HC Deb 21 February 1938 vol 332 cc45-52

3.49 p.m.

Mr. Eden

I rise to ask the leave of the House to make a personal explanation. This is for me, both on personal and political grounds, a most painful occasion. No man would willingly sever the links which bind him with colleagues and friends, still less when, as in my case, I am only too conscious to how great an extent those colleagues have encouraged and sustained me during the two years that I have held the responsible office from which I have just resigned. But, Sir, there are occasions when strong political convictions must override all other considerations. Of such occasions only the individual himself can be the judge; no man can be the keeper of another man's conscience. Therefore, I stand before the House to-day to give the House in a few brief sentences an account of my reasons for having resigned the office of Foreign Secretary.

First let me make plain that the ultimate aim of us all, the objective of the foreign policy of this country, is, and must always be, the maintenance of peace. If, however, peace is to be enduring it must rest on foundations of frank reciprocity and mutual respect. If we accept this basis for our foreign policy it follows that we must be ready to negotiate with all countries, whatever their form of government, in order to promote international understanding, but we must also be watchful that in our conception of such negotiations, and in the method by which we seek to further them, we are in fact strengthening, not undermining, the foundations upon which international confidence rests. With that introduction I come to the immediate issue which unhappily divides me from my colleagues. It will be known to the House that certain exchanges of view have been taking place between the Italian Government and His Majesty's Government in respect to the opening of conversations between the two Governments. Indeed, His Majesty's Government have been committed to the principle of such conversations ever since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself exchanged letters with Signor Mussolini last summer. There is no dispute anywhere about that.

The immediate issue is as to whether such official conversations should be opened in Rome now. It is my conviction that the attitude of the Italian Government to international problems in general, and to this country in particular, is not yet such as to justify this course. The ground has been in no respect prepared. Propaganda against this country by the Italian Government is rife throughout the world. I am myself pledged to this House not to open conversations with Italy until this hostile propaganda ceases. I do not want to stress the personal position, which is relatively unimportant, but I must mention, in passing, the difficult position in which I must have been placed had I to announce to the House in existing conditions the opening of such conversations. Moreover, little progress, in fact, though much in promise, has yet been made with the solution of the Spanish problem. Let me make it plain. I do not suggest and I would not advocate that the Government should refuse conversations with the Italian Government, or indeed with any other Government which shows any disposition to conversations with us for the betterment of international understandings, yet we must be convinced that the conditions in which these conversations take place are such as to make for the likelihood, if not for the certainty, of their success. I contend that these conditions do not exist to-day.

I am compelled for a few moments, if the House will allow me, to review the past with this situation as the background. While I was privileged to be Foreign Secretary I was responsible for several attempts in the past 18 months to better our relations with Italy. They have all failed in the main, though not wholly, because of the Spanish problem. In January last year, after difficult negotiations, we signed the Anglo-Italian Agreement, but within a very few days, indeed almost simultaneously, the first considerable consignment of Italians left for Spain. It may be held that this was not a breach of the letter of our understanding, but no one, I think, surely will contend that it did not run counter to its spirit. That same agreement contained a clause—a specific clause—dealing with the cessation of propaganda, yet propaganda was scarcely dimmed for an instant. Again, last summer my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Signor Mussolini exchanged letters, and after that in a few days the relations between our two countries took a marked turn for the better. Of that there can be no doubt. Then what happened? Then ensued the incidents in the Mediterranean, with which the House is familiar, and the glorification by the Head of the Italian Government of the victories of Italian forces in Spain.

My submission is that we cannot risk a further repetition of these experiences. Therefore, it is my contention that before His Majesty's Government open official conversations in Rome with the Italian Government, conversations which have, and rightly have, as an objective not only an improvement of Anglo-Italian relations, but appeasement in the Mediterranean as a whole—before that can be done we must make further progress with the Spanish problem; we must agree not only on the need for withdrawal and on the conditions of withdrawal—we have had assurances enough of that in the past—but we must go further and show the world not only promise but achievement. The withdrawal must have begun in earnest before those conversations in Rome can be held on a really solid basis of good will, which is essential to success.

I think it likely that the House may wonder why I at this hour place so much emphasis on performance as opposed to promise, and even why I speak so much of the Spanish problem. It is only because it happens to be in this instance an example. We cannot consider this problem except in relation to the international situation as a whole. The conditions to-day are not the same as they were last July, nor even the same as they were last January. Recent months, recent weeks, recent days have seen the successive violation of international agreements and attempts to secure political decisions by forcible means. We are in the presence of the progressive deterioration of respect for international obligations. It is quite impossible to judge these things in a vacuum. In the light—my judgment may well be wrong—of the present international situation, this is a moment for this country to stand firm, not to plunge into negotiations unprepared, with the full knowledge that the chief obstacle to their success has not been resolved.

The programme which I have outlined seems to me a not unreasonable programme. Indeed, if the desire of the two parties be to reach agreement on all subjects outstanding between them, including Spain, I am quite confident that it is the best method to pursue. It is the traditional method of diplomacy to prepare for conversations before they are formally opened. It is seldom right to depart from that traditional method, which has been tested by time and experience. It is certainly never right to do so because one party to the negotiations intimates that it is now or never. Agreements that are worth while are never made on the basis of a threat. Nor in the past has this country been willing to negotiate in such conditions. I repeat that if our objective is to promote a Mediterranean agreement, to promote lasting appeasement, then the method which I have described is not only the best, but the only one possible, and the only one consonant with our position in the world.

I may be told that by insisting that positive progress must be made with the Spanish question before formal conversations are opened between His Majesty's Government and the Italian Government in Rome, I am asking one party to the negotiations to yield in advance certain advantages that that party now enjoys. I shall not for one moment seek to argue whether those advantages, if indeed they be advantages, are legitimate ones. But it has never entered into my conception to suggest that the Italian forces should be withdrawn from Spain alone, but only that the Italian Government should agree and carry out with others a fair scheme for the proportionate withdrawal of all foreigners from Spain.

I am conscious—that is, of course, why I stand here—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my colleagues take another view. They believe in their policy, and they believe in their method, and they may be right. But, if they are right, their chances of success will certainly be enhanced if their policy is pursued by another Foreign Secretary, one who has complete conviction in the methods which he is being asked to employ. It may even be that my resignation will facilitate the course of these negotiations. If so, nobody will be more pleased than I.

I have spoken to the House of the immediate difference that has divided me from my colleagues, but I should not be frank with the House if I were to pretend that it is an isolated issue as between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself. It is not. Within the last few weeks upon one most important decision of foreign policy which did not concern Italy at all, the difference was fundamental. My right hon. Friend is, I know, conscious of this. Moreover, it has recently become clear to me, and I think to him, that there is between us a real difference of outlook and method. It may be argued, perhaps I shall be told, that this is not a difference of fundamental principles. Well, in the sense that the objective of all foreign policy is the maintenance of peace, that is, of course, perfectly true. But in international affairs can anyone define where outlook and methods end and principles begin? If the Government of this country is to speak with undivided voice in international affairs, it is essential that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary should have a similar outlook and wish to pursue similar methods. The more intense the interest which each one of them takes in the conduct of international affairs, the more imperative does this unity become.

My right hon. Friend has strong views on foreign policy, and I respect him for it; and I have strong views, too. Since we are, as I know, both of us conscious that those views have resulted in a divergence, not of aim, but of outlook and of approach, it is clearly in the national interest that unity should be restored at the earliest possible moment. Of late the conviction has steadily grown upon me that there has been too keen a desire on our part to make terms with others rather than that others should make terms with us. This never was the attitude of this country in the past. It should not, in the interests of peace, be our attitude to-day. The events of the last few days, which have dealt with one particular issue, have merely brought to a head other and more far-reaching differences, not, if you will, in objectives, but in outlook and approach. I do not believe that we can make progress in European appeasement, more particularly in the light of the events of the past few days—and those events must surely be present in all our minds—if we allow the impression to gain currency abroad that we yield to constant pressure. I am certain in my own mind that progress depends above all on the temper of the nation, and that temper must find expression in a firm spirit. That spirit, I am confident, is there. Not to give voice to it is, I believe, fair neither to this country nor to the world.

4.17 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

I beg to ask the leave of the House to make a personal explanation. The House has just listened to a very important, and I think very moving, statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), in which he explained the reasons which in his mind made it necessary for him to separate himself from the Government. Clearly, in comparison with the resignation of a Foreign Secretary, the resignation of an Under-Secretary is a very small affair. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It hardly ruffles the surface of politics. But perhaps the House will bear with me while I explain why I thought it necessary to take the same course, a course which I have adopted with very deep conviction, but also with regret in view of the deep sense of gratitude I feel to the Prime Minister for his many kindnesses to me as a junior Member of his Government.

I have seen it suggested in the Press that I have taken this step for departmental reasons. I do not quite know what that means. But I do know that I have felt myself forced to resign because I am in the very fullest agreement with my right hon. Friend. I am bound to him not only by those natural ties of affection which will be felt by anybody who has had the privilege of working with him, but also because I believe him to be absolutely right. There is little that I can add to what he has already said. He has reviewed the situation more fully and far better than I could hope to do, and I am in the fullest agreement with every word he has spoken.

There is, however, one aspect of the question which I should like to emphasise. It has been suggested in some quarters that this is a question not of principle but of detail, and that on questions of detail Ministers should not resign. I cannot agree with that assessment. I think it not a matter of detail, but a matter of fundamental principle. That is not to say that I accept the thesis that we should not enter into negotiations with authoritarian States in any circumstances whatever. That, I suggest, would be the negation of our whole creed of liberty of thought. Other nations are entitled to their political ideas and political systems, however much we personally may disapprove of them. We in this country should oppose any attempt to impose other ideas upon us, and we must concede the same right to others. The principle which, in my view, is involved in the point at issue between my right hon. Friend and his colleagues is quite a different one. It is the principle of good faith in international affairs. In the international sphere, the very existence of civilised relationships is dependent on a high standard of good faith.

One of the most deplorable developments in the years that have followed the War has been the steady decline of that standard. To my mind it is absolutely essential that this country should do all that it can to maintain the highest possible standards of good faith in international affairs. Unless nations are able to trust each other, any agreements that they may make with each other will not be worth the paper on which they are written. It is, therefore, to my mind, an issue of the widest character. It is no question of detail as to the time at which conversations should take place or the method by which they should be carried on; it is a question of the conditions under which any negotiations between any countries can be carried on at all with any useful results. In the present instance, the issue has been raised with regard to Italy, a country with whom we have had numerous agreements, agreements which, perhaps, to put it mildly, have not proved to be so binding upon the Italian Government as upon us; but the same conditions would apply in the case of any nation where we had recent experience that obligations solemnly undertaken were not, in fact, being implemented.

I fully recognise that in respect of the proposed agreement with Italy, Members of the Government quite sincerely believe that this is the beginning of a new chapter; that the new agreement will not be the same as the old agreement; that it will be observed; that it will be the beginning of a new era of close and cordial relations such as existed happily between the two countries in the past. If the Government believe that, in my opinion they are absolutely right to go straight ahead at the earliest possible moment; but, perhaps because I have been in closer and more constant contact with these matters, I cannot share that confidence. I think that, at any rate, before entering on official conversations, we should have some concrete evidence that the attitude of the Italian Government has changed, and that they are really animated by friendly feelings towards this country. That, when all is said and done, is all that my right hon. Friend is asking for, and has asked for.

There are many ways in which the Italian Government could show such evidence. They could stop their anti-British propaganda in the Near East; they could bring back some of their troops from Libya, which can present a threat to nobody but ourselves; they could, finally and most important, withdraw some of their forces from Spain. Any such evidence—not formulas, not promises, but concrete achievements—would be welcomed by us in whatever part of the House we sit. But the Italian Government, so far as I know, have done none of these things, and I must confess that in default of such evidence I am afraid that for His Majesty's Government to enter on official conversations would be regarded not as a contribution to peace, but as a surrender to blackmail It is likely to discourage our friends and to encourage those who wish us ill; it is likely to lead to no improvement in the international situation. This, of course, as I realise, is a matter for individual assessment. I fully recognise that my assessment may be wrong. If such proves to be the case, no one will be more profoundly thankful than I shall; but holding the views I do, it would be obviously impossible for me with any honesty to recommend such a policy, as a representative of the Foreign Office, either to this House or to the country. I came to the conclusion that I had, therefore, no option but to resign and to make way for another who would be able with full-hearted conviction to assist in bringing to fruition the policy on which His Majesty's Government have decided.