The Norway Debate
, sometimes called the Narvik Debate
, was a famous debate in the British House of Commons
that took place on May 7
and May 8 1940
. Ostensibly a debate over one theatre of battle, the Norwegian campaign
, the debate witnessed a massive outpouring of criticism and hostility towards the general conduct of the war and the government of Neville Chamberlain
. In the vote at the end of the debate there was a sizable rebellion of government supporters who voted against their own government or refused to support it on what was considered a Motion of Confidence
(though it was not worded as such). Two days later Chamberlain resigned and was succeeded by Winston Churchill
The debate was actually on a technical motion "That this House do now adjourn". The full text is given in Hansard
, or the Official Report
, Fifth Series, volume 360, columns 1073–196 and 1251–366. It began at 3:48 p.m. on May 7 with Chamberlain giving more details on a statement he had given on May 2
on progress in Norway
. British forces had just withdrawn northwards from southern Norway; Chamberlain was interrupted by Labour MPs pointing out that this was a shocking reverse.
When he then attempted to deflect blame from his Ministers, MPs derisively shouted out "They missed the bus!", in reference to a mistimed speech on April 5 1940 when Chamberlain had claimed that "He (Hitler) has missed the bus" and lost the initiative in the war. The Speaker had to call on Members not to interrupt. Later, with Chamberlain again defending Ministers by claiming that those showing confidence were accused of complacency, the cry was heard again, and Chamberlain was forced to defend the phrase directly. He asserted that totalitarian states had prepared for war while the United Kingdom was thinking only of peace, and so he would have expected an attack when the disparity of arms was at its greatest.
Towards the end of his speech Chamberlain announced that Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was to take the additional role of Chairman of the Military Co-ordinating Committee of the Cabinet. Herbert Morrison intervened to ask whether this had been the case during the Norway campaign; Chamberlain replied that it had not, but that Churchill would have had the new powers in any event. At his conclusion Chamberlain stated that it would be better to "occupy ourselves with increasing our war effort rather than disputing about the form of Government". However his attempt to invite the co-operation of MPs from all parties was met with a strong "No, no" from Liberal MP Geoffrey Mander.
- At 4:45 p.m. Chamberlain sat down and Clement Attlee rose to respond as Leader of the Opposition. He paid tribute to the courage of British fighting forces before going on to remind the House of some of Chamberlain's (and Churchill's) previous confident assertions about the likely victory of the British. He characterised the general view as being the enemy "has now put out his head to be hit", which prompted loyal Conservative MP Sir William Davison to shout "It was very badly hit".
- Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, Member of Parliament for the naval town of Portsmouth, attended wearing full uniform and medals and gave a devastating speech attacking the naval conduct of the operation, particularly the Namsos campaign. He said that he dressed in uniform because he wanted to speak for his friends among the fighting sea-going navy, who were very unhappy. It was not the fault of the navy. Leadership of the war effort was the problem. Keyes' speech had a great deal of impact as he was presumed to have inside knowledge, and it is commonly felt that the intervention of Keyes was the beginning of the end for the government of Neville Chamberlain. Harold Nicolson called it the most dramatic speech he had ever heard.
- Prominent Conservative backbencher Leo Amery delivered a fierce attack on his own government, calling for formation of a truly National Government and a small War Cabinet (how the British had successfully organised the conduct of The Great War under Lloyd George) utilising men who can match our enemies in fighting spirit, in daring, in resolution, and in thirst for victory, finishing by turning on the government front bench and using a famous quote from Oliver Cromwell:
You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!
- At the start of the second day's debate, Herbert Morrison declared that the Labour Opposition wished to call for a vote of censure on the Government. Chamberlain, taken unawares, welcomed the chance for a division:
At least I shall see who is with us and who is against us and I call upon my friends to support us in the lobby tonight
I have friends in this House.
- This horrified the House, as it indicated that Chamberlain was taking a personal and partisan view, rather than looking to the interests of the country as a whole. Robert Boothby, the maverick Conservative MP and strong critic of Chamberlain, responded to the latter's claim to have friends in the House by calling out "Not I."
It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister's friends. It is a far bigger issue. … He [Chamberlain] has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership. … I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.
- Lloyd George also chided Churchill for an attempt to parry blame of Chamberlain's government, telling Churchill he "must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues."
- Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) wound up the debate for the government, defending the conduct of the Norwegian campaign with some robustness. He ended his speech by throwing back at Chamberlain's critics the divisive nature of their call for national unity but fully echoing that call
…let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar.
- James, Robert Rhodes, (1971), Robert Boothby: A Portrait of Churchill's Ally, New York, Viking, ISBN 0670828866