HC Deb 31 July 1936 vol 315 cc1890-902

11.19 a.m.


I feel that I ought to start by saying to the Noble Lord the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that we are very sorry to impose on anyone connected with the Foreign Office another Debate at this late stage in the session. During the Recess the Noble Lord and the Foreign Secretary will not have as much repose as other men. They have before them arduous days and nights in conferences and in the Assembly, on work of great importance, and if we have asked for this Debate so soon after Monday last, it is only because we believe that there are certain matters of urgent public importance on which decisive action may be taken before the House meets again, and on which it is desirable that the attitude of the Government should be made rather more plain than it is to-day.

The Noble Lord will readily understand, of course, that the most important subject we wish to raise is that which is euphemistically called the reform of the League of Nations, but which in reality is the whole problem of how to prevent another war. I think there is no one in the House who doubts that the only really important question in foreign affairs is how to prevent another world war, and that any individual question—Memel, Austria, Danzig—I do not care what it is—is only important to this country and to the other countries of the world because of the bearing it has on that fundamental problem of which I have spoken. But before I come to that fundamental question, I would like to raise one or two smaller matters, some of them closely cognate to it and others less so. I will begin with one on which I want to say only a sentence, and of which I have already spoken to the Noble Lord. It has been said during the last few days, in irresponsible quarters in France, that the decision by the Prime Minister to cancel his holiday there is likely to inflict—is indeed already inflicting—economic loss upon the country by destroying the tourist trade, and that the decision to cancel his holiday—I am quoting now—was the result of eight weeks of administration by the present Govern- ment of France. Now, I am sure the Minister will agree that such a statement, if it were allowed to go uncontradicted, might do considerable harm to the relations between the people of France and Great Britain, and therefore I hope he will see his way to make whatever declaration on the subect he may judge to be required.


From what was the hon. Member quoting?


If the hon. Member will permit me, I will tell him privately. [Hon. Members: "Why privately?"] It was said by a Deputy in the French Chamber, and it has been commented upon in the French Press. I am sure hon. Members in all parties will agree that if such statements were to become common in the thinking of the people of France, they would do great harm.

The second question to which I wish to refer is that of the present lamentable conflict in Spain. I do not want to make any complaints about the terms of the statement which was made by the Foreign Secretary the other day, but there has been a regrettable tendency in some quarters in this country to represent the Government forces now doing battle in Spain as being Communists, and to imply that General Franco and his fellow-conspirators are trying to rescue their country from a bloody and irreligious despotism of the Left. [Interruption]. I hope I misunderstand those cheers, for this struggle against the rebels is being waged by President Azana, a Liberal and a great statesman, if Europe has one today. He is supported by a Government which has not a single Socialist or Communist among its members, and if Socialists and Communists are laying down their lives to-day, it is for the cause of parliamentary democracy.


Has the hon. Member noticed any of the photographs in the Press recently of the burning of churches?


In which people have been locked.


Have the hon. Members seen statements by the Spanish Government that the churches were being used by rebel snipers and rebel spies to attack the Government forces, and are they aware of an order by the rebel forces that the first manœuvre to be carried out was to seize the churches and to use them for that purpose? We are not urging the Government to intervene. We urge them to keep before their mind, and as far as they can before the mind of the country, the true character of this conflict. We urge them to give to the Spanish Government every facility which the practice of international law allows. We urge them to give no countenance to suggestions that these militarist rebels should be recognised or given belligerent rights. We urge them, above all, to use their influence to prevent other Powers from intervening on the side of the militarist dictators.

The whole House is aware of the report which appears this morning that arms are being sent to the rebels by certain Powers. After the events in Palestine, of which the House is well aware, it is only too likely that those reports are true. We hope—and again I press this matter strongly—that the Government will use whatever influence they have to prevent such interventions from taking place, and that they will remember that Signor Azana and his Government are fighting for all the noblest causes of liberty and democracy, based on a Parliament elected by free election, with a right Government in power only a few months ago, and that they are fighting for causes for which British men laid down their lives in times gone by.

I turn from Spain to Danzig. Everybody who knows Mr. Lester's work as High Commissioner and his work at Geneva before he became High Commissioner will agree with the warm eulogy paid to him last Monday by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Mr. Lester has been an admirable Commissioner. He has shown great courage and patience in a position of the utmost difficulty, and I suggest, not in any offensive spirit, that it is not enough to offer compliments to Mr. Lester. I should like to put a direct question to the Government. How far is Mr. Lester going to be supported? The Foreign Secretary said that certain action had been taken by the Nazi party in Danzig which virtually suspends the constitution, which is under the guarantee of the League of Nations. I have evidence that intolerable charges have been made by Nazi leaders against Mr. Lester. The situation of the Opposition parties in Danzig has been rendered intolerable in every way. I have evidence of the state of terrorism that exists. It is the undisguised purpose of the Nazi party to drive Mr. Lester out of Danzig and in so doing to end all the authority of the League in that free City. In any such policy great dangers are involved. Some of them arise from the special position of Poland, but the greatest of them is that if this policy were to succeed it would be another triumph for those who seek to manage international affairs by the method of the fait accompli. It would be another blow at the authority and the law of the League of Nations leading on to, who knows, similar action in Memel, Lithuania and elsewhere, which might be fraught with the greatest danger for the peace of Europe.

I am not going to suggest the detailed procedure that ought to be pursued in this matter, but I do suggest that it would be well for the Government at a very early stage to have the fullest possible discussion in the Council and the Assembly of the League. I know that there have been discussions before, but there is still more to be done in mobilising the opinion of the world and in showing the Nazi party in Danzig that we intend that the law of the League shall be upheld. There is another thing that Government ought to do, and that is to indicate to Berlin that we intend that the authority of the League shall be upheld, for certain it is that what is done in Danzig is done by orders from Berlin. It is not tolerable that at the moment when we are hoping to begin important and, as the Foreign Secretary hopes, fruitful negotiations with a great Power, that great Power should be managing a campaign such as that now being conducted against Mr. Lester.

I stress Danzig because every success for an adventurer leads on to some attempt by another adventurer elsewhere. If we are threatened with this danger in Danzig it is because of the vacillations in the action of the Government in the affair of Abyssinia within recent months. In regard to Abyssinia I want to press the Government with all the emphasis at my command. The right hon. Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain) on Monday urged that the Government should take the lead in recognising the conquest of Abyssinia by Italy. We think that if that were done it would be setting the seal upon the triumph of Signor Mussolini, and that that would do more than anything else that we can still do in connection with Abyssinia to encourage adventurers and to encourage the method of the fait accompli. I would ask the Government what justification they can find for recognising the conquest of Abyssinia at the present time. The alleged justification for the raising of sanctions was that Signor Mussolini had conquered the country. That could be the only justification of the recognition of the conquest. But what do we know about the situation in Abyssinia to-day? Our own Minister in Addis Ababa, Sir Sidney Barton, coming home direct from the capital of Abyssinia, told us on the day he arrived that the Italians had only occupied two narrow strips and that there was no real occupation in the true sense of the word. Since then we have had an Italian communique, issued yesterday, stating that on the Dessie Road, well behind Addis Ababa, there had been an action in which they claimed to have inflicted on the Abyssinians 1,000 casualties. That is large-scale warfare. There have been actions at Harrar, and there have been news of massacres of the population in two villages near Harrar. We know that the railway has been cut more than once. Then we have had Captain Brophit's message, published yesterday, after his return by aeroplane from the Western Province that its Government is working perfectly well with the full co-operation of the Galla and Amhara peoples. We have also the evidence of Mr. Garratt, well known to many hon. Members on these benches, who has just come back and who says that trade in the Western Province was more than usual because in the part occupied by the Italians no trade can be done.

What does this evidence mean? It means plainly that there has been no conquest of Abyssinia yet. It means that strong resistance is going on, and that the only parts of the country which can be said to be under settled government are those which are in Abyssinian hands. It is not a week ago since I talked with a British officer who has just come back from Abyssinia, and he gave it as his view that if the existing sanctions had been kept on, and if we had asked the French Government in the application of the sanctions to refuse to allow the Jibuti railway to be used, it would have been impossible for the Italians to remain in Addis Ababa and that they would have had to go back to their bases. If that is true, and there is a strong case for believing that it is, then this is no time at which we ought to give recognition to the conquest.

We have heard stories of how it is planned when the Assembly meets to call the Credentials Committee together and to ask the Abyssinian delegates from what Government they draw their powers, and then to say that it is not a real Government and that the Abyssinians cannot sit in the Assembly. In that way Signor Mussolini would be satisfied and the Abyssinians would be ejected from the League. I do not think that is the kind of manœuvre to which the Foreign Secretary will lend himself. In any case, we ask him not to do so. We ask him, to agree that recognition of the conquest would be the final act of treachery to a primitive people, and that it would be a plain violation of the Covenant. The Home Secretary was present, if I mistake not, on 16th February, 1932, at a meeting of the Committee of Twelve of the Council, which declared that to recognise conquest by armed force would be a violation of the Covenant of the League. Again I say that if this is done it will be an invitation to other adventurers to try their hand in Europe.

That leads me to the main subject of the reform of the League of Nations, and again I say that I hope the Government will not accept the proposals made on Monday by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham. He proposed that Article 19 and Article 10 should be married and that Article 10 should be modified so as to remove sanctions or any obligations to uphold territorial integrity if a change in the existing status quo were proposed. He said he thought that proposal had never been considered. In fact, it was part of a British draft Convention which was presented to President Wilson on 20th June, 1919, and I was an eye-witness of the process by which General Smuts and Lord Robert Cecil, our two delegates, were convinced that the plan would be disastrous, that it would open the door wide to war, and that it would lead to undesirable developments of many kinds. I sat in the Committee, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, in Geneva to consider Article 19, and I am absolutely convinced that no such proposal could be put through. It is not practical politics, but even the proposal of such a thing by His Majesty's Government would do a great deal of harm.

Finally, I want to come to the main policy of the Government on security and disarmament. We listened with great pleasure to the Foreign Secretary when he told us that the Government were going to propose no fundamental change in the Covenant of the League and when he said that they hoped for some limitation of armaments—he did not put it very high—within a measurable time. So much he told us, but for the rest he left us to guess. But we have read the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer not long ago, and, putting it-together with the various speeches made at various times by the Foreign Secretary himself, we are led to the conclusion that what the Government are thinking of proposing is broadly this, that since collective security by general agreement has been tried to the uttermost for Abyssinia—the Chancellor of the Exchequer argued—and has failed, we must seek something new. Therefore, we will try, in the Chancellor's language, to localise the danger zone and make regional arrangements approved by the League. Our share would be a Western Pact, limiting our obligations to the Rhine and to the Low Countries, perhaps with some obligation not to supply arms to aggressors in other places, and that Western Pact would be completed by other Pacts which would cover Europe and the world, signed by the States having an immediate interest.

If we thought that that policy could have a chance of succeeding, we would try to give to the Government the utmost of our support, but we are afraid that it is really founded on an illusion. After all, the Chancellor of the Exchequer talked as though it was something new, but Locarno was made 11 years ago. It could not have been made in better circumstances than those which the right hon. Member for West Birmingham had to face, and he himself managed it with admirable skill. He had M. Briand and Herr Stresemann to work with, he had so far as he could make it, a defined region to cover, and he had a possible balance of power. What has been the result? After 11 years Locarno has been a total failure, so much so that the arms race is more intense on the Rhine than anywhere in the world, and there is greater fear and distrust and perhaps as large a risk of war. It is not as though we have not been trying for 11 years to get other Locarnos elsewhere. So far as Conservative Governments in this country have had a foreign policy, it has consisted in urging other groups of Powers to do what we did at Locarno. The Assembly has frequently spoken of it in Resolutions, but they have not been made. Why? Because, politically and geographically, the world does not divide itself up into groups of that description. Therefore, we think that to attempt that line is to found a policy on hopes which cannot be fulfilled.

But we think there is a second objection and that this policy may be positively dangerous, because a Pact to keep peace in the West may become a Pact to allow war in the East, and I would call the attention of the Government and of the Noble Lord very specially to this fact, that when that point was put to the Foreign Secretary quite plainly, I think, by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) on Monday, the Foreign Secretary did not give a plain reply. We beg the Government to make it plain that their policy is not to allow, as some people in this country would like to see, a war made, I do not say by what parties, against Russia the purpose of winch would be to destroy the régime which exists there to-day. In our view the way out of the present position is not by that method. It was defined by the Foreign Secretary himself on Monday. He said that no conflict in Europe can be localised, that if once the flames are lit, will they not spread, and is not, therefore, the peace of all Europe the concern of all? He went on to say, if all nations would agree to stand together, would there not be a hope that we could solve this problem of armaments and war? He answered his own question in the negative by saying that the Powers would not agree to that policy.

That is where we differ from him. We wish he would go to Geneva to talk of that policy, not as a hypothesis to be rejected, but as a positive proposal from this country. I am certainly convinced that if at any time since the days of the Gevena Protocol in 1924 we had even gone so far as was there proposed—the proposal was only an excerpt of Locarno—we should have been able to get a solution along those lines, and we believe that if the Government will go there to-day and ask the Powers of the League to stand in with them, to pool their strength, to maintain the law of the world, they will find that France, Russia, the Little Entente, Poland—I do not hesitate to say it—the Balkan Entente, Belgium, Holland, and, as I believe, the whole of Europe will solidify themselves into a great new alliance of peace by which the Foreign Secretary will be able to carry through his policy of disarmament and collective security for all. We believe that that is the only policy which faces the dangers of the present hour in a spirit of realism, and we are afraid that the Government are shirking the facts.

What are the facts? They are that we are drifting fast towards the collapse of civilisation. All organised society in States and in the world rests on law; civilisation rests on law, and in individual States and in the world law, constitutional and international, is being smashed before our eyes, democracies and Parliaments are disappearing, covenants and pacts are being torn up, treaties of peace and the very foundations of the post-war world are crumbling before our eyes. In a few hours the sword wipes out the triumphs of a century of human progress. We are drifting into an armaments competition, we are accepting it as inevitable, and soon we shall be talking of war as inevitable too. Where is it to stop? You cannot stop it if your only policy is to try to mend the present by putting a patch upon the past. So long as the Government go on with that policy, we shall go on with our drift to war and destruction. Let the Foreign Secretary appeal to the old national patriotism of each nation and to the new international patriotism of all mankind, and we believe that he will find that all mankind will rise behind him and help him to build a new and better world.

11.45 a.m.

Captain McEWEN

The hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) has touched on a great many subjects in a very illuminating way. I cannot in the time allotted follow him in everything that he has said, but I should like to express my surprise at what he said about Spain. When the hon. Gentleman spoke this morning he was following the hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Morgan Jones), who spoke from the Front Bench on Monday, and both hon. Gentlemen appeared to labour under what I believe to be a complete delusion, namely, that the picture presented in Spain to-day is that of a democratic government struggling against Fascism. That does not appear to me the case at all. In fact, I cannot see where democracy comes in in any way. It seems to me to be a struggle between the extremes of Right and Left. I should have thought that hon. Gentlemen opposite might have been warned by the extreme interest which has been evinced lately by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) in the fate of the Spanish Government. In any case, hon. Members opposite are too ready—and I do not say that we on this side are altogether immune from the tendency—to condone terrorism and tyranny, provided that it is imposed by a party holding views to which they are sympathetic, and which greatly weaken the diatribes which come from those Benches against State tyranny and oppression when, as it happens, they may not like the persons who are imposing them.

One hears in this House too often the old statement made with exceeding candour that the end always justifies the means, provided that the end is towards the Left. Nor, apparently, does it matter how far towards the Left the end is. Therein lies a great danger, not only to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but to all of us in this country. However, while I can understand that the hon. Member for West Fife is in favour of "red ruin and the breaking up of laws," I have yet to learn that that opinion is shared by the majority of hon. Members opposite. There was an epigram, which, I think, is ascribed to either James I or Charles II, which says: "No bishop, no king." It seems to me that if the moderate parties in Spain had remembered that the con- verse of that epigram is equally true, we would not be faced with the lamentable spectacle which Spain presents to-day.


On a point of Order. May I ask whether it is in Order for an hon. Member to speak of another hon. Member in his absence as being in favour of red ruin and the breaking up of laws?


I do not think that that is a point of Order at all.


I submit that a suggestion that an hon. Member is in favour of the breaking up of laws is hardly consistent with his position as a Member of this House.

Captain McEWEN

The expression that I used is a quotation, and it may be taken as such. I much regret that the hon. Member to whom I referred is not in his place, but it was necessary to the argument I was putting forward that I should refer to him. If any apology is due to the hon. Member, I am prepared to make it at the proper time. The Leader of the Liberal Opposition made a statement in the last Debate, with which I entirely agree, when he said that above everything is the cause of peace. That is precisely the point where a certain confusion of mind has arisen. We have—and I do not say that we politicians are not guilty in this respect—led the people of this country during the last 15 years to put the League of Nations first, and peace second. It is only now, when it is discovered that the means whereby that always desirable and necessary end are to be pursued are not adequate, that it is found that these means must be altered if we are to impress—and it is our duty to do so very strongly—the people of this country that the objective is and always has been peace, as the right hon. Gentleman said, and that the League is merely a means towards that end.

There is, I think—and I am not making any aspersions on the Government in this respect—a great deal of unnecessary defeatism abroad to-day. It takes various forms. It takes the form of saying that war is inevitable; it takes the form of being in favour of giving up something or giving here and there; and it also takes the form of going about and saying that the prestige of this country has never been at a lower ebb than it is at present. I do not believe that to be the case. A certain gentleman once expressed his opinion to Adam Smith that this country was at the point of ruin. Adam Smith's answer was, "There is a deal of ruin in a country." I believe that there is a deal of prestige in this country, and that the stock is very far from being exhausted. It cannot be denied that there has been a certain indulgence in that time-honoured sport of twisting the lion's tail, but that, after all, has been indulged in ever since there has been a British lion, and I do not think that it has ever had the slightest relation to the prestige of this country.

On the question of giving up something or giving here and there, these two attitudes are interconnected. I am one of those who hold that it would be wise, in case of a possible demand by Germany for mandated territories, to state categorically that this is a question which is not open to discussion. I do not adopt that attitude from a dog-in-the-manger point of view. If I thought that it would lead to the desirable end of general peace, I would be in favour of such a policy, but, on the contrary, it seems to me to be wholly inconsistent with the attitude of forceful conciliation which is the only sane and possible attitude for us to adopt to-day. It is well to add that it is no use being too conciliatory until we have the necessary force behind us. There are any number of good and excellent reasons why we should be firm at this moment in our dealings with Herr Hitler. Not the least is because every time that we give in to him, no matter how small the point may be, we are weakening and, indeed, driving to despair that anti-Nazi block which consists not only of Communists, but of some of the best elements in Germany. Finally, there is that defeatism which talks about the inevitability of war. I do not believe that war is inevitable; what is more, only last week at the meeting of the three remaining Locarno Powers, a remarkable step away from it was taken. It is to be hoped that the overtures which have been made to the two Powers outside as a result of that meeting will be met in the same friendly spirit in which they were made.

There is one other point, concerning the recent questionnaire. I believe the Foreign Secretary was right in dropping the matter altogether. As soon as it became obvious that no reply was forthcoming it was clearly not in the interests of our own prestige to continue to beg for a reply. That is all past and done with. One cannot, of course, help drawing certain conclusions from Herr Hitler's evident unwillingness to reply at all, and in some ways those conclusions must necessarily be more damaging than any conclusions after a full answer, whatever that answer might have been. One close observer has remarked that in any Hitler speech it is always the omissions that are important. Here is an omission of considerable importance.

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