HC Deb 27 May 1946 vol 423 cc948-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—o [Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Osborne (Louth)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the question of Anglo-Italian relations and to make a special plea for a better and more complete understanding of the Italian position. I know that the position in this country is based largely upon the remembrance that in 1940 Italy backed the wrong side. She lost the war and she must put up with the consequences. We also remember, in the bad old days, the arrogance of Mussolini's régime, the Abyssinian horrors, the stabbing of France in the back, the howling for Tunis, Nice and Corsica, the demand for the honour of bombing London in 1940, the invasion of Yugoslavia and the terrors in Greece. To the mind of the average Englishman, all these things mean that the Italians deserve all they get and that we should let them stew in their own juice. But it is against that decision that I wish to protest. I feel that England cannot be indifferent to the fate of Italy. Europe and the world are one economic organism, and, as it says in the old Book: We are all bound up in the bundle of life together. Therefore, it is to our own wellbeing to get Italy on her feet once again. I need hardly remind the Government how vitally important it is to us to have a strong, free, friendly and independent Italy in the Mediterranean, for Italy is of vital importance to us in our Mediterranean policy.

At the end of the war Italy was completely bankrupt—socially, economically, politically and morally. But, during the last 12 months, great efforts have been made by men of all classes to pull her round. The position has vastly improved, but it still remains tragic. Italians of all sections look to this country and the United States for help and guidance. The first thing they ask and seek from us is a quick peace treaty. Above all, they want to know where they stand. Traditionally, Italy has been friendly to this country. Even during the war when she was fighting against us, her fight was only halfhearted. Since then, she has suffered invasion, defeat, a revolution and utter disillusionment. Subsequently, Italy became a co-belligerent and she hoped that she would have a chance to " work her passage home."I feel that that hope ought to be realised to as great an extent as possible, and I believe that an early peace treaty would help to restore the self-confidence of Italy, which is of vital importance to her. The two thorny problems of her frontiers will have to be considered in the peace treaty, but I do not wish to say much about them because there are so many strong opinions and so much conflicting evidence on the subject.

Trieste is undoubtedly a purely Italian city. Whatever happens to it— I know there is much to be said on both sides—I hope that, at least, it will be internationalised. With regard to South Tyrol, I feel that to wrest that province from Italy, whatever may be the rights or wrongs of: the case on the other side, would be to injure Italy psychologically even more than the loss of Trieste. I know that the Foreign Secretary has many great problems on his plate and to solve all of them he would need the wisdom of two modern Solomons. But I hope that he will make time in his busy life to look at the position of Italy because I believe that, if South Tyrol and Trieste were taken from the Italians, it would be the surest way of creating a second Mussolini. I feel sure that no responsible Italian politician would sign a peace treaty—not even a Communist—which would take those two provinces from the country.

The next point I would like to raise is the question of Italy's population and her living space. The population of Italy in 1914 was 35,000,000. Today it is 45,000,000, and there are 10,000,000 more people there than the soil can properly support. A number of countries, including France and Brazil, have offered to take a number of Italian immigrants. I wonder if the British Empire could not do something really big in this matter. Think, for example, of the great wide open spaces of Australia. The Northern part up in Queensland is much too hot for normal British settlers. One day there will be great pressure from Asia to fill those wide spaces. The Italians could do it well. Surely, if the Australians had to make the choice, they would prefer the Italians to the Japanese. I wonder if it would not be possible for Australia and other parts of the British Empire to make room for upwards of, say, 5,000,000 of these 10,000,000 surplus Italians, who are hard working peasant people and who would do the country good wherever they settled. I wonder if Australia could not become the United States of the Pacific—the melting pot of the Pacific—to the good of Australia itself and of the hard pressed peoples of Europe.

May I turn for a moment to Italy's requirements in the material sense? As hon. Members know, Italy has practically no raw materials. She must export, not to get food but to get raw materials. The one thing she wants supremely is coal. Wherever one goes in Italy among the industrialists, they say, " Can we get some coal from England?"The Government should make it clear to them that our own coal position is so desperate that for a long time there is not much hope of Italy getting coal from this country. But I do feel that we should make a good contribution—to the Italian benefit and to our own benefit— in the textile industry. In the North of Italy the plant has been practically undamaged and untouched by the war. It is a modern plant. In Turin and Milan there is abundant labour, and a great contribution could be made from that area. In the cotton industry, for example, the spinning section at present has got so far on to its feet that it is working at 100 per cent. capacity, but it is only working one shift a day. In the old days it worked two shifts a day, and if the industry had the raw cotton it could go on to two shifts a day and so reduce its costs. In the early part of the year U.N.R.R.A. sent into Italy large supplies of raw cotton which has been made into sheets and other requirements of the Italian hospitals, but at the end of this year U.N.R.R.A. comes to the end of its function there, and I want to know what will fill that capacity which U.N.R.R.A. supplies have filled during the last 12 months. I ask the Under-Secretary to pass on to his colleague at the Board of Trade the request that the capacity of Northern Italy's spinning industry especially should be fully investigated so that benefits would come to this country as well as to Italy, for, as he well knows, in the textile industry of this country the great bottleneck is that of spinning. Why should we not use the spinning capacity of Northern Italy to fill the gap that we have over here?

In the woollen industry the position is even more favourable. At present the woollen industry in Northern Italy is working to only 60 per cent. of its capacity, at one shift a day. They want the supplies to enable them to work two shifts a day. As hon. Members know, we have about five years' supply of raw wool, and wool will not keep indefinitely; it deteriorates in value. We have the choice of either using it there or keeping it, and if we keep it indefinitely it may become useless. I suggest that to help break the bottleneck in our textile industry—especially the hosiery industry of which I have special knowledge—we should use the spinning industry in Northern Italy to help us with our troubles over here. We are threatened with serious unemployment in this country, especially in the hosiery trade, if we do not get bigger quantities of spun yarn. Our own industries cannot yet produce it. Why could we not send our raw material over there to help put the Italians on their feet and get the spun yarn sent back here? It can be done— and is being done on a small scale—on a commission basis. I urge the Board of Trade again to investigate this great capacity. It might even pay us to give them wool that would otherwise go bad and be useless, and let them make clothing for the distressed people of Central Europe and the Balkans.

I plead most earnestly that, wherever we can, we should reopen the trade between the two countries at once, not merely because I want to see Italy put on her feet but for the benefit of our own country. Trade benefits both sides. During the last week I have had, amongst many others, two significant letters. I had one from one of the largest silk manufacturers in the Como area who said that they had almost unlimited supplies, ready for sale, and could I put them in touch with agents in this country to handle their goods? Surely it would be reasonable to let them sell their goods and so obtain free sterling with which they could buy more raw materials. I had another letter from a British ex-captain who has just been demobilised. He said he had been the chief buyer for the C.M.F., and to his personal knowledge there are millions of pairs of silk stockings in Italy that could be purchased and brought over here, and sold at something like 7s. 6d. a pair. Why could not they be brought over here? Why could not the women of Britain be given a chance to buy those silk stockings? It is a privilege they have forgone for a long time.

When I was in Milan recently one of the largest bankers said he hoped that before long we should be able to grant them a loan of £500 million. [Interruption.] It is quite true. That is the reaction I wanted to get. They do not realise that England today is not the England of pre-1914. They do not realise we have come out of this war a poorer and a debtor country, that we cannot make great loans of that kind. What I think we can do for them is to let them have the steel, which we have been discussing this evening, to rebuild their railways, to relay their permanent tracks, to rebuild their bridges and to provide the raw materials for their textile industry.

Next Sunday the Italians are having the first free election for over 20 years. Nobody under 45 years of age has exercised a free vote in Italy. Naturally there is great confusion. I believe there are something like 59 independent parties taking part in the General Election. I hope there will not be 59 splinter parties. What. Italy requires is a strong, stable, efficient Government. That can come only if there is a decisive vote one way or the other. I hope His Majesty's Government will do all they can after next Sunday, whatever party is returned, to help them to get on their feet. A little while ago the Italian Socialist Party held their conference in Florence. I believe the British Socialist Party sent their chairman, Professor Laski, to represent them. I was in Italy at the time, and Professor Laski did a very good job. I believe that over in America he did a very bad job, but in Italy he did a good one, and he said to his comrades—if I may use the term—[An HON. MEMBER: "It is a good one."]—" Whatever you do, keep clear of the Communists. Stand on your own feet."It was sound advice. It is rather strange to think that Professor Laski, who over here is regarded in some quarters as rather a dangerous Red, over there is regarded more as a true blue, not quite qualified to join the Carlton Club; in any case, quite fit to join the Tory Reform Group. I hope that whatever can be done by our Government to help the new free and democratic Government that will be elected on Sunday, will be done.

Finally, may I say that Italy hopes to get from us a speedy and generous peace treaty, and I believe it would pay good dividends. The Italians say that never in our history have we been vindictive to a defeated foe. They remember the generosity with which we treated the Boers after 1902 and they remind us of the excellent results that came from that generosity. They hope that somehow they will get at last a measure of similar generous treatment. I would therefore appeal to the Under-Secretary and through him to the Foreign Secretary, to find the time to arrange as quickly as possible—for time is the essence of the case—for a speedy and generous Treaty with the Italians. I believe that that would justify their belief that they are still part of the democratic, Christian, western civilisation in which they have pinned their hopes.

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Molson (The High Peak)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) on having chosen for this Adjournment Debate tonight a matter of such really pressing importance. For 100 years there has been a long-standing Anglo-Italian friendship, and now that the Fascist regime has fallen, I hope that it can be regarded as an unfortunate interlude and that we may return to the old relationship. It is not necessary for me or my hon. Friend to argue the point any further, because in a reply that he gave to a supplementary question the other day the Foreign Secretary referred to the fact that, in his view, Italy had worked her passage home. As my hon. Friend said, on Sunday next the Italian democracy will cast its votes in a free election for the first time for many years, for much more than 20 years. I had the privilege recently of meeting Signor Robita, Minister of the Interior, and I was able to say to him that under his tenure of the Ministry of the Interior, for the first time, no improper pressure had been brought to bear. He reminded me very much of some of the more amiable and distinguished of the occupants of the Government Front Bench.

It will be essential for the Italian police in future to hold the balance even, and I hope and believe that the British Mission which is now in Italy and is helping to reorganise the Italian police, will continue to do so in the years that are to come. Already, the police in Venezia Giulia, as the American General commanding the 88th Division told me, had done sterling work in maintaining order in that difficult area I hope and believe that the same will be true of the Cara-binieri and the Securita after the work of the British Mission has been brought to an end. I hope that in the matter of reparations we shall continue to take the point of view of Italy in international conferences. This country, which has suffered more than any of the Allies except France from the intervention of Italy in the war under Fascist domination, is not making any demands upon Italy for reparations. It would be a monstrous injustice if reparations were paid to Russia, which has suffered so much less from Italy than we and France. I hope the policy of His Majesty's Government will be to restore the old friendship between ourselves and Italy.

10.21 p.m.

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

As the House knows, the concluding sentence of the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) does represent, substantially, the attitude of His Majesty's Government towards Italy. We made no apology or secret of that, either in this House or at the conferences where Italy's fate has been discussed. I want to try very briefly to reply to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne). Dealing first with the economic side, I must say, as he said, that however Italy may need coal, every hundredweight of our coal for an uncertain period is earmarked, and however anxious we are to help we cannot help there.

There were two other points which he raised by which I was attracted. U.N.R.R.A. supplies I will not discuss, as that is a much larger question. But already under British initiative—I would rather say that, than on the initiative of the Government—wool and cotton have found their way to Italy. I have not the figures for cotton, but the figures for wool are for some 4,200 tons—already there for processing. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is no scarcity of the raw material, and this matter of using Italy's labour and plant is being kept constantly under review, and we will use them as we can. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was really accurate when he suggested that Italy is expecting any astronomical loans from us. It is quite impossible. They must know the position. But such help as we can give, such help as we have already extended towards the devastated nations, we are willing, as Italy knows, to offer from time to time. In the near future we are going to strengthen our mission there on the economic side.

The burden of the two speeches we have heard was " a quick peace treaty."There, again, there is no doubt about our attitude in that matter. My right hon. Friend made that plain at Paris, but the giving of a quick peace treaty, unfortunately, does not rest exclusively in our hands. When that hope disappeared at Paris, my right hon. Friend greatly welcomed the proposal made by the United States that we should readjust our armistice terms there. His Majesty's Government hope that will be quickly implemented. It will mean that, except for a limited area, the Allied Military Government will disappear. Our lines of communication, of course, will have to be safeguarded by agreement, but, militarily, except for that one area, Italy will once more become mistress in her own home.

I cannot really discuss frontiers. I can say, of course, that, as the House is aware, the Austro-Italian frontier is decided upon, with the one caveat, that minor rectification is possible; but Trieste and allied subjects are sub judice, almost continuously. At any rate, the Council of Ministers will resume work next month in Paris, and it would be most inappropriate for me to attempt to say anything on that subject. But because of the diligence of the Press, which normally serves us so well, although there has been no official statement on this matter. His Majesty's Government's attitude on this subject is concealed no more than our attitude on reparations to Italy is concealed.

On the question of Italy's surplus population and surplus labour, I want to say on behalf of the Government that whatever form of trusteeship is finally evolved in relation to the Italian Colonies, then, in the view of His Majesty's Government, Italy must have equality with the other nations so that she can have an outlet for these people. I am much attracted by this phrase that Australia should become the United States of the Pacific. I hope it is not an empty dream, but that is a matter for Australia, although sufficient machinery does exist, despite the scepticism of hon. Members opposite, to ensure that we will know when Australia makes any decision of that kind. His Majesty's Government look forward greatly to the free Italian elections. We all have our hopes, and privately I have my hopes as to what the result will be, but that is almost unimportant, for, whatever the result, if the elections are conducted as we anticipate they will be, fairly and freely, with the right of discussion and publication, and the right to a secret ballot—

Mr. Molson

As was the case with the local elections?

Mr. McNeil

—Yes, I have indicated that that is our anticipation—the Government will recognise, and treat with and help whatever Government emerges. Representative government is not a guarantee of political and economic health and stability, but it is, I think, an essential condition, and without it it is unlikely, in Europe at any rate, that we shall see that kind of stability without representative government by election. I hope, therefore, as I know the House and the Government hope, that this sick man, Italy, whom we are helping to recover, will take the main step forward towards full status in Europe in the discharge of her elections.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

In the few moments that remain, I should like to express the view that it would be unfortunate if those democratic forces which exist in Italy did not realise that this, the first occasion on which we have had an opportunity to debate in full Italian affairs, is on an Adjournment Motion which is so limited in scope. While I support what has been said by the Opposition and congratulate the Under-Secretary on his reply, I would point out that there is a great deal more which could be said in support of what Italy has done. Let the British public remember that they fought on both sides, and what they achieved in actively fighting against the Germans. After the unconditional surrender they were promised things which have never been given. We recognise her in this House, and wish to have a future opportunity to express the form of peace treaty offered to the Italian people.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.