§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."
Lieutenant-Colonel C. LOWTHER
May I preface the very few remarks I intend to make by saying that neither I nor those 1871 who are interested in this subject raise it in any controversial spirit. The last thing we wish to do is in any way to hamper the Government at this moment or to appear in any sort of form as obstructionists. But it must be remembered that there are some 400, I am not certain there are not more, Members of this House, private Members of the House, who are solemnly pledged to do all they can in their power to exact from Germany the very last farthing that she can be reasonably called on to pay. Sinister rumours have reached this country—I believe that the rumours are authentic, they have come from Paris, and are being widely circulated in the Lobby, and they are being discussed by very many Members with great disquietude and great anxiety, especially by Members who believe that this question of indemnities is one of paramount and supreme importance. It is more than widely whispered that the Government are considering at the present moment imposing on Germany or on our enemies a war indemnity which is totally incommensurate with the enormous debt that this country will be asked to meet. Indeed, the sum that has been quoted to me is a sum which is a drop in the ocean compared with the bill which the taxpayers of this country will be called upon to pay. I hope that that report is a false one, but if it is a false one nothing will be easier than for the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House to deny it. If, on the contrary, this report is not false, then I do think that we who are interested in this subject, we who have pledged ourselves up to the hilt to endeavour in our own humble way to exact from Germany and from our enemies the very utmost that they can pay, have a right to demand why the Government have suddenly turned a political somersault or, if they like it better, an economic volte face. Why have they done so? The Leader of the House said this afternoon that the Government had not in the least departed from the pronouncement made by the Prime Minister in his election address. I hope they have not. He said they had not departed from what the Prime Minister had in view, because it had never entered their heads to exact from Germany one penny more than they thought she could pay. But it depends what they think Germany can pay. If they think at one time she can pay 18s. in the £, if they think later on she can 1872 pay 10s. in the £, and latex on again only 5s. in the £, that difference in opinion demands some explanation. I would like to get an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman himself, first of all, that the Government have not departed from the Prime Minister's electioneering pledge, and, secondly, that the whole of this war bill will be presented by the delegates at the Peace Conference, that if we can get only a certain amount at the present moment, if the financial advisers of the Government tell them it is possible to get only so many millions at the present moment, that that sum will be regarded only as an amount on account, and that that will not prevent the Government from promising that when Germany is able to pay, either by deferred payment or in any other way, she will be called upon to do so. Surely it is not impossible to hypothecate the assets of Germany, which is potentially a very rich country, for a certain number of years. I should like an assurance from the Leader of the House that whatever sum our enemies are called upon to pay to-day it will not close the account.
§ Lieutenant Colonel ARCHER-SHEE
I should like to support what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend who has just spoken, in view of the fact that last week I asked a question on this subject and the Leader of the House said he could not add anything to the information he gave on the previous occasion. To-day a question was put, and he answered that the Government had no intention to ask for more than Germany could pay. That has a very different answer from the one he gave last week. I have no doubt the Government do not like hon. Members to question them on this subject, which is of very great importance in the country, and no doubt they do not think it is very loyal on the part of Members who support the Government as a rule; but all through the proceedings of the Peace Conference this country has been kept in the dark in comparison with the United States as regards what is going on in the Peace Conference. Reading the American papers of three weeks old, I find a great deal more information about the Peace Conference than what can be got out of the papers of this country. That is because we are systematically kept in the dark, as hon. Members always are with regard to what is going on in the Peace Conference. We were returned 1873 to support this Government, and I want to support the Government in every way possible, but the thing upon which we were returned and pledged up to our eyes to support the Government was the question of indemnity. The whole country feels most deeply on this subject, and there should be no question as to what we are doing in this matter. I therefore welcome this opportunity of asking the Leader of the House to give the House and country some more information as to what has happened. Speaking on the 29th November, the Prime Minister said:What is true between individual litigants is equally true between nations. When Germany defeated France she made France pay. That is a principle which she herself has established. There is absolutely no doubt about the principle we should proceed upon. Germany must pay the costs of the War.To-day we have been told that it was never the intention of the Government to ask for-more than Germany could pay. That is, of course, a somewhat evasive answer, but what we who are concerned about indemnities are anxious to find out is whether our full claim is being put in so that when the distribution of the amount that Germany can pay is made up this country shall get its full and proper amount. It has been widely put about that it has already been decided that 50 per cent. of the amount Germany shall pay will be in the nature of reparation and 50 per cent. in the nature of indemnities. As regards reparation, we naturally do not have as large a claim as some of our Allies, such as Belgium and France, and consequently we shall get a great deal less on the ground of reparation than they do. If as regards the other 50 per cent. we are not going to put in our full claim for everything we expect Germany to pay, then we shall get a very small fraction of the amount awarded. In addition, unless we keep Germany under the heel of the Allies for several years to come and make them pay a very large amount, we are going to be faced with the great danger of a recrudescence of the German military spirit and a recommencement of the War within fifteen years. We want some more assurance from the Leader of the House for the benefit of this House, and his loyal supporters—of whom I am one—and the country that we are going to extract every possible pound or mark out of Germany during the next few years, in order to keep her down and prevent her from starting up again and making another 1874 war. That is all we desire to discover, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us a satisfactory answer.
§ Brigadier-General SURTEES
I had not intended thus early in my Parliamentary career thus to presume on the House. Certainly I did not intend to criticise the Government, to whom I owe a general allegiance. I feel, however, that I shall, if I do not speak, be lacking in my duty to the great industrial constituency which has returned me to Parliament on the understanding that I shall press for an indemnity and terms from Germany as far as it is possible to go. I would rest my views on this fact: in condemnation of what appears tome to be the lamentable and extraordinary weakening on the part of the Government with reference especially to indemnities. I have for a long time distrusted the earnestness of the Government in respect to this question of indemnities, I am sure we shall all be very glad if the Leader of the House will give us some definite assurance that a very full bill will be presented, not only in regard to indemnities but also in regard to reparation. When that is done it will be time to consider how far the validity of the objections which will be raised may be taken into account.
§ Mr. MACMASTER
I understand this discussion has arisen in consequence of the answer of the Leader of the House—to the effect that the Report received from the Commission, presided over by Mr. Hughes, was of a confidential character, and it was customary with such a Report, not to be under an obligation to disclose it. It seems to me that we are here dealing with a debtor nation or debtor nations, and that as Members of Parliament we are servants of the people; that the members of the Government are merely the Committee of the House entrusted, in the first instance, with the official conduct of the business—and that we have a very great responsibility in regard to their action as well as in regard to our own. Suppose the Government obtained this information by means of a Committee or Commission, whether or not it is called confidential, which information shows what the resources of Germany are to-day. Are not Members of this House, representing the people, entitled to know it? Why should there be any secrecy in regard to it? The whole question is as to the ability of Germany to pay. It does not matter 1875 whether the information with regard to her resources are in the possession of the House or of the members of the Government. The important thing is that the nation should have the information. Therefore in my humble view the Report of the Commission, whether called confidential or not, should be given to the House and the nation in order that both may be the better prepared to judge of the action taken at the Conference. Other aspects of the question have been discussed, and from the point of view of time and other considerations I will not enter further into the matter.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I do not in the least object to having this question raised, and in my mind there is no consideration of any question of want of loyalty or of attacking the Government. I do claim, however, to state to the House again, what I said before, that if hon. Members think it right to raise the same question again and again, I can only give them precisely the same answer, and it is that there is no change whatever in the policy of the Government in regard to this question. My hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Lieutenant-Colonel Archer-Shee), among other interesting things, told us that a great deal more was known in America than in this country, and that he had got a great deal of information from the American papers about the Peace Conference which he did not get from the English newspapers. But is he quite sure? He may have read a great deal more in the American newspapers than in the English newspapers, but I am not certain that he is right in describing what he has read as information.
This is a fact. From the beginning of the Peace Conference all the delegates agreed that there would be no announcement of any discussions by the delegates at the Conference, except the official announcements. It is obvious that the information which the hon. Member has derived, if it is information, is information which ought not to have been given, and I do not think it is right to assume that the Americans are better informed than we are in this matter. My hon. Friend, who spoke last, said the House had a right to receive the Report of this Committee, but I entirely disagree. Cabinets could not be carried on if they were under the obligation of making public every Report which they ask for for their own information and as guidance for themselves. It may, or 1876 may not be right, to publish such Reports; but the idea that the Cabinet is to be precluded from getting this information for itself alone, is not one which has never been considered in this House, and it would make Cabinet government impossible.
As a matter of fact two of the members who were on the first Committee to advise the Government are members of the International Committee which is investigating the Government question as to what amount Germany can pay. Those two members are the same. They have not reported and until they have I am not able to tell the House what is the demand we shall make. To suggest, however, that there is a departure from our proposals is entirely different from any pledge I have made at the election. What we all said and what I feel as strongly as anyone is that we were bound in the interests not only of this country, though I put that first, but also for the very reasons put by my hon. Friend to make sure that Germany would not be in such a position financially as to make it easy for her again to begin the same course. For that reason we are going to extract from Germany everything which Germany can pay. No one has ever had any doubt as to our claim. It is for damage which has been caused by the War, which Germany began deliberately, and as to the justice of that there has never been any difference of opinion. My hon. Friend must really have a very poor opinion of all Governments—and when I say all Governments I allude specially to the fact that the Committee which is investigating our claims is an international one—he must have a very poor opinion of them all if he thinks that they are going to look at the question from the point of view of what you can get out of Germany to-day. As to the amount that it is wise to claim it may be placed upon the basis of what can be paid over a large number of years. At all events, if it is any satisfaction to the Committee, that is the basis on which the International Commission will go. When I said that it had never been the policy of the Government to say that they would make a claim on Germany for the whole cost of the War, I was expressing what I believe has been the pledge of every member of the Government. We all said that we should make Germany pay whatever Germany could pay.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
As I say, a certain number of years and the number of years will be taken into account by this Commission. Hon. Members say whatever the amount is that Germany can pay we wish you to make it sufficient for the whole cost of the War. What does that mean? If you mean that we express our right to the whole cost of the War, then I agree; but I put it to the House that, after all, we have to look at this matter with a certain amount of common sense. I hope now that in a very few weeks we shall submit the preliminary terms of peace to Germany. Is it the view of the House that the right way to do it is to make a demand for indemnities which at the moment we are making it we know Germany cannot pay, and to start negotiations at the very beginning with the knowledge that we are going to bargain with them, and to come and go as to the amount of the indemnity that we are going to take.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
The hon. Member for once has really grasped the point. That is exactly what I was trying to say. It is not desire to have negotiations. It is our desire to say, "These are our terms," and hon. Members suggest that with that desire we should begin by making a demand for a money indemnity which we all know is impossible.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
My hon. and gallant Friend must use a certain amount of common sense in this matter. Has he any idea of the total cost of the War and the damage of the War to all the nations engaged in it?
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
as to whether it is possible under any circumstances for Germany to pay the whole of it?
I have made the deepest calculations, and it is perfectly possible if you hypothecate the assets of that potentially rich country for twenty-five years.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I shall be very interested to see the calculation, and perhaps the hon. and gallant Member will have the kindness to send it to me. It might help us.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
Our course from the first has been to demand from Germany the largest amount which we believe Germany can pay. Our policy has been and is now not to make a demand which we know Germany in no circumstances can pay.
§ It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of 12th February.
§ Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.