HC Deb 21 April 1909 vol 3 cc1599-639

Mr. F. W. JOWETT called attention to the Question of the immunity of merchant vessels in time of war, and moved: "That, in the opinion of this House, it should be a principle of naval warfare that enemy merchant vessels, other than carriers of contraband, should be immune from capture."

I should have been myself far better pleased if the privilege of moving this Resolution had fallen to the lot of some Member of the House to whom the subject is more familiar than it is to me, but the fortunes of the ballot ordered otherwise, and, as the subject itself is one of very great importance, which, in the opinion of a great many Members of the House ought to be duly considered and put to the vote, I have no option but to accept the duty when I have got the chance to do so. Many of us think that it is to the interest of all countries that private trade should be undisturbed by hostilities between nations, and if it be the interest of other countries, Continental or otherwise, it is most certainly, as we think, the interest of this country that commerce should be immune from capture during the time of war. The present position of private commerce is somewhat affected advantageously by the recent conference, which took place in London, and which has resulted in defining to some extent what is contraband of war, and in establishing prize courts to determine the various classes of goods and the various articles of commerce which should be carried in neutral vessels, without doubt and beyond dispute, immune from capture. But outside of the scope of that conference there is the general question of commerce carried in neutral vessels between nations which are at war with each other, and the present position, as I understand it, is that all ships of an enemy nation, and all enemy goods therein contained, are liable to capture and liable to destruction by either of the belligerent States. The United States, Germany, Russia, and Italy have all at various times during the past 50 years signified that they are ready to render all such commerce immune from capture, but unfortunately Great Britain has been hostile to the opinion of many of the other great States in respect to private commerce at sea. Hence we are in this position to-day that if Great Britain were at war with a Continental State our tremendous interests in commerce would be at stake, and, in my opinion—I offer that opinion with all due reservation—we should suffer more than any other State which happened to be at war with us. No State, I imagine, has more to gain than Great Britain by freedom of commerce in time of war. In the case of any Continental nation, such a nation would be able to obtain its food supplies by rail through the agency of its neighbouring States, but Great Britain, as an island nation, is almost entirely at the mercy of foreign countries as regards its food supplies especially. Eighty per cent. of our wheat, 40 per cent. of our meat, 60 per cent. of our bacon, 50 per cent. of our cheese, and 70 per cent. of our butter are imported from places oversea. Moreover, nearly half of the merchant tonnage of the world is British, and hence our risks in the event of war would be very great indeed. The whole of our foreign trade would be in jeopardy. Our food supplies would also most likely be curtailed, and in any event the tremendous risk that ships would run carrying our food supplies would send up prices to such an extent as would involve tremendous privation on the part of the poorer classes among our population. I do not think it would be too much to say that the greatest risk we would run in time of war would be through the interference with our food supplies. We are to such an enormous extent dependent on outside sources that the mere risk attaching to the transit of these food supplies would send up prices to such an extent that the very poor in many cases would be unable to afford to buy food in sufficient quantities. For these reasons it appears to me we, of all nations in the world, have most to gain by a change in our national policy, and by agreeing to the undoubted wishes of some other very powerful States of Europe, and also to the well-known wishes of the United States of America, and rendering once for all commerce immune from all danger during time of war.

Also I would submit that the question of the risk of having our importation of Taw materials seriously diminished in war time is another and a great reason for making this change and coming to agreement on this subject. All the cotton that we use is imported. Most of the wool used in our textile factories is also imported. If in addition to the immense prices which would certainly ensue after an outbreak of hostilities in which this country is concerned we have to face the curtailment of trade and the standing of our machinery, and the consequent throwing out of employment of immense numbers of our people, the misery produced -would be intensified to a very great degree. I understand the Foreign Secretary objects to this change because, in the first place, I gather that in his previous speech he remarked, by way of objection, that Germany did not indicate that its policy in regard to armaments would be in any way affected by any change in the direction of rendering commerce immune from capture. In regard to that may I observe that our well-known hostility to this change may be accountable for the fact that Germany has not pressed the proposal in any way upon the Foreign Secretary himself, and as the Foreign Secretary has himself remarked, in speeches made on the floor of this House, it is not the practice of big nations to make proposals which they have reason to know beforehand will not meet with acceptance. Therefore I cannot see that it is for us to make any such objection.

The advance under existing conditions, it appears to me, should come from ourselves, because our objection to this course has been perfectly well known. I also understand that the Foreign Secretary objects because he thinks that it will have the effect of decreasing our advantage as a naval power if we limit the war merely to the conflict between States and decline to bring in commerce, and to make attacks on the enemy's ships other than warships. But I think we should examine that reason very closely and realise fully what the Foreign Secretary implies by making that objection. He implies, if I understand rightly, this, that he intends to keep an advantage over all foreign Powers by means of a big fleet. Then in that case what else could we expect but that Germany and other nations who see what underlies that argument will themselves feel that they ought to have a big fleet to match ours and protect their commerce? And in that way it seems clear that by the argument which the Foreign Secretary himself has used other nations must inevitably be led to increase their armaments and to increase the number of their battleships in order to preserve their commerce, which is as dear to them as our commerce is to us. And in that way it would appear that by maintaining this position we render the possibility of decreasing the armaments of various nations of the world much more remote than it would have otherwise beet and on that account I move this Resolution.

I believ that if this House by its vote shows that it is of opinion that private commerce should be excluded from the area of strife in the case of war, and if the Government will give expression to that view, provided the House accepts this, as I hope it will—if the Government would give expression to that view by making advances to other Powers I am quite certain we should bring nearer the time when we could look with far less concern on foreign nations than we can do to-day. I should certainly appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to distinguish his term of office by bringing about this great reform, and all the security that would De implied by it. The period of office of the last Government was signalised—and I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has had all the credit due to him on this account—by the reference of what might have been a very grave dispute between ourselves and Russia to The Hague Tribunal. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to the respect and thanks of all for that fact, and I should like to appeal once more to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to signalise his term of office by bringing about this reform, in favour of which I have now pleasure in moving a Resolution.


Though I would have preferred that others more thoroughly acquainted with the technicalities of the Question should have introduced it to the notice of the House, all will admit that the Question is one of pre-eminent importance, and one which we are perfectly justified in bringing forward in this Resolution. I think that this House and the country generally is viewing with great apprehension the great and ever-increasing growth of expenditure on armaments of war. We find the more we spend the greater the pace that is being set, and as the right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary stated in the previous Debate, unless some means are devised whereby an arrangement may be come to, and this expenditure checked, some nations must ultimately find themselves in bankruptcy. Unfortunately, we find that the greater our expenditure, and the wider the provision made for war, the less secure do this and other nations feel in the matter. We claim to be constantly striving for security, but nevertheless, that security is constantly eluding us, and we find ourselves -to-day, despite enormously increased expenditure, feeling no safer than we have hitherto done. The result is that the immediate outlook offers no great hope for diminishing expenditure; rather it is that the growing demands for "Dreadnoughts" will have to be interpreted by the poor of the country as one of the reasons why nothing can be done on behalf of social betterment. I might be permitted here to interpolate that we on tin's side of the House hold—and I believe the view is shared by a considerable number of Members on the other side—that, Although this increased expenditure may be persisted in. we cannot accept it as a reason why schemes of social reform should, be arrested.

I am pleased to be associated with this Resolution, because, in my opinion, it is the most hopeful thing yet suggested whereby an understanding may be reached between the nations and the expenditure on warlike preparations diminished. There is no denying the fact, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend, that the other great nations of the world endorse the principle contained in this Resolution. It has been stated by responsible Ministers in the German Reichstag, and also by the German Delegation to the Hague Conference, that that nation is perfectly prepared to embrace the principle of the inviolability of private commerce during time of war. We may full well understand that other nations have similar circumstances to encounter to those with which we are confronted in our own land. Un- doubtedly the German people are very much afraid of the tremendous strength of our Navy. Some Gentlemen may deem this to be a desirable thing; but, for my part, I see in it the genesis of this race between Germany and ourselves in warlike expenditure. If I be correct in stating that the German nation is fearful lest we should use our tremendous strength for the purpose of removing her commerce from the sea, I feel that if we could come to an understanding on the lines of this Resolution, we should perhaps establish a sound reason for a diminution of this wasteful expenditure. We have the assurance of German Ministers that their naval programme is not designed as an aggressive force against this or any other country, but rather to act as a check upon the possible aggression of other nations. But, unhappily, in this country the relations between the two nations have been inflamed and passions have been embittered by an unfortunate agitation within our own shores. I know that certain German people are inclined to place our naval policy in conjunction with this agitation. Some of them are imbued with the fear that we may have designs to cripple the strength of the German nation, and certainly they are now familiar with the fact that some portions of our community have designs with regard to their commerce. Unfortunately Germany has been placed before us for several years past as a great commercial hegemony, and undoubtedly that has reflected itself in the naval preparations that are being made and into which we are being led.

The Foreign Secretary is well known to have been opposed hitherto to the proposal contained in this Resolution. I do not know whether recent events have had the effect of modifying his view, but I trust we shall learn from the right hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the proceedings to-night that the Government have an open mind on the matter, that they are prepared to leave the question to the consideration of the House, and to be guided by the decision come to thereon. Personally, I have felt that it is a very unfortunate thing that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs should have issued such definite instructions to the British delegates to The Hague Conference in opposition to the proposal of the immunity of commerce in time of war. He acknowledged in those instructions arguments could be adduced in favour thereof; he even admitted that it might be decidedly advantageous for this nation in time of war, and he has supplemented those declarations by definite pronouncements in this House. Such being the case, I submit that it ill becomes anybody to say that we have heard no whisper that the German naval policy might be modified if we submitted this proposal for Germany's consideration. The fact is, as I have read in different publications, this country has barred the door against Germany and other nations in the matter, and we cannot reasonably expect that they should now be prepared to come forward and make the proposition afresh to us. Rather I think it is for us, if we are convinced of its justice and desirability, to reopen the whole question, with a view to a more satisfactory understanding being attained. I feel, with my hon. Friend who submitted the Motion, that if we abandoned this aggressive weapon of the right of commerce destruction we should give to our naval supremacy a purely defensive character. At present our Navy is viewed very largely from the aggressive standpoint by the powers that be. We on these Benches have sometimes been charged with being "little Navy" men. For my own part, and I believe I may speak on behalf of my colleagues, we fully recognise the necessity for this country to have a strong Navy. We have never advocated the reduction of the strength of the Navy in a way likely to diminish its effectiveness, unless it is possible for an international understanding to be attained. We hope that Germany may be induced to recognise the fact that our being an island nation renders it imperative that we should have a large Navy, just as we in turn ought to be prepared to recognise that Germany's peculiar position on the Continent makes it a natural corollary that she should have a formidable Army. Nevertheless, I feel that unless we are prepared to go into this matter willing to give fair consideration to the subject, and willing also to make some concession, we cannot hope that any agreement may be entered into. If we go, as was the case at The Hague Conference, with a determination to maintain the status quo, we may rely upon it that no understanding will ever be reached between civilised nations, and that this race of expenditure upon armaments must continue until the nations are forced to give up the struggle because of their inability to bear the financial burden.

I feel with my hon. Friend, after all this nation should look at this matter and understand that in time of war the probability is that our commerce might suffer as much as that of other nations. We find that Germany and other nations are now emulating our example in shipbuilding, and therefore we have to face the inevitable fact that other nations will be powerful enough to menace our commerce. Just as we retain the option of capturing commerce at sea, so it is they will be able to retaliate at sea. Hitherto we have made this amelioration of war impossible. We do not yet know that Germany will be unwilling to enter into an arrangement with us on the question. On the other hand, we do know full well that when German Ministers have expressed themselves it has been in favour of this proposal. This, in our opinion, affords the only immediately practicable proposal whereby a desirable limitation of armaments might be effected and peace established on an abiding footing between the nations. At The Hague Conference, speaking upon the American proposal, one of the German representatives said that Germany had always been in favour of the abolition of capture, and that Germany would be prepared to co-operate in securing the immunity of private property at sea. It is well known that by the actual voting strength at that Conference a resolution in favour of the immunity of capture of commerce at sea was carried by a substantial majority. But, unfortunately, this country was in the position of opposition.

We submit that the time is ripe when we may very justly revise our policy, recognising in it a desirable principle and one likely to take us in the direction that I believe the majority of the Members of this House desire that is an understanding, and, if possible, a diminution of expenditure on warlike preparations. This proposal, if carried into effect, would only assimilate the principle of naval struggle to that of battle on land. We find that it is a generally accepted principle of warfare to-day, and we feel, if we are to be logical, we should carry into our naval struggle the embracing principle of this resolution. Furthermore, we have to recognise that the sea is the natural means of communication between the peoples, that it is open to the inhabitants of every nation, and can never, even in the most indirect way, ever become the exclusive and private property of any one nation. That seems to me to be a powerful argument in favour of the proposal that we are submitting to the House.

I fully recognised, when I associated myself with this Resolution, that the question of contraband would be one requiring grave consideration. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the progress that had taken place in the consideration of this question in recent times, and the understanding which has just been entered into, has greatly simplified this question, and, I believe, made it more possible and much more practicable for the wider adjustment to be made. I may, in conclusion, appeal to this House on the broad principle of the desirability of peace between the nations. We must get rid of the idea that the only form we can requisition for the purpose of adjusting differences between nations is that of force. We mean to habituate the world to the idea of friendly negotiation and peaceful arbitration of those differences that even diplomacy has failed to solve. It is true this question of international understanding has previously baffled, and, we might say lowered, the self-respect of the peoples of the world; but as we sit here from day to day we cannot help feeling that the utteraces and sentiments of certain Members of this House towards a friendly people like Germany is a most undesirable thing. Here we have some people obsessed with the idea that war with Germany is inevitable, and yet we believe that the German people, like ourselves, desire to live in peace. It is true this characteristic is not new. Scare is ever following scare. The greater the force we build up, so it is that other nations are induced to follow, and we have to keep adding soldier after soldier, ship after ship, constantly racing against each other for a security which, as I have previously stated, is always illusory and vanishing.

Some people affect to believe that war is a glorious thing. In my own view the tawdry triumphs of war block the paths of progress and turn constructive energy into a devastating force. It is often stated that the views of those on these benches are Utopian in character, although it may be that the things we are advocating to-night are not immediately possible of realisation; nevertheless I believe they meet with the response in the hearts of the German people. Although our proposal may seem to be Utopian, I believe it will be one of the accepted truths ere we are much older. I feel that a proposal of this sort can only be made by a nation like ours. I am one of those who believe our nation is invincible. We can afford to make such a proposition to Germany and the other nations of the world. I trust it will be so accepted to-night, that we may say to Germany and those other nations that we in this country are desirous henceforth of marching in the front ranks of peace, amity and concord. I have great pleasure in seconding.


I very naturally, as a shipowner, approach this Resolution with a good deal of sympathy. Nobody I think will be altogether insensible to the advantages of a proposal which is intended to give greater security to his own property, and, therefore, at any rate from the point of view of personal interest I naturally have a great deal of sympathy with this resolution. I feel as strongly as do the hon. Members who proposed and seconded the resolution the great importance of doing everything we possibly can to secure a limitation of the cost of armaments. I am one of those who regard all wars as entirely objectionable. No method of warfare whatever can be regarded by sensible men as a reasonable means of settling disputes. I should like to draw the attention of the House, however, to he fact that the particular method of warfare which it is proposed to get rid of is by no means the most inhuman of those employed. For instance, it is not to be compared as regards inhumanity and downright cruelty with the method of floating mines, which, as we know in the case of the Russo-Japanese War, resulted in the death of a great many perfectly innocent people who were carrying on a lawful business 100 miles away from the seat of the war, and who in no way whatever interfered in that war. That is a method of warfare which destroys absolutely innocent people, and is really one of the most brutal things it is possible to conceive. Before turning to the special matter dealt with by the Resolution, as I see two representatives of the Admiralty present, I should like to urge that if the right of capture is to be exercised it should be exercised solely and entirely for international purposes, and that it should not be a means by which officers could make prize money out of it. It should not be a means of increasing their income. There have been occasions in our history where I believe military operations have been postponed because some of the officers concerned thought it would be very much more profitable to their own pockets if they captured the enemies' merchant property. I would seriously suggest that it be made perfectly clear that there should be no question of the private advantage of naval officers arising out of the capture of the enemy's private property at sea, but that it should be solely and entirely exercised with a view to the public advantage. It is commonly admitted by all parties that England is bound to keep a Navy sufficiently strong to protect her shores from invasion, and also to protect the communications of the Empire from the attacks of the enemy. I do not think on these two points there is any difference of opinion between any sections of the community. I believe it is an object which every member of the community has at heart. It surely follows from this that if we are to protect the internal communications of the Empire, because the internal communications of the Empire are on the seas, we have got to have a sufficiently ample force to prevent any trading vessel engaged in carrying on the trade of the Empire from being interfered with in time of war. Turning to the Resolution, I would draw the attention of the House to this proviso: "other than carriers of contraband." I would respectfully submit that the adoption of that phrase, so far as British commerce is concerned, would be of very little value at all. I am a shipowner engaged in the trade of the Far East. We scarcely ever send a steamer out of Liverpool which has not got on board a certain quantity of goods that are the property of the Government. They are being taken to the Straits Settlements or to Hong Kong in connection with the construction of railways or similar undertakings, and I would further remind the House that the increase in the number of these undertakings and railways by the Government in our self-governing Colonies leads to there always being on board merchant vessels trading with those self-governing Colonies a considerable amount of property which is really that of the Government, not merely the property of the War Office or the Admiralty, but the property of the Government. That presents a conundrum which I believe is not easy to answer, so that it is extremely difficult to lay down that property belonging to the Government could possibly be regarded by the enemy as otherwise than contraband of war. It seems to me that it is absolutely necessary that we should have a sufficient force at sea to prevent the capture of those ships which are possibly carrying goods which are the property of the Government, and which may be considered contraband of war. It is quite true that a ship may be taken to the prize court and the small quantity of Government stores taken out of it, and it is quite possible that on appeal to The Hague Tribunal the shipowner would get his property back. That may be all right and well so far as the ship owner is concerned, but that is not what the nation requires. The nation does not, after all, care very much for the individual ship owner and his interests; what the nation wants is the use of his ship, and if it is hung up at a port abroad for months the national loss will be very great while all this is going on. Therefore I would suggest that the words "other than carriers of contraband" would make it seriously doubtful whether a proposal framed in those terms would be of any real value to us. I suggest that it would be absolutely necessary for us to maintain a force sufficient to protect our ships against any form of capture. If we are to maintain our national independence, if we are to wage war successfully, we are bound to maintain a sufficient force at sea to enable us to protect our merchant shipping against risk of capture; otherwise, in case of war, we should have in a very few days or a very few weeks to make peace on the earliest possible occasion. Let me point out the case of Germany. I have not got Germany on the brain; but you have only to look at the map of Europe to see for yourselves that the right to capture private property at sea gives us, if we have a sufficiently strong Navy to prevent ourselves from being invaded by Germany, automatically gives us the power to capture the whole of their commerce. On the other hand, unless they are in a position to invade this country, it will be practically impossible for the German navy to capture a single British ship, so long as these make up their minds to sail from the ports on the West coast of this country. Take, again, the right of capture by France. It would be a very valuable thing to France if their navy is anything like as strong as ours. They would be able to do a very great deal of mischief at sea. Therefore, we are right in saying that this is a privilege in war, which, as regards certain enemies, would be of great value, and as regards others would not be of so great a value. On the whole, the right of capture is probably, so far as I can judge, of great advantage, from a military point of view, to the British nation. That being so, as the British have to protect their own property, and, being lovers of peace, it seems to me that the proper way in which we ought to approach this question is to approach it as a matter of bargain. We have got a custom, a right of war, that is of considerable value. I hate all the customs of war. I shall be very glad to get rid of all of them. I know that there is a very strong idea that if we were to consent to this abolition of capture at sea, that we would secure a reduction of armaments from Germany. Supposing it is possible to obtain a reduction of armaments from Germany on the basis of giving up the right of capturing private property at sea, I, for my part, say at once that the Government should attempt to make a "deal" on the subject. It ought to be the subject of a "deal." I should very much like to have from the representatives of the Government an explicit declaration that they regard this as a valuable privilege, as, I think, it is, and that they are prepared to bargain it away in exchange for some other consideration as regards warlike matters which would be of value to us. I do not myself very much believe in the probability of a great European war. In spite of everything that has happened, I still think that the statesmen who manage the affairs of great European countries have too much sense to allow such a catastrophe as a European war, and to embroil us all in the needless shedding of blood, and the destruction of treasure, over disputes which have no real substance or ground in them. I think, perhaps, a very important thing under these circumstances is to secure a more satisfactory position for neutrals. I should like to suggest that it should be made perfectly plain and obvious that the British Government is prepared to make a "deal"' with regard to the privileges and rights of belligerents. It would be a mistake to give up privileges or rights which are of very considerable value, and which are advantageous to us, unless we are going to get in exchange concessions of similar value.


The last speaker has told us that he is a ship owner. He has approached this matter exactly from the ship owner's point of view. He objects to this Resolution, inasmuch as it does not go far enough—because it renders ships carrying contraband still subject to capture, fie considers that injurious to British merchant ships who happen to have contraband on board. I am not a ship owner. If I were I should not have thought it proper to approach this subject from such a point of view as that of any particular interest. I think we ought to be guided in a matter of this kind by the general considerations affecting humanity, and the interests of our country as a whole, and not deal, or be supposed to deal, with it in a partial or mercenary spirit. I have listened very carefully to the reasons given by the members of the Labour party who moved and supported this Resolution. I agree with a great deal of what they have said. I agree that it would be a very good thing if we could avoid war altogether. Failing that, we can do something—as much as we possibly can—to diminish the area of war, and mitigate its horrors. So far as the Resolution which they proposed does that, if it were practicable, I should heartily agree with it. But in a matter of this kind we cannot be guided entirely by theory. We live in a world of fact, not theory. If I may say so, with great respect, the members of the Labour party in this House, in dealing with matters of this kind, seem to live in a world of ideals. They imagine, or seem to imagine, that all nations are wanting to live together in peace and harmony. They ignore altogether international strife, ambitions, and jealousies between nations, and the natural desire of the strong to prey upon the weak and the rich. We cannot shut our eyes to that fact. We know that Europe at the present time is one vast armed camp, and that the power of this nation is simply its power at sea. We have never pretended to be a military nation. We are a great maritime and naval nation. All our power rests on the sea. Our Empire, our prosperity, our very existence, depends upon the maintenance of our command of the sea. Therefore, I think, from the theoretical point of view, these proposals may have an advantage; yet at the same time if they give away the only weapon of defence which we possess in a case of war, it is obvious that we would be left perfectly helpless. That, I take it, being the case, in the event of a war with a foreign country, what can we do? We can do nothing. At present, we can injure our enemy of harassing him at sea, by block ading his ports, by destroying his commerce, by cutting off his communication between the Mother Country and the Colonies. That is the only way in which you can bring a war to a close. That is the only provision to induce another nation to make peace with us. That is the great deterrent to prevent foreign nations engaging in war with us. It is because we know, and that they know, that this country has been, and is, omnipotent upon the sea, and has the power of destroying their commerce, and doing them other injury of a similar character in time of war, that they are anxious to keep the peace with us. Therefore, I rather doubt even from a humanitarian point of view whether the taking away of this power of capture at sea would tend to shorten a war or whether it would not rather tend to lengthen the war and to prevent it coming to a conclusion very speedily. What is the position in case of blockade? There is nothing in this Resolution about blockade. Is the power reserved to capture vessels by blockade or not? We must look at this matter from the different standpoints of this country. I think, if I may say so to some hon. Members, it is rather unwise to bring in the case of Germany. I do not think we should allude to any particular instances in discussions of this kind. But suppose we were engaged in war with a great Continental Power what would we do? We should advance upon the enemy's ports, seal up her ports, blockade them, and keep her ships there, or else attack them when they came out to sea and destroy them. Suppose we were to blockade the ports of a foreign country, what becomes of the right of capture, is it to be exercised or not? It seems to me it must be exercised because how can we refrain from capturing foreign vessels who are at war with us at sea and another time blockade its ports. The two things are inconsistent, and, therefore, I take it that the meaning of the reference to blockaded ships is intended to put an end to blockade, and if it does end all blockade it will put an end to the power of this country to do anything. It would deprive her of her only defensive weapon. There is one more reason why I feel compelled to object to this Resolution. There is no means of enforcing it. People may meet at The Hague and elsewhere and pass rules of international law. Who is to order the carrying out of rules of international law? Who is to see them obeyed? We have had a very significant instance within the last few weeks of the slight respect which was paid by a great Power to the Treaty of Berlin. We have seen that Power willing to deviate from the Treaty of Berlin, and we have seen that it has been allowed to do so by the other contracting Powers. If we were engaged in war with another belligerent and these rules were in force what is to prevent that belligerent departing from these rules and attacking the commerce of this country? I see nothing to prevent that from being done, and if it is done what course is there to compel that other nation to obey these rules and to carry out that policy? Therefore, it seems to me in the present condition of things it would be exceedingly unwise for this country to make any departure of this kind. We may all hope that in the future it may be possible to do something more in the direction indicated in the Resolution. At present it seems to me that our best resort is to maintain the traditional policy of this country to maintain a strong and powerful Navy, and to make sure of the protection of our commerce, our Colonies, and the shores of these islands. At the present time it would be a mistake to give up the only power we have as against our neighbours.


While I sympathise with those who moved and seconded this Resolution in the conclusion they wished the House to come to, I do not myself take the view that these considerations which they particularly emphasised are those which are really of the first importance in justifying the Resolution they put forward. They dwelt, and, of course, very powerfully dwelt, and very naturally dwelt, upon the desirability of reducing naval armaments, the expenditure upon them, and the waste thereby incurred. As it seems to me this is a Resolution which really is not directed, and has no immediate bearing, upon that question, but is a Resolution, which, I am sure, will be recognised by all who have considered the subject carefully, as one on which much might be said upon one side and the other. It is only quite incidentally it bears upon the question of the expenditure on armaments. Another observation made in the course of the Debate by my hon. Friend on this side of the House, who said he was a ship owner, was that this particular practice of the capture of the enemy's merchant vessels in time of war was a practice which was, comparatively speaking, humane. That is quite true, but it is not upon any ground of humanity that the proposal was put forward. There is a third consideration mentioned by the hon. Member who spoke last. I am not quite sure whether he realised it, but if we really were to accept the argument he puts forward, then the account we give of ourselves and the justification we put forward for our Navy is exceedingly fallacious and illusory. The First Lord of the Admiralty the other day told us that the object of the British Navy was to protect the shores of this country and Empire, and to protect our communications and to protect our commerce. If we believe what is said just now the real object of the British Navy is to attack other people's commerce. That may or may not be the truth, but if it is the truth it is worse than stupid to assure foreign nations, through their diplomatic representatives, that the object for which we keep the great British Navy is a peaceful object. The real connection between the proposal embodied in this Resolution and the expenditure on the British Navy is this: While it is very likely that the legitimate demand of that great service will continue to be supreme and continue to be very high, and while as far as I am concerned, in supporting this Resolution, I do not seek to encroach upon the expenditure upon the Navy, on the other hand if we show ourselves willing to accept the proposition laid down in this Resolution, we show our good faith and we show that the object for which we acquire and insist upon an 'n-vulnerable Navy is a peaceful object. Now I venture to think that it is desirable to approach the argument in favour of this proposal from rather a different point of view. It is the point of view touched upon by my hon. Friend who spoke upon this side, and who discussed what I conceive to be the real and immediate question—namely, Is it of advantage to this country to persist, contrary to the opinion of most of the civilised Powers of the world, in maintaining this right of capture of private property at sea? He stated that you only had to look at the map to see that this proposal was to the advantage of this country. Personally, I very much doubt it. Certainly the argument that it is not to the advantage of this country one may put forward with some confidence, and expect the Government to treat it with some consideration, because it has been put forward by no less an authority than the present Lord Chancellor in a letter which he wrote to "The Times" newspaper. In that letter he put forward arguments which certainly I have' not heard answered, and which it is desirable to have dealt with if they can be answered. Upon looking at the map the first thing that you must observe is that England is an island, whilst the great countries of this world other than our own and Japan who have great navies and commerce are not islands. Consequently their means of getting provisions do not depend to anything like the same extent on the use of the sea as is necessarily the case in this country. That is the first and overwhelming fact to be observed if anyone looks at the map.

Now what does all this involve? Assume the most favourable set of circumstances to this country. I will assume that we succeed in keeping complete command, in the first place, of the sea; and in the second place that we succeed in completely blocking the ingress or egress of the commerce, of some great continental power. That is assuming everything in our own favour, and that is the utmost we can do. After we have done all this what is the position if we insist upon preserving this principle? 'You cannot stop railways running into-Germany, and you cannot stop neutral vessels carrying provisions to Germany. You cannot stop communications with Germany from other countries in Europe, such as Holland and Belgium, although it is quite true that you may for a time inconvenience, and materially inconvenience, the ordinary methods by which such a country as Germany obtains supplies. But when you have effected that temporary inconvenience that is the utmost you can do by maintaining this principle. That is assuming everything goes in a most favourable way in this country. It is assuming that we succeed in maintaining everywhere the command of the sea and in maintaining an effective and continuous blocking of the enemies coast line.

But let us look at the other side. Whatever may be the case with a Continental Power, whatever may be, the opportunities which Germany, France, Austria, or Spain may have of getting provisions by other means, we cannot get provisions unless we get them by sea, and unless we get them we starve. We cannot get the raw materials for our industries unless we get them by sea. The hon. Member who moved this Resolution pointed out what an enormous proportion of our food supplies and raw material must come to us over sea, and must come to this country by that one route. When you contrast a country which is an island with a great Continental nation which has land frontiers, can it be right to say that you have only to look at the map and say that it is all to the advan- tage of this country to maintain the principle that you can always capture commerce on the sea when you cannot make a similar attack upon a citizen's property on land, merely because he happens to be an alien.

It is a fact that we boast even in these free trade times of the fact that this country is easily the paramount country in the mercantile marine of the world. Our mercantile marine is supposed to be twice as great as that of the United States, and five times as great as that of Germany, and if there is anything which has been demonstrated by the recent inquiry into our food supply in time of war, it is that we cannot count in the event of a European war upon the services of our Navy in any overwhelming fashion for the protection of our food supply, because our Navy will have other work to do, which is more immediately and properly national. Therefore the extent of the inconvenience which we are able to inflict upon our opponents by preserving this principle is necessarily limited, and the immense amount of our own merchant shipping as compared with our enemy's makes the risk of its being interfered with infinitely greater. The risk we run is greater, and the consequences to us are far more serious.

The principle which it is suggested we should maintain may have had at an earlier stage a good justification in the national interests, but it has not got that justification now for a different reason, which never existed before. Does the House realise the enormous ramifications of modern commercial insurance? Those hon. Members who are acquainted with Lloyd's are aware that in the City of London is undertaken not merely the underwriting of British ships and cargoes but also foreign ships and foreign cargoes. Now, what is actually involved in maintaining this archaic principle? First, you tax the British taxpayer to build a commerce destroyer. You send it out, and it destroys the commerce in question, and when you have done it the owners of that commerce underwritten with British underwriters turn round and ask to be compensated. I am not unfamiliar with the answer which is sometimes attempted to meet that difficulty. The first answer is a technical lawyer's answer, and it is not, therefore, of any great substance. It is that by the law of this land an enemy who loses his property is not entitled to turn to an Englishman in an English court, and compel that Englishman to compensate him. That is the principle so long as the war is going on, but whether it is the principle after the war I confess I have some doubt. Does anyone mean to tell me that if we announced to the world, if we announced to the German mercantile service that if they insure with an English underwriter we shall repudiate our obligations in time of war and take advantage of that to say we are not going to pay, would that be fair and in the interests of commerce? In those circumstances, I do suggest that the remedy suggested by my hon. Friend above the Gangway is not one which is going to produce the conclusion he suggests.

Look again at the map of Europe, and consider the circumstances of our commerce. If you do you will see that the consideration which ought to guide you is that we have far more to lose because we have far more to risk on the sea. Again, we are more vulnerable because we are surrounded by the sea, and our connection with international insurance is such as to make the preservation of this principle little less than absurd. When the Foreign' Secretary intervened last year he suggested, on the spur of the moment, an answer to this difficulty of insurance. I shall be interested to see whether the First Lord of the Admiralty repeats that answer to-night. The answer given by the right hon. Baronet supposed that a foreign merchantman was captured by a British ironclad in the course of a war between this and a foreign country. It may be that the foreign merchantman is insured with an English underwriter. It may be that he will make his claim and that the underwriter would pay, but it may be said that the things which the foreign merchants have lost have not been destroyed, but only forfeited. They will be in the hands of the British Government and will be handed back. Amongst other disadvantages it may be that it will pay British underwriters to insure foreign cargo rather than English cargoes. The result will be that any underwriter who insured foreign cargo could afford to snap his finger, but if so imprudent as to insure an English ship which was captured he could not afford to do that. The conditions of the ramifications of modern mercantile practise go to show that the time has gone by for insisting upon this proposal. There is another argument. It is said it is all very well to make these pious resolutions, but when you come to a disastrous naval war all these self-denying ordinances will go by the board. It was true enough that in Napoleonic times to make a bargain with the other nations of Europe we had to preserve the safety of the private commerce of the enemy. It was fair enough to say that the bargain thus made was a bargain that might not be carried out. The seas at that period were little patrolled, and the means of knowing what was going on was very slight. There was, for instance, no wire-less telegraphy, and the chance of a vessel being destroyed without explanation was much greater than now. Under modern conditions you keep your eye on the merchantman on the sea, and it is fair to say that it is just as difficult for a foreign nation to take advantage of its opportunity of breaking this law at sea as it is for a foreign nation to take advantage of opportunities of breaking such a rule upon land. It may be said, "What is the good of making proposals of this sort when no overtures are made by other nations?" Undoubtedly that would be a good criticism if it were well founded. What is the history of this matter? With the exception of England and France, the civilised world has for years been demanding this change. The United States has been doing so for fifty years. The United States declined to accept a partial change trending in the same direction because the United States said they required further sacrifice at the time of the Declaration of Paris, which was negotiated in 1856, and it was France and this country that pressed the proposal.

It may be said, "You ought not to give this up until you get an exchange." That is not the way to deal with this matter. If it is to the interests of this country to make this change let it be made. It is said that our Navy is provided for pacific and defensive purposes. The present Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of the Admiralty, and the late Secretary for the Colonies have spoken on this subject, and there has been a surprising unanimity in favour of this change taking place. The mass of shipowners, and certainly the great majority of the chambers of commerce, have urged this change on the Government. While I admit that there may be great International considerations they do not entitle any one to speak with contempt of proposals which have so large a backing. We should deal with the question from a common-sense and businesslike view. If it should result in a reduction of armaments so much the better. Let us see if it is not possible to make this change, which is earnestly desired by this country, as the greatest commercial Power in the world.


The hon. Member who addressed the House just now said if it could be shown to be of benefit to this country to make the change, "let us make it by all means." Everybody in the House agrees with that very admirable sentiment, but the point is: Will it be to the benefit of this country to make this change? Having listened very carefully to this Debate, and having given some attention to this subject, I prefer to adopt the ideas of the hon. Gentleman opposite when he said:— Undoubtedly in this right of capture of private property at sea we possess an advantage which we should only give up after careful consideration, and after we have assured ourselves that in return for it we are to have some substantial advantage from other people. The hon. Member opposite very properly said that if you look at the map of Europe you cannot help feeling that it is a great right to capture vessels at sea. With that I concur. To my mind, this right of capture of private property at sea is not only a great advantage to us after war has begun, but it acts as a deterrent to any other country declaring war against us. Take the case of Germany—the most apt case at the present time. If the affairs of Europe were at any time in such a position that their was a possibility of war between this country and Germany, Germany would proceed to count the cost of failure and the chances of success. Germany would say to herself: "What is in it, things being what they are? What do we stand to lose in case this war goes against us?" And she would reckon up all her vast maritime commerce which she has at present, and which is growing year by year, and she would know that if she went to war with us and was unsuccessful she would lose practically all the commerce between Germany and America, and on the East Coast of Africa, and neary all over the world—that she would lose that commerce which, at tremendous cost to herself, she had built up. Germany or any other nation similarly situated would think very seriously and for a very long time before she would undertake to go to war with us. Therefore I submit that the right which we possess at present to capture private property at sea, which has such a deterrent effect upon a nation before she de- clares war on this country, is a right which it would be extremely foolish for us to give up. If we give up this right during the time of war what would be our position in regard to a country like Germany? Germany would say at once: "Here we are; we have got a navy nearly as great as that of Great Britain"—I am assuming a state of affairs in which the German navy would be nearly as great as that of our own—an assumption which I do not think as things are going on at present is very outrageous. At any rate, let us for the sake of argument look at Germany. Germany has a navy approximating to our own, and she will count the cost before going to war. and she will say: "Supposing we go to war with Great Britain and Great Britain gets the better of us—what is to happen?" and she will reckon the possible result. As things stand, after war had been proceeding for six months, if peace were again declared, Germany would not be one penny the worse as far as her maritime power is concerned, except so far as a blockade might interfere with ships entering some parts. I say it is a very great right which we are asked to give up. What are we to get in return for it? It is said that by giving up this right we should ensure that raw material and food supplies would be given free entry in this country. After all, that is not of very great importance, because if we were by any chance defeated at sea, and were dependent upon the food supplies and raw material which comes in, this is absolutely of no avail. Under present circumstances if we were defeated it sea, we should be starved out. It seems to me that once we were defeated at sea we should be finally vanquished, either by starvation or by actual defeat by the enemies' troops landing on our shores. Now the hon. Member who introduced this motion in a speech which I listened to with great attention while I disagreed with a great deal of what he said, observed that it was in the interests of all countries that private property should be immune from capture in time of war, and it was especially of advantage to this country. He then said that the United States, Italy, Russia, and other countries have given their adhesion to this idea. Of course they have. But I submit that they have done so for the reason that it would have for them great advantage, and, under these circumstances, it is not much to be wondered at that these nations are ready to get rid of one of the most serious menaces to them in the time of war. Another hon. Member said that a great nation like Great Britain could afford to make this sacrifice or experiment. I must enter my protest against that. It is true that we are a great nation, but solely and simply because we have, by centuries of hard work and hard fighting, got ourselves into that position. We have got ourselves into the position of being supreme on the sea. I contend that we, as a House of Commons, must not allow humanitarian or sentimental ideas to enter into our discussions at all. We are the representatives of the people here, and our first duty is to defend the country and to maintain it in the position handed down to us by our forefathers, and it would be a grave dereliction of duty if we gave that advantage up without being assured that in so doing we should gain in its place something that would be advantageous to us. and compensate us for giving it up. I trust that the representative of the Government who is going to speak will take up a firm position on this question, and that he will resist all clamour in the way of sentimental and humanitarian ideas, and that he will stick to the right that we have possessed for so long, and which I am convinced has before now been of great advantage to us, and which, I am perfectly certain, will be advantageous to us in the future.

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. McKenna)

I hope my hon. Friends who have supported this motion with conspicuous ability will believe me when I say that I approach the consideration of this subject with an absolutely open mind, except so far as I have a predisposition in, favour of the motion. But I have to consider it from the point of view of naval strategy, and from that point of view I wish to offer a few observations to the House. My hon. Friends who moved and seconded the motion argued, if I understood them rightly, upon the basis that we should be giving up something of value to ourselves if we accepted the motion, but we might exchange this something of value for the fullest consideration in the reduction of armaments. I will deal with that view before I close, and certainly so far as the Government is concerned, I may say it is a view with which the Government are in complete sympathy. But the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow was entirely different. His argument was that it is our interest to give up the right of capture of the enemies' private property at sea in time of war, and that we are standing in our own interest when we refuse to do so. My hon. and learned Friend supported the argument with very convincing strength, but I regret to say that my study of the question from the naval side has not led me to the same conclusion as himself. He stated the case in the following terms. He said, suppose the very best circumstances for this country when we are at war, that we have complete command of the sea and that we are able to put a stop to the whole trade carried on in bottoms of the enemy, we still, he said, could not do them much more than inconvenience, we could not destroy their trade, and they would still be supplied, unless they were an island like ourselves, from overland; though we could injure them we could not inflict a vital blow. On the other hand, he said, in the case of this country, which is an island, in which we can only be supplied from oversea, if a similar condition against us existed we must be starved. Therefore he concluded, from that statement of the case, that it was to our advantage to give up the right of capture of enemies' property at sea.

My hon. Friend has, I think, not appreciated the case. It is quite true that if the enemy had command of the sea against us, and we abandoned the right of capture of private property at sea, and that abandonment was respected by the enemy, that our ships would still come and go to our ports; but if the enemy had command of the sea there is a second way of destroying this country, and that is if it be invaded by an army in overwhelming force—an army which we have not the means of meeting, and I hope shall not attempt to meet by any conscript force of our own, so that we should be absolutely at the mercy of the enemy by invasion. The case is not therefore fully stated by my hon. Friend. We require in our own interest the right of capture of the enemies' property at sea as a method of warfare. I am rather in a difficulty here, because if I expatiate upon the advantage of such a method to us my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow may retort upon me, "Is that the purpose for which you require the British Navy; to destroy foreign commerce?" If that is to be his reply I am left without recourse in stating the purpose of the British Navy in case of war, except to say that assuredly the purpose of the British Navy in case of war is to make war. Then I am, I think, justi- fied in claiming, in spite of the argument of my hon. Friend, that though we should endeavour to destroy the enemies commerce in the event of war, nevertheless the purpose of the British Navy has been a pacific purpose, and I appeal not to the declarations of Ministers or Members of this House, but I appeal to the record of the British Navy for the last 80 years, during which period I think the Navy has been predominant in Europe. It has never been exercised upon a European Power, and I say that upon that record we are entitled to be judged as regards the purpose of the Navy. If this country is engaged in war, we have to consider what means we have got of carrying that war to a successful conclusion, and what means we have of bringing about peace. My hon. Friend treats the interruption of the enemy's commerce oversea in a somewhat light manner, but I can assure the House it would be no light matter. There is no great modern European nation which has not got a more or less extensive seaboard, and which is not largely dependent upon oversea commerce, and all European nations are more and more becoming dependent for the supply of their raw materials upon oversea trade. They are becoming more and more manufacturing nations, and consequently the injury to any one of them from obstruction of their oversea trade is becoming more and more serious. I recognise in consequence the undeniable feeling which may exist in foreign countries for the protection of their oversea trade; but, that being the fact, it cannot be disputed that it is a great engine of power in the hands of Great Britain, so long as her Navy is supreme, that she can interfere with foreign trade. It has been contended that our claim to the right of the capture of an enemy's ships and cargo was a right dictated by some piratical instinct. Whatever it may have been in the past that is not true to-day. The sole underlying principle of the right of capture of an enemy's property at sea is to hamper and obstruct their trade. It is said that in this respect naval warfare is conducted on an entirely different principle from land warfare. There is no justification whatever for that statement. The moment you compare the conditions of warfare on sea and on land you will see the reason for my statement. In the case of land warfare an invading army claims and exercises the right to close the roads and holds the railways. That is to say, by effective occupation of all the means of com- munication an invading army prevents the trade of the country which is invaded. It stops the communications. There is no need for an invading Army to attack property in order to effect its object, because it can hold the roads. But what is the position in naval warfare? The sea is open, and it would be impossible to close it. It is a great highway. It is open on every side, and every part of it is an open road. If you wish to close it against an enemy your only means of doing it is to say to the enemy: "If you use that road and we capture you we will confiscate your property." It is not a means of piratically acquiring foreign booty. It is a means of hampering and closing communications.

Ought this nation in its own interest and without any consideration of compensating advantages to give up this power which it can exercise, so long as it has a predominant Navy, of hampering oversea trade? There are those who, like myself, deprecate all wars and the occasions for all wars who would be only too glad to see all international disputes settled on the same terms as disputes are settled in our own country, by process of law or by friendly arrangement. I assume we are all agreed upon that point. But at any rate, we must all be agreed that that is not the condition of the world at this moment, and it is only in relation to the condition of the world at this moment that this Motion has any bearing. We know in the case of a dispute in our own country nine times out of ten plaintiff and defendant enter into court each thoroughly convinced of the merits of his own case, believing that his adversary is in the wrong and that he is entitled to enforce his claim right up to the highest tribunal. It is the same with nations. Nine times out of ten nations enter into war each believing that it has a just claim which it has no other means of enforcing and that it is entitled in the last resort to appeal to the only tribunal for the enforcement of those rights. We must contemplate the possibility of wars, whether it be for the enforcement of our just claims, for the fulfilment of our trade obligations, or for the defence of our rights. We have to consider the possibility of a just war in which we may be engaged, which we ought to fight to a conclusion and which we are bound to exercise all our power to bring to a successful issue. Supposing at this moment, in the present state of the world's armaments, both by land and by sea, we have abandoned this right and, putting the case only as a hypothetical consideration, imagine us at war with a great European Power. Our Navy we will suppose is predominant. The enemy, recognising the predominance of our Navy, will keep their own ships in port. We shall, in the amusing description of the hon. Member for Tyneside, have a sort of war conducted for an indefinite period, in which no harm would be done on either side. The enemy's trade would be conducted peacefully in their own ships at our ports, as if we were not in a state of war. We shall have constantly to maintain our whole fleet in a continued state of preparedness, because if ever we were caught napping, we could be invaded. This state of warfare, in which the enemy could suffer nothing, might go on indefinitely, although our risks of an invasion would be continuing the whole time. My hon. Friend treated that, in his very amusing account, as a kind of warfare to which he did not much object. But I am supposing a case in which we are at war for the enforcement of a right we are morally bound to enforce, a treaty obligation to which we have put our hands, or the defence of some colony or possession which we are bound to defend. Are we then willingly to strike a weapon out of our own hands, and leave us in a position to carry on a sort of war in which we can do no harm, and in which we run all the risks of ultimately being invaded if ever, through some mischance or another, our Navy for an indefinite period is unable to keep a hostile Navy perpetually bottled up? That is a condition which, under present conditions, this nation ought not to be asked to face with equanimity. We ought to welcome most warmly the state of international feeling in which there was a greater prospect of disarmament, a greater prospect of the settlement of international disputes by arbitration; but so long as things are as they are at this moment we should be depriving ourselves of a weapon without the slightest compensation.

So much for consideration of this question from the point of view whether or no it is to our interest to maintain the right of capture of property at sea. Let me refer for a moment to the light in which it was regarded by my hon. Friends who moved and seconded the Motion. Their argument was this: Cannot the abandonment of this right be made the basis of an agreement for the reduction of armaments? I think that in this respect no sufficient attention has been given to the instructions to our delegates at The Hague Conference. These instructions have been frequently quoted for the strength of the argument they contain against the abandonment of this principle, but they have not been noticed in so far as they convey the idea that if the question of disarmament was under consideration this Government would then be prepared to reconsider its attitude on the subject of the capture of private property. Let me read to the House one paragraph of these instructions, and I think, after I have read it, my hon. Friends will agree with me that the Government have not taken up a non-possumus or obstructive attitude on this question. Paragraph 21 runs:— You should, however, raise no objection to the discussion of this question of immunity from capture at the Conference, nor should you refuse to participate in it, nor need yon necessarily take the initiative in opposing a Resolution if brought forward. If at some future date the great continental armies were to be diminished, and other changes favourable to the diminution of armaments were to take place, the British Government might be able to reconsider the question. If, for instance, nations generally were willing to diminish their armaments, naval and military, to an extent which would materially relieve them from the apprehension of the consequences of war, and by rendering aggression difficult would make war itself improbable; and if it became apparent that such a change could be brought about by an agreement to secure this immunity from capture at sea under all circumstances, and was dependent upon it, the British Government might feel that the risks they would run by adhering to such an agreement and the objections in principle now to be urged against would be outweighed by the general gain and relief which such a change would bring. But at the present time they are unable to assent to a Resolution which might, under existing conditions, so limit the prospective liability of war as to remove some of the considerations which now restrain public opinion from contemplating it, and might, after the outbreak of war, tend to prolong it. There the argument is stated in a most popular form in a document which has been published to the world. In the instructions to our delegates themselves the Government say they are prepared to reconsider this question if it is to be made the pivot upon which a reduction of armaments is to turn, provided that we can be assured that we shall have some gain commensurate with what we should give up—the gain of the guarantee of general peace, the gain of the guarantee of the promotion of the general interests. I assure my hon. Friends who moved and seconded the Motion that with this assurance the Government would be most willing to consider this question, but until that time comes I certainly beg the House not to hamper the hands of the Government by passing the Resolution, which, at this moment, without any guarantee of a reduction of armaments, would be most materially disadvantageous to us in the event of war, and which, when the right was once given up, would leave us without the lever to obtain that reduction of armaments which both my hon. Friends and myself are entirely of one mind in wishing for. Therefore I cannot help submitting to the judgment of the House that we should be better advised—believing, as I do, that the great majority of the House are of one mind on the subject as to the interest which we have in the maintenance of this claim of right—to leave things as they stand for the present and keep this claim of right in reserve as an instrument of bargaining should opportunity ever arise for a general reduction of the armaments of the world.


After the very able speech of my right hon. Friend I am somewhat in doubt as to the position of the Government in regard to this Resolution. He has quoted a passage from the Letter of Instruction to our representative at The Hague Conference, the purport of which seemed to be that if only a millennium began the Government would be disposed to consider this proposition—that is to say, the paragraph specifies such a comprehensive and sweeping modification of armaments, not merely naval, but military armaments, land as well as sea, that it seems to set up a set of conditions, as the only conditions in which the Government would be favourably disposed to act, as to seem to put the matter outside practical politics altogether. But I understood the right hon. Gentleman earlier to indicate sympathy with the view of the Motion in so far as the Mover and Seconder suggested in their very persuasive and reasonable speeches that you might use a concession of this sort as a means of getting agreement as to merely naval limitation. I do not think we have a right to raise or suggest any further conditions or stipulations than that in this particular connection. The arguments of the Mover and Seconder were something to this effect—and I think the right hon. Gentlemen's speech entirely bears them out—that the particular naval armament is an armament designed to protect them from those very menaces that the right hon. Gentleman's speech shows to be constantly in existence. Nothing can be clearer than his admission. It is not to defend commerce. He practically took up the position of the hon. Member opposite, who argued that the British Navy existed for the purpose of destroying other people's commerce.


No. I absolutely repudiate any such statement. I said that the history of 80 years shows that there is not the slightest foundation for suggesting that the British Navy has ever been anything but an instrument of peace.


I quite recognise that my right hon. Friend tried to take up the two positions, but they are incompatible. If you really think you must maintain the right of capture of commerce at sea in time of war because the destruction—he used the term: I suppose it was through inadvertence—because the capture of the enemy's commerce is one of the most effective ways of making war, you cannot at the same time take up the position that you only maintain the Navy for the purposes of peace. Let us take the case the right hon. Gentleman quoted. We may go to war in some circumstances in which what we are doing is maintaining some of our treaty obligations, and for the purpose of carrying out our treaty obligations we need a great Navy in order to be able to smash the commerce and stop the supplies of any Power with which we are at war. Will he deny that this vivid description is the fullest justification to the German people for maintaining as big a navy as they possibly can? I think that that is involved in his speech, and I hope that he will not repudiate that particular inference from it. Are not the Mover and Seconder of the Motion justified in saying that if you indicate to the world—as you would by carrying this Resolution—that you recognise in their navies an armament for defensive purposes, if you suggest the possibility of any such concession as this, you are taking the most effective step to induce those Powers voluntarily to limit their armaments? There is one point in the powerful speech of my hon. Friend of which I should like to make a qualification. He said that the Resolution only incidentally bore on the question of the armaments of other Powers, I should like to substitute for the word "incidentally" the word "fundamentally," because this fact emerges from the whole discussion—namely, that the German Navy, which is the object present to the consciousness of the people at the present time, is a Navy justified in the terms of our own admissions by the danger that our Navy sets up to the German people. If we take a step which will remove that danger to their commerce in the future, is there not the strongest ground for expecting that that Power will voluntarily and, I do not say instantaneously, but speedily take steps for the reduction of its naval armament? That is as reasonable an inference as can be drawn. The hon. Member for Hexham suggested that there might be some bargaining done. You may very well bargain on the ground that contraband shall be defined in such a way as to leave our food supply absolutely safe, and you may also make an end of the argument about provisional contraband. You can bargain to that extent. But nothing in the right hon. Gentleman's speech, after all, met this argument—that the danger we run in time of war would be removed by carrying such a Resolution as this if it were accepted by the other Powers. The right hon. Gentleman evaded or avoided that point altogether. It is within the knowledge of everyone in this country that the kind of propaganda which sustains the demand for an ever-creasing Navy is a propaganda largely carried on outside by such organisations as the Navy League. The Navy League during the last few days has been sending round a circular urging a variety of reasons for maintaining a huge Navy; and one of the grounds most reiterated is the necessity of protecting our huge commerce and defending it in time of war. If you came to such an arrangement as is here suggested all these pleas for a vast Navy would be withdrawn on our side, and the situation would be altered all round. The standing motive for large armaments would be taken away from both the Great Powers now competing, and we might hope for a great improvement in the situation. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs lately thought fit to say that those of us who raised debates on this point were wasting time. But the right hon. Gentleman himself has admitted that the question at stake is one of the swamping of civilisation—that if no limit is placed upon these armaments civilisation will go under. I do not think it can be suggested that we are wasting time when we are suggesting a way out of that danger. I have heard nothing to-night to countervail the considerations implied in such an admission as that. The hon. Member opposite suggested—and here the right hon. Gentleman was apparently in agreement with him—that if we gave up this right other nations, would be more ready to go to war. More ready to go to war for what? Commerce is one of the main grounds for going to war, and if you have made it impossible to steal or to attack each other's commerce in this fashion you have actually removed one of the main grounds for war in the modern world. The right hon. Gentleman seems to think, however, that the carrying out of some of our treaty obligations is a consideration that outweighs anything of that kind. It is difficult to know exactly what treaty obligations he has in view, but one might suggest as a corollary that it might be well to look for your treaty obligations in the future on a new basis; and if you find that the securing of the peace of the world will affect some of the treaty obligations you have incurred in the past, it might be worth while considering whether it would not be better to abandon those treaty obligations, and not make such treaty obligations in the future. Those who suggest that Powers would go to war in a wanton fashion, and be far more ready to fight than before, rather overlook the fact that the modern navy is a very costly thing indeed. These "Dreadnoughts," about which we hear so much, cost £2,000,000 at least. And one hon. Member said that if a nation would not smash up commerce it would have nothing else to do. Is there not the glorious task of destroying each other? Would not the loss of a modern navy be a consideration just sufficient to withhold any nation from going to war, if any consideration could?

It appears to be taken for granted in a matter of this sort we can inflict so much damage on the enemy's commerce, and on that ground the right hon. Gentleman, in a speech which was very able, generally, made out a very strong case. His argument as to the dependence of other Powers on raw material is an argument of considerable force. But raw material can be brought in a variety of ways. It can be carried in neutral ships. The right hon. Gentleman has forgotten all this, and that we would suffer most as belligerents. The Powers which we might be at war with could get their raw material overland and in a way in which we would not be able to interfere with it, so that his argument as to that is not at all conclusive. I do not think it is necessary to discuss what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham as to the comparative humanity of this particular mode of warfare. I think that the whole discussion arose from a misinterpretation by the Foreign Secretary of a certain historical phrase about the "methods of barbarism." The word "barbarism" does not mean methods of cruelty, and it was in a different sense it was used. Methods of barbarism are the methods used by ancient powers, such as Babylonia and Assyria, who devastated a lot of the territory of the people they were making war with. This is also a "method of barbarism" in the sense that is a resort to methods of barbarous peoples in times of war. I quite grant the contention of the right hon. Gentleman that we should not be injuring the commerce of the enemy with the purpose of the old barbarians. I would remind him that the loss to the commerce of this country in naval wars has always been more than that of the commerce of the enemy. In the great wars with France, on the authority of Captain Mahon, our loss was much greater than that of France, and our commerce suffered enormously more than theirs.

I would earnestly ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether he has not, in taking up an attitude of opposition to this Resolution, lost an opportunity to do something for arresting this process, which, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, will ere long "swamp civilisation"? It is all very well for the Government to tell us that they could not accept such a Resoution, but why not do so in some conditional fashion and show that they associated themselves with the idea, and not go the length of the extraordinary paragraph which the right hon. Gentleman read from the instructions sent to our representatives at The Hague. If the Government would accept this Resolution they might even get certain security from the definition of contraband. I confess I agree with those who deprecate bargaining; but to get the Government to take really some helpful step I should be ready to make some concessions, and the action of the Government in accepting a Resolution even with some conditions would do something for the peace of the world.


It has been my unhappy fortune during the last few weeks to be in conflict with the Admiralty, and. therefore, I am only too glad on this occasion to heartily support the stand taken up by the right hon. Gentleman opposite in opposing this Motion. But I must confess that I was surprised when he said that he approached this subject with a per- fectly open mind. In view of the fact that the mind of the Government had apparently been closed upon it for a very long time, and when we had the very emphatic speech of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in a previous Debate, and the instructions given to the delegates at The Hague Conference, I think it was strange that the First Lord of the Admiralty should approach this matter with an absolutely open mind. But we gather from his further remarks that whatever his previous view may have been, he has learned wisdom at the Admiralty, and that his mind is now very satisfactorily closed. In the last passage of his speech he did say that the Government will retain an open mind in the event of its being possible for us to make a deal with our great Continental neighbours in the direction of a reduction of armaments. But our chief naval rival on the Continent has made it perfectly plain that they are not prepared under any circumstances to consider a reduction of armaments, and therefore we should only be exposing ourselves to humiliation if we endeavoured to raise that question in connection with this matter. Our attitude with regard to this question—and when I say our "attitude" I mean the official attitude of the Opposition, for I am not sure that I myself absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walton—the attitude which the late Government always took in this House in regard to this question is absolutely on the lines now taken up by the Admiralty, and certainly nothing has arisen lately, so far as we know, to justify any change in that attitude on our part.

Several speakers this evening have based their objections to this system of exposing merchant shipping to capture in time of war upon minor inconveniences which are necessarily incidental to war—inconveniences to this or that industry, to the shipping industry, to the insurance interest, and so forth; but while there is something perhaps to be said for all those arguments, the national interest it is perfectly clear, in my opinion, must prevail. I think the hon. Member for Walthamstow in his very interesting speech said that, after all, the line which we took with regard to this question was not dictated solely by humanity. Of course, that is perfectly true, but it is dictated by considerations of humanity in this one thing, and that is we believe that by maintaining this right of capture we were clearly reducing the chances of war. I do not think that we on this side of the House yield to any one in our desire to avoid war if possible. ["Oh!"] I am surprised that any hon. Member can be found to express doubt as to that desire on our part. But we support the action of the Government in this respect, because we believe that if this Motion were accepted, so far from its having effect in the direction desired by the Mover and Seconder, that of promoting humanity, it would have the direct effect of increasing the chances of war, because if shipping is immune, then, as has been most clearly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, and, indeed, corroborated by the First Lord of the Admiralty, there would be little or no risk of Continental Powers engaging in hostilities against us. Therefore what is at the bottom of our policy is that since that risk would be incurred in war against us by any Power, it would not be in the interests of that Power to make war against us. We oppose the Motion also, because of the military and naval interests of the nation. I think the First Lord of the Admiralty has dealt with that point very adequately. He has shown, in the unhappy event of war, that if this power is taken away from us we practically have no power of either waging war effectively or, at any rate, of bringing the war to a conclusion, and that leaves our enemy blocked up in his own ports, behind his fortifications. Meanwhile, our own fleet, which must be engaged in endeavouring to maintain the blockade, is exposed to the necessary risks of lying off the enemy's coast; risks by mine, torpedo attack, and so forth. Really, then, we on our side are exposed to the serious losses of the ships of our fleet, whilst unable to inflict any injury whatever on the enemy with whom we are engaged. Then we have had the specious argument that if this immunity to merchant vessels were granted we should be able to reduce our Navy. That is based upon a fallacious idea, that our Navy is only maintained in order to protect our merchant shipping. This is only a subsidiary purpose. Our Navy is maintained to preserve our country inviolable under all circumstances—in the event of the breaking of treaties, or any combination of hostile Powers against us, with or without provocation. That is the function of the British Navy. When we are met with the arguments, I think, of the Member for Tyneside, that other nations may claim that our Navy is intended for aggression against them, then we know—as the First Lord of the Admiralty has stated—we have proved, by 80 or 100 years of example, that our Navy never has been, and never will be used, in my belief, for purposes of aggression against any foreign Power, and that we maintain it simply because we believe it is necessary for our continued existence as a nation and for the peace of the world. If other Powers refuse to believe that argument, if the argument that we feel so strongly does not appeal to them, then it is not our business to endeavour to convince them by reducing our Navy, or to handicap ourselves in any other way in order to show our sincerity. Our own consciences in this matter are perfectly clear, and that ought to suffice us. I think the object of our Navy is to preserve the integrity and safety of the Empire, and to preserve the interests of the Empire as a whole; not merely to safeguard the comparatively smaller interests which have been spoken of by hon. Members to-night. It is because we think that if this Motion were accepted by the Government, that we should be giving up not only one of the greatest safeguards for peace which we possess at present, but also giving up almost our only effective weapon in case of war, that we on these benches heartily support the Admiralty in the attitude they have taken up, and if the Motion is pressed to a Division we shall support the Government.


In this Debate I do not desire to trespass upon the time of the House at any length which will make it impossible to take the sense of the House in a Division on the very important subject which has been raised from below the Gangway. It has been said with perfect truth that this is not a Debate which in the main is determined by party lines. And if, as a comparatively young Member of the House, I may venture to say so, it is one of those debates in which the House of Commons is, or may be, seen at its best, simply for the reason that it is not necessary to advance arguments or to pronounce a decision upon strict party lines. It is well known that I am not in entire agreement with the contention which my hon. Friend, who sits in my company professes with so much ability, as to the relative strength of this country as compared with other countries.

It is certainly equally true that I find myself in complete disagreement with the views which are held on that point by the hon. Member for Tyneside. I confess after having considered this subject with some care for 15 years, I have seen no cause to vary the clear and definite opinion at which I have arrived after considering this question in the interests of this country, and not pretending to consider it in the interests of any other country, we lose more than we gain—that is the only question—by the maintenance of the present system. I do not admit the value of the humanitarian argument. I believe the practice of the capture of private property at sea whatever objection it may be exposed to, the least objection is that based upon the humanitarian argument. I approach this question from one point of view, and one only, and that is what is in the best interests of this country to which we all belong. Considering it from that point of view, and as the inquiry in existing circumstances makes a comparison necessary of the effects of the policy upon the great nation of Germany and ourselves, I desire to studiously avoid as far as I can any provocative language or any language that may be misunderstood, and so I will devote the few moments at my disposal to considering what is the effect of this practice from the point of view of national interests, first of all in the case of Germany, and secondly in the case of ourselves.

What is this right on which we still insist jealously of the capture of private property at sea? What is the limit of the possible mischief which the maintenance of that practice inflicts upon Germany? Now it has been explained, and, as far as I gathered, it is not seriously disputed in the course of this and previous Debates, that, suppose to-morrow war should most unfortunately break out between this country and Germany, the position of this country, having a predominant Navy and the right of capture of private property at sea would enable us to inflict serious inconvenience on Germany. It is certainly not proper for anyone discussing this question to ignore the possible mischief we could inflict upon Germany. I think it is very important that this House should realise, and with a due sense of proportion, what the extent of that mischief is. It was at one time a very serious mischief indeed, because, before the signature of the Declaration of Paris, we were at liberty, if any commerce was being sent to German ports, whether or not that commerce was carried in German ships, to seize and interfere with that commerce Before the Declaration of Paris, and as long as this country possessed the power of interfering with imports into Germany, whether carried in German bottoms or neutral bottoms, it was an effective and a powerful weapon, but the moment we assented, rightly or wrongly, to that provision of the Declaration of Paris which made German imports immune, provided they were carried in neutral bottoms, from that moment we gave up all that was really most worth having as a weapon against Germany. What would happen to-morrow if war broke out between this country and Germany? We have been told these weapons are in our hands. If war broke out between us and Germany two things would happen. In the last 100 years, as everyone knows, there has been an enormous development of the possible means of land transit open to Germany; and the second point is there would be a rapid transfer of the German carrying trade from German bottoms to neutral bottoms, and the moment they were transferred to neutral bottoms we should not be able to injure them, and the only loss Germany would sustain would be the loss on the trade transferred from German to the neutral bottoms. But my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham used the argument, and it was repeated by the First Lord of the Admiralty, that this great weapon lies in our hands to-day to prevent a cruel war. If I thought we possessed in the maintenance of this principle a really effective weapon, I should certainly never be found voting against its maintenance, but what is the extent of the efficacy of this weapon? We are told that the knowledge on the part of Germany that we could destroy her commerce would prevent her entering upon an aggressive war. I have heard during the last few weeks hon. Members explaining to the House of Commons and to the country how many "Dreadnoughts" Germany would possess in four, five, and seven years. Each of them is going to cost £2,000,000, and can any nation give a greater guarantee for abstinence from an aggressive war than that? The mere fact that there is risk of their tonnage, whether in the case of vessels of war or marine, is of itself a certain reason why no nation will engage in an aggressive war; but if you have 20 German "Dreadnoughts" which you can destroy if you have the two-Power standard you have no additional reason to secure you from war in the fact that the mercantile marine may be kept in harbour. The argument that we have a security for peace in this liability of foreign vessels with me has very little weight.

But there is a far more important argument, which I think is worthy of the attention of the House, and it is one which goes to the whole root of the extent of our naval provision at the present time. I have never concealed my view that I am in favour of the two-Power standard without any qualification whatever in its most extreme form, and I include every single Power. What is the position taken up to-day by the Government and by my hon. Friend who spoke in front of me? They gay we are face to face with the great German nation. The Foreign Secretary said the other day that Germany has never come to this country and coupled the request for the abandonment of this practice with any proposals for disarmament. It is quite true that Germany has never done so, but it is also true that no single German spokesman who has made himself the mouthpiece of the German nation, in dealing with German naval expansion, has omitted to mention in the forefront of the objects which make it necessary to preserve a great German Navy the protection of German commerce. If I were a member of that great, virile, and progressive nation I would never be content as long as a foreign Power maintained the right of destroying our commerce until I had a navy which would make it impossible for that foreign Power to destroy our commerce. The power of the British Navy is not aggressive. In the same breath and the same speech the First Lord of the Admiralty and my hon. Friend say that the power of the British Navy is not aggressive and that we can destroy the commerce of any nation in the world. One argument may be good, but you cannot have the two arguments. If we can go to Germany and say to her: "We have abandoned this practice: we ask you, having no longer to fear the destruction of your commerce, to treat your navy now as being on a different basis," and if, in spite of that, Germany still built "Dreadnoughts," the position of this country would be a very different one from what it is at present. As long as Germany builds "Dreadnoughts" to protect her commerce, then, as a German, I would approve of that policy; but then, in an opposite sense, as an Englishman, I say that if we withdrew from this right of destroying the commerce of our rivals in case of a war, and if in the face of that withdrawal Germany continued to expand her naval power, I would regard that as being done for the purpose of aggression, and regretfully, and with infinite melancholy, I would shrink from no sacrifice, believing that we were at a crisis identical with the crisis of the Napoleonic period. Until we have made that offer we are not entitled even to feel surprise that a nation of the strength of Germany is entitled to protect her mercantile marine as you are entitled to protect your mercantile marine. These are not the doctrines of Liberalism, but of common-sense, and I hope that the House of Commons, by a free and unfettered vote, will place the question in a clear and distinct position. If Germany, having no menace to her commerce, still challenges our supremacy, then I would shrink from no sacrifice in the face of such a European development.


I have been taken by surprise by the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman. Coming as it does from a member of the Conservative party, it is the most surprising that this House has heard for many years. [Cries of "Divide."] He actually advised Germany to increase her "Dreadnoughts." because he said—[Cries of "Divide."]

And, it being after Eleven of the clock and objection being taken to further Proceeding, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.