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The British Parliament in Total War

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

It would have been a sign of petrifaction—or a miracle—if the British Parliament had not been shaken by the impact of total war. The functions of this representative assembly and its position in the State have undergone profound transformations. Some of the changes are the results of temporary forces, many of them accidental, and many more caused by the decadent character of prewar British policies are likely to disappear with the return of peace; the effect of others, however, may continue long after peace is restored and may permanently modify the procedures and functions of the Mother of Parliaments, and inevitably affect thereby the future development of democratic and parliamentary institutions throughout the world. The influence of the British parliament on world political thought is too direct and too intimate for any significant change to take place in London without its effects being felt the world over. The experience of the British legislature during the war, the problems it confronted and confronts still, illustrate in a bold and intelligible form the problems of all modern democratic legislatures. But the British Parliament faced those problems more directly and intelligently than any other democratic legislative assembly.

The basic issue can be stated simply: what function can a representative assembly composed of politicians, not of social scientists, perform in the modern State? What services can it render? What is its useful sphere of control? Can the executive be limited to purely administrative functions, with all legislative authority concentrated in Parliament, or must the latter delegate to the executive the power to legislate by means of executive orders and regulations? If delegated legislation is essential in the complex modern society, how is the legislature, representing the will of the electorate, to exercise adequate control over the unrepresentative, un-elected bureaucracy? The place of representative legislative institutions emerged as one of the most perplexing problems of democratic government years before the outbreak of hostilities. The steady expansion of the sphere of governmental activity during the previous twenty years made necessary formulation of regulations affecting industry, mining, commerce, finance, public health, and social welfare, the propriety and effectiveness of which could be determined only by experts in those fields. What function could be assigned to a representative assembly composed of non-experts in the fields of greatest concern to the modern State?


The renascence in Parliament’s influence was no doubt one of the most astounding phenomena of the war, and indicates the magnitude of the cultural and political revival brought about by the tensions of the conflict. For the rejuvenation took place in the face of immense handicaps.

Those adverse developments shaped the content of the policies of the British government during the war, and will determine, unless an election intervenes, the character of the peace. Their influence was so pervasive just because the Premier, to use his own words, remained a “good House of Commons man.” They influenced also the degree of Parliament’s effective control of the government’s activities and policies. But for those handicaps Parliament’s prestige and its real power woidd have become even greater.

The absence since the formation of the national government of an organized Opposition able and willing to take over the reins of government and to experiment with new policies tended to give a dream-like character to debates.

Centuries of experience have demonstrated that the stronger the Opposition, the firmer its policies, the better does Parliament function. The ill effects of this weakness were inevitably acerbated by the personal ascendancy of the Prime Minister—by the assumption that whatever his faults and weaknesses, whatever the errors and blunders of his administration, Mr. Churchill is irreplaceable. The Premier, it is true, did not use his immense personal prestige to defy the elected representatives of the nation. On the contrary, time and again he submitted to Parliament’s judgment. Soon after the formation of his ministry, Mr. Churchill yielded to Parliament and discarded a secret committee for investigation of political activities “for the control, character, and composition” of which he demanded personal responsibility; four years later—and a dozen of similar examples could be cited for the intervening period—he begged the House, in response to a series of questions which betrayed uneasiness concerning the government’s policy, not to debate relations with the French Committee of National Liberation, pointing out that a debate at that juncture would be more damaging than helpful, especially since the “very close relations with the United States” were involved. “I should be very sorry to see these issues prematurely forced to a decision,” the Premier said, “and therefore I ask from the House a measure of leniency and forbearance in their treatment of this matter.” However, “if there is a desire on the part of a large number of members to bring these issues to a head,” he hastened to add, “then the rights of the House must be clearly met and a suitable occasion for a debate will be found.” The House granted the Premier’s request, somewhat reluctantly, to be sure, but the attitude expressed by Labor, Liberal, and the younger Conservative members made an impression on the government, as was acknowledged by the Prime Minister in a report to the Commons on August 2, 1944. “I must pay tribute to the House for the wise forbearance it showed a few weeks ago in discouraging debate on British, French, and American relations. That was a time much more critical than this, and the fact that this House, which is, after all, all-powerful in these matters, deliberately abstained from discussing a question in which interest ran high on all sides, was extremely helpful to the conduct of foreign affairs by Mr. Eden and furthered the smooth deployment of our policy.”

An official leader of the Opposition remained even under the coalition regime, but so formal did the office become that its salary was suspended and it was officially ruled that the Opposition bench may be occupied by anyone who has held ministerial office in any previous government. A motley group, shifting and indefinite, not united by a coherent program, without allegiance to a common party and quite incapable of assuming office, emerged as the real opposition. It was a “ginger” group, sufficient to press the government and to enliven debates, but not to threaten the government’s survival. Radical Laborites like Emanuel Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan found themselves on the same side with arch-Tories like the irrepressible Earl Winterton and the brilliant Herbert Williams, only to be followed by Liberals like Clement Davies, Sir George Schuster, IIore-Belisha, and the unpredictable musketeers of noble causes, Gallacher and Maxton. Individually or in concert they exerted much pressure on the government through questions about the development of the war effort, critical speeches, and by pressing for debates on significant policies; they succeeded even more in extracting vital and often self-condemning information from reluctant ministries. Their vigilance and independence of spirit was no doubt a salutary influence; but at no time did they constitute an Opposition able to replace the King’s government and to threaten its existence.

Parliament was weakened also by the inability of many members to attend to their legislative duties because of active participation in industry, the armed forces, and the civil administration. Members who accepted overseas posts in the government were allowed to retain their seats (Sir Samuel Hoare did not appear in the House from the spring of 1940, when he was appointed ambassador to France, till the summer of 1944); at the end of 1942 about 120 members served in the armed forces, although many managed to appear in Parliament from time to time to report on their experiences and, not infrequently, to denounce bureaucratic inefficiency and the government’s timidity. Active participation of legislators in industry, public administration, and military affairs was no doubt a great advantage, for it gave members an insight into economic and social affairs not otherwise obtainable and endowed debates with a healthy realism. Much information of importance to the ministers and many valuable suggestions came forth, for example, during the numerous debates on mobilization of labor; speeches by colliery owners and Laborites with years of experience in the coal fields either as trade union leaders, or, not infrequently, as miners, lent realistic—and acrimonious —atmosphere to the frequent debates on coal policy; and when foreign trade control, concentration of industry, direction of production were discussed, the members were able . to make a contribution to the formation of policy since they spoke on the basis of detailed, intimate, personal experience. But preoccupation with private affairs and, above all, the permission granted to members on military and diplomatic duty to retain their seats meant that ordinary business was left to a small number of retired colonels, wealthy landowners, lawyers, and trade-union bureaucrats, who attained an influence out of proportion to their numerical strength.

The ill effects of this factor were strengthened by the Premier’s tendency to multiply the number of ministries of various sorts, to create new offices and to duplicate old ones. Positions were duplicated by the appointment of two House of Commons parliamentary secretaries, as in the Departments of Fuel, Labor, Scotland, Supply, and War Transport; additional ministers were added to regular departmerits, as the appointment of a Minister of State to the Foreign Office in addition to the Principal Secretary of State. The government’s tendency to pile up office holders was vigorously attacked in the Commons and outside. “Consciously or unconsciously, the executive are steadily undermining the independence of the Commons by a policy which may be described in military parlance as infiltration,” one M. P. asserted. At the end of 1943 upwards of 64 M. P.’s were serving as ministers; there were 64 Parliamentary Private Secretaries and a dozen more acted as whips or held Household appointments—a total of 140 M. P.’s directly or indirectly under the control of the government.

The adverse effects of these wartime developments were, however, of minor importance in comparison with Parliament’s greatest weakness—the character of its membership. It is an historical tragedy that at a time when the British public was more liberal, more consciously democratic, more dynamically radical, those profound political changes, which, if given expression, could have transformed the course of the history of Britain, the empire, and the world, could not be reflected in the legislature. Parliament retained the composition and character it received in the trick-election of 1985. It was not representative even then. Not only were the Tories heavily overrepresented in proportion to the votes they received, but the party machine selected candidates who could be relied upon to follow blindly the inglorious leadership of the statesman from Birmingham. A much-needed operation to remove anachronistic survivals and to lift the level of intelligence was prevented by the decision to forgo an election for the duration. Since 1940 the House has renewed annually its lease on life by enactment of a Prolongation of Parliament Act, and in the autumn of 1944 it entered its tenth year.

Only a few Liberal members questioned the official apologia that an appeal to voters would distract attention from the war, jeopardize national unity, and endanger the State.

They argued that an election which would certainly reduce the strength of the Tory party would prove a mighty stimulant to the war effort. They pointed to the experience of the Dominions, where continuation of democratic processes, far from weakening the State and interfering with the war effort, served, on the contrary, to strengthen the public will to persist in the struggle and invariably resulted in the election of candidates advocating intensification rather than reduction of the war effort. The government, however, backed by an overwhelming majority of legislators, did not share this passion for perfect democratic representation, and the Prolongation of Parliament Acts were enacted without serious opposition.

The technical difficulties of holding a wartime election were of course enormous. A radical redistribution of seats would have been necessary if a Parliament elected after 1940 were to be truly representative; for the demographic map of Britain was fundamentally changed by mobilization of men and women for the armed services, voluntary or compulsory transfer of labor, and by evacuation. Even “by the end of 1941, the number of civilian adults living in different constituencies from 1939 was on the order of five million or roughly one-sixth of the electorate.” Moreover, the antiquated system of registration, which granted the privilege of voting only to those who were on the area registers before 1939, when the registers were closed, resulted in the disenfranchisement of all youths who reached voting age since 1939. No person under the age of 27 had in 1944 the right to vote. The distribution of seats was notoriously undemocratic even before 1939, and some members represented six times as many voters as other representatives. These technical difficulties of holding elections, though real and adequate for scoring debating points, did not, however, obviate the evils which flowed from maintenance of the prewar composition of the House.

The 128 by-elections held since outbreak of the war to fill seats vacated by the death or resignations of members could have contributed much towards the rejuvenation of the House and towards bringing it into closer harmony with the changed temper of the electorate. Relief from this direction was, however, barred by the self-denying agreement among the three parties represented in the Cabinet, not to contest by-elections. Following the formation of the “National Government,” it was agreed that the party “owning” the vacated seat should select an official who was to be supported against independent contestants by the combined resources of the government and the parties. Even the party truce might have been tolerable under wartime conditions provided, as Mr. Morrison said, the parties did not “take liberties with the electorate” and put forward candidates deserving the support of all parties in the constituency. Such was not the case. “The best man to many constituency parties is the man with the most money; some by-election returns have been almost in the eighteenth-century manner,” the Manchester Guardian stated in 1942. Wealth, social connections, faithful adherence to party control—these remained the standards for selecting parliamentary candidates.

The election since 1940 of close to a dozen independent candidates who ran against the combined forces of all the parties is indicative of the discontent with the structure and composition of the prewar Parliament. It is significant that all the successful independent candidates campaigned on a platform favoring fundamental social reforms, more vigorous prosecution of the war, and, since the middle of 1942, implementation of the Beveridge Plan. In the spring of 1942 two trustworthy Conservative constituencies gave severe shocks to party headquarters by returning independent candidates. In the general election of 1935 the Conservative constituency of Rugby had returned a faithful party hack with a majority of more than 7,800; in the by-election, however, the government candidate, a baronet with excellent family connections, was defeated by a dissident left-winger who had been a persistent critic of the domination of the Trade Union Congress and of the government’s policy of limited liability in the war. Wallasey, another faithful Conservative constituency which in the last general election had given the Conservative candidate a majority of almost 14,500, returned an independent with a majority of more than 6,000. A less promising field of “adventure for candidates without official or party backing would be hard to imagine,” commented one British publication. The government candidate was chairman of the local Conservative Association and his successful opponent was a Labor man who had left the party in disagreement about Munich. Official candidates opposed by independents of character and of progressive views were increasingly returned with slender margins. In December, 1943, an independent Liberal candidate, Miss Honor Balfour, who had campaigned on a platform criticizing the government “policy of inertia at home and appeasement abroad,” was defeated by a narrow majority of 70 in a poll of almost 18,000, where the previous Conservative candidate had polled over 15,000 votes. All the forces of the major parties were marshalled against Miss Balfour and the official candidate made effective use of a message from the Prime Minister urging his election. But the independent candidate, while supporting Mr. Churchill as leader of the national war effort, was outspoken in her criticism of the government’s policy on the Beveridge plan, old age pensions, education, and “there is little doubt that her views on these points secured her many votes.”

The wonder is not that the number of successful independent candidates was small; on the contrary, the wonder is that even the small number met with success in view of the demographic dislocations which affected mainly young people and especially the working classes. Political observers at the Darwen election noticed that the most vigorous support for the independent candidate came from young people, who, however, could not vote. But the public discontent could not change the Parliament’s composition.

Hence the lamentable paucity of talent in the House—a factor of far-reaching significance in contemporary Britain; hence also the deeply conservative atmosphere of the House —an atmosphere which becomes a tangible reality whenever novel and progressive measures are introduced. The prewar mediocrities who were placed in Parliament by a Central Conservative Association retarded the transformation of parliamentary machinery, if only because so many were too ignorant, too stupid, and too lethargic to realize the need for adjustment. At the same time, their mere presence sufficed to determine the political atmosphere of the House, and, therefore, the policies of the government. The pronounced reluctance manifested by the Cabinet to make effective use of its powers to take over industrial and business establishments was no doubt due largely to the influence of the Tory block; its failure to develop a realistic scheme for the coal industry can be attributed at least in part to influential Conservative members with strong vested interests in coal mining and related industries; and the mighty crew of Tory backbenchers enabled Mr. Churchill and Leopold Amery to persist in their imperialist Indian policy. Only the naive could have expected a Commons dominated by Conservatives, who in 1939 counted among their ranks no less than 43 directors of insurance companies and 16 bank directors, to permit the government to accept in toto the Beveridge Plan, which contained the provision for replacement of the present chaotic system of social insurance, which brings fat profits to private insurance concerns, by a State-operated scheme.

The casual reader of Hansard, and especially of the summaries of parliamentary debates published in The Times or The Manchester Guardian, is likely to form a different judgment of the caliber of Parliament. The debates on Indian policy, colonial affairs, family allowances, and domestic social problems—especially when general principles rather than concrete legislative measures involving financial appropriations are under discussion—were generally dominated by liberal and progressive sentiments. But the printed debates constitute a completely unreliable guide to the temper and atmosphere of the House. Only rarely did the squires, retired army officers, and directors of financial and industrial concerns who sat on the back benches of the Tory side of the House bestir themselves to speak, and then their statements were so commonplace, so trite, and so brief that they occupied only a small fraction of the pages of Hansard, and appeared even more insignificant in newspaper reports. The speaking was done by a small number of talented, energetic, and restless Liberal, Labor, and Socialist members who, although their influence greatly exceeded their numerical strength, did not form, except on the most extraordinary occasions, the “sense of the House,” and were of even less consequence in the division lobby. Also parliamentarians preferred “to assert pressure otherwise than in the division lobby, or even in criticism in the Chamber,” as one member admitted.


Yet, unlike the House of Peers when Wellington thrashed Bonaparte, which, we are assured by that eminent philosophic historian, Sir William Gilbert, “did nothing in particular and did it very well,” the House of Commons during the war made a positive contribution, and one of immense magnitude, to the welfare of the State. Its contribution was along two lines. First, it is not easy to measure the value of its moral effect on the British people during the dark days of 1940 and 1941. At this stage it is possible to speak only of public events; and the existence in Westminster of an Assembly of statesmen to examine issues, to debate policies, to consult together on the major affairs of State, was a moral force which strengthened the weak and aided the wavering. The firm and courageous speeches in Parliament inspired confidence and fed the embers of hope. But the enthusiastic, full-blooded, and vociferous support of the House of Commons enjoyed by the Prime Minister was also a force of immense weight in his struggle against defeatist elements in very high quarters.

More amenable to exact measurement are Parliament’s practical contributions toward the policies and daily activities of the government. From the very beginning Parliament assumed its traditional role as the champion of the liberties of the people, and its contribution to the preservation of civil liberty, which make Britain one of the freest countries in the world even after five years of total war, was immense. Parliament set itself the task, secondly, to protect the nation’s wealth against waste and inefficiency in the development of the war effort. At least half of its time was devoted during the most critical years to discussion of the activities of the supply departments, to analysis of mobilization policies, and to evaluation of economic and financial developments. Parliament was the great censor of the executive, bringing to the light of day cases of waste, muddle headedness, inefficiency, and maladministration.

Parliament’s determination to safeguard civil liberty even in war was revealed in an unqualified manner in October, 1939, during a vigorous and lively attack on the first batch of Orders-in-Council issued under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. The attack, led by Mr. Dingle Foot, a Liberal backbencher, and two Laborites, Kingsley Griffith and Major Attlee, later to become Deputy Prime Minister, was directed against the formidable regulation (18B) authorizing the Home Secretary to imprison a person at will, the curfew regulation (37), and a regulation which vested in the Home Secretary the power to prohibit a suspected person the use of any article, to prevent him employment or business, and to order such a person not to associate with other people. “Apparently in future the Secretary of State is going to choose our associates or prevent us from keeping bad company. The provision is capable of endless abuses,” Mr. Foot asserted. The regulation authorizing the Minister to restrain the activities of any person disseminating news of political views was regarded as “most dangerous of all.” In vain did the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, plead the need for wide powers to enable the executive to deal with enemy agents who had been instructed to undermine confidence in the government and to destroy public morale. His able defense failed to satisfy the House. Parliament was not content with even his categorical assurance that “not only was there no intention to use these powers to curb criticism of the government but that there were adequate safeguards against abuse even under wartime conditions.” The reply was obvious and it was delivered with telling effect. “It is not sufficient,” exclaimed Mr. Foot, “to answer that we must leave the exercise of these powers to the wise discretion of the departments concerned. We all know that in the last few weeks there have been errors and blunders on a very considerable scale. A great many have been put right not because of the action of the State inside the departments themselves, but because of the criticism that came from this House, the press, and the public as a whole. What would have happened if a large part of that criticism had been suppressed, as a great deal could be under these regulations?” The deadlock was not broken until the government came forward with the offer to consult an interparty committee and to redraft the regulations in a form more acceptable to the House.

The revised regulations contained considerable changes. In its original form Regulation 18B gave the Home Secretary power to detain, in any manner or place he thought fit, “any particular person with a view to preventing him from acting in any manner prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm.” No wonder that the House, with its vivid memories of the centuries-long struggle for habeas corpus and trial by jury, found it difficult to accept this sweeping regulation. When Sir John asserted that the article was “substantially” identical with one in D. O. R. A., he was promptly reminded that during the last war the power of detention was restricted to “persons of hostile origin or association.” Even in its amended form Regulation 18B grants the executive dictatorial powers; but if used against a British subject, the minister must have “reasonable cause” for believing that the suspect was “concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm or in the preparation or instigation of such acts.”

Drastic revisions were made at Parliament’s insistence in Article 39B, which originally made it an offense to “endeavor, whether orally or otherwise, to influence public opinion (whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere) in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the defence of the realm or the efficient prosecution of the war.” The consent of the Attorney General was needed for a prosecution under that section, but the language of the law was so loose that its scope could be expanded to cover anything from an exhortation to treason to an article by an English writer in an American magazine urging a negotiated peace. The article was completely redrafted. In its revised form prosecution could be instituted only against a person endeavoring to influence public opinion in a manner likely to be prejudicial to the defense of the realm by means of “false statement, false document, or false report.” Furthermore, sincerity was made an adequate defense. The offender needs only to prove “that he had reasonable cause to believe that the statement, document, or report in question was true.”

An outcry was evoked also by Regulation 39A, against attempts to “cause disaffection” in the armed services. This phrase, it was pointed out, would provide adequate ground for prosecution of editors or speakers advocating a higher scale of allowances to soldiers’ dependents. The government retracted. In its revised form, only an act to “seduce from their duty” was made a punishable offense. The “curfew” regulation (37), which found few friends in the House and for which Sir John Anderson himself expressed little admiration, was allowed to stand for possible use during extraordinary emergencies.

With these and a number of other modifications Parliament accepted the drastic restrictions on civil liberty; but its conscience was never at ease and it determined to maintain meticulous vigilance over the government’s actions. Full-blooded hatred of Regulation 18B was expressed frequently and vigorously in debates on the underlying principle and on specific orders for detention made under it, and in dozens of questions concerning its implementation addressed to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. Parliament’s attitude no doubt acted as a deterring influence on the executive not only against abuse of the vast powers hut even against free use of them. Valuable indeed has been the provision requiring the minister to submit a statement every month showing the number of persons detained under the regulation and his decisions concerning the recommendations of the Advisory Committee.

The House of Commons sprang to its feet again in defense of the liberties of the subject in July, 1940, when the government introduced a bill to enable it to establish special war-zone courts to deal with serious offenses important from a military standpoint. The threat of invasion loomed darkly over Britain, and the government requested the power to dispense in war zones with the ordinary procedure for commitment for trial by establishing special courts which, although of a civilian character, would use greatly simplified rules to dispense summary justice. The House was prepared to grant the government the authority to provide drastic methods for coping with novel emergencies, but it was not prepared to accept the bill as submitted by the Home Secretary. Many Labor and Liberal members, and some Conservatives, objected to the attempt to transfer to the “executive the most extreme powers without any safeguard.” Many vital concessions had to be accepted by the government. In discussions with a committee composed of representatives of all political parties and on the floor of the House amendments were prepared to clarify vague phrases, to limit the area of jurisdiction of the special courts; and the government was compelled to define with greater precision the conditions under which resort would be had to those courts. Most important of all, after considerable resistance the government accepted an amendment providing for review of sentences of death or penal servitude exceeding seven years, or if the president of the court is of the opinion that the case involves difficult questions of law or of fact.

Invariably Parliament demonstrated strong aversion to government attempts to stampede it into hasty approval of novel regulations, and insisted on full debate and careful analysis of all matters involving the liberties of Englishmen. The Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill of 1939 was passed after a very short and perfunctory debate on August 24, as it should have been, by a vote of 457 to 4; the Defence Act of 1940 was passed with similar dispatch. But Parliament’s compliance with the wishes of the executive was not due only to the pressure of the emergency; it could safely grant sweeping general powers since the Defence Act, 1939, contained a provision, absent in the Defence of the Realm Act, 1914, requiring the government to lay before the House the operative Rules and Orders made under it. To analysis and discussion of the regulations, however, the House devoted many sessions.

If Laborites and Liberals generally took leadership in protecting personal freedom, Conservative members showed special interest in safeguarding the rights of private property against encroachment by the executive. Little resistance to government control of property was put forth during the critical period when Britain’s fortunes hung in delicate balance; indeed, Parliamentary critics vied with one another in denouncing the government’s failure to impose more drastic controls on industry to obtain fullest utilization of all resources. But the turn in fortunes of war restored the self-confidence of the Conservative members and they regained their voices. The introduction of a regulation permitting the government to remove directors or employees with managerial functions who act in a manner “to obstruct the authorized control (government official) in the performance of his functions” was subjected to vigorous criticism in the House, although only a year had elapsed since powers to control property had been voted without opposition. When a new defense regulation was issued early in 1043 to enable the government to appoint directors to the Boards of companies if needed for attainment of efficient production, more than a hundred members (nearly all of whom were Conservatives) opposed the regulation and requested its annulment. An amended regulation, introduced after the withdrawal of the original order, which limited the powers of appointing directors to concerns which received public money by way of advances or grants of a capital nature, was also opposed by Conservative members, and the Minister of Production had to give assurances that the powers would be applied to a very restricted group of concerns. So hostile did the “sense” of the House become during 1943 to official control of property that the Prime Minister found it necessary to give an assurance that there was no intention to use the Emergency Powers to nationalize industry.


No history of Britain’s mobilization for total war can be complete which does not give special attention to the activities of Parliament. The House of Commons was a creative force in the evolution from the “business as usual” policies of the Chamberlain regime to the rigorous, painful, all-inclusive mobilization of labor, finance, and industry which became an accomplished fact by the middle of 1943; it marched well in advance of the government on the road to total war. It demanded a dynamic policy in the conduct of military operations; it called for bold, imaginative, and enlightened propaganda to win the sympathies of foreign peoples; the need to unify foreign policy, domestic policy, propaganda, trade, and finance into one instrument of war was emphasized time and again.

Demands for a rigorous financial policy to reduce consumption and to increase production of military goods were heard on the floor of the House long before Hitler unleashed his mechanized divisions in the spring of 1940 and before Sir Kingsley Wood grasped the role of public finance in total war. Budgets presented during the first two years of the war were invariably criticized, not for demanding too great sacrifices of the nation, but because the government kept its demands too low, because it did not drain off from the civilian population sufficient purchasing power.

Probably half of the debates during the first three years of war consisted of merciless attacks on the government for failure to mobilize adequately all productive resources for the tasks of war. Members with personal knowledge of the administration of civilian defense in various cities and regions, directors of shipping concerns, of industrial establishments, managers of food businesses, labor leaders with intimate contact with miners, dock workers, and engineering tradesmen, laid bare on the floor of the House instances of administrative shortcomings, of lack of planning and of waste of resources— facts which ministers would probably not have obtained quickly through the regular bureaucratic channels. The two days of full dress debate on air raid precautions in 1940 demonstrated well the invaluable services which the House of Commons at its best could render towards the conduct of the war. Personal experience, conversation, and correspondence with their constituents made it possible for members to report on hideous failures of the civil defense organizations in certain sections of London, Bristol, Glasgow, and other cities; shocking inefficiencies were mercilessly exposed; tales of shelters without roofs, without light, without heat or sanitary arrangements, were told; there were searching questions about the operations of the cement ring which was accused of restricting production. Nor did the speakers confine themselves to negative criticism; on the basis of their own work in their communities they were able to propose concrete remedies and to show how much could be accomplished with a little additional effort and some imagination. The government took careful note of the criticism, and the most blatant defects were remedied.

Every aspect of national life and of the war effort was subjected to review, analysis, and criticism by Parliament. Special debates on mobilization of labor, social services, agriculture and food production, mobilization of industry, employment of women, the administrative organization for total war, shipbuilding, coal mining and aircraft production —debates on all these subjects were held at the request of members. Parliamentary pressure was instrumental in bringing about unification of the shipping and transportation administrations into a Ministry of War Transport; the aged Lloyd George led an effective assault on the government’s timid agricultural policies, demanding greater concentration on production of food for human consumption and less respect for interests vested in beef and beer. But the solid phalanx of landed parliamentarians was able to impose its private interests on the government on almost all price issues.

It was the House of Commons that pushed the government to extend rationing to assure equitable distribution; it was the House of Commons again that spurred the government to develop canteens and restaurants for industrial workers and miners. Rationing of eggs, milk, and imported fresh fruit and special marketing schemes for other commodities were adopted after the Minister had explained the reasons which made such controls impossible. But the House was not overawed by the official apologias and the impossible was eventually done. The wholemeal loaf was made compulsory after an acrimonious debate, during which medical men in the House and Laborites accused the Minister of submitting to the flour combine, although 700,000 tons of shipping could be saved by abolishing white bread. Price controls, too, were extended to one commodity after another at the promptings of Parliament.

By subjecting manpower policy to numerous close and critical inquests, the House succeeded in driving the Minister to using the government’s compulsory powers to an extent which he certainly did not anticipate when he first entered office. On April 2, 1941, a searching debate was held on a motion urging the government to enforce mobilization of manpower for industry. Speakers told of mismanagement of the nation’s limited human resources and of inadequate facilities for training skilled workers; there were complaints against slowness in mobilizing women. Labor members complained of inadequate billeting provisions, especially for women workers, of inadequate canteens and of poor transportation facilities in certain areas. About half a dozen similar debates on labor were held in the subsequent three years, and with magnificent effects. One after another the shortcomings were remedied; additional controls ‘were established; and the administrative organization was tightened, till Britain obtained fuller use of its human resources for the tasks of war than any other belligerent.

Invaluable service was rendered to the nation by the Select Committee on National Expenditure appointed by the House of Commons in December, 1939. Interpreting its terms of reference in a broad and statesmanlike manner, the Committee, which originally consisted of twenty-eight members of all parties and was later enlarged to thirty-two members, investigated not only financial waste but the whole vast field of war production and government administration. The seventy-odd reports published during the first four years of the war shed much light on dark administrative alleys. Its seven subcommittees visited numerous war establishments, examined documents and witnesses, official and otherwise, and submitted recommendations on all phases of the war effort. At least as valuable as its published reports, it was rumored, were its private and confidential suggestions made to the ministers concerned and to the War Cabinet.

Most constructive were the reports on health and welfare conditions in war factories, on employment of women in shipyards, on price and cost policies, and on the administration of the Ministry of Supply and other government departments. The great prestige enjoyed by the Select Committee in Parliament and among the public made it difficult for the bureaucracy, which, like all other bureaucracies, had little love for criticism from outsiders, to disregard its suggestions and recommendations, especially since many of its reports were made the subjects of special debates. Effective use was also made by members of the experience and knowledge gained in the course of their investigations during general debates on the economic aspects of the war. Furthermore, government departments were required to reply in writing to specific criticisms and suggestions; and although the lapse of six to nine months between the publication of the Committee’s report and the replies of the government departments makes it difficult to evaluate precisely the effects of the suggestions, a careful analysis shows that, although on occasion it was necessary to return to the charge more than once, criticisms and suggestions were not lightly disregarded.

That Parliament has justified its existence during the strenuous years of war is beyond the realm of legitimate doubt. Its criticisms, evaluations, and suggestions contributed much to Britain’s success in constructing in a short amount of time a war machine probably more efficient than was established by any other country. For the British confronted not only the task of building the war apparatus quickly; the job had to be done also economically and with the minimum waste of resources. And it was Parliament, for all its faults, that imposed upon the government a policy of equitable distribution of the burden of war among the various classes of the population—a moral policy which, experience demonstrated, the aristocratic bureaucracy was incapable of developing.


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