HC Deb 27 July 1927 vol 209 cc1246-50
Mr. CLYNES (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether any statement can be made to-day on the subject of the dis-cussions at Geneva on naval policy?


As is known to the House, His Majesty's Government thought it necessary that they should have an opportunity of conferring verbally with the British delegates in order that we might have a full understanding of the position reached in the Geneva negotiations and be enabled to take a decision on certain points referred to us by the delegates.

These questions have been fully discussed with our colleagues during the last few days, and the delegates are to-day returning to Geneva to continue the Conference, which we trust will reach a successful conclusion.

I am sorry to say that our very distinguished naval delegate, Admiral Field, is unable to return owing to ill-health, and his place will 'be taken by Rear-Admiral Pound.

In these circumstances it would be improper for me to make at this stage any detailed exposition of the British proposals or to comment on the proposals of the other Powers. The statement which I am going to read is, therefore, designed only to remove a misunderstanding which, if it continued uncorrected, could not but impede the prospects of success.

The Conference on Naval Disarmament now sitting at Geneva has discussed many important points in technical Committees and Plenary Conferences, but, in spite of the efforts of our delegates at Geneva, serious misapprehension of the aims of His Majesty's Government still prevails in some quarters. His Majesty's Government have even been charged with the desire to destroy that equality of sea power as between the United States of America and the British Empire which the Washington Conference contemplated—a suspicion for which there is no foundation.

The invitation of the President of the United States of America to take part in a Disarmament Conference was understood by His Majesty's Government to be based on his desire to develop the policy of the Washington Conference by diminishing yet further naval expenditure while maintaining national security. With this two-fold end His Majesty's Government are in complete agreement, and they desire to measure the merits of every proposal by the degree to which it furthers this two-fold end. It is on this principle that they have proposed to diminish the size and armament of battleships, while leaving unaltered the numbers fixed at Washington. It is for this reason also that they suggest limitations in the number and armament of large fighting cruisers on principles similar to those adopted at Washington for battleships. This proposal, like the first, would greatly diminish national expenditure without endangering national safety.

The questions connected with small cruisers are of a more complicated character. The strength of fleets can be stated in figures and compared with precision. Their primary function is to fight other fleets, and, speaking broadly, they can easily be compared with each other. No such simple way of looking at the subject is possible in the case of small cruisers employed for police purposes in times of peace, and necessary for the protection of the lines of communication in time of war. Geographical considerations cannot be rationally ignored. It can hardly be denied, as was clearly stated by us when accepting the President's invitation, that such vessels are of vital necessity to an Empire whose widely-scattered parts are divided from each other by seas and oceans, whose most populous parts are dependent for their daily bread on sea-borne trade, and which would perish if it failed to protect its external trade.

It has to be noted further that the sea routes on which Britain depends for her existence lie largely in narrow waters bordered by other states. This is not the case with the United States of America, whose most important lines of communication lie either on land within her own frontiers, by sea along her own coasts, or in the great oceans. These circumstances received due consideration at Washington in 1922, and have not lost any of their importance. But it is hardly necessary to say that His Majesty's Government, while urging the special difficulties due to Britain's geographical position, are far from claiming the least right to dictate any small cruiser policy to other Powers. They accept the general principles which, as they understand them, underlie the President's policy that no maritime Power should maintain a larger Navy than is required for its own security. To translate this into figures is, for the reasons already given, far more difficult in the case of small cruisers than in the case of the larger types of surface vessels. Anything resembling the quarsi-permanent formula adopted at Washington for battleships is quite inapplicable to vessels designed for purposes which, not only may, but must, vary with the geographical and economic position of the several Powers concerned. It becomes even more inapplicable when strength is estimated in terms of gross tonnage, Without reference to numbers or armaments. Two nations each possessing 100,000 tons of battleships may be regarded without serious error as being, so far, equal in fighting power. No such statement can reasonably be made about two nations one of which has 10 cruisers of 10,000 tons, while the other has 20 cruisers of 5,000 tons. It all depends upon circumstances—though naval experts would probably agree that, if it came to fighting, the more numerous but smaller vessels would stand but a poor chance against their more powerful but less numerous opponents. If so, the country which for any reason was obliged to distribute its available tonnage among smaller units would be at a permanent disadvantage compared with one which was able to adopt a different scheme. There would be nominal parity but real inequality.

This is, of course, merely an illustration. But it suffices to explain why, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, no provisions open to this kind of criticism should be given the international authority already possessed by those parts of the Treaty of Washington which deal with strength and numbers. In the opinion of His Majesty's Government there need be no difficulty in arriving at a temporary arrangement about the immediate future of cruiser building. But the British Empire cannot be asked to give to any such temporary arrangement the appearance of an immutable principle, which might be treated as a precedent. Any other course would inevitably be interpreted in the future as involving the formal surrender by the British Empire of maritime equality, a consummation which His Majesty's Government are well assured is no part of the President's policy.


I cannot, of course, say anything on the merits of the statement, but I think it will be agreed that there is an advantage in having had it. Further, I think it is inevitable that some allusion may be made to-morrow to the principles underlying the statement, and I therefore only ask now whether we may be assured that an early opportunity will be afforded to the House when we resume in November for a discussion on the subject. Meantime I express the hope that the delegates who have returned will be able to produce some satisfactory result from their labours.


His Majesty's Government fully share the hope with which the right hon. Gentleman concluded his question. I think I can certainly undertake on behalf of the Prime Minister, in his absence, that an opportunity shall be afforded early after the resumption of the House for such a discussion if the right hon. Gentleman then desires it.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Is the right hon. Gentleman able to deny the statement which has been very widely repeated abroad with reference to the 600,000 tons of cruisers stated to have been demanded by our principal delegate at the beginning of the Conference?


My right hon. Friend never mentioned the figure of 600,000 tons, therefore I can give the assurance the hon. and gallant Gentleman desires. I take the question of the right hon. Gentleman as to facilities when the House resumes its sitting as indicating his view, which is the view of His Majesty's Government, that it is inexpedient, and almost improper, that we should enter into any detailed discussions while the Conference is still sitting at Geneva.


Is it not the case that, if each Power represented at Geneva is going to insist upon the special conditions of its own national security, agreement is going to be utterly impossible, and, in these circumstances, had we not better bring the protracted farce at Geneva to an end at the earliest possible moment?


I regret the tone and the wording of the hon. Member's question. His Majesty's Government must dissociate themselves expressly and at once from the reference which he has made to the Conference now proceeding at Geneva. The basis of that Conference, as we understand it, and in the President's own intention, is to reconcile the limitation of armaments with national security, and that is the only basis on which any conference for the limitation of armaments can ever be brought to a successful issue.


Will any arrangements, which have been so far made with Japan with regard to this matter, be held to be binding upon the Government in any further negotiations that take place?


I have already said it would he improper for me to enter into any detailed discussion.