In the course of the last two weeks a number of questions have been put to the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Blockade about the publication in France and in this country of extracts from the remarkable letter written by the Emperor Charles to Prince Sixte of Bourbonne, and the events, discussions, and proceedings which appear to have sprung there from. The Foreign Secretary has quite properly, if I may say so, declined to discuss this at Question Time, and I agree with him that matters so delicate cannot be dealt with then, but I understood him to say just now that, although he could not answer the ques- 570 tion put to him then, he would participate in the discussion that was likely to take place on the Motion for the Adjournment. It is in the hope, therefore, that he will be able to give this House and the country some information on these events that I shall put to him, if he will permit me, a number of questions, without, I need hardly say, desiring to cause him or the Government any difficulty—for I realise how difficult the position has been, still is, and may continue to be —but in order that we may have some information on which we can rely in respect to the communication from the Emperor Charles, and the part that has been taken in them by the Prime Ministers and others who dealt with the matter last summer.
The calendar of these events is some what interesting. The Revolution in Russia broke out about the beginning of March, 1917, and the letter was written by the Emperor Charles on 31st March. It appears to be an inference justified by events that what happened in Russia was not without its influence on the Emperor's mind. It was a letter of a most confidential nature, written to Prince Sixte, who is connected with the Emperor Charles. It appears, if the newspaper accounts may be believed, to have been shown by Prince Sixte to President Poincaré It is said that President Poincaré showed it to the Prime Minister of France, M. Ribot, and that the purport of the letter was at that time communicated to our own Prime Minister. I am bound to use the phrase "it is said," because we have in this country no official information on the subject, and the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly has declined to discuss it at Question Time, but that the facts more or less follow these lines appears to be clear, not only from what has passed in the French Press but also from circumstantial accounts which have been given in one of our own important newspapers, the "Manchester Guardian" If, therefore, anything that I say with regard to what is generally known is incorrect, I must plead that I can only rely on what has been published in the Press, and if there have been inaccuracies no doubt the right hon. Gentleman will clear them up.
It was on 31st March that the Emperor Charles wrote his famous letter. Oddly enough, on 3rd April Count Czernin gave an interview to the "Fremdenblatt," suggesting that there was now a possibility of 571 negotiation without an armistice. I would infer from that, therefore, that the Emperor Charles was not acting altogether without the knowledge of his Chancellor. Some time in April the Emperor of Austria and the Emperor of Germany met at their general headquarters, and it may be—we do not know—that they discussed the possibility of negotiation. If there was any collusion between them, then, no doubt would be the opportunity for the suggestion of collusion, for the organising of such communications and the publication of such interviews as might lend themselves to the purposes of the two Emperors. But shortly afterwards, as far as we can ascertain, the Emperor wrote a second letter in which it is said he added that Bulgaria agreed to the action which had been taken by him and proposals made by him in the first, and I think he added, if one may believe current reports, that Roumania had also been communicated with, in what way we are not able to ascertain. He suggested that if the territorial claims of the Allies were restricted to Alsace-Lorraine there was a possibility of carrying the negotiations further. We immediately find ourselves in the middle of territorial discussions of the most delicate character, which at that time appeared to be the rock on which any negotiations would break and so far as future transactions are concerned have always been matters of the greatest delicacy. M. Briand shortly afterwards, and not in any way connected with the transactions which surrounded the letters, seems to have met Von Laken in Switerland, and from information which he has given to his Government and to the Committee of the French Chamber since his return, the proposals made to him there were that Trieste and the Trentino could be assured to Italy. I draw no inference from these transactions except that it would appear that there was collusion between the two Emperors, that Austria was prepared to suggest to France a settlement of their grave differences by securing to France Alsace-Lorraine, and that, getting wind of this, Germany was prepared to suggest to anyone who would communicate to Italy that we might settle our differences by their giving away the Trentino and Trieste—a characteristic transaction, each being prepared to give that which did not belong to him.
Belgium and Roumania for the first time were communicated with in the 572 course of these transactions by the Allies, and the first question I would like to put to the right hon. Gentleman is this: When the Emperor Charles's letter was first communicated to the French Government, and by the heads of their Government communicated to our Prime Minister, were any of the other Allies except Baron Sonnino consulted? Was there, for instance, any communication with the other European Allies, and in particular was there at that time any communication made by our Prime Minister or the French Government to the American Government? They were as deeply concerned in the attainment of peace as we were. Their influence in the Alliance at that time was not as great as it has since become, but it was growing rapidly, and that these great transactions—for they might have been great in their result if they had been started in good faith and had been carried through by the belligerent countries—should have gone on without the knowledge of President Wilson is almost inconceivable. As far as one can ascertain, at the beginning of the correspondence Russia was not informed of what had taken place. It is difficult to tell how far any Government in Russia at that time would or would not have been able to take part in important pourparlers, but from such information as has come through to us from Paris it appears to be clear that M. Kerensky was not then given any information about what had taken place, and I presume he was entirely in the dark as to proposals having reached the French Government from the Emperor Charles. And it was at the very moment when M. Kerensky was appealing to the Allies to take some steps towards a negotiated peace!
Mixed up in this curious tangle of events there is the proposed Conference at Stockholm. It is impossible to disentangle the Conference at Stockholm from these transactions, and it has a direct bearing upon the attitude of M. Kerensky at that time and upon the attitude of other important persons since then. M. Kerensky was in favour of the Stockholm Conference, and so, we are given to understand, was M. Albert Thomas, who had been in Russia and had just returned. So, we are informed, was M. Ribot, at first. Indeed, he is said by the Socialists in France to have promised to issue passports. We are also informed by one of the important organs of the 573 Press, which represents the Prime Minister's views, that our Prime Minister was in favour of the issue of passports at first. During this very period, when communications. were passing somewhat freely, owing to movements in France, M. Ribot withheld his consent to the issue of passports. The same attitude was taken up by this country. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Barnard Castle (Mr. Henderson) has already stated that he counted on the co-operation of the leaders of Socialist opinion in France when he wished to take part in that Conference, and he has, more than once, publicly stated that, in his view, with such knowledge as he had at that time, and which has accumulated since, the virtual prohibition of that Conference by the French and British Governments has been a misfortune. I can express no opinion on that one way or the other, but I hope that any attempt to bring together the organised Labour of belligerent countries in future will not find any obstacles placed in its way. There is no doubt that the negotiations which were passing in this somewhat irregular way were mixed up with the prohibition of the Stockholm Conference. There appears to have been an entire change in the views of the Alliance in regard to the proposals which came through from Austria and Germany, and if the right hon. Gentleman can give us any information on that subject to-day I think it would do a good deal to calm public opinion here in many quarters. Not in pacifist quarters only, but in many other quarters there is disquiet, due to the disclosures which hare been made in France.
The questions I have to put forward are these: Why at the time of the receipt of that letter did our Government not communicate with the American Government; why was the American Government not informed of what was passing? My second question is of a different nature, and refers more to the responsibility which our own Government Departments and our Government as a whole have over matters of peace and war, and it is this: Did our Prime Minister inform the Foreign Office at the time of the communication of the fact of the communication having been made and having been shown to him? I know that he was unable at the moment to consult the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Balfour), because, if my memory serves me rightly, he was in America; but it would not have been 574 impossible to have communicated the facts to the right hon. Gentleman and to the President of the American Republic at one and the same time, and the presence of the right hon. Gentleman in Washington would have been a convenient moment for consultation between President Wilson and the Foreign Secretary. The last question I would ask is this: Why were negotiations dropped; was it on purely territorial grounds, or was it because the demand was made by France not only for Alsace-Lorraine, but for the 1814 line? It is said in some quarters that the demand is even for the 1790 line. That seems to me inconceivable, but it is so generally stated that the right hon. Gentleman will be doing a real service to public opinion in this country if he can clear it up at once. If the 1814 line is in any way incorporated in our war aims, I need hardly say that would cause great surprise to public opinion in this country. So far as I have been able to ascertain, that has never at any time been contemplated by the Foreign Office or in any statements which have been made by the present or the previous Prime Minister, although I ought to add that some members of the War Cabinet have at times made speeches which lent themselves to the view that the 1814 line was part of the war aims which they contemplated, and that when speeches were made about the banks of the Rhine it was with the knowledge in their minds that the 1814 line was freely canvassed by those who spoke on behalf of the French Government. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to clear up these points. On the general necessity of making a statement now, I would like to point out that far more has been communicated to the Foreign Affairs Committee in France than has been vouchsafed to the House of Commons. That Committee exists for special purposes, and it is supposed to be secret in its rules and procedure, whereas here we have nothing to correspond to it. I understand that the Government deems all Select Committees as objectionable organisation, and that none of them can be trusted with confidential information. I ask for nothing confidential. I merely ask for such information as the Foreign Secretary feels that he can communicate to the House, fortifying my request with the knowledge that unless we get some information that rumour must continue, that opinion instead of being healthy will 575 be diseased, and that it is in the interests of the Allies that we should be told as much in England as can be communicated to the public in France.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Balfour)
I thought the proper thing was to reply on the Debate.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
It will always be possible to pass to another topic after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, if the House so desire.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
The right hon. Gentlemen who has just sat down has not been pouring in a series of questions for the last fortnight like the hon. Gentlemen I see congregated below the Gangway, and who have indicated in the ordinary Parliamentary fashion that they mean to take amore or less important part in this Debate. I conceived, therefore, that I should be only acting in accordance with the convenience of the House if I waited until I had heard their case before attempting to reply, which of course, by the Rules of the House, cannot be repeated. I understand that they have entrusted their case to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Runciman).
§ Mr. BALFOUR
I do not suggest that there has been any collusion between them, but I thought that the case presented by the right hon. Gentleman was their case.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken on that point. There is no suggestion that my Noble Friend should deal with the particular topic raised by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, and on which so many questions have been asked me in the course of the last fortnight or three weeks. The right hon. Gentleman has put two or three questions to me on this subject. The subject is very naturally exciting a great deal of interest both in this country and abroad. I must, however, remind the House that there is a very natural tendency to treat this subject as if it were one in which the British Government alone were con- 576 cerned, and that the Opposition or the critics of the Government of the day had a right, therefore, in the public interest and in their own, to extract the last drop of information which it is in the power of the Government to give. That is a very natural mood for the House of Commons to be in. It is one to which we are accustomed on ordinary subjects of domestic controversy, and it is a mood of which we cannot be expected easily to divest ourselves when we come to deal with these delicate questions of international policy. Although this point was very fully present to the mind of my right hon. Friend, and I am not at all sure that it was present to the minds of many ton. Members of this assembly. This is not a question which can be discussed as if it were a domestic question. The people whose conduct is impugned or against whom suggestions are made are not merely or chiefly British Ministers. The question is an international question which touches not only our domestic controversies, but even more acutely the domestic controversies of many of our neighbours and our Allies. It goes far deeper than that, and it is perfectly impossible, and it would foe grossly improper for anybody holding my office to attempt to deal with this subject in a form which would not only be desirable, but necessary, if I were merely defending the action of His Majesty's Ministers on a domestic subject. This is a matter deeply affecting the conduct of our foreign relations. That general observation is true, and would be true of all discussions of these most delicate subjects, and the approaches towards peace discussions.
It is a curious thing in regard to the gentlemen who are proud of the name of pacifists, whom I see opposite to me, that there is a little inconsistency between their conduct in this House and their professions. The hon. Gentlemen must know quite well that now the condition of international affairs has got to its present position in Europe, it is not a good thing necessarily to discourage informal attempts at conversations.— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"]—Hon. Gentlemen who are always trying to make Parliamentary capital, directly the suggestion is made, try to turn it to some controversial purpose. As far as I am concerned, let me say that we have never, at any time, initiated conversations. We have never, at any time, laid 577 it down that we would not listen to conversations if other people wished it. If any representative of any belligerent country desires seriously to lay before us any proposals, we are prepared to listen to them. Of course, we are not going to deal with them without our Allies, but in the full confidence of our Allies. Certainly the last thing I should lay down would be that the door must be shut to any kind of informal approach which had any elements of authenticity, and which had adequate credentials. The very fact that such conversations are of an informal kind at the time necessarily makes them very improper subjects for discussion in this House, and that which is true as a general proposition is emphatically and specially true of the international episode which is the subject of our discussion today. The letter which is attracting public attention was a private letter written by the Emperor of Austria to a relative, conveyed by the relative to the French President and the French Prime Minister, under the seal of the strictest secrecy, and without permission to convey it to anybody except the Prime Minister and the Sovereign of this country; without permission even to communicate it to the Cabinet colleagues of the Prime Minister of this country.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
I understand in the first instance (it was conveyed to the President, and it was communicated to the French Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister under those pledges. A more inconvenient method of dealing with great transactions could hardly be conceived. The inconvenience was not due to any wish on the part of the French Prime Minister to carry out public business in this most inconvenient fashion.
When you go outside the ordinary channels of public business and the ordinary methods of conducting great international affairs, you land yourself in very great difficulty. Records are not kept. Discussion is hampered or is impossible. The whole machinery of Government works with extreme difficulty. As my right hon. Friend has reminded the House, I was away at the time, and I never heard of 578 these transactions until I returned, when practically the subject had become a matter of history in all its main aspects; and I confess that, as I have very little time for dealing with history, I did not go as intimately as I might have done into these details, because the transaction was over.
My right hon. Friend has asked me a specific question—whether the President of the United States was informed of this? As Foreign Minister—not acting Foreign Minister, but still as titular Foreign Minister of Great Britain—I was in Washington at the time. I was not informed, and could not be informed in the conditions that I described, of the transaction. I need hardly say, therefore, that, as I was away acting in quite a different matter in Washington, the Government was better acquainted with these facts than I was myself; but if anybody supposes on that account that we ever showed any want of confidence in the Government or the President of the United States, he is under a complete delusion. I have no secrets from President Wilson. Every thought that I have in the way of diplomacy connected with the War is absolutely open to President Wilson. I do not believe that it is possible for Great Britain and the United States of America to carry on the great work in which they are engaged, and to deal with the complex problems which we have from day to day, without complete confidence, and, as far as I am concerned, complete confidence has always been given. So much for that, which is the first of the questions raised by the right hon. Gentleman.
The second question he put to me related to the Stockholm Conference. I am not going into the whole question of the Stockholm Conference. Personally I think that it is a matter of which it is very difficult to speak with any confidence, a matter on which there is much to be said, and reasonably said, on both sides. But I myself was no believer in the Stockholm Conference. I did not think then, and I do not think now, that it would really have conduced in any important way to a settlement of this great War. But however that may be, putting that subject aside—it is not the subject on which I think the right hon. Gentleman wanted me to speak—I may re-assure him on this point. The course taken by the British Government with regard to Stockholm had no relation, near or remote, with the Emperor Karl's private letter to Prince Sixte, or with 579 the negotiations or conversations that thereupon took place. They were wholly separate transactions decided on quite, different principles, and absolutely unconnected one with the other. There was only one other question which the right hon. Gentleman put to me. He asked me whether one of the reasons why the negotiations broke down—why these incipient conversations did not lead to any fruitful result, was that France, not content with asking for the return of the Alsace-Lorraine of 1870, asked in addition to that for those further territories which were attached to Alsace-Lorraine in 1790 or in 1814. He was referring, of course, to all that passed, or was alleged to have passed, between M. Doumergue and the late Tsar, I think in the early days of 1917. There was no question of this bigger Alsace being a war aim of the Allies. M. Doumergue's mission to Russia, his conversations with the Tsar, were not known to us until very much later. They had no international bearing. Certainly this Government never gave the least encouragement to any such notion. It was altogether outside our whole modes of thought on this subject. It was not a subject which we should ever have seriously contemplated, nor do I think it ever was a very fixed or solid part of the foreign policy for any length of time of any French Government.
§ Mr. OUTHWAITE
The reference is not, as the right hon. Gentleman supposes, to this Treaty, but to the statement in the Press that President Poincareé met the Emperor Karl's suggestion by a demand for these further extensions of territory.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
Pourparlers were not interfered with by any such demands as the hon. Gentleman suggests. That was not the point at all. I know that some Members of this House think that I have been too reticent in my refusals to answer questions put to me across the Floor of the House; and even those who thought, perhaps, that I was well advised in not answering such questions may think I ought to deal more fully than I propose to do with the subject in debate. But a little consideration will, I think, show the House that I am absolutely well advised on this point. We do not know—and perhaps. until the secrets of the archives of Europe are opened to the historian of the future we shall not know, or perhaps we never shall know—exactly what motives influenced Count Czernin, the Emperor 580 Karl, and the Emperor of Germany in these various transactions. I am inclined to think that it was all part of what now is sometimes called a "peace offensive" An hon. Gentleman whom I think I see opposite seemed to interpret the phrase "peace offensive" as carrying with it by inference the suggestion that people who talked about peace offensives were people who intended to reject any propositions for peace, whatever those propositions might be. That is not what peace offensive means. As I think I indicated in an answer to the hon. Gentleman, I am quite unable to follow the logic by which he arrives at that conclusion.
May I ask whether the word "offensive" does not necessarily imply rejection or resistance?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Hon. Members should allow the right hon. Gentleman to continue his speech, seeing that they did not avail themselves of the opportunity of speaking previously.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
The hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken. The meaning of the expression "peace offensive "is this, that propositions are made by one party who does not desire peace himself, but who does desire to divide his enemies by making proposals of peace. That is the policy which undoubtedly lay at the root, I will not say of all these transactions because I am not sure, but undoubtedly of a great many of the transactions which have been brought before the House recently, and to which the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has referred. Take for example the publication by M. Clemenceau of the fact of these offers from the Emperor Karl. How did it arise? Why was it done? It was done because Count Czernin, in pursuing a peace offensive, tried to suggest to the world, and especially to the Italian world, that they were being made to go on with the fighting in order that France might obtain Alsace-Lorraine. That was the suggestion made by Count Czernin. The Letter of the Emperor of Austria was directed equally to a peace offensive, but a peace offensive aimed at another member of the Allies. There the suggestion was that France should have Alsace-Lorraine, but no suggestion was made that Italy should have anything. That is the other side of the "peace offensive." That is the whole essence; and no wonder M. Clemenceau, who is a great man but not a patient man, seeing this cynical attempt 581 to divide the Allies—by suggesting that the whole War was being continued in order that France might obtain Alsace-Lorraine—turned round, and said to the people who made that insinuation, "You yourselves offered Alsace-Lorraine to France about a year ago" If you are dealing with people as cynical in their methods as the Central Powers, some kind of counter-attack is rendered almost obligatory. The actual mode of counterattack which was adopted by M. Clemenceau appears to me to have been thoroughly effective in the sense that it has exposed, and exposed in the clearest manner, the methods by which Central European diplomacy is animated. There is much that is obscure in the letter. There is much that, I think, will always remain obscure, and I believe that every other effort at conversation made by the Central Powers has never been made in the interests of a fair and an honourable peace, but has always been made in the interests of dividing the Allies against whom the Central Powers are contending. That is the only thread which draws together these disconnected efforts. That is the only common principle which lies at the root of all of them. That they desire peace on their own terms is, of course, absolutely true. Everybody does. The whole world is passionately desirous of peace, if it can be obtained on terms which to the various combatants seem tolerable. There is no symptom whatever at the present time that German public opinion, in so far as German public opinion exists — certainly not the opinion of the soldier, and the civilians dominated by the soldier, who now bears sway in the German governing circles—
§ Mr. BALFOUR
—that they either now, or at any time, have contemplated the possibility of what we should regard as a reasonable peace—a peace which is going to secure the future of the world, and the freedom of those who are in danger of falling under German domination. They vary with almost cynical readiness the principles which they profess and the policy which they have adopted. Never under any circumstances does a close examination suggest that they wanted to have the kind of peace with which alone I believe even hon. Gentlemen sitting below the Gangway would feel themselves content. The very letter which is the. occasion of this Debate is surely a proof of that.
582 2.0 P.M.
The right hon. Gentleman suggested, and he may very well be right—I certainly have no evidence to the contrary —that the two Emperors met together, and contrived this little coup. It is possible. I do not know whether it is true. But there is this curious and significant fact, that the essence of the offer made by the Austrian Emperor to the President of the French Republic, under the narrow limitations which I have endeavoured to describe to the House, consisted of an offer by the Austrians of something that belonged to the Germans. That is a very significant and very singular fact. The Austrians are hardly in a position now, and hardly were in a position then, to offer the territory of their infinitely more powerful ally to anybody, without that ally's consent. It is almost incredible that Austria, which notoriously has fallen more and more into the grip of Germany, should have quietly suggested that she would be very glad to make peace at Germany's expense. What the explanation of that may be I do not know, except it be the one which I have indicated to the House and which I think was suggested by my right hon. Friend himself. Anyhow a suggestion of that character is not one which anybody would look on very confidently as in itself containing an arrangement that is likely to mature. This question has been examined, no doubt, with a knowledge of the facts, more minute than I can have or give to the House, by a Committee of the French Chamber. My right hon. Friend who just sat down appeared almost to suggest that we should have a Select Committee to inquire into these transactions. I think that would be a most deplorable precedent.
I did not suggest that. What I did was to incidentally remark, in no offensive spirit, that the Government had a horror of Select Committees.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
I see! It was a delicate reference to another controversy. At all events, however that may be, it is quite clear that we have not the machinery now for the sort of investigation which the Committee of the French Chamber has carried on, and that a Select Committee will not provide that machinery. I am not going to discuss whether we ought or ought not so to modify our institutions as to copy our neighbours in this respect. My own opinion is that it would be inad- 583 visable. We may say this: The French Chamber have the machinery; they have used it freely with regard to this particular controversy, and the conclusion which they came to was that the letter of the Emperor Charles did not provide adequate or satisfactory bases for an honourable peace. You may say that the Committee of the French Chamber were prejudiced. You may say that other motives than a judicial consideration of these historical facts animated their verdict. But observe, if they had prejudices at all, it would surely have been in favour of a peace which gave them Alsace-Lorraine without further fighting! That is the point. The suggestion is that the Emperor of Austria made a proposal, which he could have imposed afterwards upon Germany, by which the War should come to an end, and France would obtain Alsace-Lorraine. Had there been any possibility that that proposal really carried within it the seeds of an honourable peace, is it not patent that a Committee of the French Chamber would have expressed its regret that the opportunity had been thrown away by the French Ministers or the French Prime Minister? They came to precisely the opposite conclusion.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
Of course, it was not unanimous. I did not suggest that it was unanimous. I said that the Committee, by the ordinary procedure of those Committees, had given its verdict in that way, and with that verdict I think the House might well be content.
§ Mr. BALFOUR
We, at all events, cannot be accused of any selfish considerations in this matter. There is nobody who can be more desirous than the British Government of bringing this War to an honourable termination, and if any method by which that can be accomplished is shown to us, of course it will be accepted. But, Sir, we are fighting, as one among Allies, against the Central Powers, who, so far as I can make out, have never had at any time, and now less than ever, the least intention of meeting our wishes. I am not talking of our legitimate wishes; I mean the wishes in which I believe the whole House, the whole country, and even many hon. Gentlemen sitting below the 584 Gangway opposite, entirely agree. Those great aims of ours can only be attained by absolute loyalty between the various Allies. It is not so simple and so easy a matter as some hon. Gentlemen appear to suppose to run an alliance, even if the Alliance has been founded on the most unselfish principles. As long as human nature is what it is, there must be causes of difficulty—there must be causes of friction. It is inevitable that one nation does not look at the problems before it from precisely and exactly the same angle as another nation. Differences of temperament—these small differences of outlook which I have described—even pettier subjects of difference, may arise, and must arise, from time to time. Even if you confine yourself only, as you have no right to do, to the four or five great belligerents—even confining yourselves to them, where you have five Foreign Offices, five War Departments, five Cabinets, of course there are points of difficulty which necessarily arise, and everybody knows that that must happen.
The one thing which makes it possible to sweep all these things on one side, and to get them in the right proportion, is, in the first place, that we should keep our eyes fixed upon the great common object of the War; and, secondly, that we should have in each other absolute and unbreakable confidence in our mutual loyalty. The main thing which makes me regret such Debates as we are having now, or which makes me see in them some germs of difficulty and danger, is that the sort of controversy to which we are accustomed within, as it were, the limits of our own family affairs should be applied to international affairs. In our own family affairs no harm is done. We are all accustomed to it; we are all familiar with it; it is our daily bread and our daily life. [An HON. MEMBER: "Not very nourishing!"] But it is a very difficult thing when you apply those methods —which are not out of place, or not much out of place, within these walls—to international controversies, to the action of foreign statesmen, to the motives of foreign Parliaments, and to the deeds of foreign armies. Believe me, that kind of freedom of discussion would be absolutely fatal to any Alliance. I think there is no greater duty—sometimes it is a duty difficult to perform and rather ungrateful —more incumbent upon the holder, whoever he may be, of the office which is for the moment entrusted to me, than to take 585 care that, in so far as in him lies, nothing shall be said which makes it more difficult to carry out that task, which can be accomplished if all the great Allies remain unanimous, but which will be lost irretrievably if any breach were allowed to creep in between them.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
As the right hon. Gentleman has very truly said, we are treading here on the most delicate ground—ground which ought not to be entered upon except with the utmost circumspection and reserve, and with the fullest sense of responsibility, not only on the part of the Minister, but on the part of the Members of this House. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Runciman), as was acknowledged by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, approached the subject in that spirit.
§ Mr. ASQUITH
To the appeal which the right hon. Gentleman has just made, and which, I believe, will find a ready and cordial response in every quarter of the House—that we should not at this or any stage of the War import into the discussion of matters, whether they be of strategy or diplomacy, the controversial spirit in which we are accustomed to indulge with regard to our domestic affairs—as far as I can I shall venture, not only by precept, but by practice to respond. I rise not for the purpose of probing further into these matters of fact, but simply, if I may, of summarising and recording with satisfaction, in two or three sentences, the substance and effect of what, I venture to think, was a most instructive and opportune statement on the part of the Government Bench. In the first place, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said—there was nobody who would have doubted it if he had not said it, and it is satisfactory not only to us but to the world at large to know it—that the British Government has closed no door to overtures and approaches in the direction of an honourable peace, and that they are not confined to what I may call the formal, the normal, and the conventional methods of full dress diplomacy. From whatever quarter, be it with adequate authority and with real good faith, if an appeal be made which is not merely rhetorical, but which is based upon substantial considerations — from whatever 586 quarter such an appeal is directed to them, they would not, I am certain, turn to it a deaf ear. Let that be clear.
The next point is equally important, and my right hon. Friend was well advised to lay the stress upon it that he did. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Runciman) asked whether any communication was made of this correspondence and the pourparlers, such as they were, which ensued upon it, to the President of the United States. I gather it was not, for what I am quite prepared to suppose were perfectly adequate reasons. The thing did not last long, and it disappeared and became, as the right hon. Gentleman said, a matter of history rather than of actual, practical diplomacy. I welcome, as I am sure the whole House will welcome, his assurance that not only in matters of this, kind will he and the Government at large have no secrets from the President of the United States. What is equally important is that, difficult as the task is, delicate as it is, sometimes almost heartbreaking, to have a complete accord, certainly of knowledge and information, and based upon a full interchange of knowledge and information, of policy and practice between all the Allies fighting in the same cause—difficult and delicate as that task is, it is one which must never be lost sight of, and which must be strenuously pursued, in spite of difficulties, even if in the pursuit of it you are obliged from time to time to reject what may seem to be for the moment promising prospects, or at any rate to delay their being carried into effect I am sure you cannot carry on a struggle of this kind—we feel it increasingly the larger the area of the Alliance—you cannot effectually carry on a struggle of this kind, unless it be on the basis of complete mutual confidence between the Allies.
The third and last point of which I should like to take note is what my right hon. Friend has said in regard to the claim said to be put forward in France, as one of the conditions of an honourable peace —that is, what is vaguely and conveniently called the "line of 1814" As a matter of fact, I gather from my right hon. Friend's statement—he will correct me if I am wrong—he tells us that, as far as his information goes, after the letter was delivered to President Poincaré —the allegation which we have seen in many quarters that he then put forward this demand for the 1814 line is, as far as my right hon. Friend knows, totally without foundation.
587 I am very glad to hear that, and I may say I am not in the least surprised to hear it. But I want to go a step further, and take note, with still more satisfaction, of my right hon. Friend's declaration that it never has been among the war aims of the British Government, and that, so far as he knows—of course, no one can speak with the same absolute assurance—so far as he knows, it has not been, and is not now, to be accounted as a part of the settled policy of the French Government. Am I right in that?
§ Mr. ASQUITH
I am extremely glad to hear it, though I never had any doubt of it, and I think the country and the world will be glad to hear what the right hon. Gentleman said to-day, for, let me state once more—and it is the last word I will say—while, in my judgment, there has not been, and there should not be, any contraction, so equally, in my judgment, there should not be any expansion of the declared aims and purposes for which we entered the War, for which we have prosecuted the War, for the sake of which we desire to see the War brought to a successful issue, and the attainment of which will be, in our opinion, the only foundation of a durable peace.
The one word I want to say on this question is to ask the Foreign Office whether they are not prepared to endeavour to obtain a larger measure of co-operation between ourselves and our Allies in a really constructive policy dealing with the great problems which must arise immediately after the War. We have heard a great deal from the right hon. Gentleman, who represents the Foreign Office, and from the Prime Minister, and from statesmen of Allied countries about a League of Nations. I do say that when there are now eighteen States banded together to defend the civilisation of the world, now is the time that they should amongst themselves be prepared to put into operation the principles and objects for which the League of Nations stands. President Wilson has defined the meaning of a League of Nations, and the whole question now is as to whether we, the Allies, shall make our position perfectly plain, not only to our own people and to neutrals, but also to the people of enemy countries. I was glad to note the other day that the Foreign Office has, I believe, a Committee 588 which is engaged on this question, and I hope it will also be considered by the Governments of our Allies. But the point, I think, is that some measure of agreement ought to be arrived at with the least possible delay, and that we should not allow ourselves to drift into the position that this country and our Allies have no constructive policy before them, which they are prepared to put fully into operation the moment the War comes to an end. Now, I think this reconstruction must be based on the recognition of free democracies. That is to say, I do not think anyone can contemplate the domination of a League of this kind by any great military Power, and therefore the crux of the whole thing seems to me to be that any League of Nations of this kind must be based on the principle of general disarmament. That is the crux of the whole problem, and we ought to make it quite clear that that is the positive aim which this country has before it in this War. In the case of nine out of every ten men fighting our battles in France and in the other theatres of war, that is the supreme war aim for which they are fighting at the present moment, and this object is one which appeals to every man and woman in this country. Therefore I say again that we must look to the Foreign Office for a constructive and objective policy, and that we ought not to be satisfied until they have put that great problem in the forefront and made it one of our chief war aims.