HL Deb 13 March 1924 vol 56 cc759-72

THE EARL OF BALFOUR had the following Notice on the Paper :—

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any information

facilities are granted, but to the principle of disinterested management which is followed by it. In my opinion, disinterested management can, to-day, be attained only in one way, and that is by State purchase. I wish to suggest to the. Government, who came into power on a programme of nationalisation of the means of distribution, production and exchange, that they had, better make a start and nationalise the drink trade. They would obtain, I think, a very much greater measure of support than they may expect.

On Question, Whether the word "now "' shall stand part of the Motion?

Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 66 ; Not-Contents, 22.

Bath, M. Hood, V. Muskerry, L.
Curzon of Kedleston, M. Newton, L.
Lansdowne, M. Askwith, L. O'Hagan, L.
Banbury of Southam, L. Oriel, L. (V. Massereene.)
Balfour, E. Biddulph, L. Ormonde, L. (M. Ormonde.)
Bradford, E. Carson, L. Oxenfoord, L. (E. Stair.)
Chichester, E. Danesfort, L. Phillimore, L.
Clarendon, E. Darling, L. Ponsonby, L. (E. Hessborough.)
Dartmouth, E. Desborough, L.
Eldon, E. Desart, L. (E.Besart.) Raglan, L.
Liverpool, E. Dunedin, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Lucan, E. Erskine, L. Romilly, L.
Malmesbury, E. Fairfax of Cameron, L. St. Levan, L.
Midleton, E. Harris, L. Saltoun, L.
Morton, E. Hawke, L. Sinclair, L.
Scarbrough, E. Hindlip, L. Stuart of Wortley, L.
Stanhope, E. Kilmarnock, L. (E. Erroll.) Sumner, L.
Stafford, E. Lemington, L. [Teller.] Swansea, L.
Yane, E. (M. Londonderry.) Lawrence, L. Treowen, L.
Merthyr, L. Wargrave, L.
Churchill, V. Monk Bretton, L. Wavertree, L.
Falmouth, V. Monteagle, L. (M. Sligo.) Wharton, L.
FitzAlan of Derwent, V. [Teller.] Morris, L. Wigan, L. (E. Crawford.)
Muir Mackenzie, L.
Canterbury, L. Apb. Bertie of Thame, V. Clwyd, L. [Teller.]
Chelmsford, V. Emmott, L.
Wimborne, V. Gainford, L.
Haldane, V. (L. Chancellor.) Gorell, L.
Bradford, L. Bp. Hemphill, L.
Beatichamp, E. Southwark, L. Bp. Olivier, L.
Buxton, E. Pentland, L.
De La Warr, E. Arnold, L. Stanmore, L. [Teller.]
Russell, E. Balfour of Burleigh, L. Thomson, L.

to the House with regard to the construction of a naval base at Singapore ; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said : My Lords, I make no apology for addressing your Lordships, even at a rather inconvenient hour, upon this subject, for its importance I believe is universally recognised, and its general importance is augmented at the present moment, because, if the ordinary sources of information: are to be credited, the Government are not yet in possession of all the facts which they desire to have before coming to a final conclusion upon the subject of our naval base at Singapore. I fully recognise that in all the steps the present Government have taken upon military and naval matters since they came into office they have sincerely desired, in so far as it was possible, in so far as it was in conformity with their views, to carry on the principle of continuity. And I am sure they would not break that principle in any given case without having strong reasons, or what they deem to be strong reasons, in support of their views.

And I am ready to make this further concession to those who differ from the views which my friends and I have long held upon this particular subject. I admit, in the first place, that it costs money, and that any scheme which costs money is one which deserves to be severely scrutinised by the financial authorities of the country. I admit, in the second place, that it seems to be somewhat inconsistent, at first sight, with the declarations that we have so frequently made, and in which we so sincerely believe, that one of the greatest needs of the world at the present moment is the diminution of military and naval armaments. And I admit, in the third place, that at first sight the construction of a naval base in the immediate neighbourhood of the Pacific may seem inconsistent, if not with the letter, at all-events with the spirit of the Washington Treaty. I therefore quite admit that not only are the Government within their right, but it is their duty, to consider this particular proposal of their predecessors in the spirit, doubtless of fairness, but of critical fairness.

As regards the last point that I have brought to your Lordships' attention—I mean the relations of the construction of this naval base and the Treaty of Washington—I believe that in one of the previous debates which occurred on the subject in your Lordships' House one noble Lord went the length of suggesting that Singapore was so close to the defined area in the Pacific Ocean where new naval bases were not to be constructed and old naval bases were not to be strengthened—it was so near to this preserve that it was almost a bit of sharp practice on the part of the British Government to take the steps which they did take, and which are now under the critical survey of His Majesty's Government.

I can assure your Lordships, however, that this last fear that the late Government, and the Government that preceded the late Government, were committed to some procedure verging on sharp practice because Singapore is so very close to longitude 110 E. of Greenwich, is a delusion. The idea, for instance, that Baron Kato, the Japanese representative at Washington, and subsequently Prime Minister, with whom I have had many conversations—a most distinguished sailor, and a most admirable and fair-minded statesman, since unfortunately deceased—would awaken one morning after the signature of the Treaty, rub his eyes, and say: "Well, I find, after all, that Singapore is to the west and not to the east of this fixed longitude "is a complete delusion. Everybody concerned with the Washington Treaty was perfectly aware that Singapore was not only excluded, but deliberately excluded, from the area in which it was agreed that no new naval bases should be constructed and no old naval bases strengthened.

Those, therefore, who desire, as I most earnestly desire, that the policy which the present Government found in operation when they came into office should be continued, need have no fear that they are committing any technical breach of the Treaty of Washington, or that they are indulging in anything which can give just cause of offence to any other friendly and neutral nations in connection with this policy. It is perfectly straightforward and above board. It is not only consistent with the Treaty of Washington, but it was known to be consistent with the Treaty of Washington by those who drew up that Treaty. From that point of view, at all events, we need have no scruple.

But some of your Lordships may be inclined to say that, although the British Government is unquestionably within its rights as between itself and other nations, to do what it likes with Singapore, to spend what number of millions it pleases in contriving and in strengthening its defences, there is a more important question behind that. Is that consistent, not with our Treaty obligations, but with the moral considerations which ought to govern us, with our own consciences as advocates of peace- those of us who are, above all things, anxious that the burden of armaments and the dangers of war should be removed from this suffering world ? Is it, in other words, consistent with those professions which we have so often made, and which we so constantly make at present, that disarmament, or the diminution of armaments, to be more accurate, shall be one of the great objects which civilised mankind should in the present condition of the world aim at attaining ?

To those who approach the problem from that point of view I would most respectfully point out that the disarmament that we all desire is one that will prevent war, and that the increase of armaments that we dread is one that will increase the danger of war. And a very important distinction which lies at the root of some of the most valuable provisions in the Treaty of Washington depends upon the consideration that armaments which are defensive, and purely defensive, in their character are not instruments which encourage war, but instruments which prevent it. And the fundamental defence of our view of Singapore is that by strengthening the defences of the Empire for which we are responsible, without at the same time threatening any other rival Power in those parts of the world, we are taking a step which safeguards peace, which makes in favour of the status quo, and which does nothing whatever, direct or indirect, either to raise legitimate jealousies, or to excite fears, be they right or wrong, or to produce the state of war which is too often the result of armaments designed for a different purpose and capable of being turned to a different use.

I have often thought that if, by any legislative operation or by the action of public opinion, we could have so directed the efforts of science in the generation now coming to an end that all the inventions for which men of science are responsible strengthened the defence of those who were attacked and did nothing to help the efforts of those who were the attackers, science, instead of having added to the terrors and horrors of war, would really have given us that peace, that secure peace, for which the world pants, for which the world has contrived and is contriving various expedients, but which none of us can flatter ourselves that we have already attained. Science, unfortunately, has been totally non-moral and impartial in this matter. It has helped the aggressor at least as much as it has helped the defender. But when you can find a case in which every strengthening of armaments conduces to peace and prevents war, conduces to peace because it makes war useless, and prevents war because the belligerent feels that war can never be worth his while—when armaments conduce to that object, they are, perhaps, the most powerful means of securing peace, locally at all events, that human ingenuity has yet contrived.

Let the House observe that the whole idea of maintaining the status quo in the Pacific—which, no doubt, would have been broken by our doing anything to strengthen Singapore had Singapore been in the forbidden or closed area—and the whole spirit of those provisions of the Treaty of Washington were based largely on the fact that modern fleets of first class ships cannot fight their equals with any hope of success if their equals whom they wish to fight are close to their own bases, while they have to travel thousands of miles before the shock of war can begin. The modern battle fleet cannot operate effectually against ships of equal strength if it be removed too far from its base of operations, too far to keep up the supplies of fuel required by the modern ship of war, too far to carry out those repairs without which an action must be fought under some disadvantage, and the absence of which, after it is fought, may turn a check into a fatal disaster. Therefore it was decided that none of the three Powers which by the Treaty of Washington and by the circumstances of their situation had great fleets, or could have great fleets, in the Pacific, should increase their naval bases, or should create new naval bases of a threatening character so as to disturb that tranquillity which the Treaty of Washington was designed to give and has given, and again produce that competition of armaments and that fear of attack between rival Powers which caused so much anxiety before the Treaty of Washington came to alleviate it.

Does anybody think, does the noble Lord who is at the head of the Admiralty think, or is he prepared to contend, that the creation of a naval base at Singapore is of a character which can be seriously treated as a menace to any other Power at all ? Singapore is very little short of 3,000 miles from Yokohama. Plymouth and Boston are nearer each other than Singapore and Yokohama, and really the idea that building a naval base approximately 3,000 miles from Yokohama can be a menace to our friends the Japanese is a fantastic notion which, I think, would be dissipated if your Lordships or the public in general would take the advice of the late Lord Salisbury, and use large maps. A fleet which has to go 3,000 miles to meet another equal fleet close to its own bases is really risking its existence. I am quite confident that we have never given the least cause for anxiety to any Power in the Pacific by our schemes for strengthening Singapore. They cannot suffer.

It remains to ask what we can gain and what we do gain. What we gain, if the plan of the late Government—which I hope will be the plan of the present Government—is carried to its proper termination, is that feeling of security among all the members of the British Empire in that part of the world which they certainly do not possess at the present moment. It is not that any of them, I imagine, supposes that we are on the eve of an aggressive war on the part of any Power in the Pacific. But if, like prudent men, the statesmen of New Zealand, Australia and India look at the map and consider what their defences are, they must ask themselves whether they have in the last resort any effectual defence from maritime aggression except the British Navy. And the next question they ask themselves is this : "If we depend, as we do depend, for our feeling of absolute security upon the British Fleet, can the British Fleet be in the position to assist us effectually unless there is in our neighbourhood some naval base where it can re-fit re-fuel, and do away with all the paralysing effects that a voyage of thousands of miles over the ocean inevitably has upon a modern fleet ?" And their answer, I believe, is unanimous.

I do not know what information the Government may have upon the subject. The noble Lord who is at the head of the Admiralty has a great acquaintance with Indian affairs, and he will be able to give us first-hand information upon that subject. But when I was at Washington I had among my colleagues representatives both of our self-governing Dominions in the Pacific and of the Indian Empire. We met in constant consultation. I believe I knew all their thoughts. They certainly had an opportunity of knowing all mine. They were, in their turn, in constant communication with their own Governments, and they were all unanimous in feeling that unless the British Fleet was in a position to act effectually in their defence in case of attack, they could not feel that the forces of the Empire were really available to give them that feeling of security to which they justly thought they had a claim.

It is a commonplace—I am almost ashamed to repeat it to your Lordships—'which sometimes in some of our argument we ignore, that the British Fleet ultimately can only be based upon Great Britain. The source of our naval strength is these islands, and that primary base cannot be transferred in existing circumstances to any other part of the world. The attempt to transfer it, or to transfer it in any very large measure!, would be one of extreme cost to the British taxpayer : in fact, a cost which would be absolutely overwhelming. Here is the primary base of the British Fleet. But the British Empire has important fragments all over the world, and no portions of the great Empire more deserve our perpetual consideration and regard than the three great territories that I have already mentioned—the self-governing Dominions of Australia and New Zealand, and our great Indian Empire.

While our first base is within a few miles, as I may say, of this Chamber, its activities may be required in the Antipodes, and the territories that form part of our Empire which are situated in the Antipodes ask how a fleet which is based on Great Britain alone, or in the first place, is to be made available in case they are attacked. If that problem is once put—it is a very simple and a very obvious problem—all the experts, I believe, are agreed upon the answer. If you are going to have a secondary base which will enable you to use your fleet in case your interests in the Far East and in the Antipodes are attacked, Singapore is the place to have it. If His Majesty's Government, having re-examined the question, come down to this House and tell us that they have studied the map, that they have looked at the trade routes, that they have observed what coasts are most vulnerable to attack and from what place they can be most easily defended, and that they have made the discovery that some place other than Singapore is more useful and suitable to carry out these great tasks, then (if that is their position) we shall be delighted to hear their arguments. All the experts we have had an opportunity of consulting were absolutely unanimous that Singapore had quite exceptional advantages for the purpose which I have endeavoured to describe.

Whatever line the Government may take upon this subject, however much they may differ from other arguments that I have endeavoured to bring before them, I do not think they will say: "We admit that a secondary base which will prevent our fleet being immobile and paralysed when it leaves the North Sea, or the Mediterranean, or the Atlantic, or the Pacific and the Far East is required, but we do not think Singapore is the proper place." I do not believe that is the line they would take. It is Singapore, or it is nothing. To me it seems that if the Government, in their wisdom, decide that it shall not be Singapore, and that, therefore, it shall be nothing, they will really have made a disastrous mistake which will have an echo through all the Dominions and those regions where the British possessions are to be found, of which they can hardly calculate the consequences.

Our brothers in Australia and New Zealand are proud of the Empire. They know that they have grown up under the Empire. They know that without the British Fleet in the background their world-position would be singularly insecure. Their whole scheme of political thought depends upon the idea that they are not only bound to us by legal and constitutional ties, but that we are prepared, and have always been prepared—and I hope always shall be prepared—to throw every ounce of strength we possess to protect them in case of need. You may say that the need is very unlikely to arise in those regions, that the self-governing Dominions are practically safe ; and you may ask, why should you conjure up imaginary dangers, and why should you unnecessarily yield to fears which have but little foundation ?

I am not sure that if your Lordships were to visit Australia and New Zealand yourselves, and were by personal experience to consider the situation and all the peculiarities—such, for instance, as the proportion of population to territory—which mark those great self-governing Dominions, and were to conjure up (perhaps that is the proper phrase) the possible dangers that might arise, you would not say : Well, those dangers may be remote, no cloud is at present on the horizon, and something more than a mere conventional friendship unites the Governments which control the great Navies of the Pacific. That may all be true, yet would you not say : Circumstances change, the clearest skies get most unexpectedly overclouded, preparations for defence, which in earlier and less sophisticated ages could rapidly be improvised, now take years to accomplish, and are we, who have shown in recent years what we are prepared to do for the common cause of Empire, who have made such sacrifices, far as we are ourselves removed from the focus of danger, who have shown what we can do, who have loaded ourselves with debt, who have seen the flower of our youth decimated by years of war—are we to see the British Fleet, the bond of Empire, the pride of Empire, the security of Empire, with all its efficiency, compelled to work in what I may call a geographical framework, which renders it, from our point of view, perfectly useless in certain contingencies, which, however improbable, are not impossible, and which, if they occurred, might be fatal to our very existence ?

That really is the essence of the case that I want to bring before your Lordships. Every Australian and every New Zealander—I do not speak of India and other great communities in that part of the world—is perfectly aware that if the British Government refuses to make Singapore an adequate second base for the British Fleet, the British Fleet, however efficient in quality, however adequate in numbers, will become immobile when sent out from these remote latitudes for their defence at the very moment it comes within the zone of possible danger. He knows that ; and if he reads in the newspapers that the Government, with that knowledge in their possession, that the British people, adequately instructed on the subject by their newspapers and public debates, have, nevertheless, in the face of that situation, refused to spend the money—the magnitude of which I do not wish to minimise but, which is, after all, spread over these years, a relatively small proportion of what we must spend upon our Navy—what a change of heart must not that inevitably produce in the minds of those to whom it occurs.

In order to make the position of these great Dominions secure the most important step—I will not say the only thing required—is the protection of those trade routes upon which not merely our distant Dominions depend but on which we depend ourselves in these islands. I cannot imagine a worse economy than that which saves money on the Fleet and which at the very time it saves money renders that Fleet inefficacious in the greatest ocean in the world and in connection with the interests of perhaps the most important parts of the British Empire. There could not be a worse economy than that. You have your Fleet limited by the Treaty of Washington as regards capital ships, but admirable, though still limited, in quality, and you deliberately refuse to arrange your bases in a manner which will make that Fleet efficacious in parts of the world where it may be required. It seems such bad business. You are practically not merely risking the security of your Dominions : you are halving the value of your Fleet. I do not know whether that trend of thought is one which will have any effect on the Government. I most earnestly hope it may. Let them not be led astray by the idea that this is too expensive, because, costly as it is, it is a course which will make your other expenditure far more fruitful. You have to spend I do not know how many millions on your Navy this year—




You are to spend £55,000,000 on your Navy in a year. The Singapore plan asks you to spend, I suppose, about £1,000,000 a year for ten years, but that £1.000,000 a year makes your £55,000,000 a year effective for purposes all over the world, wherever your Empire may require it. Surely that is good economy. If there ever was a good business proposition, that is a good business proposition. And when you add to than the fact that the sentiment of security based upon the British Fleet is one of the strongest bonds of Empire, when you remember that the Empire itself is one of the strongest securities for peace, when you remember that this money, though spent on armaments, though spent on a naval base, is not only not spent for aggressive purposes but is obviously not spent for aggressive purposes, cannot be used for an aggressive purpose, and is incapable of being an instrument of oppression or aggression—when you think of all those considerations, when yon put them all together, I cannot help hoping that His Majesty's Government will continue, in this branch of their naval, military and air policy, that earnest desire for continuity which they have so laudably shown in other parts of the policy which they have laid before the country.

Moved, That there be laid before this House Papers relating to the naval base at Singapore.—(The Earl of Balfeur.)


My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be now-adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now-adjourned.—(Viscount Chelmsford.)


My Lords, may I ask a question of the noble Viscount? I understand that the reason why we have had that portion of the debate to which we have listened to-day is to enable the noble Earl who sits behind me, and who is unlikely to be able to attend our proceedings in the near future, to give to the House the very remarkable and powerful appeal and warning which he has just addressed to us, and I understand further that the reason why the noble Viscount who sits opposite moves the adjournment of the debate is that he hopes to be able to announce at an early date what is the decision of the Government on this important question. I understand from the sources of information available to all of us that the replies of the Dominions who have been consulted upon this matter are likely to roach His Majesty's Government in the course of a few days. Indeed, I think I was told semi-officially that the replies were likely to be in the hands of His Majesty's Government on Monday next. However that may be, we can have little doubt that, when the replies come, His Majesty's Government will wish to give them the most careful and prolonged consideration.

I do not assume for a moment, although I have seen it hinted in some quarters, that the mind of His Majesty's Government is already made up and that they have merely to communicate to the Dominions what is the decision already arrived at. I cannot believe for a moment that such is the case, and assuming, therefore, that when the replies from the Dominions arrive His Majesty's Government will address themselves with great earnestness and sobriety to their consideration, I desire to ask the noble Viscount what space of time he thinks ought to elapse before the resumption of this debate. He moved just now the adjournment of the debate without reference to any particular day, and, on the assumption that the Government will require some time to consider the representations made to them, perhaps he will be able to give me some indication of when he thinks we can resume the discussion.


I must apologise to the noble Marquess. I moved the adjournment of the debate without further qualification because I saw the time, but if it had not been for that I should have said that I moved the adjournment of the, debate until next Tuesday, for the purpose of then making a statement as to the policy of His Majesty's Government. We have now the replies of the various Dominions to the communication that was made to them, and we shall be in a position to make a statement with regard to this very important matter on Tuesday. Does that satisfy the noble Marquess ?


Oh yes ; the point that I was raising was solely that I felt sure—and I find that I am right—that His Majesty's Government were going to devote very careful attention to these replies. I was not aware that the replies were already in their possession. If His Majesty's Government have these replies, and are ready to consider them in the course of the next few days, we should, of course, place ourselves at the disposal of the Government for the resumption of the debate when they desire. If Tuesday is a convenient day I am quite satisfied.


When I communicated with the noble Marquess the other day I was not in possession of the replies of the Dominions on that subject. Since then they have come in, and I am in a position to say that we can make statements in both Houses on Tuesday next. My Motion, therefore, is for the adjournment of the debate until Tuesday.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until Tuesday next.