HC Deb 25 July 1910 vol 19 cc1881-92

I am told that this is practically the last opportunity which this House will have before the Recess of considering at all that which they have only had a very limited opportunity of considering hitherto, and that is the very grave statement by the Prime Minister a few days ago with regard to our naval strength. I say that advisedly, because the Naval Estimates were only discussed for about five and a half hours one day, and I think there were three Ministers and three ex-Ministers who took part in the discussion. Those, with the speeches of hon. Members who represent dockyard constituencies, on matters no doubt of great importance to them and their constituencies, but hardly of the importance of the Prime Minister's speech, consumed the whole of the time. I feel I should be wanting in my duty if I did not take this opportunity of expressing what I know to be the feeling very strongly felt outside this House, and this is the grave anxiety which has been caused in the country by the speech of the Prime Minister. I refer to what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition called the small, the rapidly diminishing margin of security against probable or even possible risks, which the Prime Minister disclosed last Thursday to this House, and which margin the Prime Minister himself declared has hitherto been maintained by the contention of all parties in the State as essential to public security. We were told about two years ago by a distinguished naval officer that we could go and sleep comfortably in our beds quite safe in the idea that we were properly protected by our Fleet. Within four months of that most comforting and reassuring statement we had that grave warning delivered in this House by the Foreign Secretary in which, undoubtedly, his desire was to rouse his countrymen to some sense of danger that was approaching them. On no other theory could the words of the Foreign Secretary be justified.

Events pass so rapidly, and we get so many urgent questions engaging our attention that even that grave warning has been almost forgotten, although it was delivered less than eighteen months ago on the floor of this House, and although it was of so grave a character that two of our own Dominions beyond the Seas at once cabled spontaneous offers of "Dreadnoughts" to come to the assistance of this country in that which they conceived to be her need. Often as have the words been quoted, I do not think it is at all unnecessary that I should remind the House again of what that warning consisted of, because it is not the vain fears of hon. Gentlemen who want an excessive Navy. The words are those of one of the most responsible Ministers of the Cabinet—the Foreign Secretary—and the warning that he gave to this House and the warning he gave to this country was, that he believed the country was perfectly right to view the situation as grave. He pointed out that a new situation had been created for this country by the German programme; that when the German programme was completed Germany would have the most powerful fleet the world had ever seen, and that that would devolve upon us the necessity of entirely rebuilding the British Navy. What was the effect of the Prime Minister's speech the other day? He pointed out that, although the margin of security of Great Britain was equal to the needs of to-day, step by step, as each twelve months passed, by the end of 1913 or the beginning of 1914, instead of having a fleet equal to those of any other two Powers plus a margin of 10 per cent., which has hitherto been accepted by both parties as the minimum consistent with safety, one nation alone—Germany—would have twenty-one "Dreadnoughts" to our twenty-five. As far as other nations are concerned, they are entitled to build any Navy they think right for their own purposes. It would be impertinence on our part to attempt to dictate to them what they should or should not do; and it would be equal impertinence on their part to attempt to dictate to us what we should consider necessary for our safety.

Our position is on a totally different plane from that of Germany. To Germany the question of a strong Navy is practically a luxury compared to our position. To us a supreme Navy is an absolute necessity of our very existence. To Germany the destruction of her Navy would be an incident in her history, and would not affect her position as a military Power in Europe. To us the destruction or even the weakening of our Navy to such a point as to make it worth the while of any other nation to think of challenging us would be an absolute disaster. When hon. Members speak about saving money upon our Navy, do they realise what it would mean to this country? If any disaster happened to our Navy, do hon. Members suppose that we should get off with a lighter penalty than £1,000,000,000 for the mere permission to continue to exist as a third or fourth-rate Power? The fact is that on this question of a supreme Navy we labour under the difficulty of having on the other side a house divided against itself. We had an extraordinary and perfectly frank admission by the First Lord at the conclusion of his speech the other night; I do not know that sufficient attention was paid to it. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had to rely on the fair sense of the House, for, said he, "I have always to have regard to the two sides at the same time." Our complaint is that ever since they have been in office the Government have been trying to please two antagonistic views on the question and they have not pleased either.

The Prime Minister's speech was a fair example of that. In the course of twenty minutes the right hon. Gentleman expressed diametrically opposite views on the same question. He was arguing about the margin of security, and he said—for the benefit of hon. Members on this side:— When in doubt give the benefit to the margin of safety. That, we are all agreed, is a perfectly sound doctrine. Twenty minutes later the right hon. Gentleman contradicted that, for in working out his margin—as the Leader of the Opposition pointed out—he said:— Whenever there has been a doubt I have given the benefit of the doubt rather in this direction: I have minimised and postponed the dates of the completion of foreign ships; I am trying to put them off as far as I can. As the Leader of the Opposition very truly said, it was the first time in his experience that a, Minister of the Crown, speaking of the naval strength necessary, always puts in his calculations the size of the risk for this country rather than the size of the risk for any foreign country. It has only been by postponing to the most extreme date possible the completion of foreign ships that the Prime Minister is even able to show that in three years time the present margin of our security will have been diminished in a way which we have not known for nearly 100 years. Many as are the grave questions we have to consider, the Constitutional question, the Budget, etc., there is no question which is so grave and none upon which we have a right to feel more deeply concerned than upon this question of our naval security at this moment. We cannot muddle though when our difficulty comes.

Lord Rosebery said, very truly, that in the past somehow or another we had frequently muddled through our troubles by the power of the purse, by the power of endurance, and we had fortunately succeeded where we had been unprepared. In the case of the Navy to be unprepared is to meet certain disaster. The construction of "Dreadnoughts" takes from two years to two years nine months, and inasmuch as, to use the Prime Minister's expression, the critical period will arrive in two or three years, unless we make our preparations now, unless before the close of this Session we insist upon the strengthening of the Navy programme as disclosed by the Prime Minister, it may be too late next year, certainly the year after, to make the preparations which we ought to make to- day. I, for one, hope that sooner or later the House will make up its mind to two things: First of all, to lay down a new policy which shall not necessarily compare with the Navy of any one of single Power or combination of Powers, but which shall say that in the future our naval strength shall be two keels to one against the next strongest Power; secondly, that we shall do as Germany has had to do, have a Naval Loans Bill for the purpose of spreading over a series of years obligations which, for the benefit of posterity as well as our own, we shall have to enter into in order to adequately arm ourselves. I believe, myself, that the weakening of our present margin is due to the weakness in the Government in the first year of office. In response to the pressure brought to bear upon them by a section of their own followers they abandoned the Cawdor programme.

The history of the last four years has been the same. Every three or four months a section of their followers, 100 or 150, have been barking at their heels, and have approached them by memorial or by deputation to impress upon them the necessity of reducing the Naval expenditure, and therefore reducing the margin of our security. The speeches which some members of the Cabinet make are directed to pleasing the Opposition, and the strong Navy men upon their own side and another section make speeches for the purpose of encouraging those who are in favour of the reduction of the Navy and the weakening of our security. The result is that the Government being divided against itself will not only not get continuity of policy but will encourage our rivals to redouble their efforts in order to catch us up. It happened in 1906 with the acceleration of the German programme; it is happening now with the fresh building programme of the Mediterranean Powers. A few days ago we had a solemn warning from an able and a friendly critic of this country, Admiral Mahan, than whom there is no man better qualified to write on such matters. He delivered a solemn warning to this country, pointing out the impression he had got—an impression which is abroad—that England's resolve is breaking in the matter of her naval defence; that our resolve to maintain a position, not of defiance, but of defence of our shores and Empire, is weakening in the minds of our people. He pointed out that if we do not prepare now it would be useless to do so in the day of danger and of battle. I earnestly hope the Government may take their courage in both hands, and inasmuch as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have themselves been the loudest and most prominent in sounding the note of alarm in March last year, that consistently with the policy they then advocated, instead of speaking in this House with whispering humbleness because they have got to increase the Navy, or instead of explaining that nobody can say they are doing too much, as the Prime Minister said when he stated nobody could accuse them of having a bloated programme, or doing more than was absolutely necessary, if they take the tone always taken by men in their position and see if there is to be any risk it shall not be on our side, and if there is to be a margin of security it shall be too much instead of too little, they may rely upon the general support of the country and upon an enormous measure of support in this House.


My views on the subject which has been raised by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down are so entirely and diametrically opposite to his that I think it is due to the House that I should say a few words. I do not stand quite alone. I believe there is a very large amount of opinion in this House in agreement with me rather than with the views of the hon. Member who has spoken. These are the Gentlemen who are leading this country into a dangerous morass. The hon. Member referred to a speech delivered here fifteen months ago, by the Foreign Secretary. I heard that speech and I was very much impressed with it, indeed every hon. Member of this House is always impressed by the speeches of the right hon. Baronet. The House of Commons prostrates itself before the Foreign Secretary. What I remember of that speech is that he told the House that the policy of these enormous naval armaments was leading the country headlong into national bankruptcy, and if it went on unchecked a little longer it would submerge civilisation. I believe that firmly, and I want an arrest of this growth of armaments not only here, but in other countries. I believe it might be accomplished by international friendly agreements.

We are asked in the Bill before the House to appropriate sums of money, unprecedentedly large, towards the Army and the Navy. Nobody in our recent Debates on the Budget referred to the magnitude of the Budget with the exception, I believe, of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bonar Law), and I did feel it was something like "Satan reproving sin." Who are responsible for these vast sums? Hon. Members like the hon. Gentleman who has just addressed us and the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth (Lord Charles Beresford). You must have a big Budget if you vote £70,000,000 for munitions of war. Some hon. Gentlemen who have urged upon us this expenditure object to paying the bill. A week or two ago the whole cry was, "You must have two keels to one, hang the expense; if you cannot pay for it, for heaven's sake borrow the money." That is the argument of the hon. Member who has just spoken, and of the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth, the "Navy Plunger" I would call him. When a dog barks it sets others barking, and so we have the Noble Lord, "The National Review," and "The London Observer" all joining in the same chorus, and a day or two afterwards these same gentlemen object to paying the bill. They squander one day and squeal the next. For my part I would ask the House to brush aside the arguments of the hon. Member, and especially those of the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth. I do not want to speak disrespectfully of so distinguished a man, and of one who makes such interesting speeches to us, but I would not have him or any of the service Members either on this or the other side in the House at all. I do not think they ought to be eligible for our Benches. We do not have paid members of the Board of Trade or of the Post Office here, and I do not see why the paid servants of the Army or Navy ought to be here. At any rate, if they are here I do not think they ought to vote money, part of which they themselves are to receive. I do not in the least object to have members of this House and the wealthy men outside they represent having burdens placed upon them by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suppose I should not be in order to discuss it on this Bill, but it is peculiarly appropriate that the burdens should be laid upon men of property, because it is property that the Navy and Army are principally maintained to protect, and it is inexpressibly mean of hon. Members who propose to put the cost of these services say upon sugar.


The hon. Member said he was not going to speak on that topic.


I must not speak on Tariff Reform, I suppose, but it inevitably crops up owing to the varied observations that fall from my opponents. I shall vote for this Bill, and I will have no part in the swollen expenditure on bloated armaments. Hon. Members opposite laugh, but it is no laughing matter to me. It is contrary to my most cherished convictions, and I am certain it is weakening the allegiance of the supporters of the Government both in this House and in the country.


I want to call the attention of the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies to a matter of very grave moment affecting the commercial prosperity of the West Indies. I refer to the matter of cable communication with the West Indian Islands. There is at present a crying evil, which has increased, which is increasing, and which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree ought to be diminished. I make no complaint whatever, so far as communication up to Jamaica is concerned. The cable service to Jamaica is comparatively reasonable in charge. It costs about 11½d. per word for Press messages, and about 3s. for ordinary messages. It is fairly regular and effective. When we come, however, to the service beyond Jamaica, to Trinidad, to the Barbadoes and to Demerara, the lack of facilities really constitutes a crying public scandal. In the first place, it is the most costly service in comparison with all the other telegraphic services in the world, and in the second place it is inefficient. I have taken the trouble to get out the cable rates to several distant places, and I find the cable rate to Alaska is 2s. 9d. per word, to Australia 2s. 9d., to Japan 4s. 7d., to Argentina 4s. 2d., to New Zealand 2s. 9d., to India is. 10d. or 2s., and to British Guiana it is 7s. a word, and a very inefficient service at that. I really do say that from a commercial point of view the cost at present of that service is outrageously excessive. As to the efficiency of the service. It is liable to, and indeed has, frequent breaks down, and last year for the period of practically a fortnight, in November, all communication between the islands beyond Jamaica with Great Britain was absolutely cut off, that being just the period of the year in British Guiana when the autumn sugar crop is being got in. Such an absolute break of communication between the markets here and the sellers of the produce in British Guiana is a very serious matter, inasmuch as all communications had to be sent by mail, with a consequent delay of nearly three weeks, during which important changes in price might occur on the sugar market, involving a loss of thousands of pounds to the producer. I desire to ask a question with regard to communication between Trinidad and British Guiana by wireless telegraphy. The Government of British Guiana actually entered into a contract with the Wireless Telegraphy Company incurring an outlay of £3,000 a year for five years. So far as my information goes nothing has, however, been done in the matter of actually establishing a wireless service. I do not believe that the imperial solitude of British Guiana has been broken by an electric spark from 1907 to this date. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what has become of this contract, and whether any money has been paid under it. On the general point of cable communication I would urge the right hon. Gentleman to take some immediate action on the lines of the Report prepared by a Departmental Committee of the Colonial Office which sat on this question two years ago. I was instrumental to a certain degree in getting that Departmental Committee appointed, and I want to see something come of it. We have been hammering this point for a considerable number of years. I know the Colonial Office have good-will in the matter. Everybody must recognise that great commercial interests are at stake, and it is a serious matter that these islands should be liable to be absolutely cut off from telegraphic communication with the main ports of the world. It is a serious matter, too, that there should be such absolutely prohibitive rates between the producers and the buyers in the markets. I hope we shall have an assurance that the Colonial Office really intend to move in the matter.

Colonel SEELY

The notice which the hon. Member was kind enough to give me that he intended to raise this question was not sufficiently long to enable me to consult the different authorities concerned, but I have had an opportunity of conversing with the Postmaster-General. We agree it does seem almost ridiculous that whereas the rate to Alaska is only 2s. 9d., that to British Guiana is over 7s. But the difficulty of communication with the West Indian Islands is very great indeed. Though places like British Guiana are of very great importance to the Empire, the needs of telegraphic communication with them as compared with great centres of population like Japan are very small indeed, and the consequence is that the Cable Companies find it excessively difficult to carry on operations at a profit. Still, a good deal has been done. A Committee in which I know the hon. Member took great interest has sat at the Colonial Office, and the late Lord Balfour of Burleigh's Committee interested itself in the matter of communication by cable. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and the Colonial Office are, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, interesting themselves in this question, and will do whatever they can to secure some abatement of the very high charges that have to be paid at present for cablegrams to these remote parts of the world.

My right hon. Friend told me only a moment ago that he believed himself, and the Post Office believed, that the solution would be found in wireless telegraphy, because where you have a very small amount, of messages to send wireless telegraphy is peculiarly adopted to that kind of arrangement. I know from inquiries I have made that in the West Indies wireless communication, if it can only be established on a proper and centralised plan so that there shall be no interference, will be the best solution. I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the point, because of the great importance of this matter to the trade of this country with these islands, and I can promise him that it will not be lost sight of, and we will do our very best to meet his requirements.


I should like to say a word or two about a statement which has been made that our Navy is too large, and it seems to me that some people have not the sense to see that we must have a strong national defence if we are to have a country at all. An hon. Gentleman on this side of the House told us that according to the Prime Minister himself in 1913 we shall have only twenty-five "Dreadnoughts," while Germany alone will have twenty-one. It is not only that, but the Government have told us that up to 1912 we shall only have one dock where a "Dreadnought" can be repaired, and that seems to me to be a very serious matter. I know some hon. Members are impatient to get to bed, but this is the only opportunity we have, or one of the only opportunities we have, of discussing the question of whether we are safe from foreign conquest in this country. I therefore feel justified in pointing out that in the matter of "Dreadnoughts" the position is very unsatisfactory. Our position as to torpedo destroyers is still more unsatisfactory, because it is now admitted that in the matter of ocean-going destroyers, capable of being used effectively in the North Sea, we have not got so many as Germany alone, and without destroyers our battleships and cruisers cannot keep at sea at night in the North Sea. For that reason we are liable certainly to be invaded, and it is perfectly well known that there is no Army for home defence except our regular Army, which may be away at any time. We are in very distinct danger, because our Navy is comparatively smaller than it has ever been in comparison with the rest of the world for the last 100 years. It is all very well for hon. Members to think there is no danger, and that there will never be war. They thought the same just before the Crimean war and the Indian Mutiny. They went so far as to say in those days that even if we were invaded we ought to be so polite and so friendly to our enemies that they would go away of their own accord, apologise for the trouble they had caused, and pay us voluntarily for the damage they had done. We are getting into that state again, and the sooner we get out of it the better, because there is not much doubt that there will be war in the future, and unless we are prepared we shall be knocked down, and once a sea Power is conquered it never recovers. Such is the teaching of history.

If you get foreigners planted in your homes, and you have to cook their food and do as you are told, you will know what invasion means. We are told we must not make a preferential treaty with Canada because the United States will not take it lying down. I suppose we are to take it lying down. We are not even to be allowed to make preferential trading arrangements with our own people because we are likely to offend foreign Powers. That sort of thing appears to me to be altogether wrong. We ought to be able to defend ourselves. The Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us we are building against nightmares. Are we? Does it look like it? Is Germany a nightmare? Cabinet Ministers ought to be a little more careful what they say. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is always against his own countrymen whenever he gets the chance. He told us that our people slaughtered 11,000 children in South Africa. That is not the sort of Cabinet Minister we want. For the preservation of the country we want Cabinet Ministers who will stick up for their own people and their own country. I am afraid that is what we have not got.

The hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) the other day quoted a writer in a German magazine, who told us "that Germany would not stand our having preferential trade arrangements with our colonies." He went on to say "that Germany would be quite willing to take us on if she had only half our strength at sea." Germany will have a great deal more than half our strength at sea. You may depend upon it that force of circumstances will, as it has always done in the past, compel Germany to expand. She has got to expand against some one. We are nearest. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] We are the nearest people who have got no Army. It is perfectly true that France is nearer, but she has got a great Army and we have practically none. The huge majority of our people are perfectly helpless. Even some of the Territorial Force we hear so much about have not handled a military rifle out of doors on an open range. The great majority of our people do not pretend to be of any use to defend their country. Under present conditions we are drifting to destruction just as every other nation has drifted to destruction in the past whose sons have neglected to prepare themselves to defend their country. We are either too idle or too cowardly to learn to defend our country in time of national danger. The Under-Secretary for the Colonies has been a soldier, and is supposed to know something about it, but he is sitting there laughing. A most extraordinary thing is that when you get even a soldier firmly settled on the Radical Front Bench he never takes any notice about the safety of his country. Hon. Gentlemen on the opposite side of the House ought to try to be patriots as well as Liberals.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the third time." put, and agreed to; Bill read the third time, and passed.

Forward to