HC Deb 11 November 1943 vol 393 cc1405-10
Mr. Astor (Fulham, East)

I rise to draw the attention of the House to a completely different subject but one of great gravity and in which I feel that the honour of this country is involved. It is reported that at four o'clock this morning the French authorities in the Lebanon sent in Senegalese troops and arrested the newly elected President of the Lebanon and his Ministers, placed them under arrest and denounced them for a plot. England is a free—

Mr. Kirkwood (Dumbarton Burghs)

The hon. Member means "Britain"?

Mr. Astor

I know Scotland is interested in the rights of small nations, and I welcome the hon. Member's support. I wish briefly to recall to the House the events which have preceded this. When British and Free French troops went into Syria and the Lebanon a proclamation was made that these countries would be independent. This proclamation by the Free French authorities was reinforced by a proclamation of His Majesty's Minister in Cairo; by a proclamation of Sir Maitland Wilson, the General Officer Commanding, and by the solemn declaration made by the Prime Minister in this House.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

With a qualification.

Mr. Astor

After an interval, when Lebanon has had time to settle down and the danger of war has gone away. The Free French authorities announced the abolition of the Mandate although I think that, technically, it could not be made valid by international law until a treaty has been drawn up. A few weeks ago a general election took place. There were two parties to this election, and it was notorious that one of them was receiving the moral support of the French High Commissioner. That party received a complete and total defeat. The party led by Mr. Khoury won 52 seats out of 54 in both the Moslem and Christian areas of the Lebanon. The newly-elected Chamber elected as President of the Lebanon their leader, M. Khoury, a man of the greatest integrity and universally respected. He formed a strong Government, with Mr. Riad Solh, a Moslem, as Prime Minister, and with one of the most outstanding young Christian personalities, Camille Chamoun, as Minister of the Interior. The Ministry proceeded to get unanimous support for their policy and started to make the necessary changes to give reality to their internal independence. Now this lamentable thing has happened.

I do not expect that the right hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs can make any statement whatsoever at the present moment, but I wish it to go forth to the world that the Parliament of Great Britain has been seized of this matter, that we feel our honour is involved as the guarantors of the independence of this small country. Our intentions in many parts of the world will be judged by the attitude we take in this case when a freely-elected Parliament and its Ministers are overthrown by force.

I wish not only to give His Majesty's Government—who are bound to take a serious view of this—the knowledge that there are people in the House who feel deeply about it, but to make an appeal to the French people themselves. The French in Algiers have re-created the nucleus of a French Parliament. The resistance movements, the deputies have got together, and we have seen there a welcome resurgence of French democracy. The British Press, public and Parliament have welcomed this and acclaimed it with every form of sympathy we can give. We look forward to France as a democracy and to a Parliamentary institution rising again. Surely in this week, when France has re-established her own consultative, and, we hope, Parliamentary institutions, she is not going wantonly to destroy the Parliamentary institutions of the Lebanon State which, of all the States in the East, has the highest degree of education and civilisation and is impregnated with French culture, which has had largely the ideas of freedom implanted by French teachers and by the example of France in the past. So I would make the sincerest possible appeal to the French Republic that they will realise what a sad effect it would have all over the world if this action were persisted in. We do not want to say a word to aggravate a serious situation. We only hope that this will be cleared up. Perhaps I speak with some heat, but many of us who have served in that country love it, and have the greatest respect for its people, and the news is like a personal blow to us. We hope the French National Committee will rapidly reverse what has taken place and allow other people those freely elected progressive and legislative developments and that freedom which they want themselves.

Mr. Muff (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)

I intervene to thank the hon. Member for rendering a public service in raising this very important matter, reference to which some of us have seen in the public Press to-day. I cannot speak with the authority and the knowledge of the country possessed by the hon. Member, but I wish that my voice, as well as his, should reach General de Gaulle now that he has been so recently reinforced in civil power and the power that has been given to him in the recent happenings at Algiers. It is only a comparatively short time ago since General Catroux—[Interruption]—I would remind the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) that it is no laughing matter if I cannot pronounce a French name in the same way that he can. There was a proclamation by that General in which he was the guarantor of the freedom of Syria and Lebanon, and we are expecting the responsible leaders of French public opinion to honour the pledges given only a few short months ago. We are cognisant of the fact that, as far as it is possible to get to know public opinion in Syria and Lebanon, these men who are now in prison received a mandate to administer local affairs in a country in which we are also so vitally interested. This country has enough problems which have not been created by ourselves but by other people. It is doing an injustice not simply to this country but an injustice to the fair name of France itself when these men are summarily arrested and placed under restraint and prevented from doing their duty to the people of the Lebanon and the people of Syria who are entitled not simply to justice but to every encouragement that this House can give to people striving for their liberties.

Mr. Quintin Hogg (Oxford)

I do not want to do more than reinforce what has been said by my two hon. Friends. To my mind the whole question of the good faith of the Free French National Committee is now in question if these statements are true. We must, of course, suspend judgment until we know the facts at greater length, but there are one or two plain warnings which must be given. The freedom and independence of Syria and Lebanon is a matter to which French honour is irrevocably committed. Britain has irrevocably pledged her honour in the same direction, and British blood has been spilt to win back the freedom of these two countries—and small help they had from some who reaped the benefit of it.

It is alleged, so we learn, that these Ministers, some of whom are known to me personally, have been guilty of a plot against France. It is apparently not alleged that it is a plot against the United Nations or the effort of the war. It is difficult to see what form of plot against France could be made by the democratically elected representatives of a people who have been declared to be independent of France. Those of us who have studied the problem know that there is widespread anxiety among the inhabitants of Syria and Lebanon that there might be a plot by certain Frenchmen against the independence of these two countries. I should like to make it plain that as far as this House is concerned, I do not believe there would be any serious opinion which would stand behind the Free French National Committee if they were supporting such a plot. I hope and believe that these statements may turn out to be exaggerated, but if they are not the Free French National Committee and General de Gaulle must realise that the whole question of their good faith and belief in the principles to which they are openly and irrevocably committed will be raised in this House.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I hope that hon. Members who have intervened in this Debate will keep in mind the fact that the Prime Minister made a statement about the freedom of Syria and Lebanon but also added a very strong qualification and recognised that although we are deeply interested in this matter, the French nation have a special historical and cultural connection with this territory which makes France the peculiar trustee and guarantor of its independence. The Prime Minister has already, to some extent, qualified any statement made to the House of Commons concerning the degree to which we are equal guarantors with France of the independence of Syria and Lebanon. I believe it is very undesirable for hon. Members to import into this matter such heat and give utterance to such innuendoes against the Free French movement until further opportunity has been given for investigating the matter. If there is one thing we do not wish to do it is to raise any feeling against the nucleus of the French Parliament now existing in North Africa. Some of the statements which have fallen from hon. Members should not be regarded at this stage as representative of all Members of the House.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

May I add a word of support to what the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) has said? I appreciate the services which the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor) has done in so promptly bringing this matter before the House, and I do not dispute his correctness in doing so, but I think we ought to proceed with caution. If it is only a newspaper report on which hon. Members are acting, I think they would be well advised to treat the report with great caution until we know the exact position. I have had some experience of these territories and some experience of French politics, but I have never yet understood what French politicians are doing, and I do not think I can be expected to know simply by reading a stop-Press report in a newspaper.

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

My hon. Friend who raised this matter was good enough to give me notice. It was very short notice, but it enabled me to get into touch with the Foreign Office and ascertain that there has been sufficient information received to show that a situation of great gravity has arisen in Lebanon, In the absence of fuller information, His Majesty's Government are not in a position to make a statement at present. I would hope that the matter should be left there.

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