HC Deb 04 August 1926 vol 198 cc3071-9
Captain BENN

If I might turn the attention of the House for a moment from the subject of unemployment, I would like to raise the question of Anglo-American relations. We had a Debate recently about debt settlements, and although nothing, or very little, was said in that Debate to which exception could be taken, the Debate was accompanied outside, in the Press and elsewhere, by the sort of comments which, I think, had the most unfortunate result as touching the relations between ourselves and the United States. I will leave out of account the sort of vulgar talk that one finds in the "Daily Mail" of this country. I hope that in the United States they understand what value to attach to that kind of thing. But it was unfortunate that our own Chancellor of the Exchequer, in defiance of filial piety, was drawn into a controversy, first with Mr. Mellon, of the United States Treasury, and, secondly, into a rather undignified challenge to Senator Borah, on the subject of our financial relations with America. As far as many people are con- cerned. and I hope I may say as far as the majority in this country are concerned, they do not want to see themselves put into the position of some of the European debtors of the United States.

When the present Prime Minister went to America to settle our debt, he did a thing which was characteristic of him. There was a debt, we had promised to pay the debt, and he arranged to pay the debt. It was not done because we wanted any favour in return, or because we wanted to attract American tourists or loans to this country. It was done because the spirit of this country found a very suitable mouthpiece in the Prime Minister, who in a straightforward and businesslike way said, "We owe the money; we are neither extravagant nor dishonest and we intend to pay." That attitude, I believe, commanded the respect and the assent of most people in this country. We got, of course, as every honest debtor gets, a material reward in the form of a very strong credit position and a stronger exchange and a higher commercial position in the world. But it was the sense of contract which made us want to settle, and the motive which actuated us did not go without recognition in America.' President Coolidge said, "This is an example of the highest standard of international honour." It may be that in years to come it will be found impossible for the various countries to receive these vast sums which are owing to them. It may be economically impossible. But I do not believe that the mass of the people of this country ever wish to go to the United States and to ask to be let off. If greater forces intervene that is another matter.

The whole beneficent trend of economic forces was interrupted by the sort of comment to which I have referred, and to some extent by the tone of the Debate. I have here a quotation from the " Baltimore Sun," as quoted in the "Times." I think it worthily represents the opinion overseas. America is increasingly conscious of the disparity between her wealth and Europe's distress. and the moral implication thereof. Europe would be wise not to divert that train of thought. That is a very wise comment, and wise advice to us in discussing these matters. I the course of the last comparatively few years, many possible causes of mis- understanding with the United States have been removed, in every case by the united action of all parties. There was, I believe, some misunderstanding of our relations with Japan when the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was in existence. That disappeared after the Washington Convention. The Irish question was undoubtedly a source of very grave misunderstanding between this country and the United States. The Irish question, which was settled by the Irish Treaty, was the act of all parties, because the party opposite is equally committed with the Home Rule party on this side to the Treaty of 1922. Then there was the liquor question. Whereas the negotiations touching the smuggling of liquor were initiated under the Conservative Government of 1923, I believe they actually came to fruition in the form of a Treaty under the Labour Government of 1924.


indicated dissent.

Captain BENN

Whatever occasional supplementary questions may seem to suggest in this connection, I am certain that there is no body of opinion in this country which wishes the country directly or indirectly to be associated with the scandalous attempt on the part of certain traders to evade the laws of the United States. We often refer to the spirit of the Allies in the time of the War, and I think that that spirit was as strong, if not stronger, between ourselves and the American nation, as between ourselves and our European Allies. The United States intervened at a very critical moment in the War, and since the War she has spent liberally both in money and in effort, in assistance to European distress. Those who knew the European Capitals after the War could not be unconscious of the vast sums of money which the United States spent, by loan or by grant, in order to relieve distress. Then, again, at the Washington Convention, which was summoned by the United States, the solution of one of the most pressing problems of the world, that of disarmament, received an impetus. The whole of the settlement in the Ruhr, the solution of a very difficult and angry position, can be traced to a speech made by Mr. Secretary Hughes in 1922, on which the preliminary negotiations were based, leading up to what is known as the Dawes scheme.

3.0 P.M.

Many people in this country desire to see this country and the United States marching step by step in the relief of the needs of the world. The United States has not been backwards in her willingness to assist. She has ratified the Convention relating to the World Court, she has indicated her intention either to summon a disarmament conference or to attend the Conference which will be held under the auspices of the League of Nations. Speaking for myself, I sympathise with the point of view of those American statesmen who, in their minds, associate the idea of debt with the idea of disarmament. When Mr. Coolidge and Mr. Hughes speak about their unwillingness that the financial resources of the United States should be put at the disposal of people who wish to spend the money on armaments, they are pursuing a policy which makes a great appeal to anyone who wishes to see the disarmament of Europe. Both in sea power and in credit, Great Britain and the United States are the two greatest powers in the world. I sincerely trust that their policies may always be framed in that spirit of friendship which will unite with a high ideal these two great nations in attempting to solve some of the difficulties which lie before,. a distressed world.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

The House is indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leith (Captain Benn) for raising this question, just as it was indebted to him for his speech a few days ago in which he opened up the much bigger question of Inter-Allied Debts generally. I only wish that his tone in that speech had been followed by subsequent speakers, as the newspapers across the Atlantic bear only too eloquent testimony to some of the sinister remarks made in that Debate which were taken without very much seriousness by this House, but were taken hold of by our ill-wishers, of which we have many, and magnified out of all importance. I think I was the first Member of this House to initiate a Debate in this House on the settlement made by the present Prime Minister with the United States, and I then said, and I say it now, and I am only reinforced in my view by subsequent events, that no other settlement could be made and that it was a good settlement from the British point of view. It was worth doing by the lift and raising it gave to our national prestige alone and to our national credit. Without that settlement, we could not have got back to the gold standard. I prophesied then that the initiative for the alteration of our terms of repayment would come from America. I believe that in a measurable distance of time, when these debts begin to be paid by other countries to America, the demand will come from American business men and American working men for their cancellation. But when we in this House, or newspapers outside, begin whining or abusing our creditors, only ill can result. I consider that this is a matter that must be dealt with in a very serious way. I am not going over the ground covered by the hon. and gallant Member for Leith, but I do want to point out that so far the interest of our debt has been paid by rubber. Our dominating position in the world through rubber cannot last. Presently a great part of this debt will be paid in goods, and while it will create employment here, it will create unemployment in America, and we shall get the movement for reopening the discussions then from America that I have ventured to prophesy. If, however, we continue this campaign of complaint and recrimination, the reopening of the whole question must be delayed. Without any reference at all to America, I am always against other nations interfering in our affairs.

1 wish to refer to another matter of international importance. I wish to bring up the question which was raised at Question Time on Monday with regard to the sale of 100,000 army rifles and 100,000,000 rounds of 303 ammunition to Turkey. It is perfectly legal to make these sales; there is nothing in any international agreement or domestic law to prevent them, but they are unfortunate at the very time that the Mixed Commission on Armaments is pursuing its labours, and when we have our own experts at Geneva trying to come to arrangements with other countries for the limitation of armaments. At this time, of all times, for this great sale of rifles and ammunition to be, made to Turkey is most unfortunate, and I consider that the Govern- Ment's veto on the export of arms should have been applied in this case. We are on friendly terms with Turkey. I do not know who Turkey is preparing to arm against, but it is not against us. The answer may be made, "Oh, yes; if British armament firms did not get the order, then other countries would." That same argument might be used against the suppression of the opium traffic or the traffic in drugs, or even against the white slave traffic. I look upon the traffic in arms as mischievous and immoral. The legal position, as we know, correct, but the moral position is, I am sure, opopsed to it. I consider it most unfortunate at this time that such a deal in arms should have been permitted.

The SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Sir Austen Chamberlain)

Since I came to the House to-day,I received notice from the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain benn) that he proposed to raise the subject which he had expressed his intention of raising in a Debate a couple of nights ago, but which was not then raised—namely, our relations with America. I have had no notice from the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) of his intention to raise the question of the sale of arms.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

1 apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for not having informed him personally, but I did two hours ago give notice of this to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Still, I am sorry that I did not give the right hon. Gentleman notice personally.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Godfrey Locker-Lampson)

I do not recollect that the hon. and gallant Member said anything about the sale of arms. I thought he said that he was going to raise the general question of Anglo-American relations.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

No. Still, I am sorry that I did not give the right hon. Gentleman notice of it personally.


I accept the hon. and gallant Member's statement that he endeavoured to convey to me notice that he intended to raise this question. The notice of that only reached me by his mouth as he made his speech, and in this case that is sufficient for my purpose. But I think that, above all things, in foreign affairs we should endeavour to preserve the old courtesies and practices of the House as much as possible, because there are obvious inconveniences in the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs dealing with matters of great delicacy without having proper notice.

As regards this question of the sale of arms to Turkey, I would remind the House that as far as my information goes, no such sale has taken place—that inquiries were made of a private firm in this country but that no business resulted. We are, therefore, not discussing a transaction which has taken place but a transaction which might have taken place or which may take place at some future time. It is necessary for anyone wishing to export arms from this country to obtain a licence from His Majesty's Government, and it is not the practice of His Majesty's Government to refuse that licence to British traders unless there is something in the circumstances which leads them to think that it is contrary to the public interest that a licence should be granted. There is nothing in our relations with Turkey which should prevent a British firm from doing what a merchant of any other country may do, or a British manufacturer from obtaining an order which, if we prevent it being placed here, would, in all probability—in fact if the Turkish Government were seriously set on buying arms would, undoubtedly—be placed elsewhere. I demur entirely to the argument of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull in the dogma which he laid down for our acceptance that whilst traffic in arms is permitted, we should deliberately and voluntarily of our own action prevent any British citizen from having any share in it. His comparison of this traffic with the white slave traffic I can only allude to for the sake of saying that it shows how far an orator in difficulties can travel for illustrations to support his case.

I think a question of greater interest and certainly of much greater importance was dealt with by the hon. and gallant Member for Leith and, in a few perfunctory phrases at the opening of his speech, by the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull. I was glad to notice that the hon. and gallant Member for Leith found nothing to take exception to in the very temperate and very courteous explanation which was offered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in this House of the circumstances in which, and the purposes for which, the British Government borrowed from the United States Government after the entry of the United States into the War. As a statement was attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the Secretary of the American Treasury which wholly or largely misrepresented the character of our borrowings and the purposes to which they were applied, my right hon. Friend thought, and thought rightly, that it was not in the interest of good relations that such a misapprehension should prevail or should be given currency and credence because no notice was taken of it and he, accordingly, stated the facts correctly. But my right hon. Friend never complained and made it clear that he did not complain, of the terms of the settlement which we agreed with the United States. The hon. and gallant Member was right in saying that we borrowed money from the United States for the purposes of the War, in which they and we were engaged, and that we gave our promise to pay to the United States Government, and there is no man in this country, I am confident, who, if he had to decide the question, "Shall I honour the promise of my country when I am called upon to do so," would not have replied as my right hon. Friend and the Government of that day did, "Of course, Great Britain will honour its word and we will settle the debt as we promised," and as we have settled it. But you must not ask us—other people must not ask us—to say that we think that that was the best solution that might have been arrived at in the interests of the world at large.

We, on our part. are not only debtors to the United States but are large creditors to other Powers, and the sums owing to us far exceed the sums due from us, and we should have been prepared—succeeding Governments would have been prepared and gladly prepared —to wipe the slate clean of all these obligations among the Allied and Associated Powers, as being part of our contribution to the great cause in which we were all engaged. That solution did not commend itself. We have since then adopted as our policy that, from our debtors, we will ask only so much as will meet the payments which we have to make ourselves. The actual sums which we are receiving, or which at any near date we may be likely to receive, will not amount to the sums which we have to pay, but, be that as it may, no British Government—and in saying this if I do not use the actual words I repeat the idea of the hon. and gallant Member —would think it becoming the dignity of this country or compatible with our honour to go cap in hand and whining to those to whom we have undertaken obligations to ask to be excused. We make no complaint. We will discharge our obligations but, at least, we would like it to be known, and known correctly, for what purposes and in what manner that money was borrowed and to what purposes and in what ways it was applied.

I do not know that I need add anything. No Government can be held fully responsible for the Press of the country which it represents. Least of all are we in this country in a position to control the comment which newspapers may make on ourselves or on other people. I join with the hon. and gallant Member in the expression of the hope that the friendship of our two great nations, our mutual respect and regard, may not be impaired by ill-tempered or injudicious public controversy whether by speeches or by writings. It is a tradition of this country, long honoured now, that we should preserve the most friendly relations with the United States. We have rejoiced in every sign we have seen of improved feeling in the United States towards this country and I agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the two measures he named have contributed to produce that feeling there. Long may it continue. May it grow warmer and closer, for in friendly union and co-operation we may achieve much, not only for ourselves, but for the peace and advantage of the world.