HC Deb 21 November 1939 vol 353 cc1174-86

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Wander

Although the hour is somewhat late, I make no apology for raising a matter about which I gave notice at Question Time one day last week, and which interests a number of hon. Members and the country. I refer to the question of the forthcoming meeting of the Council and Assembly of the League of Nations, which appears to have been postponed. I am making these remarks more in a spirit of inquiry than any thing else, because I well appreciate the great difficulties that stand in the way of a meeting at the present time. I do not intend to say anything about the past. The attitude taken up by the Opposition in regard to the behaviour of the Government during the last few years concerning the League of Nations is on record, for it has often been expressed, and we do not wish to withdraw from it; but there is no point at the present time in making any reference to it. I may be permitted perhaps simply to remark that if all the nations which are signatories to the Covenant of the League had sincerely carried out their obligations under the Covenant, this war would never have taken place.

I fully appreciate the weak position of the League at the present time, its lack of authority and the difficulties which undoubtedly exist in having meetings of the Council and Assembly; but while there are difficulties, they are not necessarily difficulties for this country alone. I can well conceive a situation arising in which there might be considerable embarrassment for some countries other than Great Britain. After all, it was always intended that the League should function during the progress of a war. There is nothing novel about that, and we must regard it as a normal event. What I ask the Government to do is to use to the very utmost the possibilities of the position, which still exist, and I am sure that they are considerable. I do not know whether it would be possible, but what I should like to see would be a meeting of the Assembly at which the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, without proposing any resolution or doing anything that would cause a vote or a controversy, would make a clear statement to the world, on the lines of the noble utterances to which he has accustomed us during the last month or so in broadcast and other speeches, stating the international purposes for which this country has gone into the war. I venture to think that by that means we could add very considerably to the moral support throughout the world which our cause deserves. If the Foreign Secretary were not able to go, I suggest that the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, who is a very acceptable personality there and who well knows the technique, would be a suitable person to go there and make a speech on those lines.

I hope that the Government will not dismiss the possibility at some stage of the war of a speech of that kind being made. I was interested to see a communication, which was published in reply to a question of mine last week, made by the British Government on 9th September to the League of Nations, in which they indicate their attitude. I will read one passage because it indicates the sympathetic attitude which the Government are endeavouring to show towards the League, in some measure, at any rate. It says this: On the 23 rd May last Viscount Halifax made, on behalf of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, a statement to the Council of the League of Nations concerning the obligations which His Majesty's Government had felt constrained to undertake in pursuit of pacific and well-defined ends. He explained that one principle was common to these obligations, namely, resistance to the imposition of solutions by the method of force, which, if continued, must result in reducing civilisation to anarchy and destruction. He added that everything that His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom had done was in conformity with the spirit of the Covenant. I am now directed by Lord Halifax to state that on the 1st September last the German Government committed an act of aggression against a member of the League of Nations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th November, 1939; col. 684, Vol. 353.] It goes on in detail to justify the course which we have taken. Apart from the particular purpose which I have suggested, there are certain business reasons why a meeting of the Council and the Assembly ought to be held. First, there is the question of the passage of the annual budget. I see it suggested that the Fourth Committee of the last Assembly should be called for that purpose and. then circulate the budget by post to the different members. That does not seem to me a very proper way of dealing with the subject. I hope the Government will strongly resist any attempt to cut down what remains of the structure to anything which would make that a mere skeleton. The influence of the British Government will be very considerable in these matters, and I hope that anything in the direction of maintaining as much of the structure as possible will be done. Then there is the election of a judge. In order to elect a judge to the Permanent Court of International Justice there has to be a meeting of the Council and the Assembly. How is it proposed to deal with that position? The world Court has been a great success and we want to keep that piece of international machinery functioning to its full purpose.

The Secretary-General of the League of Nations first of all suggested that the meeting should be held on 4th December and asked for the comments of different States members. I should be interested to know what replies were received and what States accepted the invitation. Some certainly did. Did the British Government accept the invitation? It is all very well to say that certain proposals have been put forward by neutral States, but it is obvious that if the British Government took no action we could hardly expect neutral States in their present position to come forward with any very assertive proposals.

I saw it suggested in the "Times" of 19th November that the 20th annual meeting of the Assembly had been postponed indefinitely as a consequence of the approval, by a majority of the members of the League, of a Dutch-Swedish proposal that instead of the Annual Assembly only the Fourth Committee should meet to examine the draft Budget for 1940. I should like to know whether the British Government gave a lead to the neutrals and other members, or merely left it for them to make such suggestions as they thought lit. That makes all the difference in the world. Whenever Great Britain gives a lead. the other countries are willing to follow. I hope the Government will do what they can to avoid giving the impression that they are ashamed of the League, that they want to evade its existence, and are shuffling out of what remaining responsibilities they have. That would create a most deplorable impression in this country and abroad. Whenever this war is over I think it is generally agreed that it will be necessary for victors, vanquished and neutrals to set up some world machinery which will prevent anything of the kind happening again. Various proposals are put forward. Some people favour a United States of Europe, others talk of federalism, and others are enamoured of the proposals in the well-known book "Union Now." But whatever we have it must be something that works, and works more effectively than the League of Nations has. At the same time it is a fact that the only piece of international machinery of its kind existing in the world is the League. It is the basis on which we shall have to build something better in the future. There are vast numbers of people who were in the last 20 years captured by the idealism that lay behind it, and at the last General Election Members were returned on the basis of full support for that organisation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is going to make a statement which will be to some extent reassuring, and that he will make it clear that whatever difficulties the Government may foresee they do intend, at the earliest possible moment, to see that the machinery of the League that remains is functioning, and that a meeting of the Assembly and the Council are held for the various purposes I have mentioned.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Noel-Baker

A few months ago the Under-Secretary told the House that the Government were engaged in rebuilding the League of Nations on a new and more solid foundation. I think the proposal he is going to make to-night is a grim commentary on the claim which he then made. It is the end of a chapter in the history of human effort for order and peace, and an end which is symbolic of the loss of chances in the last eight years. The Under-Secretary is going to defend the proposal that, in effect, there shall be no Assembly. Although there is a war in progress, a war which is being fought for every principle on which the League was founded, yet we cannot use the tribunal of the Assembly to state the reasons why we have taken up arms or the conditions on which we shall lay them down. To me such a decision is a confession of moral defeat. It means the loss of what I think might have been a great opportunity. I understand that at another stage there was another proposal, that a meeting of the Assembly should be held but on condition that no topic of political importance should be mentioned. I am bound to say that I think this decision is a great deal better than that. The idea of an Assembly which could not even mention the great war that was in progress while it was sitting would have made the authors of the Covenant turn in their graves. They would have been utterly revolted by the conception of a neutralised League, which seems to be so generally accepted at the present time.

But I have no reason to dwell on what has been decided. Rightly or wrongly the decision has been taken, and we have to make the best of it. I want to put a few questions about what the Assembly is going to do, and what I hope it is not going to do, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to give us specific assurances on the various points. The Under-Secretary will not be surprised to hear me mention the word "Palestine." I hope he will be able to give me a pledge that His Majesty's Government will not try to force through this bastard Assembly the White Paper and that he will not try to secure its assent to the policy contained in the White Paper on Palestine, of last summer.

We remember the circumstances in which that Paper was prepared and the report upon it by the Mandates Commission of the League. It would be playing fast and loose with the sacred principle of the sanctity of international obligations for which we are fighting in this war to endeavour to do any such thing. It would cause a shock throughout the world, and not the least in the United States of America, and would still further damage our moral credit there. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) asked for a pledge that the Government would do all in their power to ensure that the Budget of the League would not be cut away to nothing. If the Government are serious in their declaration that they have made of our purpose in the war, they should strive, not for a diminution but for an actual extension of the work which the League are doing in economic and social questions. I do not need to remind the Under-Secretary of the importance of the report which was prepared last August by the Bruce Committee. That remarkable report consists of a discussion of the inevitability of increased contact among nations in the modern world, and it explains, with irresistible logic that there must be a further development and extension of economic and social co-operation between Governments if the prosperity of the peoples of the world is to be promoted. It ends with a proposal for the creation of a central committee for economic and social questions, to consist primarily of Members of the League. By this committee the help and co-operation of non-Members would be sought.

It is plain that when this war comes to an end there will be urgent need for economic co-operation of the kind with which the Bruce Committee dealt. We shall certainly be face to face, when the fighting is over and the production of munitions comes to a sudden stop, with the most serious economic crisis that the modern world has ever known. That can be dealt with only by an international plan. Why cannot the Assembly now create a central committee such as the report proposes and charge that committee with doing everything in its power to deal with the crisis by which we know the war is bound to be followed. That work could be entrusted to the I.L.O., and the economic and financial sections of the League would of course be brought into it. If they were to set about preparing plans now, with the assistance which they could obtain from many countries, their work might be twice as valuable when the peace conference meets.

I do not think that proposal is at all impractical. Its cost would be trifling and it would be warmly welcomed by many other countries, including the United States. Not long ago it was quoted in this report of the Bruce Committee that the United States Secretary of State, Mr. Cordell Hull, wrote a letter to the Secretary-General, in which he said: The League of Nations has been responsible for the development of mutual exchange and discussion of ideas and methods to a greater extent and in more fields of humanitarian and scientific endeavour than any other organisation in history. I venture to think that the co-operation of the United States of America might be obtained in this work, and I hope His Majesty's Government will set it on foot.

With regard to the question of the Court of International Justice, which was referred to by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, the question which arises is not that of the election of a single judge but of the election of a whole court. The Mandate is due to end this year. When I asked whether proposals were considered for dealing with this difficulty, the Under-Secretary answered, as I understood him, that no proposals had been made. Some solution is urgently required. It would be madness to allow the court to disappear—a court which, as the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton said, has been the most successful single organ of the League, and not only that but the organ which is bound to be the keystone of the whole system. An attempt to re-elect the whole court this year would not result in a very satisfactory selection. I believe the jurists ought to be able to find some means by which the present Mandate of the court could be extended for a year or two by general agreement. I hope the Under-Secretary will assure us with the thought that His Majesty's delegation will not allow the court to disappear.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Butler)

I am sure that no one on this side of the House could complain of the tone with which hon. Members have put forward their points this evening. I should like to acknowledge the words of tribute to the Government's attitude which were uttered by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) when he said that on the whole our attitude had been sympathetic towards the League. I would go further than that and in the few remarks that I am going to make I hope it will become obvious that we have the future of the League at heart. We realise perhaps more than anyone else that we who are engaged as a country in this tremendous fight must not put the League from our thought's at this critical moment. The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton referred in the course of his speech to the letter sent by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the League at the outbreak of the war. I will not trouble the House at this late hour by quoting from that, because the full text of the letter has, in answer to a question by him, been circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT; but it is right to say that that letter sent to the League at that time establishes the principles for which we are fighting and illustrates that they are the same as those for which the League was founded and the League Covenant drafted. In our view, this is the most effective step we could have taken on the outbreak of the war in relation to our attitude to the League.

In considering the League, it may be thought that there is some unreality at this moment of crisis, but in fact we are rather face to face with reality because we have in front of us the reminder of the ideal of international co-operation to which in one form or another we must return if our civilisation is to be maintained. It is difficult to speculate on what exactly will be the nature of this international co-operation or what will be the nature of the League after this struggle is over. It is interesting to observe that the League is a growing plant. It has already multiplied itself in certain directions. In the grey autumn of 1938 there were certain modifications made, and it was upon those modifications that I based the claim to which the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) referred a few minutes ago, because I believe at that period the positive work in re-building the League was undertaken— perhaps not the final work, but the positive work—and all the steps that we took then, I think, were leading in the right direction.

The House will remember that the Covenant was separated from the Peace Treaty. An attempt was made to modify the unanimity rule in respect of Article 11, and a report on the possibility of enlisting the collaboration of non-member States was circulated to those States on the initiative of His Majesty's Government. It was in answer to that initiative that a sympathetic reply was received from the Government of the United States. The hon. Member for Derby has quoted a passage from the Bruce Committee's report, which I was going to quote. For the sake of completeness in my remarks, I should like to quote it again. The United States Secretary of State said that the League had been responsible for the development of mutual exchange and discussion of ideas and methods to a greater extent and in more fields of humanitarian and scientific endeavour than any other organisation in history. These, then, were practical steps which were taken.

I was very glad to hear the hon. Member refer to the Bruce Committee's report. This Committee was set up as a result of the Resolution of the Council of May, 1939, to study the appropriate measures of reorganisation, to ensure the development and expansion of League machinery for dealing with what the Committee described as economic and social problems, and to promote the active participation of all nations in efforts to solve those problems. I have brought with me a copy of the report of the Committee, and I hope that some opportunity will arise for giving its recommendations the attention that they deserve. It is clear that up to date a full opportunity for studying the Committee's conclusions has not arisen. Proper consideration of them must, it is acknowledged, have been temporarily interrupted on the outbreak of war.

But I should at once like to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Derby on this committee, and to say that His Majesty's Government welcome the suggestion he has made and will undertake to give it very serious consideration and will see that at the earliest opportunity proper and due consideration is given to the work of the committee. If I may say so, I think his suggestion that the committee should set to work to study at an early date the sort of economic problems that are bound to face the world at the end of the war is a constructive suggestion, worthy of our earnest consideration. In our view, this committee tendered valuable advice as to how to utilise to the best advantage the machinery of the League of improving social and economic conditions. I should like, on behalf of the Government, to pay a tribute to Mr. Bruce, the chairman, and the members.

The immediate question before us is that of how we are to deal with the immediate outstanding business of the League. Normally, the Assembly should have met on nth September. For obvious reasons, at the outbreak of the war we could not send a delegation, and we contemplated that the Assembly should meet at a more convenient time. Since then we have been in consultation with other Governments, and have found that there has been agreement with us, first, that that was not a convenient time to hold a meeting of the Assembly, or of the Council. The immediate need was to approve the Budget, in order to carry on the machinery, and it appeared that the best method was to accept the suggestion of the Netherland and Swedish Governments that the Fourth Committee should meet to do so. The Budget has already been drawn up.

In parenthesis, I should just like to remind the House that the organisation of the League is functioning in a number of useful ways at the moment. I think it is always valuable to stress the actual work of the League which is being carried on. The Health Committee is at present meeting. This is the same committee which answered an early appeal from the Rumanian Government about Polish refugees who were in that country, and answered it and dealt with it to the best of its ability. Secondly, the League is continuing with its work and reporting on questions of health, foodstuffs, and international trade. Thirdly, the work of the Permanent Mandates Commission is continuing, and in this connection I would like to assure the hon. Member that there is no question of raising the matter of Palestine or the White Paper before the Mandates Commission on this occasion. The work of the Permanent Mandates Commission will be centred upon African reports and will have no relation to Palestine.

Mr. Dalton

It must come before the Council?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman is right. It must come before the Council. The Council is not meeting, and there is no question of Palestine being raised at this meeting.

Fourthly, there is the work of the International Labour Office. This is well-known and is proceeding. The regional conference of the International Labour Office is to be held at Havana, at which an observer is to attend on behalf of His Majesty's Government. The fourth committee will meet as a committee of the Nineteenth Assembly, as the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton observed. The decision that the committee shall meet, does not, in our view—and this is an important point about which I have been asked—prejudice the question of the eventual meetings of the Council and the Assembly to which His Majesty's Government still attach importance. The hon. Member was right in saying that there is work to do in connection with the election of the Permanent Court of International Justice and also in the election of new-members of the Council itself. I have no definite information as to what arrangement has been made about the Permanent Court, but I understand that it is contemplated—and this I have on good authority—that the judges will continue in office and that a suggestion not unlike that made by the hon. Member will probably come into force.

His Majesty's Government are continuing their support of the League, and this support is most important at the present moment in its moral and political sense and also in its financial sense. I trust that other Governments will continue their support in the same manner.

The hon. Member suggested that we should not cut the budget. The budget depends upon subscriptions, and I trust, therefore, that if other Governments continue to give, as we trust they will, the same financial support as they have in the past, the need for cutting the budget will not be as urgent as it otherwise might be.

I can assure hon. Members on all sides of the House that it is not our wish to stultify the League or to hamper the work of the Secretariat, and especially the work of the Economic Section and of the Health Section. Hon. Members had suggested that at any rate—

It being Eleven of the Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed.

The Orders of the Day were read, and postponed.

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

Mr. Butler

It only remains for me to sum up some of the points I have made and to deal with the only sign of depression which I noticed in the speech of the hon. Member for Derby. He said he thought that, in defending this proposal, I should be defending the end of the system, which would amount to moral defeat. I should like to counter any such suggestion. I suggest that I have shown that, in our attitude towards the modification of the League machinery and the modification of the League's attitude to certain questions, we believe that there was growth inherent in its system. I suggest that what I have said about the future meeting of the Council and Assembly makes it clear that this is no final decision.

Mr. Mander

Will it be held before the end of the war?

Mr. Butler

I cannot give any date, but I trust it may be before the end of the war. It is our wish that the League should remain in being, and if it is to remain in being, its organs must meet and function in the proper manner. The difficulties that confronted the hon. Member were obvious to us. The dangers that he fears were that we should prejudice the League by the action we have taken, but I think that we should prejudice it by being over-eager at the present time if what the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton described as a large meeting of the League were held at which a political address might be made by an important statesman. We can well see the advantage of that, but our position as a belligerent and the position of France as a belligerent towards the enemy are very clear. They have been made clear on many occasions but we have to consider the difficulties at this time of certain neutral countries which are faithful members of the League, and in this connection the position of the Swiss Government is one which merits our attention and consideration. Calling a meeting of the League and holding the kind of Debate which the hon. Member referred to would, we fear, tend to put in jeopardy the League structure, and we consider that the friends of the League would be wise to be patient at this time and turn their attention to the positive value of the social and economic work which the League can do and of which it might do more in the future.

I have counselled patience. Meanwhile, we are fortified in our championing of international law and our belief in the settlement of disputes by negotiation —the very ideas on which the League was founded. We can look as far as victory. Of that we are sure. But beyond victory we wish to see established better methods of regulating the affairs of nations. We can well learn from the experiences and the failures of the League system, and in particular perhaps it's lack of elasticity in dealing with the changes of a stirring world, but in the meantime do not let us, by over-eagerness, ruin and shatter one of the greatest organisations ever built up in the long history of human endeavour, from the beginning of which we may yet build a true method of securing international co-operation, if we support it in these difficult times to the best of our ability.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.