HC Deb 16 November 1939 vol 353 cc871-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Margesson.]

3.47 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir John Simon)

The Prime Minister's gout is much improved and his general health continues excellent. But as he is not coming to the House this week, it falls to me to make the promised statement on the war situation.

During the fortnight that has passed since the Prime Minister made his last statement to the House the most notable development in international affairs has been the communication addressed by Their Majesties the Queen of Holland and the King of the Belgians on 7th November to His Majesty The King, the President of the French Republic, and the German Chancellor. In this communication the two Sovereigns offered their good offices in the hope of avoiding a further extension of the war. In the speech which I delivered on behalf of the Prime Minister at the Mansion House on 9th November I said that His Majesty's Government were in consultation with the Dominions and with our Allies with a view to tendering to His Majesty our advice on the nature of his reply to this bold intervention in the cause of peace. I was obliged to add, however, that past experience did not enable us to be very hopeful of a satisfactory response from the German Chancellor.

Members of the House will now have seen the reply which The King sent to the Queen of Holland and the King of the Belgians on 12th November. In his reply His Majesty expressed appreciation of the spirit of Their Majesties' initiative and the readiness of His Majesty's Governments in this country and in the Dominions to examine any reasonable and assured basis for an equitable peace. His Majesty further stated that His Governments were prepared to give their most earnest consideration to any proposals from Germany of such a character as to afford a real prospect of achieving the purposes for which they had been compelled to enter the war. These purposes had been made clear in the numerous statements of policy which have been made publicly by the Prime Minister and by my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. A reply on similar lines, which illustrated the unity of purpose between ourselves and our French Allies, was sent on the same day by the President of the French Republic.

The misleading references to British policy in the German Chancellor's address at Munich on 9th November, coupled with the misrepresentation by German propaganda of the British and French replies as a refusal of the: Dutch and Belgian peace initiative, did not indicate that the German reply was likely to open the door to a peaceful and satisfactory settlement. The official German News Agency has now published a statement that Herr von Ribbentrop yesterday informed the Belgian Ambassador and the Netherlands Minister in Berlin, in the name of the Fuhrer, that, after the blunt rejection of the peace move by Britain and France, the German Government considered the matter closed. Hon. Members will have noticed the reports in the Press to the effect that no formal reply to Their Majesties is to be made by the German Government.

The past week has also been marked by the recurrence of rumours of German aggressive intentions against the Netherlands or Belgium. The presence of large concentrations of German troops on the Dutch and Belgian frontiers and the opening of a threatening campaign in the German Press presented a pattern all too familiar to a world which has grown accustomed to seeing in such signs the immediate forerunners of German invasion. There could, therefore, be no surprise at the general reluctance shown throughout the world to accept at their face value the pacifying statements of a purely general nature put out from Germany. On the other hand, there could be no desire anywhere—and least of all in this country—to exaggerate the significance of these reports. On 13th November the official German News Agency broadcast a statement that Germany intended to continue to respect the neutrality of the Netherlands and Belgium as long as Great Britain and France did so, and as long as Belgium and the Netherlands showed themselves capable of strictly preserving that neutrality. On the same day the Netherlands Prime Minister broadcast a statement to the effect that his Government had no immediate reason to fear a breach of its neutrality, and that the precautionary measures recently taken by them had been necessary to keep pace with the increased tension in Western Europe. The relaxation in tension which has followed upon these statements is a satisfaction to His Majesty's Government who, I need hardly say, have every intention, in accordance with the consistent policy of this country, of continuing to respect the neutrality of the Netherlands and of Belgium.

Other developments during the past fortnight have strengthened the position of the Allies. In particular, the United States have, by their recent legislation, restored to us the right to purchase the abundant supplies which they are able to offer us.

A less satisfactory incident has been the virtual breakdown in the negotiations which have been proceeding for over a month between the Soviet Government and the Government of Finland. On 13th November the Finnish delegates were recalled from Moscow, as it had not been possible to reach agreement between the two Governments. It has, however, been emphasised in official circles in Finland that this does not represent a final rupture between the two countries, and that the negotiations may be resumed at a later stage.

Fresh evidence of the close and friendly collaboration between ourselves and our Allies is afforded by the official visit which the Polish Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs are now paying to this country. We have been very happy to welcome General Sikorski and to renew our contacts with M. Zaleski, and to discuss with them the measures which are being undertaken to enable detachments of all the Polish armed forces to join in the Allied war effort against Germany. A detachment of the Polish Navy is already giving valuable service in cooperation with the Royal Navy, and we hope that it will be possible to take early steps, in consultation with the French Government, to organise self-contained Polish military forces for service in France. Such forces will, in addition to their intrinsic military value, be symbolic of the right to independent national existence which it is the purpose of our struggle to vindicate on behalf of the gallant Polish people.

I have myself had the pleasure of discussing Allied financial problems with my French colleague, M. Reynaud, during his recent visit to London. As was stated in the communique issued at the close of his visit, we both recognised the necessity for close and continuous co-operation in the financial and economic spheres. We reviewed the arrangements for such co-operation which already exist and decided to maintain and do everything in our power still further to develop them. A number of questions, both of general financial and economic policy and of a more technical character, were discussed and on all these questions the existence of a common point of view was established. On the conclusion of the meetings M. Paul Reynaud proposed that there should be further meetings of a similar kind, so as to establish continuous contact between the two Treasuries. I expressed my complete agreement with this proposal and I hope to take part in carrying it out.

In his statement to the House on 2nd November, the Prime Minister said that we had been happy to welcome to this country Cabinet Ministers from Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa, and a representative from India. Since their arrival the representatives from the Dominions and India have been engaged with us in discussions on all aspects of the war. Our talks have covered questions of Defence and foreign policy, problems of supply and matters relating to economic warfare and shipping. A number of meetings have also been held with representatives of individual Dominions on various special problems. Our discussions are still proceeding, but I am glad to say that the progress already made has been most encouraging, and has shown the great value of direct and personal contact.

In addition to their discussions with Ministers here, the overseas representatives have been able to see for themselves various aspects of the Defence preparations in this country. They have also recently returned from a visit to France, where they had an opportunity, not only of conversations with M. Daladier and General Gamelin and of meeting the British and French General Staffs, but also of seeing the British Expeditionary Force and French troops at their war stations. The representatives from the Dominions and India have thus had an opportunity of judging for themselves the magnitude of our own war effort. It has also been possible to gain a fuller knowledge of how the assistance of the Empire overseas, offered in such generous measure, may best be utilised for the furtherance of the common cause.

In the various theatres of war there have been no major operations during the past fortnight.

At sea, our watch and ward continues. The Minister of Shipping informed -the House two days ago that discussions had already taken place between him and the First Lord of the Admiralty with a view to speeding up the system of convoy. Faster convoys will be instituted, and, as more escorting vessels become available, the number of convoys will be increased. Since war began our destroyers have steamed hundreds of thousands of miles. We have now to record the loss due to a mine of one of these vessels. That is part of the price we pay for command of the seas.

The merchant ships of Germany remain for the most part in their own or neutral ports. Of those which leave harbour a great proportion are either captured or scuttled to avoid capture. Four enemy ships have been sunk since the beginning of the month, and two large vessels were scuttled on 12th and 13th November. Our own merchant ships continue to move in great numbers across the seas, notwithstanding that their crews now have to brave, in addition to the perils of the sea, the torpedo, the gun and the mine of the enemy. We are doing all that is possible to protect our mercantile marine in accordance with the provisions of international law. Many of our ships have been armed, and recent experience has shown that, if attacked, they will acquit themselves with the skill and courage necessary for effective and successful defence.

On land, operations have been curtailed by bad weather. On the French front minor German attacks have been repulsed. The British Forces in France have continued to improve the defences of their section of the line.

As Members of the House already know, four enemy aeroplanes dropped bombs in the Shetlands on 13th November. They were heavily engaged by our anti-aircraft forces, and the bombs, 12 of which fell on land and eight in the sea, caused no casualties and negligible damage.

Elsewhere there has been considerable activity in the air, although it has been of a desultory character and there have been no major engagements. Nevertheless, as hon. Members will be aware from the particulars which have been published, a number of successes have been won which have given us further vivid illustrations of the dash and gallantry of the Royal Air Force.

This summary brings the House up to date, and, while there has been no outstanding event in active operations during the last fortnight, the efficiency of our forces and the determination of our people are demonstrated with every week that passes.

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Attlee

We all regret the indisposition of the Prime Minister, which has prevented his being here to-day, and we hope that he will speedily have a complete recovery.

The statement which has been made this afternoon dealt, first of all, with the peace initiative of the two Monarchs of the Low Countries, and we shall all regret that their efforts towards peace were so summarily rejected by the German Government. I am quite sure that we shall all join in the hope that these peaceful peoples will not be drawn into the war. It has been welcome to all of us that the members of the new Polish Government should have been over here, and I hope they will have all success in raising the troops that are going to serve with us in the common effort. It has also been gratifying to have the visit of M. Paul Reynaud. I hope that that means that we do appreciate that, just as united efforts in warlike operations are essential to success, so we shall get full economic co-operation.

The statement has given us various points in the military and naval and air operations, none of which is very outstanding. We all regret the loss of a destroyer and members of its crew. One point in the statement I would specially allude to, and that is the reference to conversations that have been held with representatives of the Dominions. I was glad to follow the list of subjects which have been under discussion. But there is one subject of which I did not hear, and that was the question of discussion of the peace aims of this country and the Dominions. When a question on the subject was asked a short time ago the reply was that peace aims must be discussed both with the Dominions and with France. I would like to know whether those discussions are proceeding. There is a demand in this country for a closer definition of peace aims. We on our side have put out our conception of what the peace aims of this country should be. In our view this is not a matter that can be set aside to a later stage or to the end of the war. The people of this country want to know for what we are fighting; the world wants to know exactly for what we are fighting. They know in general terms and in general principles, but I think there is a wish that we should know just what kind of world it is that the Government in their minds are contemplating when we have brought this war to an end.

There is another matter to which I would refer at the same time, and that is that we are all considering what kind of Britain is coming out of this war. I was interested to see a statement, as reported in to-day's Press, made by the Prime Minister of Australia. Behind all the responsibilities of war he envisaged the importance of planning for peace. He said: Australia must move into peace in a predetermined fashion. That was why he had created an economic Cabinet. I do not think it is in the least too early to be giving full consideration to the planning of peace in this country. That is not, again, a matter that we can put off to the end of the war. People want to know for what kind of country they are fighting. It is going to have a great effect on the morale of the troops and on the morale of the people behind the lines, because many of us remember the hopes that we entertained at the end of the last war and what happened after the peace.

These are very big questions and I do not intend to deal with them to-day, because there will be an opportunity for a full discussion in a very short time. When this Session is ended and a new Session begins, we shall have the King's Speech, and on the Address there will be an opportunity of raising these very vital matters. I hope that we shall get a full discussion both on the question of peace aims and on the question of the kind of organisation which we want to see in this country when this war is won. I say this now because the steps that are taken during the war will profoundly affect what is to be done at the peace. I do not know yet whether the Government are looking ahead at the planning of this country with a view to the peace. I do not think they are looking ahead sufficiently with the planning of the war effort. Those two things are bound closely together. When this Session ends we shall take the earliest opportunity to initiate a discussion of the whole question.

4.8 p.m.

Sir Archibald Sinclair

My hon. Friends and I would wish to take this opportunity of associating ourselves with the regrets expressed both by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Leader of the Opposition at the continued absence of the Prime Minister. We deeply regret the form of painful illness from which he is suffering and we hope that before long he will be restored to the service of the House. We should also like to associate ourselves with the welcome expressed by the Chancellor to the representatives of our French and Polish Allies who have been visiting this country during the present week, and with the tribute which the Chancellor paid to the valour of their armies and navies and the services which they are rendering to the common cause.

We agree with the Leader of the Opposition that it is of importance for the prosecution of the war that we should look forward and project our minds into the kind of world order that we want to see created after the war; and from this standpoint it is of vital importance that we should get the closest possible cooperation with the French Government in every possible field of activity. We are, therefore, very glad that discussions have been started between the representatives of the two Treasuries and that they are to be continued. We know perfectly well that there are some real and difficult problems to be solved. There is in this morning's newspaper a report from the Anglo-French Chamber of Commerce on some of the difficulties which are being found in economic and financial relationships between our two countries. I believe profoundly that the French people and ourselves will sink or swim together in this war, and incidentally that the pound sterling and the franc will sink or swim together, and that nothing but the closest co-operation will avail to save them.

I do not want to-day to touch upon the very important point which the Leader of the Opposition raised about peace aims, because, as he said, there will be opportunities for discussing that question in future. At any rate I gather from what he said that he intended to raise such a discussion in the Debate on the Address when we meet after the Prorogation. The Leader of the Opposition referred also to the importance of peace economy. What it seems to me is of vital and urgent importance for us to give our vigorous attention to at present, is measures for the prosecution of the war, and in that respect I was very glad that he mentioned also the necessity for discussing the war economic policy of the Government. If he does not, we shall certainly seek the earliest possible opportunity for doing so.

I would like also to agree with what the Chancellor has said about the peace initiative of the Queen of Holland and the King of the Belgians. We on these benches feel that we and all peoples owe a great debt to the Queen of Holland for her initiative and for her assertion of the principles of reason and justice even amid the clamour of the war. Moreover it has cleared the air. No longer can it be argued that this war is being forced on Herr Hitler. His Majesty the King, on the advice of the Government, delivered an answer to the appeal of the Queen of Holland which it seems to me is admirable. No one dares to suggest that the aggressor should be left with the spoils of aggression; no one dares to suggest that we should make peace before the countries which have been the victims of Nazi aggression are liberated. Some people, however, have suggested that if only we would negotiate now with Herr Hitler we could achieve these purposes without going on with the war. His Majesty's Government and the French Government have answered that they do not want to continue the war one day longer than is necessary to achieve that end. They have welcomed the initiative of the Queen of Holland and have asked her to obtain proposals from Herr Hitler which would enable these purposes to be attained in peace. Herr Hitler has refused even to answer the Queen's original letter.

It must now be abundantly clear to the whole world that Herr Hitler is continuing this war for no other reason than to fasten the Nazi yoke firmly on the Czechs and on the Poles, and that the sole responsibility for refusing negotiations rests on him. The tension on the Dutch frontier has happily been relaxed by this initiative which the two monarchs have taken. We, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, must scrupulously respect Dutch neutrality, and that, of course, prevents any possibility of understanding between our countries for the defence of the Low Countries in the event of German aggression; but His Majesty's Government must be ready to give prompt support, if the duty of protecting their neutrality and their liberty is imposed by Herr Hitler upon the Dutch and the Belgian people, and they would not be forgotten if these countries—not like Poland so distant and so difficult to reach, but so close to our shores—were made the victims of German aggression without effective help being given by us.

Forward to