HC Deb 20 July 1937 vol 326 cc2054-65

Question again proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

7.17 p.m.

Mr. Ammon

Before the interruption I was commenting on the fact that to call these proposed Treaties treaties of limitation shows either an exaggerated sense of humour or a complete lack of it, because that is the very last thing that they are. As has been said already, owing to the various escape Clauses and so on the only limitations are those imposed by the financial resources of the nations or by the wide limits of the ocean. We on this side have a right to remind the House that, but for the action of the present Government in sabotaging the Disarmament Conference at Geneva in 1932 and 1933, it would not have been necessary for us to discuss these Treaties in the House to-night. At any rate, the action of the Government did not encourage the overtures which were made by Mr. Hoover and by Mr. Roosevelt, and which would have gone a very long way to bring down our capital ships to 10,000 tons and to bring about the limitation of armaments in other directions, such as submarines and aircraft carriers. Undoubtedly the present proposals, stripped of verbiage, are proposals once more to commit the nations to a race in armaments.

The First Lord said that the Treaties gave us something solid and practical, but it seems to me that that is just what they do not do. There is nothing solid in something which allows so many opportunities for escapes and evasions on one excuse or another, and there certainly does not seem to be anything practical when we do not know what our objective is, what are to be the limitations, or with exactly what Powers we are to come to definite agreement. I would press for a little further information with regard to some of the proposals in the Treaty itself, but I want to safeguard myself to a certain extent, and in doing so I take courage from a statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping, who evidently found himself in the same position as some others of us. These very important Treaties were thrust upon us late last night, so that, speaking for myself, the only opportunity I had of reading them was in the small hours of the morning after the House had risen for the day, and it may well be that one has not thoroughly assimilated all the points in the Treaty, and that, to some of the questions which have been put by my hon. Friends and others, the answers may be found within the Treaty itself.

We are discussing, not only the London Naval Treaty, but also the agreements with Germany and Russia, and it is worth noting that Russia is to have the right to preserve complete secrecy concerning her ships under construction and in commission in Far Eastern waters. That, surely, is a very important point. One can imagine, though we hope it will never happen, that a very serious position might arise when a navy of unknown dimensions and strength has been built with regard to which there is no obligation on the party building it to make any communication to its fellow-signatories. Another thing that is worth noting is that, if Japan should build any ships exceeding the London limits, Russia may follow suit in Far Eastern waters after a simple notification to Britain. To call a Treaty of this nature solid and practical is playing with words.

I want also to ask a question which I think was raised in the first instance by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping, and which I know was touched upon by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher). I want to know whether Germany is entitled to apportion her 35 per cent. of the British tonnage of light surface vessels as she likes among the three sub-categories, "A"-class cruisers, small cruisers, and destroyers, or whether she is bound to have 35 per cent. of the British tonnage in each sub-category. To put the question in simpler terms, is she bound not to have more than five "A"-class cruisers to Britain's 15, or may she exceed this number by transferring tonnage from other categories? As far as I can see, the Treaty does not contain any provision on that point. If it does, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will point out the place where it is to be found.

Human nature being what it is, it is not to be expected that the opportunity would be missed when one so highly qualified and with such great knowledge of naval affairs as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping slips up with regard both to the equipment and the tonnage of some of our capital ships. It will be within the recollection of the House that he postulated that probably Japan would be able to work out whether or not 35,000-ton battleships would be capable of carrying 16-inch guns. But that has already been solved; we have done it ourselves. The "Rodney" and the "Nelson" are carrying 16-inch guns, and be it noted that the "Nelson," even allowing for the heavier armament, is 1,500 tons under the 35,000, and the "Rodney" about 1,100 tons under. Therefore, I, for one, find myself in the happy position of being able to correct and give information to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping with regard to this very important naval fact. There is another point which was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nuneaton, and on which the House ought to have a direct reply. Will it be communicated to the House when there is to be any departure from the agreement by the notification of one party or another that owing to certain differences, as they see it, in the forces that may be antagonistic to them, they wish to depart from the Treaty? The House ought to be kept fully acquainted with any such occurrences. Otherwise we might, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, be giving all the information abroad and getting none ourselves, and that is a position in which I feel sure we have no desire to be.

While it is true that, having regard to the state of world affairs, we cannot divide, and should not think of dividing, against these Treaties, nevertheless they commit us once more to an unlimited race in armaments. There will be no limit to the possibilities of naval expansion in the years that lie immediately ahead of us. It was said a little while ago by an hon. Member on the other side that we have made no alternative suggestion. But we have not been responsible for getting the world into the muddle in which it is at the present time, and which, as I have already indicated, was largely caused by the sabotaging of the Disarmament Conference. We have never departed, however, and we do not at this moment depart, from the policy of collective security, which we say is the only alternative. The Treaties that are before us to-night give us no greater measure of security than we had formerly, or than we should have if we were able to come to agreement with other nations through some such body as the League of Nations itself.

While this Bill will go through the House without opposition to-night, at the same time it will go through on the clear understanding that we shall be committed to a very large race in naval armaments. Moreover, under the escape Clause, if any nation has reason to think it is placed in a position of inferiority as compared with a nation with which it is in not quite cordial relations, it can, by giving notice to the other countries, depart from the Treaty and increase its armaments. That does not secure you any assurance of peace. If Italy starts building a very big navy, France will indicate to us that she feels that vis-a-vis Italy she is in a possible state of inferiority, and, therefore, finds reason once more to go forward with a very much increased armament programme, and almost, of necessity, this country will be bound to follow in her train. Like squirrels in a cage we shall go round and round, not finding a stepping-off place, because we have missed opportunities when they presented themselves to enter into bonds which would have bound the nations in some sort of trust and showed that we meant what we said when we went into the League of Nations, that we were prepared to honour our bond and back it on every occasion when there was a challenge to it. Had we done that, we should not be discussing this situation to-night which, difficult as it is, we have to accept because we are faced with circumstances in the world in the main brought about by the policy of His Majesty's Government.

7.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Shakespeare)

While I extend my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman for having a naval holiday in the middle of his speech, perhaps he and the House will extend the same sympathy to me in making my maiden voyage in my present office. When I look round and see experts and naval officers, I feel that I have embarked on a very frail vessel. I also apologise to the House for the inconvenience occasioned by the fact that the Anglo-German and Anglo-Soviet Agreements were published only yesterday. I am sure the House will understand that that is not all our fault. We hoped that the Agreements would be signed a week earlier, but there was delay on some technical point, and we got them out at the first opportunity. I have never taken part in a naval Debate before, but I heard the Washington Debate, I think in 1923, and I also heard the Debate in 1930. I have never heard a Debate on a naval Treaty where so many bouquets have been thrown at the Government. My right hon. Friend must feel very proud. Indeed the real attack against the Government came, strangely enough, from the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher). I could not help feeling that everything he said applied equally to Russia. It is the first time I have heard him make an attack on Russia. I hope it will be reported in the right quarter.

The hon. Gentleman who spoke last asked me how Germany is to apportion her 35 per cent. in respect of surface vessels. The German Agreement was based on categories laid down in the 1930 Naval Treaty. In our view, the 35 per cent. should cover each sub-category separately, that is, "A" big cruisers and "B" lighter cruisers and destroyers.

Mr. Ammon

The point is whether they can all be in category "A" or whether they are to be distributed over a variety of craft?

Mr. Shakespeare

Sub-category "A" was laid down in the 1930 London Treaty. The definition of light surface vessel is something that has been agreed to since, and did not relate to the particular circumstances of the Anglo-German Agreement.

Mr. Mander

Is that the German view, too?

Mr. Shakespeare

I am speaking of the British view. Many hon. Members have raised the question of the 16-inch gun. I think the House will agree that, if there is a departure from the limitation of 14 inches, it is not our fault. Whether we have 14 or 16 inches is not now really germane to this Treaty. It is a question of naval policy which will have to be considered by my right hon. Friend and the Board. I can assure the House that the experts ale fully seized of the problem. It is a matter of great complexity and one for experts, but preparations are well advanced and the matter is in hand.

The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) raised the question of the uncertainty of the reservation in the Russian Agreement as regards declaration, notification, and exchange of information in the Far East. The position there is not worsened by the Treaty. If there were no Treaty, the same lack of information would still exist. This is a reservation to which Germany agrees. I understand that Russia in the past has constructed only a limited number of smaller vessels in the Far East. In the Anglo-Russian Agreement it is specifically laid down that Russia will not start a naval race in the Far East unless she is forced to build against outside threats.

Mr. Ammon

The point I raised was that we have nothing to guide us. Russia herself will determine whether or not there has been a violation without our having any further information.

Mr. Shakespeare

If she builds against the bigger vessels built by Japan, presumably she will have to build in Europe and, if she does that, she will notify us in the ordinary way.

Mr. Alexander

I made a particular point when the First Lord was speaking of asking him whether the Treaty referred on the secret side of the Russian position only to building in the Far East. Now the hon. Gentleman talks about building in Europe cruisers for the Far Eastern fleet. I understand, therefore, that the answer that the First Lord gave is not the correct one, and that, in fact, there will be building in Europe for the Russian fleet in the Far East which will not be revealed.

Mr. Shakespeare

What I have said exactly corresponds with what my right hon. Friend said. If Russia builds in Europe for the Far East, she is bound to notify the contracting Powers.

Vice-Admiral Taylor

If machinery is built in Europe and sent across Russia and put together in the Far East, does the same thing apply?

Mr. Shakespeare

That is a new situation. What is built in the Far East is a matter for her own concern, and she is not bound to notify us. What is built in Europe for the Far East—the hon. and gallant Gentleman will draw his own conclusion—is a matter for notification and exchange of information.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) raised the question of cruisers in sub-category "A". I think most of the principal naval Powers have agreed that this particular type of cruiser is an undesirable type of vessel, and it is in this class that we have secured a naval holiday. That is one of the big features of the Treaty. It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, that modern big cruisers are more up-to-date than some of our 15 cruisers of this type which were built earlier; but, of course, it is the concern of the Admiralty always to see that those of older construction are brought tip to date. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) raised a number of points about the percentages to which Germany has bound herself, and to what classes they apply. Far be it from me to try to instruct a naval officer. It is all plainly set forth in the declaration between ourselves and Germany, and put much more plainly than I can explain it to him. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) asked what do we all get in the way of security for all this money that has been expended. That is a hypothetical question which it is very difficult to answer. If you asked a mother in Bilbao what she gets in the way of security for her children she would say that the millions spent on the British Navy were worth every penny of it, and if the mothers at Bilbao thank God for the British Navy every night, why should not the mothers of England?

The right hon. Gentleman preferred the old method of the Washington Treaty and the method of the Treaty of 1930. I prefer the 1936 Treaty. May I mention one aspect in which I think it is wiser and safer? In the 1930 Naval Treaty there was no provision for an escape for any of the high contracting Powers even in the event of war: this is put right in the 1936 Treaty. But I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman, with all his skill a s a negotiator, could have done better in the circumstances in which we found ourselves. I do not want to argue the merits of quantitative limitation. It has merits and demerits. But whatever its merits it was not practicable seeing that Japan, even if she wanted to have quantitative limitation, would accept no arrangement except on terms to which no other Power would agree, and that France and Italy both found it quite impracticable to have any limitation at all. Indeed the right hon. Gentleman will remember that even under the Treaty of 1930 with which he was concerned, neither France nor Italy agreed to that part of it which limited cruisers. He knows as well as I do that with a large number of Powers participating it is now impossible to get agreement on the question of ratios. Indeed, the introduction of this question itself is, I think, fraught with disadvantages because it cuts right across national prestige.

His next argument and that of the hon. Gentleman the Member for North Camberwell was that there is hardly anything in it. They say that it is negative, and is really not worth much. My right hon. Friend started by saying that he did not wish to exaggerate the benefit of the Treaty, but, at the same time, do not let us minimise it. I will state briefly what benefit the contracting Powers get. The history of races in naval armaments shows that they occur generally in the form of a qualitative race; that competition has always taken place more in the qualitative than in the quantitative sense. In so far, therefore, as we have qualitative agreement, that is a real gain. We have got it in respect of the capital ship, and the aircraft carrier with the displacement reduced from 27,000 to 23,000 tons. We have got the "A" class cruiser held up altogether; we have the large gap of no construction, and we have got, what even the right hon. Gentleman could not secure in the Naval Treaty of 1930—a limitation in the "B" class cruiser, that is, the cruiser under 8,000 tons with a gun under 6.1 inches. That is a very good thing for ourselves at this moment. We need these cruisers with this calibre of gun to defend our trade routes and our Empire responsibilities. As regards submarines, again qualitative agreement is obtained. Therefore, do not let us minimise the advantages that we get from the Treaty.

As my right hon. Friend said, however, the most valuable effect of this Treaty is the advance notification. The contracting Powers notify their programmes within the first four months of the year. That is new; that provision has never been made in a treaty before, and it is a very great advantage. The House will notice that that notification in itself, coupled with the pledge not to increase the programme until next year, is a form of quantitative limitation for the current year. That, as my right hon. Friend said, will do a great deal towards doing away with suspicion, rumour, gossip and panic building, which are some of the worst features of naval races. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) that one of the most valuable arrangements that we have got from Germany under the Anglo-German Agreement the 35 per cent. ratio. It was hoped that they would agree to try to adjust it so as to refer both to under-age and 10 over-age tonnage. That is the point made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping. Germany has now conceded this point, and I should like here officially to pay a tribute to the reasonable spirit in which Germany has entered upon these negotiations. Indeed, at the present moment there is only one kind of armament limitation as regards air, land or sea in the world as far as I know, until the 1936 Treaty is ratified, and that is the Anglo-German Agreement. This Agreement has been scrupulously observed on both sides, and it has been a model. Difficulties have arisen out of it, but they have always been resolved by friendly exchanges, and, indeed, I think, that it is not too much to say that this Anglo-German Agreement has been the pivot round which subsequent negotiations have revolved. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping paid a tribute to the accommodating spirit of the German Government. I can say the same about Russia. Russia has peculiar difficulties, perhaps, of her own, but she has shown a great spirit of accommodation.

Several speakers, and, I believe, the right hon. Gentleman, think that Article 26 is too loosely framed. Article 26 is the quantitative escape clause. It is framed on the Washington Treaty, not in identically the same words but, more or less, the whole thing has been taken out of the Washington Treaty and put into this one. There is the escape in case of war in Clause 24, and you have under Clause 25 the qualitative escape in the case of non-treaty Powers building ships not within the treaty limits.

Let me express my own view as one who has given some study to this Treaty during the last few weeks. You can either try the method of the straight jacket or the method of the officer who is released on parole. I believe that the method of the officer on parole is preferable to the method of the straight jacket. The very elasticity of this Treaty is one of its main benefits, and I much prefer elasticity to rigidity. I believe that the very liberty enjoyed by the contracting parties will itself develop a sense of responsibility, and, with adequate escape clauses in case their national security is threatened, it will be a long time before any one Power takes the terrible responsibility of starting a naval race. In view of the world situation, I venture to hope that it will be a long time before any Power outside the ring will start a naval race.

Let me make this point, because it is a fair point. Although there are these escape Clauses, it does not mean that the whole naval Treaty falls. It means that in respect of a particular threat by a particular Power in respect of a particular category of ship, the contracting Powers pledge themselves to consult each other. You will have all the machinery of delay and consultation before any action is taken, and then, if necessary, they are free. The delay of consultation and notification comes first. That is a great gain and applies to all the escape clauses, except the war clause. If there is a breach of the Treaty, if there is excessive building either by a contracting Power or a non-contracting Power, it does not mean that the whole garment is lost. It simply means that the stitches are let out in one particular part. That is putting the safeguard in a fairer and rather a different light from that in which it was put by some hon. Gentlemen.

Finally, I should like to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor) in his very excellent speech. He expressed the opinion that this might be the prelude to bigger things. That is the hope, I am sure, of all parties, and it is certainly the hope of the Admiralty and of the Government. It may interest the House to know that in our view this may be the framework of a general treaty. Indeed, negotiations have already been entered into with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland and Turkey, and all these Powers have accepted, with a few minor modifications in respect of certain of them, the general principle of the London Naval Treaty which we are asking the House to ratify to-night. Discussions are also being initiated with Greece and Yugoslavia.

Therefore, this modest little Treaty which we are now asking the House to ratify, in view of these negotiations, may well be the prelude to a general treaty, and I believe the fact that there is a measure of elasticity in the general treaty will be an inducement for Powers to come in and to stop in when they get in. As the benefits accrue and we get the exchange of information and the mitigation of suspicion, and the advance programmes notified in the first four months of the year, one can only express the hope that two of the seven naval Powers now outside the Treaty may come into the ring in order to get the benefit of this advance notification and this full information. That is a matter for the future, and one can only express the hope. But I am quite sure that, apart from the merits of this Treaty—and they are many—this method really does promote good will between the contracting Powers. The Anglo-German Treaty is an example of the great change in the relations between the German Admiralty and the British Admiralty, and, as someone pointed out to-day, the position between America and ourselves has completely changed. If America and France have ratified, and Germany and Russia have also given their assent: I see no reason why the British House of Commons, which is responsible for the British Navy, and which has as much to gain as any other Power from this Treaty, should not give a hand in the ratification to-night.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman a question, as I think it will help to get the question of what Germany may or may not build in surface craft under the 1935 Treaty. If we divide these light surface craft into three categories, "A" cruisers, "B" cruisers and destroyers, and assume, for the purposes of argument, that we have 100 ships in each category, is Germany then allowed to build 105 ships, to divide them up as she likes between the three categories, or is she restricted to building 35 ships in each category?

Mr. Shakespeare

I thought I had explained that matter.

Lieut.-Commander Fletcher

You did not.

Mr. Shakespeare

I am sorry. The "A," "B" and "C" sub-categories, under the heading of light surface vessels in the London Naval Treaty were subsequent to the Anglo-German Agreement; and the 35 per cent. could therefore relate only to the classification existing at the time of the German Agreement, that is, that of the Treaty of 1930. In our view the 35 per cent. agreement applies separately in respect of sub-category "A" cruisers on the one hand, and sub-category "B" cruisers and destroyers on the other.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Captain Dugdale.]