HC Deb 23 October 1935 vol 305 cc149-53

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

2.55 p.m.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I am intervening for a short time at the beginning of to-day's Debate to make a few observations on the Debate itself, and to make an announcement which the House is expecting. I do not desire, because I do not think there is any reason for it, to speak at length on the main subject of the Debate. That has been discussed with admirable lucidity by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs yesterday, and will be discussed at necessarily considerable length to-day by the Minister for League of Nations Affairs; and I am sure the House will be glad to hear from his own lips an account of what has passed, rather than to judge events as seen through the many-tinted glasses of reporters of all nationalities.

In these circumstances it only remains for me to say on behalf of my colleagues that every word the Foreign Secretary said has the full and united support of a united Cabinet, that the Minister for League Affairs during his conduct of those affairs at Geneva has been in constant touch with his colleagues in London and that his every action is endorsed with unanimity. But there are one or two points in connection with the Debate on which I should like to say a word or two. I think it has been shown conclusively by the events of the past weeks and by the Debate yesterday that the policy which has been pursued by His Majesty's Government not only has general support in the country, but it is the policy of the whole British Empire, which is of itself a fact of remarkable importance.

The House must remember that the day has gone by when we gave instructions to the component parts of the Empire. The Dominions have played their part at Geneva with true devotion to that institution and with a strict regard to their obligations under the Covenant. They have by their pronouncements at Geneva taken their stand alongside Great Britain as supporting the system of collective action, and in the Italian-Abyssinian dispute have not hesitated to play their part in the creation of the plan of co-ordinated sanctions.

We are taking, and I am convinced the House is in general agreement with that, the only possible course of action. I shall have one or two observations to make later on that point, but I lay that premise down as a start: the only possible course of action, absolute loyalty to the Covenant, and with that a readiness to assist, and this is only putting in other words what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, any legitimate opportunity for a settlement. I wish to relieve the mind of the House on that point. Critics of the Government may feel that there is a loophole for going behind the back of the League of Nations. Nothing of the kind is intended. Such a settlement, and a settlement in the solution of which I am sure the House would desire that we should to-day give every attention that we can, must be one fair alike to the three parties, Italy, Abyssinia and—I will not say above all in this tri-partite arrangement—to the League of Nations itself. If any settlement can be arrived at which might considerably shorten the time of war and might take away from the world the fear of a possible war spreading, it will be worth any endeavour, provided that these three principles can be maintained.

I will add this. The League, in my view, and I think some of its best friends in this House will agree with me, has done better in these circumstances than was expected when it entered on its labours, in view of the tremendous difficulties of the situation. We must remember that we are not dealing with a League in the plenitude of its strength as envisaged by its founders, but a League which has been left on one side by three of the most important Powers in the world, and which has enjoyed, perhaps, a wavering support from some of its other members. It is perfectly obvious that what would have been possible with ease in a League constituted as originally contemplated is not possible in a League as it at present exists; and that adds enormously to the difficulties of the situation. I understand that I have critics, of which I make no complaint, who see a difference in my language to-day from my languge of a year ago in discussing collective sanctions. The difference is this. A year ago the question was much more academic than it is to-day. Hon. Members opposite will remember that the discussions which took place then on the subject were more academic than those of to-day; there were observations made by speakers opposite which filled me with apprehension as to the length to which they were prepared to push sanctions in the League as it exists to-day.

It is impossible in the League as it exists to-day to push sanctions to the extent which seemed to be contemplated in speeches which I remember a year ago from the benches opposite. It is not the course to be pursued by this Government, or a course which would be pursued by hon. Members opposite if they had to form a Government and came face to face with the practical difficulties of the situation; difficulties of the neutral nations, to which I made allusions in a speech at Glasgow a year ago, quite apart from the difficulties of those which remain in the League. I emphasise once more what I said at Worcester and what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, that there is no isolated action upon our part in contemplation. We have no intention of acting by ourselves or of going further than we can get the whole League to go. I am quite sure after what has taken place that no Member of this House will have any doubt as to what the Government will do or what can be done through the instrumentality of the League as it exists to-day. We have never had war in our mind. I deprecate the use of that word. It can only lead up to a dangerous condition of mind, especially in countries which have to depend for their news on what may be submitted to them by their Government.

I wish to say a word at this point on a subject which has already been mentioned—the question of re-armament. The right hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) spoke of an enormous increase in our defence forces. I wish to speak in general terms, and I think I shall speak without fear of misapprehension. The lessons of this crisis have made it clear to us that in the interests of world peace it is essential that our defensive services should be stronger than they are to-day. When I say that I am not thinking of any kind of unilateral rearmament directed either in reality or in imagination against any particular country, as might have been said to be the case before the War. It is a strengthening of our defensive services within the framework of the League, for the sake of international peace, not for selfish ends. It is a greater measure of preparedness to meet the risks which are inherent in the situation. I tell hon. Members opposite quite frankly that they cannot realise the importance of what I am saying until they stand in my place.

I have often heard the phrase that the country should be prepared to take risks for peace. We are taking risks for peace, but I say this deliberately: I am all in favour, and the Government are all in favour for they see no other course, of adopting as the policy of this country, as far as the League can carry it out to-day, the policy of collective security, and I am convinced that the country is behind that policy, as I believe hon. Members opposite are behind it to-day. But I warn the country. There are risks of peace, and I say this deliberately, that while I am prepared to pursue that policy with all my heart and soul, I will not pursue it, and I will not be responsible for the conduct of any Government in this country at this present time, if I am not given power to remedy the deficiencies which have accrued in our defensive services since the War. I will leave it to those who think the risks are worth taking, but they must remember that the Government are responsible for the safety of every man, woman and child.


You have been in office the last four years.


I am grateful for that interruption. One of the weaknesses of a democracy, a system of which I am trying to make the best, is that until it is right up against it it will never face the truth. When a democracy is up against the truth it can form its own judgment, and I have never known a British democracy when it is up against the truth to give a wrong judgment. I have given my own view to the House absolutely clearly, as I shall do to the country and await their verdict. It is vitally important that we should never lightly abandon the principle of collective security. At present the idea is incomplete; it is inadequate. Looking to the future I tremble to think of what may be the fate of Europe if some form of collective security is not devised, and for that reason I wish to repeat—I am speaking perhaps for myself, although I have no reason to know that my colleagues do not agree with me although I have not discussed it with them—what I said at Worcester last Saturday, and that is this: that even if we find after trying to the uttermost to work the League as it is, that it fails to fulfil our hopes and expectation, I shall not give up the struggle because of that. There is a saying which came to my mind—I think of William Wilberforce—that "the man who believes in God can never stop." No man who believes in peace can ever stop and, if we fail this time, it behoves us all the more, if the League has proved itself inadequate, to see what steps we can take to make the League prove adequate. Should that happen and should it be my fate to find myself at the head of the Government—in that event I shall make the most earnest efforts of which I am capable in the time that remains to me. I am convinced that the whole House will share that view when they come to think of it. While we do not wish to contemplate or even admit, at present, the possibility of failure, yet we want to have our minds clear as to what course we shall pursue if our hopes and our expectations should remain unfulfilled.