HC Deb 06 May 1914 vol 62 cc367-411

I beg to move, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that His Majesty's Government should negotiate with the other leading maritime Powers with a view to obtaining such a revision of the laws of naval warfare as would secure immunity to all Private Property except in the case of ships carrying materials for war or attempting to violate a blockade."

I am raising a question that has very often in recent years engaged the attention of this House. It was raised in the year 1908 by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Walton Division of Liverpool (Mr. F. E. Smith), in an Amendment to the Address, and was seconded by a Member of the Government, whom I see in his place, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. J. M. Robertson). The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Walton Division regretted that His Majesty's Government had not instructed their representatives at The Hague to agree to the principle for which I am contending. It was raised in the following year in a Motion moved by the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Jowett), and there was a very interesting Debate, in the course of which the present Attorney-General (Sir J. Simon) made a most powerful speech in support of this principle. It was raised in 1911 by my hon. Friend who is now the Under-Secretary of State for India (Mr. Charles Roberts), and again last year it was raised by the same hon. Gentleman on the Civil Service Estimates. We had a very interesting Debate and a very strong expression of opinion from all parts of the House in favour of this proposal. But I do not think that this is an inopportune moment, in spite of all this, to ask the House once again to discuss this very important question. We are expecting very shortly a new Hague Conference, and, as Great Britain is a power which hitherto has been thought to stand in the way of a change, it is very important that we in this country should make up our minds what attitude the Government ought to take in this matter.

I think we may claim that there has been, not only in this House, but throughout the country, and indeed in all countries, a very remarkable growth of public opinion upon this question. Everywhere we have chambers of commerce passing resolutions, asking that this right of capture should be abolished, and we have had conferences of shipping representatives passing resolutions in the same sense. There is to-morrow meeting in London a conference of shippers of eleven European nations, under a British president, which claims to represent 4,000,000 tons registered steam shipping. The conference is known as the Baltic and White Sea Conference. Their first business to-morrow will be to move, and I have no doubt to pass, a resolution expressing the apprehension they feel and the disastrous consequences to merchant shipping and sea-borne commerce that must follow upon the exercise in any future war of the existing right of belligerents to capture and confiscate innocent private property, and calling upon Governments of maritime nations to take into early consideration the question of abolishing such rights. These are very remarkable expressions of opinion, and I can quote a great many more in the same sense—in fact, I think I am right in saying that the National Liberal Federation only last year passed a resolution on this subject. We are met at the outset generally in these Debates by an abstract objection and an argument which looks plausible, but which, I think, on consideration, like many other plausible arguments, will be found to have no weight behind it. It was the argument used last year by the Noble Lord the Member for Portsmouth (Lord C. Beresford), and it runs something like this: We are told that we are really engaged upon the wrong tack, and that if we take any steps of this sort to mitigate the severities of war, we shall, instead of promoting the object which we desire, be making war more frequent, because we shall take away the motive which prevents people from going to war. They say, "You must make war as terrible as possible; then there will be less war and more peace amongst nations." That is an argument against the experience of history and against common sense.

If you look at the history of civilisation, there is nothing more remarkable than that the steps which have been taken for many generations past to mitigate the severities and to narrow the scope of war have, on the whole, I think everyone will agree, when those steps have been possible and practicable, tended to keep good feeling between nations rather than to lead to more war. People take too low a view of human courage when they think that any nation is going to be kept from war by the mere fact that there will be a certain amount of loss under the present laws falling on comparatively innocent people. No, I do not believe that is the way in which to ensure peace. The only way in which to promote peace between nations is by getting a better understanding between nations, by doing what you can to remove distrust and to ensure confidence; and therefore an agreement of this sort such as we desire, if it could be carried, would in itself, do something in the cause of international peace. But I do not want to argue this upon merely general considerations. I agree that general considerations carry us a very little way in a question of this sort. What we have to consider, and what we are bound to consider, is what will be the immediate effect from the point of view of national interests of any change in the customs of war, if it can be carried. Looking at it from the most severely practical point of view, I claim that so far from this alteration in the international law, if it could be agreed upon, being a disadvantage to this nation, the balance in the long run would be found to be entirely in favour of the national interests which this Government is bound to protect.

We are told by many Admiralty and Naval experts that although it is true, that this is an old weapon, and rather an ugly one, it is a weapon—this destruction of commerce—necessary for the safety of this country; that it is our only weapon of offence, and that therefore we cannot afford to surrender it, or at any rate we cannot afford to surrender it unless we get some equivalent concession from some other nations. I shall attempt to show that is not the case; that so far from this being a necessary weapon, it is an obsolete weapon that will not have the effect that is claimed for it, that it is not suitable to the conditions of modern warfare, and, that so far as it is effective, it is a weapon that will recoil upon ourselves in the long run, just as much as it will do damage to the enemy. The fact is—and I do not think people who speak on this question consider it sufficiently—that since this weapon was used in the Napoleonic wars, the whole conditions of warfare, as this House knows very well, have been revolutionised by two things: firstly, by the Declaration of Paris, signed in 1856, under which we can no longer pursue an enemy's goods if they are carried in neutral ships; and, secondly, it has been revolutionised by the extraordinary increase in land transport, due to the introduction and extension of railways. It is quite true that in the Napoleonic wars this method of commerce destruction played a very important, though not a decisive, part. It is probably true that, except for it, the Battle of Trafalgar would never have been fought. It was the fact that the Spanish and French fleets, which were enclosed in the Harbour of Cadiz, could not get the supplies over-seas which they needed that compelled them to go out and fight the Battle of Trafalgar, and then they were destroyed and our sea supremacy was entirely established. But it has been very well said that if there had been railways at that time through Europe the Battle of Trafalgar would probably never have taken place. It was the fact that supplies could not be got overland that made this weapon of commerce destruction such a terrific one at that time.

I will take a case which is much stronger. I want to assume the case of war against Germany, and that is much the strongest case from the point of view of those who are in favour of the present system. It is much the strongest case, because the German mercantile marine is perhaps the largest except our own. It is about a quarter of the size of our own; but it is a very large mercantile marine, and they depend upon it for their commerce and their food. I will assume that we have complete command of the sea, and have established a blockade of the German coast, and that the German fleet is contained in harbours and unable to come forth. Even then can we be assured that we have, in this weapon of commerce destruction, a complete and effective method of bringing pressure to bear upon Germany so as to compel her to come to terms, as is asserted by those who support this system? We could not stop the railways taking supplies overland into Germany from other countries. We could not prevent neutral ships bringing supplies to Amsterdam and other ports, whence they could be conveyed for the use of the German nation. No one, I think, denies that under this method you can irritate an adversary, and can inflict on him a great deal of damage, but what I do not think we can say is that you will ever be able, under the present system, having regard to the Declaration of Paris, and having regard also to the railways, to bring a war to an end as claimed by those who support this system. After all, is it worth our while, against the feeling of the civilised world, to keep in use a weapon of this sort, unless we are quite sure it is going to be effective in the way which is suggested?

Look at it from the point of view of danger to ourselves, and from the point of view of our own country. I assume also in this case—in the case of a naval war—we are supreme at sea. Even then I do not think anyone will deny that, considering the enormous size of our mercantile marine, considering the way in which this country depends for its food supply and raw material entirely on sea transport, for the railways do not help us—the dangers of this country are infinitely greater than the risks which would be run by other countries, if this system is maintained. It is quite true that privateering was abolished by the Declaration of Paris. It is also quite true that, if this system goes on, we shall have something like privateering revived in another form, and we shall see foreign Powers getting swift merchantmen well-armed for the special purpose of preying upon our commerce. It will not be denied that, at the outset of such a war, before our naval supremacy is entirely established, and even after, you may have enormous damage inflicted upon our commerce, and on our food supplies, by this method of commerce destruction, even although we still remain supreme at sea. In the Napoleonic wars he had a special system of convoys, and we had complete maritime supremacy, but even in these wars the losses to the commerce of this country were enormous. I think it is true to say that 11,000 vessels were lost, or more than the whole mercantile marine of France, in spite of our maritime supremacy, through commerce destruction. These are very remarkable figures, and it makes me wonder whether it is really worth while, putting it from the lowest point of view of national interests, to try and maintain this old and obsolete weapon. Lord Loreburn, whose book on this question is one of the most remarkable, and who has been in favour of the principle of the abolition of capture for ten years past, enters, in his book, into a very elaborate examination of what would happen in the case of war against various Powers with whom we might be engaged, and, after examining the cases one by one, he sums up as follows:— What dues it come to? Assuming that we are supreme at sea, the results seem to be that no single State could by the instrument of enemy capture, inflict upon us, nor could we inflict upon them any decisive injury. … There are many people who think that the only nation in the world against whom this weapon of warfare can be used with crushing effect by a strong naval combination is the United Kingdom. We are at once faced by this question. Assuming that an international agreement can be made in favour of the abolition of this right, and in favour of the immunity of commerce during war, what assurance have we that such an agreement will be observed? Is it not, after all—and this is what our opponents will say—really a piece of paper, is it not a mere legal protection, and is it worth anything further? We are told, with some force, that if it were a question of international law affecting neutrals, then, no doubt, there would be some sanction for getting it observed. But in this case, where it is a question of agreement between belligerents, we are asked what security have we that in stress of war another Power will observe the agreement not to destroy our commerce? It seems to me a very important point to consider, but, in the first place, as regards that, one ought to remark that it is not true to say that this is a matter which does not affect neutrals. I agree that it primarily affects belligerents, but it does secondly and indirectly affect neutrals in a very important way. Under the present system there can be no doubt that where there are neutral goods upon a ship belonging to a belligerent they will be detained and damaged, and, it may be, irretrievably damaged by the system of commerce destruction through the ship being captured. Therefore, neutrals have, at any rate, some reason, although not a great reason, for seeing that a law of this sort, if it is carried, is properly observed.

Apart from that, I submit that experience shows that if an agreement of this sort were made with the opinion of the civilised world behind it, as it would be behind such an agreement if it were entered into, there would inevitably be a tremendous force compelling a nation, even in the stress of war, to pay more observance than they otherwise would to a rule of this sort. I do not deny that there might be breaches of the law. Of course, there would be, but in the long run it would be not merely the duty, but it would be the interest of a civilised nation when engaged in war to observe this rule of the immunity of commerce, if an international agreement were once entered into upon the subject. For a long time past now we have, fortunately, had immunity, more or less complete, for private property on land. Though I do not want to press the analogy too hard, the fact that during the Franco-Prussian war there was practically no plunder, and that even when Paris was captured there was no plunder of private property, does show that an agreement or custom of this sort, if it is once firmly established between civilised nations, does tend to be observed, and might, on the whole, be relied upon. Having regard to the fact that at present the Admiralty admit that they cannot protect our commerce, and that they are setting merchantmen vessels to arm themselves for their own protection, we should do better to rely upon international agreement or, at any rate, to rely to some extent on that, rather than to keep on this old and discredited system of warfare, merely because we believe that in some future war it might enable us to finish the war quicker than we should otherwise be able to do.

Then there is the question of insurance. I do not want to press this point too hard, because I know it is a very difficult question. It does seem absurd, when we consider the amount of insurance which is done in this country, that we should be engaging our Fleet to destroy commerce of which the insurers of this country will afterwards have to pay the cost. I know the answer to that. I know that we are told that all the cost will fall by means of increased freights on the people who insure, but if you ask the insurers themselves about it—that is, the insurance companies—they will tell you that they would prefer that the commerce should not be destroyed, rather than that they should have to charge these increased rates. At any rate, it is clear that the first loss will fall upon them, and that they will not be able to repudiate it. The chairman of Lloyd's, speaking at the International Maritime Conference, held at Copenhagen in May, 1913, said:— The position which the English underwriters have assumed is that no contract for reinsurance will he repudiated by them on the ground that it covers enemy's goods, and that all such contracts will be faithfully carried out during a war as during the time of peace. We say that if goods are destroyed, English insurance companies, and insurance companies all over the world, will have to bear the cost. I now come to the question, which I submit is very important, as to how far this is going to affect what is called— the abysmal folly of the present competition in armaments. The First Lord of the Admiralty, in announcing the other day that the Prize Law is to be abolished—a matter on which I desire to congratulate the Government—went on to say that if the present law were altered with regard to capture, there is no reason to suppose that a torpedo-boat less would be built by any other foreign Power if such change were made by us. That certainly seems a remarkable and strange statement. I quite agree that immediately it might not affect the building programme of other Powers. As we know in this country, the momentum of armaments is extremely strong and vested interests are very powerful, and it is very difficult to get a reduction, however good the case may be. In attempting to bind together the two questions of the reduction of armament and this proposed alteration of the law as regards capture, and to make one dependent upon the other, as our representatives did at the last Hague Conference, they were really inviting failure, because you will not get a proud nation to agree, and it is difficult to expect a nation to agree to a reduction of armaments merely because we say we will give up an obsolete right which they do not admit from their point of view to be a very important concession at all. If you try to bind these questions together you are always liable to the idea, which is sedulously encouraged by the war party in other countries that you are laying some sort of trap to get other nations to reduce their necessary defences. In the long run I cannot imagine how anyone can suppose that an alteration such as we desire, if it can be accomplished, would not inevitably have an effect in reducing the armaments of the world. The great argument of the Jingoes and armament mongers in every country would be removed. Their perorations would be gone. The fear of the commercial classes which compels them to agree to these heavy taxes on armaments as a means of insuring their property would be removed. The great motive for expenditure would in the long run be taken away.

Certainly it is impossible to claim that this weapon is such a powerful weapon that the mere menace of commerce destruction will prevent other countries from going to war, and to tell us on the other side that when that menace is removed it will make not a bit of difference to the armaments that other nations are building up. I believe, on the contrary, there is nothing which those who desire peace in Germany and in other nations—those who are doing their best to reduce armaments—more anxiously look for than that we in this country should agree to some such change in international law. It would be the greatest motive, not merely for ensuring peace, but also a great motive for reducing the expenditure on war in every country in the world. Even if that were not so, I should still support this change on the grounds I have stated, because I believe it is in our own interests that the change should be made. But, I am confident that there is no better way in the long run of reducing our armaments and getting rid of the competition of armaments than by entering into an agreement upon this question.

On all these grounds I ask the Government whether at last the time has not arrived to reconsider their attitude in regard to this question. I quite agree that hitherto they have not taken up a purely negative and a blank non possumus. They have been somewhat misrepresented. But it is true to say that the attitude of the British Government has been the greatest obstacle, amongst many others, against getting this policy adopted of the immunity of private property. I agree, too, that the question is, of course, a very difficult and complicated one, raising all sorts of considerations which it would take me far too long to examine now. There is, for instance, the question of contraband-how far ought we to require, as the condition of our agreeing to immunity, that there should be a better definition of contraband than obtains at present. I think it is necessary and desirable that in any revision of naval law we should get a better definition of contraband than there is at present. If you cannot abolish contraband altogether, as was proposed at the last Hague Conference by our representatives, at any rate you ought to require that contraband should be confined entirely to the materials which are directly required for warlike purposes. Then there is the question of blockade. There again we may require some better definition than obtains at present. Whatever be the conditions which His Majesty's Government may think it necessary to impose before they will consider this question of immunity, it is desirable in itself that they should reconsider their attitude with regard to this, and I believe, so far as they are able to move in the direction indicated in this Resolution, so far as they are able to give to private property at sea something of the same protection as is now given by international law to private property on land, I believe they would have behind them wide and enlightened support from men of all parties in this country.


I beg to second the Motion. I, like my hon. Friend, have heard in this House several Debates upon this most important question, and I have heard given from the Front Bench several different answers as reasons why the Government could not comply with the proposals made from time to time. None of these answers have been of a conclusive character, and I hope we may find—I do myself believe—that the attitude of the Foreign Office is not an implacable attitude upon this question. I hope we may receive to-night from the Foreign Secretary some encouragement that he will try to proceed with the request that we are making. None of us who advocate this change pretend that the change will be an easy one. The difficulties with regard to blockade and contraband will certainly require the most careful consideration; but I maintain that when we are told that this change would not be likely to lead to any reduction in the armaments of the world, I must express my profound disagreement with such a sentiment. I hope it would lead ultimately to a very large reduction indeed in the naval armaments of Europe. But the real question, of course, after all, is: Would this change, if made, imperil the interests of Great Britain? I ask, How could it possibly imperil those interests? It is only repeating a mere platitude to say that our naval and shipping interests are enormous and supreme, and that our vessels are called upon to defend commerce scattered all over the world, and that we in this country depend upon the security of that commerce in time of war for our very existence; but it is most remarkable to find that the First Lord of the Admiralty, whose most extreme demands this House has never declined to meet, now comes forward and tells us, by his consent to the arming of merchant vessels, that this great Fleet of ours under present conditions is not able to defend the commerce of this country.

If the change would not imperil our interests, at any rate it is one which is well worth trying. Whether it reduces the fleets of the world or not at once, it certainly would not add to that branch of armaments, and it might very greatly reduce the burden under which the nations of Europe are all groaning at present. Those who know anything about Germany and what has gone on there, know quite well that the appeals to the German people for grants of money for the setting up of a great fleet were primarily based on the necessity to defend their increasing overseas commerce, and it is obvious to me, at any rate, that if we could make private commerce less likely to be destroyed the very argument which is now being used to increase the fleets of Europe would be weakened, if not destroyed. It is well-known that the United States of America and the Triple Alliance of Europe are anxious to see this change made, and if it would not imperil our interests—and I believe it would not—in trying to meet these great nations in this way, we should arouse a better sentiment, I believe, between them and us, and after all, sentiment is a great force in foreign relationships, and tends to pacification. The Prime Minister issued an invitation a short time ago to the men of business in this country to come forward and join statesmen in counsel with regard to the burden of armaments. The business men of this country have been responding to that appeal. At any rate, in the north of England where my Constituency lies, the chambers of commerce have had meetings, and resolutions have been passed embodying such wisdom as business men possess, urging upon the Government to try to use this great concrete attempt, if I may call it so, towards the solution of the difficulty in connection with the burden of armaments, and begging the Government to try to use this great argument to accomplish that end. I have no doubt in saying that with the great power and authority which the Foreign Office of this country possesses, the obstacles in the way, such as difficulties about blockades and contraband, are not insurmountable. At any rate, I should like to see the foreign offices going into counsel together, and our Government putting forward a proposal and trying to make a bargain by means of which this great end should be obtained.

9.0 P.M.


I think the House will agree that both of my hon. Friends have made a very real contribution in their speeches on this subject. I feared that in what I have to say I might find myself in some measure sharply opposed to their views, but after their speeches I do not fear that any longer. I am intervening now, not to pronounce upon the Motion, for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will speak at the end of the Debate, but because I really think it would be for the convenience of the House that they should allow me to put certain points in order that these points might be in their minds as the Debate continues. Looking at the Motion on the Taper, it will be seen that my hon. Friend calls attention to the attitude of His Majesty's Government, and I would like for a moment to refer to that, so that we may be in possession of that up to date. Last year, when I had the honour of speaking on this matter, I quoted my right hon. Friend as saying that should there be any real indication on the part of the Powers generally, that this matter is likely to become a material point in effecting such a reduction of armaments as would really tend to diminish the apprehension of war, then His Majesty's Government had left the door open for the reconsideration of the question. My hon. Friend rightly said—and he did us full justice in the matter—that we have never been, and are not, out and out champions of the right of capture, and that we have mixed that question up with the question of the reduction of armaments. We have left it open to any Power who wished to consider it in that direction. I said last year that no Power had shown any willingness to respond to that invitation. The same is true now. The position is the same now as then, and I think I may go further and say that, so far as my knowledge goes, no Power has yet suggested to us that our maintenance of the right of capture was an element with them necessitating the present or prospective size of their armaments. But there is this to be said in order that we may get up to date with regard to the position of the Government, that we have, I hope, to all intents and purposes, given up the practice of prize money. That is freely recognised by them as a very considerable advance for which I am glad and thankful.

I will mainly try to show what a very big and difficult question this is, and how necessary it is that we should give it very minute consideration before we can decide upon any modification of policy. The difficulty of the question is borne witness to in many ways, and also by the fact that so many public men who have discussed it have found it necessary to change their minds in the course of their examination into it. It is, I think, agreed that it is not enough to say that immunity simply, as has been said outside this House, would give greater security to our commerce, and that, as we are a great commercial nation, therefore immunity must be in our interest, for we can all imagine a state of war which would be quite pleasant for all the commercial community, but while they were congratulating themselves on the charming nature of the war, and on how well they were getting on under it, they might suddenly find that we were beaten, and that all their congratulations had been very wrong. We must not risk that. It is not enough to say that immunity is in accord with the dictates of humanity and civilisation, and that it must, therefore, be adopted for this reason. One's object in war must, I suppose, always be to make your enemy desire peace, and if you can accomplish this by interfering with his commerce you may be in a position to avoid other means of which the result is, not interfering with the enemy's commerce, but with the lives of his subjects. It is surely better to take goods than to take life if you can have the same effect, but if by giving up powers against goods you drive us to develop further powers against the enemy's lives, the cause of humanity would not gain, but rather lose.

The question of the humanity of capture is just worth pursuing for a moment. I say it is perfectly humane. When a merchantman is overtaken by a cruiser there is no question of fighting. It must give up, and the crew and passengers must be looked after. They must be sent back, under the Declaration of London, to their own country as soon as possible, if they will simply make an undertaking that they will take no further part in the war. There is no suffering brought upon them by the capture of the ship in which they are sailing. On land the question is rather more complicated. The loss of the ship and goods falls primarily on the owners. They would, of course, have insured, and they would not be risking their ship and goods unless they had done so, and, therefore, the loss falls upon the insurers of the enemy ship and goods. It is certainly recouped by them in the rates of insurance premiums which they charge to the commercial community, and in that way it is spread over the commercial community of the enemy country, and so far as they can the commercial community recoup themselves for the loss by the" prices which they charge the general public for the goods in which they are dealing. Therefore, although capture generally involves suffering, it does not involve any undue suffering, and any suffering which there is is widespread. Capture involves really that pressure which is likely to induce a Government to bring the war to a definite issue. We cannot, and we do not claim, that in the right of capture we possess a weapon which will bring an enemy to his knees, but we do claim that it is a weapon which is perfectly consistent with all the dictates of humanity.

Then my hon. Friend touched upon the question of insurance, which is a difficult matter, as he said. It is claimed that in proportion to, and owing to the inter-nationalisation of insurance our insurance would suffer, owing to the insurance or reinsurance of an enemy's ships. On the other hand, it is true, as he said, that legally policies of insurance of enemy's ships are void as against the capture by the nation of the insurers. On the other hand, it is true I believe that Lloyd's have declared that they would not use that technical and legal right to break those bargains. It is therefore a difficult question. I suppose what would really happen would be that Lloyd's would really quote such rates as would make the business profitable, in which case the loss would be spread over the commercial community in the enemy's country, who would have to pay those premiums; or that they would refuse to quote altogether, in which case the enemy would have to keep their merchantmen in neutral ports, in which case the loss would be spread over that community; or they would have to insure at home, in which case, again, it would be the general public of the enemy country and not our subjects who would suffer. But with regard to humanity, I need do no more than quote on the subject Lord Lorebum, who said no operation in war inflicts less suffering than the apture of private vessels, and so I move to another point. The hon. Member who proposed the Motion compared very briefly the laws on land and those on sea with regard to private property. I say boldly that there is not that contrast between the two that has sometimes been suggested. The reason why the conscience of humanity favours as great an immunity as possible on the land, is that in a land war it interferes with people's homes. They are in the path of the invading army, not because of anything which they have deliberately done themselves, but because their homes happen to be there. It is their misfortune and not their fault. They are no parties to the war, but they cannot get away, and therefore as little harm as possible is done to them, particularly as, if the invasion is successful and leads to annexation, those individuals with whom you have interfered will become your fellow citizens. There is no difference on the sea, mutatis mutandis. The private property of those persons who are there in the ordinary carrying out of their duty is just as immune and just as much respected on sea as it is on land. All the private property of the officers and crew is absolutely immune. The only thing which is liable to capture is the ship itself and its cargo, which have been voluntarily and purposely risked for the sake of gain.

That is, I am sure, a point, though it may be a small point, to be borne in mind. And with regard to things of a similar nature, means of transport and communication and conveyance, which are risked in the same way on land, the law, in its effect at any rate, is just the same as it is on sea. When a country obtains control of a trade route, whether it is a river or a railway, in a country which it invades, that trade route is every bit as much closed to peaceful commerce as any sea route is closed to peaceful commerce. If an enemy obtains command of all channels of communication in a country on land, those channels would be closed just as the sea routes would be closed and no peaceful commerce could go forward. The enemy would seize all those means for communication, the railways, and so on, and use them for his own supplies, entirely paralysing and stopping your trade. Therefore, on the land, it is legitimate to appropriate all means of transport and communication, if it is legitimate to do so on the sea. For instance, if there were a wireless installation on the land in the district invaded by the enemy, that would be captured and not allowed to work. Yet my hon. Friend proposes, I admit with limitations, that wireless installations should continue working and giving information so far as they could to the enemy on a ship, though they would most certainly stop it on the land. But the difference, and the only difference, and it is a narrow difference, between the laws of war on land and on sea is this, that when on the land any means of communication, such as railway stock or motors or barges are captured, as they can be captured, they do not become a permanent part of the property of the capturing country, but must be restored at the end of the war, whereas on the sea ships may be captured out and out. That is the total extent, so far as I can see, of the difference.

But we must remember this, that on the land such property is innocent in character. It is captured because it happens to be there, and not because it has been purposely risked in order to aid the enemy. It has infringed no sort of prohibition; while if a ship wants to escape it may do so perfectly well. There will always be days of grace for it to get into a neutral port, and a neutral port for it to stay in. The fact that the ship and cargo are voluntarily risked for the sake of gain, and for the sake of profit to the enemy, while on land what is met with happens to be on the ordinary routes of the invasion, really establishes a certain difference. It may be, of course, that we shall be able to find some sort of ultimate solution of this question by bringing the code of law on the sea exactly into correspondence with the code of law on land, and by saying that ships which are captured shall be restored at the end of the war, and not altogether forfeited. That was the Belgian proposal, if I remember aright, at the last Hague Conference. But that is only one out of many matters which need very careful consideration before you can pronounce definitely upon them. I would now like to come to close grips with the subject, and would like to urge that the present right of capture is so closely connected with other rights of maritime war that you cannot safely give it up without a very careful examination of how its abandonment would affect these rights and our position in exercise of them.

Take a question mentioned by my hon. Friend, such as contraband and blockade. There is, first of all, the obvious contention in logic, and there is then the contention in strategy. But so far as the logic in the matter is concerned, the object of the hon. Member is clear. It is that private property should be immune from capture. The Resolution proposes to recognise the capture of contraband and of ships violating a blockade. Yet contraband is private property on the sea only one degree more useful to the enemy than that which the hon. Member wishes to exempt from capture, and blockade is the right of stopping all goods and all ships, enemy and neutral, in a certain zone and in certain conditions, and where it is effective it is a much more serious interference with private property than its capture on the high seas. I feel sure that he will agree with me that it cannot be very satisfactory to him to contemplate that state of things, as his Resolution does, in which the enemy property and enemy ships should be liable to confiscation, if you can draw a zone of warships round the enemy coast, although perfectly immune on the high seas. Clearly, if private property is to be really immune, there ought to be no contraband and no blockade, for surely you can hardly justify immunity in the one case and right of capture in others. There is a more serious connection between these rules with regard to strategy. The questions run into one another and depend upon one another. The Great Powers have at present agreed rules in regard to this, and their Admiralties have no doubt laid their plans and dispositions accordingly under the impression that the right of capture would continue.

I suggest that if it is not continued there must be a very full opportunity of re-examination of those other rights to see whether you have not inadvertently increased the strain of war and sacrificed certain rights of the country while your object may be just the opposite. I recognise that in both the speeches that I listened to that view was borne in mind, and I think that was, if I may venture to say so, a great advance, and I welcome it as showing the necessities of the situation. May I ask attention to a few considerations which arise quite spontaneously in that regard. I am purely a layman in this matter, and I have had no interview with the Admiralty in regard to it. I have not tried to find out in any way what their plans or dispositions, in event of a naval war, might be. I simply-read the Declaration of London with such care as I could to see what the law actually is, and these matters that have occurred to me are perfectly commonplace and not in any way expert considerations of the question. Take the question of contraband. I began by saying that my hon. Friend's object, and the object of all of us, is that through the security of our trade we may be able to effect a reduction of armaments. It is extremely desirable that we should be able to do that. Everyone must admit that it would be the most signal and genuine relief if we could be sure that our trade would be immune, and that we should-not have to employ fleets partly, at any rate, for the purpose of protecting it. Our Merchant Fleet is very obviously a very great target, a very tender target, and if it were no longer an object of anxiety, and if the Navy could be liberated for other duties, it would be a very great advantage. I think it is our duty to maintain the right of contraband. I do not suggest for a moment that other nations would break the law, but there would undoubtedly be a temptation to do so if two of the Great Powers were fighting, and it was a matter of life and death. But I do not suggest that they would. What I do suggest is that, quite legitimately, and inside the laws of the country, if the enemy obtained freedom from any section of the Fleet they could stop our ships and bring them to their own ports under the pretext or suspicion of contraband, alleging that they had information that those ships contained contraband.

Those ships might be carrying food which was vital to this country, but still they might be legitimately sent for adjudication before the Prize Courts of our enemy, and long before two years were over, during which, under the Second Hague Conference ships may be before the national Prize Courts previous to any appeal to the International Prize Court, we should have been forced into submission, unless we could secure a proper food supply in neutral ships or in some other way. I would like hon. Members to address themselves to that argument, namely, that so long as the doctrine of contraband continues—and remember this country was the first to express a willingness and desire to give up contraband, but it is insisted upon by other countries, and not by us at all—the danger to our commerce and consequently the calls upon our Fleet would be practically as great as they are now. Then, with regard to blockades. That is another weapon about which I know nothing from the technical point of view. I do not know at all whether and how the Admiralty would exercise it in any war in which we might be engaged, but it is clear to the lay mind that two things are obvious—first of all, that we no longer possess the power of blockading neutral ports under the Declaration of London, and consequently we no longer possess power to blockade close up to the enemy ports so as to prevent access from neutral ports.

Then again, the development of submarines, torpedo-craft, and aircraft, to my mind, at any rate, mean that you cannot blockade right up close to the enemy coast. What is the effect of these two things in conjunction? It is that you could not stop enemy merchantmen going through your blockade to a neutral port, or from going along the coast between the neutral port to the enemy port. By way of illustration, take the proximity of Lisbon and Cadiz, if there were a war with Portugal; or take the position of Genoa and Barcelona, on each side of Marseilles, if there were war with France; or, again, take the port of Amsterdam and the North Sea ports, if there were war with Germany, and to my mind, at any rate, the last instance is just as impossible as any other instance I could possibly take. What I want to point out is that the ships in any of those cases could come through our blockade lines and say that they were going to a neutral port, Cadiz or Genoa, Barcelona or Amsterdam, or whatever it might be, and we should have to let them through our blockade lines. They would go along in perfect security to their own ports, and they would get fitted out for whatever services might be most valuable at the time to the enemy. They would then come out again through our blockade, and at once go to a neutral port, a perfectly legitimate thing under the present rule, either taking coal or oil to a rendezvous to supply a hostile cruiser, or send wireless messages as to the disposition and composition of our Fleet, and reporting any changes from day to day. Or they might get through our blockade line and convert themselves into cruisers on the high seas to hold up commerce under the plea of searching for contraband.

It is surely inconceivable that we would let the enemy ships, whose sole object, considering their national patriotism and duty to the Government, would be to render services of that kind, pass through our blockade. Surely that is a very important point, seeing that our naval operations would be made infinitely more complex and difficult if anything of that kind were allowed. I can imagine that under those circumstances we should have to give up blockade altogether. What would be the prospect then? Probably for years we should have to keep the sea with our Fleets, while the enemy Fleets were in their harbours, until owing to strain or the mishap of war, we became temporarily the weaker party, when their Fleets would come out and ours might be beaten, in which event our shores would be open to invasion. My hon. Friend will be the first to agree with me that if that, or anything like that were to be the result of giving up the right of capture, it would be because he and his Friends had been playing straight into the hands of those who want us to set up an Army on Continental models. It is the last thing my hon. Friend wants, it is the last thing I want—it is the last thing this country wants. The burden of armaments is quite big enough in all conscience at the present time, and we do not want any tendency in this country towards the stregthening of our power of operating on land owing to diminution of our power on the sea. I will take only one more case, that of the right of conversion on the high seas. There again, I believe, we should be very willing to give it up, but other nations are unfortunately not willing to give it up. Their ships would sail back to their own ports from neutral ports—in many countries it is their duty to do so—to report themselves for this service to their own Government, and they would have guns put on board. Mr. Thomas Gibson Bowles said that the guns which are needed are not very much or very showy. He says that an antiquated gun that will throw a three-inch shell 250 yards is all you require. I can imagine what would happen, namely, that when there was any of our commerce destroyed those guns would be on deck, but whenever a cruiser came over the horizon those guns would be taken off the deck, and we should not be able, in fact, to say that the ship was using them. That is not an agreeable prospect.

I do not presume to claim that all these arguments that I have used are absolutely sound. I mean, as a layman, they are only things that have struck me incidentally. They are sound, I think, as far as they go, but they may not be the whole truth in the matter. They are only things I found, after browsing around among some of the most obvious points after reading the laws of war as they are at present settled; but I do submit that if an outsider can come across those points, which, at any rate, seem to be rather anxious ones so far as this country is concerned, it does show that we ought not to accept a Motion, even of this mild kind, without very careful examination. It is quite conceivable, I think, that we might have a code as to contraband, as to blockade, as to conversion, as to the use of wireless, as to the treatment of captured prizes, and other questions that may be effected, and which might make immunity from capture compatible with national safety. It is quite conceivable that we might arrange with some countries or with all countries to carry out that code after some revision of those matters, if by any terrible chance we happened to be at war with them. I believe that the Government would be entirely in favour of examining the question in that way. As I said at the beginning, we do not at all wish to champion the right of capture under all conditions, but I do say that it is not conceivable that we should arrange with other countries to let all national commerce of ships go free without very anxious reconsideration of these and other parts of our maritime war law before we come to that conclusion. I will use only one last argument: Do we not want war if it comes to be on the responsibility of the peoples rather than on the responsibility of governments? Are not the peoples of countries, unless captured by a Jingo Press, more likely to avoid quarrelling with one another than their governments are? Is not everything which increases the power of expression of the peoples will, and the control by the people of their governments in the interests of peace?

I am not quite sure what the answers to those questions are. Sometimes I am hopeful about the development of peoples. Sometimes one is compelled by the passions that even now take possession of people's minds when a Jingo spirit gets abroad to lose at any rate hope for the real control of peoples of governments, and hope for the development of national consciousness as to the wrong and sin of war, but that is at any rate my hope for the development of democracy. In retaining the right of capture, we retain nothing to which any humanitarian can object, but you do retain for what it is worth a steady, persistent influence over a very powerful section of people in other countries in the direction of making them desire to avoid war. Quite apart from the right of capture, there would be sound moral reasons against war, and many material reasons, but may it not be worth while to keep the motives for peace as strong as we can. I do not put the right of capture too high. I do not say by it alone we can bring an enemy to his knees. I do not say by retaining it you have any guarantee for peace, but I claim so long as you retain the right of forcing the enemy during war to lay up his mercantile marine in neutral harbours, you will find among the great organised commercial communities a strong inclination against war, and a certain tendency towards retaining effective control over the policy of their Government. Let us remember we are in the main a naval Power. Our powers of offence in any case are not great. I, for one, do not wish to increase them by enlarging our Armies. Let us, therefore, not lightly give up such powers as we have. Let us not without reason exchange a widespread motive for peace for something which may prove a false security in war.


If the abolition of the right of capture gave us any reasonable certainty of being enabled to effect any material reduction in our expenditure on naval armaments without in any way lessening our own safety and security, I believe that there is no Member in any part of the House who would not be ready to accept the Resolution of my hon. Friend. I certainly have no desire to perpetuate the competition in armaments. While it lasts, millions are taken annually from productive work which, but for the necessity of those armaments under existing conditions, might be spent in other things which would greatly add to the prosperity and, I think, the happiness not only of the people of this country, but, as well, the people of other nations with whom it is our earnest desire to live in peace and harmony. This subject has been under discussion on more than one occasion within the last few years. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for the Walton Division of Liverpool (Mr. F. E. Smith) raised it in the form of an Amendment to the Address, and last year we had a very able and very interesting speech from the Under-Secretary of State for India. I think that one of the main grounds, though I do not say it is the only ground, for desiring immunity from capture of private property at sea is that the maintenance of this right is felt to be one of the great obstacles to obtaining general agreement amongst the Powers for the reduction of naval armaments. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley did not lay much stress upon that point this evening, but the Seconder of the Resolution did. The point was raised especially in the Debate in 1908 by the right hon. and learned Member for the Walton Division, who was answered on that occasion by the Foreign Secretary in these terms:— I do not for a moment believe that the attitude of the Government on the question of the immunity of private property from capture at sea had the remotest effect on the prospect of the reduction of armaments. One of my objections to this Resolution is, that it deals with one part only of the whole principle of naval warfare, which has gained some adherents from the misuse of the term "private property." It is not private property in the sense that it is the property of an individual. Whether it is the ship, or whether it is the cargo, it is not the individual owner of one or the other who suffers by the capture. If the owner is a prudent man, he is insured; and it is really the consumer who has to pay the higher price caused by, amongst other things, the premium of insurance. The interest in enemy's goods on board a particular ship is, as Sir R. Custance has pointed out recently, not confined to a single individual, but is spread among a great number of people, who subsist upon the profits derived from producing and handling these goods.


Does the hon. Member deny that there is any private property in a ship which is captured?


I say that it is not private property in the ordinary sense of the term; the loss really falls upon the whole nation as consumers. It may be that amongst the losers there will be English underwriters. This may be so; but although an underwriter may lose on a particular ship, he may very well, as was the case in the Napoleonic wars, make a fair profit on the volume of the transactions into which he had entered. This case has been argued partly on the plea of humanity. I would ask those who urge that plea, is it less humane to stop your enemy's trade by capturing his ships than by blockading his ports? These are both military operations designed for the same end, namely, to bring financial pressure to bear on your enemy, and so to reduce his power to carry on the contest. You are ready, I suppose, if you argue the question on the ground of humanity, to destroy your enemy's warships, with all the awful carnage, terrible to contemplate, which would be the effect of a naval battle, and yet you would hesitate to stop his trade. The views of Lord Loreburn on this question have been mentioned by the Under-Secretary of State. I would go further back than that, and quote the words of Edmund Burke, who, speaking in the House of Commons in 1793, said:— In a state of warfare, it must be the wish of every good mind to disarm the enemy rather by despoiling than killing them, as well from motives of humanity as personal interest. If you do away with capture of so-called private property you must, if you are not to be landed in an entirely illogical position, do away with the right of commercial blockade also. How is it possible to maintain the right to blockade your enemy's ports, to prevent neutrals as well as his own ships from entering them, while foregoing the right to destroy or interfere with his sea-borne trade by the capture of his merchant shipping? This was clearly seen by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when sending his instructions to our delegates at The Hague. These were his words:— It must be remembered that the principle, if carried to its logical conclusion, must entail the abolition of commercial blockade. Is my hon. Friend, the mover of the Resolution, prepared for this? If so, how would he propose to bring pressure to bear upon an enemy? The sole power which this country possesses is the power to interfere with the sea-borne trade of the enemy. It is said that by interfering with his sea-borne trade, you cannot deal the enemy a vital blow. I am quite prepared to admit that. But if you were able to shut up his merchant vessels in his ports, to stop all his sea-carrying trade, I think you would be able to bring very effectual pressure to bear upon him, and I hope more speedily to end the war. To come back to my hon. Friend's proposal, if in time of peace you could come to an arrangement of the kind referred to, are you sure that it would be carried out in time of war? I doubt very much whether it would. I would again quote the Foreign Secretary in this connection. He stated that you cannot rely on a treaty which affects only belligerents being kept in time of war with the same certainty you can rely on rules, the enforcement of which interests equally neutrals and belligerents. An agreement made in time of peace would, I maintain, have no binding force upon belligerents. If its maintenance impaired the power of a belligerent to bring the war to a close, is it to be expected that it would be kept? I doubt it. Even if you are prepared to rely upon such an agreement, is it certain that it would enable you to reduce in any way your naval expenditure or to reduce your Navy? Certainly, if commercial blockade is continued, not one single ship less would be required. It is a fallacy to suppose that the size of our Navy is dependent upon the protection of property. It is dependent upon the force which we may have to meet. We have to meet our enemy, and the object of our Navy is to destroy, or otherwise to disarm him. We may do away with the right of capture, and by doing so cripple our own power. We should still have to fight the decisive action when, other things being equal, numbers alone will tell. I hope that if this Resolution goes to a Division it will not be accepted by the House.


The hon. Member who has just sat down has asked us what reason we have to think that this change in the law, which we advocate, will bring about, or tend to bring about, a reduction in armaments. I think it is perfectly clear that armaments, or naval armaments at any rate, during the last few years have been increased, and brought about, chiefly by reason of the fact that they are wanted, not merely for the defence of the shores of the country which has supplied them, but also for purposes of defence on distant oceans. We know quite well that the arguments used in Germany by those who support a great Fleet entirely rest upon the fact that their Colonial Empire is increasing, that their mercantile marine is getting larger every year, and that that mercantile marine is endangered by the existing law of capture at sea. There can be no doubt that it is the formation of the German Navy, the formation of other navies, and the increase of others, which has brought about the necessity in this country of our increasing our Navy. I cannot help believing that if we wish to stop the growth of armaments we have got to go a good deal deeper into the question than merely making the suggestion of a naval holiday, or things of that kind, which only mean the arrest, for that time, of our shipbuilding programme. It is because I believe that this proposal is one of those questions which go to the root of the whole matter, and which, if discussed between the various nations, will enable our representatives and their representatives to probe the whole question of armaments, and also of our international relationships, that I support my hon. Friend in this proposal that we should ask the Government to, at any rate, initiate negotiations.

There can be little doubt that it is this country that blocks the way. At The Hague Conference, when this subject was discussed, the representatives of twenty-two Governments voted for the American proposal to abolish the right of capture, while only eleven voted against. There were a good many abstensions, and for that reason it was impossible to carry the proposal. Notwithstanding the instructions that were given by our Government, a study of the proceedings at The Hague leads one to think that it is almost a certainty that if we had taken as active a line as was taken by the Americans in supporting this proposal, the result would have been very different. The nations that voted against—several of them, at any rate—voted largely because they were anxious to follow our advice and example. Their action, I think, would have been considerably altered if we had taken the initiative with any degree of enthusiasm. The position which this country occupies in its relationship to this question is one which I think is rather—I will not say reactionary—but rather behind the times. It is the more to be deplored because it is looked upon as an action which is guided simply by our looking after our own interests. I will not say with unanimity, but the general consensus that does exist with regard to this question in favour of the abolition of the right of capture abroad is sometimes put down to a feeling on the part of foreign nations that they would like to weaken this country. I believe that to be an error. I believe really that in the general agreement on the part of writers, Continental writers at any rate upon the subject, and the general movement of nations, there is a bonâ fide act of assent and agreement throughout the civilised nations with regard to this aspect of war. I think that is also shown by the fact that we have so distinguished a man as Lord Loreburn who advocates this cause.

The fact is that there is an opinion growing up and very largely held that we ought in gradually moving from conditions of barbarism to the higher conditions of civilisation, to abandon this particular method of warfare, being what it undoubtedly is, a relic—I will not say of barbarism, but, at any rate, of a former system of warfare which in many respects we have abandoned. For the last 200 or 300 years there has been a general movement towards the opinion that war ought to be conducted as much as possible against the armed forces of the nation, and not as against individual persons. I think that this movement is shown by the various alterations which from time to time has taken place in the international law that affects warfare. The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs said that the changes which have been brought about in the rules of land warfare have been due to a desire to protect the individual person from undue hardship. We must remember that these changes have also extended to the capture of property on land. By a resolution of The Hague Conference, which was really carrying on what was being adopted fairly universally before—it was laid down— That it was particularly forbidden to seize an enemy's property unless imperatively demanded by the necessities of war. In regard to the appliances for transport and war material, whilst saying that they might be seized even if they belonged to private individuals, the resolution said that they must be restored at the conclusion of peace, and indemnity paid for them. Besides that, there are other questions in which the sanctity of private property has been recognised in land warfare, apart from any question of inhumanity or cruelty to individual persons. We know that money lent to a belligerent State cannot be confiscated, and of course private property of a foreigner in a belligerent State cannot be taken. The question arises why should not the same principle be applied to private property when it is on the sea, which, after all, is a public highway, and is used by the various nations of the world?

10.0 P.M.

And at the last Hague Convention this principle was still further followed when it was laid down that no fishing boats or vessels engaged in purely local trade were liable to be seized, and all this tends to show this general movement of public opinion towards the abolition of the right that the belligerent has to appropriate the private property of private individuals who are not themselves actually taking part in the war. And if this principle can be justified on land, it can also be justified on sea. You may urge, and it has been urged this evening indeed, that we ought to have the right to seize property at sea, because it enables you to bring pressure to bear upon the enemy, or the individuals who lose by it. Precisely that same principle would hold good on land. Nevertheless it has been abandoned on land, and there is no reason why it should not be abandoned at sea. But in reality the main argument, I think, of those who oppose the abolition is one that the right of capture at sea is supposed to provide a weapon of great value to ourselves, and one that other States do not possess. This was put forward by the Under-Secretary just now who urged that it is a means whereby we can either shorten a war or possibly prevent a war, and if war can be shortened or prevented by this means, we ought to be the last to put an end to it. But is this so? Can it really be made good? I doubt it. The question divides itself into two sections. The first question is: What is the value of this right in the hands of our enemies as against us, and how will it affect us? and, secondly, what is its value in our hands against them? There can be no doubt that, given equal naval strength, if we by any chance found ourselves at war with a combination of Powers that could put on sea a Navy with equal powers to ours, we should suffer very much more from the existence of this right of capture than any other nation. My hon. Friend has shown that, and I need not elaborate it. It is most essential to us to keep our trade free, because we could not carry on war unless we could feed and maintain the employment of our people, and we could not feed them or keep them employed if the ships bringing goods to our shores should suffer in any way. On the other hand, other Continental Powers have other means whereby they could get the necessaries of life, and therefore the interception of sea-borne supplies to a central European nation, although it might have some effect, would have really very little effect compared with the damage which it would cause to us. The fact is, if the right to capture provides a means of bringing pressure upon a nation as a whole by cutting off the food and the goods necessary to keep up employment, its abolition would be of inestimable value to ourselves, given conditions, in which we were actually fighting for our lives with some combination of nations of equal naval strength to our own. But, of course, it may be said that if you contemplate a condition under which trade can be cut off from this country you would have a situation in which this country would be on its knees; that if we failed to keep the command of the seas we would lose, whatever happened, and therefore the question should be discussed on the basis of our still holding the command of the sea. Now if we were able to sweep the seas of all our enemy's ships, will that stop war, or will it attain its end by putting an end to war? Why should it shorten war? On the assumption that our Navy is free to travel from one place to another then with modern appliances, wireless telegraphy and rapid steamers, there would be no difficulty in our Navy practically sweeping the whole of the mercantile marine of a European enemy off the seas in a very short time. The result of that would be a loss to traders, but nothing more would happen. The ships in ports would be detained, and others would be captured, but I cannot believe for a moment that any great European nation would be in the least inclined to give in simply because its mercantile navy, which does not constitute a very large proportion of its total wealth, was put out of action and made useless, because when that was done, the whole of the trade, or the greater part of the domestic trade, of that country would go on much as before.

The trade of Germany and of France does not depend upon its sea-going trade as our does. Their industries would continue, although there would be a certain amount of loss, but not sufficient to make them give way. Take, for instance, Germany—I doubt whether a quarter of the imports of the wealth brought into Germany comes in by sea and in German ships. Therefore it would be only a comparatively small proportion of the trade that would be affected; much too little, I should imagine, to cause this great revulsion which would bring a war to a rapid conclusion. The same considerations would, I think, apply to the argument that it would tend to prevent war. I can hardly conceive that a great nation like France or Germany or Austria, if they were brought face to face with the necessity of declaring war, would hesitate simply because by some chance it might lose its mercantile marine. It is an argument constantly used, and one which, if well founded, I admit, ought to be taken into consideration, but in both these arguments I believe we do not recognise what are the real facts of the case, especially under the conditions of modern warfare. On the contrary, I believe that the maintenance of this principle does really generate feelings, I will not say of war, but does generate a readiness to accept increased armaments among foreign nations.

There is no doubt that the departure made by Germany not long ago in arming her merchantmen was due entirely to the dangers which arise from this right of capture. I have always understood that that was the reason why we, most unfortunately, as I think, have taken the same course. As my hon. Friend has already stated, this is really reviving privateering, and is entirely due to the existence of the risk that commerce runs. The fact is that our duty is to reassure people rather than to insist upon methods which make them more and more anxious to arm themselves in case of war. I believe if this proposal were made to the other Powers, and if we could obtain a public recognition of the fact that it was being seriously discussed by the great maritime Powers, it would have really successful results. I am not so hopeful about Governments, because I think they are rather slow in moving in this matter. I can assure the Foreign Secretary that he has more friends among the humbler classes in foreign countries, as well as our own, than he thinks, in regard to any efforts he may make. In Germany, France, and elsewhere there is an ever-increasing number of persons who are anxious to see something done in this direction, and who are beginning to deplore, and to a certain extent oppose, this constant increase in armaments. Nevertheless, when one converses with them one is always met with the answer, "The Navy must be kept to protect our commerce against this particular danger."

Quite apart from the Governments of the various Continental countries, I believe we shall find that there will be an increasing support on the side of anyone who would move in this matter and bring the various Governments to consider it seriously. I know we have been told that our Government has left the door open, and that they are only waiting for propositions from the other side. I am afraid this process of waiting is not likely to come to very much. All these matters depend upon the initiative of somebody. The right hon. Gentleman has not only a great influence with Governments all over the world, but he has also a reputation with the masses of the people all over Europe and America, and I believe if he could see his way to take some step in advance on this question he would find support that would carry him through and he would influence those who are anxious to come to an agreement in other parts. Of course, the actual methods of carrying out this proposal are difficult and various. It might be possible to come to an agreement without the absolute abolition of the right of capture in every case, but upon some lines assimilating maritime law to land law. There have been several proposals made at conferences of steps that would not be going the whole distance which is sometimes advocated, but if one could make some change which would tend towards the absolute abolition of this right it would be a step in the right direction, and I believe we should find it supported by many others in other parts of Europe.


I think this Motion is one upon which there is rather a mixed opinion. I know there are considerations in favour of it, but there are also some powerful considerations against it; and I should like to put one or two of them before the House. The first proposition I should like to advance is that, with recent developments of shipping, capture for the weaker Power will be much more difficult than in the past. Wireless telegraphy will probably let you know where a hostile cruiser is before the capture can be effected. It will therefore be much easier for the stronger Power to chase the weaker Power off the sea and prevent captures than was the case in the past. If I am right in that view—and if I am right, as I believe I am right, in assuming that we intend to be the strongest Power at sea—then capture is a powerful weapon in our hands, and it must be a more valuable weapon to us than to any of our opponents. As a military manœuvre by itself it is a weapon favourable to us and not to our enemy. I think that is an important consideration to keep in our minds.

Furthermore, the power of cruisers to keep at sea is less than during the Napoleonic wars, when a ship could keep at sea for six months. Now there is scarcely a cruiser which could keep at sea for a fortnight. This, again, is against the power of the weaker naval Power to effect capture. One of my hon. Friends said that there might be a blockade preventing maritime commerce reaching the ports of a Continental Power. That is quite true if you have plenty of neutral ports; but suppose you have this terrible European conflagration, there would probably be no neutral ports, and in that case the argument fails. There is the argument that you could get goods by land in the case of a central European Power when sea transport has failed, but that depends upon neutral ports, and once those ports disappear then the necessity for maritime transport becomes just as urgent as ever it was in the old days. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Morrell) produce the argument about insurance, because no system of insurance can get rid of the risk from the shoulders of that class upon which it naturally falls. What actually happens is that the class liable to the risk pool their risk with the insurance companies, and the only result of insurance under these circumstances is that you make certain of paying more than the average. Those classes are made to pay more than the average disaster, and this goes to find the profits of the insurance companies and their expenses. What would be the result if disaster were certain? You would have to pay 100 per cent. If there were no possibility of disaster, nobody would be such a fool as to insure at all. Insurance does not affect the real incidence of the loss at all. All it does is to distribute the loss amongst that particular class, but it does not get the risk off the shoulders of that class.

The Resolution before the House tells us that ships should be exempt from capture except in the case of ships carrying materials for war. That is a very important consideration. That refers to the whole doctrine of contraband. Now consider the position of the British Empire with regard to contraband. Not only this country, but the Empire as a whole depends upon maritime commerce. It is the means the Empire has of intercommunicating with itself. It is our only means. Practically, a very substantial proportion of the traders in the inter-Imperial trade, trading from one part of the Empire to another, carry articles which might be called materials of war. Immediately after the Declaration of London a very large number of articles which are regularly carried became actually contraband. For instance, specie and a great many more articles which are conditional contraband are regularly carried, and must be regularly carried, by the vessels that form the different links between the different portions of our Empire. Apparently all those ships would be liable to seizure. They would probably be interned in the first instance, and released in the final and ultimate appeal in a few years' time. That will not do. It is essential to us, not that the ship should ultimately be returned to the owner at the end of the war, but that during the war our ships should be able to carry on their business, which is that of carrying goods to and from this country. It would be absolutely no satisfaction to us as a nation, no matter what the position might be to the ship-owning individual, to have the whole of our mercantile shipping returned to us at the end of the war with compound interest if we had been prevented from using them during the war. It is essential to us that we should continue to use our shipping during war, not for the purpose of ship-owners only, although that is an important consideration, but also for the advantage of the rest of the inhabitants of this country who cannot live unless they have the opportunity of using ships. I regard that as a matter of prime importance.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State referred to the proposal which, I think, he said had been put forward by Belgium for interning ships during war, and returning them at the end of war. That is absolutely futile from a national point of view. The ship might just as well be sunk straight off. Therefore, if we are going to consider the abolition of the right of capture as an advantage to our commerce during war, it is absolutely essential that the whole law of Contraband of War should be swept away. I do not believe that an international law which is clear and cannot be disputed, and which is undoubtedly agreed upon, will be broken. I think that parties in the excitement of war will sail as near the line as they dare, and that they will give every doubt in their own favour. Experience shows that the laws will be stretched by the belligerents as far as they decently can. They will, as far as they can plausibly make a case, stretch the law in their own favour, but I do not think that they will go further. When they have no excuse for detaining the ship they will allow it to go free, but if they can trump up an excuse, especially if they are hard pressed, I believe they will do so, very likely returning her with compound interest afterwards, though that will be no satisfaction to the nation, whatever it might be to the individual owner. Look at it from this point of view. If it is necessary to protect a large portion of our contraband, the steps the Admiralty would have to take to protect, say, 20 per cent. would be sufficient to protect the remaining 80 per cent. of your trade. You cannot protect a portion of your trade only, because the method you adopt is that of chasing hostile vessels off the sea, and, if you once establish maritime supremacy, you have complete protection of everything. You cannot obtain partial protection at less cost, expense, and trouble than is necessary to obtain total protection. From that point of view we must obtain the right of total immunity, if there is to be any immunity at all, but we must not lose sight of the fact, and I put this as an argument in favour of being willing to accept abolition of capture, coupled with the total abolition of contraband that in those days, when we are neutrals, and I think we are much more likely to be neutrals than belligerents, we shall undoubtedly derive considerable advantages if we can secure the total abolition of contraband.

There are interferences with commerce in war which I think are much more cruel, and, in many respects, more serious. I refer to the letting loose of floating mines on the seas. I do not know what would result supposing those things which occurred in China during the war between Russia and Japan were to happen in Europe in a war between two first-class Powers, and if damage to neutrals near our shores was caused thereby. I do not believe the neutrals would remain neutral very much longer. We are told that if we agree to this Motion we shall secure a reduction of armaments, There is no one in this House more anxious than I am to secure that, but I must confess the evidence upon which we are asked to believe that a reduction of armaments is going to follow on the abolition of the doctrine of capture seems very slender.

An hon. Member told us that one of the main motives of building gigantic navies was to protect commerce in time of war, and, later on, he said he did not believe any great Power would avoid war merely on account of the danger of the capture of its commerce. But surely, if a nation spends millions upon millions in building a navy in order to protect its commerce, it will take very considerable thought before it runs the risk of going to war and thereby losing its commerce. The argument is one which cannot be used both ways, and I venture to think it would be a matter of powerful consideration with a nation before it entered upon war and in determining in what way and how long it should prosecute it. I believe that the proper attitude for this country to take is one of being willing to negotiate on the question of the right of capture at sea—willing to give up, if necessary, something which we believe to be of considerable value to ourselves, providing we get in exchange and in other directions concessions which would be of equal value to us. I do not believe we shall ever get as a mere consequence of giving up this right an agreement to reduce armaments, but I am quite willing to admit that if we can by negotiation or concession do anything to establish greater good will among the nations there is good hope there will be a reduction of armaments as a result thereof, and that is why I respectfully urge on the Government that they should be willing to negotiate, but not willing to agree unless they get valuable consideration.


It seems to me that we are discussing a subject as to the future of which we are very ignorant. We have had no naval war since the days of sailing ships. My own belief is that when a war breaks out—God forbid that it should!—between this and any other country, you will have no ships to capture. I know very well what has happened in regard to insurance companies. The Liverpool Association have settled that unless the Government will insure their ships they have given instructions—I have this from several heads of large shipping concerns—that on war breaking out their ships are to seek the nearest neutral port and there remain until the war is over. In the old days of sailing vessels a commercial ship could venture across the sea, but in these days of wireless telegraphy, swift cruisers and swift torpedo boats of 30 knots, no merchantman has a chance of escaping. What would happen if we had a war, say, with Germany? All the German ships would keep in their own ports, and would not go out unless they were insured by the Government and convoyed by the German Navy. Let us assume that after two or three months we had acquired command of the sea. We could not carry the war any further.

I remember a speech of my right hon. Friend a year or two ago in which he said that he relied upon this right as being the best means of enabling us to bring a war to an end. I assert that it would not, because there would be no merchantman to seize. Germany could get her supplies from any quarter, while we could not. If our ships were kept in the same way within their ports we should suffer a great deal more than they would. We have much more to suffer in every way. If the ships keep to the ports we are injured ten times more than Germany would be. I wish my right hon. Friend to consider this. I know, from communications with shipping men, that the moment any war is declared they will stop the vessels going to sea, unless they are accompanied by men of war of this country able to protect them, or, on the other hand, unless they are insured by the Government. Without that we may take it as certain that the ships will not be there to be captured by anybody, so that we are really fighting around something which upon trial we shall find has very little substance. With the present speed of communication, and particularly with wireless telegraphy, any ship that is stopped in any part of the world will be sent into a neutral port, and there will be no mercantile shipping, except some of our own, to seize. If a foreign country is not so dependent upon sea commerce as we are, and can stop their shipping going out to be seized by us, whereas we must send our shipping out to bring us food and raw material, it stands to reason that it is much more to our interest to free ourselves, if we can, from the right of capture, so that our vessels could go and come to and from this country, which is essential to us. It does not affect us to any extent that we should be able to capture the vessels of foreign countries, because they would not go to sea to be captured. The question ought to be considered in the light of modern science, modern shipping and modern power of communication, and the probability which exists that in case of a war between two great foreign navies the ships of this country and any other country will remain in port until the war is over, so that the question of capture has very little substance in it, and might very well be given up.


I wish to associate myself and my Friends with the Motion. I should like the Foreign Secretary to deal with the case put forward as to the far larger importance to this country of having property at sea immune from capture than it is to any other country. What was said by the Under-Secretary largely centred on other arguments of this kind, that we should lose some advantage if we gave up this right of the capture of private property, whereas it is the other point of view that really is important. We are more dependent than any other country on the face of the globe for imported food, and the mere fact of interference with the food supply would send prices up within a few weeks to such an extent that the poorer classes of the community would perish wholesale because they could not afford to buy them. I have listened to what has been said in previous Debates upon this question, but I have never heard, or seen, any statement that met that point, that in view of the peculiar position of this country and its dependence upon foreign food supplies, it is vitally necessary that we, above all nations of the earth, should claim that private property at sea should be immune from capture in time of war.


The question has been treated very much in Debate as if it were a departmental question belonging to the Foreign Office, but it is not really a departmental question, as far as the Foreign Office is concerned. The Foreign Office, no doubt, becomes the channel through which, on such occasions as The Hague Conference, instructions are conveyed to the delegates who are appointed, but it is not the Department in this matter which is specially qualified or concerned with advising the Government as to what the merits of the question are. I think probably the Admiralty and the Board of Trade are more departmentally concerned with the merits of this question than the Foreign Office. My hon. Friend (Mr. Acland) happens to have given great attention to this subject—I think he somewhat modestly called it having a browse around—and has made an interesting speech, because he has given a good deal of study to it, and has found great interest in it. On a question of this kind, which is not purely Departmental, and in which the policy of the Government has to be pronounced, it is natural, of course, for either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a pronouncement. Both of them happen to be particularly engaged in other matters, and I have not succeeded in being able to induce any of my other colleagues to take charge of the question this evening, and that is really the reason I am doing so, and not because it is specially a matter for the Foreign Office. I also had the misfortune to make a speech upon it some years ago also from the Departmental point of view.

I am not sure that my own personal views on the question are not modified to some extent since I made that speech. I was dealing then with an entirely different Motion which was presented to the House in a very different way, and I think the greater part of my speech, so far as I can remember—I have not referred to it recently—was directed to the question of blockade, and on the assumption that you could not separate the question of capture from the question of blockade. My hon. Friend who introduced the Motion to the House to-night has put it forward in a form which eliminates the question of blockade from the Motion. Blockade is one of the things which he makes an exception in the Motion, and he has therefore presented to the House a proposition which, I think, is a somewhat different thing from that which the House has ever had before. It deals with the question of the immunity from capture of private property at sea, while reserving the right of blockade. These two propositions are entirely different. That reservation changes the character, and certainly changes my attitude, as to immunity from capture of private property at sea. I would say this, and I am sure it is the view of the Government, that they could not consider or accept any Motion which would commit them to the abolition of the right of blockade. That they would certainly reserve, but when it comes to the question raised by my hon. Friend which eliminates the question of blockade, I think we can discuss it in a much less uncompromising spirit. I would like to say that my hon. Friend brought out very clearly the importance of the question. He also brought out that it is not a one-sided question, and that there are great difficulties and limitations attached to it, and his whole speech was a thoughtful discussion of the subject and a real contribution, I believe, to making some progress, and it is in that spirit I should like to deal with it. My hon. Friend said he would deal with it from the severely practical point of view of national interests. The hon. Member for West Bradford (Mr. Jowett) also spoke from that point of view. He said that it is more to our interest than to the interest of any Continental nation, or any other nation in the world, that shipping and private property should be immune from capture at sea. I think I can understand the point of view of my hon. Friend, but I will restate it in these words. The interests exposed by British trade are so great and so vital that it is absolutely certain immunity for merchant ships would be an undoubted advantage to Great Britain.

To understand the position you have to consider whether it can be secured. We must get an absolute and certain immunity for ourselves. If an agreement were loosely drawn and subscribed to by us which left us under the impression in time of peace that we had secured immunity, and then, when we were unfortunately engaged in war, left us to discover that we had not secured it, that would be the most unsatisfactory and dangerous position of all. That is why you want to approach this question very carefully, and any agreement on this question is in a different position from an agreement like the Declaration of London, and things of that kind, which, regulating relations and dealings in time of war, not between belligerents inter se, but between belligerents and neutrals, may serve to secure that those agreements will be kept, because a nation having become a belligerent is anxious not to provoke seizure, and that is in itself an automatic pressure upon the belligerent nation not to violate an agreement which it has come to in time of peace, and which affects its dealings with neutrals. But when you come to an agreement which is only between belligerents, which you have made in time of peace, but which in time of war will be operative only between the nations at war, then there is much less sanction and pressure behind it, and a much greater inducement to one of those belligerent nations, I will not say openly to put the thing aside, but, as the Member for Hexham has said, to put his own interpretation upon it.

What I apprehend would happen unless any Resolution about immunity of private property at sea were very carefully drafted would be something of this kind—to give one instance. War has broken out between two belligerent Powers, each with considerable navies, each having bound themselves in time of peace to respect immunity of private property and shipping in time of war. A merchant vessel belonging to one of them, equipped with wireless telegraphy, might possibly either from design, or it might even be by accident, come among the fleet of the enemy. The enemy seeing a merchant vessel, belonging to the belligerent nation with which it was at war, equipped with wireless telegraphy, would certainly either seize that ship or at least confiscate its wireless telegraphy. It would be impossible to have a condition of things in which, two nations, being at war, the vessels of each of those nations equipped with wireless telegraphy could be able to move freely among the fleet of the other nation, sending information back as to its position. Suppose that nation, to protect itself, seizes that ship or confiscates its wireless telegraphy what is to prevent the other nation from saying "Already the rule of immunity from capture at sea has been violated, and having been violated in the first instance by the other party we do not intend ourselves to observe it?" You must have some careful rule to guard against things of that kind. Again, with reference to contraband, suppose that in time of peace you have come to an agreement that there should be immunity of private property at sea, and that in time of war one belligerent nation issues a list of contraband and declares food to be contraband. The other belligerent nation at once loses all the advantages, all the main advantages on which it thought it could rely when it signed the agreement in time of peace. I think that those illustrations lead up to what will be my main point to show that we cannot point blank say that we are prepared to agree to immunity of private property from capture at sea. But we will advance this stage. I think we are prepared, and, in fact, in 1907, we did give instructions to our delegates to say that if it were likely to lead to a reduction in expenditure on armaments, or if we had any evidence to that effect, we must be prepared to agree to something.

Then I am afraid the position is not improved with regard to the reduction of expenditure upon armaments. It used to be assumed that other Continental nations were only waiting for some word from us on this question to reduce their naval expenditure. That used to be assumed in regard to Germany in particular. I think some years ago it was really the underlying assumption of those who supported this view that, if we would only speak the word, it would lead to the reduction of the German naval strength. In all the eight or nine years that we have been in office we have never had the least indication from any Continental nation that I remember—certainly not from Germany—that their naval expenditure was bound up in any way with the question of the immunity of private property from capture at sea. No other country has come to us and told us, "If you will agree to this, it will enable us to reduce our naval expenditure." If it had been the fact, undoubtedly we would have had some indication of it. My hon. Friend who moved the Motion said there would be an indirect effect from the change. I am not sure that I am very sanguine about that indirect effect. My own opinion 5s that practically nothing you can do, that no change in the law, or Resolution or Regulation of this kind, will really have a very material effect upon the chances of war or expenditure upon armaments, except one thing, and that is the growing belief between the great nations of the world that they have good intentions towards each other. If we could only arrive at that state of things—which is arrived at from time to time, without any alliance or binding obligation, between particular nations—and if the Press of the different countries, in dealing with international questions and foreign affairs, gave to every country at least the benefit of the doubt, I think we should see an enormous and rapid improvement on the question of armaments. Until we get some change of that kind I do not believe that the navy laws of foreign Powers can be affected or altered by this question, or by other definite arrangements which we may offer. With regard to the risk of war, and the pressure which may be brought to bear upon a foreign country by interference with sea-borne commerce, the view taken on the Continent I believe to be quite different from that which we heard quoted from Lord Loreburn in this country, and it is at the present moment the apprehension of interference with sea-borne commerce which is regarded on the Continent as one of the great risks of going to war.

We must not bring about a state of things under which, between ourselves and any great Continental nation, that great Continental nation makes up its mind that it is going to run no risk, or a risk of very limited liability, in case of war, while we ourselves remain open to risks of unlimited liability; because, as regards any Continental nation, we should be liable to risk in time of war with them, or we should be liable to risk if our Navy was not of sufficient strength, a risk to which the Continental nation would not be liable. However superior our Navy is to that of any great Continental country, there can be no question, whatever naval victories may be achieved, of the invasion or conquest on our part of that territory. That is out of the question, with the enormous Continental armies that are there, so that no Continental country runs that risk so far as we are concerned. As far as we are concerned, supposing our Navy was worn down, and if you so limit the operations of our Navy that it is unable to bring pressure to bear on the other country, and the other country is able to continue the war without being subjected to pressure you may have the war continued for such a length of time during which the whole burden of wear and tear and of protection of the sea is upon our Navy and not upon the Navy of the Continental Power, and you are going to make war a very one-sided affair once you produce a state of things in which the balance of risk in war is enormously against this country and enormously in favour of the great Continental country, and I doubt whether you have done anything either to diminish the chances of war or to diminish the expenditure on armaments. That is why I make the point of the right of blockade. If you eliminate the right of blockade when you come to the question of interference with merchant ships and private property on the high seas I agree to this extent with my hon. Friend, the mover of the Resolution, that I do not think that it is to our interest that we should pose as being the champions of the maintenance of that right.

My hon. Friend said that at the last Hague Conference we had been the great obstacle. I can only speak more or less my own personal opinion, because this is a very large subject, which the Government will have to consider much more carefully than it has yet had time to consider it before it gives its final instructions to our delegates to The Hague Conference, but my own opinion is that there is no reason why we should be found the chief obstacle at the next Hague Conference. There is no reason why we should not devote our efforts and our considerations in the interval that must take place before the next Hague Conference not to supplying our delegates with arguments for opposing the Resolution, which undoubtedly will be brought forward by the United States, or some other Power that brought it forward before; but to examining the conditions on which we can instruct our delegates to accept the Resolution. I would suggest that discussion in this country should be devoted, not to labouring the mere point to give immunity to merchant ships, and private property at sea is a desirable thing without examining it closely, but the discussion should occupy itself with examining the conditions on which it might be safe for this country to agree to such a Resolution. Some of the conditions obviously are, first of all, the question of blockade, on which we should want a recognised understanding with other countries. We had such in the Declaration of London. If the Declaration of London were ratified that would stand and be sufficient with regard to that particular point of blockade. Without some understanding with regard to blockade we could not agree to this particular Resolution. Then you would certainly have to have very strict conditions with regard to contraband, in order to guard against the illustration I gave of the want of regulation of contraband being used as a protest or excuse for setting immunity aside in time of war. That would want very careful consideration. I think my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said you ought to have an agreement that merchant vessels are not to be turned into armed ships. Otherwise what will happen will be this: You may be at war with a Continental country and you may have established a blockade of its ports. One of those merchant vessels may go to a neutral port near its own coast, and you would be unable to stop it going. It could go there and wait until some opportunity of the blockade allowed it to slip through into one of the neutral ports of the Continental country and emerge again an armed vessel to do what mischief it could. Therefore, that is one of the points on which we should want an agreement. I quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Holt) that if we agree to anything of this kind we must get a quid pro quo. I think he mentioned the question of floating mines. That, I agree, is a thing in regard to which we should certainly want an agreement.

All these points want very careful examination. My hon. Friend who brought the Motion before the House in a forceful way appeared to recognise the difficulties. I have spoken my own personal opinion rather than the settled opinion of the Government, who have not had time to consider the whole matter; but I think I have met my hon. Friend to a considerable extent by advancing the position which we might be able to take up at The Hague Conference. I have indicated reasons why we must keep our hands free. Our object in doing so is not to offer a blank opposition to this question on the next international occasion, but to guard against committing ourselves to accepting it without having secured proper conditions. If that is so, I cannot on behalf of the Government accept a Motion committing us to initiate negotiations with foreign countries, as this Motion must be regarded as doing. We must first have time to work out the conditions on which we should be prepared to negotiate. I trust that in the course of the next year or so that will be done, and that when the subject next comes before the House the Government may be in a position to take the matter a little further, and to be more explicit as to the conditions upon which such a position might be taken up by this country. If it is understood that we must have conditions, I should be quite prepared to take up the attitude that we should not on the next occasion refuse to negotiate, but should come forward ourselves with the actual conditions which we regard as essential and fair in the matter with the possibility of a settlement.


Would the right hon. Gentleman accept a slight Amendment of the Resolution to the effect that the Government would be willing to negotiate if invited to do so.


No, Sir. I think we must have our own time to examine the matter. It is difficult from the Motion before us to say exactly to what we should be committed.


It will be evident Lo every one that we have discussed a most important subject, and one which cannot be disposed of in a debate extending over two and three-quarter hours. The hon. Member for St. Paneras (Mr. Dickinson) suggested that if we consulted other Powers on this question we should be going a long way towards the reduction of armaments, and he brought forward as an illustration the fact that at the last Hague Conference we had, in his opinion, obstructed rather than endeavoured to advance his particular proposition. I think that the argument was a very unfortunate one, because at the last Hague Conference what took place was this: we entered into it in the belief that if we pointed out to the other Continental Powers that we were prepared to diminish armaments other Continental Powers would at once accede to our request and—

It being Eleven of the clock the Debate stood adjourned.

The remaining Orders were read and postponed.

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