Government Struggles to Convince Anyone that Rearmament is Being Taken Seriously

Tuesday 10th November 1936

The Debate on the Address – in effect the first Parliamentary debate of the new session – developed into a wide ranging debate on defence and rearmament issues. It was conducted in an objective and calm style, but, perhaps perversely, the absence of passion laid bare the flaws in the government’s programme and the political and bureaucratic cross-currents that hampered the work. Sir Thomas Inskip, the minister for the coordination of defence, was competent, honest and a dedicated public servant, but he had neither the official remit, character nor ambition either to blast through road-blocks or to give the House and the public the impression that the government really cared.

The great rallying call for enthusiastic rearmers was the need for a Ministry of Supply, successor to Lloyd George’s Ministry of Munitions of the First World War, a solid sign that national energies were being channeled into preparing for war. But there lurked in the background the recognition that even a Ministry of Supply would be futile under another Inskip. The inter-service rivalries – above all the merciless struggle between the Royal Navy and the RAF – were plain to see in the call from a backbencher to override “departmental fanatics”. The Navy had won its point in defeating – erroneously - the argument that battleships were vulnerable to bombers, but had failed to win control of the Fleet Air Arm, which left it far behind the US and Japanese Imperial navies. The greatest achievements Inskip could boast was a chain of barrage balloons round London, new heavy anti-aircraft guns and the conversion of two Territorial Army divisions to anti-aircraft duties. This simultaneously served as a confession of British vulnerability to air attack and an essentially defensive mindset in the government.