HC Deb 01 July 1935 vol 303 cc1519-24

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is in a position to make any statement in regard to the visit of the Minister for League of Nations Affairs to Rome and Paris?


I have been asked to reply. The object of the visit which, on the instructions of His Majesty's Government, I recently made to Paris was two-fold. His Majesty's Government wished, in the first place, to take the earliest opportunity of giving the French Government a full and frank explanation on the subject of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. They also wished to consider, in consultation with the French Government, the ways and means of making progress as quickly as possible with the negotiation of all the matters enumerated in the London Communiqué of the 3rd February.

As regards the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, I gave the French Prime Minister an account of the contents of the Agreement itself, and described to him the circumstances in which it was negotiated and the reasons which had led His Majesty's Government to conclude it.

Monsieur Laval explained with equal frankness the view which the French Government took of this Agreement. He also explained his view of its bearing upon the various European problems in the solution of which the two Governments are engaged.

It was recognised in the course of this conversation that for the settlement of these questions, such, for example, as the Air Pact and Air limitation, the Eastern Pact, the Central European Pact, and agreement on land armaments, close collaboration between France and Great Britain was necessary. These are, however, questions which do not interest France and Great Britain alone. We are, therefore, at present seeking, in conjunction with the French Government, the form of collaboration best designed to secure the fulfilment as quickly and completely as possible by all countries of the programme of the London Communiqué of the 3rd February.

At the close of the discussions upon these same subjects which I held subsequently with Signor Mussolini in Rome, we were happy to be able to record agreement as to the possibility of continuing to work for European appeasement in accordance with the guiding principles laid down in the London Communiqué of the 3rd February and the Stresa Resolution.

There is now, therefore, reason to hope that the best line of negotiation may shortly be found. Moreover, I cannot doubt that, although the three Governments may not attach the same importance or ascribe the same urgency to all the various items of the programme, it should be possible to agree upon a method whereby, in free and equal negotiation with other Governments, they may unite to contribute to the solution of these problems.

I now turn to the dispute between Italy and Abyssinia, in regard to which I had conversations with Signor Mussolini on the 24th and 25th June.

I expressed to Signor Mussolini the grave concern of His Majesty's Government at the turn which events were taking between Italy and Abyssinia. Our motives were neither egoistic nor dictated by our interests in Africa, but by our membership of the League of Nations. I said that British foreign policy was founded upon the League. His Majesty's Government could not, therefore, remain indifferent to events which might profoundly affect the League's future. Upon this issue public opinion in this country felt very strongly. It was only through collective security that in our judgment peace could be preserved, and only through the League that Great Britain could play her full part in Europe. It was for this reason that His Majesty's Government had been anxiously studying whether there was any constructive contribution which they could make in order to promote a solution.

I then described to Signor Mussolini the kind of contribution which His Majesty's Government had in mind and which I was authorised to make to him as a tentative suggestion. This suggestion was broadly speaking as follows:

To obtain a final settlement of the dispute between Italy and Abyssinia, His Majesty's Government would be prepared to offer to Abyssinia a strip of territory in British Somaliland giving Abyssinia access to the sea. This proposal was intended to facilitate such territorial and economic concessions by Abyssinia to Italy as might have been involved in an agreed settlement. His Majesty's Government would ask for no concession in return for this arrangement save grazing rights for their tribes in such territory as might be ceded to Italy.

This suggestion was not lightly made, and only the gravity of the situation could justify the cession of British territory without equivalent return.

I much regret that this suggestion did not commend itself to Signor Mussolini, who was unable to accept it as the basis for a solution of the dispute.

On my return to Paris, I gave M. Laval an account of what had passed with Signor Mussolini.


Obviously, it is impossible for myself or the House, until we have read the right hon. Gentleman's statement, thoroughly to comprehend all that is involved in it, but I should like to ask either the right hon. Gentleman or the Prime Minister when we shall be in a position to discuss those matters which were discussed with M. Laval; and also I should like to ask whichever Minister can answer the question when it is likely that we may know from the Government what other steps they propose to take in order to bring such pressure as public opinion in Europe may be able to bring upon the Italian Government in respect of the dispute with Abyssinia. My reason for asking that question is that most of us in the House—I should think all in the House—have in mind the long period of drift which ended, in the Far East, in the present partial conquest of China by Japan in defiance both of Europe and of her own signature to the Nine Power Pact and the other pacts against aggression.


I fully realise the extreme urgency of these questions. At the same time I regret that to-day I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any specific answer as to when we shall be able to give the House fuller details. As soon as we are at liberty to give the House fuller details, we will give the House fuller details. If the right hon. Gentleman would leave it at that to-day, I would undertake to keep him informed as to when we shall be in a position to give the House fuller information. In the meanwhile, I imagine that he will be asking for the Foreign Office Vote some time at an early date in the future. While I cannot give a pledge, I should hope that I shall be able to give some further information than we have been able to give to-day, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we regard the issues at stake as very urgent, and they are under our special and constant consideration. It is not that I wish to withhold any information from the House to-day, but L feel that if I were to go further I might be prejudicing the course we should all like to see pursued.


I think I ought to say this with regard to the right hon. Gentleman's statement—it is a mere repetition of something that, on behalf of my friends, I said two years or more ago, when the Japanese situation was acute. The Government must take responsibility, and we must leave to a very large extent the responsibility with them for the moment. But ultimately the British Parliament is responsible, and what we are anxious to safeguard ourselves against is another accomplished fact in regard to Abyssinia without this House or the League of Nations or anyone else being heard. With regard to a future date, we should like very much fuller particulars and details of these conversations to be embodied in a White Paper whenever we have the opportunity to discuss them. But I press very strongly for an early date for the discussion of the European situation, and especially for the discussion of the Abyssinia-Italian situation.


May I ask the Minister without Portfolio whether Signor Mussolini said what his terms were and what he wanted; or is the time not opportune to disclose that to the House?


I have given the House a full statement so far as I can of a conversation which was essentially confidential. I feel sure the House will appreciate that at this stage I could not go further than I have gone to-day.


The Leader of the Opposition has referred to something in the nature of a fait accompli. I should like to ask the Foreign Minister whether there is not another fait accompli, and whether the House cannot have an assurance that, before any British territory is ceded to Abyssinia, or any Power, the House of Commons will be consulted?


The House must trust the Executive Government in these matters. If they are not prepared to trust the Government, the whole basis of government is destroyed.


Is it not a fact that, when the Minister without Portfolio was in Geneva some little time ago, a Committee was set up for the purpose of dealing with the Abyssinian trouble; and is that Committee operating now?


The conciliation procedure is certainly continuing. These conversations, however, dealt with something other than the conciliation procedure.


Can some intimation be given to the House as to when the Foreign Office Vote will be put down for discussion?


Surely, in a matter of vital principle such as this, the last word in regard to the cession of British territory and the handing over of British subjects to an alien Government must rest with the House of Commons?


My hon. Friend has not followed the answer given by my right hon. Friend. The proposal was described as a tentative one, as part of a general effort to arrive at a settlement of a very critical situation which might have disastrous reactions all round if not properly handled. There is no question whatever of going behind the back of the House, but there was the urgent necessity for the Government to take what steps they thought fit to arrive at a satisfactory settlement of a very dangerous situation.


I am quite prepared to trust the Government in this matter. All that I ask for is something to which I think the House is entitled, namely, an assurance that, before anything definite in this matter is done, the House will be consulted.


May I ask whether the offer mentioned in the statement is still open, and whether it will still be discussed; or whether the matter has been turned down and is regarded as closed?


The tentative suggestion that was made was not acceptable, and I assume, therefore, that the suggestion is at an end.


If Signor Mussolini had accepted that offer, what would have been our position then?