HC Deb 29 May 1936 vol 312 cc2470-82

3.22 p.m.


I do not propose to take part in the domestic squabble that we have witnessed except to say that the Government might well have appointed the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) to the position of Minister of Co-ordination, because they would have saved themselves a good deal of trouble. Whether he would have made any better job of it than the present Minister is very doubtful. I wish to raise the position of Abyssinia, in view of the forthcoming meeting of the Council. It. is true to say that the position to-day is causing a great deal of anxiety in the minds of many people. The Emperor is a fugitive from his country. More than a third of the territory of Abyssinia is in the hands of the Italians. The resistance of the Abyssinian armies has been broken by the use of poison gas and aeroplanes. At the same time there is still an independent government recognised by this Government and 50 other Governments. It is still true that a large part of Abyssinia is under the control of representatives of the Emperor, and that Italy cannot be said to be in complete control of the whole country. It may be argued that Mussolini has decreed the annexation of the country and, having regard to-his de facto possession of the capital, is it not wise to recognise that position? But I hope the Government are not contemplating recognising that purported annexation. It would be a gross betrayal of the Covenant of the League of Nations and everything that the Covenant implies.

That being so, what is the duty of the League in these circumstances? I suggest that, however much we may realise the deplorable situation that exists to-day, it in no sense justifies the States members of the League not facing up to their obligations under the Covenant. The duty of the League is to resist Italy's aggression against Abyssinia, and the collapse of the Abyssinian armies has merely transferred the issues from the military to the economic field. No one can suggest that the economic resistance of Italy can indefinitely withstand the economic pressure which can be exercised by 50 other countries. Lord Stanhope, a member of the Government, said the other day, that the existing sanctions are producing a tremendous effect, and that, if continued for another two or three months, supplies of raw materials would virtually cease and cause widespread unemployment. I hope that the Government, when they go to Geneva in two weeks' time, will not only support the continuance of sanctions as at present, but will support any proposal for the intensification of sanctions. The Noble Lord the Under-Secretary has claimed great credit on the grounds that the Government took the lead in October of last year. I confess that I have never been able to understand why he should seek to take such credit upon the shoulders of the Government. All they seem to have done was to place on the Agenda that was to be considered at the meeting of the Co-ordinating Committee in October, the suggested sanctions which have since been employed. All the lead that they gave was to put certain items on the Agenda, and there is no evidence that, unless the British Government had taken a firm stand at that time, the position would have been any different.

What is the position? We have constantly had the famous Resolutions of 1921 referred to in this House. The Government have sought to justify their own policy when delay has taken place by reference to this Resolution. May I remind the Under-Secretary of one of the Resolutions, which provides that when economic pressure is prolonged measures of increased stringency should be applied. Why not apply that Resolution in these circumstances? Why not, as has been suggested on other occasions, withdraw the ambassadors? Merely to withdraw the ambassadors is not an act of war but it would have the moral effect of showing the Italian nation that in the view of all the other State members of the League, the conduct of their Government and of their country during the last 18 months meets with the condemnation of those countries. After the European war, this country refused to accept an ambassador from Russia because hon. Members who support the Conservative attitude in this country took the view that the events of the Russian revolution were such as to justify this country in refusing to accept any representative of the Soviet Republic. Is there any hon. Member prepared to rise in his place in this House and say that in the conduct of the Italian Government in murdering and butchering Abyssinians with the aid of poison gas and the machines of modern warfare, of which their opponents had not the advantage of any supply, there is any distinction morally between the two cases? However, I suggest again that they should consider that proposal. Why not have a shipping embargo and refuse to allow any ships belonging to countries who are members of the League of Nations to take any goods into Italy or to take any goods from Italy. That, I believe, would have a very drastic effect upon the economic position of the Italian Government and nation, and would very quickly bring them to their senses.

I hope that the Government will consider whether it is not possible to expel Italy from the League. It is specifically provided in the Covenant that a nation which is an aggressor nation, such as Italy, shall be liable to expulsion, and I hope that the noble Lord will advocate the expulsion of Italy from the League, or, at any rate, from the Council of the League. What is the use of Italy being allowed to sit at the Council table to adjudicate upon the activities of other countries in similar circumstances? I hope that the Government will not be intimidated by any suggestions that continued or increased sanctions will involve this country or other countries in war. That is the position whenever you apply sanctions. If you are going to refuse to apply sanctions so as to make them effective, because you are afraid of war, and if you will only incur the danger of war because sanctions are effective, then what is the use of taking up the time of the League of Nations or the time of any one else in discussing proposals for bringing pressure to bear upon an aggressor nation?

I hope that when the Government go to Geneva in two weeks' time they will realise that the position is different from what it was a, short time ago. A new Government is coming into office in France. I very much doubt whether that Government will allow itself to be bound by the terms of the Agreement of January last year between M. Laval and Signor Mussolini. I was informed from fairly reliable French sources the other day that that Agreement provided that Italy should have a free hand in Abyssinia and that the French were not interested in Abyssinia, provided that France could rely upon the support of Italy in the event of trouble on its other frontiers. I hope the Government will realise that the new French Governmnt will give them support, not only in the maintenance of sanctions but even with a view to in tensifying sanctions.

I hope that the Noble Lord will realise the issue that is before us at the present time. Some one has to give way. Either Italy is going to overcome the economic pressure brought against her by 50 other nations, or Italy will have to give way. If the former that means that this country and other countries may have to bend the knee to the bully and aggressor, and that is something which I should have thought that no Conservative Government would face with any sense of dignity. It is suggested from Government circles that it is time to revise the Covenant. There may be something said for taking stock. It may be that there is some thing to be said for bringing the League of Nations up against the full implications of the Covenant, but I suggest to the Under-Secretary that the trouble to-day is not due to the Covenant itself.

The failure to prevent Italian aggression is not due to anything in the Covenant. It is not the fulfilment of the Articles of the Covenant which has caused the trouble, it is the non-fulfilment of them. Had the full implications of the Covenant been acted up to in the early days at Geneva and our Government and other Governments had taken their courage in both hands, we might not have been in the position that we are in to-day. I hope that the Under-Secretary will also realise what this means to the small nations. I believe that he will get all the support he wants if he goes to the Council meeting on the 16th and takes a firm stand and tells the Council that this country is prepared, in co-operation with the other countries, to take all the risks that may follow a determination to prove to Italy that aggression does not pay. The small nations are saying to themselves at the present time: "We do not know what will happen to us if Italy gets away with the swag on this occasion." It may be all right for this country, which has powerful armaments and is in a position to protect itself, but there are nearly 50 small nations who have been associated with the League of Nations because they believed that they would receive the pro tection of the Covenant, backed by the resources of nations, great and small, de termined to uphold the principles of the League.

What is going to be the value of the Covenant, so far as security is concerned, if Italy is allowed to annex practically the whole of the territory of another member State. What is to prevent another powerful member of the League, or another powerful country, doing the same thing to other small nations? Vital issues are at stake, and I hope the Government will realise that this is the time to take strong action, whatever the consequences may be, or to say to public opinion throughout the world that if we are to have a League of Nations in its present form they must take all the risks, and that if they are not prepared to do that then we shall have to face the question of revision. That position has not yet arisen. I believe the countries of the world, if given a strong lead by this country, will respond and co-operate with the French and Russian Governments and ourselves, three powerful nations which, having regard to their wealth and possessions, must have greater responsibilities than the smaller nations. If they are given such a lead then I believe the other nations will follow.

3.37 p.m.


I am not going to say anything about the humiliating events of the last few months, but I shall deal with the possibilities of the situation as it is at present. The first thing to keep clearly in mind is that the League has not failed. The League system has not been tried. It has been tried only in a half-hearted way. It has always been contemplated that there would be at the back of the League economic and military sanctions, and before you can say that the League has failed you require to try it out to the full. I hope that is the policy of the Government. A great deal has been said about the necessity for re-forming the League. That is not the real question. All that is required is to use the League to the full, to develop and build up on the existing foundations. There is quite sufficient in the League to give security and peace throughout the world. I am sure that there is no Minister more anxious to do this than the present. Foreign Secretary. He occupies a great position in this country, but I must say that the people are getting a little puzzled. They are wondering how he is going to come out. He was given an exceedingly difficult job; the pitch was queered before he took on the work. His admirers are expecting and believing that he will act courageously and boldly for the principle for which he stands.

The most interesting event of the next few weeks is going to be the visit of the Emperor of Abyssinia. The Foreign Office say that he is coming here incognito. I daresay that may be the best arrangement, but it can only be in a purely technical sense. While he is here he will be the most interesting man in the country. The people in their thousands will be most anxious to see this fugitive, this most pathetic and most interesting figure; a man who placed all his hopes on the League of Nations and this country, and who has been completely let down. There is an over whelming feeling throughout the country, and I am sure the people here will be glad to take advantage of any opportunity which may present itself to show to him, and through him to the Government, how anxious they are that even now steps should be taken to remedy the great wrong that has been done.

It should be made quite clear again that none of us wants sanctions kept on for purposes of revenge. They were put on for two purposes, to stop the war and to prevent an aggressor gaining anything from the use of force. They are now being kept on for the latter purpose, and they should be kept on and intensified until the aggressor is prepared to accept a League settlement. I hope, therefore, that the Government representative will go out to Geneva on 16th June and give a clear and courageous lead to the world and not wait for anybody else to do so. Nobody can or will take our place as the leaders of the world. Let us show the other nations that we are prepared not only to propose some thing but to see it through to the very end in all circumstances. You cannot expect the small States to go in for minor sanctions which only irritate Italy and which they find are not carried through to the end.

I hope that amongst other proposals to be considered will be those which have already been suggested by my hon. Friend—the withdrawal of ambassadors, the prevention of Italian shipping coming into League ports, or League shipping going into Italian ports, the severing of connections between Italy and Africa, and any others which are practicable. The Government are far more competent to know what is practicable and what steps are possible to bring Italy to realise that the world will not tolerate a peace which is not in accord with the Covenant of the League of Nations. Two things might follow. The first and the most likely is that Italy, when faced with a body of League States determined to act to the end, would submit. It is possible that things having gone so far she might once more become the aggressor. One must face every possibility, and she might not be the only State to take a part in becoming an aggressor.

That is the possibility which must be faced. It could be very quickly over come. Action will have to be taken by the League in a police sense. What is the alternative to a risk of that kind It is to wait a few years until the dictators are ready in overwhelming might in different parts of the world to strike out right and left and involve us and every other country in Europe in a world war, resulting in the vast slaughter of millions of human beings, as happened 20 years ago. That is the alternative. I hope very strongly that the Government are going to stand out resolutely for the only foreign policy that this country will ever support as a national policy, and that is collective security through the League. If they will do that, they can even now secure the peace of the world and save the lives of millions of human beings.

3.44 p.m.


I am certain that the House is most grateful to the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) for introducing this subject. The time has come when we should take careful stock of this situation and form a clear picture of some of the results of the conquest of Abyssinia to Italy, and some of the difficulties which face her administrators there and likewise some of the reserve power possessed by the League. We frankly deceive ourselves if we believe that the war will continue for long after the cessation of the rains. Many people in this country believed that the South African war would repeat itself in Abyssinia. Hon. Members will remember that the Boer armies, although enjoying several victories, were defeated after one year, but maintained a damaging guerilla warfare for two years. The Abyssinians have shown themselves little expert at guerilla warfare. They held up the Italians for a certain period in the Tembien Massif. Again and again they attacked the powerful frontal positions and engaged in their traditional method of hand-to-hand fighting, only to suffer immense losses under the machine gun and artillery fire of Italy. [HON. MEMBERS: "And poison gas !"] Yes, and poison gas.

The first difficulty which will face Italy in Abyssinia is the lack of communications. Except for the so-called motor road from Dessie to Addis Ababa, nothing but goat and mule tracks exist. We understand from the latest sources of information that Italy is embarking on a big scheme of road development. As long as she continues on that line and does not build railways, which demand steel, I understand she will experience no difficulties from sanctions. The Jibuti Railway is already present, but I more than believe that France will not be willing to see her great port on the Red Sea merely survive as an entrepôt for Italian goods in Abyssinia. Furthermore, Abyssinia now falls within the Italian currency area and all those goods which are required for the development of housing, such as bricks and mortar, timber and textile materials can readily be imported from Italy, and Italy will thus not suffer from the imposition of sanctions.

The League, on the other hand, possesses certain advantages. The Italian gold reserve is rapidly draining away. The latest figures given in the League of Nations returns show that Italy has suffered a diminution in trade of more than 50 per cent. during the last year. Finally, we have the guarantee given by certain Mediterranean Powers to Great at Britain whereby those Powers placed their harbours at the disposal of His Majesty's Navy and undertook to come to our aid in the event of an Italian aggression. These are formidable supports for the collective system. Signor Mussolini is a realist. I believe that he will recognise that these supports are formidable and will be willing to come to an agreement with the League of Nations, both honour able to the League and honourable to himself. I think we deceive ourselves if we believe for one moment that Italy will evacuate Abyssinia. Nothing short of military force will drive her great army of a quarter of a million from Abyssinian territory, and what Power in Europe is willing to undertake that military expedition '1 In addition, we might be able to obtain some guarantee from Mussolini not to raise a great black army in Abyssinia. Such an army lying near our air communications between Cairo and the Cape would menace extremely our security. The interview which Mussolini gave to a representative of the "Daily Telegraph" may confirm the view that he would be willing to subscribe to such an agreement.

But it seems to me that the most important point is that Italy should not treat Abyssinia merely as a vassal State to be developed for the sole benefit of the conqueror. The principle of trusteeship animates His Majesty's Government in their Colonial policy, and if Italy would agree in any future economic development to give a fair and just share to Abyssinia, I believe such an agreement might do something to restore the prestige of the League. If Italy would undertake not to confiscate territory but to pay compensation, if she would undertake, in the event of any mineral resources being developed, to give a fair share to the inhabitants, such would fill the bill. Those who have studied Italian policy in Sierra Leone and Libya state that the Italians on the whole have been good colonizers, have respected native rights and have allowed the natives to continue undisturbed in their possession of foods. It is a policy such as this, which would be co-operation and not exploitation, that I believe would do something to satisfy the principles of the League. The League could then at least say to itself that although it had been unable to prevent the conquest of a proud and historic people, it would be able in the near future to do something for their material benefit.

3.50 p.m.


I am sorry that I have only a very few minutes in which to reply to the debate on this very important subject. I hope hon. Members will realise that it was inevitable in the nature of things that there should be a very short time avail able on this occasion and in addition I was anxious that as many Members as possible should have an opportunity of expressing their views this afternoon. The hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. A. Henderson) with whom I have had many exchanges of view on this subject (luring the last few weeks reverted in the course of his remarks to the past history of this dispute and made certain critical references to the action of the Government. In view of the shortness of the time available he will forgive me if I do not reply to those criticisms, especially as they have all been debated again and again in this House, and if nothing that he could say would change the views of the people who do not agree with him nothing that I can say would have any effect on the views of those who do not agree with the Government. In fact, all Members of this House and indeed, every body in the country have already made up their minds on the past history of this dispute.

Nor will the hon. Member, I hope, resent it if I ask him not to expect me to give any very definite indication of what the Government propose to do at Geneva on 16th June. If there were to be a Government declaration on the subject, it would not be made by the Under-Secretary on the motion for the Adjournment for the Whitsuntide Recess and on a subject raised by two private Members. It would be made, properly, in a full-dress debate on foreign affairs with all the panoply associated with such an occasion. I conclude that the object of hon. Members in raising this subject was not really to get a declaration from the Government, but to expound their own views. I must say that sometimes the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) and the hon. Member for Kingswinford are a little harassing to the Department with which I have the honour to be connected, but there is one thing that none of us doubt and that is their real and deep devotion to the principles of the League and their real anxiety and unhappiness with regard to the events which have taken place in Abyssinia. We all know that they regard this question as one of immense importance and the maintenance of the principles of the League as essential to the peace and prosperity of the world, and I take it from what they have said that their wish to-day was to show that those opinions which they hold so strongly are held to day in the House of Commons, in order to keep alive the view in which they believe. They have expressed certain doubts or anxieties as to the attitude of the Government at Geneva. As I have said I cannot say exactly what is going to happen there, but I would ask them to believe that the Government believe just as strongly as they do in the necessity for maintaining the League in the world to-day.

We are conscious, as everybody who looks at the present situation with a clear mind is conscious, of the limitations of the League, arising very largely from the fact that it does not comprise all the nations of the world. We must recognise, too, those weaknesses which arise from the fact that it is a human institution, but if we recognise those weak nesses and limitations yet the fact re mains that it is essential that the League should be maintained, if only because there is in the world to-day no com parable alternative for the maintenance of peace. I suggest that our job, the job of the Government and the Opposition alike, is to face the weaknesses of the League and see if we cannot find a cure.

The hon. Member for Kingswinford said he did not think that revision of the Covenant was necessary. He said he under stood there was a, view in Government circles that the Covenant ought to be revised, but that he did not agree with that view. I do not think it is the Government's view that the Covenant ought to be revised, but that due consideration ought to be given to the question of whether it needs revision. They have an open mind on this question, as I think we all ought to have, but to say that in no circumstances ought the existing Covenant to have any re-interpretation would be a very rash thing to do. That question of making the League a practical instrument for the maintenance of peace and for the settlement of international disputes will, in the stocktaking which has already been adumbrated and must, in my opinion, take place in the very near future as a result of the un happy events of this year, I can assure hon. Members, be uppermost in the minds of the Government, and in this object they will hope and expect to receive the whole-hearted co-operation of all sections of opinion in this House and in this country to whom the cause of peaceful progress is dear.

3.57 p.m.


I fully recognise that it is impossible to elicit from the Government any clear declaration of the policy we shall pursue on the 16th June next; but my purpose is merely to say that if the Government choose on that date to pursue a bold line of leadership at Geneva, they will evoke from the rest of this country a support no less united than that which was aroused by the great speech of the right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir S. Hoare) at Geneva on the 11th September last. I ask the Government for clearness of policy, not only with regard to Ethiopia, but with regard to Central Europe as well. Last Wednesday I asked a question about the attitude of His Majesty's Government towards the in dependence of Austria and Czechoslovakia. The answer was obscure in the extreme. That question is intimately interlocked with the Italian question, and if to-day we condone Italy's crime in Ethiopia, the situation in Europe when inter national morality has finally ceased to exist, will be several times worse than it is to-day. The result of such condonation would be to exalt crime and flatter Fascism. I ask for us to be realists about opinion in England. I believe that that opinion would support the firmest and boldest possible line against Italian aggression, but, on the other hand, I am painfully aware that that opinion, partly, I am afraid, owing to sections of the Press, is not fully aware of the greater danger which exists in Central Europe. How can opinion in this country be expected to discriminate in favour of Italy, after her most guilty aggression, and at the same time against Germany?

I would like to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hamilton Kerr). I wonder what is his evidence that any guarantee which Mussolini may give about not arming the coloured races in Africa will really be adhered to, after his aggression against Ethiopia, which is a classic instance of the tearing up of a whole gallery and a whole series of treaties. We should not have been so reluctant to confess that in North-East Africa we have great Imperial interests. Why not? Does not the League of Nations exist to protect our interests no less than the interests of other nations? To put it at the very lowest, it is the worst patriotism to ignore the danger to Egypt and to our communications with the East.


A Tory after all!


That is the first time that it has ever been alleged against me that I am not a member of the Conservative party. [Interruption.] I have one more point to make before the clock strikes, if the hon. member will refrain from intervening in the middle of my speech with one of his own. I would like to say this about the "reform" of the League. For what it is worth, my support would not be forthcoming to any "reform" of the League of Nations which, by excising from the Covenant Articles 10 and 16 and so absolutely depriving the League of coercive power, would reduce that great international authority to the level of an international Pleasant Sunday Afternoon.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute before Four o'Clock, until Tuesday, 9th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.

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