HC Deb 01 April 1913 vol 51 cc324-47

Postponed Proceeding resumed on Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


Another point I was making was that the conditions had been very seriously changed, and I instance four points in which that has occurred. In the first place you have got the development of railways, and the problem remains, how are you going possibly to cut off the supplies from a country with which you are at war when that country is in railway communication with five or six other States through which supplies can come? The second is the changed position of neutrals as a result of the Declaration of Paris; and then you have the spread and practice of insurance, and, fourthly, the much greater extent of overseas trade of the Empire, which a century ago was only £63,000,000 and now cannot be less than £1,700,000,000. All those four points must be taken into account by the advocates of the maintenance of the right of capture. I am quite aware how difficult it is to form any forecast as to what may happen in the case of naval warfare, but suppose we were at war with a naval Power, and chat everything went in the fleet actions as we could wish, and that our commerce destruction was fully and successfully organised, nevertheless the nation with which we were at war, so far as I can see (sweeping away technicalities as to continuous voyage and all the rest of them on one side), would be able to secure a large part of the supplies it would require under the neutral flag, or, if its seaports were blockaded, those supplies would be able to be imported through the neutral ports, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and so on, which it would not be within our power, under the conditions of naval war, to blockade. I am quite willing to admit that there would be losses, and that we should be able to inflict a certain amount of commercial damage and injury on the mercantile marine of the enemy Power, but where is that loss going to fall? To a very large extent it would simply recoil on ourselves, and to an extent which we cannot exactly calculate, would undoubtedly be borne by British underwriters and the insurance world.

Here you have a perfectly absurd position so far as the insurance world is concerned. It contributes to the upkeep of the Navy. It is bound to take these risks. If it refused to take them we should lose the supremacy in the business of insurance, and a large part of the business would go to the Continent. It takes these war risks a twelve month before they run out, and no one can know what the international position will be during the rest of the year. No cruiser engaged in commerce destroying is in any way able to tell whether the loss which it is inflicting is really inflicted upon the enemy or upon ourselves. If you strike at the enemy's fleet you are inflicting a loss upon the enemy nation as a whole. Even then, the fleets are sometimes insured. I know, as a matter of fact, that within a month or two of the outbreak of the Spanish American war the Spanish fleet was insured in this country, and I rather think it was insured at the time it went to the bottom. At all events, so far as commerce destruction goes, you are simply attacking and ruining, it maybe, one portion of the British nation, in the vain, futile, and fond hope that you are bringing the enemy nation to its knees. On the other hand, supposing you manage to inflict a really serious and disastrous loss on the other side, there will be a financial crisis. As we know, a financial crisis goes round the world, and in the modern interdependence of commerce, a good deal of that loss would simply recoil upon ourselves. Hence working out the possible financial effects of the use of this weapon of commerce destruction, you may inflict a loss and perhaps ruin upon individuals, but I cannot see that you can subjugate a nation. Therefore, my argument is that this is not now a really effective method of waging naval war, and that its use would very likely recoil upon ourselves with serious damaging results.

If I were to quote what has been said on the other side, I should put the case much higher than I think it can be put. We are told by the Noble Lord (Lord C. Beresford) that our real danger is starvation, and not invasion. He is so sensible of the danger that he asks the Government to set up granaries; he says that we must have a swarm of cruisers—six or eight ships upon each route; he warns us that General Bernhardi has declared that a war against British commerce must be boldly and energetically prosecuted; and apparently he feels that unless proper measures are taken an enemy might be able to bring us to our knees by the use of this weapon. I think that I am estopped from putting the danger to ourselves quite as high as he would put it. I quite admit that if once our Navy were crushed and beaten, anything might happen. But assuming that the Navy is not crushed and beaten, I, who have argued that commerce destruction will only inflict loss, but not crushing ruin on a country, cannot proceed to argue that our opponents would be able to inflict any really crushing loss upon ourselves. Clearly, if I did so, that would be putting the case much too high, and I should be guilty of a real inconsistency of argument. Nevertheless, I think that a considerable amount of loss might be inflicted upon ourselves by the commerce destroyers of the enemy which might slip out and do considerable damage on the trade routes.

All the evidence of the old wars—and I have gone into that question very carefully—shows that the real danger of commerce destruction and the loss inflicted upon us was at the outset of war, before the Fleet actions were decided, and before we had established our superiority. I quite admit that at the outset of war we might suffer very considerable loss. We are far more dependent than any other Power upon our overseas supplies. But so long as the Navy remains paramount I do not think that the loss will be irreparable. If I am right in my analysis, if this weapon is not an effective weapon for bringing an enemy to its knees, if it can be surrendered and yet leave us with an effective weapon of offence, I think the balance of argument is rather in favour Of surrendering the right of capture, thus relieving ourselves from the great pre-occupation of guarding our commerce and our trade routes, and, as I should say, allowing the navy to devote itself to its proper work of guarding the country against invasion, of crushing a hostile fleet, and of covering the expeditions which might go forth from these shores. That is the argument that I venture to put before the House. I believe that commerce destruction at sea is not a weapon of essential importance, but that it is really an obsolete method of attack which has lost its effectiveness owing to the change in modern conditions. It is ineffective for subduing an enemy, while it exposes us to grave risks. I believe that its surrender would check the forces which make for international competition in naval armaments, and it is for that reason I press it on the Government. I believe that the friends of peace in this country and in Germany, where there is a party working for this end, would do well to concentrate on this point as being the most effective way in which they can arrest this ever-growing competition and establish the relations of all the Powers interested in overseas commerce on a far sounder footing of goodwill.


I think the House will agree that the hon. Member for Lincoln has delivered a most interesting speech on a most interesting subject. There is no doubt in the world that a great many people will agree with the views that he has put forward. But there are two sides to the question, and I think the hon. Member deserves credit for bringing forward this Motion in order that it may be debated on the floor of the House. I imagine that the cardinal motive in his mind was to reduce the horrors of war and to make an effort in the direction of peace. I would entirely support him in the direction of reducing its horrors, but I do not think that it would ever be wise to reduce the severities of war. The severities of war, in my humble opinion, should be as stringent as possible, for the simple reason that we wish to end the war as soon as ever we can. Now the hon. Gentleman's view, if adopted, would really produce a set of circumstances that would have a small portion of the country engaged in war and the whole of the rest of the country at peace. You could not well have only the fighting services engaged in war. That would not be in the direction of ending the war quickly. You might arrive at the conclusion of the matter upon finer lines and let the matter be settled, as in the olden times, by two knights—by merely having two gentlemen who would go out to meet each other, and the whole honour and safety of the country and of the campaign would be settled by these two gentlemen. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Whichever fell would be the one that lost. There are other views of the question which, I think, the House would like put forward as against the views which the hon. Member has so clearly placed before us. There is one paragraph in his Motion which says that enemy merchant vessels, except the carriers of contraband, or in the case of blockade, shall be immune from capture.. That opens out the real question that he touched upon: Will not food be contraband in war? There is no doubt it will be. The hon. Member referred to neutral ports. We have no neutral ports. Our frontiers are all sea frontiers, and that is one of the weak points in the Declaration of London.

Other nations can by land transit get not only their food, but their raw material through neutral ports. When neutral vessels come with food to this country they will be subject to capture by the enemy; and the real question is—as the hon. Member has so very fairly stated in regard to my views—and I feel very strongly on the point—the whole question for this country in war is that of starvation. We are so dependent upon our trade, not only for our food, but for our raw material—I think five-sixths of our food comes across the seas. We are also dependent from overseas for our raw material, from the working up of which our workmen get their wages. The hon. Member pointed out if we exempted private property from capture at sea it would to our advantage. But he will agree with this: that we could not possibly take up such a suggestion as that unless every other nation agreed to it. Is it likely that they would agree to it? I do not think so. The hon. Member has very well put it forward; this is our weakest point. But we may defend our merchant ships. The other night I ventured to say to the House that by far the biggest thing, in my opinion, that has been done in this matter was the suggestion of the First Lord of the Admiralty to arm ships of the mercantile marine. They are, not to be aggressive, not to be cruisers; these ships, with merely a few guns on board, will protect themselves against the only vessels that really can attack them with any success, and that is the mercantile marine vessels of other nations. It does not want a large ship. It does not want a speedy ship. A tramp of 9 knots with two 4.7 guns on board can be a merchant ship one moment and a man-of-war the next. She can go to neutral ports as a merchant vessel and see what ships are there and what is going on there, and, coming outside, can hoist the pennant and be a man-of-war.

Unless you provide against this you are in a very serious danger from secretly organised armed merchant ships that may have orders to put down six ships on, say, one of our trade routes. The only way to meet this, is not to have privateers, as the hon. Member suggested, but to have our ships armed with a few guns to prevent their being attacked, not by a man-of-war, because a man-of-war would not do it. We should know a man-of-war. It is always a man-of-war. The real danger is that of being attacked by the mercantile ships of other nations. The House should remember this: if a few ships on our trade routes carrying food or raw material were put down, the rate of insurance would go up to prohibitive prices. They would create a gap. It would not be filled, because the most nervous man in the world is the shipper, not the shipowner. From the time the shipper gets his cargo on board until he gets his telegram giving the date of arrival he is more or less forever running into Lloyd's or the other insurance offices. The rate of insurance would be so great that the shipper would not ship. Therefore on the question of our food supply we should be in a very serious state in this country. That is one of the reasons why I was so glad that the First Lord of the Admiralty said the other day that he intended to arm the mercantile marine. I repeat what I said then, that that is more useful to this country to protect ourselves against this vital danger than if you were to lay down fifteen "Dreadnoughts." "Dreadnoughts" cannot command the trade routes. That is our great danger, a sudden organised attack on our trade routes.

The hon. Member spoke about three questions—mines, blockade, and contraband. They are all very important. All these and very many more would enter into the question if once we tried to exempt private property at sea from warlike action. The question of contraband is the most important of all, because we must know that food will be contraband if this country went to war. The art of war has always been and always will be to strike the enemy in the weakest place. Our weakest place is our food supply. We must do nothing in any way to risk that food supply. I would like to know, if I may ask him a question, as to whether or not he has studied the question of food being contraband? On that one single question I do not think his ideas—though I see a reason for them—would hold water for one moment—that is for this country to exempt private property at sea from warlike operations. I have spoken about neutral ports. I have also spoken about the question that when the country goes to war the severity of that war cannot be too stringent. You want to end the war as soon as possible. Every person in the country should feel the result of that war; else you will never end it; well, I will not say that, but not so quickly. So far as the hon. Member's views go as to securing peace, I am heartily with him. Anything that anyone can say or do to help to secure peace for our country, and for the world, I am heartily in favour of. But I have always argued that we secure peace better by being very strong so that it is unlikely, and almost impossible, that we should be attacked. Our Navy used to be the dominant factor for the peace of Europe. It is no longer the dominant factor, as witness the ententes. We never had ententes when we had a strong Navy. We lost our chance in 1909 of having a strong fleet, and being clear of all foreign complications. My idea is that you are far more likely to go to war, or to be drawn into war, because of ententes than we were when we rested on our own right hand, and were absolutely supreme at sea, and when that supremacy made other countries always look to see what we in Britain would do. I sympathise with the hon. Member's views entirely, as far as they go in the direction of peace, but I am afraid that I cannot concur in any way with his idea that the capture of private property at sea, being exempt from the declaration of war, or warlike operations, would secure the peace at which he aimed.


I should like to take up the points made by the Noble Lord as to the maintenance of peace. I suppose he considers that our Navy exists for the purpose of maintaining peace; that in his view, if we have a powerful Navy, it tends to maintain the peace of the countries of Europe?




If the Navy is for the purpose of maintaining peace, it does not exist, I should expect, for the purpose of destroying commerce. Surely the two are opposing principles, and I should hope that because the Noble Lord stands so strongly upon this ground, that the Navy does maintain peace, he would be in favour of the abolition of this principle of the destruction of commerce in time of war. I want to allude to one or two other points made by the Noble Lord, because I feel that up to the present my hon. Friend (Mr. Charles Roberts) has had all the best of the argument. The Noble Lord contended that food would be contraband in time of war. I do not think he has any proof that that is the position.


Rice was contraband in the war between France and China, and rice was the staple food of the Chinese.


I do not think this country ever admitted that rice was contraband, and I think this country would be the very last to admit that corn was contraband in time of war. What would the United States say, supposing we were to declare that corn was contraband?


The Convention of London admits it.


I do not admit it. I think it is a subject for argument, and my point is that if it were possible for food to be declared contraband, it is all the more necessary that the principle laid down by my hon. Friend should be accepted. The Noble Lord also said that this is our weakest point. I admit it is. I admit that Great Britain will have far greater difficulty than any other country in protecting her commerce and food supplies, and I admit also the enormous importance of protecting our food supplies. But if that is our weakest point, then would it not be to our advantage to make efforts to come to terms with other nations at The Hague Conference, and eliminate this possible source of great, weakness.

10.0 P.M.

That is a point on which I join issue with the Noble Lord. He admits that it is our weakest point, but he would make no possible effort to bring other nations together to come to terms on this subject. I am in full accord with the Noble Lord that you must have a strong Navy to protect your commerce, but if, on the other hand, you have made no effort, nay, so far from making any effort, if you have been the opponents at The Hague Conference, which has led to the opinion that our Government is not in favour of taking any such steps, it seems to me you have no excuse whatever, and in that connection I am in agreement that the very best possible thing that could happen to this country would be the abatement of this armament building in Germany. The very finest thing that could happen to Great Britain would be that Germany should, as we think, look at this matter a little more reasonably, and not press on with their battleships at the rate they are doing, and that they should not press on in another direction also. Well, in answer to that, I ask the Noble Lord to put himself in the position of any patriotic German, and I am perfectly certain, if he were a German at this moment, he would say, "It is the duty of Germany to go on building to protect her commerce, which is growing so very rapidly, and whilst Great Britain refuses to come to any terms and acts as an opponent at The Hague Conference on this subject of the destruction of private property at sea, we must build so rapidly and to such an extent as to give us a chance of protecting our own very rapidly increasing commerce." I do not know whether the Noble Lord thinks I am reasonable enough in that belief, but is it not the case that if he were a German he would take that view? Therefore, the least we can do, is to ask Germany and other European countries to consider this question. I do not say we should be able to come to terms, but I think civilised nations ought to make an attempt to come to terms, and I cannot conceive that anyone, who calls himself at this day, a civilised being or a Christian—I will leave out Christianity altogether—who calls himself a civilised being, can consent any longer to the proposition that we are to destroy commerce at sea in time of war, knowing perfectly well that thereby we cause infinite suffering to millions of human beings who are not in any real sense responsible.

Let me take one other point—the question of insurance. The Noble Lord pointed out what insurance means, and what an immense cost it is, and how much greater it is likely to be in the future. Is that not another reason for accepting the arguments of my hon. Friend? I do not say it is an argument which would carry enormous weight. If it is really the question of the life of a nation, we should not count the cost in money, but insurance is a very big point, and it is going to be a very much bigger point in the future. It is going very likely to shipwreck nations, and to bankrupt nations in the future, and that being so, I think the Noble Lord will admit it is an additional reason for reconsidering this question. I do not know what view the Government take at this juncture, but I hope the position has changed since the last announcement made by the Secretary of State, and I hope that the Government will see their way to make some overture. Why lay down the hard and fast rule that they will never consent? Why not make some definite overtures, and allow the matter to be carefully considered at the next. Hague Conference? I do not say it is possible to come to an agreement at the next Hague Conference, but it might be considered, and in the future, we might see our way more clearly. I very heartily support the Resolution of my hon. Friend and I should like to congratulate him upon the very interesting and historical speech which he has made, apart altogether from the principle he has laid down, which I think is a very sound one.


May I re-echo the last sentence of the speech of my hon. Friend in which he congratulated the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. C. Roberts) upon the able and interesting speech he has made to the House. I have been trying to read some of the speeches made in support of the arguments the hon. Member brings forward, but none of those speeches put the case so well as he has done to-night. I only hope he will be as happy after listening to me as I have been in listening to him. There are two points to be dealt with, one is the position of this question as between this Government and other Governments with a view to international agreement, and the other point is the argument on the merits of the question itself. In regard to the first point, I think there must be some misconception, at any rate in the mind of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Alden), who spoke last. He suggested that we ought to make some overtures, and in dealing with this question not always give a direct negative. The hon. Member who introduced this discussion made the point that we could hardly be expected to act by ourselves, and said that a settlement could only be arrived at by international agreement. He also made the point that it was a question which ought to be looked at and considered in connection with a reduction of armaments, and I quite agree with him there. But that is exactly and precisely what we have done. I shall have to quote to-night from documents which are before the House, and I will only quote a sentence or two to make my point. My first quotation is from the instructions to the delegates at The Hague Conference, 1907, in which this sentence appears:— 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 it, would be outweighed by the general gain and relief which such a change would bring. That is a step, and I think it is made more clear and definite by the Report of the proceedings of The Hague Conference, which says:— The British delegation, who nevertheless declared that their Government would be prepared to examine the question of the conclusion of an agreement to abolish the right of capture if such an agreement could promote the reduction of armaments. On 6th February the Foreign Secretary, dealing with this quest on, said:— Those who have read the instructions to The Hague delegates to the end—not merely the first two paragraphs—will realise that His Majesty's Government have left the door open to them or to their successors to reconsider this question, should there be a real indication on the part of the Powers generally that it is likely to become a material point in effecting such a reduction of armaments as would really tend to diminish the apprehension of war. It seems to me that that is a very definite opening of the door, and practically amounts to an invitation to other countries to walk in at the door which in that way is opened. Surely we ought to consider it as being one of the primary matters of this controversy that we have made quite publicly certain definite offers to consider this question in a friendly way with other countries if such an agreement was accompanied by a reduction of armaments. That being so, it seems to me that the efforts of my hon. Friend and those who agree with him would perhaps be better employed in influencing other Governments to respond to this invitation than trying to influence this Government to open even wider the door which is already fairly widely opened. In spite of this, I am bound to say that whatever the hon. Member for Tottenham may say as to the feeling of any average German, that the German Government has made no sort of indication of any willingness to discuss the matter in this connection.


Is the purport of those quotations to bear out my contention that you expect a reduction of armaments before you decide upon the great principle.


I do not think we expect it before we decide upon the great principle, but we do think the two questions ought to go together, and we are perfectly willing to consider them together. We have never suggested that this country, or any other country, should decide it before those two questions are decided, and other countries have not shown themselves willing to take it up. Other countries know their own business best, but still it is a fact that since this offer has been on record it has not been taken up, and there has been no indication of any willingness to take it up on the part of other countries most chiefly concerned. Now I come to say a few words on the points that strike me as to the merits of the arguments. It is, of course, a very difficult question. I wish we had three or four times as long to discuss it as we have, because I know there are many hon. Members of the House whose contributions would be extremely valuable, and I am sorry we have not had a fuller Debate. I quite agree with the hon. Member who raised this question that it is not one which needs to be decided by experts. This is a matter upon which every hon. Member of the House who gives his attention to the arguments on both sides ought to be able to make up his mind. But the real difficulty is to make up your mind, and there are very few public men who have given their attention to this subject who have not changed their mind at least once. That shows that it is a very difficult subject to decide, and if, in speaking on the merits of the subject this evening, I venture to put a point of view which is rather opposed to that of my hon. Friend it will be, not because I do not, to a considerable extent, sympathise with his point of view, but in order that those who read this Debate may see the arguments on both sides put, and not only the arguments on one side. I will venture to try and put some of the obvious objections which everyone ought to consider and think over, however much impressed with the arguments which the hon. Gentleman has addressed to the House. First of all, there is the question of blockade. The hon. Member has decided that question in the Resolution which he has put upon the Notice Paper of the House. You have to take one point of view or the other, either that blockade must remain, or that it must be done away with, and in his Resolution the hon. Gentleman takes the easier course of assuming that blockade has got to remain, but in his speech he did not deal with that question. I do not think it can be so easily dealt with as in his Resolution.


I do not think I made my point quite clear. I said it was an undefined term, and I quite admit that it needs definition. The real point I should like to put to the Government is this: If their views on the question of blockade and contraband are satisfactorily met, will they then consider the surrender of the right of capture?


I shall come to the difficulty of agreements between belligerents. It is possible to have an agreement on those very difficult questions when you are dealing as between belligerents and neutrals, but there are reasons why it is not so easy or possible to enter into agreements which under all circumstances will be binding when you are dealing as between belligerents and belligerents. You cannot deal with the question of blockade logically as the hon. Member attempts to deal with it in his Resolution, simply by saying that merchant vessels should be immune "except in case of blockade." After all, the matter ought to be considered as one of principle, and, looking at it from that point of view, I will take, if I may, two illustrations. Supposing we were at war with Portugal, which, of course, is amazingly unlikely, surely, if it, is right that Portuguese ships should be able to come from the ends of the earth to Cadiz, which is not in Portugal, with goods for Portugal, we could hardly maintain that it would be wrong that they should come with those same goods to the port of Lisbon. Take another illustration which I hope is equally as impossible. Supposing there was a war between this country and Germany, and supposing we were blockading Hamburg, if, as would appear, my hon. Friend does not ask that German ships should be free to come and go from Hamburg it is difficult to see how he could urge very forcibly that those same ships should be free to come and go from Antwerp.


Would they not be perfectly free to do so if they were neutrals?


I am not dealing with the vessels of neutrals, but with enemy ships. Surely, if it is perfectly right that we should be entitled to capture ships if they are going to an enemy port, you cannot, if you are arguing from the point of view of a principle, say it is perfectly wrong that we should be able to capture enemy ships when they are going to a neutral port, particularly when the real object of the voyage is the same, namely, to supply the enemy country with provisions. In that connection, merely to show that this is a matter which has been seriously considered, may I just quote one further sentence from our instructions to our delegates to The Hague Conference:— But on the other hand it must be remembered that the principle, if carried to its logical conclusion, must entail the abolition of the right of commercial blockade. Unless commercial blockade is discontinued there will be constant interference with an enemy's ships and constant disputes as to what constitutes an effective blockade. And when such disputes have once arisen between belligerent Powers it is obvious that the one which considers itself aggrieved by the application of commercial blockade to any of its ports would cease to respect the immunity of the merchant ships and private property of its enemy wherever they were to be found. I merely suggest for the purpose of this Debate that the difficulty there referred to continues to exist in spite of the attempt to avoid it in the wording of my hon. Friend's Resolution, namely, that in case of the blockade immunity should not be applied. We get front that the central question touched upon by the Noble Lord opposite—what really ought to be the object of war. That is the central question which is in everyone's mind in considering this question. I must suggest this, that the object of war is, not immunity for your own commerce, but to make your enemy speedily desire peace, and where there is a way of bringing considerable pressure to bear on an enemy without appreciable danger to the lives of non-combatants that is a power which any country must be very slow in deciding to give up. I quite agree with my hon. Friend that this power may be put too high. We have not got a vital power of offence against foreign countries by this power of attacking their ships on the high sea. We cannot bring an enemy to his knees by using this power, but so far as it goes it is a power which will have considerable effect on the public opinion of countries in regard to entering upon a war. If by maintaining this power we can maintain a considerable public opinion in these two countries opposed to war, which might otherwise be more diffident about it, all I say is that that power and that public opinion opposed to war because of the possible exercise of that power—these are things which we cannot easily agree to give up. On this matter there are two schools of thought. There are those who would leave unaffected the civil population as much as possible, in the hope that that would gradually make war ridiculous, and on the other hand there are those who would make war such a terrible devastating pestilence that the consciences of men would not tolerate its continuance. But this question that is before us can be decided apart from either of these two theories. This is a way of making a war unpleasant, which is not a way of making it horrible. You cannot say that because the tendency of international agreements is to make war less horrible in all sorts of ways, because the tendency of agreement is to make private property immune, therefore it follows that what you have done with regard to war on land you ought also to do with regard to war at sea. I know that argument is used. They quote from The Hague Règlement of 1899, all those Articles which guarantee in various ways the property of non-combatants even in the theatre of warlike operations, and they say, "If you acknowledge private property of non-combatants on land you ought to do so on the sea also." But if you will look into The Hague Règlement you will see a rather interesting thing. The Article which forbids you to destroy or seize the enemy's property is all subject to the very important qualification:— Unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war. That is a very wide qualification of the immunity of enemy's property. Secondly, there is, I think, this point, that the immunity of any property on land, so far as it exists, is rather from the point of view of preserving life than front the point of view of preserving property because if you in war-time choose to occupy or seize a man's goods, his farming stock, and his house, you must run the risk of the loss of life and starvation to the man and his family. That fact has been in the minds of those who helped to draw up the agreement of 1899, when they tried to secure the immunity of private property on land. But on sea you have not got those reasons. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, I suppose, although I know nothing of naval warfare, what would happen would be that some cruiser would overhaul a merchant ship belonging to the enemy and fire a shot across her bows. The merchant ship would haul down her flag, and would be taken back to the nearest port of the captor, and all the men would live like fighting cocks until the war was over and then be sent back to their own country. No single man would lose a square meal over the transaction, and although 100 ships might be captured not one would be sent to the bottom. That differentiates it from the case of private property in the theatre of war on land. That means that you have got a power, for what it is worth, of bringing pressure to bear upon an enemy country without endangering the lives of non-belligerents. That is a thing you can hardly ask any country lightly to give up unless the matter is proved beyond dispute.

I personally am a strong believer in the doctrine put before the whole world so tremendously powerfully by Mr. Norman Angell, but I am afraid that that fact emphasises my feelings on this question. Mr. Norman Angell wants to bring home to the consciences and the minds of mankind that war is and must be, whatever its result, a great disaster to all the Powers that take part in it, whether they win or lose. But if there are people who do not need converting to that doctrine of Mr. Norman Angell it is the shipowning and mercantile classes, who know that war between any countries with powerful active fleets at their backs would mean the capture of the ships that they own. And I suggest again that we should be very unwilling that anything should be done to minimise the quite obvious desire of the shipowning and mercantile classes in our country and in foreign countries at the present time to avoid at all costs an outbreak of war, so far as they can affect public opinion, because of the known liability to which their enterprise would be subjected if war broke out. My hon. Friend has raised a point about insurance. I am not very fully informed about that, but the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who sympathised entirely with him on the merits of this question, told me just now that he had fallen into the same fallacy with regard to insurance, but he said he had found out since that it was a fallacy. The point he mentioned was that ordinary rates of insurance did not apply to war, and that companies made their own war insurance rates to cover war risks, and although a certain amount of the business might be lost, and the risks undoubtedly were very much greater, they recouped themselves by the high rates that they charge to cover war risks. Therefore, you could not say for a certainty that the insurance business was going to be ruined and great pressure brought on the country from that point of view.

The last point I should like to make is as to the special position of this country in connection with this question. I think it is a new argument, but I believe it is a valid argument that if we give up this power of bringing war pressure to bear on any other country with which we may be at war, surely there will be a very greatly increased demand from those who think we ought to be able to hit countries on land as well as on the sea, that we should develop that part of our power, namely, the power of invading other countries with large armed forces. It would be forcibly urged that in proportion as we diminish our power of hitting other countries by action on the sea we should be bound to increase our power of hitting other countries on land. I feel sure some hon. Members opposite would use that argument against me and my Friends if we were to give up this power of striking at the commerce of an enemy, and that is an argument they might well think over. I hope the majority of the House will agree with me that just as we are free from any secret engagement which would involve the invasion of any foreign country, so it is not the function of this country to have a large Army, which could never successfully invade a great foreign country, in addition to the preponderating and enormous Fleet which we have to maintain. But surely if we give up a certain proportion of the power which we now exercise through our Fleet the argument that we ought to be able to have an Army comparable to the great Continental armies would increase in proportion as we weakened ourselves with regard to the power we now possess. That is the first argument with regard to our special position.

Then let us consider what the position might be if we were to give up this power. As I think I heard an hon. Member below the Gangway say in an interjection, it would be carrying on war on the principle of limited liability. I think that is a good description of it. We must assume that we shall be a country with a predominant Fleet. We must assume for the purpose of argument that we might be fighting against a country with not such a strong fleet, but with a predominant army. We must assume that we cannot get at them by invasion and that they cannot get at us because we have bottled up their fleet and are blockading it in their parts. Their commerce might come and go, and except for the inconvenience that their fleet is blockaded they are not suffering from the inconvenience of war. What happens? Our Fleet is all the time keeping the seas. We have to keep their fleet bottled up for fear that it might come out for a few hours and liberate the force which we must presume they have ready to invade this country. That is surely a position of very considerable risk, and the further we can keep away from it the better our chance in a war. It is not surely a good thing for us, if war is going on, to be for a very long time under conditions like these, when, owing to some accident, or some happy stroke of the enemy dropping a bomb from an airship, or by the action of submarines, our Fleet might for a few days lose command of the seas, so that the enemy's fleet might be let loose, and an invading force might be landed on our shores. The more pressure we can bring to bear—though I agree we cannot bring supreme pressure—by this method of cutting down their commerce, the more we can shorten the war, and the safer we shall be.

There is, lastly, one other point which is rather delicate to touch upon, but it is necessary in this Debate. It is rather a difficult point, and I will state it by simply quoting a sentence from the speech which the Foreign Secretary made in the debate in February, 1908. He said:— You cannot rely on a treaty, which affects only belligerents being kept in time of war, with the same certainty that you can rely on rules the enforcement of which interests equally neutrals and belligerents. Though I understand what my hon. Freind said about the making of agreements with other countries as to contraband and the use of mines, yet I must enter the caveat that, whatever rules you make, you cannot be so certain that they will be maintained strictly and honourably when dealing with matters between belligerents as when dealing with matters between belligerents and neutrals. When it is a question between belligerents and neutrals there is naturally a desire on the part of every country to keep to rules which are laid down, because if you break the rules, a Power which to-day is neutral may become a belligerent to-morrow. When you are dealing with matters between belligerents you cannot quite rely upon arrangements that have been made in the same way as when dealing with arrangements between belligerents and neutrals. I do not say that any Power, if belligerent against another Power, would definitely throw agreements overboard, but there would be a way in which almost as much risk to our supplies of food and raw materials could be caused as if our private property was liable to capture. There would still be all sorts of questions of contraband, however much we might endeavour to arrange these matters under agreements. If it was to be a question that a foreign country could win against us by starving us, it would not be beyond the wit of man to discover reasons for delaying our ships on the sea under the guise of searching for contraband or something of that kind which would have the same effect—it must all be done in a very few weeks—as if our our ships were captured and taken to the enemy's ports. I have only made, or mainly made, these points in order that they may be considered alongside of the very able arguments which my hon. Friend put before the House. The points which I have made are these: That the right of blockade is bound up with this question and must be settled one way or the other with this question; that the analogy from a land war does not wholly apply; that there are special difficulties with regard to the position of this country in a matter which must be really faced; and lastly, that even if a doctrine of this kind were established, it is rather doubtful how far when the real pressure came, we could absolutely depend upon it, and therefore doubtful how far we could modify our naval policy even if this doctrine were accepted. I commend these points to the House to be considered alongside the arguments which we have heard from the other side, and I may conclude by again congratulating the House on the opportunity which we have had of hearing the arguments that have been put before the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln.


I should not think of following the hon. Gentleman into all the details of his speech, but I want in a few sentences to express my satisfaction, which I think is shared by all my hon. Friends, at the fact that the Government, speaking through the hon. Gentleman, have not receded an inch, as I gather, from the declarations made by the Foreign Secretary in 1908. If they had done so I think that they would have found the general sense of the House against them. What is much more important I think that they would have embarked on a course involving real danger to this country. I am not less anxious than the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. C. Roberts) in the desire to forward peace. We would all like to do what we can to promote general peace in the world, and I believe that the thought at the bottom of his speech is this: he thinks that if we gave up the right of capture at sea we should take a step which might lead to disarmament. I am afraid that he has no warrant whatever for thinking that. The Government have said more than once that if the nations of the world would genuinely entertain proposals for disarmament, we would, along with the proposals, consider this question of capture at sea. There has been no response whatever of any value to that invitation. So long as that is so it is an illusion to suppose that the surrender of the right of capture referred to in this Resolution would be a step towards the goal of disarmament, and if that is so it would surely be folly to give up a power which we believe to be of value to this country on the mere chance that foreign nations will respond by disarming. It would be a surrender of something of substantial value in the mere hope of getting an advantage. There are other points which seem to be of importance in this matter. First, the power to capture merchant vessels at sea shortens war. That is a consideration which surely should weigh with the hon. Member for Lincoln and his friends. I am not an expert in the matter, but we all know that the first principle in war is to hit hard and wherever you can. One way of hitting hard is to hit not only at the belligerent force of your enemy, but at the population behind that belligerent force. If you exempt from damage the trading classes of the enemy country, you thereby lose the chance of influencing forces which if affected by the war would lean towards peace. This method of capturing the enemy's merchant vessels is therefore a method of shortening war and bringing the war to an end. You capture property, you do not destroy life; and it is perhaps the most humane method of all in which you can influence your enemy. Secondly, the surrender of this power would, I believe, prolong war. Just see what happens. If you surrender this power of capture, the enemy, weak at sea, would naturally keep her fleet in port so long as we were in command of the sea. Meanwhile, trade would go on. All the arteries of the life of the enemy's country would be at work, and the war might go on, as the Foreign Secretary once said, for ever—meaning that it could go on for an indefinite time. Meanwhile, we are in this position, that so soon as ever a mishap occurs, such as might occur to us, we would lay ourselves open—that is, we may receive a blow which might be fatal to our national life. In other words, we are simply waiting, unable to hit the enemy at all, and waiting for the time when the enemy might hit us. So the loss is all ours, and the gain is all that of the enemy whom we are fighting. In other words, we, as the hon. Gentleman said, should be carrying on war on the limited liability principle, with one arm in a sling. That is a fatal thing for a nation like ours.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to think that with the surrender of the power of capture you can reduce the Navy. I believe that you can do nothing of the kind. Your Navy will be just as necessary for the defence of these shores and your trade routes; and, indeed, as has been pointed out, there is the danger that some merchant ship of the enemy might convert itself into a ship of war for the time being, so that the danger would be increased, and you would want your Navy as much as ever. The question of blockade is specially exempted from this Resolution. I am disposed to think with the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs that if you abandoned capture you would be obliged as a parallel process to abandon the commercial blockade altogether. Whether that be so or not, the hon. Gentleman opposite recognises, in any case, the duty of keeping up the blockade, and you would want your vessels for that. You would want your Fleet for dealing with questions of contraband, which is sure to be extended against you, and it would be a more difficult and a more dangerous question than it is now. The hon. Gentleman said, I think with truth, that you cannot, when the safety of your country is at stake, depend upon a mere agreement being kept by belligerents in time of war. When the life of your country is at stake it is dangerous to assume that your enemy, however much bound by the words of an agreement, would keep it in the spirit. Even if you made this agreement you need your Navy to enforce it, and, therefore, you will not be able to reduce by a ship the Navy you require to-day. I desire to add this consideration, which is, I think, sometimes forgotten. Our national life, of course, depends on our command of the sea. If we are beaten at sea, then the immunity of our merchant vessels might be of value to us, but in that case not of much value, because if we are beaten at sea we are beaten altogether. On the other hand, so long as we are dominant at sea, this power of capture is an advantage to us and it injures our enemy. And so at the time when the change now proposed would nominally operate in our favour it would be of no real value to us, and the time when the change would operate against us, namely the time when we have command of the sea is precisely the period when the right of capture is of the utmost value to us and the utmost injury to our enemy. I hope no opinion will be expressed by this House in favour of surrendering this power which, under present conditions, is I believe, of importance to this country.


I desire simply to make two points, since it would be quite impossible at this hour to enter fully into the question. First of all, I think my hon. Friend made a false point about the blockade, because by the abolition of capture the enemy ship, the ship of the belligerent, would fall into the same place the neutral occupies at present. That is the position if you abolish capture at sea. If you can make a distinction in the case of the neutral ship you can just make the same distinction in the case of the belligerent. The point I wish to emphasise is that from the point of view of protecting our own commerce there is absolutely no advantage in the abolition of the doctrine of capture unless it is accompanied by the total and entire abolition of the doctrine of contraband. If you take the inter-Imperial trade of this country, carried on as it is to a very large extent by regular lines of steamers, very nearly all of those steamers carry amongst their cargoes goods which would justify a plausible charge of carrying contraband. That being so, the enemy cruisers would undoubtedly take the ships into port. It is almost certain that the first Prize Court you go to, being, as we know, not always of an impartial character, would find in favour of the enemy. Let us assume, that the final superior Prize Court, consisting of trained lawyers, administers the law in the most just manner conceivable and finds in our favour, that would take a matter of six months or thereabouts. The whole commerce of the Empire would have been hung up for six months while getting the decision in our favour. That is just as bad as having the ships destroyed on the spot, and it would be absolutely impossible to be allowed to continue. No Government and no First Lord of the Admiralty could allow the trade of this country and the various parts of the Empire to be shut up for six months while awaiting a legal decision in our favour. You would have to exert as much force to prevent that temporary dislocation of your trade as would be necessary to protect yourselves from capture, because if you could prevent the enemy's cruisers from interfering with certain selected ships, precisely the same steps would prevent any ships being interfered with.

What you clearly have to do is to clear the enemy's cruisers off the sea, and to prevent them seizing your ships for contraband you have to do that. Once you do that you prevent them seizing ships for any cause whatever and you are perfectly certain. Therefore I think my hon Friend who urged this point should remember that there is really no advantage to us from a defensive point of view in getting rid of the capture of private property, unless you are going to have the whole doctrine of contraband swept out of existence. The two matters go together. Some of my hon. Friends seem to think that the real loss of insurance falls upon this country. That is quite illusory. You cannot shift the loss by any method of insurance. All that happens is that the class upon whom the loss falls pays a premium commensurate with the risk, thereby agreeing that the damage shall be pooled amongst themselves. Insurance is simply a pooling of the damage amongst the class liable to the risk. It does not shift the loss from the shoulders of the class; it simply shifts it from the individual to the class. If the ships were likely to be captured, the premium would go up by leaps and bounds. If they were certain to be captured, obviously the premium would go up to 100 per cent. There is no reason whatever to think that if we gave way on this point we should get any advantage. If it were certain that in exchange for the concession of this doctrine of capture we should get substantial concessions in other matters, such as the use of floating mines, there might be something to be said for it as a bargain. But unless we can get a really good bargain on other points I hope the Government will refuse to give way on this point.

Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

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