HC Deb 07 April 1930 vol 237 cc1860-4

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."

I move this Motion formally, and I do not intend to speak to it, because I understand that the Prime Minister has an announcement to make.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I, of course, regret very much that the questions put to me earlier in the day were not taken by myself, but, as a matter of fact, they all covered ground for which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been responsible, and I thought that the House would understand that a matter which was primarily a Foreign Office matter should properly be answered by the Foreign Secretary. But, as the result of certain supplementary questions, the right hon. Gentleman opposite gave notice that he would try to move the Adjournment of the House. He has put a certain question to me now, asking whether, if there is any re-interpretation of Article 16 of the Covenant involving fresh commitments, we will consult the other members of the Council of the League and give the House an opportunity of considering the matter before any agreement involving such reinterpretation is entered into?

I am perfectly certain that there is nobody in this House who would object more strongly than the right hon. Gentleman's late Chief if I gave a pledge of that character, because what it amounts to is this—that it would be quite impossible for this Government or any other Government to exchange views or to express its views regarding the meaning of an Article which the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well is still vague in its meaning; that France and ourselves, or Germany and ourselves, or Czechoslovakia and ourselves could not even exchange views as to the meaning of that Article without first of all consulting the Council of the League. I could not take that pledge. Nor have right hon. Gentlemen opposite ever taken that pledge. Nor—this is more important—have they ever acted upon that pledge.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to certain work that we have in hand just now. If we have discussed together Article 16 all that it amounts to is that one says to the other, "What meaning do we individually attach to Article 16?" But at Locarno that was not the case. At Locarno, Germany wanted an assurance as to what obligations she would be undertaking if she joined the League of Nations. That is a very serious thing—the absolute interpretation which I am saying straight away can only be made by the Council of the League if it is going to have any binding authority at all—but at Locarno that interpretation was given by Powers, other than Germany, represented there, and the interpretation was a new one which introduced language not found in the Covenant of the League. It was handed to Germany as a guarantee, and initialed, and it appears as an annexe to the papers of the Locarno Treaty.

I am not raising that in any controversial spirit; it is a matter of history. I am referring to it only because, when he is reminded of it, no one will understand more than the right hon. Gentleman that it is impossible for any Prime Minister to give the pledge that he has asked for. All that we can do is to say that, having ascertained as far as one humanly can the opinion of the country, and of this House, negotiations conducted on these subjects will be conducted with that opinion well in mind, and never forgotten at any stage. That we have been doing our best to do during the trying two months or two months and a half. On 30th January, in answer to a question upon the business of this Conference, I made this statement: There may, however, be points in the progress of the work of the Conference when a statement might properly he made to the House, and, if the Leaders of either of the other parties would consult me whenever they think that information is required, I should be glad to discuss with them the advisability of a question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th January, 1930; col. 1183, Vol. 234.] That holds good to-day. I have never been approached. If the right hon. Gentleman to-day had told me that he put any importance on his question I certainly would have been here to answer it, or, at any rate, I would have explained to him the position in which I find myself, in an early part of my answer. I say to the House, again, that, if there is any information required by the Leaders of the House, if they would like that information to be given here, would they be good enough to come and consult me? I will tell them exactly the situation, and I hope that in that way we shall carry the whole of the parties of the House, so far as representative men are concerned, in the negotiations that we are carrying on. That will not commit either of them to support me. I shall not expect that. But they will both understand what our difficulties are, and the general way in which we are doing our best to meet them.


I do not at all wish to get into any argument with the Prime Minister as to the history of the Locarno negotiations. If I did, I could point out the difference between those negotiations and the negotiations which we understand are going on to-day. I have risen only to say that it seems to me that the suggestion that the Prime Minister has made is a good one. Unfortunately, the Leader of the Opposition is away carrying out a public engagement, but I have consulted certain of my colleagues, and they authorise me to say that they think that the suggestion is one which the Opposition could accept. I shall make it my business to inform the Leader of the Opposition what the Prime Minister has said, and, if the Leader of the Opposition agrees, there can be a meeting between the Leaders of the three parties. In the circumstances, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Locker-Lampson) that the object of his Motion has now been attained, and that he can in due course withdraw it. I understand that the Leader of the Liberal party has an observation to make, but, so far as we are concerned, we are prepared, after what the Prime Minister has said, to withdraw the Motion.


I also should like to say that I think the suggestion made by the Prime Minister is an admirable one, and one that meets the circumstances. It would be very awkward to have a Debate in the House of Commons on foreign policy, and especially a Debate on such matters as are being discussed between great Powers at the present moment. It would lead to a good deal of misunderstanding. As anyone knows who reads the foreign Press on foreign affairs, a single sentence is always given a meaning which is far beyond anything which even the speaker himself ever contemplated; an importance is always attached to it which has really no relevance to the circumstances of the case. I am not going into these discussions about Locarno, and others. I think I would rather agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that stands by itself, because of old commitments about the Rhineland and other things. I agree with the Prime Minister that if there have been no consultations it is certainly not his fault. As far as we were concerned, we never sought consultation upon the subject, and I understand that the same thing applies to the Leader of the Opposition.

It is very desirable, I think, that we should know exactly what we are being committed to, because these commitments are matters of peace and war. There has been a good deal of discussion as to whether or not we were committed in 1914. If we were, we were. committed to something which was very vague and not definite; but where it was a question of honour, whether there was a real commitment or not, we gave the benefit of the doubt to others. We do not want those conditions to arise again. We do not want a commitment, where the French will assume that we have incurred certain obligations which we did not intend to incur. Therefore, to us the very wording of any formula or proposal which is put forward by the Government may be a matter of the most calamitous consequences to this country later on, although they may not have that in their minds at the moment. Therefore, I am very delighted that the Prime Minister has acceded to the suggestion that there should be a meeting between the leaders of the parties, because it is very desirable that foreign policy should not be the subject of controversy between parties.


In view of what the Prime Minister has said, which, I am sure, has given a great deal of gratification to the whole House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Motion. In view of the announcement that the Leaders of the different parties are to be called into consultation and that they are to receive information in regard to this very important point, I hope that my hon. Friends behind me will let the matter rest there.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.