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I hope that those who feel that their war work lies especially in the direction of criticism will make allowances for these difficulties inherent in the situation. I hope they will also remember that no sensible person in war-time makes speeches because he wants to. He makes them because he has to and to no one does this apply more than to the Prime Minister. I have repeatedly called attention to the disadvantages of my having to give too frequent reviews of the war, and I have always declined to be drawn into discussions about strategy or tactics so far as they may have relation to current or pending events. The House has shown me great indulgence in this matter, but I feel that I should be excused today from entering upon discussion of the war position, to which I referred in a speech I made only a month ago. Most of all shall I refrain from making any prediction about the future. It is a month ago that I remarked upon the long silence of Herr Hitler, a remark which apparently provoked him to make a speech in which he told the German people that Moscow would fall in a few days. That shows, as everyone, I am sure, will agree, how much wiser he would have been to go on keeping his mouth shut.
Even I, in my modest way, run great risks of giving dissatisfaction when I speak. Some people are very hard to please. It is impossible to please everybody; whatever you say, some fault can be found. If, for instance, I were to pay-as I should like to pay-strong tribute to the splendid heroism and undaunted gallantry of our Russian Allies, I should immediately be answered, "Let us have deeds, not words." If I were to omit all reference to Russian bravery, it would, on the other hand, be said, "Not even one kindly world was spoken to cheer on these heroes." If I were to describe the help in detail which we are giving to Russia, that might be very interesting, but it would give away to the enemy secrets which are Russian as well as British. Again, if I gave an appreciation of the fighting on the Russian front, I should get hit either way. If my account were favourable, I should be accused of fostering complacency. On the other hand, if it were grave, I should be accused of spreading needless despondency and alarm, and the Russians would not thank me for underrating or disparaging their giant strength. I must mention these facts merely as illustrations of the difficulties and dangers of making too many speeches about the war at times like these, and to give a respectful explanation to the House of why, with one fleeting exception, I am not going to refer to-day to any of the changing phases of this tremendous struggle.
I am, however, able to give some information about the war at sea. The House will remember the very good reasons which were given for leaving off publishing monthly figures of sinkings by enemy action and how those precise periodical statements, made at too frequent intervals, gave the enemy valuable information as to how his varying tactics were succeeding; but there is no objection to giving exact figures for longer periods, and I take this occasion to give figures of the last four months, ending with October, without dividing them into months, and compared with the figures, already published, of the four preceding months ending with June. They are certainly well worthy of mention. I am speaking in round numbers. In the four months ending with June, we lost just over 2,000,000 tons, or an average of 500,000 tons per month. In the last four months, ending with October, we lost less than 750,000 tons, or an average of 180,000 tons per month. 180,000 contrasts very favourably with 500,000 tons. I see opposite me my right hon. friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). We shared, I in a very humble position, but with full knowledge, the terrible anxieties of 1917. We saw the figures mount, but we also saw the sudden fall. However, we must not count at all that the danger is past, but the facts are more favourable than are represented by the reduction on the four-monthly period from 500,000 to 180,000 because, from the point of view of keeping alive our power to wage war at sea, and of increasing it, you have to take account not only of what is lost but of new building. You have to deduct the new building and see how the position stands. I do not intend to give exact figures about new building, but, making allowance for new building, the net loss of our Mercantile Marine, apart altogether from captures from the enemy and United States assistance, has been reduced in the last four months to a good deal less than one-fifth of what it was in the previous four months. That is an impressive fact. This has been done in spite of the fact that there were never more U-boats or more long-range aircraft working than there are now. While that fact should lead us to increase our successful exertions, and should in no way favour an easy habit of mind, it does, I think, give solid and sober assurances, as was mentioned by my right hon. friend earlier, that we shall be able to maintain our seaborne traffic until the great American shipbuilding promised for 1942 comes into service. The United States are, of course, building new merchant ships on a scale many times what we are able to do in this Island. Having regard to the many calls upon us, our new shipbuilding is confined to a certain proportion of our resources, but the United States are embarking on an output of ships incomparably greater than what we can produce and far surpassing the enormous efforts they successfully made in the last war.
If we are able to get through this year, we shall certainly find ourselves in good supply of ships in 1942. If the war against the U-boats and the enemy aircraft continues to prosper as it has done-about which there can be, of course, no guarantee-the Freedom Powers will be possessed of large quantities of shipping in 1943, which will enable oversee operations to take place utterly beyond British resources at the present time. Meanwhile, the destruction of enemy shipping is proceeding with even greater violence than before. During the four months ended October, there were sunk or seriously damaged nearly 1,000,000 tons. In the Mediterranean, the enemy's losses have been particularly severe, and there is evidence that he has found it very difficult to reinforce, or even to supply, his armies on the African shores. This last convoy was a particularly valuable one, and its total destruction together with the devastation being wrought by our submarines in the Mediterranean, is certainly very much to be rejoiced over.
There are at least 40,000 Italian women, children and noncombatants in Abyssinia. Some time ago, guided by humanitarian instincts, we offered to let the Italian Government take these people home, if they would send under the necessary safeguards their own shipping to the ports on the Red Sea. The Italian Government accepted this proposal, and agreement was reached on all the details, but they have never been able so far to send the ships specified, because the destruction of their ships has proceeded at such a high rate and to such a serious extent. All this makes me hopeful-although, of course, I will not prophesy-that the German and Italian boasts that they will take Suez by the end of May last, will very likely remain unfulfilled at Christmas. That is much more than we had any right to expect when the Italian Government declared war upon us and the French deserted us in the Mediterranean, 18 months ago.
The fact that our shipping losses have so remarkably diminished, and diminished at the very time when Hitler boasted that his sea war would be at its height, must be taken in conjunction with our greatly increased production of food at home. I have always held the view that the British people, especially their heavy workers, must be properly fed and nourished if we are to get the full results from our war effort, and at the beginning of the year, when it looked as if we should have to choose to some extent between food and munitions imports, I asked the Cabinet to approve a minimum of food imports to be maintained, if necessary, even at the expense of munition materials. There is no doubt that the dietary of our people has been severely curtailed and has become far less varied and interesting. Still, at the rate we are now going, it is sufficient for our physical health, although I am hoping that we shall be able to give a somewhat larger share of the available supplies of meat to the workers who need it most. This will be done by a rapid expansion of canteens which will supply meals off the ration to the workers they serve at places where those workers are actually gathered. I am glad to say that the figure which we prescribed for minimum food imports will now probably be achieved, and even a little surpassed, and that the Minister of Food has been able to make certain minor relaxations during the winter months in the severity of his restrictions. As a precaution, we have amassed stocks, of bulky articles of our diet, which amount to double what we had in September, 1939. We are going to make a job of this war, and those who are working on the job must have their strength fully maintained, because although much has been asked of them in the past, we are going to ask them for more as the struggle deepens. The agricultural ministers for England and Scotland are also to be congratulated upon the very great expansion they have made of our home food production. In the short space of two years the area under crops has been increased by no less than 45 per cent. Although the corn harvest that was gathered was not quite so good as we had hoped it would be before I left for the Atlantic meeting-and here I must say that in future I shall be as careful in abstaining from prophecy in agricultural matters as I am in military matters-nevertheless, the cereal crop was 50 per cent. greater than in 1939. We should also have very large crops of potatoes, sugar beet, fodder roots and other fodder crops this year. Despite the lack of imported feeding-stuffs we have well maintained our head of cattle, both dairy cows and beef cattle, and I hope-I say this on the spur of the moment and shall perhaps get into trouble-that my right hon. and noble friend will see if he can do something with the hens. All who have to do with the land, farmer and farm worker alike, have played a worthy part in this achievement. But satisfactory as are the results to date, there must be no relaxation of our efforts.
Despite all difficulties, we must go on to produce still more, not only because of the ever-present menace to our importation from abroad, but because it is possible that as the war develops our military operations will make much more extensive demands on our shipping.
I mention these facts at the risk of being accused of complacency. When I spoke a month ago I mentioned the fact that our people would have better Christmas dinners this year than last year, and dinners which would be more justified by the food position. For this I incurred a rebuke from the "Daily Herald," which wrote, with a Spartan austerity which I trust the editorial staff will practise as well as preach, that we were "making war, not wassail." It is a poor heart that never rejoices; the House may rest assured that we shall not err on the side of over-indulgence. The building-up of reserves is continuous, and I trust that we shall not be blamed for stoking up those fires of human energy and spirit upon which our victory in this long struggle depends.
Some months ago we were anxious about the coal position for this winter, and it still gives cause for concern. I am glad to say that, thanks to the exertions of the President of the Board of Trade and of the Secretary of the Mines Department-the situation is better than appeared likely a few months ago. Our stocks of coal are now between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 tons larger than they were a year ago and are far better distributed, and the men, who have responded most nobly to the appeal made, are working a longer working week than before. There has been great concern on the part of some of the younger miners at not being allowed to go to the Army. We have had some very hard cases of young men who wished to go and serve in the fighting forces, and we all understand how they feel. But they can really best help the war effort at the moment by staying where they are, although at the same time, as things develop, we must endeavour to meet the wishes of individuals as far as possible in regard to the form of service they give. I know how tremendous was the contribution which the miners made in the last war, when we had the same difficulty in holding the men at the pits. What the position will be if this country becomes the scene of actual strife, I cannot tell, but I sympathise entirely with their feelings, and if we have to ask them to make the sacrifice, it is because of the vital necessity of coal to our whole production. Against this improved situation we have to bear in mind the steadily increasing demand which is coming as our war industries expand, and it is necessary that all efforts for the production of and economy in fuel should continue. There are good grounds for the belief that we shall come through the winter all right, and that, without having deranged our Army by withdrawing thousands of coal miners from their platoons, the regular process of our coal supply will be maintained.
There is nothing that Hitler will dislike more than my recital of these prosaic but unassailable facts. There is nothing that he and his Nazi regime dread more than the proof that we are capable of fighting a prolonged war and the proof of the failure of their efforts to starve us into submission. In the various remarks which the Deputy-Führer, Herr Hess, has let fall from time to time during his sojourn in our midst, nothing has been more clear than that Hitler relied upon the starvation attack more than upon invasion to bring us to our knees. His hopes were centered upon starvation, as his boasts have made the world aware So far as 1941 at least is concerned, those hopes have been dashed to the ground. But this only increases his need to come at us by direct invasion as soon as he can screw up his courage and make his arrangements to take the plunge. Therefore, we must have everything working forward for the improved weather of the spring, so that we are well prepared to meet any scale of attack that can be directed upon us. Although we are infinitely stronger than we were a year ago, or even six months ago, yet at the same time the enemy has had ample time for preparations, and you may be sure that if an invasion of this country is attempted by the Germans, it will be upon a plan which has been thought out in every detail with their customary ruthlessness and thoroughness.
I now come, on what I hope is a fairly solid foundation, to the criticism of the Government. My right hon. friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) spoke of criticism as being the life-blood of democracy. Certainly we are a very full-blooded democracy. In war it is very hard to bring about successes and very easy to make mistakes or to point them out after they have been made. There was a custom in ancient China that anyone who wished to criticise the Government had the right to memorialise the Emperor, and, provided he followed that up by committing suicide, very great respect was paid to his words, and no ulterior motive was assigned. That seems to me to have been, from many points of view, a wise custom, but I certainly would be the last to suggest that it should be made retrospective. Our universal resolve to keep Parliamentary institutions in full activity amid the throes of war has been proved. That is a feat of enormous difficulty, never accomplished in any such complete perfection in history. His Majesty's Government base themselves upon the House of Commons. They look to the House for aid and comfort, in the incalculable perils by which we are beset. We are entitled to seek from the House from time to time the formal renewal of their confidence. The debate on the address furnishes the signal outstanding parliamentary opportunity of the year. It is the Grand Inquest of the nation.
The fact of passing the address in reply to the gracious speech without any amendment is the proof to the nation and to the whole world that the King's ministers enjoy the confidence of Parliament. This is essential to any government in times of war, because any sign of division or any suspicion of weakness disheartens our friends and encourages our foes. We shall therefore give the fullest facilities to the debate on the address, either upon the general debate or upon amendments. I should like to point out to people outside this House, and to countries abroad which do not realise the flexibility and potency of our parliamentary institutions, nor how they work, that any amendment, however seductive, however misleading, however tendentious, however artful, however sober, or however wide, which the wit or other qualities of man may devise, can be placed upon the paper, can be fully debated by the arrangement of calling particular amendments. None shall be invidiously excluded. If a division takes place, it is a matter of confidence, which, nevertheless, enables everyone to see exactly where we stand and how far we can call upon the loyalty of the House. If such amendment should be moved and pressed to a division-I say this for the information of countries abroad-those who vote against the Government will not be assaulted with rubber truncheons, or put into concentration camps, or otherwise molested in their private lives. The worst that could happen might be that they might have to offer some rather laborious explanations to their constituents. Let it not be said that parliamentary institutions are being maintained in this country in a farcical or unreal manner. We are fighting for parliamentary institutions. We are endeavouring to keep their full practice and freedom, even in the stress of war.
In order that there may be no misunderstanding about the basis on which this debate takes place, I must state that the Government stand united as a corporate body, as a band of men who have bound themselves to work together in special faith and loyalty. There can be no question of any individual ministers being singled out, by intrigue or ill-will, or because of the exceptional difficulties of their tasks, and being hounded down, in any Government over which I have the honour to preside. From time to time the force of events makes changes necessary, but none are contemplated at the present moment. Neither do I consider it necessary to remodel the system of cabinet government under which we are now working, nor to alter in any fundamental manner the system by which the conduct of the war proceeds, nor that by which production of munitions is regulated and maintained.
The process of self-improvement is, of course, continuous, and every man and woman throughout the land, in office or out of office, in Parliament or in the cities and municipalities of our country-everyone, great and small, should try himself, by his conscience every day, to make sure he is giving his utmost effort to the common cause. Making allowance for the increase of population, we have reached, in the 26th month of this war, and in some ways have surpassed, the deployment of national effort at home, which after all the slaughter, was not reached until the 48th month of the last war. We cannot rest content with that, and if Parliament, by patriotic and constructive counsel, and without unduly harassing those who bear the load, can stimulate and accelerate our further advance, the House of Commons will be playing its part, unyielding, persevering, indomitable, in the overthrow of another Continental tyranny as in the olden times.