§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Margesson.]
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. A. V. Alexander
I feel that it is not necessary to make any apology on behalf of the Opposition for raising again to-night the position which has arisen at Bilbao, and which was discussed at some length in the Debate on Wednesday of last week. There is no one, I think, who, having been present at Question Time in this House yesterday afternoon, could possibly have failed to note the extreme uneasiness of the Government in their attempt to defend the policy which they have adopted in regard to the position at Bilbao; nor is there any doubt at all, I think, that there is a very considerable volume of opinion left in this old land of 1652 ours which is still concerned with the promotion and defence of liberty and of justice, and which regards the action of the Government in this matter as entirely foreign to the best British traditions.
I am convinced that, if a Labour Government had been m office, and had adopted a similar form of action in regard to a blockade of the ports of a Government more in tune with the political views of right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and if we had thereupon refused the effective protection of the British Navy for ships flying the British flag and attempting to get to those ports, every one of them would not only have demanded that the Labour Government in such circumstances should be asked to change their policy, but would have denounced them as enemies of their country, as cowards who would not defend their own kith and kin, as improvident statesmen who would not even have the sense to protect British commercial interests in the future, and would have demanded immediately the resignation of the Labour Government.
The more I see and hear of the foreign policy of this Government the more I am convinced that they are not really concerned first and pre-eminently for the British Commonwealth of Nations. They are concerned first and pre-eminently with what they regard as the policy of the defence of private profit. Over and over again in the course of the foreign policy of this Government I have observed an attitude which convinces me that when questions arise which affect the safety of the British Commonwealth, the passage of the sea routes of the Empire, the whole future position of the nations gathered together within that Empire—over and over again they adopt a policy which is prejudicial because they are afraid of even appearing to give any support to policies of the Left. It is on that that I base myself when say that they are much more concerned about the defence of private property than they are about the ultimate position of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
In this case there is perhaps no other explanation of their policy in relation to that loyal Catholic liberty-loving body of people living in the Basque country but that they are afraid of appearing to give any semblance of support to a Left policy and to the maintenance of liberty 1653 and freedom as the Basque Government desire to see it maintained. The actual circumstances which have been revealed in the statements by the Government and other quarters are such that we ought as the Opposition to demand either that the Government's policy is changed or that they immediately resign. That is exactly what they would have said to us if we had been on that bench to-night in the same kind of circumstances. There have been in the past British Governments which have been forced by public opinion to resign because of conduct far less culpable than the conduct with which we are charging the Government to-night.
What is the position? If the Government adhere strictly to the policy which the Foreign Secretary has laid before the House, then they are to be held responsible for two facts. First, that British shipping is no longer able to traverse the high seas on its lawful occasions because of the failure of the Government to provide adequate naval protection. Second, that the Government acquiesce, by their acceptance of a blockade of the Basque ports, a blockade not only in respect of munitions but food, which is specifically excluded from the Non-Intervention Agreement, in allowing the starvation of women and children as well as men to continue. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade may think that that is amusing. It is not. We shall he quite prepared in this Debate to produce evidence of the stress of these people in Bilbao if the hon. Member thinks it is something to smile at when we raise the question of starvation.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Dr. Burgin)
The hon. Member would never do me an injustice. I am not in the least smiling at the plight of the people in the Basque country.
§ Mr. Alexander
There is nothing to withdraw. I am strictly entitled to say what I have said about the amusement of the Parliamentary Secretary. I am perfectly entitled to call attention to it. Four questions arise. First, what was the meaning of the Government's decision at their Cabinet meeting on 11th April? Second, is the blockade of Bilbao by the 1654 Franco faction effective? Third, was the protection afforded to British shipping prior to nth April effective and has it been effective since? Fourth, what is the effect of the Government's action on international relationships? First, what was the reason for the Government's decision at the Cabinet meeting on 11th April? I observe that in the House of Commons yesterday the First Lord of the Admiralty said:I understand that on 6th April the steamship 'Thorpehall' was stopped on the high seas in the vicinity of Bilbao by the Spanish cruiser 'Almirante Cervera' and informed that she would not be permitted to enter Bilbao. The 'Almirante Cervera' was accompanied by the Spanish armed trawler 'Galerna.' The steamship 'Thorpehall' summoned assistance and His Majesty's ships 'Blanche' and Brazen proceeded to her support. In accordance with the instructions which had been issued by the Admiralty, the Spanish warships were informed that His Majesty's Government could not permit any action against a British ship on the high seas. I understand that subsequently the steamship 'Thorpehall' arrived safely at Bilbao."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th April, 1937; col. 1413, Vol. 322.]So far so good. That was on 6th April. But then a change comes over the scene, for in the answer of the Foreign Secretary to the Leader of the Liberal Opposition it is stated:The Military Governor of Irun, acting on instructions from General Franco, informed Sir Henry Chilton on the evening of 9th April that the entrance into Bilbao of four British ships known to be lying in Saint Jean de Luz would be resisted by insurgent warships."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th April, 1937; col. 1410, Vol. 322].The protest made by the Leader of the Liberal Opposition at once on that answer was well justified. It is nothing less than a Parliamentary outrage that the Government should have been in possession of that information and suppressed it from among the relevant information supplied to the House of Commons in the Debate on Wednesday last. Certainly it is completely incomprehensible to my hon. Friends here why such a suppression should have taken place. At any rate, the Note was regarded as of sufficient importance to warrant the summoning of a special Cabinet meeting for Sunday, 11th April. A decision was then arrived at which is contained in the answer of the Prime Minister to the question put to him on Monday, 12th April. The House will remember that on that occasion the Prime Minister said that the 1655 Government could neither concede nor recognise belligerent rights, that they could not tolerate any interference with British shipping at sea, but that they were warning British ships that, in view of conditions at present prevailing in the neighbourhood of Bilbao, they should not for practical reasons, and I ask the House particularly to note the next few words:and in view of risks against which it is at present impossible to protect them, go into that area so long as those conditions prevail."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1937; col. 598, Vol. 322.]That decision was made by the Cabinet, in spite of what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, at their meeting on 11th April because of the message from General Franco. If that is not so, what is the difference between 6th April, which the First Lord boasted about yesterday, and 12th April?
§ Mr. Alexander
Except Franco's orders. The Government have not gone a little bit of the way yet to explaining that away. Let the House be in no uncertainty as to what our view is on that particular point. The four ships in question are admitted all to have been food ships. The Government were well aware, because they were not merely parties, but I am sure the Foreign Secretary would say, constructors of the Non-Intervention Agreement, that they had excluded from non-intervention any action by the controlling authorities against the delivery of food, and yet as soon as Franco draws attention specifically to the fact in his Note that these food ships are at Saint Jean de Luz and that he will oppose their passage, the Government turn tail right away and instead of adopting the same position exactly as the Navy had been doing in practice on 6th April, they caved in. My right hon. Friend was right in saying last week that they hauled up the White Ensign then hauled it down again and hauled up the white flag.
It is true to say that to-day the British ships connected with the Spanish trade can place no reliance on the Government for protection, except those people who accept orders from the Government as to what their business should be. If the Government say, "If you proceed, in spite of these orders, in certain circumstances we will protect you," there is something 1656 to be said for that. But if you take an important case of a food ship, the "Marie Llewellyn"—not a large ship but important from the food aspect—a ship which is not equipped with wireless, and yet is ordered by the "Blanche" first and afterwards requested in a Board of Trade message not to go to Bilbao, is it not perfectly clear that the Government are not providing adequate protection for the free passage of our ships?
§ Mr. Alexander
I have already said that the ship was not necessarily large but that in regard to the food supply of Bilbao she was important. I have yet to learn as an ex-Minister connected with the Admiralty that the duty of the Admiralty was confined to the protection of big ships. I always understood that it meant the protection of ships of all kinds carrying the British flag.
I come now to the next question, as to whether there is or is not an effective blockade of Bilbao. The First Lord of the Admiralty yesterday, in reply to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher), is reported to have said:The reports which have been received from the Vice-Admiral Commanding Battle Cruiser Squadron, in His Majesty's Ship 'Hood,' read together with the reports received from the other authorities concerned, have confirmed the view that the Spanish insurgent authorities have established an effective de facto blockade of Bilbao.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th April, 1937; col. 1441, Vol. 322.]So yesterday we got the view expressed by the First Lord of the Admiralty that there is an effective blockade of Bilbao. It does not seem from the evidence to-day that that is very clear. I have a cable addressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) by an important correspondent from Bilbao who is known to the Foreign Secretary. I do not want to quote his name but I will inform the right hon. Gentleman about him afterwards. It was received at 4 o'clock to-day.I personally accompanied the 'Seven Seas Spray' into harbour 8.30 this morning. She left France suddenly 10 o'clock last night. Captain was semaphored frantically from shore to stop but he turned blind eye. Voyage completely uneventful. Captain's 20-year-old Fifi slept like a top. Only incident was one British destroyer patrolling the 1657 Basque coast about 10 miles to sea feebly attempted to enforce imaginary blockade, warning Captain Roberts that he proceeded at his own risk. Roberts answered 'I accept full responsibility.' Destroyer wished him good luck and sheered off. No insurgent ship was ever sighted. Bilbao's destroyers and armed trawlers went out to meet the 'Seven Seas Spray' which, since there are no mines in Bilbao territorial waters, was able to enter the harbour without a pilot. Large force fighting planes circled overhead. As boat slowly moved up river with captain and daughter on the bridge huge crowds cheered, waved handkerchiefs and shouted Vivas for the English sailors and for Liberty.He goes on to say that he will never forget the experience. There is a demonstration that there is no effective blockade by Franco. The effective blockade, if it is effective at all with such sailors as Captain Roberts available, is that of the Government. It is perfectly plain from the evidence that, if British ships, with these food cargoes available, are left to take their normal lawful occasions, there is no effective blockade. The Foreign Secretary, and I think more especially the First Lord of the Admiralty, have from time to time referred to the sowing of mines. Originally, on 12th April the Prime Minister referred to the fact that mines had been sown on both sides. I think I have some information on that. I have another telegram here, also from an important correspondent, which I should like to quote. Although I cannot quote the name in the House, it is only right, if I use it, that the Foreign Secretary should have the information, and I will hand it to him.For your information, coastal defences of Bilbao are as follows: Five batteries heavy artillery, mostly Vickers 6-inch, 1936, range 15 miles, beautifully placed; destroyers, submarines, and armed trawlers; bombing aircraft, and aerodrome near coast. It is quite impossible for Franco's few ships to come within 10 miles of territorial waters, and, in fact, they have never risked battle with the batteries. Neither port nor territorial waters Bilbao are mined. Have only been mined twice—September and January. Second batch swept up long ago. Even in week following January mine-laying four British ships entered and left Bilbao on passage swept for them. In fact neither within nor without Bilbao territorial waters has any commercial vessel been stopped by a mine. Only casualties Basque mine-sweepers in course duty. Nor has any commercial vessel bound for Bilbao been fired upon or molested even well outside territorial waters. Since January precautions against mine-laying redoubled. Searchlights installed either side harbour mouth, nightly patrol of three to six boats plus daily minesweeping by 16 trawlers, who naturally never Catch anything because nothing to catch. 1658 These are all facts known to me and many others here. Blockade of Bilbao does not exist for any Power prepared to protect its shipping outside Spanish territorial waters, and Basque Government ask no more than that. They do insist, however, that dishonest and uniformed attempts to frighten ships away from Bilbao should be abandoned and that ships chartered and paid for by Basque should be allowed to enter and free commerce resumed. Everybody here knows that there is not slightest danger, and that blockade made of paper and exists only in hopes Salamanca imagination Whitehall.Perhaps the imagination of Whitehall is not uninfluenced by the hopes of Salamanca.Local press quite rightly describe it as British rather than Franco's blockade and, if continued, it will end in the fall of Bilbao, ranking as most powerful intervention civil war.In these circumstances is it not plain to the House that we cannot accept, unless we have a great deal more information than we have yet got, the fact that there is an effective blockade by the insurgent authorities of the port of Bilbao. I think we are entitled to ask the First Lord for a little more information about the naval reports which have been received. We have heard from time to time from the Foreign Secretary about the free passage of ships. Last Friday he gave us an answer, which came through the British Consul but which was really a Bilbao Government statement, which showed that, since 1st April, 27 have entered and 32 cleared from Bilbao, and we have never had any contradiction of that since from any representative of the Board of Trade. I take it, therefore, that those facts are established. When the First Lord answered yesterday he spoke of reports received from the Vice-Admiral Commanding the Battle Squadron and other sources, What was the exact information he got? In view of the very great importance of this issue, I think the House is entitled to know. I think we are also entitled to know the date of the report. We are also entitled to know who were the other authorities concerned which the First Lord says support his view based upon the report of the Vice-Admiral Commanding the Battle Squadron. Our information, at any rate, is that not only is the entrance to Bilbao free from mines and constantly kept free, but that it is impossible now for the entrance to be mined because of that control from the shore 1659 which I indicated in the last paragraph of the quotation that I read.
I also want to contrast the statement made yesterday in regard to this question of effective blockade with the statement of the Prime Minister on 12th April. I daresay it has escaped the memory of several of my hon. Friends that, in the course of supplementary questions to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition asked whether in fact the situation of which he spoke in his answer did not mean that there was a blockade of Bilbao, and the Prime Minister said, "No, I do not think there is a blockade." He had in his pocket a message from General Franco dated 5th April and received by the Government on the following day. The Foreign Secretary now says that, of course, the message received from Franco had nothing to do with the Government's decision. The Prime Minister said, on 12th April, that there was no blockade, although the Government were making a decision to set up a blockade in effect by telling the food ships at St. Jean de Luz not to proceed to Bilbao. We should like some explanation of the difference there. In the third place, was the protection afforded to British shipping prior to 12th April effective, and has it been effective since? It is not necessary to argue the first point because, if they had carried out the action that they took in respect of the "Thorpehall," our shipping would have been safe. The First Lord, quite rightly, took credit for that yesterday. They were doing the right thing. I pointed out last week that when the Spanish Government were stopping and dealing with shipping in the early part of this outbreak, the captain stopped a Spanish warship, boarded her and demanded an apology from the Government for having interfered in any way with a British ship. That is the proper thing to do, and it is a duty that the Navy ought to continue to carry out whenever shipping under the British flag is challenged on the high seas.
If that was being done regularly up to 6th April, I think we can take it for granted that within the policy laid down up to that time by the Government, ample protection was being afforded to British shipping. Can we say that adequate protection has been afforded since? Take the case of the "Marie Llewellyn." Will the First Lord be able 1660 to tell the House to-night exactly what was the message conveyed to the captain of that ship? [An HON. MEMBER: "And what the captain said."] I am tempted to read the reports of what the captain said which appeared in the London "Evening News" on Saturday night, but I am sure the First Lord has already seen those breezy utterances, and I do not wish to take up time unnecessarily. But I think we are entitled to know what was the actual message given to the captain of the "Marie Llewellyn."
The First Lord will remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby yesterday put a Private Notice Question on the subject which was not replied to in the House because there was not time to obtain the information. I think it referred to the night of 15th April. The First Lord has had since yesterday morning to wireless the Fleet and get the answer to that question. I should be glad to know whether we can have information to-night concerning the message given by the destroyer "Brazen" to the captain. I feel strongly the conviction that something was said to keep that man from getting his cargo through to Bilbao, and we ought to know the exact position. It is bad enough when the head of the British Admiralty, instructed, of course, by his Government, consents without further protest to the promiscuous laying of mines all over the high seas to the detriment of British shipping. But when, in addition, we actually hold up our ships in the pursuit of their lawful occasions, it is high time that we asked the Government either to change their policy or to resign forthwith.
In the fourth place, I wish to deal with the effect of all this upon international relations. The Government defence on this point, as on many other points connected with Spain, has been that their actions are always actuated first by a desire to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the Non-Intervention Agreement and by a desire not in any way to widen the area of conflict and thereby endanger the maintenance of good international relation. I do not think I have seen the real position in that respect stated more plainly or, I think, more sympathetically than it was stated in a leader in the "Manchester Guardian" this morning. I am sure there is nobody in any part of the House who does not want to promote 1661 good international relationships, but will lack of good faith promote good international relationships? The real trouble about this matter is that the Government cannot have been maintaining good faith under the Non-Intervention Agreement by deliberately interfering with British ships which were trying to deliver food to the Basque ports and were therefore doing something which is entirely legal under the Non-Intervention Agreement.
Why do they want to interfere, if they have the specific assurances which I have recapitulated to-night, that the passage to Bilbao is clear and that it is impossible, with the new defences under the control of the Basque Government, to mine the harbour so as to make it unapproachable? Why do they refuse, in effect, to give free passage to our ships except at the ships' own risk? Such is the message that is reported to have been received by the captain of the "Seven Seas Spray" which arrived there to-day. I feel that on the question of good relations with other Powers, the Government cannot claim that their attitude on this matter will help. What about the effect on Spain itself? All those who have any good will or are well-meaning, hope that the result of this conflict will be to set up Spain as a nation within the comity of nations. I cannot believe that the action of the Government will help to achieve that end. When one considers the loyalty to British traditions, the great support to British trade and the great services in wartime of the Basque population, I cannot think that the cause which we have all at heart is going to be helped if we destroy, as we have largely destroyed, all that good feeling of the Basque people, by leaving the inhabitants of Bilbao to starve.
What about the other dangers involved? It is suggested, of course, that if we protect our own ships in delivering that which it is legal for them to deliver, under the Non-Intervention Agreement we may upset—whom? The friends of Franco? Germany and Italy? Is that what is suggested? It seems to me that for the last two years we have been pursuing a policy with regard to the dictatorship countries which, instead of constructing a basis for better relations, is steadily making matters worse. We have allowed those countries over and over again to bluff us. Indeed we started 1662 earlier with the failure of the late Foreign Secretary in relation to the Japanese position. The slaughter of Abyssinia, in spite of appeals to the League of Nations, was another evidence of the way in which this Government have helped to strengthen dictatorship countries like Italy and Germany.
In this matter I say advisedly, that if it is desired permanently to improve international relationships, good faith and principle must always come before expediency. Over and over again, the Government, as on this occasion and in relation to this matter, have placed expediency before principle and before the promotion of justice. You cannot have permanent peace without justice and you will not secure justice among nations by giving way in such cases as this. It may sound a little too humble for me to do so, but I beg of the Government in the interests, first of the people who are suffering in Bilbao and are in danger of starvation, and secondly in the interests of good relations between the nations in the future, to answer the case which we have put before them to-night and to revise their policy. If they will not do so, I suggest that there will be the danger in the future of a charge of lack of good faith and in view of the feeling on this matter, which is growing more and more intense, we shall be compelled not only to charge them with failing in their duty but to demand their immediate resignation.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Acland
I rise to define the attitude of my party towards this problem. In this connection we have been subjected to a certain amount of criticism during the last 24 hours. Certain hon. Gentlemen have asked me: "What is the matter with the Liberal party and why do you keep on changing your attitude towards this problem?" I wish to make it abundantly clear that we have changed not our attitude towards the problem but our attitude towards the Government. That we have been compelled to change three times in eight days, in order to keep pace with the changes in the Government's attitude towards the trouble.
The problem divides itself into two parts, one relating to territorial waters and the other relating to the high seas. In regard to the territorial waters part 1663 of the problem, we agree that the Government were right to warn British shipping and to give such information as they had. It is open to those in charge of British shipping to choose between the information given by the Government and information given from various sources, including the speech to which we have just listened. If I had to make my choice I know what it would be, but each must make his own choice and we have no objection to the Government having issued that warning and given such information as they had. At the beginning of the week we approached with an open mind this question of the advisability of British action within territorial waters. We are not yet satisfied that it would be illegal for His Majesty's ships to deal with rebels as they would, I think, deal with Chinese pirates within territorial limits.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to put this point? It is a very important matter.
§ Mr. Acland
I hope the hon. and gallant Member will allow me to proceed. Though, as I say, we are not convinced on that as a matter of law, we are convinced that, as a matter of wisdom, in the particular circumstances of this case, it would have been most rash to have entered into territorial waters with minesweepers or ships of any kind. We recognise the difficulties, and we have supported the policy of non-intervention. We have sometimes thought that a stronger attitude on the part of the Government would have produced better results, but we agree that the Government have the right to claim some credit for the state of affairs as we now find them. We do not ask the Government to do anything which would be interpreted as interference, but we do not see how the protection of our shipping on the high seas—food ships, of course—can be interpreted by anyone as an act which would justify others in tearing up the Non-Intervention Agreement. I have one other observation to make on the territorial waters position. This is a new policy which the Government have pursued since Monday of last week in response to new conditions. The Government, from first to last, have given us no evidence of any alteration in the conditions in territorial waters in the last 1664 few weeks. The changed conditions relate only to the high seas and the remainder of my remarks will be addressed to the problem of the high seas.
There are three kinds of protection it seems to me which the British Navy can give British merchantmen on the high seas. First there is the sort of protection which is no protection at all—to say in effect, "We cannot protect you and we make no effort on your behalf." The second is what I would call fortuitous protection. That kind of protection has been defined once or twice by Ministers. It means that if a British warship happens to be at the place where a Spanish warship happens to be molesting a British merchant ship, which has also happened to be there, then the British warship will interfere to prevent such molestation. The drawback to that policy is that the Government which is pursuing it in words can convert it into a policy of no protection, by the simple expedient of withdrawing British warships from those parts of the sea where danger is to be expected. They can do so, secretly, without any announcement and without anyone in this House knowing anything about it. The third type of protection is what I would call substantial protection, which means that not only do you say, "We will protect you if we happen to be there," but also, "We will take steps to secure that we shall be there when the need arises."
That policy of substantial protection, it seems to me, can be carried out in three ways. First, you can fill the seas so full with British warships that wherever trouble arises there will be a British warship there. That is impracticable. The second is to shadow the Spanish warships with British warships. That seems to me to be imperfect. The third way, and I know no other way, in which the policy of substantial protection can be carried out is to accompany British merchant ships with British warships up to the edge of the territorial limits; I do not mean to say side by side, but within sailing distance, nor do I mean that it is to be done in all circumstances and in spite of all difficulties. For example, if half a dozen British merchant ships were to approach from half a dozen different directions, the policy could not be carried out, but do not let us deal with difficulties until they 1665 arise. Let us deal rather with the situation as it is.
§ Mr. Acland
I mean at such a distance as to enable them to arrive on the scene, should any trouble arise, before that trouble has had time to develop into disaster. We can surely deal with the problem as it is, which is a question of one ship to-day, one yesterday, and perhaps one to-morrow, and it seems to me in all the circumstances that substantial protection means that British merchant ships are to be accompanied into the danger zone by British warships. I come next to the statements which have been made in the last eight days by various members of the Government. The first was made by the Prime Minister on Monday in last week, when he said, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair):They (His Majesty's Government) cannot recognise or concede belligerent rights, and they cannot tolerate any interference with British shipping at sea.My right hon. Friend then asked whether the Prime Minister would assure the House that our ships would have orders to give full protection, not only on the high seas, but in territorial waters, and I am sorry to have to say I do not blame the Prime Minister altogether, if two Ministers subsequently prove to be at variance—that he entirely evaded that question in so far as it related to the high seas. He was then asked a more important question by the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell):What would be the position of the Government if these British vessels were prepared to undertake the risks involved?"[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1937; cols. 597–9, Vol. 322.]The Prime Minister gave a reply which showed that he refused to contemplate that possibility as one which conceivably might arise, and it was not one which he seemed to consider worth discussing. Therefore, it seemed to us on Monday that the Government's position was that they would give fortuitous protection to British shipping in these waters and that they would convert that into no protection by the two steps of ordering British shipping not to go and by taking no steps in particular to assure that British warships would be available in the neighbourhood. 1666 Nor were we satisfied with the statement of the Home Secretary in his very much interrupted speech on Wednesday, because my impression was that he referred us back to what seemed to us the unsatisfactory statement of the Prime Minister two days before. But a very different statement was made by the Foreign Secretary at the very end of the Debate on Wednesday, in answer to the right hon. Member for Caithness. He was asked:Am I right in interpreting the answer which he was kind enough to give to one of my questions in this sense: that if the food ships which are now lying at St. Jean de Luz intimate to the senior naval officer of that station that they intend, in spite of the Board of Trade's instruction, to carry their cargoes into Bilbao, they be afforded the protection of His Majesty's ships right up to the territorial limits?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1937; col. 1144, Vol. 322.]My recollection is that the Foreign Secretary conferred momentarily with the First Lord of the Admiralty before replying that he hoped they would not go, that they would pay attention to the warning, but that if, in spite of that advice, they did go, they would be afforded protection up to the three-mile limit.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir John Simon)
I am in the recollection of the House and of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, but I said exactly the same thing, and expressly said it, earlier in the Debate.
§ Mr. Acland
There was an interruption by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), who asked if the British Navy would take steps to protect any British ships that were attacked, and the Home Secretary replied:yes, certainly. The right hon. Gentleman, I think, is well justified in making the point raised here. It is really covered by the statement that we cannot tolerate any interference with British shipping."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1937; col. 1050, Vol. 322.]That seemed to me at the time, and it seems to me now, to refer back to the statement of the Prime Minister, followed, as it seemed to us, by very unsatisfactory answers to supplementary questions, and, therefore, it seemed to us that the Home Secretary's statement was no advance on that of the Prime Minister. Coming back to the answer of the Foreign Secretary, that seemed to us to mean substantial protection to be given in the only way that 1667 substantial protection can be given, namely, so far as is reasonably practicable by the accompaniment of merchant ships by British warships if they should ask for it. I want to know, when he said that British merchant ships would be given protection right up to the territorial limits, how that protection is to be given unless those ships are accompanied by British warships right up to the territorial limits. That statement seemed to us, interpreting it as we did in that way, as meaning in effect, convoy, and that statement satisfied us at the time. Any doubts that we may have had on the matter were cleared up on Friday, when—
§ Mr. Magnay
The hon. Member has just said that he was satisfied. What I want to know is, How did he vote?
§ Mr. Acland
We came here on Wednesday, on the strength of the statement of the Prime Minister, intending to vote against the Government. We listened, as is the duty of all Members, to the whole of the Debate, and at the end of it we found that we could not vote against the Government, but in view of the extraordinarily inept way in which the Government had handled the whole situation, surely we could not be expected to give them our warm support. If the statement made by the Foreign Secretary at the end of Wednesday's Debate had been made by the Prime Minister in answer to my right hon. Friend's question on Monday, no question would have arisen. There was one question which worried us. The only instructions which have been given to British shipping, either warships or merchant ships, so far as the House has been informed, were the instructions given on 9th and l0th April, namely, instructions to wait.
Clearly, then, the advantages of the statement of the Foreign Secretary at the end of the Debate on Wednesday could not be realised unless British naval officers were instructed that they were to protect even disobedient merchantmen, and unless the Consul at St. Jean de Luz had already instructed the merchantmen to wait, it was to instruct them that if they chose to take the risks, they would receive Government protection and convoy up to the limit of the territorial waters. Therefore, I asked a question on Friday, prompted by the information in my morning newspaper that a British ship had 1668 left on Friday night, with no mention of any warship having gone with her, which made me wonder whether any instructions were given. I asked:whether it has been or will be an instruction to commanders of British warships in the neighbourhood of Bilbao that so far as is reasonably practicable they are to accompany up to the limits of Spanish territorial waters any British merchant ships that may desire to proceed to Bilbao contrary to the advice of His Majesty's Government?If it had not been in the mind of the Foreign Secretary that British merchant ships were to be given convoy, ought he not at that point to have informed the House that the interpretation which I was putting on his answer to the Leader of my party was a wrong one, and that no question of convoy arose? I submit that that would have been the proper behaviour on his part, but he did not do that. If there was any doubt as to whether his statement to the Leader of my party meant convoy, he cleared it up on Friday by saying that the point that I had in mind, namely, convoy, was covered by the answer which he had given on Wednesday to the right hon. Member for Caithness. He said himself that his answer to that right hon. Member was intended to cover convoy, because he said:This, I think, covers the point which the hon. Member has in mind.I said:It does with one exception,and he said:Is one of these ships entitled to go to the senior naval officer on that station and ask for an escort up to the limits of territorial waters?To this the First Lord replied:No, Sir. We have never thought it right to give instructions that a ship which has been definitely discouraged from proceeding should receive a convoy. What we have undertaken to do is to protect any ship when it sends a 1669 message or when it appears to need protection on the high seas."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th April, 1937; col. 1409, Vol. 322.]Is not that a complete contradiction? Is it denied that the answers of the Foreign Secretary meant that, of course, instructions had been sent to the commanders of British warships on the spot that they were to accompany? [An HON. MEMBER: "No."] There is doubt about that? I really do not think there can be. My question is whether it has been an instruction to British commanders on the spot in the neighbourhood of Bilbao that they are to accompany up to the limit of territorial waters? Now if that is not implied by the Foreign Secretary, if I was wrong in interpreting his answer in that way, why did he not correct it? He told me and the House then that the point of convoy was covered by his answer. On the general question dealt with in the last part of his question, namely, convoys, I would refer the right hon. Gentleman to the specific question put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair).
§ The First Lord of the Admiralty (Sir Samuel Hoare)
The word "convoy" does not appear.
§ Mr. Acland
The word "convoy" does not appear? What do those words mean, that they are to accompany up to the limits of Spanish territorial waters? What does that mean but that this is an instruction to British commanders on the spot that they are to go with British merchant ships proceeding to Bilbao? The answer was "Of course, it has been an instruction to them." But we get a flat contradiction to that by the First Lord of the Admiralty, who says that it has never been the policy of the Government to provide convoys. On these two statements I submit that we have a complete contradiction between the two Ministers, on which the House is entitled to ask and receive an explanation. I am not going to ask the question which might arise as to the past, because, after all, the inconsistencies of Ministers, although interesting, do not really matter so much as the future.
As to the future, I suggest that the House is entitled to know the answers to one or two questions. Does the reply of the Foreign Secretary to the Leader of my party stand? Will we give protection to disobedient merchant ships right up to 1670 the limits of territorial waters? If so, how can that protection be given unless British merchant ships are accompanied so far as practicable and possible right up to the limits of territorial waters? Will British warships take deliberate steps to put themselves in those positions where danger is expected, not for the purpose of turning British merchant ships back, but for the purpose of seeing British merchant ships safely through those parts of the high seas which would be dangerous if they were unaccompanied by British warships? Will British commanders be instructed that such is the policy they are to carry out? Having got the British merchant ship through the high seas, will the British warships impose no opposition other than friendly advice against the merchant ship proceeding into territorial waters, and will it be made known to British merchant ships that they are entitled to weigh up the evidence given by the insurgent Government as to the dangers, and the evidence given by the Basque Government as to the dangers, and if they decide to run the risks will it be made known to them that they may call upon His Majesty's ships, and that His Majesty's ships will use their full resources to see that they are given unmolested passage through all parts of the high seas no matter how thoroughly invested those parts may be by the warships of the insurgent or Spanish Government.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Sir S. Hoare
I welcome the opportunity to intervene in this Debate. It is quite obvious that there are a great many wrong impressions in the minds of some hon. Members and the sooner they are removed the better. I imagine, however, that the House will not wish me to cover, anyhow, some of the very wide field covered by the right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander). It did seem to me that a good deal of that was very effectively covered in the Debate last week. I am here to-night chiefly to deal with the specific questions he has been asking, and to explain to the House any new development, if there have been developments, since last week when we had the previous Debate. First of all, as First Lord of the Admiralty I should like to say a word from the point of view of the Navy.
At the very outset of my remarks let me make it quite clear in this matter that 1671 neither the Navy nor the Admiralty has any individual policy. The Navy is the agent of the Government. The Navy carries out whatever is the policy of the Government, and it is altogether unjustifiable to suggest that the Navy may have a policy of their own as distinct from the policy of the Government. Secondly, I should make it quite clear, to start with, that the Navy is able and ready to carry out any policy that is enacted by the Government of the day. The Navy is strong enough to deal, and deal easily, with both the Spanish navies or either of the Spanish navies, and there is no question whatever that if it was the policy of the Government of the day to adopt a course which meant pushing our ships into the ports of Spain, whether they be the ports of the Government or the ports of the insurgents, from the military point of view that would be an operation which the Navy could very easily carry out. Thirdly, it should be made quite clear that throughout all these difficult months the Navy has adopted an absolutely impartial attitude to both sides in Spain. If I wanted evidence to convince any hon. Member who might doubt that statement—[An HON. MEMBER: "No one doubts it."] No one doubts it? [An HON. MEMBER: No."] I saw a right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench opposite shaking his head.
§ Colonel Wedgwood
They have been very partial. I may as well state the case. At the end of August last year a signal came from a British ship going across from Gibraltar to Melilla, as I explained the other day, saying that they were being molested and prevented from going to Melilla by a Spanish battleship. Immediately the Navy, without waiting any orders from the Home Government, cleared for action and proceeded to rescue the British ship. That was the "Gibel Ferjon," and it must be within the recollection of the right hon. Gentleman. That ship did not cross once carrying petrol and cement from Ceuta to Melilla, it crossed regularly under the protection of the British ships. That was the right action, no doubt, for the British Navy to take up; but if it was right then it is right now that they should protect British ships going to Bilbao on exactly the same lines, and the fact that they are not doing so is 1672 evidence, not of partiality on the part of the Fleet, but of partiality on the part of the Admiralty.
§ Sir S. Hoare
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he is misinformed. We are acting in the same way exactly in the case of Bilbao as last August in the case of Melilla. If any further evidence of impartiality is needed, I would point, first of all, to the 20,000 refugees. I can assure the right hon. Member that no distinction is drawn between refugees on either side, and I can assure him further that the action we took last August in the case when the ports of Morocco were being invested by the Government fleet was exactly the same as the action which we have been taking in recent years in the north-west of Spain.
Mr. Lloyd George
May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? Does that mean that if a British ship is now intercepted by an insurgent ship and wires to the British Fleet, that the British man-of-war will be there to protect them and order the insurgents off?
§ Sir S. Hoare
Yes, Sir. The right hon. Gentleman will, perhaps, allow me to develop at greater length and in greater detail the position to which he has drawn attention.
§ Mr. David Grenfell
Is it not recorded that after the fall of Malaga, after General Franco's troops had captured Malaga, a British warship took in food?
§ Sir S. Hoare
This has no connection with the question now of allowing British ships to take food to Bilbao. There, again, I assure hon. Members there has been no partiality. I make these observations and I ask hon. Members on all sides of the House to believe me when I say that the Navy is perfectly capable of carrying out any policy imposed upon it, and that it has been altogether impartial during these difficult months on the coast of Spain, and if there are any criticisms to be made, let them be made against the Government, and not against the Navy.
Mr. Lloyd George
Does that mean that the same protection will be given to a British ship going to Bilbao as was given in the case of Melilla to a British ship going to a rebel port with petrol?
§ Sir S. Hoare
If hon. Members will allow me to deal in my own way with questions I will try to give the House very full details on all these points, but, as I said just now, it seems to me that a great deal of the difference in this House is due to misunderstanding. The House will want details on the three following questions: (1) What is our information as to the present position on the North Coast of Spain; (2) What are the sources of our information; (3) What is the actual position so far as our ships are concerned. Let me deal with each of those questions. I will begin with the sources of our information. The right hon. Member for Hillsborough asked me what they were. I will tell him. They are the British Ambassador, our Consular agents and the naval authorities on the spot. What does that information amount to? Here I must deal in some detail with the matter, and particularly with a question on which the right hon. Member for Hillsborough and the hon. Member for Barnstaple raised one or two important issues. The information that we have received has gone to show that off the coast of Spain a new situation had arisen. It may be that for the first time in the history of the incidents in Spain it had proved possible for one of the two combatants to isolate a particular part of the Spanish territory and, so it seemed to our informants, to invest it both by sea and by land. Nothing quite similar had previously happened in the history of the Spanish operations.
§ Sir S. Hoare
Our informants are the British Ambassador, our Consular agents and the naval authorities.
§ Sir S. Hoare
The right hon. Gentleman roust not so constantly throw doubts on the good faith of our informants. I am trying to put before the House the full position and to do so in some detail. On 6th April one of our destroyers reported that a close blockade had been started which prevented supplies of any kind reaching the port of Bilbao. The Commander went on to say that in his view the blockade was effective. On the following day, 7th April, our Ambassador at Hendaye reported that Bilbao was 1674 effectively blockaded. The right hon. Gentleman opposite in connection with these dates suggested that as the result of some threat from General Franco we subsequently sent instructions which went to the Consuls and the ships a day or two afterwards. I can assure him once again that that was not the case. Our instructions were sent as the result of the information that we had received from the sources at our disposal. I am not giving away a Cabinet secret when I say that our decision was reached on the facts of the situation as they appeared to us, and not as the result of a threat from General Franco.
§ Mr. Attlee
Will the right hon. Gentleman make plain where our Ambassador, who is not living in Spain, gets his information from?
§ Sir S. Hoare
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is only a bridge between him and Spain, and we have during all these months received a considerable volume of information from him. Let me continue the history of the matter. On 14th April we had a report from the Vice-Admiral. We then sent the "Hood." That did not look very much as though we were giving way to the threats of General Franco. The Vice-Admiral reported that there were insurgent warships on patrol outside Bilbao, but that owing to a very heavy storm then raging in the Bay the blockade seemed to have been somewhat relaxed, and there were fewer ships to be seen of any kind. On the following day one of the destroyers, the "Brazen," reported that the battleship "España" was in a position to intercept ships approaching or leaving Bilbao. A subsequent report, on the 16th, stated that the "España" and two armed merchant vessels were on patrol 17 miles to the northward of Cape Pescador, in a position to cover Bilbao. Further than that we had information, which I believe to be correct, that there had been this concentration of insurgent ships off the Basque coast, and that as a result there were off the Basque coast, and particularly in the neighbourhood of Bilbao, one Spanish battleship, one 8-inch cruiser, one destroyer and several armed merchantmen, whilst the Government forces were composed of only one destroyer, an armed trawler and a submarine. These facts are very important. They really go to the whole root of the matter.
1675 Blockade—I am not using the word in the juridical sense—depends for its effectiveness upon ships being able to keep other ships from going into a port. The question of ships, in my view, is far more important in a blockade than any question, important as it may be, of mines. A fact that cannot be contradicted was that off the Basque coast, for the first time in the history of the Spanish operations, there were these forces of insurgent ships and there were practically no Government ships to resist them. It was chiefly because of this fact that the naval authorities and the diplomatic authorities took the view that the blockade was an effective blockade. The fact was that there on the spot were these insurgent ships, powerful as compared with the Government ships, and that there were practically no Government ships to resist them.
Now I come to the question of mines. The important factor of the blockade was the presence of these strong forces of insurgent ships as compared with Government ships. The mines question is an important one, but it is subsidiary to that.
Let me give the House the information at our disposal about mines. I say at once that our information about mines is in the very nature of things less precise than our information about the presence of insurgent ships. Obviously so. It is much easier to identify ships and mark their presence than it is to be sure of the exact disposition or exact danger of a particular minefield, but we have received quite a quantity of information about the laying of mines. They were first laid, as the right hon. Gentleman himself said, off Bilbao at the beginning of the year, and since then British warships have not entered ports which they believed to have been mined. In quite recent days we have received further information that mine-laying by General Franco is still going on. There is no doubt about it. Only yesterday I received a telegram saying that a number of mines had been swept up outside Santander.
§ Sir S. Hoare
Fourteen. It is also a fact which cannot be denied that two or three of the minesweepers outside Bilbao were actually sunk by mines.
§ Sir S. Hoare
About six weeks ago. I have a further telegram which has come in during the Debate relating to the merchant ship "Olavus," which came out of Bilbao a few days ago. The Master has informed the owners that it just missed a mine. It came through the minefield and just missed a mine outside Bilbao.
§ Sir S. Hoare
The right hon. Gentleman must remember that there were many cases in the War of minefields being very effectively laid yet, none the less, ships got through them.
§ Mr. Attlee
This is a point on which we have never got any information. The right hon. Gentleman has now told us that Bilbao has been avoided by British ships and, therefore, they could not know themselves that the mines were there. We have now this further information, but we have never been given the sources of the information about mines being laid outside Bilbao, which is denied by all the authorities on the spot.
§ Sir S. Hoare
This is a telegram from the master of the merchant ship "Olavus" which is dated the 19th April. She reached Rotterdam yesterday. The telegram is:On arriving off Bilbao was shot at by a rebel cruiser. Shore batteries replied, one shot nearly hitting the ship. Cruised about all night with no lights. At daylight proceeded into harbour. Passed unknowingly through a mine area. Saw one mine and kept clear. On arrival heavy air raid, 43 aeroplanes taking part, three air raids in four days. On sailing from Bilbao rebel cruiser ordered us to alter course towards coast. We were 15 miles off escorted by rebel cruiser until 'Hood' arrived on the scene.'Hood' escorted us 30 miles out.It shows that we are affording protection to our ships.
§ Mr. Attlee
That information has come since the statement was made in the House by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Could we have the information on which they acted?
§ Sir S. Hoare
The right hon. Gentleman is really unduly suspicious. The right hon. Member for Hillsborough himself stated that minesweepers were at 1677 work outside Bilbao. Surely, minesweepers would not be at work if there were no mines in the channels outside Bilbao.
§ Mr. Alexander
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent me. I said that they have been sweeping up since January, but I also said that there were no mines because they have been kept clear.
§ Sir S. Hoare
That is not the information at our disposal. We believe that the position is dangerous to merchant ships and on that account we gave them warning. The Board of Trade must necessarily advise merchant ships, and in view of the evidence at our disposal, the mass of evidence about the presence of insurgent warships off the coast, and, secondly, of the mines, we felt it essential that the warning should be given. When we had this evidence of the presence of insurgent ships and the existence of minefields we might have done one of three things. We might have insisted upon pushing British ships into the harbour of Bilbao. Militarily we could easily have done it, but we took the view quite definitely that action of that kind, whatever might have been its legal or military justification, would have endangered the whole Non-Intervention Agreement.
Secondly, we might have said nothing to merchant ships at all and left them to go on at their own risk, possibly to be destroyed by insurgent ships or one of the mines in the minefields, not knowing what the policy of His Majesty's Government was. We felt that that was not a course which we could honourably or safely take. We felt that it was much better to tell merchant ships the position and give them our advice that it was unsafe in the conditions to proceed to Bilbao. That is the course we have taken, and about that course there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding. There is no issue between us as to whether or not we protect British shipping upon the high seas. Over and over again we have said that we do protect British ships on the high seas, and we protect them on the high seas whether they take our advice or whether they do not take it.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Are these ships, the "Espana" and others, which the right 1678 hon. Gentleman tells us are carrying out the blockade, on the high seas, or are they in territorial waters?
§ Sir S. Hoare
They can get into territorial waters. Moreover, my information does not bear out the information given to the House by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough that the fortifications and the guns at Bilbao are capable of keeping the insurgent ships outside territorial waters. That is not my information. My information definitely is that insurgent ships have been frequently within the three-mile limit, that they have not been fired at by the shore guns, and that they have themselves fired upon the shore fortifications. Let me return to what is really the key position. What is the position now, first of all on the high seas, and secondly, in territorial waters? As far as the high seas are concerned, we do definitely protect British shipping. We have so informed General Franco. We did not do that as a result of any threat, but, as was stated in the Debate the other day, we told him quite clearly that we will stand no interference with British shipping on the high seas.
§ Sir S. Hoare
Within the last two or three days. We told him that even as far as ships in territorial waters are concerned, he would be held answerable for any damage that might take place. Therefore, as to the high seas, I do not think there is any issue between us, except as to methods of protection. Let me say a word about that, for it has been made to appear that there is a difference of opinion between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself. There is no difference. The series of supplementary questions to which the hon. Member for Barnstaple referred did not show that there was any difference between us. Our position has always been clear, and it is that we will give the protection that we think is likely to be effective to ships on the high seas. If a ship is advised by us, on the ground of safety, not to proceed to a particular port, I should have thought it was common sense 1679 not there and then to provide a convoy to enable it to do the very thing we had advised it not to do.
Apart from that consideration, are hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite wise in insisting upon that as the only form of protection to ships proceeding to one of these Spanish ports? Is it likely, if one takes a ship, surrounded by British warships, up to the three-mile limit and draws attention to the ship, that it is going to slip through territorial waters into one of these Spanish harbours? No, we have said that we will give protection that we think effective to ships on the high seas. We will continue to do that. We will not bind ourselves to any particular form of protection. The fact that that protection is effective is shown by cases such as that of the "Thorpehall" a week ago, and the case which I have just quoted of His Majesty's ship "Hood" coming to the assistance of the "Olavus" As far as I am aware, the shipowners understand the position, and they are not dissatisfied with it, and I claim that it is the only wise and reasonable course for us to adopt in these very difficult conditions.
I am as conscious as any hon. or right hon. Gentleman opposite of the fact that the situation is a very confused one, and that what may be true to-day of a particular port may not be true to-morrow. We shall follow the situation from day to day, and if we came to the view that the so-called blockade was not effective, we should be the first to accept the new state of affairs. On the other hand, if we came to the view that a particular port had become dangerous to British shipping, within territorial waters, equally it would be our duty to warn the shipowners. I should have thought that, in view of those considerations, the position was clear—protection for all British ships on the high seas and protection in the most effective way that the Admiralty can arrange—
§ Sir S. Hoare
Whether we warn them or not. Within territorial waters, owing to the reasons which the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary gave last week, we are not prepared to send British warships, not so mach on account 1680 of the danger to British ships, great though that may be, but because we believe that to do so would endanger the Non-Intervention Agreement. I have given the House the information at my disposal, but there is one thing further that I would add. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough asked me what happened about the "Marie Llewellyn." He asked me specifically what action we had taken with the owner of the "Marie Llewellyn."
§ Sir S. Hoare
Both the owner and the captain. If the right hon. Gentleman had waited a minute or two, he would have seen that I am going to give the verbatim conversation that took place between us. I am afraid hon. Members will find it less picturesque than they might have expected from some of the reports in the newspapers of the language of the captain of the ship. The name of the destroyer was His Majesty's ship "Brazen." The conversation ran as follows:BRAZEN: What ship?Reply: Marie Llewellyn.BRAZEN: Spanish ships are about. I advise you not to enter territorial waters.(Merchant ship now commenced to circle to port.)BRAZEN: Where are you going now?Reply: Returning to St. Jean de Luz. What do you advise?BRAZEN: What instructions have you?Reply: None. At own risk. Owner's orders are to proceed to Gijon.BRAZEN: I strongly advise you not to enter Spanish territorial waters.Reply: Am returning to St. Jean de Luz. Thanks.That is a very good and concrete instance of our attitude towards ships and of the very friendly relations that seem to exist between the captains of the merchant ships and the captains of the warships. The situation is fluid. I fully admit it. One of our difficulties in dealing with the whole of the Spanish problem is the fact that it does change so quickly from day to day. We will watch it and we will give advice to the merchant ships according to the facts at that particular time. Since the Debate last week I have read some very wise words about the Spanish position, and I will venture to end my remarks by quoting them: 1681Next Monday the Spanish Non-Intervention control scheme will actually be in operation. The business of negotiation has been long. Cynics and pessimists have prophesied over and over again that it would never succeed, that the whole proceedings are a farce, that there never would be agreement. They have not for the first time been proved wrong. Patience and perseverance have succeeded. It is a useful reminder that patience and perseverance are all important in the diplomacy of peace. Of course, some of those who have for months past been saying that non-intervention is a farce without control, and that control will never be achieved, will now change their tune and declare that the control that they used to insist was all important is entirely useless. These professional pessimists can be left to their professional pessimism.What wise words, and they come from the "Daily Herald." Let me commend these observations to right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen opposite. Let me emphasise the fact that we are at this moment beginning what we believe to be a new chapter in the non-intervention control, and that it is vitally important, in view of that fact, to throw no inflammable material into elements which are already sufficiently inflammable, and that both in the spirit and the letter we should maintain the policy of non-intervention.
§ 9.50 p.m.
Mr. Lloyd George
I am not going to discuss the whole policy of non-intervention. That is much too wide an issue—whether it was desirable, whether it has succeeded, or whether it has failed. All I know is that at the present moment there are 100,000 foreign troops on one side, with a very remarkable equipment, and, from what I hear, about mom or 15,000 on the other side. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a proof of the success of the policy of non-intervention, it is a very remarkable conclusion. I am much more concerned to find out exactly where we stand. Although I think the right hon. Gentleman has carried the matter very much further than he did before—more in the direction of the reply given by the Foreign Secretary last week and, to a certain extent, by the Home Secretary—he has left it rather in doubt what his policy actually is. It is very important that British ships should know. There are, I understand, still two or three ships at St. Jean de Luz full of food for these starving people of Bilbao. If they leave St. Jean de Luz or Bilbao, informing the British Fleet that 1682 they are leaving, will the British Fleet there take steps to protect them against being fired upon and destroyed by Franco's ships?
Mr. Lloyd George
It is so important that the Government should have in their own minds clearly what action they would take in a case of that kind, and it is equally important that British ships should know.
Mr. Lloyd George
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Government had been perfectly impartial. I will give him two cases, not by way of arraigning the impartiality of the Government, but it is important to know what is to be done in the immediate future. Take the case of the Melilla incident. In August last the Spanish Government had complete command of the seas. They have lost it since. Morocco was then completely cut off and the Spanish Government could prevent munitions going there. Here is a British ship sailing for Morocco at a time when the Spanish Government had established, in the sense that Franco has established it now, a complete blockade of the Moroccan coast. They intercept that ship and order it to go to Malaga or elsewhere. The ship sends a message to Gibraltar. What happens? A torpedo boat destroyer, according to a report in the "Daily Telegraph" at that time, had been ordered to fire if there was interference.
Mr. Lloyd George
That was the case then. There is a similar case now, but instead of protecting a British ship against the Government forces they are now called upon to protect British ships against similar action by Franco, but with this difference: the Government ship never threatened to fire, but simply ordered the other ship to go and to remain there until a reply came. In this case General Franco has definitely stated that he will sink British ships if they try to get through. Will the same procedure he adopted with regard to British ships defying Franco's fleet as was taken in that case when we sent the "Repulse" 1683 and the "Codrington" to rescue this ship and to tell the captain he could go wherever he wished?
§ Sir S. Hoare
Yes. The answer is that we shall behave in exactly the same way. The "Hood" did so two or three days ago.
Mr. Lloyd George
The reason why there is a doubt left in our minds is rather due to the form of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. He spent a good deal of time in demonstrating that there was an effective blockade. That left doubt, certainly in my mind, having some experience of blockades in the War. I know exactly what a blockade means, provided one is dealing with belligerents, but here we are not. Has the right hon. Gentleman established to his own satisfaction the doctrine of the blockade because he wants to say that, there being a blockade, we are not going to interfere to protect our ships? I understand from him now that he does not, that he will protect British ships whether there is a blockade or not.
§ Sir S. Hoare indicated assent.
Mr. Lloyd George
It is very important that we should know exactly what the position is and that British ships should know, because just see what happens. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say that there has been no partiality.
Mr. Lloyd George
Well, while I will not say that it is untrue as far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, I am sorry to say that upon the facts, it is not correct. In this case, what he himself read of the transaction between the captain of the "Marie Llewellyn" and the captain of the "Brazen" showed that he was ordered—[Interruption]—I beg pardon, advised, not to proceed.
Mr. Lloyd George
I used the word "advised" three times, but if it pleases the hon. and gallant Member I will say it a fourth time. No advice of that kind was given in the Melilla incident.
Mr. Lloyd George
No; on the contrary the moment the vessel sent its wire to Gibraltar a telegram came back to say that the "Codrington" and the "Repulse" were going there, and the only advice that was given to the ship was that she could now proceed wherever she liked. It is no use saying there has been impartiality. This has a great bearing upon the new non-intervention pact. Let the House note what we are doing. We are handing over the whole of the east coast of Spain to the Germans and to the Italians—a very vital part of Spain for the Spanish Government. Suppose the Germans and the Italians pursue the same course as we pursue with our Fleet on the north coast and warn off every British ship. They are entitled to see whether those ships are carrying munitions of war, but suppose they discover they are carrying only food to Valentia and to Barcelona, and the Germans say, "We advise you to clear out. We advise you to go back." They will know what that means, when the Germans and the Italians can equally advise Franco's scouts where to find them.
I do not say that the Germans or the Italians would sink our ships. They would leave that to the others. Would they offer any protection at all to our ships when they are proceeding on what we call their "lawful occasions" because they are carrying food, and food has been exempted by the acceptance of the Non-Intervention Agreement? If we call the attention of the Germans and the Italians to what they are doing, what will they say? They will say, "We are only doing exactly what you did on the north coast of Spain." What will happen if that is the case? The Germans and the Italians will be effectively blockading the east coast, and if we are going to carry out our "Marie Llewellyn" policy we shall be helping Franco to blockade the north coast. So far from that being a fair policy of non-intervention it will be practically strengthening Franco's blockade around the whole coast at a time when he has been smashed.
My right hon. Friend spoke of the international situation. Has it occurred to our Government what they are doing, and doing now? There is no doubt at all that at the present moment the Government in Spain are on top. I have had a good deal of information about that from people on the spot. They are on 1685 top, and they feel perfectly confident that they are going to win. Why has Mussolini agreed not to send any more troops there? Why is he even prepared to discuss the question of withdrawing troops? Because he knows perfectly well that the game is up. The Germans know it. They know that they went into a bad partnership. They are sick of it. They want to clear out. A time will come—may I have the attention of the First Lord of the Admiralty and especially, at this moment, of the Foreign Secretary?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) made a great appeal for intervention to gather the parties together. I did not think very much of the actual suggestion he made at the time, but that has nothing to do with the general question of intervention with a view to putting an end to this terrible carnage. I hope it is a practical question. What influence would our Government have with the people that matter there if it was known that they had been helping to starve these hundreds and thousands of women and children in North Spain? The Basques will be a very important element in any settlement. They are a very moderate people. It is idle to refer to them as anarchists, or Communists, or Atheists; they are a very God-fearing people. Hon. Members who look at the "Daily Telegraph" to-day will see an account, a very remarkable account, from Bilbao. It says that the whole of the community, without any difference of religion or politics, are united in fighting against Franco's aggression. If you get the parties together, is it not important what Britain may say at that conference, and what Britain's influence will be at the conference? If I had a conference of that kind, and if I were dealing with it, I would rather have the Basque Government there. The Catalan Government is far more to the Left; the Valencia Government probably less; but the Basques take a view which is far from being an extreme one. Is it desirable for us, from the point of view of the future, to take any step that will eliminate those people? They were friends of ours during the War; we had no better friends. The people who are behind Franco were against us to a man then. They lent their ports to the Germans to sink our ships in the Mediterranean, yet the best His Majesty's Government can do is to warn 1686 British ships not to take food to the children of the very people who fought for us. The Basques were with us. They sent their ships out and ran the risks; 30 of those ships were sunk. Yet the best thing the Government can do is to warn British ships not to give food to their starving children.
You have only to see what has been going on. Again I quote the "Daily Telegraph" of to-day. The captain of one of Franco's ships says how friendly they have been with the British Navy there. The report says:He said that it had been a source of great pleasure to him to be able to work on friendly terms on questions arising from the blockade of Bilbao.He is Captain Caveda, the commander of the Nationalist fleet, and described as a hero of the Philippine war. I never heard of him. He is now employing his heroism in the service of Spanish high treason. His statement shows where the information came from. He describes meetings between the Commander of British destroyers and himself.
Mr. Lloyd George
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. You had no visits between the ships at Gibraltar and Spanish men-of-war.
Mr. Lloyd George
I beg your pardon; that is not so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] That is where your information came from. I have just had a telegram from the President of the Basque Republic—
Mr. Lloyd George
I accept that at once. I should be very sorry to say anything which appeared to be a reflection upon the British Navy, and if anybody thinks that I have done so I most certainly withdraw, because it is really a very important matter, so far as the future is concerned. I do trust that the Government will bear in mind that the action which they took in the last few 1687 months has given the impression that they have taken sides. The impression is left in the minds of the Spaniards, upon the minds of very important sections of opinion in France, and, there is no doubt at all, has been conveyed to large masses of opinion in this country. When there are hundreds of thousands of people starving, when you have left food out of your contraband regulations, when British ships you know are loaded with food, and nothing else, for the feeding of your friends the Basques, who are not liable to any of the suggestions about their having abolished God from their lives—they are the last people in the world to make that charge against—you have left the impression that you are helping Franco. If the right hon. Gentleman now declares that British ships are free to go with cargoes of food to Bilbao and that if they go, taking the risks, the whole strength of the British Navy will be there to help them, this Debate will have answered its purpose.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Riley
I want to put one or two questions to the Government relating to the information upon which the Cabinet relied for taking the course they did of advising British ships not to proceed to Bilbao. I notice that when the First Lord of the Admiralty was addressing the House a few moments ago he said they had received ample confirmation from various sources to show that there was a real blockade by the insurgents at the port of Bilbao. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) has just indicated one of the sources of information upon which the Government have been relying. He called attention to the fact that in the "Daily Telegraph" to-day there is a sepcial article by a correspondent referring to a conversation which that correspondent says he had with the chief officer of the insurgent fleet outside Bilbao. There is one part of that interview to which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs did not refer, and which I think affords the key to the position. He referred to the conversation as to the pleasure expressed by the chief officer of the insurgent fleet—a pirate fleet, one has to remember—at being on friendly terms with the British Navy in relation to the blockade at Bilbao, but he did not mention that the telegram points 1688 out that the chief officer of the insurgent fleet said that the officer in command of British destroyers patrolling the Bay of Biscay had frequently visited him to discuss matters affecting British ships.
I am not suggesting that the officer in charge of British ships was not perfectly entitled to visit even the commander of the insurgent fleet, and it may be to obtain information; but when one realises the fact that collaboration of a kind has been taking place between the chief officers of our ships and the chief officers of the insurgent ships, one understands what may be the source of the information upon which the idea of a blockade has been accepted by the Foreign Office. I suggest, therefore, that from that point of view the information upon which the Government have been acting during the last week or two is of a not very reliable, and, indeed, somewhat suspicious character—that it is information coming from the insurgent side to make out a case of blockade because it suited their purpose to do so. From that point of view one has doubts about the strength of the ground upon which the Government have taken their course.
As an ordinary Member of the House, I have, I am sure in company with many other Members, found it difficult to reconcile the repeated affirmations by the Prime Minister that the Government will not tolerate any interference with British ships in connection with the situation, that they will not accord belligerent rights to either side, and that they will not recognise the right of blockade. These three affirmations have been made over and over again, and were repeated in the Debate last Wednesday, but how can plain people reconcile them with the information that His Majesty's ships in the Bay of Biscay are instructed to place obstacles in the way of the delivery of food by British ships, by discouraging the masters of British ships from fulfilling their lawful obligation of delivering goods to, as has been said, people who are starving, while at the same time we say that we will not tolerate any interference with our ships?
The attitude of the Government on this matter is not consonant with the past history of this House or of this country in such situations. There are circumstances in this situation which ought to induce the Government not to lay so 1689 much stress on the question whether protecting and even convoying British ships on the high seas into the ports of Northern Spain would be construed as interference. There is a higher call. We know that there are many thousands of people whose lives depend upon their having this food; it is a humane task; and although I, for one, without any qualification, want to see the Government of Spain come out victorious in this struggle, at the same time I would also say, and I believe I speak for all my friends on this side, that if there were in the insurgent part of Spain people who were subject to starvation, we should wish them to be treated in exactly the same way. I appeal to the Government to place no further obstacles in the way, but to see that, anyhow in the case of Bilbao, the people who are starving shall have the right to receive food.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Captain McEwen
I still fail to see the object of this Debate. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Camarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) appeared to derive great satisfaction from having elicited, not for the first, but more like the tenth, time from the Government Front Bench, the fact that British merchant steamers would receive the protection of the British fleet on the high seas. Why he should show so much satisfaction at having once more elicited that already very plainly stated fact, I do not know, but I still fail to see the point of view of the Opposition in raising this Debate, because, if I may say so with respect, if they imagine for a moment that there is in the country any body of public opinion behind their point of view in this matter, they are making a very grave error. Their case, as has been amply proved by these recapitulations to-night, is a very lame case indeed. The few new facts which the Debate has elicited from that side of the House have been used by them, as was said in another connection, as a drunken man uses lampposts—more for support than for illumination.
The case presented by the events at Bilbao is surely as clear as crystal. In the first place, General Franco has declared a siege by land and sea of that port. We, in accordance with our already long-declared policy, which was approved by this House, decided not to intervene, 1690 and accordingly we told such ships as may be in the port of St. Jean de Luz and elsewhere that there is a blockade of Bilbao, and that it would be wiser if they did not attempt to run into that port. There is only one alternative policy that we could have adopted. That would have been to have said nothing to the masters of those vessels, but to allow them to risk, not only their own lives, but also the general peace of Europe, by attempting to run through the blockade to that port. Two reasons are put forward by the Opposition for advocating a policy different from the one which the Government have pursued. In the first place—and this is the reason which is sometimes put forward by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker)—they say that, if it were a question of munitions, they could understand that such ships would not be allowed to go in, but food is a different matter. Therein they refuse to realise that from the point of view of the besiegers the breaking of a blockade by food ships or imports of food into the garrison is just as damaging, if not more so, than the import of munitions. Secondly, it is alleged that we ought, on humanitarian grounds, to feed the starving women and children who, unfortunately, find themselves in Bilbao. I would be more impressed by this argument were I convinced that this love of humanity applied to the whole human species, but I fear it does nothing of the sort. If the women and children are good supporters of the Spanish Government, they arouse the humanitarian feelings of hon. Gentlemen opposite. But I understand that there were women and children, for example, in the Alcazar at Toledo.
§ Captain McEwen
I know the hon. Gentleman said that. I am not referring to him, but to the Opposition parties as a whole. I do not recollect hearing that the cries for help of the women and children in the Alcazar aroused any response in the breast of the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), for example, and the response of hon. Members opposite was exemplified by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Dobbie), whose reply to any and all such 1691 piteous appeals was a stream of machinegun bullets directed, I understand, by his own hand.
§ Mr. McGovern
Is the hon. Member aware that when the women and children were in the Alcazar the Government forces offered a guarantee of safety to them if the insurgents would release them, and that even a priest went in and made the offer on behalf of the Government, but that the insurgents held on to the women and children in order to save their own skins?
§ Captain McEwen
In view of these facts it is difficult to have any patience, let alone sympathy, with the appeal of the other side. It is high time that for our own convenience belligerent rights were now afforded to both sides. The Foreign Secretary last Wednesday set out the case with a wealth of detail. Why then do we not now accord them? The answer is to be found in a reply by the Foreign Secretary to a question by the hon. Member for South Kensington (Sir W. Davison) yesterday. He said:We have embarked upon this policy of non-intervention in common with other countries. I certainly would not wish this country to take unilateral action."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th April, 1937; col. 1403, Vol. 322.]That, in other words means, we still have to get the approbation of the French Government. As M. Blum is apparently so amenable to reason in all things at the present time, he might also prove to be amenable to the case for according these rights if it were put in the same cogent way in which the Foreign Secretary put it on Wednesday, and I trust that it may be done.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Bernays
The Opposition appear to think that they have a very good case against the Government on this issue. They appear at the same time to be extraordinarily embarrassed by that case. Both to-night and on Wednesday the right hon. Gentlemen speaking from that Box have been subjected to persistent interruption and it has been difficult on 1692 this side, owing to these interruptions, to get a connected case put by the Government. They interrupt that case because they know how strong it is. Facts have been told the Opposition from that Box again and again. Again and again they have been challenged on facts. The Government speakers have given the facts. Hon. Gentlemen have said "That is very important; we are glad to have got that admission from the Government," and 10 minutes later they have put the same question to the Government. Facts seem to them of no importance. Take this question of the position of Bilbao. Do the Opposition or do they not accept the fact that there are mines in Bilbao or that there have been mines in Bilbao?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
We have said repeatedly that we know there are mines. In September last there were mines and we allowed our ships to go there in numbers, a way being swept for them by the Basque sweepers. We want to know now, when there is an offensive against Bilbao, why the same policy is not pursued.
§ Mr. Bernays
I understand that the Opposition think that what the Government say about the existence of mines is untrue. They are accusing the Government of uttering cool and calculated lies, and that is one of the most serious charges that have ever been made from the opposite benches.
§ Mr. Bernays
To-day we saw the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) challenge again and again the facts stated by the First Lord of the Admiralty, and only at the fourth time of denial did he have the decency to withdraw. The Opposition are challenging the good faith of the Government.
§ Mr. MacNeill Weir rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Unless the hon. Member gives way, the hon. Member who wishes to interrupt must resume his seat.
§ Mr. Bernays
I am not going to give way. To challenge the good faith of the Government and to give the impression that the Government are stating what is deliberately false is to challenge the whole foundations of Parliamentary government.
§ Mr. Bernays
I do not think that the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) was here at the beginning of the Debate and does not realise the kind of interruption to which Government speakers were subjected.
§ Mr. Maxton
I am not intervening on the merits of the Debate; I was merely saying that it is a good Parliamentary courtesy to give way, particularly from a junior Member to a senior Member.
§ Mr. Bernays
It is as a rule a very good Parliamentary custom, but this is the exception that proves the rule. This is the first time that I have ever refused to give way, and I think I am perfectly justified on this occasion.
§ Mr. Bernays
The hon. Member will have an opportunity to answer those charges. If we got up every time charges were made, there would be no Debate possible at all. Whether there is or is not a blockade of Bilbao, there is a state of war there and Bilbao is a war zone. We shall be agreed on that. The safety of neutral shipping in Spanish territorial waters is imperilled and it is the duty of the Governments concerned to warn shipowners and sea captains of that peril. What adds to the difficulty, as I understand it, of neutral Governments in this connection is that there is a temptation on the part of sea captains to ignore that warning because there is great pecuniary advantage for ships that are willing to take the risk. I hear on good authority that owners have been offered as much as £10,000 to divert their ships on their homeward journey into Barcelona harbour. 1694 I do not want to make that charge on mere hearsay evidence. I sent a telegram to-day to a shipowning friend of mine in the West of England and asked what were the increased freights that were being paid for ships going to Spanish ports. I received this reply:While the ordinary time charter rate is in the neighbourhood of 8s., 15s. is the rate at which vessels have been chartered for six months for Spanish trading. This means that a 4,000 ton dead weight ship earns a gross freight in six months of £18,000, compared with £9,600 on the ordinary market time charter rate in normal trades, an excess profit of over £45 per day more than in other trades. One assumes this must be of considerable encouragement and material reward for those who are alleged to be applying their abilities and their tonnage in the direction of helping and assisting starving humanity.I think we should bear those figures in mind. After all, it is salvation not at 5 but at 100 per cent. The best type of owner has, of course, resisted these offers, but the poor man is tempted by them and the skippers too—men like "Potato" Jones. I do not want to say anything derogatory—
§ Mr. Bernays
In many respects he is a grand figure, in the real Conrad tradition, but let us get "Potato" Jones in the right prospective. He is no philanthropist, no decent humanitarian, no internationalist interested in the niceties of international law. He is a sailor of fortune. He knows that, if he can get his ship into Bilbao, there is good money for him. I am told that he stands to make as much as £2,000 if he is successful. I say, and we all say, good luck to "Potato" Jones; but, really, why should he have a convoy? Why should the British Navy be exposed to unjustifiable risk in order that "Potato" Jones may reap rich profits? We were told that we on this side take this line because we are in favour of the defence of property. What sort of property are hon. Members opposite defending? Extortionate profits in many cases have been made because there are risks. These sailors of fortune cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect to get these great profits for taking risks and then have the British Navy come along and remove those risks. I wonder whether the Opposition realise what an escort for these ships would involve. It might be 1695 two or three destroyers, perhaps more, concentrated at Bilbao. If Bilbao, why not Barcelona, supposing there was a state of war there? If the Navy is going to force a passage for ships in the North, why not in the South? At that rate half the British Navy would be concentrated in Spanish waters. Can any one doubt that, apart from other considerations, this could and would easily be represented as a breach of the Non-Intervention Agreement. The Opposition is avowedly advocating the escort of British ships because it would help the Basque Government. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) said as much on Wednesday. The splendid speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) in which he held the scales equally as between the rebels and the Government forces and made a moving plea for an appeal by the Powers to end these fratricidal offers produced not a scintilla of support from the other side.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) says we are not impartial on this side. What degree of impartiality do they themselves display? They want Franco to be beaten. They are advocating the course that they are advocating because it would assist their end, the defeat and collapse of the rebel forces. Yet, in spite of the cheers that greet that statement, the Opposition accuse us of being pro-Franco and being partial. There are a few Members on this side who are in favour of Franco—I wish it were not so—but they are a very small minority. There is not the slightest doubt, as far as the Opposition is concerned, from the watery pink of trade unionism to the full blood red of the Clydeside, they are all to a man for the Spanish Government. I am at a loss to understand their argument; why, because the Government is the legal Government, it is therefore the Government that must be supported. [Interruption.] Would the hon. Member say the same thing about the Nazis? If there was a rebellion against the Nazis would he be in favour—[HON. MEMBERS: "Legal Government."] The Nazis are far more representative of German democracy than the Spanish Government of Spanish democracy. General Franco is only a provisional revolutionist. We have never 1696 really had an answer to this question: Would the Opposition apply the same test to the Nazis as they are applying in the case of Spain? [Interruption.] Of course they would not, and hon. Members have the honesty to say so, but I should like to hear some one on the Front Bench say so.
We are asked what effect action by us in Bilbao would have in Spain. Personally, I think to convoy ships into Bilbao would have exactly the reverse effect to that which hon. Members opposite think it would have. I believe it would play straight into the hands of Franco. At the moment he is losing the support of the foreign troops. There is some justification for the hope that the tighter non-intervention regulations which came into force yesterday will induce Mussolini to withdraw his volunteers and persuade him to extricate himself from a position from which he has got nothing but discredit. The Nazis have never had their hearts in the Spanish war. They have never been much more than observers. The German general staff has always been opposed to active intervention in Spain and Franco may well find himself deserted by the allies upon whom he has staked the chance of victory. But the situation would change in a night if Great Britain could be regarded as actively intervening on one side in Spain.
It was suggested by the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate that our action could have no effect on Mussolini. But if it resulted in the defeat, or the threatened defeat, of Franco's troops, Mussolini would have not merely to retain his volunteers but to reinforce them. He could adopt no other course if he wanted to retain a shred of prestige. I ask hon. Gentlemen opposite to consider this point. What would be our position if Signor Mussolini were able to interpret our action in Bilbao as a definite breach of the Mediterranean Pact and regarded himself as free to send an army corps to Spain? What other answer could we give to the troopships coming down the Mediterranean but to send them to the bottom of the sea with all the incalculable consequences that would follow? We have had the war of Jenkin's ear. We on this side of the House do not want the war of Jones's potatoes, and I believe the great majority of the country are behind us in that view. Such a war would be Germany's supreme chance. Her obvious 1697 strategy is to embroil ourselves and France and Italy in Spain and then to have a free hand in the East.
I ask the Opposition to consider this, not just as a knock-about Debate against the National Government. Greater issues than that are involved. I will concede to the Opposition any doctrinaire points of international law which they may advance. It may be that there is a legal case for the action which they are urging upon the Government. We do not oppose them on legal technicalities but on the realities of the world situation. It is not only in Spain that horrors are being perpetrated. In Germany, in Italy, in Abyssinia, in Russia, and I daresay, if you took the lid off, in Turkey and in Poland, you could find the same story of cruelty and oppression, and it is not an exaggeration to say that France and Great Britain to-day form a pillar of fidelity to sanity and reason and decency, in a reeling world. The Maginot line is not merely the frontier of France and ourselves; it is rapidly becoming the frontier of civilisation. But what are the Opposition asking us to do? It is nothing less than that we should emerge from this zone of safety and sanity and plunge ourselves on one side of these two dreadful forces of Communism and Fascism which are rattling the world back to barbarism. Have the Opposition turned their backs to the peace propaganda on which they built up their party in the post-war years?
§ Mr. Bernays
And I have remained a Liberal, which is more than the right hon. and gallant Gentleman has done. In the name of peace, quite honestly and sincerely, the Opposition are trying to turn the League into an anti-Fascist international War Office. Even if the issue of Bilbao could be localised and it was only a question of risking two or three mine-sweepers and perhaps a destroyer, are the Opposition prepared to take those risks? Have they considered their own position in this matter? There is a new tone about their speeches nowadays. They talk about the prestige of the Navy 1698 and the might and power of the British Empire. Phrases have been used by the Opposition in these Debates that might have come straight from a Palmerstonian Parliament. We have heard about Drake's drum and the Nelson touch and about how Britannia rules the waves, and one almost expected some hon. Member to rise on the Labour benches and say:We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we doWe've got the ships, we've got the men and we've got the money too.Yes, the ships that the Opposition have refused to provide, the men in the recruiting of whom they have refused to assist, and the money they have refused to vote. Then there is the argument very popular with hon. Members below the Gangway opposite—the argument of the starving women and children. It is a dreadful story and it must fill every humane man with horror. Starvation, anywhere must have that effect. But I ask them what about the women and children of the men on the mine-sweepers and the destroyers who are alive to-day but who, if the course of action advocated by the Opposition is taken, may be dead to-morrow. What about Mrs. Smith, wife of able-seaman Smith on one of these mine-sweepers or destroyers who in a few days may be the widow Smith? The most dreadful responsibility that any hon. Member may be called upon to shoulder in this House is to go into the Lobby and vote that men shall die. It is a responsibility that we may have to take one day. At least let it be upon an issue which all can understand and from which there is no escape. Such an issue is not provided by Spain and any Government which tried to make Spain such an issue, would be driven from power within a week by an infuriated electorate.
§ 9.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Dobbie
I would not have intervened had it not been for the statements of the hon. Member opposite including some references to myself and his comparison of the position in the Alcazar and Toledo with the position in Bilbao. There is no comparison at all between the two cases. It is true as the hon. Member says, that I was in Toledo just before it fell but the position of the women in Toledo and at the Alcazar was different altogether from the position of the women in Bilbao. I am sorry that the hon. Member is no longer in his place because I 1699 wanted to point out to him that the women who were in the Alcazar were captured from Toledo in a raid by the people who were defending the Alcazar. Opportunities were given to the defenders of the Alcazar, representations were made to them when I was in Toledo from the Commandant of Toledo, offers were made by the Church, and a free passage was offered to the women and children in the Alcazar if those who were defending it would agree to allow them to come out, but the defenders of the Alcazar used the women every time they were attacked as a smoke-screen to defend themselves. That is why the Alcazar stood so long and why they had it when Toledo fell. There can be no comparison at all between the women and children and the people in Bilbao, who are starving, and the women who were in the Alcazar.
I am sure the hon. Member opposite did not intend to misrepresent the position or to make any unfair accusation against me, and I do not want to deny any part that I have taken. I am glad to be able to say here that right from the beginning I have been on the side of the Government in Spain and I have hoped the Government would win. I would have remained in Spain had there been a need for men, but what were needed by the Government at that time and what are probably needed now are ammunition and material to defend themselves and to carry on the struggle for liberty. The want of material effectively to carry on the struggle at that time is largely the responsibility of the Government of this country, and if the Government of Spain get defeated—I do not believe they will—the Government of this country may well be held responsible for the assassination of yet another democracy in Europe. The hon. Member opposite said that I had stated that I took part in the directing of machine guns. I want to say that I did not. I was with the machine-gun crew for three days, and there was no necessity for me to do that, because there was a lack of ammunition there, and the men were only able to fire so many rounds a day and all the rest of the time had to stand beside or behind their guns, unable to use them because of the lack of ammunition, for which this Government must stand responsible.
I am sorry that the hon. Member has not been here to listen to what I have had 1700 to say in response to his statement, but let there be no mistake in the mind of any Member in this House. There is no comparison between the Alcazar and Bilbao. In Toledo, as I have said, the Commandant offered a free passage to the women, and the representatives of the Church were ready to accompany the women out, but on no occasion did those who were in charge or in command of the Alcazar give any opportunity for the women there to be released, and I want this House to understand that the statement of the hon. Gentleman opposite is absolutely untrue and has no reference at all to the position either at Bilbao or at the Alcazar.
§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Sir Adrian Baillie
There have been many remarkable speeches this evening in this Debate, and I think that one of the most remarkable was that made by the right hon. Member for the Hillsborough Division (Mr. Alexander). If I had not known who he was, I certainly could not by his remarks have guessed that he was a leader of Labour or Socialist thought. I have never heard such an orgy of emotional jingoism. In the course of the various speeches which have been made from the Opposition side I have not yet heard one argument that would lead me to change my mind as regards the correctness or rectitude of the Government's policy of Non-Intervention in the dispute in Spain. There has been a considerable amount of information presented to the House from all sides. In the opening speech of the right hon. Member for Hillsborough a considerable amount of telegraphic communication was read out, and further information purporting to come from the man on the spot, and that seemed to show that not only was there a blockade of Bilbao, but that that blockade was not being made by Franco but was in effect being organised from Whitehall. The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland), who followed him, said that he knew which source of information he would choose, and that it would be the source presented by the Opposition side of the House. Having listened to this Debate and to the reply of my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, I am quite satisfied to take the information which comes from his sources.
I feel that while this Debate has centred particularly round the recent 1701 events in connection with the blockade of Bilbao, there is still a broad matter of principle to consider, and that is that the British Government should take every possible precaution in no way whatsoever to put themselves in the position of being accused at any later stage of having taken any action, great or small, which might tip the balance on one side or the other in the Spanish Civil War. It is no part of the British Government's duty to interfere in the internal affairs of foreign countries, and I am glad to know that they are determined not to intervene in this internecine strife in Spain. I am not in the least biased as between the political persuasions of one side or the other in the Spanish conflict. I feel very much like the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), and I can see no very great difference between Nazi-ism, Fascism, Communism, or even Socialism. [An HON. MEMBER: "You may learn."]—That is the one thing that I trust I shall never have to do, because such a regime would be the death, at the end of the day, of our democratic institutions and of our individual liberties. In effect, however, some hon. Members have admitted that they are biased on one side or the other. Some hon. Members no doubt consider that of the Red forces are to emerge victorious, it may be a disaster of international importance, that it may be a matter even of sinister significance for this country, and that it may bring the influence of Moscow so much further west that it might bring Communism knocking at our doors. That is merely an assumption, and I see no reason to believe in the likelihood of any such thing.
On the other hand, hon. Members support in some cases the side of General Franco. In the past there was perhaps some reason for believing that General Franco would emerge successful, and in that case it might have been considered a s well to get in the General's good graces, so that when the time came we should be able to help him to unfetter himself on the one leg from the shackles of Nazi-ism and on the other from the shackles of Fascism. But again I say that all those are merely matters of assumption. Those are only opinions based on assumptions, which in their turn, perhaps, are based on the wish being father to the thought. Now I would like to say that from every point 1702 of view I think the Government have been successful in handling their policy of non-intervention in Spain, and I believe that even taking a view primarily of ultimate self-interest, that this sticking to the policy of non-intervention will reap the greatest reward.
I was reading yesterday the words of an eminent commentator on current events, and in that regard he said that a cold enlightened selfishness could in reality be the most potent influence for peace, just as it was, that generous emotionalism had made many of the foulest wars in the past. This situation in Bilbao has, I think, been very exhaustively covered, not only by means of question and answer in this House, but in the Debate this evening and last Wednesday, and I must say for myself that I am quite satisfied not only with the action of the Government, but with their explanation of the attitude which they have taken from time to time, and it would seem therefore that the particular reason the Opposition chose on the Adjournment to raise this question again, was to put a specific question which was put in the Debate last Wednesday by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) when he said, "Have the Government to be run by the Admiralty instead of the Government running the Admiralty? The Navy are our servants and should not impose their prejudices on the British Government." As an ex-soldier and ex-civil servant, if I had been in the Navy I must say that I should have resented that insinuation, and having ceased to be a civil servant or a diplomat, I say that insinuation amounts to a calumny, and a calumny which, throughout this Debate this afternoon, has not been supported by one iota of fact and, in any case, where in the world does the right hon. Gentleman think lies the motive for what he calls the Navy, our servants, to be influenced by prejudice? We have heard a lot about prejudice this afternoon, but surely the word "prejudice" comes very ill from those hon. Members forming the Opposition. We know very well on what side in this civil war their heart lies, and I suggest I know one reason, not merely the old association with the interests in Moscow, but it amounts to this, that there is a relentless determination on the part, 1703 of hon. and right hon. Members to pursue their doctrinaire feud against Fascism even without regard to the best interests of their own country.
There is, too, one more point, and if my hon. Friend will excuse me, I should like to refer to one more point which he made. He said, "So long as England is feeble, so long as we show the white feather and explain repeatedly that we shall always yield." So long as we remain feeble! What was the attitude of the Opposition when the Government recently took the proper steps and the proper means to remedy this feebleness? What was their attitude then? We know it, unremitting opposition and unremitting obstruction. Surely the attitude shown in those Debates and this sudden volte face shown on this Debate, reveals a state not only of political unbalance but I would suggest of political opportunism which has really little precedent. This is the first occasion on which I have had the privilege of addressing the House since my recent election for the Tonbridge Division of Kent, and I would like if I might to tell the Government that the two main issues upon which the election was fought were the matter of rearmament and the question of non-intervention in Spain. As a political newcomer to that division, by way possibly of enticing me there I was told that the electors of the Tonbridge division were the most intelligent electors of the most intelligent division of the most intelligent county of Kent. They did me the honour to send me back with such an important majority that I should be the last to criticise or diminish their reputation, and I would merely hope that the representative opinion expressed in that election will show not only the Government but the country and the world at large that the real support of the country is behind the Government both in their policy of non-intervention in Spain and in their determination adequately to reinforce the defence forces of this country.
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Grenfell
The hon. Member who has just spoken declared to the House that he is satisfied with the results of the policy of non-intervention, and I wonder what would discourage him. The hon. Gentleman is, strictly speaking, in favour of abolishing the policy of non-intervention. His Majesty's Government may be 1704 reconstructing their policy to which they declared their adhesion, and which they have avowed openly, of intervening and preventing even our own people from rendering legal services to the people of Spain. It is on that account that we have taken this occasion to enable the House again to consider this very delicate and dangerous position. Since July last the House and the country have been very much disturbed indeed about the type of non-intervention in regard to the so-called civil war in Spain which has now gone on wearily with very great loss of life, disastrous consequences, and great confusion, internal and external. We have from time to time endeavoured to convince the Government from this side of the House that the demand for non-intervention has not been fully recognised and supported even by the Government themselves. Now many have alluded to the responsibility of the Government for the present situation. I do not think that anyone on this side wishes to bring an allegation against the Navy. The Navy is a loyal service, and although naval officers, like other men, have their political views, they do their duty. I do not think the Navy is in this matter acting without some kind of understanding with the Admiralty and the Government, which they serve. Therefore, our complaint should be directed against the Government, who are responsible. No individual Member of the Government should carry the whole of the responsibility. The Government as a whole are responsible.
It is beside the point to bring direct responsibility against any one Minister, although I must confess that we have substantial grounds for complaint against every spokesman on the Government side. They have been lacking in frankness. They have not taken the House into their confidence. The Opposition as well as the Government have a certain responsibility for the policy adopted by this country and they have a right to be accorded proper information. The Government have information available and the Government spokesmen are to blame for not imparting the information. We have reached a situation now in which we cannot trust what has been said from the Government side. I make that allegation knowing that a Minister is to reply. I say frankly that I have not been 1705 satisfied with a single utterance on behalf of the Government in the last four or five days. It would be wrong to say that the people of this country are entirely on the side of the Government in this matter.
Something has been said about certain signalling communications which passed between one of the vessels of the Navy and some of our fellow-citizens who are engaged in mercantile business between this country and Spain. Some kind of flag-wagging took place and the message "Good-luck" came from the Navy to a merchant ship which was trying to run the blockade and, I understand, did so successfully. I feel sure that the country would give the same signal. The people of the country are dismayed by the conduct of the Government in the last week or so. They are perturbed. The overwhelming majority of the people appreciate the courage and enterprise of the men who wish to complete their voyages to Spanish ports. The Government ought not to ignore the enterprise of these British seamen, but it seemed to me that the First Lord, by insinuation or innuendo cast a reflection upon "Potato" Jones.
§ Mr. Grenfell
The right hon. Gentleman referred to communications that had passed between the Navy and the "Marie Llewellyn" Who can speak on the "Marie Llewellyn" but Skipper Jones? The two captains were in signal communication and the right hon. Gentleman gave to the House the responses in each case, and it seemed that he did so with regard to Skipper Jones in a tone almost of contempt.
§ Mr. Grenfell
If not, the right hon. Gentleman was very unfortunate in his manner. That was the impression that was made upon me. The country is getting a bit tired about things. They are disturbed by the events in Spain and puzzled by the happenings in this House. They are inclined to say, in words which we know well:Confound their politics,Frustrate their knavish tricks.The people of the country want straight dealing. They understand what Skipper Jones wants to do and what other merchant seamen would like to do. They 1706 do not understand what we are trying to do in this House, and least of all do they understand what the Government are trying to do. Everyone is more or less ashamed of the scuttle in the Bay of Biscay; this enforced detention at St. Jean de Luz of ships which have other duties to perform. St. Jean de Luz may be all right, but not a single one of these ships wanted to go there. They were bound for Bilbao, Gijon and Santander, and were not doing anything which would infringe the non-intervention agreement. They were not doing anything illegal; they were carrying on their proper and lawful trade and were under their charters and contracts bound to discharge their obligations. They have been sent to St. Jean de Luz and have had to stay there. There has been a virtual embargo against their complying with the conditions of their charters and the obligations entered into by their owners.
This trade with Bilbao is an old trade. The steel trade in South Wales has been largely built on the trade in iron ore with Bilbao which has been brought to South Wales for decades, coal going from South Wales to Bilbao. It has given employment to South Wales miners and to Basque workers. There has grown up a sort of relationship between these two bodies of workers; an amicable relationship. It is from South Wales now that many of these vessels have gone. They have brought iron ore to South Wales for the steel industry, and at the moment South Wales is very short indeed of steel. These vessels have taken on return cargoes, and there is no reason why they should have been stopped. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) said something which should not be forgotten. The Basque Government has always been a good friend to us in days of peace and in days of war. They have been engaged in this useful trade and in recent weeks no fewer than 27 vessels entered the Port of Bilbao and 32 vessels cleared for ports in this country. You cannot stop this trade without inflicting enormous damage on shipowners and seamen and others engaged in the trade. Our shipping has been laid up and there has been great hardsihp amongst our unemployed. Now that there is this opportunity to trade why should not our people be allowed to carry on their legitimate trade with Bilbao?
1707 There is another side. The Foreign Secretary, the First Lord and, I think, the Home Secretary have insisted on the value of the humanitarian services performed by the British Fleet. We do not deny that there have been occasions when the British Navy has been able to play its part in bringing away refugees and in taking in food. Cannot this also be done as a humanitarian action? In the city of Bilbao there are 300,000 inhabitants. The "Daily Telegraph" today, not a Labour paper, but a respectable Tory journal, described in moving, eloquent and pathetic terms the sufferings of the civilian population, men, women and children. Those people are suffering from a lack of food, and food which is held up at St. Jean de Luz by the instructions of the British Government has been denied entry to the port of Bilbao. We have been told that because the blockade has been made effective, vessels are to be advised not to discharge their cargoes at Bilbao.
The blockade is an attempt to starve the population of the Basque country, a country bounded by the sea on one side and by high mountains on the other. With General Franco's troops on the land side, and with the sea, which is more or less difficult to navigate, on the other, General Franco hopes completely to cut off that country, and because he claims to have established a successful blockade we are told that we shall not allow our vessels to go to those ports, even when proof is forthcoming every day that the channels are free and that no harm or injury has befallen a single ship that has gone there. The Basque country has a coastline of from 200 to 250 miles. Considering the distance, how can the armed vessels of the rebels in Spain pretend that they can maintain an effective blockade? They cannot do it, and everybody knows that well. A far larger number of vessels than they have would be needed to maintain the blockade.
I think the Prime Minister was wrongly informed when he gave the impression that both sides had laid mines. Why should the Basque people do so? The rebels have done so, and I have the approximate dates on which they did it—at the end of September last and in January, when the Basque Government had not suitable searchlights to prevent the work being done by night. Some 125 1708 or 130 mines were laid off Bilbao, Santander and Gijon during the third week of January, but they were swept away, and now there are no mines there. Proof of that is that vessels have left more than one of those ports without pilots and have come out uninjured. The rebels tried to blockade Bilbao by mines and armed vessels, but they were not successful, and they have got the British Navy to do the job for them. They conveyed information to the naval officers and to the British Ambassador at Hendaye, across the frontier, in France. Anybody can go and tell a tale to him; he does not know what takes place at Bilbao, at Santander, or even at Madrid; he has to be told by somebody who is interested enough to go and tell him the story. He was told this story, which has now been proved to be untrue. The Government have been misled.
This morning the "Seven Seas Spray" went into the port, with two women on board, without the slightest indication of danger. Those people who delivered their cargo of food are to be praised. I think the House and the people of this country should be proud of the gallantry of the persons on that ship. [An HON. MEMBER: "It has a Welsh captain."] There are four or five Welsh captains off the coast of Bilbao. They had been unemployed for a very long time, and they were legally chartered for these voyages. They are honest men who want to earn their living, and they have courage enough to complete the charter which they undertook in a legitimate way. It is the Government who are trying to make this blockade effective. The British Navy orders ships not to go, for that is what the right hon. Gentleman told us in terms to-night. If his version of the flag conversation was right, then it was tantamount to giving instructions. That conversation implied, "You must not enter territorial waters."
No vessel leaves a port in this country to circle round the high seas for ever. Every vessel leaves a port in this country to enter a port in another country. They were denied permission to enter the ports of the Basque country. They were told they must not enter territorial waters, and that was a prohibition to enter either of the three ports for which they were destined. They were told, "You can sail the high seas and we will give you protection, but 1709 do not go near to Spain; it is dangerous." What a ridiculous explanation! It is a shameful explanation because it is not seamanlike or in accordance with the traditions of the Navy. These people have been told that they are not to go into Spanish ports and the captain of the "Marie Llewellyn" would not have gone away had he not understood that the message sent to him was an order not to go to a Spanish port, because he was told to keep away from territorial waters. No assistance was offered to this man and no information given to him. The First Lord gave us the exchange of messages, but we would have liked to listen in to the actual words of the conversation. When "Potato" Jones made his responses, I am sure that he was much more eloquent than the words we have heard to-night. These ships were entitled to protection.
The question has been put by a number of speakers, and I put it now—will the Navy give full protection to a British ship chartered and bound for Bilbao, Santander, and Gijon? Will the British Navy give protection and free access through territorial waters which will enable these vessels to go into either of these ports? If it does, there is no dispute between the two sides of the House. If it does not, if the British Navy says to these people, "You are not to enter territorial waters," it means that they are not to enter these three ports and that the Government are making themselves responsible for the effective blockade of the Basque country. We are now beginning a new set of controls. We are to control not only a portion of the Basque coast and the coast of France, but our naval forces are also to control portions of coast in the South of Spain. If it is the intention of the Government to maintain a blockade or to acknowledge a blockade and prevent British ships taking the risk of carrying food to the Basque country, will they do the same in the southern part of Spain which is now held by General Franco?
§ Mr. Grenfell
Do we know there is not a blockade in the South? The Foreign Secretary says there is no blockade there. He tells us these things. We accept the unsupported statement of the friends of 1710 General Franco, who say there is a blockade in the North. The naval forces of the Spanish Government occasionally pay visits even to the South, and if the Spanish Government carry out a blockade in the South, will it be right for a British vessel to carry food to those parts? The Government's action is not so impartial as it is made to appear, and we shall be very watchful in the House to see that this new system of control is not exploited once again in the interests of General Franco to help him to win. I feel sure that that would not be in accordance with the wishes of a great many people in this country. The country has accepted the idea of non-intervention. It did not favour it in the beginning, but a larger number of people are now prepared to see it fully tried out. The action of the Government at Bilbao, however, is not nonintervention. It is really intervention on their part. It is a fraud upon the confidence of the people of this country and of the House if this action is now to be made to appear to be consistent with our policy of non-intervention. It will be so regarded by the world.
I have a letter here by M. Vandervelde, a leading politician of Belgium, published in to-day's "Manchester Guardian." It refers to the opinion of Belgium, but it is connected with nonintervention, and I feel sure this action by our Government will be regarded by the world as a crime against the Basque people, if the Basque people are brought to surrender weeks and months from now by the privations of their people, with the food ships standing there, food ships for which money has been paid. Those ships are under charter to deliver the food in Spanish waters. If the Basques are compelled to surrender the responsibility will fall upon the Government and upon this House, and we on this side wish to repudiate responsibility by a protest in this House.
It will do infinite damage to the prestige of this country. There are serious breaches of contract involved. The Basque Government have bought and paid for foodstuffs to the value of no less than £7,000,000 to save the town and province from starvation, and the ships already stopped by reason of our Government's warning account for only a fraction of the large number which are to bring the food. There are a large 1711 number of other ships to be chartered before the whole of that food can be brought to Bilbao. It is an urgent matter to get food there and General Franco is counting upon that fact. There are probably sympathisers of Franco in this House who believe that the Basques will surrender, but we all know how people will suffer before they surrender, and their privations may go to greater lengths than those which were endured during the siege of Paris and other large cities in the past. There may be terrible suffering, to the disgrace of the whole world, and we shall be held largely responsible for it.
I ask the Government what effect they think this will have upon our own people here. Is this the way to get unanimity at home? Do the Government think I can join as whole-heartedly with them when they do a thing of this kind? I believe this is a crime. In the Budget to-day the Government have done one of the biggest things which I have seen done in this House. They have taken the long view. It was not a Budget for this year but for some years ahead. Was that Budget contemplated without regard to the prospects of agreement among the various sections of our people? Certainly not. It was put forward with the idea that there would be some measure of agreement for a large and sustained national effort. The optimum conditions of success cannot be preserved if there is no confidence in the Government, and I say frankly that the Government are not doing anything to win the confidence of this side of the House by what they are doing to-day. If the suspicion falls on the Government that they favour politicians of the Right at the expense of justice, that they dislike politicians of the Left, the effects of that may carry a long way. There are parts of the Empire which favour the Left rather than the Right. New Zealand, for example, has a Socialist Government. Are we going to do anything to prejudice their success because they hold rather more to the views of the Left? Are we taking up that attitude towards Spain. I am afraid we are.
I would give a final word of warning so far as any words of mine can have any influence on the Government. The Government must try to place themselves above suspicion. We cannot afford to 1712 undertake this intervention to the prejudice of the people of the Basque country. They are kindly, religious people, and cannot be described in the terms frequently used in this House regarding a section of the Spanish people. They are the most religious people in Spain, and the action of the Government is to be regarded solely as an attack upon them on political grounds. I assume that the Government wish to maintain public confidence at home. We wish them, and everybody who is responsible for the Government in this country, whether it is a Government which we oppose or a Government that we share, to maintain the prestige of our country at the highest possible level. We have a contribution to make to world peace and civilisation. We shall lose an opportunity and disclaim our interest in world civilisation if we stand by and see innocent women and children being starved into submission because political prejudices prevent us from doing the right thing.
§ 10.41 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)
The hon. Gentleman has spoken with obvious sincerity and feeling in what he said; indeed, he always does. I was a little sorry to hear him say that he thought that we were actuated in the policy which we are now pursuing by some antipathy to the character of the Basque Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is sincere in that conviction. I do not know whether he will accept my assurance, but I can assure him that it is not so at all. I confess that if I had to choose in Spain, I believe that the Basque Government would more closely represent our form of government than either the Catalan Government or the Franco Government.
§ Mr. Grenfell
I did not impute sole responsibility to the right hon. Gentleman, or to any other individual. I think the Government have been misled by the information which they were given. That information has had the effect of assisting one section at the expense of the other section.
§ Mr. Eden
That is a matter of another kind. If we have been misled, or if my information is faulty, that is a matter which we can discuss. I was anxious to clear away the hon. Member's suggestion that our policy is in some way actuated by 1713 hostility to the Basque Government. That is the last thing that could be alleged against us. There is no reason whatsoever for any action of that kind on our part.
Listening to the discussion, it seemed to some extent repetitive of what was said last week. A certain new emphasis emerged here and there. I do not regret this discussion, because, in these extremely difficult matters, the more they are debated the more the policy which we are seeking to pursue will be realised, and either approved or disproved by the House as a whole.
Three main points have emerged from the discussion, and I must deal with all three of them. The first was that which was brought specially to a point by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), the question of the protection on the high seas. I did think that all that had been made clear by the Home Secretary when he first answered the right hon. Gentleman's question, in the course of a rather interrupted speech. I thought it had also been made clear by myself at the conclusion of that Debate. It still represents the policy of the Government. The hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) raised certain matters in connection with some answers I gave in the House on Friday—supplementary answers. I am willing to make a confession. If the answers which I gave to the original question or the supplementary gave the hon. Gentleman the impression that I thought we should have to employ convoys for ships, that was not my intention. I apologise if I misled the hon. Gentleman. We do not want to do that. What I said was that my statement of the previous Wednesday still stood. What I said then was:If, in spite of that advice, those ships do go, then they will be afforded protection up to the three-mile limit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th April, 1937; col. 1144, Vol. 322.]The question is what kind of protection? I was not qualified, at 20 minutes' notice on Friday, to say what kind of protection, because I am not First Lord of the Admiralty. The kind of protection is a matter which must be left to the Admiralty. The Government take the responsibility of saying to the Admiralty that these ships must be protected up to the three-mile limit. That is the responsi- 1714 bility of the Government. The Admiralty's responsibility is to see that that protection is given. That is the real position as it is to-day.
§ Mr. Alexander
We cannot understand the inconsistency between that statement and the statement of the Prime Minister on 12th April in which he said that in the present circumstances we could not afford these ships protection, and that was why they were being warned not to go. Now we are being told, by the First Lord especially, that we can give adequate protection. What is the meaning of it all?
§ Mr. Eden
I think the position is clear; we must distinguish between the high seas and territorial waters. I am coming to that question in a moment. I can give the House the assurance that, as I said on Wednesday, and as has been repeated by my right hon. Friend in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's questions to-night, that is the policy of the Government.
The next question which arises from that is whether anybody suggests—so far as I know, no one actually has suggested—that it would be, or could be, the duty of the Government to escort these ships right into territorial waters to the ports to which they want to get.
§ Mr. Eden
There is the question of the impossibility of employing warships inside other people's territorial waters. As I understand it, the case which requires to be met is that we should undertake protection up to the three-mile limit, and that within that three-mile limit there is the risk of which we have spoken; but that, if ships want to take that risk, they are entitled to do so. We have given the advice which we thought it right to give, but if ships determine to go in spite of that advice they get protection up to the three-mile limit. After that, they would depend presumably for their protection upon the defences of the Spanish Government or the Basque Government as the case may be.
I come now to the real kernel of the criticism, which is whether the Government were justified in their apprehensions of danger within territorial waters, and whether they were justified in the warning which they gave. I want to say a word on the subject of mines. I 1715 know that many hon. Gentlemen opposite feel strongly that our attitude in this matter has been prejudiced because they think that we want to favour General Franco. I want to tell the House that some weeks ago I received at the Foreign Office a communication from the Admiralty with respect to certain relief work that was being done by our destroyers on the coast of Spain. A few weeks ago, long before there was any question of General Franco wishing to stop people going in, I received this communication from the Admiralty saying that, in view of local conditions with respect to mines, they did not want their destroyers to continue to do this work, because they did not think it safe, and they asked me whether I could undertake to try to make arrangements for the exchanges to take place either overland or, if it could be arranged, by local shipping. I mention that to show the House that, whatever else there could be in that suggestion, there was no prejudice in it. The Admiralty did not want that work to cease; they only asked someone else to do it, because, rightly or wrongly, their information was that there were risks which they did not feel justified in running. After all, whether they overestimated or under-estimated the risk must be a matter of opinion, but that they thought there was a risk is clear enough from the fact of their having approached the Foreign Office in that way at that time.
Have those mines, whatever they may have been two or three weeks ago, been cleared away? I find it more difficult than some hon. Gentlemen opposite to dogmatise on that subject. The right hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) was quite emphatic that there was not a mine at all. I am afraid that I cannot dogmatise in that way. I do not know whether the House fully realised the significance of the message which the First Lord of the Admiralty read out. It may be argued that we based our warning on insufficient evidence, but the experience of this ship does show that our apprehensions had some foundation. May I read to the House again what happened—this ship which has now arrived, I think at Rotterdam, having come out from Bilbao. 1716On arriving at Bilbao shot at by rebel cruisers.That seems to indicate that our apprehensions of what might happen in territorial waters were not unfounded.Shore forts replied, one shot from fort nearly hitting ship.That is not a frightfully comfortable position to be in.Cruised about all night with no lights. Daylight proceeded into harbour. Passed unknowingly through mined area. Saw one mine, but kept clear.The Opposition would have blamed us if we had given no warning and if this ship had not kept clear, but had bumped into the mines. The House must distinguish between the Government responsibility in showing what they believe to be the position. The Opposition would have been the first to hold us responsible, and rightly so, if we had not given any warning.On arrival heavy air raid, 43 planes taking part. Three air raids in four days. On sailing from Bilbao rebel cruiser ordered us to alter course towards coast. We were 15 miles off. Escorted us until Battleship 'Hood' arrived on scene. Rebel cruiser then left us and 'Hood' escorted us 30 miles out.That is evidence of some importance of what the situation is. I do not want to set the experience of one ship against another. Because there is a risk of mines that does not mean that a ship cannot get through. Perhaps the great majority of ships may. The experience of that ship is not at all incompatible with the less disagreeable experience of another. Clearly the Basque Government had apprehended some danger from mines or they would not be sweeping mines every day with the activity which was described in the telegram which was read out to us from the Basque Government.
The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs described the conditions in Bilbao. I hope that he will not think that the people on this side have not sympathy and are not capable of feeling sympathy with the people in Bilbao at this time. When he says that it is our fault I think that he carries his argument a little too far. It is not we who are making the approaches to Bilbao dangerous. I do not think that it is any fairer to say that we are to blame for this than to say we were to blame in the American Civil War, when we did not attempt to save the South from being 1717 hard pressed. In my view we have a responsibility both to our own ships and to the nation in what we do, and we will not shirk that responsibility, but, with respect, I do not think that it is a fair argument to seek to lay the whole blame on us for what may be happening in Bilbao at the present time. The warning that we issued, whether justified or not—we think it was—we gave in all good faith on the information that we had. It is not the law of the Medes and Persians. It is not unalterable. The situation has to be examined according to the circumstances, and the information that we have shows how much it changes. The hon. Gentleman who wound up for the Opposition did not quite appreciate what is the present position about the other ports on the Basque coast. He spoke as if the position from our point of view was exactly the same as at Santander and Gijon as it is at Bilbao. That is not so. The position changes from day to day. The representative of the Board of Trade made the position extremely clear at Question Time to-day. This is the considered statement of the Government's position. He said:Present advices state that the Government's present information does not enable them to advise entering Bilbao and that as regards other ports, such as Santander and Gijon, there is a degree of risk which may vary from day to day, but in any case British naval vessels will, if called upon, give protection on the high seas as already announced.That is a simple statement of the position. There is no warning attached to the other ports as there is in Bilbao. In any case British naval vessels will, if called upon, give protection on the high seas. The position is not the same in respect of Santander and Gijon as it is in respect of Bilbao. To show again the difficulty of the situation, I had a telegram only to-night from the Consul at Santander about the situation there. He reported that mine-sweeping operations are carried out, with the result that a certain number of mines have been swept up. I do not lay enormous emphasis on that. I quote it simply to show the House that this is an extremely difficult situation with which we have to deal and
§ one on which I do not think it is possible to dogmatise, as some Members have thought to do. I think the right hon. Gentleman, no doubt unwittingly, was rather unfair about the relations of our ships. They are, as a matter of fact, excellent on both sides. I have plenty of evidence from the Government side as to the relations of our ships on that part of the coast.
§ I should like to deal with the case to which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) referred of the ship which was stopped last August. This was a British ship bound for Melilla captured by a Spanish Government warship on the high seas and taken off in the direction of Malaga. She wirelessed for help and a British warship went to her assistance and rescued her. She was not escorted into Melilla and voluntarily went on to Gibraltar. She was, therefore, protected on the high seas and not in territorial waters, just in the same way that protection would now be afforded off the Bilbao coast in similar circumstances.
§ Mr. Eden
The same protection exactly will be given now in similar circumstances. I have tried to show that our action is not deserving of some of the charges which have been brought against us in this Debate. I do not regret the fact that my right hon. Friend and I have had an opportunity of making the position clear once more, and I conclude by saying that this is not a final, rigid rule that we have adopted. We must be permitted to review the situation from time to time in the light of the information which reaches us daily, and in the light of our responsibilities, and we shall do our best in the discharge of that duty not to favour one side or the other but to maintain impartiality.
§ Question put, "That this House do now adjourn."
§ The House divided: Ayes, 119; Noes, 49.1719
|Division No. 147.]||AYES.||[11.0 p.m.|
|Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.||Baillie, Sir A. W. M.||Bossom, A. G.|
|Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.)||Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley||Boulton, W. W.|
|Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G.||Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M.||Bracken, B.|
|Allen, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh)||Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.||Brown, Col. D. C. (Hexham)|
|Amery, Rt. Hon. L. C. M. S.||Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)||Burgin, Dr. E. L.|
|Anstruther-Gray, W. J.||Bernays, R. H.||Cartland, J. R. H.|
|Gary, R. A.||Hanbury, Sir C.||Petherick, M.|
|Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)||Hannah, I. C.||Pickthorn, K. W. M.|
|Cazalet, Capt. V. A. (Chippenham)||Hannon, Sir P. J. H.||Pilkington, R.|
|Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston S.||Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan-||Radford, E. A.|
|Clarke, Lt.-Col. R. S. (E. Grinstead)||Hepworth, J.||Ramsay, Captain A. H. M.|
|Colville, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. D. J.||Hoare, Rt. Hon. Sir S.||Rayner, Major R. H.|
|Courthope, Col. Sir G. L.||Holdsworth, H.||Reed, A. C. (Exeter)|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Hopkinson, A.||Remer, J. R.|
|Croft, Brig.-Gen. Sir H. Page||Horsbrugh, Florence||Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)|
|Crooke, J. S.||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.)||Russell, A. West (Tynemouth)|
|Crookshank, Capt. H. F. C.||Hulbert, N. J.||Sanderson, Sir F. B|
|Crowder, J. F. E.||Hunter, T.||Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir P.|
|Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)||Jones, L. (Swansea W.)||Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir J. A.|
|Dorman-Smith, Major R. H.||Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.)||Smiles, Lieut.-Colonel Sir W. D.|
|Duckworth, W. R. (Moss Side)||Latham, Sir P.||Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)|
|Dugdale, Major T. L.||Llewellin, Lieut.-Col. J. J.||Somervell, Sir D. B. (Crewe)|
|Duncan, J. A. L.||Locker-Lampson, Comdr. O. S.||Southby, Commander A. R. J.|
|Eden, Rt. Hon. A.||Loftus, P. C.||Spens, W. P.|
|Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E,||Lyons, A. M.||Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)|
|Elliston, Capt. G. S.||Mabane, W. (Huddersfield)||Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)|
|Emery, J. F||MacDonald, Rt. Hon. M. (Ross)||Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)|
|Emmott, C. E. G. C.||McKie, J. H.||Thomas, J. P. L.|
|Emrys-Evans, P. V.||Macmillan, H. (Stockton-on-Tees)||Thomson, Sir J. D. W.|
|Erskine-Hill, A. G.||Magnay, T.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Evans, D. O. (Cardigan)||Manningham-Buller, Sir M.||Wakefield, W. W.|
|Fildes, Sir H.||Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R.||Wardlaw-Milne, Sir J. S.|
|Furness, S. N.||Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Waterhouse, Captain C.|
|Gledhill, G.||Moore, Lieut.-Col. T. C. R.||Wells, S. R.|
|Grant-Ferris, R.||Moreing, A. C.||Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.|
|Granville, E. L.||Morris, J. P. (Salford, N.)||Wise, A. R.|
|Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)||Nail, Sir J.||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Gretton, Col. Rt. Hon. J.||Nicolson, Hon. H. G.|
|Gridley, Sir A. B.||O'Neill, Major Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Grimston, R. V.||Palmer, G. E. H.||Lieut.-Colonel Sir A. Lambert|
|Gunston, Capt. D. W.||Penny, Sir G.||Ward and Captain Hope.|
|Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple)||George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey)||Noel-Baker, P. J.|
|Adams, D. (Consett)||Gibbins, J.||Parkinson, J. A.|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.)||Grenfell, D. R.||Potts, J.|
|Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R.||Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth)||Pritt, D. N.|
|Barr, J.||Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)||Quibell, D. J. K.|
|Bonn, Rt. Hon. W. W.||Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)||Riley, B.|
|Bevan, A.||Harris, Sir P. A.||Roberts, W. (Cumberland, N.)|
|Bromfield, W.||Jagger, J.||Sexton, T. M.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath)||Silverman, S. S.|
|Daggar, G.||Kelly, W. T.||Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)|
|Davies, S, O. (Merthyr)||Lawson, J. J.||Smith, E. (Stoke)|
|Dobbie, W.||Logan, D. G.||Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)|
|Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty)||McGovern, J.||Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)|
|Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H.||MacNeill, Weir, L.||Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)|
|Foot, D. M.||Mander, G. le M.||Tinker, J. J.|
|Garro Jones, G. M.||Marshall, F.|
|George, Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd (Carn'v'n)||Messer, F.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Mr. Mathers and Mr. Groves.|
§ Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.