Following the debate on Iraq this week I noticed the prominence of a number of historical parallels, including Suez, and in particular the Norway Debate of 1940. This gave me an excuse to distract myself with a little research. The story of this crucial parliamentary debate, which Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill) calls “the most dramatic and the most far-reaching in its consequences of any parliamentary debate of the twentieth century”, has a number of lessons to teach us.
The debate, which formally was on an adjournment motion, was about the conduct of the disastrous Norwegian campaign. But it became a crucial debate on the conduct of the war generally and on the competence of the Chamberlain government. Much like the debate this week, which was supposed to be about an enquiry, but in reality was firstly about the need for a change in strategy in Iraq and secondly was about the style and nature of the Blair government.
What strikes me most in reading up about the Norway Debate is, at a time of war, just how robust it was and how supine in comparison the Commons is today. Can you imagine an equivalent sight in 2006 to that in 1940 of the Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, Member of Parliament for Portsmouth, dressed in full uniform and adorned with medals laying into the government’s conduct of the war.
Some things don’t change though. The government spokesman winding up the debate made calls for national unity, talked of the need not to be distracted, and how all energies should be concentrated on the task at hand. However, the language used was a little more elegant than the language used this week. No talk of “sending signals” in 1940. Not surprising really when that government spokesman was, ironically, Winston Churchill, the main beneficiary of the results of the Norway Debate.
Having got myself wound up listening to all the nonsense from the government about how outrageous it was for parliament to even dare consider having an enquiry into Iraq. I found it comforting to read the words from Lloyd George’s speech in that debate. This was the last significant speech that the Welshman made and it was one of his best. Not least because of the large amount of bile towards Chamberlain and others that lay beneath it.
One passage particularly struck me as relevant in today’s context. He said;
“Now, the situation is a grave one……and it would be a fatal error on our part not to acknowledge it. In such experience as I have had of war direction I have never tried to minimise the extent of a disaster. I try to get the facts, because unless you really face the facts you cannot overcome the difficulties and restore the position…..there is a grave case for pulling ourselves together. We cannot do that unless we tell the country the facts.”
We have a desperate need to face the facts about the true situation in Iraq. This government is not willing to do so neither, despite the debate this week, does Parliament seem capable of doing so. Simon Jenkins, who I increasingly rate as a columnist, neatly sums up my feelings of frustration about the inability of our politicians to get to grips with these issues.
One fact I found in my research was the last survivor of the 33 Tories who voted against Chamberlain was John Profumo, who died this year. A footnote in the Churchill biography tells the story of how after receiving a fierce dressing down from the whips (“you utterly contemptible little shit”) Profumo, a serving officer at the time returned to his unit worrying about what reaction he would get from this fellow officers. He of course found that they were completely unaware of what had taken place. A story like that illustrates just what a pile of crap Margaret Beckett’s argument that MPs should keep quite about Iraq in order to avoid upsetting the troops is.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.