HC Deb 10 May 1923 vol 163 cc2666-70

I only venture to intervene in this Debate in order to put a supplementary question arising out of a reply given this afternoon by the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. I do not propose to contribute anything to the Debate which has been going on up to the present, but owing to the importance of the subject dealt with in the reply to which I refer, I venture to crave the indulgence of the Committee while I put a further question to my hon. Friend. To-day, in reply to Private Notice questions, the hon. Gentleman made a statement regarding a gunboat which is being sent to the Murmansk Coast, and I think the tone of the answer and the passion that was aroused on both sides of the House, gave everybody who still hopes, even at the eleventh hour, to maintain peace between ourselves and Russia cause for somewhat grave concern. A conflict with Russia now certainly should not be entered into in a passionate frame of mind. I wish to ask my hon. Friend if new orders have been issued in connection with this matter. I understand that during the last eighteen months or two years a gunboat has been cruising the White Sea for the purpose of protecting our trawlers and policing in our interests, those waters. There is a very old controversy between Russia and ourselves as to whether the territorial waters of Russia are confined within a three-mile limit or a twelve-mile limit.

We ourselves have had exactly that problem in reference to the Moray Firth. I happen to come from the Moray Firth and, as long as I can remember, casting my mind back to my most youthful years, a controversy has been going on as to whether we could claim the Moray Firth from cape to cape as our territorial waters or whether we had to draw a zig-zag line within that great triangle of waters and confine our territorial authority to the three mile limit. Everybody who knows anything about fishing affairs knows that controversy has been existing for a long time and knows how very difficult it is to solve the question. Russian affairs will be debated at full length on Tuesday and I do not intervene now to raise this general question, but the particular matter with which I wish to deal is of immediate and urgent public importance. If anything happens within the next day or two to make negotiations impossible or peaceful settlement impossible, it will be nothing short of criminal, and if the reply given by the hon. Gentleman, full of the possibility of misapprehension, is allowed to stand without explanation, I think very serious damage will be done. Therefore, my question to him is this. When this gunboat, which is on its way, sailed, had it any orders which the gunboat at present there has not got? When the hon. Gentleman said it was instructed to use force, was this a special instruction or was it just the ordinary instruction which all police boats have when doing their work? I think it is proper to say that we have ventured to appeal to the Russian Government—and when I say "we" I mean the Labour party in this House—to do nothing in connection with this controversy which would precipitate a position which would make continued negotiations impossible, and I hope that a response will be given to that, and that this outstanding difficulty between the three miles limit and the 12 miles limit—surely an awfully insignificant reason for a war—will be postponed until the whole question of our relations in the future can be settled. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he could somewhat amplify his answer and could give us an assurance that the Government is going to keep an open mind and a patient hand until—and I hope this will not happen at all—anything else is forced upon them. If he could give us that assurance, I am sure it would be for the benefit of everybody concerned.


Perhaps, as the hon. Member has put this question specifically to me as a sort of interlude in the general Debate, I may be allowed to treat it in the same way, and to give an answer simply to it, reserving my right to speak later on. I am glad the hon. Gentleman has put the question to me. He has spoken about the passion that was raised on both sides of the House. I must say I was entirely surprised by the demonstration, either on one side or the other, and I want to give as specific an answer as I can to the very important question put to me. There must be the slightest small element of reserve in my answer, simply because I have not got absolute certainty. The only amount of uncertainty has been raised by the very fact that the hon. Gentleman has put the question, but if it had not been for that, I should have had no uncertainty. Strictly speaking, of course, the question should be put to the Admiralty, but, so far as I am aware, there is nothing new whatever in these instructions, certainly so far as my knowledge at the Foreign Office goes. There is no policy involved, and if there had been I should certainly have known, and my information is—and I am sure that I am right—that what I said with regard to the police boat which has gone to that coast, that her instructions were to protect our vessels outside the three-miles limit, using force if necessary, is the invariable instruction given to vessels upon that sort of service, the case being, of course, that, subject, to what I will say in a moment with regard to what the hon. Gentleman said as to the dispute about the three-miles limit—apart from that dispute, of course—the war vessels or police vessels of any nation, in protecting its shipping upon the high seas, are entitled, as the only way in which that protection can be made effective, in case of necessity to fire upon a pirate or any vessel which chooses to interfere with a peaceful vessel upon her peaceful occasions, and it was only in that way, and for no other reason whatever, and involving no new policy, that those instructions have been given.

May I say a word with regard to the very serious language that the hon. Member used when he spoke about avoiding conflict and war and something of that sort? May I take this opportunity of saying, in advance of the Debate which we shall have next week, that the idea of war or conflict in that sense with Russia has never for a moment entered into the heads of the Government. The idea to me is horrible. I shall be perfectly prepared, I hope, at any rate to the best of my ability, to meet the criticisms which will be levelled at the policy of the Government next week with regard to the Note and so on, but certainly I have not any difficulty whatever in saying that nothing is further from the intention of the Government than to do anything which, in our judgment, could lead to war. I will not now go into the question of the three-miles limit. Of course, it is, as the hon. Member stated, a dispute which has been going on in different forms for a great length of time, and has never arrived at any very settled policy; but, of course, the position which this country has always taken, and is taking now, and, I think, will take, is that until some arrangement has been made—we can make any arrangement by international agreement; we might make an arrangement which would give us the whole of the Channel as territorial waters, we might claim a boundary which would give us the Dogger Bank as our territorial waters; you can do anything by international agreement, but our position is that until that is arrived at—we must insist upon what, by long usage, has been accepted by everybody, subject to variations, and that is the three-miles limit; and the complaint in our Note to Russia is not that we have not arrived at an agreement on the international point, but that, pending such an agreement, they have acted in a high-handed way, which they have no right to do, and in a perfectly different way from the way in which both the previous Russian Government and the American Government have acted under similar circumstances, when they also have made claims which, on an international basis, we have not been able to accept. That is all, I think, that I can say at the present moment, but I want very clearly to repeat that I do not think that anything that we have done has had any such sinister interpretation as the hon. Gentleman thought it was possible to put upon it.