HC Deb 19 March 1918 vol 104 cc899-925

Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

8.0 P.M.

Mr. WHYTE (resuming)

When we were interrupted by an ancient ceremony, I was trying to persuade my Noble Friend the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs that there was more in the proposal for the establishment of a Committee of Foreign Affairs in this House than the argument which his chief has to-night put forward would lead one to believe, and I think I am right in claiming that those who support this proposal do so out of a sense that a Committee of that kind would fulfil a useful function without being open to the charge, which might be brought to bear against those who propose to raise constant Debates in the House of Commons, of embarrassing the action of the Foreign Office by public debate. It seems tome that it is irrelevant to bring against the proposal to establish a Committee the charge that it is undemocratic. As I regard that proposal, it is a democratic step in the sense of bringing a certain number of Members in this House into contact with the Foreign Office and of enabling them to exercise a certain modicum of what would ultimately really be popular influence upon the action of that body. It is entirely irrelevant to say that the supporters of a body of this sort attack the Foreign Office because it engages in secret diplomacy. I have never been a critic of secret diplomacy. Secrecy is one of the essential elements of the practice of diplomacy, and I do not believe any man who has given the matter five minutes' thought will pretend that the process of diplomacy itself can be anything but secret if it is to be carried on successfully. The two things about which I think this House and the whole country are deeply concerned are, first of all, the principles which guide British diplomacy and the policy which they are endeavouring to carry out, and, secondly, the efficiency with which that policy is carried out. I agree with a great deal that fell from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for one of the divisions of Staffordshire, that probably the most urgent business in foreign affairs at this moment is to see that the Foreign Office is brought up-to-date and fully equipped to meet the needs of the moment. It is notorious, and it is indeed best known to many within the walls of the Foreign Office itself and in the Diplomatic Service, that that is one of the most urgent questions of the hour, and that the more popular pressure that can be brought to bear on the Government to carry out the necessary reforms the better we shall be able to face the gigantic tasks of the Peace Conference.

I shall not embark on a discussion of these points to-night, because I understand the Government has consented to put down the Foreign Office Vote after the Easter holidays in order to give us an opportunity of discussing the reforms which the Foreign Office propose of itself, and of adding our voice in supplement to that which we may hear from the official spokesman of the Office itself. I should like to emphasise that, in supporting the proposal for the establishment of this Committee, I am doing so in the long run in the interests of the efficiency of diplomacy, and in no way in challenging its secrecy. I think it positively unfair for the right hon. Gestleman to pretend that those who support this proposal wish to pry day by day into the processes by which policy is being carried out. There is no such intention, and indeed the right hon. Gentleman only has to consider for a moment the manner in which the Committee would be appointed, and the personnel of which it would be composed, to see that even if there were one or two hare-brained individuals upon that Committee, they would never be able to persuade the Committee as a whole to engage in any such task. The Members of this House are well aware of the division of responsibility between the Government and themselves. We in the last resort are responsible for legislation and criticism of the Executive; we are not in the last resort responsible for the Executive itself; and we would not propose, either in this House or in a Committee on Foreign Affairs sitting upstairs, to attempt to assume a responsibility that does not belong to us. As I said in my opening remarks, the responsibility for administration and Executive action must remain undivided in the hands of His Majesty's Ministers, and no action of ours will be taken in order to detract from it. At the same time we believe that, both in the information which the Foreign Office would be undoubtedly free to impart to a Committee of this nature, and also in the influence which such a Committee could bring to bear on the Foreign Office from time to time in reference to public policy, such a Committee would justify its own existence, and would, I believe, lead to the Foreign Office ultimately seeing that, just as in the case of the Press, on the whole the Foreign Office has little to complain of, so in the case of Members of this House —much more notably in the case of Members of this House—it would ultimately find that the co-operation of such Committee was of great value in its public action.


As my chief object in raising this Debate was to get a full Parliamentary discussion, and as I do not want to put the House to the trouble of a Division, although we were not satisfied with the Foreign Secretary's speech, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Amendment.



Amendment negatived.

Main Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair.''

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