HC Deb 13 April 1933 vol 276 cc2739-49

11.22 a.m.


No apology is needed for raising the question of foreign affairs on the Adjournment Motion to-day. We had some discussion three weeks ago when the Prime Minister made a statement to the House with regard to disarmament and what is known as the Four Power Pact. This morning we want to raise a wide range of subjects dealing with external affairs, and I think I shall be able to show that all these questions are interconnected. The Prime Minister, speaking on 23rd March, said: Europe is not settled. Europe is very unsettled. Europe is in a very nervous condition."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1933; col. 515, Vol. 276.] He could have said with equal truth that the world was very unsettled, and in a very nervous condition. There are a number of centres of disturbance and while I do not intend to "survey mankind from China to Peru," it is necessary to glance at the state of affairs in a good many countries. The point which I first raise concerns what is called the Four Power Pact. Everyone will agree that the Prime Minister's speech on it left the matter in a very nebulous condition. His speech was full of hints and suggestions.


On a point of Order. We would very much like the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to be here during this discussion.


The Prime Minister is here.


I only wished to say that we would like the right hon. Gentleman to be in his place, because we do not want to have to make our speeches twice over.


As I was saying when the Prime Minister came in, the discus- sion on 23rd March left the House in considerable doubt as to the real position in regard to the Four Power Pact. The Prime Minister referred to it very often. He referred to various documents that had been put forward, and he referred to a plan, but I do not think any of us are very clear as to what are the real contents of that plan, pact, agreement, conversation, or whatever it may be. At the end of the discussion, when the Under-Secretary of State was replying, the right hon. Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain), the representative of the Liberal party, and my right hon. Friend on this Bench all stressed the importance of the matter. I gathered that there were two parts to this Pact. The first was some kind of declaration of non-aggression. I think we are getting rather tired of these repeated declarations by great Powers that they are not going to attack one another. Each time such a declaration is made it casts doubt on the sincerity of the previous declaration. As far as I know, the only person who could repeat a thing and so make it become true was the Bellman, and the Bellman was distinguished by the fact that he had really no notion of crossing the ocean. In the ocean of foreign affairs, the present Bellmen of the world seem to have a very rough idea of where they are going. Therefore, I do not intend to say much about these pious declarations.

The second point was the suggestion of joint action by the four great Powers. Since the announcement of the Pact was made, we have had an opportunity of seeing its effect on the world in general, and I do not think anyone can say that it has had a sedative effect. Everywhere it has aroused great suspicion, and it suggests a reversal to ninetenth century methods—the idea that the affairs of Europe, if not of the world, are going to be managed by a group of great Powers and the rest of the world form a, chorus, which is to accept what is laid down by these great Allies. We object altogether to the great Power conception as being entirely out of date in these days. We notice how it has been taken up, for instance, by Germany, which talks about "security for a long period of peace by the really great Powers." Who are the really great Powers? It is suggested, I suppose, that they are Germany, France, Italy, and this country, but in the modern world I think it will be found that, if it is taken from the point of view of Powers with armed force behind them, the Little Entente is a great Power, Poland is a great Power, and Japan is a great Power.

We object to that idea of dominating the world by great Powers. Most observers of what has happened in the world within the last 10 or 12 years would agree that the world owes a very great debt of gratitude to the small Powers, that the representatives of small Powers such as the Scandinavian countries have on the whole probably shown a better conception of what was good for the world than have many of the great Powers. The suspicion that has been aroused in the minds of many people by the Four Power Pact is that we are departing from the conception of a world in which peace is to be kept by the action of a number of nations, small and great, operating together, to a world where the League of Nations will be dominated by a number of great Powers. It may even be worse than that. It may even be that the League of Nations will become merely a meeting ground for the dissensions of rival groups of great Powers.

There is a further suspicion. The suspicion among the smaller nations is that when the four, five or six great Powers get together to try to settle their difficulties, those difficulties will be settled at the expense of the small nations. Anyone conversant with the history of Europe in the nineteenth century will remember how often that happened; how often, when the great Powers got together, partitions occurred, whether in Europe or in spheres of influence in Africa. It was done by way of what was called compensation, which means that when someone has grabbed something, someone else is allowed to grab something from someone else, but not from the person who has benefited by the first grab. Well-informed observers on the Continent are saying that there is a danger of this, and I think those suspicions have been aroused by the fact that we have had no clear exposition at all of what this policy is.

The further point that did emerge was fairly clear, and that is that there was to be some revision of the peace treaties. We on these benches have never suggested for a moment that the peace treaties should not be revised. We believe that they should be revised, but that they must be revised on a basis on which all are going to take part in the discussions, not revised in the interests of a few Powers. What is feared is that revision may take place in the interests of great Powers at the expense of smaller nations. Personally, I think a great deal of the alarm that has been aroused among the smaller nations has been through the idea of some revision of treaties, and particularly some revision of boundaries. On the other hand, is it not an extraordinary time to suggest it? Of course, it has been hailed with joy by those Powers which consider that they were unjustly deprived of territory by the peace treaties, and its reception in Germany has been most marked and has had a most extraordinarily unfortunate effect.

I think this House and this country ought to say that we will not countenance for a moment the yielding to Hitler and force what was denied to Stresemann and reason. I do not know what the Prime Minister's view of the Hitler movement is. I was struck by one phrase in his speech on the 23rd March, in which he talked of national life being revitalised. I do not know whether that was a euphemism for Hitlerism, but it looked as if he regarded that as a revitalisation of national life. It may he a resurgence of crude nationalism, but I should have thought it was not revitalisation but a reintroduction of death in the near future. We say that if now, after 10 years, we are to have a recognition given to force by concessions given to this new Germany, then we are definitely setting back the whole of what has been done since the War to set reason and justice above force. The revision of the territorial settlement in favour of Germany would be an ironical pendant to the rape of China by Japan.

What does this Pact mean? We realise that there is a crisis for democratic institutions in the world. The whole conception of the League of Nations was a league of democratic powers. It is a curious thing how soon we forgot what bulked so big at the time of the War. We seem to have forgotten that the War was to make the world safe for democracy, and the flood of words that was poured out against the despotisms that have passed away—the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, the Romanoffs and the rest, and in many quarters there is a tendency to hail with a certain satisfaction the fall in democracies and the rise in dictatorships. We believe that this country should stand pat by democracy. We have seen a receding tide of democracy on the Continent. I would say that, except for Czechoslovakia and Austria, democracy has been practically swept out of Central Europe. The only counter to that is a rise of democracy in Spain. There is a lot of cheap talk going about as to the failure of democracy, but I want to ask whether on the Continent of Europe democracy has ever been given a chance? When we consider the conditions that have obtained in Germany during the last 10 years, it is a miracle that democracy lasted so long. If it is asked why democracy has fallen, I do not think that it is due in the least to the essence of democracy. I think that Western democracies will have to take a very big share of the blame—not only this country, but France and the United States of America.

Now after 10 years Western democracies are going to get their punishment in the rise of a revived nationalist militarism—this thing called Hitlerism. What are the Government doing for democracy Are they going to do anything to save Austria? I do not want to go at length into the Austrian question, but Austria, after all, is under the special protection of the League of Nations. Only a few days ago in this House we were dealing with loans for Austria. This country, I understand, has a heavy responsibility, and during that Debate we had a good many forecasts about the future of Austria. We understand that there is a likelihood of money invested in Austria being lost, so that from the lowest point of view we have some interest, but Austria at the present moment is in danger of being practically enslaved by one or other of her undemocratic neighbours. This country should stand up for the continuance of democratic institutions in Austria and see that there shall be no veiled dictatorship there, whether by Hitler or Horthy or anybody else. I do not think that there is the least use in the Government spokesman saying that this is a matter for the League of Nations. You cannot dodge responsibility like that because this country, after all, has a big influence at the League of Nations—the biggest influence of the lot.

The next point I take is the question of the conditions in Germany and what is actually happening there. I do not think that it is necessary for me to go in detail into what is happening and has been happening in Germany to the Social Democrats, to the Communists, and to the Jews, but we want to know what the attitude of the Government is in this matter. A question was asked yesterday whether it was possible to draw Germany's attention to the Clause relating to minorities, wherein it was ruled that countries should give to their minorities not less favourable treatment than is guaranteed specifically under the League of Nations. I thought that the Foreign Secretary took the matter rather lightly and that he was not really very interested. I want to know what this country can do, because we have often taken action in the past. Will the Government move to take action in favour of the refugees? There are masses of refugees in Germany and there are many who would like to be refugees, but I understand that there are in Germany many people who are not to be allowed to work there and yet are not to be allowed to leave the country. There is, however, a refugee problem. The great tradition of this country is that we receive refugees. The position is tragic for all political refugees to-day, because the economic conditions of the world make it so difficult for any country to receive them. Will the Government set in motion the Nansen International Office for refugees? That office did a wonderful work for Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians and Assyrians. Why should it not be put in motion to help the Jews? It may be said that the Jewish community is a wealthy community, but it is a scattered community. It could, however, cooperate with the Nansen International Office.

The next point I raise is in regard to our own responsibility for Palestine. We hold the mandate for that country. Are we prepared to offer a home to the persecuted Jews in Palestine? We must of course recognise the need for caution in this matter. I think that the Jews themselves have recognised it. They recognise fully that we have our own responsibility to the Arabs, but no one would suggest that Palestine cannot take a very much larger population. I should like to know whether this Government, as the protector of the Jewish national borne, are going to help the persecuted Jews to get there at this time?

I should next like to ask what is to be our attitude towards Germany? Is it possible to invoke the Minority Clause of the League of Nations, at any rate, in regard to Silesia? I hope that Germany is realising the force of public opinion in all parties here. No one can fail to observe the spontaneous outburst from all parties in this House. When we come to this matter of Treaty revision, I hope that our Government will tell Germany straight out that if she wants any revision she must came with clean hands. Germany is demanding a number of adjustments—adjustments on the side of Poland, adjustments here and adjustments there. There is even talk of Germany asking for a retrocession of some of her former colonies. In all the areas where Germany is demanding to get back territory there are minorities. In none of those areas is there an unmixed German population, in all there are people of alien races, and we should say quite frankly to Germany that at the present moment no one in this country would propose to entrust any minority to Germany, seeing how she has been treating her own minorities. I hope the Government will take a very firm line on this. It may be said to us on these benches, "You did not take action to protect Russians against Russian oppression"; but that is a slightly different matter, after all. Germany as she is to-day is the creation of the Versailles Treaty, and she is asking the world to relieve her from the consequences of that Treaty. We in this House, and, indeed, the country as a whole, I think, fully recognise Germany's claim for justice, but we can definitely insist that we are not going to see the persecution of minorities, racial, religious or political, and then calmly suggest that we shall give her everything she is demanding.

The next point I would like to make is with regard to disarmament. Here, again, we have the dangerous suggestion of the re-arming of Germany. We stand perfectly clearly for equality in arma- ments. We believe in reduction of armaments, but we recognise that an essential pre-requisite of disarmament is security, and real disarmament is moral disarmament, the tranquil mind. That brings me to my next point—what has been happening with regard to the Sino-Japanese dispute since the League of Nations unanimously found Japan to be the aggressor? I bring that question in because it is the acid test of whether a member State of the League of Nations can get security through membership of the League. We count at the League of Nations; it is for us to give a lead, and I believe that France and the United States would fall in with us. I would like to ask whether we cannot suggest a unilateral embargo on armaments to Japan. We had a suggestion made by the Foreign Secretary for withholding arms from the conflicting Powers, and here we have the case of an aggressor State and there has been no unilateral embargo. I would like to know whether that suggestion has ever been put forward. It rather suggests itself to my mind that perhaps the influence of armament firms has been too pressing.

It may be said that that is the sort of thing a Socialist would say, and so I will give my authority. There was a remarkable letter from a former Member of this House, formerly a distinguished Ambassador, Lord Rennell, in which he referred to all this talk going about the world, this fear, this constant suggestion of new wars and asked who were at the back of it. He said we should look to whose advantage it is. The only people to gain advantage are the armament firms. Look at their influence in all countries. Why should not we propose a world-wide boycott of Japanese goods? We are proposing such a boycott in one case on behalf of our citizens; why not do it on behalf of the peace of the world? Perhaps the Government are going to do it. I would like to ask the Prime Minister whether that is one of the matters to be discussed with President Roosevelt. I know that the view has been put forward by some in this House that it is not much good taking action now, because everything is past and over. They say "Let Japan, like a boa constrictor, get gorged with China, and it will be more peaceful for the rest of the world." I believe that is a profoundly mistaken view. What matters is not so much the actual seizing of this province or that from China, but the fact that Japan has flouted entirely the whole basis of the League of Nations. Unless the world is prepared to take a strong line the Sino-Japanese dispute will be found to cut at the very root of disarmament, because it will be said there is no security for a member State of the League of Nations.

I hope to hear something from the Prime Minister on what he is going to discuss with President Roosevelt. I think there has been rather a change in this whole matter. First of all it appeared to be more or less a week-end trip for a discussion with the President of the United States but now it appears more invitations have been sent out, and it is going to be in the nature of a great international conference. The list of subjects has appeared to be mainly economic, but we cannot separate the economic troubles of the world to-day from the political. Our political troubles are largely a result of economic conditions. There would never have been the Hitler position in Germany but for economic conditions producing millions of unemployed. I believe that treaty revisions, disarmament, and debts questions—all such questions—are really subservient to the restoration of economic conditions in the world. What line is the Prime Minister going to take? We should like him to take the line that the essential business to be discussed is how the workers of the world are to be allowed to consume world production. Revolutions have come through the cry for bread. In the Russian revolution the demand was for peace and bread, and the Nazi revolution is very largely a demand for bread.

We want to know what the Prime Minister will bring us back from the United States. It will not be satisfactory if, when there are cries for bread, he comes back with a lump of gold. The Gold Standard is one of the matters to be discussed. The Prime Minister ought to realise that he cannot go over with a doctor's mandate, and that he cannot come back with a bottle of soothing syrup. We want something a great deal more practical than that. Are they going to discuss the recovery of world trade? That is a vital matter, because it is precisely in the great exchange operations that things have broken down. If one recognises that the conditions in Germany are very largely the result of a breakdown of world trade, and that world trade has broken down very largely through mishandling by the people whose main business is making money breed money, one might appeal, perhaps, to the leaders of world Jewry, who are very important in most circles, to throw all their influence into the scale of making a new world based on the principle of abundance. I hope that we are not to have, as the result of this, a binding down of this country again to the Gold Standard, and a binding down of debts, whether political or economic, upon the backs of the people.

One further point in connection with tariffs. I was interested to see that the International Chambers of Commerce have issued a memorandum. When you have summed it up it seems to say that the policy of tariffs was a mistake and that the world ought to get back to the policy of William Graham and international Free Trade. I do not wish to discuss these points at length. I have kept the House quite long enough, but I say that, in the disturbed condition of the world, both in regard to the Four Power Pact and in what is going to be discussed in the United States of America, this House and the country have a right to know what is the Government's policy. We think that it is time for a clear, definite policy directed to essentials. Political settlements depend upon the economic settlements of the world, and peace is bound up with both. We shall wish the Prime Minister all success in his negotiations with President Roosevelt, but we want to hear what he is going to do.

11.57 a.m.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Ramsay MacDonald)

I think it would be convenient, although apparently intervening in a general Debate upon foreign affairs, that I should say at this point what I have to say, and that is on the question of America. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary later on, after further observations have been made and questions put, will deal with the general Foreign Office aspect of these subjects that have been brought up. I want to take this opportunity of saying, and I hope that my hon. Friend will have no objection to my assuring the House that practically all the hostile criticisms which have been made upon what has been done in regard to the Four Power Pact and regarding the position in Germany have proceeded from pure assumption. So far as any question of revision is concerned, revision, as it has been considered, is a revision of peace, and revision, not away from the League of Nations, but in the League of Nations, through the League of Nations, and by the machinery of the League of Nations; a revision in the consideration of which, when it comes up, the small Powers interested will have just as much to say as the large Powers. That has been made perfectly clear from the very beginning. I will leave the details to my right hon. Friend, as I say, when further questions have been put and discussed.

So far as America is concerned, the story is a very simple one. About the middle of November, or at the end of November, the Government faced the question of a substantial instalment of debt that was due on the 15th December. Were we to pay, or were we not? If we paid, under what conditions? If we were not to pay, how would we meet the consequences of it and so on? The result was that notes were exchanged between the British and United States Governments, and in the course of the exchange of those notes—

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