HC Deb 14 October 1946 vol 427 cc747-58

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

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Brentford and Chiswick)

I should like to call the attention of the House once again to the very serious situation which exists in Spain, and to the dangers to which I believe that situation exposes the political and international prestige of His Majesty's Government. In a way I am sorry that Spain should be the first problem with which the new Minister of State has to deal in this House after his well deserved promotion. On the other hand, it does give my right hon. Friend the opportunity, if he can take it, to remember his own and our party's determined stand in the cause of Spanish democracy and to assure us that the liberation of Spain has a high priority on the long list of unfinished business at the Foreign Office. I think that that, above all, is what we want to know.

Spain is today in the grip of a tyrannical and degenerate Fascist occupation, an occupation put into power by Hitler and Mussolini. During the war her people, the democrats of Spain, prayed, worked, and fought as best they could for our victory against the Axis. But after that victory was won, while the treaties of peace were being drawn up by the triumphant Allies, the Spanish people were still left, cut off, isolated, and despised while the rulers of the civilised world declared that their detestable dictatorship should never be admitted into the family of the United Nations. Perhaps that is what hurts them most today—not the fury of the Falange, or the brutal practices of Fascist administration, but that they, the proud people of Spain, are outcasts in the world until the mock Mussolini who now rules them is overthrown.

I went to Spain about two months ago. There has been some criticism of the method which I used, but that was the only way, as I know my right hon. Friend agrees, for a Labour Member of this House to be able freely to meet his Socialist and democratic comrades in Fascist Spain. My right hon. Friend has seen a full report of what I did in that country. I am sure the House will understand that because the men who organised my journey to Madrid, Bilbao, Barcelona and many other places are still in danger of their lives, I can make no further observations on the details of my own visit, but it proved three things to me which I believe are very important. First, that there is a well-organised and efficient Republican resistance movement all over Spain. Otherwise I should never have been able to travel as I did. Second, that despite a record harvest, the end of the war, and what has been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a new non-intervention policy by the Western Powers, General Franco's position, even as things are now, is far from secure. Third, my conversations with the resistance leaders of all the democratic groups and parties convinced me that there is a general determination that a change must come quickly, and must come without civil war. Indeed, the ultimate danger of leaving the Spanish situation to fester, is not that Franco himself is a menace to world peace, but that the longer the dictatorship lasts the greater becomes the probability that it will end in bloodshed, and, more serious still, both for this country and for the Spaniards, that its successor will be another dictatorship of a different but very violent kind.

I ask my right hon. Friend most seriously to consider whether the possibility of an extreme revolutionary regime in Spain would be in the best interests of that country or of our own. Because that is the real danger. Fascism breeds despair and exasperation, and if these go on as they are, one day Spain is going to blow up, and the forces that are loosed then will not be the forces of either democracy or moderation. That is the prospect that concerns democracy. The people are beginning to despair. Morale is becoming weaker, and the violent propaganda from abroad which attacks not only Franco but also Britain, and British democracy, is being listened to more and more every day. There is a great danger to this country in the inactivity, the apparent indifference, of His Majesty's Government towards the Spanish people. Two great opportunities have been missed—the end of the war, and the electoral victory of the Labour Party in 1945—times when the Spanish regime was rocking on its feet, when just a little pressure might have brought about an easy transition.

Nevertheless, it is still not yet too late to save democracy in Spain. This is a practical problem—the problem of bringing together the three chief elements which must cooperate if there is to be a peaceful change. First there are the organised resistance movements which need, above all, our encouragement—there are many ways of giving it—in their splendid work of keeping alive and united the cause of democracy in Spain. Second, there are the republicans in exile, an essential factor in the overthrow of General Franco. My right hon. Friend may have his own views about them, but let not the Government forget that they have a great influence, and that we have to guide and. strengthen them—not to hinder and belittle the part they have to play. Third, there are those elements, political and military, which unfortunately have great importance inside Spain, and which, though they are neither republican nor democratic, are prepared, once they see that the world is ranged against him, to abandon General Franco. To-day they are the men that hold the guns, but once they are convinced that the world and we in this country mean business, they will be as ready and eager, as they have been twice before, to compromise and collaborate with the opponents of Fascism.

We must make our position clear. Words are not enough. There must be a threat of action, and if that fails, action itself, to convince Franco that this time he really is to go. There are many ways in which pressure could be applied. I hope that His Majesty's Government have been carefully considering them for many months past. The simplest and most effective would be economic sanctions. I have statistics which show that if sanctions were enforced, on exports as well as imports, they would not, for a number of months at least, adversely affect the food supplies of the Spanish workers. Whatever is decided about this or any other ways of bringing pressure to bear on the Fascist regime, there is great feeling in this country, and all through Europe, and I believe in all parts of this House, that something must be done about Fascist Spain. It is our urgent hope that instead of obstructing and delaying, His Majesty's Government are going to take a new initiative in this problem when the Assembly of the United Nations meets. Those of us who are pressing my right hon. Friend today are doing so because we passionately believe in Socialism, in the Labour Party and in the democracy which we enjoy in our own country here today. We believe that this country can and should have the moral leadership of democratic Europe. We hate extremes. I have just come back from a journey right across Europe, and I know that Europe is looking to us for leadership, and longing for us to offer the alternative to both Communism and Fascism which we alone can give. That is why I ask my right hon. Friend tonight to give some hope and encouragement to the democrats of Europe and, above all, to our first allies in the war against Fascist domination—the democrats of Spain.

10.35 p.m.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. F. Noel-Baker), I have just come back from Spain. Unlike him, I went there in the odour of sanctity, with a passport and visa, with the help of our Foreign Office. Because of that I was able to secure a picture of the situation there which, I think, is complementary to the picture that has been painted by my hon. Friend. A good deal has been said about the division among the resistance movements and their feeling about the Giral Government. I do not believe that these divisions exist at all. I had the opportunity of meeting resistance leaders in Madrid, and the only thing that I could find was that they would like to see the Giral Government strengthened by the inclusion of such well-known people as Senor Prieto and Senor Negrin. Apart from that, the only feeling that existed was the feeling of deep despair and the feeling that we had abandoned them, the first fighters against Fascism, who did so much for us and for all the Allied Armies during the war.

Where I did find divisions was among those who were supposed to be supporting the regime. I have a background of knowledge and experience in regard to the political life of Spain during the past 15 years. I have had close contact with every Government there except the Franco Government, so I have had something against which I can place the picture of what I found in Spain. The gaiety and the splendour of the Spanish people have gone. Nobody who knows Spain, and who visits it today, can fail to see that the Monarchists are divided. Ask some Monarchists if they want Don Juan. Ask the Carlists, who have had years of fighting for Carlism. I do not know whether they have a Hapsburg on ice, but I know what they think of Don Juan. The biggest surprise is to find division in the Catholic Church, which, up to the present, has been united behind the regime. Today you have the Bishop of Seville sending letters to the Pope, signed by every priest in his diocese, against things which Franco is asking him to do. In the last week of our stay we had people asking us to bring to the notice of the Government of this country the way in which a Franciscan friar, who is a friend of all the people of Madrid, had been spirited away to prison, as a friend of the Communists, because he had dared to help the people who are imprisoned in the Franco prisons today.

Look at the ordinary people of Spain. There you find the greatest change of all. "Café politics," it may be said. I know, but the cafe politicians are very divided. The people of Spain have had seven years of one Government, and that is something of which the Spanish people, with their Latin political ideas, are getting tired. Seven years of one Government is enough for them; they are ready for a change. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about seven years of a Socialist Government?"] Well, you will get it. You will probably get 20 years of Socialist Government. But I am talking about Spain, and what they have in that country. What Madrid has got is an armed man on every street corner—armed soldiers, armed civil guards, and armed police, all ready to drag people off to gaol on the least provocation.

Mr. Speaker

Might I ask the hon. Lady what responsibility the Government of this country has for what she is talking about? We must relate our remarks to something for which the Minister may be responsible.

Mrs. Manning

Mr. Speaker, the responsibility, as I feel it, arises in this way, that if this Government did their job properly, we would have in Spain today a democracy, and we would not have the streets of Spain bristling, as they are, with armed police. Also, I am trying to show that there is a situation here which, if dealt with carefully, could be used to change the Fascist Government of that country, because I feel that not only is there a united resistance, but there is a divided support of the present Government. It is about that divided support—and this point, I believe, is complementary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Chiswick has said—that I am trying to speak.

If our Government would take the right line, if they would even take a lead with the United Nations, if they would support those who believe that the breaking of diplomatic relations and the imposing of economic sanctions would make a real difference, I am sure that we would have an end of the Franco regime. There are many people who are quiet about it, but who feel this way today. Believe me, this feeling that they are cut off from the rest of the world is having an enormous effect upon the whole Spanish people. They feel it a whiplash to their pride, because they are a proud and dignified people who do not like to feel themselves outcast from the rest of the world. Today Franco has not the support which many people believe. He has been all spring and early summer trying to build himself up, with his Minister of Labour, in all the provinces. He has the asset of one of the best harvests that Spain has had for many years. Why does he not take the opportunity, which everybody thought he would take, of having a plebiscite? It is because he is afraid to take it. It is because he knows the people are not behind him.

I ask the Minister of State to try his very best to see that our Government, at the United Nations meeting on 24th October, take the step of initiating discussions on the report of the sub-committee of the Security Council and to see that it goes before the General Assembly because, in the General Assembly, there will be a chance that the necessary political steps will get the support of the majority of the United Nations. I ask him to consider the position in Spain today, and the possibility of making a change now.

10.43 p.m.

The Minister of State (Mr. McNeil)

There is a substantial measure of agreement between my two hon. Friends and the Government. The agreement is this, that we are of one mind in saying that Franco represents a thoroughly unpalatable and repugnant regime.

Mr. Mikardo (Reading)

We have heard it before.

Mr. McNeil

Of course the hon. Member has heard it before, and it is being said again tonight. This Government have said repeatedly that because Franco's regime is authoritarian and repressive, because of his pro-Axis activities, and because he has failed completely in his first job of unifying Spain and ending the divisions and wounds which the civil war imposed upon that country, in our opinion he should go. We have made that statement publicly; we have made it plain by diplomatic representation. Secondly, we agree, as I understand, that we want that done without civil war. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for reporting the democrats inside Spain who say, as our information is, that they do not want civil war, and that they will strive to avoid it.

But there the agreement ends. Someone behind me said "So what?" We have heard a great many phrases tonight about "taking a lead," and "taking a stand," and "being decided," but that does not take us any further. Three methods have been suggested by the hon. lady the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning). She hoped this Government would take a lead at the Assembly. I should enter a caveat here. Section 7 of Article 2 defines very clearly what can be done and what cannot be done in an internal situation which is not a threat to peace. I would remind the House that the sub-committee of the Security Council to which the hon. lady referred give as their opinion that the situation in Spain is not a threat to world peace. But when she says she hopes it will be discussed at the Assembly, I am completely with her, and would remind the House that it was not His Majesty's Government who, in the Security Council, prevented that step being taken. The second step she suggested was rupture of diplomatic relations. She did not spend much time on that, and I do not want to bore the House with an argument which is very old. It is worth remembering that Franco has been hampered, so far as he has been hampered, by incomplete diplomatic representation, and he does not seem to have been badly crippled by that.

The third step was also suggested by the hon. Member for Brentford and Chiswick (Mr. F. Noel-Baker). He said that effective economic action should be taken against Spain which, for some months at least, would not affect the workpeople of Spain. I am most disappointed that he did not offer the figures to the House, because, of course, His Majesty's Government, and myself, have given considerable study to this. It is very difficult to believe that that can be done. There are two sides to the argument. This country would suffer slightly—not inconsiderably—if there were a cessation of exports from Spain. I have no doubt whatever that if there were reasonable grounds for believing that that behaviour would bring down General Franco, then the people of this country would agree, at any rate for a time.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

I would like to make it clear that what I said was that if there were a period of months of complete blockade of exports as well as imports, it would not materially affect the food supplies of the Spanish workers, because, as a result of this year's harvest, General Franco's programme, I understand, is to export a substantial amount of food. If that food is not exported, there will be more for Spanish workers to eat in Spain.

Mr. McNeil

That is a very interesting argument, to which I see my hon. Friend has committed himself in print. He said General Franco intends to export olive oil. I cannot find justification for that. Indeed, there has been a request for a very limited amount, 250 tons, for medicinal requirements, and Spain would not accede unless some other edible oil could replace it. It is, further, true, that Spain will export some oil later—that is if she pulls off a deal which she is at present attempting to do. She has promised that if she can have some soya bean oil now, she will replace it with a similar amount of olive oil once the harvest is garnered. But that does not indicate that there is any exportable surplus. In 1933, which is a fair year, Spain had about 360,000 to 370,000 tons of olive oil. Last year it was 166,000 tons. That, I suggest, is the measure of her insufficiency, and it certainly seems to place aside the argument that she has oil to export and that therefore if we had an economic blockade, the people of Spain would not suffer, but would benefit as my hon. Friend suggests. A similar picture can be shown for wheat. Last year the estimated programme of imports of wheat for Spain was 1,300,000 tons. She did not get anywhere near that amount. She laid her programme for 70,000 tons a month, but for one month, at least, they were as low as 10,000 tons. I hope the improved harvest will mean that the people of Spain will have a higher cereal dietary, this year, than they have had for many years. Still, I know of no figures which would support in the slightest way, the suggestion that she means to export cereals. I would be very surprised, and very eager to reconsider my position, if figures of that kind could be produced.

Apart altogether from the actual commodities, the business of organising an economic blockade is not easy. It would not be effective at all if this country severed or suspended its economic relations with Spain. We should have to organise a very wide community of nations taking in primarily the United States of America, Brazil and the Argentine. We should have to go on to recreate the system of navicerts which we had during the war. But it was not easy then, and we would need again a wide area of international cooperation to make it at all effective. The other thing which might be considered is a blockade in fuel oil, if we had international agreement on the subject.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

May I interrupt the right hon. Gentleman? He is dealing only with the difficulties of the blockade. The minutes are slipping by, and instead of dealing with those difficulties, is he not going to say one word of encouragement to the Spanish democrats?

Mr. McNeil

I suggest most firmly that this obligation has been placed upon me. I did not seek it. It is easy to talk airily about an economic blockade, and to chuck around phrases about "taking a lead." I am with the hon. Member, and so are the Government; and we have given consideration to the methods which we might employ to achieve the ends he seeks.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

Let us have them then. What are they?

Mr. McNeil

I am facing the difficulties, but I must repeat that I am getting no aid from the hon. Member, who is criticising me because I reply to suggestions which he puts before the House. What support can we give to the people of Spain? If it is help we want to give them, then I am afraid we cannot do it through an economic blockade. Unfortunately the people we want to reach—Franco, his Government, his Ministers, his officers—have as a shield between them and us, the very people we want to help, and instead of helping them we would be hurting them. My hon. Friend is entitled to his opinions and criticisms, which I do not resent. But it is a speculative matter. It is not one of proof. I therefore feel that it would be a very grave step which could not be lightly or irresponsibly taken, and as far as I am concerned, I shall be no party to taking such a step.

I doubt if there is an alternative Government available to Spain just now.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield)

It is outside.

Mr. McNeil

To be an alternative Government outside is an unusual position for an effective Government. I am told that we had effective outside Governments during the war, but they were not Governments in the normal usage of the word. They were shadow Governments represent- ing the elements which kept on fighting in these countries. We were supporting these people with arms and every kind of economic device we could employ. Does anybody suggest we should bump arms into Spain, because that is the alternative—

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

That is not my argument.

Mr. McNeil

That is not my argument, and it is not the argument of the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why send them to Greece?"] We are not sending them to Greece in the sense that they are being discussed here, and I am perfectly willing to discuss that topic here at any time. I doubt if there is an alternative Government inside Spain just now. I hope that what the hon. Lady the Member for Epping says—that there are signs emerging—is true. When they emerge, the Spanish people will not need much help, but what they need in these circumstances, they can have from this Government.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Business exempted from the provisions of the Standing Order (Sittings of the House), Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, as modified for this Session by the Order made upon 16th August.

Adjourned at Three Minutes before Eleven o'Clock.