November) issue of Labour Affairs.

Mr Churchill:

I wish to take advantage of the Motion for the Adjournment to draw the attention of the Government and the House to several questions of considerable importance concerning a large number of persons and large classes in this country, particularly the questions relating to the cost of food, the position of freights, and also to those questions relating to the use of manpower by the War Office which I have several times referred to in the course of the present Session. Firstly, I desire to deal with those particular questions in relation to the general situation of the War. During the last three months we have had a great deal of good news from the different theatres of the War, and, coming as it did in contrast with all that had gone before, this produced a very real and marked feeling of satisfaction and even of optimism, and people have been inclined to spring to conclusions, some of which, at any rate, are not warranted by the facts of the situation. Nothing has happened either in the East or in the West which affords us any certainty of a speedy end to this conflict. The progress in the East against Austria has been brilliant, but we must never forget that very large distances have to be traversed in those regions. In the West at Verdun and on the Somme the strategic deadlock continues. The intense fighting, which has now lasted for more than six months, has not produced any sensible change in the general strategic alignment of the Armies. The losses on each side are largely a debatable question, but this, at any rate, is true, that the German Armies in the field on all fronts were never more numerous or better equipped than they are to-day. They have more divisions in the field to-day than at any other moment in the War. We have against us a larger German Army than at any previous time. What is behind that Army is quite another question. The diminution of the German Reserves, as I said three months ago when I ventured to address the House on these general questions, in relation to the growing power of the Allies constitutes the secure foundation upon which we may build our just hopes of a certain victorious conclusion of the struggle. But the actual fighting formations of the German Army are fully maintained at the present time in every respect.

We have the marked demoralisation of Austria; we have the wonderful recovery of Russia and General Brussiloff’s victory, a victory unequalled in importance since the turn at the Marne in 1914; we have the increasing exertions of Italy; we have the unflinching resolution of the French; and, last of all, and perhaps most important of all, we have the ever-growing strength and power and the splendid quality of the great new British Armies. These are all facts of glorious and encouraging import. They give us the assurance that we are definitely the stronger, and they justify my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War (Mr. Lloyd George) in his expectation that the time will soon come when we shall be able to see our path ahead much more clearly than we have hitherto done, but none of these facts carry with them the assurance of a speedy peace of the kind that we mean to have. It is astounding that Europe should have been fighting with this terrible intensity and on this universal scale for more than two years. It seemed incredible beforehand that such a thing could happen, but now, after two years, that the War should continue for another year or even more does not seem incredible. We hope that it may not be so, but it is not impossible, and certainly it does not seem incredible. At any rate, it would be most wickedly foolish, after all that has happened, to make our plans on any other assumption than that the War will go on. The time has come—it came long ago—and it is evident to all that it has come when all our plans, both at home and abroad, ought to be made with a view to the continuance of the War for a long period, and all our plans ought to be made with a view to the conditions of a state of war becoming the basis of the whole of our national, social, economic, and industrial life.

We cannot go on treating the War as if it were an emergency which can be met by makeshifts. It is, until it is ended, the one vast, all-embracing industry of the nation, and it is until it is ended the sole aim and purpose of all our lives. Everything in the State ought now to be devised and regulated with a view to the development and maintenance of our war power at the absolute maximum for an indefinite period. If you want to shorten the War, do this. If you want to discourage the enemy, let them see that you are doing it. If you want to cheer our own people, let them feel that you are doing it. Behind her widely extended fronts Germany is fretting and chafing. She has been less contented with victory than the Allies have been with repeated disappointments and defeat. Let her now see that her most formidable antagonists, for so we are now coming to have the honour to be, are coldly, scientifically, and systematically arranging their national life for the one supreme business in hand. That will dishearten Germany and her leaders far more than anything else we can do or say, however optimistic or enthusiastic. It will dishearten them more than anything we can do, apart from actual victories in the field.

I take the question of food supply and food prices as an example of the need of getting on to a sound permanent basis, having regard to the fact that we must count on a prolongation of the War, and I say to the Government: Why do you not put the question of food prices boldly on to a war basis? The First Commissioner of Works (Mr. Harcourt), who acted as President of the Board of Trade in the absence of the President through needs of health, gave an answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Blackfriars Division of Glasgow (Mr. Barnes) last week, in regard to food prices, which gathers together in a single line of figures a most striking and formidable series of facts. He showed a steady and unbroken rise in prices from the beginning of the War down to the close of the last recorded month, July. In September, 1914, he said, the rise was 11 per cent.; from that it rose to 37 per cent, in September, 1915; and it rose from 36 per cent, last August to 65 per cent, in the currency of the last completed month, July. Those figures raise very grave and urgent considerations, and we should be doing less than our duty if we did not take the opportunity, the last opportunity that will present itself for a long time, provided by the Debate on the Adjournment, to press their significance upon the Government.

Why has this steady rise been allowed to continue absolutely unchecked by Government action? There is no doubt whatever that the tendency has undergone no abatement or fluctuation in response to any measure which the Government during this long period have found it possible to take. Does anybody suppose that a rise in the price of food like that can give us a sure foundation for the waging of war, however long, until victory is secured? Can anyone, looking at this line of figures, pretend that the problem has been grappled with manfully or effectively, or even that it has been faced? Are we not proceeding in regard to the supply of food in exactly the same way that brought us to disaster in regard to the supply of munitions, and later on in regard to the provision of men, namely, putting off drastic treatment of the problem in the hope that the War will finish before it is necessary to abandon our dearly cherished, go-as-you-please, old-fashioned methods? That is the question which I ask the House and the Government this afternoon, and I say that you cannot allow these food prices to continue to rise in this way without affecting materially and very definitely your war-making capacity, and also the temper of the people upon which that war-making capacity is founded. It is not that the people of this country will not stand privation. They will endure any suffering and any privation to win the War, but they will not stand privations side by side with enormous profits made by private persons, and they will not stand them unless they believe and feel that everything humanly possible is being done to relieve them to the utmost.

I am not able with the resources at my disposal, I say quite frankly, to analyse this volume of the rise in prices into the various causes to which it is due, and I am not able to show—I have no doubt that it will not be a difficult task for the President of the Board of Trade—or to form any accurate estimate of the proportion of the rise which is due to natural and to irremediable causes or military causes, and of the proportion which is due to artificial causes which are to be controlled, but I do not believe that the natural causes are the real or even the main explanation. The seas are free; the food production of the world outside Europe is practically unchecked; the resources of our own soil are very considerable, and have been to some extent increased, and are capable of much greater increase. I do not believe that natural and military causes by any means account for the rise, but that a very large proportion of the rise is due to extortionate profits made, not by persons outside our jurisdiction, but by persons who are within the control and authority of the State. Take, for instance, shipping. The movement of freights to their present height is an absolute scandal. Here, at any rate, is a vital factor in the fixing of prices. It is under your entire control. What nonsense it is to pretend, if you could organise the supply of munitions, with its infinite complications involving every industry and reaction between so many different industries, as has been done and done successfully, that you cannot also regulate freights and shipping, The services of transport and communication stand on an entirely different footing from all services of manufacture. They are more suitable for State control on every ground and for every reason, and they have always been treated as more suitable for State control. If you can take over armament works, you can take over shipping. There is no reason at all why shipping should make special profits out of the War. They have no more right to make special profits out of this War than the railways, and there is no more reason in principle, apart from certain difficulties in practice, why they should not be taken over than there was against taking over the railways, which operation has been one of the most successful steps that the Government have taken in the domestic field since the commencement of the War. Where there is extraordinary service in time of war there may be a claim for extra profits. Where you expect special initiative and exertion, and where you require great, new, individual enterprise, a case may be made out, and a necessity may be shown for a higher rate of reward, but nothing of that sort is present with regard to shipping. It is a service of transportation. The ships go to sea almost as usual; the war risk is covered by a moderate insurance, which naturally finds expression in freights. All that has to be done, all the new effort required by the situation so far as the shipowners are concerned, is the effort of fixing freights by a stroke of the pen; yet, while we take over and regulate with the utmost minuteness, and in some cases with great celerity, all those businesses which are required for munitions, changing their whole character, altering their whole method—while we do that with these businesses where special exertions are required from their owners and great efforts by their staff in the organisation of great changes in their plants—while we take over all those complex businesses we continue to allow the shipping interest to exact an enormous toll, simply for carrying on their business in the old way. I am speaking of the main movement of freights; and that is the fact as it presents itself to-day.

Very extraordinary conclusions may be drawn from it. The British Admiralty are blockading Germany, and the success of their blockade is largely measured by the movement of prices, but owing to the uncontrolled rise in freights there has grown up—unconsciously, of course—a virtual blockade of this country by the shipping interests, which blockade is again represented, and accurately represented, by the movement and elevation of prices. The British Navy, when they blockade Germany, do so by long and perilous vigil on the seas, but the movement of prices which is due to shipping freights is effected simply by a stroke of the pen in the offices of persons living in this country. Not merely do our people lose a great part of the relief which our Navy has won for them, but we actually suffer at the hands of our own citizens—unintentionally, I admit, and unconsciously, I believe; but the fact remains, we are actually suffering at the hands of our own citizens the evil of a blockade which no foreign enemy could put upon us. Of course, shipowners are just as good citizens as other classes in the country, and the fault does not lie with them. When there is no effective regulation and matters are left entirely to price movements, you must expect these results. In the absence of all other forms of regulations this is probably the only method by which the necessary competition of purchasers and consumers can be adjusted, but it is a wrong to the country—it is a wrong to the ship-owning class that they should be left in this position. The natural operation of the market and the whole conditions are bound to create a situation which forces up freights, and that in turn reflects itself in the condition of prices at home. I say to the Government, as I used to say to them very often in bygone days, “You ought without delay to take over the control of the shipping industry.”

At the beginning of the War the Admiralty were inundated by telegrams and letters from many shipowners asking to have their ships chartered by the Government. The Admiralty rate is a fair rate; it is a thrifty rate, but it is fair. It allows a fair return on capital and for working expenses, and the shipowners were quite content with it then. They were quite satisfied with the prospect of those rates, and the security which Government employment afforded them, having regard to all the then unknown possibilities of naval war. There is no reason at all why they should not be contented with that rate now. There is nothing in the service they are rendering, in the special exertions required from them, in the special aptitudes which they are called upon to display, which should render them dissatisfied now with rates which they would have jumped at in the first three or four weeks of the War, with the security attaching to those rates. I am not going to go into detail, though no doubt an answer will be given of a detailed character. I have in former times entered considerably into detail on this matter from the Government point of view, and I say there is no reason whatever why you should not charter every ship at Admiralty rates and then recharter it to the owner under such conditions as the interest of the State may require. Nothing would make me believe there is any insuperable difficulty in that if the Board of Trade would tackle the job in earnest with the skill and power that they have shown in dealing with other matters. This question should be approached in the spirit which has been brought to bear upon the regulation of the manufacture of munitions, and in the spirit with which great industries like the armament firms on the Clyde and the Tyne have been transformed. If this business of shipping were approached in a similar earnest and resolute spirit there is no reason whatever why it should not be satisfactorily settled. Of course, it is rather more difficult than the railways, but it is incomparably less difficult than what you have done in the case of munition factories.

I know of two arguments which have been used against it, apart from the many arguments about the difficulties of detail which I do not at all underrate, but which I believe you can successfully override. But there are two arguments against it. The first which I have heard used is: “We need taxation; we need every penny we can get for revenue; and shipowners are making immense profits, and by the Excess Profits Tax the State gets 60 per cent, of those profits.” The second argument is: “Admitting they are making high profits, is it not a good thing for this great and important industry to have in hand a capital reserve at the end of the War? “I consider both these arguments are wholly vicious and illegitimate from the point of view of State policy. First of all, if it is a system of taxation that we are invited to contemplate when we look at shipping freights, I say you could not possibly have a greater evil or a worse system of taxation than to use one great interest as if they were the farmers of the revenue and let them collect the revenue with a large percentage of profits for themselves from the taxation of food and the necessaries of life. That is a proposition which really seems to combine within itself all the vices which a system of taxation, according to the views which have long prevailed in this country, can possibly involve. If it is a question of accumulating a reserve of capital for the shipping industry after the War, then I say that is not an argument which can be advanced in a democratic country. This emergency and the general stress and strain which the masses of the people are subjected to in time of war should not be used as a means to accumulate a capital fund in private hands to be used by them at the end of the War for their own benefit. They have always, hitherto, succeeded in keeping, at the end of a victorious war—as we all hope this will be—succeeded in keeping against the greatest possible competition and without any adventitious aid their position. Such an argument is wholly illegitimate. But there is another argument whose validity deserves very close examination. It is said that there is need to restrict consumption, particularly consumption of imports, and that, with high prices ruling, that object is in a certain measure achieved.

If it be necessary, as I think it is necessary, to restrict within limits the consumption of imported staple foods, you could not do it in a more cruel or more unfair way than by the agency of price, because in regard to food, as everyone knows, the poorest class suffers out of all proportion to any other class. The housekeeping, not only of the rich, but even of the well-to-do—going a long way down the scale of economic well-being—the housekeeping of the rich and of the well-to-do is not materially affected by a price which would simply starve the poorest classes out of existence. The classes which are affected by the rises which have taken place and are continually taking place in the price of foodstuffs are soldiers’ wives on separation allowance, the discharged wounded with their weekly allowance of 20s. if married and 10s. if single, the old age pensioners whose cases have been brought repeatedly before us, the professional classes, the poorer-paid industrial workers and clerks—all these classes are being seriously affected, but the case of no class compares for one moment with that of the poorest class, because there is a limit below which it is not possible, with the strictest economy in the home, however miserable, to maintain life. Therefore I say that to begin to restrict consumption, which it may be necessary to do, merely through the agency of price, through the agency of unregulated, fortuitous rises of price, is the most cruel and the most unfair manner of dealing with a great national and economic problem. In time of war particularly you should have regard for the broad claims of social justice. A war with all its evils should at least be a great equaliser in these matters. If we are to look upon the whole nation as an army, on our men and women as an army struggling for a common purpose, then they are all entitled to their rations and to secure the necessary supplies at prices which their strenuous labour is not incapable of meeting. The restriction of consumption could be achieved if it is required, and as it is required, by the direct regulation of consumption. I quite agree you cannot avoid privation; you ought not to avoid it altogether. I do not for a moment take the view that if there is a rise in prices wages should instantly conform to it in time of war, or that everything should go on just the same, and that freights should be just the same as if there was no war. There must be privations, and there must be thrift and economy in every class except the poorest class, which cannot be expected to make any diminution.

I say that the Government ought to keep steadily in mind two objects: First, the regulation of oversea supplies according to what, for the national finances, we are able to afford—that is the first; and, secondly, the distribution of whatever food is brought into the market at a reasonable and a moderate price to all classes. I am not again going to plunge into the constructive detail of problems of this kind. A private Member always gets into impossible difficulties if he attempts to plunge into these great detailed problems which can only be handled by the Government; but if it be desired, as it is desired, to restrict importation from oversea, and to keep consumption in this country to the narrowest limits compatible with the development of maximum physical efficiency, then I say that bread and meat tickets, or the institution of so many meatless days in each week, or both these methods combined, is the proper path along which you should advance; it is infinitely preferable to and will entail incomparably less hardship and disadvantage than this unregulated use of the agency of price. In regard to coping with prices, freights are, as I have said, the chief and prime factor which should be dealt with. The spirit of the people continues always to surprise everyone who has witnessed the growing severity of this great War. The dauntless spirit, the dogged spirit with which every hardship is cheerfully borne and every sacrifice and every loss is sustained gives us all a confidence that there is no difficulty and no privation which this people here cannot go through to carry our cause and our flag to victory. On the other hand, the people of this country do require to know that the sacrifices and sufferings they endure arise solely from the needs of the War and of the action against the enemy and that they are not added to by any lack of grip and energy in dealing with the freight problems here or by the accumulation of extortionate profits in the hands of private individuals.

I trust that the Government will be able to make some statement on this serious argument which, I hope at not undue length, I have ventured to address to it. Before I sit down there are two matters which also require to be considered from the point of view of a prolonged war. On one of these I have already frequently addressed the House, therefore I shall only put a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War upon it—I mean the use made of our man-power by the War Office. Before we get to the War Office let me say one word on the work of the tribunals. Most wonderful and admirable has been the work of the tribunals all over the country. That such an organisation could have been brought so swiftly into being, that they should have dealt with a vast number of cases and the immense complexity of the cases they have had to face is really one of those facts which show that you can do anything in this country if you have the will and the intention to do it. It should be possible for the tribunals to be given a little more co-ordinating guidance from on high, from the centre and the head of the State—I am not thinking of anything higher—in regard to the classification of the cases with which they have to deal. At first the one object was to call them into being and to handle the great volume of cases which required attention. But gradually we have got our heads above water in that respect, and it ought to be possible to introduce a greater systematisation and co-ordination between the work of the different tribunals. The point with which I am chiefly concerned is the use made of the men after they have been handed over to the War Office. I know the immense and multifarious labours of my right hon. Friend at the present time, but I do assure him that there is an enormous field for administrative advance and improvement in this respect. I shall not trouble the House with them, but I have here a number of letters selected out of hundreds which have reached me, which show as in a series of tableaux the kind of typical cases of hardship and the misdirection of energy which are occurring at the present time. There is the case of the war-broken soldier, recovered two or three times from wounds and sent out to the front with his nerves shattered. There is the case of the man who has spent fifteen or eighteen months in the trenches, who writes home and says: Is there any future for the British soldier but to remain here in the front line until he is either killed or wounded? There is the case of a man who is taken from managing a business; employing 1,200 or 1,300 men, which owes its existence entirely to his own personal contribution, and who becomes a private in the Mechanical Transport Corps. There is the case of the Army Service Corps and the messes in this country, some of them employing twenty, thirty, or more able-bodied men in the service of the mess, whose duties could be discharged by these tired-out, war-broken soldiers who come back from the front. Side by side with these you get the passionate demands of a very large number of single young men of the highest military efficiency who enlisted and volunteered at the beginning of the War, who are clamouring to be allowed to go out and do their share at the front, but who have been kept here all the time. There was one case brought to my notice of an Army schoolmaster who was recommended for a commission as an officer and who volunteered to go as a private rather than remain in a position in which he was giving instruction to a number of small boys, but who was not allowed to go. I am sure that if my right hon. Friend, with his great authority, power, and energy, examines the whole question of the employment of individuals from the point of view of getting the utmost possible service out of them and to yield war energy to the State, he will render an immense service to the country. The Army will be represented by stronger and more efficient battalions, and the sense of waste and mismanagement which must arise when so many of these cases are brought to the notice of large numbers of people throughout the country, will be utterly excluded from their area.

There is one other point to which I wish to refer before I sit down. If we are bound to consider that the War will be a prolonged one, and if we ought to approach all problems on that basis, on such a basis that if it were a short one and, perhaps, the end came unexpectedly, so that it would be wonderful and something upon which we had not counted but which came with all the more satisfaction to us—if we are to proceed on the basis that the War is going to be a long one, I say that the equipment of Russia with munitions of all kinds is almost the most important measure which is open to us to take. The great frontier in the East, extending over so many hundreds of miles, is the first that will crack when those nippers of which my right hon. Friend spoke lately bring their full pressure to bear. The manning of that enormous frontier against the repeated attacks of the inexhaustible armies which Russia can develop and bring into the field is the one insoluble problem which confronts the German General Staff at the present time. In view of the hopes which may legitimately be entertained that the Austrian demoralisation will be progressive and continuous, the difficulty of maintaining the Eastern front will be increasingly felt throughout the whole German military organisation in the near future. That all depends upon the supply of munitions you can secure for Russia. I know that the Government have made great exertions in that respect, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made great exertions in that respect, but I do beseech and implore them not to allow financial considerations to stand in the way of meeting the needs of Russia in every possible manner. Order the necessary supplies where your credit enables you to order them, and the means of paying for them will be found when the time comes. After all, what is £50,000,000 or £100,000,000 in a matter of this kind? At £5,000,000 a day, it is a fortnight or three weeks of the War. If you shorten the War, as you might easily do by many months if the Russian Army has reached its fullest possible development of strength and power and the whole front is smashed as if by a gathering deluge, then you will relieve your finances from dangers and perils vastly greater than any that can possibly threaten them by any ordering of supplies, however ambitious, at the present time. I put these points before the House, and I trust that they may receive the attention of the Government. Ministers are often offended with discussions which take place in this House. They are vexed when they are criticised.

The SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Lloyd George):

No, no!


The right hon. Gentleman supports all evils with a tranquil mind, but some of his colleagues are vexed when they are criticised. The slightest opposition renders them indignant, and they are always ready to attribute mean motives to those concerned in it. The remedy for all this is in the hands of the Government. Let the Government show that they do not merely hold the offices of State, but that they hold the key to the solutions of the difficulties with which they are confronted; that they do not need to be pushed by the House of Commons and by the Press into action on so many occasions, but that they can go forward spontaneously with good and well-thought-out arrangements; that they are really the leaders of the country in its hour of peril, not because they are willing to go in front of the country, but because they are willing to show the country the way in which it should go for its safety. If that attitude and characteristic were to be developed and displayed by the Government, then, when they return from their holidays, which we all hope they will enjoy and get benefit from, they will certainly find no difficulties in the House of Commons and there will be no diminution of that wonderful loyalty with which the House of Commons has supported them through all the hazards of this time of war.