HC Deb 02 April 1940 vol 359 cc39-52

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

3.28 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

Since I last addressed the House this country and the Empire have had to deplore the loss of two statesmen whose lives lay far apart but who shared in common a deep sense of public duty and a whole-hearted desire to give of their best to the task of winning the war.

Sir John Gilmour's face and figure were familiar to Members of this House among whom he had innumerable friends and no enemies. To his colleagues and especially to some of us who had been associated with him for many years, his sudden death has come as a grievous shock and a sad personal loss. He had a long career of usefulness in various high offices of State and only recently he accepted responsibility for a new and arduous task solely out of regard to the public service. He has died, as I believe he would have wished, in harness, and he has left behind him the memory of a brave, honourable and kindly gentleman. I know the House will wish me to express their deep sympathy with Lady Gilmour and her family in their bereavement.

To our fellow-citizens of New Zealand our sympathy too goes out in the loss of their greatly loved Prime Minister. Mr. Savage devoted his whole life to the service of the people among whom he lived, and his courage, his sincerity and his devotion to his task in spite of failing health had earned him the widest respect and affection. Some of us who met him constantly during his visit to this country at the time of the Coronation were no less impressed with his qualities, his outspoken opinions, his quickness of apprehension and his intense loyalty to the Imperial connection. He was a true lover of peace, but he recognised that the time had come when if freedom was to be saved it was necessary to take up arms. We shall not readily forget him or those broadcast addresses composed and delivered during his mortal illness. His words so straight, so brave and so simply eloquent, have been an inspiration to the whole Empire.

The House will desire to hear something of the last meeting of the Supreme War Council in London on 28th March. This meeting gave us an opportunity to welcome M. Paul Reynaud for the first time since he became President of the Council. He was, however, already well-known to us and to the general public in this country for his great work as Minister of Finance, for the part he played in bringing about the Anglo-French Financial Agreement of last December, and for his untiring devotion to the common cause which unites our two countries.

The Supreme War Council reviewed the developments in the strategic, situation since their last meeting, and took various important decisions, regarding the future line of action of the Allies. This is not the occasion to reveal the terms of those decisions, but I dare say the House will have no great difficulty in guessing at the general nature and tenour of the discussions which were so harmoniously conducted.

In the meantime what emerged from the meeting and was displayed to the public eye was the solemn declaration to which the two Governments set their hands. In recent months the collaboration and unity of purpose between this country and France has been growing ever closer. I have already mentioned the financial agreement last December. Since then we have expanded our arrangements to cover commercial questions, and the supply of munitions, and only the other day my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary met his French colleague in Paris where they together agreed on plans for the closest co-operation in the colonial sphere. By the solemn declaration our two Governments have now extended the scope of these arrangements to all spheres affecting the interests and security of the two nations. The declaration, which was issued on 28th March, reads as follows: The Government of the French Republic and His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland mutually undertake that during the present war they will neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement. They undertake not to discuss peace terms before reaching complete agreement on the conditions necessary to ensure to each of them an effective and lasting guarantee of their security. Finally, they undertake to maintain, after the conclusion of peace, a community of action in all spheres for so long as may be necessary to safeguard their security and to effect the reconstruction, with the assistance of other nations, of an international order which will ensure the liberty of peoples, respect for law, and the maintenance of peace in Europe. If this declaration had dealt only with the conduct of the war it might have been criticised as unnecessary in view of the complete unity of purpose already existing between the two countries. But it goes far beyond the expression of British and French determination to fight together for a common victory, and provides for continuous Anglo-French co-operation in the establishment of peace and in the reconstruction of an international order designed to ensure the liberty of peoples, respect for law and the maintenance of peace in Europe.

The House will have observed the two salient features of the declaration, namely, first, that any proposals for peace, whatever their source, would not even be discussed before this country and France had reached full agreement on the requirements for a true peace safeguarding their own security and that of the other free nations of Europe. And, second, that, after the conclusion of peace, while the assistance of other nations will be welcomed in the reconstruction of Europe, Anglo-French community of action will be maintained in all spheres so long as may be necessary to effect and consolidate this reconstruction.

I would like to say a word here of our Polish Allies to whom we are already bound not to make peace except by common agreement. My right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty spoke eloquently the other evening of the Poles and in particular of the prowess of the units of the Polish Navy at present operating with the Royal Navy. Divisions of the Polish Army are re-forming in France and Polish airmen are being trained both in this country and in France. We are confident that these forces will give a good account of themselves in the common struggle in which we are now engaged.

Returning now to the meeting of the Supreme War Council, the picture which was presented to the Allies by the present situation was of a Germany putting her own interpretation on the obligations of neutrals, and accompanying it by threats of the dire consequences which might result to them from failure to comply with German demands. This problem which Germany has raised of a double standard of neutrality is one which we and the neutrals now have to face. The policy of the Allies has been determined by a scrupulous regard for neutral rights, whereas Germany has not hesitated to destroy neutral property and murder the nationals of neutral States, whenever it suited her policy to do so. She has not scrupled to threaten the invasion of neutral countries in order to prevent them taking steps to assist their neighbours against aggression or to protect their own interests. Our respect for neutral rights and our sympathy for the practical difficulties of neutrals must not blind us to the fact that any aid they may give to Germany might if carried far enough render them in the end liable to the hideous fate that has overtaken the previous victims of German policy.

If we are to bring this war to a close with the least possible destruction and dislocation of our common spiritual and material civilisation we must deprive Germany of the materials most essential for the prosecution of her aggressive policy. The Allies are therefore determined to prosecute the economic war to the utmost of their power. Already much has been accomplished. Negotiations for war trade agreements have been successfully concluded with Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Belgium and Holland, and an agreement with Denmark has been signed this afternoon at the Foreign Office. Discussions are also proceeding in Paris for a similar agreement between the Allies and Switzerland, and commercial agreements of an important character have been reached with Spain, Greece and Turkey. We have been happy to welcome to this country Monsieur Belin, Vice-Governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia, who is at present in London for economic and financial discussions, and a mission is expected shortly from Rumania to discuss a revision of the existing Payments Agreement. We are also looking forward to the visit to this country at the end of the week of Monsieur Georges Monnet, the French Minister of Blockade. All the war trade agreements into which we have entered contain stipulations regulating the exports of neutral countries' own domestic produce to Germany. For example, these stipulations provide for the strict limitation of the export to Germany of the fats essential to her war effort.

Another weapon in our armoury is that of purchase. It is obviously out of the question to purchase the entire exportable surplus of Germany's neighbours, but concentration on certain selected commodities such as minerals, fats and oil is to an ever-increasing extent reducing the supply of these commodities available for Germany. For instance, we have completed arrangements to purchase the entire exportable surplus of Norway's current catch of whale oil, and though it is preferable that I should not go into detail, I can say that Allied purchases of minerals in South-Eastern Europe have been on a large scale. British trade with a number of Germany's neutral neighbours is undoubtedly capable of being substantially developed, and I look forward to an intensification of trade exchanges to our mutual benefit. At the sametime the countries concerned must realise that we cannot agree to make available to them products drawn from Empire sources, unless in return they are prepared to give us guarantees as to the limitation of their future trade with Germany.

Most important of all the weapons of our economic warfare is the employment of our sea power, and the Allies are determined to continue and intensify the use of this weapon to the full. His Majesty's ships have already taken certain practical steps to interfere with the unimpeded passage of German cargo ships from Scandinavia. These operations have been carried out in close proximity to German naval bases, showing once again how empty are the German boasts that the control of the North Sea has passed into their hands. Other measures are under consideration. The House may be assured that we have not yet reached the limit of our effective operations in this region, the scene of the sinking of so many neutral ships and the murder of so many neutral seamen. Our attention has also recently been drawn to the possibility that Germany may have been finding ways and means of increasing her supplies from neutral sources by routes confined to the land and hitherto hardly used. We have carefully reviewed the situation and we intend to take suitable measures. I may remind hon. Members in this connection that His Majesty's ships have recently stopped in Far Eastern waters Soviet ships suspected of carrying contraband destined for Germany via Vladivostock.

We have heard a great deal recently of possible developments in South-Eastern Europe. It has even been suggested by German propaganda that it is our aim to disturb the peace of the Balkans. This is, of course, untrue, and we are confident that our Agreements with Turkey have on the contrary contributed most effectively to maintain peace and security in South-Eastern Europe. In order to examine the many urgent problems, both political and economic, presented by the situation in South-Eastern Europe, it has been decided, as the House is aware, to summon to London, for purposes of consultation, His Majesty's Ambassador at Angora and His Majesty's Ministers at Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia and Budapest. They will be in London early next week. We shall also have the advantage of the presence in London at that time of Sir Percy Loraine, His Majesty's Ambassador in Rome, who will be on short leave of absence. I am sure that the House will welcome this initiative, which we hope will have fruitful results both for the Allied cause and for the maintenance of peace and security in that area.

Each successive meeting of the Supreme War Council has illustrated more clearly the strength of the ties binding this country and France together. The Supreme War Council is in fact the outstanding example of Anglo-French collaboration in all spheres, of which the solemn declaration published on 28th March is the most recent development. It is our hope that these meetings may be held more frequently and at more regular intervals, not only to forward the prosecution of the war, but also to enable us to perfect the machinery which will be required for consolidating European peace at the end of the war.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Attlee (Limehouse)

I should like to associate my colleagues and myself with the words that have fallen from the Prime Minister on the losses which we have sustained this week. Sir John Gilmour was an old Member of this House. He earned the respect and affection of everyone, and I am sure it was a shock to all of us when he was taken away so suddenly in the midst of his work. I should like to add how much we sympathise with those he has left behind. Mr. Savage was a great leader of his people. He was the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand. He took office at a time when that country had been suffering from the world crisis, and he conducted a wise, brave and vigorous home policy that did an immense amount to strengthen that country and to equip it for the conditions of the new world on which we are entering. He had a very clear vision of international affairs. He expressed admirably the feelings of that great democracy, and when the testing time of war came he led his people into standing by the rest of the British Commonwealth on behalf of democracy. Those of us who had the privilege of meeting him when he was over here must have realised that he was a man of great ability, of fine character and of vision. New Zealand and the British Commonwealth have lost a great statesman, and our sympathy goes out to the New Zealand people in their loss.

We were interested to hear from the Prime Minister the account of the Supreme War Council. I think that every one of us realises that in this war we must act in the closest possible collaboration with our ally France. I was glad to know that that collaboration is not to stop at the end of the war. Much of the trouble from which we are suffering to-day arose through a misunderstanding between Britain and France after victory had been gained in the last war. Our task is not merely to win the war, but to win the peace, and I welcome the declaration that France and Britain, together with other nations, will have to build up conditions which will make a new international order.

The Prime Minister alluded to the position of the neutral States. I am quite convinced that the opinion in all the democracies is overwhelmingly on our side. They know perfectly well that we are fighting their battle. When they talk of international law they know quite well that there will be no more international law if we do not win, but only the law of the jungle, enforced by the brute power of the Nazis. At the present time they are actually suffering heavy losses although they are at peace. We on this side of the House are second to none in our support of the principles of international law; we stand for international law; but if we are to preserve international law we must see that the enemy do not use international law as a cloak for their own designs. I believe that the neutral peoples will quite understand that we have to review this matter, not only on the short view but on the long view. We have to consider how far some neutral States are free agents in this matter. Above all we have got to preserve international law by defeating the aggressor, and I hope we shall have the very closest consultations with all neutral States on this matter. I think, looking back on the past, that as has been said so often, a united stand on behalf of international law ought to have been taken long ago, and to-day we must get into the closest collaboration will all those peoples who are standing for the rule of law.

The Prime Minister said many matters were discussed, and I think we can all guess what they were. He went on to talk particularly of economic warfare. It is abundantly clear that we must make that economic warfare effective. We must stop leaks in the blockade, whether they are in the Far East or nearer at hand. We must also exercise to the full our financial power. A very valuable weapon in that regard is the buying up of resources. I do not think that was done nearly vigorously enough in the early days of the war. I do not believe it was always done in time. We ought to be assured that the Ministry of Economic Warfare has sufficient scope in carrying out this policy. I hope that it is not thwarted by other Departments, that there is no "dead hand" of the Treasury intervening; because, after all, extensive purchases on a war basis are a matter in which time is of vital importance. Unless there is someone who can decide at once, you may lose the chance, or have to pay very dearly for things which could have been bought more cheaply only a week or two before. I believe that we have lost some chances in that way, but I hope we shall lose none in the future.

I am glad to see that an Agreement has been arrived at with Denmark. We want to help the neutrals, and we can best do it by these close agreements. I welcome also the Prime Minister's words with regard to our Polish allies and their forces in the field, and I hope we shall also never forget the other people who are on our side although they cannot speak so loudly, the Czechs. Many of the Germans, too, who cannot speak, are, I believe, really on our side. But the Poles to-day have their forces actually in the field and everybody knows the valour of the Polish nation.

I have one final word to say on the question of our policy. We want to see a vigorous policy carried out both in the economic and in the diplomatic fields. I hope that the consultations with the Ministers and Ambassadors will be fruitful. We wish to see no extension of the war, we wish to bring it to an end as soon as possible, and we can do that by getting all the neutral nations to understand that the war concerns them because we are fighting for their lives as well as our own.

3.57 p.m.

Sir Percy Harris (South-West Bethnal Green)

In the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair) I wish to associate myself and my hon. Friends with the tribute paid by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the two distinguished statesmen who have passed away during the last few days. It was my privilege to be at Trinity Hall many, many years ago with John Gilmour. He was universally popular there, and it was a popularity that pursued him right through his very varied career. Undoubtedly that popularity was due to his sterling character and straightforward personality. I do not think he was a man with great public or personal ambitions, but he had a great sense of public duty. I remember very well speaking to him in the Lobby just after his appointment as Minister of Shipping. I congratulated him on his new appointment and I remember his remark, characteristic of him, "I did not want the job, but when the Prime Minister asked me to undertake it in war time I had no alternative but to accept it." That was characteristic of his high sense of public duty.

I like to think of him particularly as a House of Commons man. I believe it is common knowledge that he could have had a peerage when he ceased to be Home Secretary but he was determined to complete his political carreer as a Member of this House. Perhaps one of the best examples of his work in Parliament was his chairmanship of the Official Secrets Committee—the Sandys case—a difficult and complicated job. There were many and varied opinions on that committee, but they were united on one thing, and that was the confidence they had in their chairman. The House of Commons has undoubtedly lost in Sir John Gilmour a fine colleague, and most of us have lost in him a splendid personal friend.

Of Mr. Savage, too, I can speak with some knowledge, because for many years I have been intimately associated with the Dominion of New Zealand, both by residence and by family ties. When Mr. Savage became the first Labour Prime Minister he had, as some Members here have realised, a very difficult job. He made many bold experiments, which caused inevitable controversy in that Dominion, but his high character and personal integrity, I do know, won him the personal respect and affection of the whole Dominion. He had the great responsibility of taking the decision to give whole-hearted support to this country in the war. He never hesitated, which was characteristic of him, and in taking that decision he had the whole Dominion behind him. Mr. Savage was a typical New Zealander, and I cannot pay him a higher tribute, and the whole Commonwealth is the poorer by his untimely death.

If I may say a few words about the Prime Minister's statement, let me say how much importance we attach to these periodic statements. I know that they are a tax on his time, but I am satisfied that they are worth while, as they differentiate us from the dictator countries, where they are kept in darkness, except for the Goebbeled or garbled information that they occasionally get from their Ministry of Propaganda. The more it is possible to take Parliament into the confidence of the Government, the more confidence the country will have in the conduct of the war. The supreme War Council is a splendid symbol of Allied unity and the free association of the two peoples, and I agree with the Leader of the Opposition in hoping that that precedent will be followed when the war is over and we have to co-operate in implementing the peace.

I appreciate, and I think the nation appreciates, that it is not possible to reveal what took place at that most important Council, but I think the country would like to know something about how the Council is composed. It was noticed by many people that Lord Chatfieldand Lord Hankey were absent. Lord Hankey is Minister without Portfolio, and it is significant that in the early days he attended the inter-Allied War Council. Lord Chatfield has an office. He is Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, and his salary does appear on the Votes, but it has been noticed that his functions have been largely in suspense. I would like to know whether the composition of the War Council is fluid, changeable, or whether it is composed of permanent Members representing the Departments. Perhaps the Prime Minister might give us some guidance on that point. The country is naturally interested in the personalities of those responsible for great decisions and for the conduct of the war.

As for the blockade, the Prime Minister can rest assured that he has the whole country behind him in making it as stringent as possible. We need have no consideration for the Nazis. They have broken every principle of international law and every principle of humanity, but we are fighting to save civilisation, and we cannot descend to Nazi standards. I quite appreciate that we want tact and wisdom in handling the difficulties of neutrals, but we are entitled to use every legitimate weapon in order to make the blockade completely effective. My right hon. Friend has repeatedly said that it is important to co-ordinate the work of various Government Departments, such as trade, shipping, and food, and we believe that some progress has been made already in that direction, but there is still room for improvement. I was very glad that the Prime Minister insisted on using the great power which we possess—the power of purchase. It is just as important, as the Leader of the Opposition rightly said, to divert supplies from adjacent countries going to Germany as to utilise the power of blockade. They work out to very much the same effect. We can provide sterling, we can provide the shipping, and if we develop our export trade, we can provide the necessary money. We attach importance particularly to the exploitation of the British power in the Near East, and therefore we are very pleased to hear that both in France and in this country consultations are being held with our representatives in the Balkan States.

I was very glad that the Prime Minister paid a special tribute to the new Prime Minister of France, who has reconstituted his Government and, I believe, consolidated the strength of that country. I endorse, and I think the whole House endorses, the tribute from the Prime Minister to the new Prime Minister of France, who, I believe, stands for vigour and determination. The First Lord of the Admiralty, in the interesting speech that he made to America, said that the first six months of the war have proved favourable to us, but it can be equally argued on the otherside. Germany can say that she has added Poland to her ill-gotten gains, that she has Russia in the position of a sympathetic neutral, and that she has had time to mobilise her resources. A stalemate would be tantamount to a German victory. Nothing short of a complete victory will justify the sacrifices that Great Britain and France and the British Commonwealth are prepared to make, but in order to make those sacrifices effective, I am satisfied that the nation believes that much yet remains to be done. We must mobilise the whole resources of the State, not as in the first year of the last war, but as in the last 12 months of the last war, and if we can feel satisfied that Great Britain and France, now so closely tied together, will work in that direction, victory will come earlier rather than later.

4.9 p.m.

Colonel Wedgwood (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I think enough has been said in the way of tribute to both Sir John Gilmour and Mr. Savage, and I want to direct my few remarks to the Prime Minister. I am a little afraid of some of the things that fell from him this afternoon. We are getting, in the first place, all these Ambassadors and Ministers back from the Near East. I know perfectly well what all those Ministers will ask for and the point of view they will press. They will all want our money. They will all want us to buy up more things in their countries, and they will all want us to do something to keep their own particular Province pro-Ally. I am confident that it is quite impossible to buy the affections of those peoples. They are all now on the side of the Allies, because they are more afraid of Germany than of anything else, and we cannot increase that friendship by paying them more money. But we can make it more difficult for us to win the war, because the more sterling credit we have to send out of this country, the more difficult is it for us to buy the raw materials and the machines that we want for winning the war.

It is very important that we should give up this idea that we can buy every country in Europe. In many cases it would be quite impossible, and in every case what will guide those countries will be their true interests, the desire that we may ultimately win and the fear of Germany. It is not, therefore, a matter of choosing between trifling details as to whether we are taking all their tobacco or oil. What does really matter are these various treaties that the Prime Minister outlined in his speech. Are they not all rather in the same direction—pledging British credit in an endeavour to stop raw materials, or finished materials such as cigarettes, going to Germany? I think it is possible that we may again be wasting our substance by buying things that we do not need. At a time when every penny of exchange that we have ought to be earmarked for things we do need, we cannot go into the market and buy un-essentials in order to prevent those un-essentials going to Germany. The real, permanent check upon Germany being able to buy raw materials in Rumania, Italy, Bulgaria, or wherever it may be is that they cannot pay for them. Neither Rumania, nor Italy, nor Bulgaria, and certainly not Russia, will supply what Germany wants unless Germany can pay for it.

Therefore, our best weapon to use against Germany is to prevent German export trade and to pay just as much attention to German exports as we have been paying to imports into Germany. If we can prevent their exporting overseas, we can prevent their getting the raw materials necessary to manufacture the armaments or whatever it is that they supply to Rumania, Turkey, and elsewhere. There are two sides to this question. If you can stop their exports, you can stop their being able to pay those countries to which they can export, and you stop the goods from those neutral countries going to Germany. I would much sooner see Germany unable to buy oil from Rumania or Russia because she could not pay for that oil than feel that we were buying up that oil, probably at an exaggerated price, in order to prevent Germany getting hold of it. Do I make myself quite clear? There are two ways in which you can stop Germany getting goods. You can stop her getting them by buying them yourself, and in that case you may get vast quantities of unnecessary raw materials at an enhanced price, or you can stop Germany being able to pay for those goods and, therefore, make her unable to get them. It is certain that, however fearful of Germany those countries may be, directly Germany cannot pay they will not send their goods to Germany. As soon as exchange ceases, trade ceases, and I hope the Prime Minister will bear that in mind when considering these various treaties that are at present before us and when considering the demands which all these Ambassadors and Ministers will put before him for additional expenditure by this country.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.