HC Deb 07 June 1935 vol 302 cc2193-210

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]

11.14 a.m.


I rise to call attention to the question of the dispute between Italy and Abyssinia, and I intend to confine my remarks to as small a compass as possible, because I do not think I should make a long speech on an adjournment day. On the 27th May, we had a statement from the Lord Privy Seal with regard to the proceedings at Geneva. He said: Without suggesting that the Council's resolutions finally dispose of the tension Which has unfortunately arisen between Italy and Ethiopia as a result of the Walwal and other incidents, I am confident that they represent an important advance towards a friendly solution."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th May, 1935; col. 766, Vol. 302.] The whole House recognises the work of the Lord Privy Seal at Geneva on that occasion, but, as he says, the tension is not over. What has happened is that the procedure for the settlement of part of that dispute has been established, but military preparations on the part of Italy still go on. The question is what is to be the position when the 25th July comes. This matter gets worse the longer it is allowed to drag on. One has to face up to the position of Italy. We have there a country ruled by a dictator and a Government that is in urgent need of something to take off the tension from its internal situation and to re-establish its prestige. There is very serious unemployment in Italy, an almost desperate financial situation, rising prices, declining foreign trade, and a considerable volume of criticism of the existing regime. In such-circumstances, it is not uncommon to find an attempt being made to divert attention from discontents at home by interests abroad.

What was actually accomplished at Geneva was that some kind of breathing space was obtained, a time limit for conciliation and arbitration, but there were certain very important defects in that agreement. It is true that the Wal-Wal incident is to be subject to conciliation and arbitration under a time limit, but that incident arose out of the matter of an undelimited frontier. As I understand, Italy has refused to deal with the question of the delimitation of the frontier until the matter of the Wal-Wal incident has been disposed of. This seems to me to beg the whole question as to who was responsible as the aggressor in the Wal-Wal incident. Italy has not renounced the use of force. Preparations go on and troops are constantly used to meet the situation. A statement was made by Signor Mussolini on the 25th May, which is of some importance as indicating the attitude of the Italian Government. He said: Political realism, that is, the accurate weighing of international forces in their relations to each other on the basis of their respective interest and of their inevitable changes, must be the basis of our action. That was a statement of real politik worthy of a compatriot of Machiavelli. I want to suggest that Signor Mussolini should be given some political realism. This incident, this tension between Italy and Abyssinia, is a test of the reality of the League and the sancity of the Covenant of the League. If you have one party accepting arbitration and another party refusing it, if you have a failure to renounce force, and if that is acquiesced in by the League, you have practically brought the whole system of the League and the Covenant into disrepute. There is to-day, I believe, a great opportunity in this incident for reestablishing the authority of the League and the rule of law in Europe. We require a clear statement by our Government. We want to tell Signor Mussolini that among the political realities of which he has to take account is that this Government, like other Governments, uphold the Covenant against an aggressor State, that it believes it is a matter that affects our honour and our vital interests, that the refusal to accept the League's authority constitutes a refusal by an aggressor, and that we shall in that event be bound under Articles 10 and 16 of the Covenant to see that we give no assistance whatever to an aggressor, but, on the contrary, that we are bound to act against an aggressor.

The vital point in this matter is the question of the control of the Suez Canal. If Italy were to count on the fact that the League would not act if she intended to use force, she ought to be told frankly that in that event she would not have the use of the Suez Canal. This is really a vital matter, and it ought to be decided at once. A statement ought to be made now. It is not even fair to the Government of Signor Mussolini that he should be left in any doubt on this matter. In a matter of this kind, the longer the time, the more difficult it is to get acceptance because a matter of prestige is involved. There are movements of troops; there is an enormous expenditure with nothing to show for it, and there is the pressure of the military machine. The matter has already drifted on too far. Behind this matter there is not only a question of a, frontier dispute, or even a frontier delimitation. It is pretty clearly indicated that behind it are Imperialist designs. We have talk of Italy's sphere of influence, trading rights and so forth; in fact, it is very much the kind of situation that we have seen in the past as regards Persia, Algeria and elsewhere. The League will be destroyed altogether if, within the circle of the League, powers are enabled to carry out Imperialist, filibustering enterprises. I hope for a clear statement from the Government.

11.24 a.m,


I should like warmly to congratulate the Lord Privy Seal on the great combination of courage and skill which he showed at Geneva the other day in dealing with this question, but I am sure that he would be the first to admit that we are only over the first fence, and that a long and dangerous course lies in front of us in this matter. The situation at the moment is extremely dangerous, and my own impression, from such information is I can obtain, is that Italy has made up her mind to go forward and to do as she wants in Abyssinia, and that the only thing that will prevent her doing so is the full knowledge that the world as a whole through the League of Nations is not going to tolerate that. I do not think that anything indicates it more clearly than the series of astonishing and really disgraceful attacks that are made every day In the Government-controlled Press in Italy on the good faith of this country, quite apart from the personal attacks that are made. One finds it difficult to understand how such attacks are consistent with normal good relations between countries.

I hope my right hon. Friend may be able to make some reply to the entirely unfounded and grossly unfair attacks made on our good name day after day by Signor Gayda on behalf, apparently, of the Italian Government. In this matter we have no interest in any one particular country, either in Italy or Abyssinia. Our attitude is entirely pro-League, and nothing else. That is our only interest in the matter. There may be arguments that Abyssinia is not a very suitable country to be a member of the League of Nations, but she is a member of the League, and Italy played a considerable part in seeing that she was made a member; and that being so surely there must be one law for the great and the small State alike. The whole collective system is at stake in this matter, and if Italy is allowed to use force, to take by military action what she wants, what possible objection can we have to Germany doing the same thing in Austria or in Mcmel or in any of the other places surrounding her? It would be an absolutely final and fatal precedent which would destroy all the moral authority of the League to deal with the great and growing menace, as I believe it is, of Germany at the present time.

I have one or two practical suggestions to offer as to how the matter might be dealt with, first of all in the earlier stages. Would it not be of some use for the League of Nations, with a view to avoiding tension on the spot and to obtain information, to have observers who could travel about on aerial patrol—obviously that is the only way with vast distances over desolate country? They would be in a position to report to the League from time to time exactly what was taking place, and the League would not have to rely, as was the case in the early stages in Manchuria, on the necessarily biased statements of both sides. I believe that suggestion might be of real, practical value, and I hope, it will not be lost sight of in any further discussions that may take place at Geneva. There are certain more fundamental questions, such as the right hon. Member for Lime-house (Mr. Attlee) has referred to, and I hardly expect the Lord Privy Seal to make any very definite statement on some of the points, but I should feel very much happier if we could appreciate that some of these considerations, or all of them, were definitely in the mind of the Government and would not be lost sight of in dealing with the problem.

I agree that the first thing is to convey to the Italian Government, either publicly or privately, that we regard this as a matter of national honour and vital interest, that we intend to see that the Covenant is upheld, that we have given our pledged word in the matter, and that we do not intend to allow our pledged word to be broken. Then there arises the further question of possible international action to deter and prevent this taking place. Here, again, I feel that private representations would be, probably, the most valuable way of dealing with the matter at the present stage. What possible action could the League take? In what I am suggesting I do not contemplate action by this country alone, but by this country through the League, with all the other nations who have any obligations. I understand that at present Italian military aeroplanes are allowed free access through Egypt, with which country we are in close relations on foreign affairs. I imagine that obviously could not go on if war broke out. Furthermore, assuming that Italy were plainly guilty of aggression and breach of international obligations under the Covenant, it would not be possible to allow Italian troopships to make use of British ports in any part of Africa. Then there is the most important question of all, that of the Suez Canal. It is true that under the Treaty of 1888 the Canal is to be open in peace and in war to ships of all nations. That Treaty is, I maintain, abrogated by Article 20 of the Covenant. I will quote the relevant words, as they are very important on this matter: Abrogation of inconsistent obligations. (1) Members of the League severally agree that this Covenant is accepted as abrogating all obligations or understandings inter se which are inconsistent with the terms thereof. I therefore submit that if the League thought fit to do so it would be perfectly competent for England, France or any other country that may be interested in the Canal to take action preventing the military forces of an aggressor State from passing through. Even if that were not done, obviously action could be taken in the Gulf of Suez or in other parts of the Red Sea. I hope the matter will be carefully considered by the Government and that such action as they feel usefully they can take will be taken.

The Lord President of the Council said some time ago that our frontier was the Rhine. So it is. But our frontier is in a number of other places, too. I submit that wherever the peace of the world is likely to be disturbed there lies our frontier, and that it is our duty, under international treaty, by appropriate means—I do not necessarily mean military means, but appropriate means, diplomatic, economic and, in the last resort,, military—to take steps to see that the aggressor is properly dealt with. I do not think anyone can dissent from that view, though there may be differences as to how we should apply it in a particular case. We consider that our frontier lies on the River Plate. We have seen the admirable initiative taken by the Government in trying to prevent war between Uruguay and Bolivia. But certainly our frontier lies at the present time in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, and I press the Government to use that form of wise diplomacy of which I am sure they are capable, as the Lord Privy Seal and others have shown, to make plain to both parties to this dispute that, so far as we can influence it, we will not allow the League to forgo its obligations to preserve the peace of the world.

11.34 a.m.


I should like to associate myself with the praises which the two previous speakers have bestowed on the Lord Privy Seal for his conduct of affairs at Geneva. I find that I can best express my appreciation in the words of an enthusiastic lady traveller who recently landed at Southampton from a cruise. Turning to the captain she said, "Captain, I do not know what we all should have done without you." The Rome press has lately published critical articles of this country, and certain journals claim, I believe, that whilst we in this country, during the days of Imperialism in the 19th century, greatly extended our sphere of influence and our colonial possessions, we now look with disfavour on the Italian adventure in Abyssinia. One paper, the "Tribuna," publishes a cartoon of the British lion teaching the small lion of Judah, representing Abyssinia, to roar defiance at Italy. There is no mistaking the lion's future intentions, because all round him lie the bones of past victims of British Imperialism marked "Boers," "Suez," "India," and "former German Colonies." One hesitates to believe that well-informed Italian opinion, much less the sagacious head of the Italian Government, gives credence to such extravagances. But the situation has perhaps a more difficult phase than that aspect, because the same journal prints this somewhat sinister passage: The Italo-Abyssinian dispute can only be solved by force. It would be absurd to think that the use of force can be eliminated from colonial enterprises. The British Government urge upon Italy arbitration instead of force through no sinister political motive, but because His Majesty's Government base their foreign policy upon the League of Nations and upon its necessary corollary, arbitration.

Quite recently, the head of the Italian Government gave a striking lead to European solidarity at Stresa. At that Conference, Italy, France and Great Britain agreed upon a common formula. They professed to base their policies upon the League of Nations and upon collective action. Certain sections of Italian opinion now say that the principles which applied at Stresa cannot apply with equal force at Addis Ababa; but Abyssinia, we must remember, is a member of the League of Nations. A certain time ago the secretary of a golf club was doing his rounds when he found a tramp sleeping on one of his favourite greens. He told the tramp to move, whereupon the tramp asked: "Who are you." The official replied "I am the secretary of the club." "Well," grumbled the tramp "that is not the way to get new members." Within the framework of the League we must observe the principles of the League, or I am very much afraid that the prestige of the League will suffer considerably.

Critics of the League often say that the League is merely an instrument of policy of the, great Powers, who, by its measures, inflict their policy upon the lesser nations. The present situation illustrates with great force the vital point, made in his recent speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain), that the League has found a satisfactory solution for those difficulties which flare up from time to time between nations, but has yet found no satisfactory solution for those long-planned and determined wars of aggression which certain nations may have in their minds. Any hasty or undue Italian action in Abyssinia, only supplies that argument with another example. Furthermore, the solidarity established at Stresa would be seriously strained thereby. So sagacious a leader and politician as Signor Mussolini must realise that, in the troubled conditions of Europe which present themselves to his eyes, he had much better turn a more watchful gaze upon the Brenna Pass than upon the highlands of Abyssinia. We must remember also that there was a treaty of friendship solemnly entered into by representatives of Italy and Abyssinia in 1928. The Duke of Abruzzi, as the accredited representative of his Government agreed that 'all future disputes between the two nations should be subject to arbitration.

We cannot help pointing out that any contemplated military action in Abyssinia would be fraught with the utmost difficulty. From the middle of June until the middle of September the rainy season prevails, and, with the exception of a single straggling railway line from Djbouti to Addis Ababa, communications are lacking. Torrential rains make other communications extremely difficult. The French found an extremely difficult situation in Morocco. It required the fine flower of the French armies, long versed in the traditions of Colonial warfare, the genius of Marshal Petain and a two-years' campaign finally to overcome the diffident tribes in the Riff. Even then the French found that they could only advance by establishing an ever-tightening circle of fortified posts to prevent the eruption of guerilla bands. Military critics estimate that the Emperor of Abyssinia can put into the field a resolute army of 300,000 armed men, inspired by the tradition of their grandfathers concerning the legend of a great victory at Adowa.

To all those other 'arguments we must add one last, in the shape of an appeal to the Italian people's sense of realism. The lira is already heavily strained by the grandiose schemes of public works which the Fascist Government have undertaken, and Italians will judge their government by the material benefits which bring that Government to the people. Those material benefits are contained in schemes of internal reconstruction, and these will be seriously jeopardised by any vast scheme of expansion in Abyssinia, which will necessarily entail enormous expenditure. No nation, least of all this nation, traditionally the friend of the great Italian people, wishes to block any legitimate scheme of expansion or to hinder Italy's search for new markets. Italy has already obtained by friendly negotiations with France certain rights on the Djbouti railway, and I am certain that further friendly negotiations would obtain in the course of time further economic concessions in Abyssinia. If Italy wishes some of the waters of Lake Tsana to be diverted to Eritrea, in order to fertilise the parched lands, and thus encourage enterprise, I am certain that such a solution is not beyond the brains of European statesmen. I refuse to believe that European statesmenship is dead, and that Signor Mussolini, who combines in himself rare gifts of imaginative constructiveness and sense of realism, can fail to see the dangers of any undue action in Abyssinia. I refuse to believe the cynical remark of the late Lord Dewar, statesmen are merely dead politicians. There are plenty of constructive statesmen in Europe to-day who could, with honour and safety to all countries concerned, arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

11.43 a.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir ARNOLD WILSON

As a man of peace, I am rather alarmed by the speeches made by the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate and by that of the hon. Member who followed him. I am reminded of an observation which was made in this House some 15 years ago by the late Mr. Bonar Law: We cannot police the world. The general effect abroad of such speeches as we have listened to is likely to be mischievous. The hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate observed that "we are bound to take action against an aggressor." That statement needs very considerable modification, in the light of the Covenant which provides only for collective responsibility and collective action. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) said that our frontier is wherever peace is in danger. That implies a sort of two-Power standard for the world at large. I am convinced that public sentiment in this country would be very greatly alarmed were we to take such obligations au pied de la lettre. Both the speeches which have been made suggest that sanctions might subsequently become necessary and that we should be prepared to adopt one particular sanction. The closing of the Suez Canal appears to me, from such knowledge as I have, to be of all possible sanctions the most complicated, the most dangerous, and, quite possibly, the most ineffective. The Suez Canal is managed by a French Company with headquarters in Paris. It is subject in all respects to Egyptian law, and it operates under a concession obtained in 1856 from the Egyptian Government. Egypt is not a member of the League, but Egypt is a near neighbour of Italian Libya. By a convention of 1888, to which the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton alluded, ratified only in 1904 by the British and French Governments, it was agreed to maintain the Canal open for the ships of war of all nations, whether in time of peace or in time of war. It was universalised rather than neutralised, and that arrangement has worked exceedingly well.

It is true that points of detail and difficulty have arisen. In 1904, I think it was, the Russian Fleet went through on its way to meet its doom at the hands of the Japanese, and certain difficulties arose during the Great War. To announce that we propose to close the Canal if the League of Nations so desired would be to throw a strain upon the French administrators of the Canal which they would find intolerable. It would be for them to search ships and ascertain whether they contained troops or munitions; it would be for the Egyptian Government to take the responsibility. It would be practically tantamount to a declaration of war, and only two Powers namely, France and Great Britain could effectively participate in executing that sanction. It might have the gravest repercussions on the future of the Canal, and, indeed, upon its safety. It is not to be supposed that any foreign Power to whose ships the Canal was barred would submit without protest, and there might be military repercussions. Egypt, which is not a Member of the League of Nations, and with whom we have very close and intimate relations, would be bound to hesitate long before assenting to any such step, which would involve a breach of a whole series of international conventions.

Sanctions may sometimes be necessary; a League of Nations Committee is, I believe, sitting at this moment to discuss how they can best be applied. There are many alternatives, and it is wrong either in this House or elsewhere, to single out one particular sanction in advance and to say that we will adopt it. Not only would that be quite unfair to Egypt, not only would it open up a series of difficult and dangerous questions, but it would clearly mean that we were prepared to take upon our shoulders a burden which would not be shared by any other of the European Powers, with the possible exception of France; and it would place upon the Egyptian Government an intolerable strain. I hope that we shall do nothing which will commit us to unreserved acceptance of the point of view of either party to this dispute. There are limits to our strength; there are limits to our ability effectively to intervene in distant countries. We cannot police the world. We must restrict our responsibilties to places where we can exercise them effectively. There is one country which can effectively prevent folly being perpetrated in Abyssinia, and that is Italy. The Italian people can, if they wish, exercise pressure on the Government of their country, and I look to them to do more to induce their representatives at Geneva and elsewhere to reach a peaceful and reasonable solution than all the discussions which may take place in the chancelleries of Europe and in Geneva itself.

11.51 a.m.


The hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) described himself as a man of peace. That is indeed a safe description and definition. I have never yet heard a Member of this House have the hardihood to describe himself as a "Man of War". But both my hon. and gallant Friend and myself doubtless agree that peace cannot be secured without order and without law. That, I believe, is one of the domestic principles of our common party. Yet much of my hon. and gallant Friend's speech seemed to be directed to showing how impossible it would be to oblige a potential aggressor in North Africa to observe the rules of order. My right hon. Friend who sits for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) has been obliged to-day to listen to so many golden opinions about himself that he can hardly want any further congratulations from me. But I cannot help saying what I have constantly heard repeated lately: "Thank God for the Lord Privy Seal." At last the generation which survived and succeeded the last war has discovered that for which it has been looking somewhat disconsolately for the last few years—an admirable representative and an inevitable leader. I trust that my right hon. Friend will not resent it when I say that I am thankful to him for reviving my hopes, and that he forgive me for saying that I hope and expect that his great and growing success is merely a prelude to early distinction in the highest offices of State.

What are the chief gains which my right hon. Friend has achieved for Europe at large, for the collective system, and for England? They are, as I think he will agree, limited gains. He has gained time, and he has also prescribed its limits. But, more than that, he has vindicated both the authority and the competence of the League. I hope, and we all hope, that Italy will do what seems good in the eyes of the world as well as what seems good in her own eyes; but, as every speaker so far has hinted, it is far too early to treat the measure of conciliation which my right hon. Friend has achieved as a final success comparable, let us say, with the policing of the Saar or the assuagement of the dispute between Hungary and Yugoslavia. Why, we in this country may well ask, are the subjects of Mussolini being poured into Italian Somaliland and into the Territory of Eritrea, so near to the fateful field of Adowa? Is it to improve their health, or is it, perhaps, to admire and observe the habits of another servile population? I think we must face this grim fact, that all the circumstances in North Africa at the present moment are favourable to those incidents which often happen so conveniently, and in any case can be manufactured terribly easily. We are all familiar with them over comparatively recent years of history—the Ems Telegram, the bomb at Serajevo, and more recently in the Far East the tearing up of the railway near Harbin.

I think everyone will agree that the massing of Italian troops in Italian territory in the North of Africa constitutes a danger such as is contemplated under Article 10 of the Covenant of the League, under which the Council is to advise how the obligation undertaken by all the signatories to preserve against aggression the territory of other signatories is to be fulfilled. I hope, as we all hope, that the peaceful processes of conciliation will prevail. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that both the fortunes and the future of the League are directly involved in this dispute. But I think the wider question with which to-day and in the immediate future Great Britain and Europe must concern themselves is, how soon will there appear upon the Continent of Europe, to which, in the language of the Lord President of the Council, we are indissolubly tied—how soon is there going to appear an imitator of what Japan has done in the Far East, and of what many fear Italy may do in North Africa? How soon are we on this shrinking Continent to be faced with one of those long planned and determined acts of aggression hinted at just now by the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. H. Kerr)? I would very respectfully say in the presence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain) that whatever the origin of modern war, whether it be accidental or due to prolonged planning, its incidents and its circumstances must be just as terrible, comprehensive and devastating. I think that we ought not to be blind to this possible contingency. Do not let us be like the man who, when asked why he sat in the corner of a crowded omnibus with his eyes shut, replied, "I can't bear to see the ladies standing."

At present the League of Nations is little more than an opportunity which can be exploited by States of good will and moderation. I wish to see the League converted into something considerably more than that; when it will be able to lay obligations upon all State members to observe the law of nations just as irresistibly as citizens have to observe the municipal law. I submit to the House that national armaments, particularly air armaments, which are exclusively offensive, mean that sooner or later one State or another will ride down the law and try to win its own way by force. By rearmament you may succeed in postponing the day of aggression, but you will never finally deter the aggressor.

I am going in a moment to sit down in order to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but I would like to say this—because I think that this matter is inextricably interlocked with international relationships—that if only the Lord President of the Council, the repository of power, would authorise the Lord Privy Seal, with whom he is now conversing, to go to Geneva and there to propose the general abolition of national armaments in the air, accompanied by the establishment of art international air police force, a number of beneficent consequences would inevitably follow. I cannot to-day, because there is no time, deploy that argument and its consequences in full. But if you could succeed in doing that the League would finally cease to be the butt of cynics; it would no longer be possible for the stunt press exultantly to scream "Mussolini flouts the League." I wish to give way to my right hon. Friend, but I believe that the people of this country, whether in this narrow dispute or in the wider possibilities of European relationships, are ready for the widest possible measure of collective security and international action. The 11,000,000 votes in the peace ballot which has been so ignorantly and maliciously criticised in various quarters certainly prove that. I believe that the will to the end which I have ventured to indicate is growing elsewhere as well as in this country, and I dare to think that it is the business of our own Government to formulate, to foster, and to direct that will.

11.59 a.m.


It would be inconsistent with my determination not to prevent the House from passing to the next subject to go in any detail into the important, interesting and numerous matters which have been raised in this Debate; nor is it my intention to offer any defence at all of the action which is now being taken by the Italian Government in Abyssinia. My contribu- tion to this discussion shall be of the briefest nature. I desire to reinforce in the strongest possible manner the general tendency of the argument which was addressed to the House by the hon. and gallant Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson). Every other hon. Member who has taken part in this Debate offered advice of a particular tendency to His Majesty's Government, and I very sincerely hope that that advice will not be accepted by them. The point of view I want to put before the House this morning is this. What good purpose is served by this discussion? And what good purpose would be served by the acceptance by His Majesty's Government of the advice which, with one exception, has been freely tendered to them by hon. Members who have taken part in the Debate? The right hon. Gentleman who commenced this discussion used a most extraordinary phrase. He said that Signor Mussolini should be given some political realism. I do not at all see that this is the proper occasion upon which to offer to the head of the Italian Government any of that commodity. He went on to say that there is to-day a great opportunity for re-establishing the authority of the League, and he also asserted that this question ought to be decided at once. I fail entirely to see how this is a proper occasion for determining this matter, or indeed for any such pronouncement by His Majesty's Government as has been attempted to be elicited from them. The Commission which is charged with the duty of studying this matter has only just begun its sessions in Milan. It is not, if I recollect the matter rightly, until 25th July that the Council of the League has to meet in the event of the failure of the Commission to choose an arbitrator, and it is not, I believe, until 25th August that the Council has to meet in the event of the failure of the Commission to reach agreement upon the main topic under consideration.

I said that it is no part of my purpose to offer any defence of the Italian action in Abyssinia. But if a government is engaged in an enterprise of great difficulty and danger, which may fail to attract the general support of its people, then the one thing that it requires in order to rally to its aid the support that it requires, is hostile comment or criticism in foreign countries, and it is exactly that course which has been pursued to-day. For this reason—although I should not be so impertinent as to question the right of any right hon. Gentleman or hon. Gentleman to raise in this Debate any topic that he desires to discuss—I very much regret that this Debate has taken place, and I am convinced that the acceptance by His Majesty's Government of the advice so freely tendered to them would produce the result least desired by those who offer it.



It is far from my intention to take up much of the time of the House this morning, and, also, I consider the least said the better on the eve of going on holiday, but I think that the moment is perhaps opportune for me to make one or two brief observations on the position of His Majesty's Government. They can be all the briefer, thanks to the admirable speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. H. Kerr) a little while ago with no word of which I should have any cause to disagree. As I listened to the right hon. Gentleman who opened this debate and heard him laying great emphasis—emphasis with which I agreed—upon the importance of the part which the League must play in all disputes, I thought that he had at the same time rather overlooked what in fact the League had already done in this matter. He mentioned that there had been no undertaking by Italy not to resort to force. That is quite inaccurate. The second of the two Resolutions adopted at Geneva on the 24th May read as follows: The Council leaves to the two parties full liberty to settle the dispute in question in accordance with Article 5 of the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty. Article 5 says, in set terms: Both Governments undertake to submit to the procedure of conciliation and arbitration disputes which may arise between them and which it may not have been possible to settle by ordinary diplomatic methods, without having recourse to armed force. I would say, in general, that this League procedure, which is a perfectly proper procedure in accordance with the Treaty between the two countries, having been set in motion we make a mistake if we ignore what is a cardinal principle of British law that a man is innocent until he is proved to be guilty. After that statement perhaps hon. Members will allow me to make a few observations on the dispute in general. The existence of an undefined border is always liable to be a fruitful source of difficulty. That is one of the reasons why, even before the incident occurred in December last at Wal-Wal, His Majesty's Government had represented the desirability of an early demarcation of the boundary between Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia. The demarcation of that boundary forms part of the 1928 Treaty between the two countries and will be carried out, as has been agreed and accepted by both parties, when these other points have been settled.

As soon as news was received of the Wal-Wal incident its possible serious repercussions on the relations between the two countries were fully appreciated here. From that moment His Majesty's Government exerted themselves to the utmost through the impartial extension of their good offices to both parties, to promote a peaceful settlement of the difficulties which have unhappily arisen. In taking this action we were not influenced by any purely selfish motives, such as, for example, the urgent importance to our Colonial administration of peaceful conditions in British territories themselves bordering upon Abyssinia. Nor have we been animated by any desire to oppose Italian influence in Ethiopia. Our rights in that country are already amply protected by Treaties. In fact there is no reason whatever why British and Italian interests should not be mutually and harmoniously developed side by side, for neither do they nor need they conflict.

I mention this because, to my regret, the House will notice that many wild accusations have lately been directed against His Majesty's Government in the Italian press. It is unfortunate that such misrepresentations should have been allowed to appear, unfortunate particularly because of the effect that they might have on the truly excellent relations between our two countries. I am not going to attempt to deal with those misrepresentations in detail. We have been charged with intrigue of one sort or another to the detriment of Italy. It is alleged that we have gone so far as to encourage the Ethiopian Government, for our own nefarious ends, to adopt a hostile attitude towards Italy. This story is as mischievously absurb as the suggestion that Colonial football fields are aerodromes in disguise. Equally fantastic is the assertion that for years we have had in mind the possibility of some form of protectorate over Abyssinia. What have we, as a Government, to whom the League of Nations and the sanctity of Treaties are of paramount importance, to gain by adding fuel to a fire which as yet is only smouldering? Our interests, of course, are precisely the reverse. It has been our constant, our persistent endeavour to help to bring about a permanent settlement mutually satisfactory to Italy and Ethiopia; a settlement which would take account of our responsibilities and those of France and Italy in the Tripartite Treaty of 1906, by which we, France and Italy agreed to co-operate in maintaining the political and territorial integrity of Abyssinia, and a settlement which would lie within the framework of the Covenant of the League, the Kellogg Pact and the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of friendship of 1920. That is our desire. It is our earnest hope that such a settlement may be achieved.

The present position is that the Conciliation Committee set up and agreed to by the Geneva Resolution met yesterday for the first time in Milan. We must await the result of their deliberations. In the meantime, under the terms of the resolution adopted by the Council of the League last month, the Secretary General has been asked to communicate to the Governments who are members of the Council all information which reaches him from the two parties, in particular regarding the development of the work of the Commission. We sincerely hope that that work will proceed smoothly and well. If it does not proceed smoothly and if there be difficulty about fixing the choice of the fifth arbitrator, the Council of the League will meet. We all hope that the need for such a meeting will not arise. Nothing would better please His Majesty's Government than a peaceful and lasting settlement of this dispute and a restoration of friendly relations between the two countries, one of whom is a great Power in Europe, with whom we have longstanding and traditional relations of friendship, and both of whom are our neighbours in Africa.