HC Deb 21 June 1935 vol 303 cc705-9

asked the First Lord of the Admiralty, whether he can make a statement concerning the discussions with the German naval experts?

The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Sir Bolton Eyres Monsell)

At the outset of these conversations the German representatives asked to be informed definitely whether His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom were prepared to accept the proposal of the Chancellor of the Reich that the ratio between the British and German fleets should be established definitely and for all time in the proportion of 100:35. The German representatives made it clear that the course of the future dicussions must inevitably be affected by the nature of the British reply.

After a very careful analysis of the practical effects of the acceptance of this proposal, His Majesty's Government decided that it should be accepted, not only in the interest of the future relations between the two countries immediately affected, but also as a means of facilitating the ultimate conclusion of a general treaty for the future limitation of naval armaments. They regarded this offer as one of great importance, since it held out the possibility of averting for all time the threat of naval rivalry between Germany and this country—a rivalry which, if it had commenced would necessarily affect the interests of all the members of the British Common-wealth of Nations. They considered also that in its wider implications the agreement we have just reached must definitely be favourable to the naval interests of other Powers. After many years of endeavour, this agreement furnishes a fixed point of departure for further discussions with other Powers, whose position should be eased by Germany's undertaking that, this ratio once established, she will adhere to it independently of the naval construction of other Powers. We regard this agreement, therefore—and we believe that the German Government regard it—essentially as a contribution to world peace and international appeasement.

It has been suggested that His Majesty's Government should have refrained from entering into this agreement. But we have to face facts. We have to deal with the essentially practical problem that Germany is already constructing a fleet which is outside the limits laid down in the Versailles Treaty; what we have done is, by agreement with Germany, to circumscribe the effects which might flow from this unilateral decision of Germany. We believe this to be in the ultimate interests of all the naval Powers of the world, and we are satisfied that a serious error would have been committed by this country had His Majesty's Government either refused to accept the offer or even hesitated unduly to do so. Needless to say we have been careful to keep the other Governments signatories of existing naval treaties fully informed of the progress of these discussions.

A further criticism has been made that this country is not entitled to deal with the question of naval limitation independently of the questions of land and air disarmament. His Majesty's Government have never been able to accept this view of the situation, seeing that treaties for the limitation of naval armaments have already existed for many years and that it will be a grave misfortune if a further treaty cannot be negotiated to replace the existing ones. We wish to continue to deal with this matter in full and frank consultation and co-operation with the other Powers' signatories of the Washington and London Treaties. This does not mean—I need hardly say—that, if a future general treaty of naval limitation should be concluded, His Majesty's Government would relax in any way their efforts to secure agreements in regard to land and air armaments. On the contrary they regard the prevention of international competition in all three categories of armaments as a matter of the most urgent importance, but they do not believe in the thesis that progress with the discussion of naval armaments should necessarily be delayed pending further progress with the discussion of land and air armaments.


I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that very full reply to the Question, and may I ask him whether it is the intention of the Government to summon a conference of the signatories to the existing Naval agreements as soon as possible, so that this Agreement can be followed up? May I also ask whether this Agreement, in the opinion of the Government, is a contravention of the Treaty of Versailles?


With regard to the first Supplementary Question which my hon. Friend put to me, we are already following this up by continued conversations with other countries, although, of course, I am not in a position to say when we shall be able to have a full meeting of all the signatories to the Naval Treaties. With re- gard to the second question, which raises a juridicial point, I would ask for notice of it, and I am not sure that my hon. Friend is addressing it to the right Department.


I am not sure whether this question should be addressed to the First Lord or to the Prime Minister, but may I ask either of these right hon. Gentlemen whether it is the intention of the Government to give an early opportunity for the House to discuss this Agreement and the implications connected with it?


In all bilateral talks that we have hitherto had with other countries, and which my hon. Friend knows have been going on for some time, the essence of these talks has been their confidential nature. As everybody in the House knows, it is most difficult to arrive at international agreements even when confidence is respected, but, if all details were published and debated on any bilateral conversations between two Powers, I think that my hon. Friend will realise that any international agreement would be quite hopeless.


We do not quite mean that. That is a very important statement, and there are very many questions connected with it of public and international importance, and what we would like to ask the Prime Minister is this. I will repeat what I have said many times. We do not ask for a day to debate this matter in any way which would cause any difficulty in carrying on further negotiations, but we do think that this is a very important departure and a very important decision to which His Majesty's Government have come, and we would like an early opportunity—I take it on the Vote of the right hon. Gentleman—to debate the question. I should like to know from the Government, if not to-day as early as possible, when they think that we may ask for the appropriate Vote in order to discuss it.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would carry on this discussion through the usual channels. Of course, we offer no objection in principle to a discussion, the right hon. Gentleman recognising that we may have to exercise reservations with regard to details and so on, but it would come up suitably, I think, on the salary of my right hon. Friend, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will pursue that matter.