HC Deb 13 November 1919 vol 121 cc469-77
52. Mr. HOGGE

asked the Prime Minister whether he is prepared to negotiate with the Soviet Government on the basis of the terms brought back by the hon. Member for East Leyton?


asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the general uncertainty in the public mind as to the nature of British policy with regard to Russia, he will give an early day for a further discussion of the subject in this House?

60. Lieut.-Colonel DALRYMPLE WHITE

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the apparent discrepancy in the statements of our policy towards Russia as announced in this House on the 5th instant and at the Guildhall on the 8th instant, he will state whether the policy of the Government has been modified since the Debate on the 5th instant; and, if so, what fact, or facts, in connection with the Russian situation came to the knowledge of the Government in the interim?


asked the Prime Minister, in view of the published official Reports on Bolshevism in Russia, as well as the evidence of reliable witnesses, regarding the moral turpitude of the Bolshevik Government and of its connivance in the conspiracies against Aliied and Neutral Governments in order to set up Soviet rule, will he state what guarantee he proposes to obtain, and will be able to enforce, that any agreement or treaty such Bolshevik Government may sign will be loyally carried out?

64. Captain TUDOR-REES

asked the Prime Minister whether any person has on his behalf or with his knowledge interviewed representatives of the Bolshevists for the purpose of ascertaining whether and upon what terms negotiations for peace might be opened?

66. Colonel WEDGWOOD

asked the Prime Minister whether his attention has been drawn to the situation in the Ukraine where British munitions and details are being employed against the Ukranian people by General Denikin; whether this state of affairs has his sanction; and what steps he proposes to take to cause a cessation of these hostilities, which inevitably result in the massacre of unoffending people?

70 and 72. Lord ROBERT CECIL

asked (1) the Prime Minister what is the nature of the civil administration in the territories under the control of General Denikin; whether there is at present any commerce between this country and those territories; if not. what steps the Government propose to take to open up such commerce;

(2) Whether he can give the House any information as to the present position of Admiral Koltchak and the administrative and military causes of his retirement?

73 and 74. Captain WEDGWOOD BENN

asked (1) whether any undertaking is given in return for assistance to Russian Armies as to the use to which such assistance will be put;

(2) whether the decision to bring to an end assistance in personnel and material to the anti-Bolshevik Armies applies to naval as well as military assistance?

75. Lieut.-Colonel MALONE

asked the Prime Minister whether he intends to propose a conference with the Russian Soviet Government with a view to establishing peace in Eastern Europe; and, if not, whether His Majesty's Government will consider favourably any similar proposal from a neutral Government?

76. Lieut.-Colonel Sir FREDERICK HALL

asked the Prime Minister whether the reference by him in his speech at the Guildhall on the 8th November to a renewal of the attempt to reach a settlement in Russia indicates a possibility of the Allies entering into negotiations with the present Soviet leaders, or if what is contemplated is an effort to restore constitutional Government in Russia through the leaders there who are now trying to restore popular democratic control?

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George)

I propose, with the permission of the House, to answer all these questions together.


On a point of Order. The Prime Minister is coming here to answer questions on one day each week. Is he entitled, in the usual phraseology "with the permission of the House" to answer questions in bulk, or is he entitled to answer each Member's question as it arises?


If one reply covers them all, what is the use of repeating it?


On that point is not the Member who puts the question a much better judge as to whether the reply covers the question which he has put and which the Prime Minister has answered in the bulk?


Let us have the answer first.


I am answering all the questions together. It is impossible to answer them separately because they run into each other, and some of them cover exactly the same ground. As to the question in regard to the so-called peace advances from the Soviet Republic, the Allied Governments have always declined to take any action on communications which purported to come from the Governments of hostile countries through irresponsible agencies. They have acted only on communications coming officially and directly from such Governments. That has been the practice of the Allies during the War, and events have fully justified it. The Government do not think it advisable to depart from that practice now.

In reply to the question asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Captain Tudor-Rees). I wish to state categorically that no person has at any time on my behalf or with my knowledge interviewed representatives of the Bolsheviks for the purpose of ascertaining whether, and upon what terms negotiations for peace might be opened.

I have never agreed with what I may call the "Northcliffe policy" explained by its author earlier this year, that the world powers should sink their pride for a moment and get into communication with the Bolsheviks, and that we should employ an avowed English Bolshevik sympathiser for that purpose. In my judgment that certainly is not the method by which peace can be secured in Russia.

In reply to the question put by my Noble Friend the Member for Hitchin (Lord R. Cecil), first of all, as to the present position of Admiral Koltchak and the administrative and military causes of his retirement. The position in Western Siberia is undoubtedly grave. The Bolshevik forces are marching rapidly on Omsk, but the Koltchak Armies have not evacuated that town, and its fate will be decided by the battles that are to be fought in the course of the next few days in front of the city. As to the causes of the retirement, they are rather too complicated to give in answer to a question. But it illustrates the aspect of the Russian Civil War which I ventured to emphasise on Saturday—its abnormally swaying character. Early in the year Admiral Koltchak's Army had crossed the Urals and advanced beyond Perm, and a junction with General Denikin in the south and the Archangel forces in the north was regarded as imminent, whilst an advance to Moscow before the winter seemed quite within the limits of practibility. At that time General Denikin was only just holding his own in a limited territory on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Now Admiral Koltchak has retreated 660 miles, and General Denikin has swept the Bolshevik Armies from a vast and fertile region covering thousands of square miles. Within the last few weeks he has lost some ground, but he still holds by far the greater portion of the recovered territory.

We are far too apt to examine the fight in Russia in the light of our experience of the great struggle in France. There an Army of the size of General Denikin's or of that of his Bolshevik foes would hold a front of a little over fifty miles with well-organised communications behind. Here, such an Army has to hold a front of 1,300 miles, with a vast country behind thoroughly disorganised, often overrun by marauding bands, who temporarily capture and loot great cities in the recovered territories. The vast majority of the population feel no ardent loyalty for either side, and very quickly change their allegiance. There is the further complication of provincial or national movements like Petlura's. The result is that General Denikin has not so far been able to establish administrative control over the conquered territories. That makes trade in this very important region for the supply of food and raw material for the present almost impracticable. I might also add that the absorption of the railway equipment in the supply of the Armies adds to the difficulty.

It is the policy of the Government to open up trade and commerce as much as possible with South Russia, in the interest not only of Russia, but of the world. We have made special efforts in that direction during the last few months, and the hon. Member for the Camlachie Division of Glasgow (Mr. MacKinder)—a well-known and able Member of this House—has been appointed to go on a special mission to South Russia with the object of, amongst other things, investigating what can be done in these respects, and of generally advising the Government on the position.

As regards general, policy, the Government have repeatedly stated this in the House. I stated it in some detail in the month of April. More recently it has been explained to the House of Commons by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War and by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his written and financial statements. From the policy thus enun- ciated the Government have no intention of departing. As has been explained, between the date of the Armistice and the end of October, in cash and in kind, the value of nearly £100,000,000 has been spent or sanctioned by the United Kingdom on account of assistance sent to Russia. A substantial part of this sum has been, or will be, added to the permanent indebtedness of this country. The Government has repeatedly made it clear to the House of Commons that, with the crushing financial burden already cast upon it by the Great War, it cannot contemplate the assumption of new obligations under this head. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer explained in the White Paper and in his speech, there is no provision made for such additional expenditure on Russia. If an addition is to be made to the national obligations under this head, it will be the responsibility of the House of Commons to determine the additional taxation that shall be imposed for the purpose.

On the other hand, the Government have an overwhelming sense of the importance of bringing peace to Russia. Not only is Russia a source of unrest and disturbance to all its neighbours, with all the infinite possibilities for mischief which lurk in such a condition over so vast an area, but a settlement of the Russian problem is essential to the reconstruction of the world. Russia is one of the great resources for the supply of food and raw material. The present condition of Russia is one of the contributing causes to the prevailing high prices, and high prices are undoubtedly in all lands the most dangerous form of Bolshevik propaganda. There are also many indications that German, reactionaries are using the present strike in Russia to strengthen their influence with all the struggling parties alike in that country, and I have no doubt that if the struggle continue the military party in Germany will secure a great hold in Russia through the medium of the very numerous bodies of demobilised officers and non-commissioned officers out of work, who will find ready employment in that country if the war proceed. From the humanitarian point of view it is no less important in the opinion of the Government that civil war, which is not only destroying the economic life in Russia and thus impoverishing the world, but is slowly decimating its inert and helpless population, should be brought to an end as soon as possible.

That is why the Government have always been ready to take any reasonable opportunity which may present itself to effect a settlement of the Russian question on conditions which will really bring peace and good order and constitutional government to Russia, on terms that are acceptable to the Russian people themselves. Their views on this subject were embodied in the Allied letter to Admiral Koltchak. It is proposed to hold, I hope at early date, an International Conference at which Ministers of the Allied and Associated Powers will consider the various grave and outstanding problems which the Peace Conference has so far been unable to settle for one reason or another. Russia will be amongst these problems. If the House of Commons wishes to have a discussion of the Russian question before the assembly of this Conference, the Government will, of course, be prepared to give the necessary facilities. But I would respectfully suggest before the demand be made that Members should bear in mind that in a difficult and delicate matter of this kind it is not always the best plan to have a public debate in which the Government may be forced in support of its views to give publicity to information on matters connected with the position in Russia—information which has influenced their judgment on policy. The House, of course, may rest assured that the Government will inaugurate no new policy and commit the country to no fresh action without giving the House the fullest opportunity of discussing it.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

May I have an answer to my question as to whether it is intended to keep on the form of blockade this winter in view of the suffering it will cause to innocent children at Petrograd?


I am sure the right hon. Gentleman—


I understand that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is entitled to put a question but not to make a statement.


My question—[No. 47, relating to local housing schemes]—has been associated with the Russian question, and, though my name is Malone, I am not the Russian Malone.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman's question was dealt with on a previous occasion. It was not dealt with by the Prime Minister.


While I agree that the Prime Minister must take opportunities which are offered to him of announcing the Russian policy, I should like your ruling, Sir, on this. If the Prime Minister is going to come down or. Thursdays to answer questions, is he entitled to use that opportunity for making a long statement of policy when the questions which are put on the Order Paper are questions of fact on which in ordinary circumstances hon. Members are entitled to ask supplementary questions if the facts are not elucidated, and in that case is the fact of the Prime Minister coming down to answer questions of any good to us on Thursdays?


It is very obvious that the House wanted the statement. If the hon. Member looks at the number of questions, and if the House wanted the statement the House has had it. We have only five minutes more for all the rest of the questions.


Is it not the case that the first hour of Parliamentary time is devoted to questions and that the Prime Minister has an opportunity—


The hon. Member is abusing his right and depriving all other hon. Members of the opportunity of putting-questions.


My question was supposed to be answered with the rest, but I do not think it was dealt with. I wanted to know whether the Prime Minister would do anything to stop the civil war between Petlura and Denikin, which is being waged on the side of Denikin with British munitions against a people rightly struggling to be free. Will he stop this by-sending out instructions?


With respect to the question by the hon. and gallant Member (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), there is a direct question later on which is to be answered by the First Lord of the Admiralty. Therefore I did not answer that question. In regard to the question by the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Wedgwood), I thought I gave a comprehensive account of the difficulties in the Ukraine, where it is in a complete state of disorganisation, where there are a good many roving bands.




I am trying to answer the question. Therefore, when those are the facts, you cannot say to General Denikin, "We have supplied you with munitions to hold your own, and if you are attacked by Petlura you must not use the guns with which we have supplied you." Here may I point out to the hon. Member (Mr. Hogge) that the first question I answered is the question which he has on the Paper; and if he looks at it he will find that it is a categorical answer.


No; it is not possible to send a political mission to that division of Denikin's army, which is engaged not in fighting the Bolsheviks but in fighting these other people. Cannot he not take steps to protect the Ukraine from the Donikin troops, and is the right hon. Gentleman aware—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech!"]


The hon. Member is making a speech.