HC Deb 07 August 1912 vol 41 cc3281-4

There are one or two occasions on which a man may in this House express opinions with reference to matters on which he may not find many followers. Motions for the Adjournment of the House provide opportunities when that can be done, and I ask the indulgence of hon. Members while I lay my views before them on a subject regarding which I have long thought and upon which I have come to a conclusion. I wish to impress on the House, as far as I can, and on the public, the immense advantage it would be in the cause of peace and in the interest of the poor if our foreign policy were absolutely open and straightforward, and if all treaties entered into between this country and foreign Powers were laid on the Table of the House for ratification. I will not enter into the arguments which I have frequently put before the House in reference to this, but I would say that these views have been powerfully enforced by the recent explanations given on behalf of the Imperial Committee of Defence, and likewise by the exposition given a few days ago by the Prime Minister as to the effect and value of conferences on Foreign Affairs between the Prime Minister of this country and the Prime Ministers of our Dominions and Colonies. I do not know any way by which the pre- sent system can be logically defended. The statement is utterly unanswerable when I say that it is wrong on the face of it to allege that theoretically this House has discussed every line of a Bill regarding some matter of which it knows nothing whatever, but which may involve international obligations. I have stated, and I believe it to be a fact, that if Parliament had had full cognisance of the circumstances before the South African war, that war would never have taken place. I have been in this House for a quarter of a century, and as a student of history the conclusion I have come to is that wars are not the work of the people of the countries which engage in them, but are the work of five or six individuals, and that they generally owe their origin not entirely remote from the Stock Exchanges of the countries. That being so, and when we recollect that over the face of Europe the working classes are not as a rule disposed to war, I cannot help thinking that if we had the exposition of foreign policy before the House, we should have fewer wars and fewer rumours of wars. It is perfectly plain that if the people were fully possessed of the facts as they ought to be, the whole tenour of foreign policy would be altered. But these Debates on Foreign Office Votes very properly, of course, turn on individual cases and the relations between this country and different foreign Powers, and, of course, the chief object of the discussions is criticism of the Government and of Government action. I have got no criticism whatever to make except favourable criticism in reference to the present Foreign Secretary. I think, having regard to the difficulties of the situation, he is really the very best Foreign Secretary we have ever had, and it is a great advance that we have had a Foreign Secretary who has held the office without interruption for a greater period than any other Foreign Secretary since the Rform Bill, and that we have him in this House instead of the House of Lords. It is likewise a very great advance, for the communication of knowledge of foreign policy to the people, that we have in this House not only the Foreign Secretary but likewise the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and that both of them, as far as they can, and so far as the practice of the Foreign Office allows, have been very anxious to take the people into their confidence.

But something more is wanted. This House, which controls the Executive Government, should likewise have some control over its foreign policy. At present it has none whatever. I am not speaking without authority upon this point. In Mr. Bryce's book upon the American Commonwealth, he speaks of the power of the Senate over foreign treaties, and says that the time will probably come when a voice will be raised against the all but unlimited control of our Executive Government independently of Parliament over foreign policy, and that then the American example may be studied in order to form our own system on it. On 19th March, 1886, a Motion was proposed in this House that treaties should be laid before the House fourteen days before being ratified. That Motion was rejected only by a majority of four. The subject has never been thoroughly and formally raised from that day to this, though frequently on such occasions as this, individually, I have raised it. Lord Palmerston openly said that Parliament need not be consulted about peace or war, and that the highest constitutional authorities have always said that once war is proclaimed it is their duty as patriots to vote supplies for that war. I think that my contention has been very much strengthened by the exposition which the Prime Minister has given of the Imperial Defence Committee.

The creation of the Imperial Defence Committee establishes a, completely new doctrine in regard to foreign affairs. Its members do not go into the Cabinet, but they are presided over by Cabinet Ministers, who constitute a contingent amongst them. It has always been said that foreign policy, or at any rate the executive policy, cannot be publicly discussed; but it would be utterly impossible for any body of military or naval gentlemen, or any body of great merchants, to go into that Committee with advice and to arrange matters of defence of the Empire, or in reference to our communications, without becoming clearly and distinctly aware of what is the policy of the Government; a policy which is concealed from the people. Recently the Prime Minister discussed our foreign policy with foreign Prime Ministers. Surely if the Prime Minister of a foreign country may know something of our foreign policy, why should the people be denied knowledge of it. Burke in this House urged that there should be a representation in the Imperial Council of the American Colonies, and Joseph Hume, who for fifty years took an active part in this House, again and again asked that our foreign policy should be communicated to the Colonies.

All that is good. But what is to be said of a Debate on foreign affairs in this House, when those who take part in its have no general conception or idea of the basis of our policy? Last November I put a question to the Foreign Secretary on the occasion when there had been some reference to the Treaty of Paris. Certain complications have occurred which make it necessary that a treaty between this country and France should be disclosed. It was not a commercial treaty; if it had been it would have been debated by the Senate. The question I put to the Foreign Secretary was whether there were any other secret treaties between this country and other countries of which we knew nothing. He said there were. Therefore we are in the dark with reference to foreign policy. No one in the House of Commons had the slightest idea that on the 21st July, 1911. we were on the eve of war with Germany. It is literally absurd that we should be deprived in this way of any idea of what is our foreign policy. It is one of the great anomalies of our Constitution that we are deprived of all power in this matter of foreign policy. In my judgment it inflicts a great injustice on the poor, on whom fall, in the end, the onus, burden, expense, and misery of war. I thank the House for their kindness in giving me the opportunity to refer to certain matters which were uppermost in my mind.