London Letter

Britain Accepts Conscription

Beverley Baxter's July 1 1939

London Letter

Britain Accepts Conscription

Beverley Baxter's July 1 1939

London Letter

The debate went on. A Socialist accused the Government of passing legislation to send other men’s twenty-year-old sons to war. Up jumped Sir Derrick Gunston from the Conservative side.

“I and many other Members of this side,” he said, “have sons who are twenty years of age and have expressed their willingness to serve.”

Hely-Hutchinson, the banker, leaned forward and tapped Gunston on the shoulder. “Well done, old boy,” he said quietly. Twenty-three years ago when Derrick Gunston was second in command of an Irish Guards battalion, Hely-Hutchinson was his adjutant.

Mr. Attlee, leader of the Socialists, took on the attack, He is bald and sedentary in appearance. To look at him one would assume that he never took part in anything rougher than a general election.

“There was a distinct difference,” he said, “between the men I served with in 1914 and those I served with in 1918.”

Of course—we had forgotten. “Clem” Attlee had been right through the War and in many of the toughest spots. In the later stages he had commanded his battery. This wasn’t a Parliamentary debate at all. It had become a council of ex-service men discussing tactics and man power, with old Lloyd George presiding over us with his spirit even if he no longer has a party behind him.

Admiral Sir Roger Keyes rose. He is not a skilled speaker, and usually the House pays him the doubtful compliment of thinning out when he catches the Speaker’s eye. This time no one moved.

It seemed exactly right that the hero of Zeebrugge should give us the benefit of his advice and experience. It was he who had planned and led the night attack on Zeebrugge on St. George’s Day in 1918, when Ostend was sealed up and our men fought hand to hand with the enemy and refused to retreat to the boats when ordered.

He gave us good common sense. He pleaded for trained men if war came, and not young fellows who had nothing but their courage to match against the skilled soldiers of an enemy.

“He’s quite right.” said Seymour Cocks from the Socialist benches. Then he shifted his position to one of more comfort. Somewhere in France he left a leg behind, and its successor gets into awkward angles.

Late in the evening Anthony Eden arrived at the House. He sat down quite close to where I was, and I asked him where he had been.

“I’m on a refresher course with my unit,” he said. “A queer thing happened today. One of the N.C.O.’s had a lot of medals and I asked him what he had been in during the War. He was in the same regiment as my brother, and was with him when he was killed.”

It seemed impossible to believe that this eager boyish-looking ex-Foreign Secretary was Captain Eiden, M.C., who had gone to the front from school and served nearly three years in the trenches. Now he has joined up in a crack Territorial regiment.

The famous Monday debate neared its end. Almost without exception, every si>eech was from a man who had served in the last War. The younger M.P.’s made little attempt to intervene. Many of them are Territorials. Several are auxiliary pilots who devote practically every week-end to training with their squadrons.

Party dissensions were forgotten. There was tolerance and dignity from every side. Above all, there was the earnest desire of ex-service men in all parties that every possible lesson of the last War should be utilized in making the new Conscription Act work efficiently and with humanity.

Throughout the week that atmosphere never changed. In spite of the guillotine that stopped discussions and sent well-

meaning amendments into the discard, the whole House strove to give their best to the clauses that were being forced through by an irresistible Government majority.

Six Months Training

^\UTSIDE Parliament, strange things were also going on. In every newspaper appeared full-page advertisements with the pictures of the Cenotaph and the German Memorial to the Unknown Soldier. The advertisement pleaded for a strong, trained British army to prevent the war that threatened the world.

So far £30,000 has been spent on those advertisements. Who is paying for them? Just a small group of ex-service men who refuse to allow their names to be published. “It is their contribution to the State,” is the only answer which is given.

This curious, this marvellous thing called democracy ... It can be so heartbreaking, so futile, so cumbersome. Then it is roused and its strength gathers like a storm at sea.

Parliament can be so petty, so small in its bickerings and party manoeuvrings. Then in a moment it can give voice to all the greatness of the past until one feels again the glorious heritage that is Britain’s.

Outside in the streets a procession of young men was marching by with banners declaring “I Refuse Conscription.” No one molests them. A policeman marches at their head to see that they cause no obstructions and suffer no harm. That is the other side of the picture.

In more than 200,000 homes boys of twenty to twenty-one are getting ready to leave their occupations or their studies and start off for their six months m.litary training. Employers must keep their jobs open for them. Dependents will receive subsistence a'lowances.

Only four grounds of exception will be recognized. First, conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds. Second, health. Third, past service in the Territorials. Fourth, indispensable work on national defense.

Otherwise the duke’s son and the cook’s son go together into the ranks. It is the first peace-time break with the old aristocratic tradition that sends the sons of the rich as cadets to the military schools and the sons of the poor into the ranks.

The conscription law will be in force for three and a half years.

To me it is a special satisfaction to see conscription come to Britain, for I advocated it two years ago when it was said that it would cost me my seat in the next election. I did not believe that then, and I do not believe it now.

The British nation has gladly accepted compulsory military service. Youth itself, with a small exception, has welcomed it. Even the Oxford Union, which a few years ago voted against taking part in any military defense of the country, has approved of conscription.

The Liberal Party, after various twistings and turnings, has decided to support it. The Socialists are admitting privately that their opposition to it was more antiChamberlainism than a dislike of the measure itself. The trade unions have grumbled, but will not obstruct it.

Strangest of all, the women of the country are for it. Perhaps, with their instinct for the future, they see that this common training in equal citizenship may be the beginning of that classless society which must be the aim of all serious students of humanity.

And since Parliament reflects the nation, it is perhaps not to be wondered at that “veterans’ week”—the name given to the five days conscription debate—has added a new dignity to the old Mother of Parliaments.

Britain Accepts Conscription

Beverley Baxter's

ON A RECENT Monday we gathered grimly for a week’s struggle at Westminster. In the previous week the Government had introduced the Conscription Bill, to the sustained and furious opposition of the Socialists.

Chamberlain had been accused of going back on his pledges and leading Britain toward Totalitarianism. The Liberal Party had split in two, Sir Archibald Sinclair taking half his followers into the lobby against the bill, while Lloyd George, with his son Gwilym and his daughter Megan, led the other half into the Government lobby.

The trade unions, which had been co-operating magnificently to make the volunteer system work, were deeply resentful.

“Why did you not consult us?” they demanded of the Prime Minister.

“Why did you not consult us?” asked the Socialist Party. “And why not US?” thundered the Liberals. Chamberlain gave them only one answer. “I had no time,” he said. “Besides, the Government must take the responsibility.”

• Taunts were flung at him across the floor of the House. Conscription was laid at the door of his fumbling foreign jX)Ucy. It was, his critics said, the admission of his own political bankruptcy.

“Why don’t you resign?” they shouted.

The debate raged for two days. At the finish Mr. Chamberlain sent in I>eslie Hore-Belisha to wind up for the Government. I looked at the youngish Secretary of State for War with a s|)ecial interest that needs explaining.

Over fifteen years ago he was the editorial writer of the Daily Express when 1 was editor. It was only a part-time job for him as he was a Member of Parliament, but we used to talk by the hour and spend week-ends in the country to continue the talk.

He was melancholy and ambitious, humorous and pensive. 1 lis command of English was fascinating, but he felt that his future was a dark one.

“I am a Liberal,” he used to say, “and the Liberals will soon be extinct. Now if I had only joined the Tories . .

And he would grow pensive, while his eyes stared into the distance until they saw a doorway with No. 10 written on the plate.

Again and again, however, he would console himself with the reco lection that his distinguished compatriot, Benjamin Disraeli, did not become Prime Minister until he was sixty-four years of age.

All that was a long time ago. And now as a private Member of Parliament I was watching my former editorial writer rise to speak to a crowded House that was tense with excitement and conflicting passions.

And what a speech !

Disraeli had come back from the shades to inspire his racial disciple. His timing, his logic, his irony, his compelling force—even the Socialists forgot their anger in admiration for Belisha’s performance.

One would say that it was magnificently prepared if it were not for Belisha's detestation of a rehearsed soeeclr At any rate the interruptions were not rehearsed, and Belisha dealt with each one mercilessly.

So the Military Training Bill was duly introduced, and Chamberlain announced that on the following week the second reading would lx* taken, which would permit discussion of various clauses together with amendments.

The Guillotine

nPHE Socialists prepared for the fray. They decided to -*• put down endless amendments and resort to the obstructionist tactics of the old Irish Party. All-night sittings would be staged. There would be scenes, possibly

expulsions from the House. Every step of the bill would be fought relentlessly.

Calmly Chamberlain watched the enemy preparing for their offensive. Then he sprang his bombshell.

“The Government will announce a timetable,” he said, “which must be adhered to.”

“The guillotine!” gasped the Opposition, and fairly exploded with indignation. So the detested Chamberlain dared to apply the guillotine which had been invented to prevent the little Irish Party from holding up business by obstructionist tactics! It was intolerable! The fellow was worse than Hitler.

The guillotine meant that, once we got over Monday’s general debate and got down to details in general committee, discussion on certain amendments would have to be ended at a certain hour. The next batch of amendments would have to be dealt with just as remorselessly. And at midnight amendments could still be moved but no discussion on them would be permitted.

Thus on Monday we gathered for the full dress debate that was to open “guillotine week.” Many of our hearts were sick at the prospect. With our new allies in Europe looking anxiously toward us—and our enemies as well—we were to be locked in an acrimonious five-day struggle in which all pretense of Parliamentary unity would be shattered like broken glass.

“Democracy !” we muttered, and shrugged our shoulders. Were we seeing the death struggle of human freedom, the victim of its own lack of discipline? How could we hold our own with these dissensions against the centralized control of the totalitarian states?

Little Wedgwood Benn opened from the Socialist front bench. He was once a Liberal and a real success as Undersecretary for India. A marvellous Parliamentarian with an unequalled knowledge of procedure and a gift of swift and vivid language.

I lis speech would do much to set the temper of the debate. We wondered if he would begin all over again about the villainies of the Prime Minister. His supporters were ready for anything if the leadership were powerful enough.

A. Beverley Baxter, M.P.

Benn’s Appeal

INSTEAD, Benn made one of the most moving appeals I have ever heard for the retention of the voluntary system of recruitment. He cited it as a glory of the British nation which no war and no enemy had been able to take from us permanently. His

impetuous eloquence and complete sincerity swept the House. Suddenly he turned about and indicated the benches just behind those occupied by the decimated Liberal Party.

“The Irish Party used to sit there,” he cried. “There in that corner seat sat Willie Redmond, a rebel, who went out to the Great War, a middle-aged man, and died. There too was Tom Kettle, another rebel. He volunteered and died. He wrote a book about the War, and he put into it an inscription I have never forgotten:

“ ‘Know that we fools now with the foolish dead,

Fought not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

But for a dream, born in a herdman s shed And for the secret scripture of the poor.'

“Yes, and Rupert Brooke’s:

“ ‘ Now Cod be thanked Who has matched us with this hour!' ”

As he finished the words, he swung about and faced the Government benches with his hands outstretched. He had not looked at his notes at all. He had flung the words into the air as if he had lived with them and loved them through the years.

And it was at that moment that one of those incredible things happened which are completely unforeseen but seem to spring from the mists that rise from the Thames. Benn was citing the Australians as further proof of the superiority of volunteers over conscripts. He paused in his argument and there was an unconscious squaring of his shoulders.

“Well I remember the Anzacs at Suvla Bay,” he said with a sm.le of remembrance of far-off things. “How they worked and made roads and piers, and how they fought ! I shall never forget what my dear old general, now with God, said about them: ‘They are magnificent fighting men, but you will never turn them into soldiers.’ ”

The whole House sat up. Accidentally Benn had opened the floodgates of memory for us all. “The Anzacs,” “My dear old general,” “And how they fought!” This was the language of long ago which nearly all of us had spoken, and now it came back with the ring of a new familiarity.

“Shakespeare” Morrison rose from the Government front bench to reply to Wedgwood Benn. Four years ago this young-looking Scot with the wiry grey hair had been touted as the coming man. Then came his failure as Minister for Agriculture, and the all-conquering Scot was no longer the man of the future—hardly even a man with a past.

He had to follow a brilliant speech on Monday, but it wasn’t “Shakespeare” Morrison the Minister we saw. It was ex-Captain Morrison of the R.F.A., who had fought through the War and been badly wounded but emerged with the Military Cross.

So Benn had quoted the volunteer Anzacs at Gallipoli? Well, he, Morrison, told about the conscripts who had fought like heroes in the great attack that had broken the Hindenburg line.

“Hear! Hear!” ejaculated Lloyd George. We had forgotten about him. but here was the little Welshman who had been the very architect of victory. His eyes were flashing with excitement. He, too, was living again the days when, as absolute master of Britain’s fate, he had played out the grim game to the finish but with a heart that never once lost its courage.

Ottawa, May 19, 1939