HC Deb 22 July 1937 vol 326 cc2571-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. James Stuart.]

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

We have very few opportunities of going more into detail than we can do at Question Time on certain issues, and it is on a very important question that I wish to detain the House to-night, As hon. Members are aware, after the fall of Bilbao many refugees fled to Santander. On the way to Santander they were bombed and machine-gunned in the way that women and children have been bombed and machine-gunned in the war that is going on in Spain. When these women and children—non-combatants—arrived at Santander, they sought to be evacuated, and accordingly the Basque Government chartered or secured ships for the purposes of evacuating those non-combatants.

The attitude that has been taken up by the Admiralty is this. They say that we are not entitled to send our warships into territorial waters; but the Government have always said that they are prepared to evacuate refugees. The Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said so on 22nd June and on 1st July, and they omitted any reference to territorial waters in their answers, and spoke of evacuating refugees in case of bombardments. On 1st July, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said: His Majesty's naval authorities are being requested to provide naval protection for the "Habana" to proceed from Bordeaux to Santander."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 1st July, 1937; col. 2157, Vol. 325.] There is no question of any three-mile limit there. On 22nd June, the Prime Minister, when asked a question on this matter, said: His Majesty's Government will be prepared to continue protection by British warships to ships carrying Basque women and children to France."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd June, 1937; col. 1025, Vol. 325.] He went on to give certain conditions to be fulfilled, those conditions referring to genuine non-combatancy. Lately that pledge appears to have been broken and the ships which have attempted to reach Santander have been interfered with. They are not attacked inside territorial waters. The First Lord of the Admiralty will correct me if I am wrong, but I am informed that no Spanish insurgent warships enter territorial waters, because if they do they come into danger from the shore batteries. There has been no evidence in any answer which we have had to the many questions that have been put to the First Lord that Spanish insurgent warships have ever been inside territorial waters. All they do is to lie outside territorial waters and have heavy-range guns to fire at our ships in territorial waters.

Then the Admiralty take up this attitude. They say that what they mean by protecting our ships from attack on the high seas is that if either party is in territorial waters when one of our ships is in territorial waters, although she is attacked from the high seas—because they are attacked from the high seas—the Admiralty gives no orders to interfere. What has happened in the case of several ships—the "Molton" was one of them—is that an insurgent cruiser outside territorial waters, almost alongside of British ships, fires into territorial waters and when our ship comes out on to the high seas, having gone in empty to fetch refugees—having committed that offence—she has not the right to be protected by British warships. Not only so, but they do not even signal. In the case of the "Molton" I was told by the First Lord that they made no signal, and we have the shameful spectacle of ships engaged in a humanitarian enterprise not only not protected from attack on the high seas but led away and captured by rebels or pirates—because the attacking ships have no belligerent status—under the eyes of the British Fleet.

That is the situation. It is not a question of Azana versus Franco. It is a question of sheer humanity. These refugees who are being evacuated may be Basques or they may belong to some other party, but they are being evacuated on grounds of humanity. There is no question of contraband. These ships are acting under charter for the sole purpose of evacuating these people. The First Lord made play with the fact that shots were fired across their bows. I do not know but perhaps some hon. Members who are sailors can tell me whether, at seven miles, it is an absolute certainty. that you are going to fire across the bows of a ship or whether, as in the case of the last ship the shots go through the rigging. In those circumstances the First Lord withholds protection and permits British ships to be captured and carried away on the high seas. At first, I thought there must be some mistake about this, and I persisted in my Supplementary Questions upon it; but now it appears to be the accepted policy of the Admiralty that these things should happen. I wish to hear the First Lord's reply, and I do not wish to indulge in rhetoric, though some of us feel very deeply about this matter. The First Lord is a travelled man. I wonder whether he has ever been to the stockyards of Chicago. There—within the territorial limits—he will see those dreadful areas of lime-washed avenues. At the entrances are men engaged in non-intervention. Their task is to see that none of the terrified creatures escape from the shambles.

11.17 p.m.

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Duff Cooper)

I have never been to the stockyards of Chicago, and if I were in Chicago I should certainly avoid such an unpleasant visit. Nor do I think anybody who attempted to interfere with the business going on there, unpleasant as it may be, and revolting as its appearance may be to those who go out of their way to study it, would be justified in so interfering. I think that part of the misapprehension and misunderstanding which has existed between the two sides of the House since this unfortunate business in Spain has been going on, arises from the fact that hon. Members opposite have refused to see the difference between a rebellion, a riot or a revolution and a civil war. It is very difficult to say where one stops and the other begins. It is very difficult in this country to say when spring ends and summer begins, but they are two different things. By every definition of civil war known to me, what is going on in Spain at the present time is civil war.

The position of a foreign Power in regard to a civil war is far more difficult than it is with regard to an international war, because there are far fewer precedents and rules to go upon and, equally a division of opinion may arise in neutral countries as to which side is in the right and which is in the wrong. His Majesty's Government have, from the first, as far as this civil war in Spain is concerned, based themselves upon the principle of neutrality, or non-intervention. For myself, I see very little difference between the two words, although the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) condemned non-intervention in round terms, but insisted on neutrality as one alternative to it. However, I have not had the advantage of any information from him or anybody else as to the difference between the two terms. It is very difficult to apply this principle of neutrality or non-intervention. I am not going into the rights or wrongs of the dispute. It is not my business in my position to do so and it does not arise out of anything which the right hon. Gentleman has said. We are agreed, so far as this discussion is concerned, that we are trying to follow a policy of non-intervention or neutrality. The problem is, how are you to apply this principle to the very difficult situation now existing on the north coast of Spain? There you have certain towns in the possession of one side which are being attacked, beleagured, and besieged by another. We wish to maintain, so far as possible, the attitude in which we shall be held to assist militarily neither one side nor the other. It is difficult to draw the line between humanitarianism and military assistance. It is very easy, on the other hand, to make high-sounding speeches about the suffering that is going on in Spain, but everybody who studies the problem knows that it is not inflicted principally upon combatants but nearly always more on non-combatants, on the women and children. It is very easy to say that humanitarianism demands that we should feed women and children who are suffering, but when a town is beleagured, besieged, help given to a beleaguered garrison either in the way of importing food or in the way of diminishing the demand for food—and that is taking away the women and children—is military assistance.

Let us beware of incurring the accusation, that is too often thrown at this country, of cant and humbug. When we say that it is a monstrous thing to starve women and children, we must remember, and let the right hon. Gentleman, who played a noble part in the late War for 41 years, remember, that we did everything in our power to starve the women and children of Germany, and if we had then been approached by the United States with a demand that we should allow food to go in to the population, on the ground of humanitarianism should we have refused so reasonable a request? Let the right hon. Gentleman put that question to himself.

What is the role of the British Navy? We have taken a very definite line from the beginning of this controversy. We have said that we will protect British ships, ships flying the British flag, on the high seas. We have refused to recognise the right of any belligerents. We have recognised no belligerents. We have refused to recognise the right either of the Spanish Government or of the insurgent party to interfere with ships flying the British flag on the high seas, but we must draw the line somewhere, and we have drawn the line at territorial waters. From the point of view of sea power, it is very important that that line should be definite and understood, and that there should be no infringement of the principle which regards territorial waters as part of the country to which they belong. We say that, when ships go inside territorial waters, they forfeit the right to protection, in the same way that a private citizen, if he goes into Spain, does not expect, when he knows that there is a civil war being carried on, to be protected by the British Army.

Unfortunately, tragically, many British subjects have lost their lives in this war. In normal circumstances, if a British subject were shot in Spain. we should ask what had happened to him, but in certain circumstances we know that people who have gone into Spain and have volunteered to take part in the civil war, have done so on their own risk, in support of their own principles, and knowing full well that they have forfeited the right to expect the great influence of the British Empire to be exercised on their behalf.

Is there a great difference between a British subject who, because of his ideals, principles and beliefs, has gone into Spain and fought on one side or another, is there a great difference between those who have done that expecting no protection, and British ships which are chartered by the Basque Government and are paid large sums of money in order to go in and assist the Spanish Government in the war they are carrying on against the insurgents?

Make no doubt about it, these ships, every one of them, are performing invaluable services to the Spanish Government. They are volunteers as much as any of those volunteers from Italy, Germany, Great Britain and France who are alleged to be fighting on either side. They are taking part in the war, and can they really expect that the British Navy will see them safe to harbour? If the British Navy agreed to do that, how could we know that their demands would end there? How could we know that they would not say, "We have arrived at harbour. We are being shelled from outside territorial waters while we are disembarking our cargo. Should that be interfered with? Are we not on the foreshore? In this country the foreshore belongs to nobody. It is no man's land, and we are entitled to protection of the British Navy while we are on the foreshore of Spain." Where is it to end? Are we to send an Army corps with them to see that their cargo reaches its destination?

I cannot see any logic or any principle in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. He says that it is an unpleasant position and has emphasised and drawn all the rhetorical and sentimental value he can out of the unpleasant position in which His Majesty's ships are put by being compelled to witness the capture of British ships in territorial waters. What is the alternative? What does the right hon. Gentleman suggest? That has always been the trouble with the Opposition on this subject. There can be no alternative that he can suggest—

Mr. Benn

Common humanity.

Mr. Cooper

That is the most useless suggestion I have ever heard. Common humanity in this case would mean firing on the Spanish ship, entering into the war, and risking the lives of British sailors for a cause which not one man in this country off those benches thinks worth fighting for. "Saving women and children" blurts the right hon. Member. The same demand might have been put up by some enthusiastic pro-German in the United States in the War, insisting on the United States carrying supplies to Germany, when we were blockading that country, and saving the women and children.

Mr. Noel-Baker


Mr. Cooper

The right hon. Member really wants us to enter into the war in Spain, to risk the lives of British sailors, for the cause of the Spanish Government, in order to help them to rid the beleaguered cities of some of the mouths which are waiting to be fed. It is easy to make demands on sentiment. It is so easy, when we know, as we all do, how fearful the sufferings are which are now being inflicted on the unhappy population of Spain; sufferings which are equally great upon both sides; sufferings which have been felt as much by those who are opposed to the Spanish Government as by those who are at present supporting it. It is easy to say to us "Why should not we do anything to help?" The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we cannot do anything to help them, we cannot adopt any different policy to that which we are adopting without engaging in a small form of war. And if we started what would be the reaction of the other countries? What would they say? I would remind him also, when he talks about English merchant ships, from purely humanitarian motives, running the blockade—these British ships which are being enormously paid by the Basque Government—that not a single merchantman has suffered a single casualty; whereas already the British Navy has suffered. British sailors have been killed in this ugly business. So long as I am in control of the Admiralty I am determined that not another British sailor shall fall in a cause that is not worth fighting for.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.