HL Deb 08 June 1926 vol 64 cc299-308

LORD PARMOOR rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, or how far, an agreement on the future constitution of the Council of the League was arrived at on the occasion of the recent meeting of the Reconstitution Committee; and to move for Papers. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, before the noble Viscount who I understand will answer my Question on behalf of the Government went to Geneva, I ventured to express an opinion on many of the crucial matters which would come before the Committee on the reconstitution of the League Council and I understood that there was little difference between us on the course of policy which should be followed. I desired, I believe, the same reconstitution, if any reconstitution was to be made, as he himself desired, both as regards what are known as the permanent Members and the non-permanent Members. Of course, it was well-known before the noble Viscount went to Geneva that on both of these points there was likely to be considerable difference of opinion.

At the same time, the only information that I have been able to obtain has been obtained through the success of the noble Viscount himself in opening for public comment and to the public generally as I understand the proceedings of the Committee on the reconstitution of the Council of the League. This information so given has been, I think, of the greatest benefit and the greatest value to all persons interested in League questions. In fact, I do not hesitate to say what I have said before, that one of the causes of the failure which took place in March appeared to be what was called the tea-party system and insufficient publicity as to what was being done. I am not sure whether we have had all the information which is necessary to enable us to know accurately what has passed at Geneva and it was for this reason that I was desirous of asking the noble Viscount opposite the Question which is on the Paper, so that your Lordships may have information at first hand as to what passed at the Committee on reconstitution at Geneva. There may be, of course, in a matter of this kind and at the present moment a difficulty in giving the information for which I ask in my Question and I want to say at once that I do not desire in any way to press the noble Viscount to give any information which, in his opinion, it would not be convenient, having regard to existing negotiations, to give at the present moment.

My desire is that everything may be done to further the stability, influence and authority of the League of Nations, both in the Assembly and in the Council, in their work at Geneva. I do not in these circumstances propose to make any further statement unless a further statement should be rendered necessary by anything that the noble Viscount himself may say. I wish to leave it entirely in his discretion as to whether he can give us information, whether the difficulty as regards the permanent Members has been overcome and whether any agreement has been arrived at so far as to the number in the future of the non-permanent Members and as to the method of their appointment. Personally I have always felt it was a mistake to have raised this question except in the first instance by public discussion in the Assembly itself, but whatever I may think upon that point my one desire is to strengthen the position of the League. I hope the noble Viscount, will be able to give us information that some of these crucial questions are at last on the way to settlement. I move for Papers and I ask the noble Viscount what answer he can give me.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for the way in which he has put his Question and I am ready to give him such answer as is possible in existing circumstances. The Committee was appointed, as your Lordships know, after the Assembly in March in order to investigate the question of the composition of the Council and the question of the appointment of the non-permanent Members as well as of the permanent Members. I ventured to remind your Lordships when I last addressed you on the subject that the question of the non-permanent Members had agitated the Assembly for several years and was one which was certainly ripe for discussion and settlement. The Committee met and sat a good many days, eight or ten days. It did not complete its work and it is at present adjourned for a further session fixed for June 28. Whether that date will be adhered to I do not know, but the meeting is at present fixed for June 28. It was able to arrive at a number of provisional agreements, it being well understood that they were to be reconsidered in June, and on certain questions which I shall have to allude to no agreement was arrived at but a discussion took place upon them. Almost the whole of the discussions were reported verbatim and if the noble Lord wishes to see the verbatim report he can get it quite easily from the League, but I shall be very glad indeed to place at his disposal a copy of the whole verbatim report of the discussions.


I am much obliged to the noble Viscount. I applied to the League and I got a verbatim report on the disarmament question but could not get one on the constitution question.


I am sorry, I do not know how that was. I looked at a verbatim report on that question just before I came here. Provisional agreement was arrived at and these points were settled: It was agreed that the number of the non-permanent Members should be increased from six to nine. It was further agreed that they should hold office for three years and that three should be elected each year. Therefore, of course, it will be necessary to start that arrangement by electing three for one year, three for two years, and three for three years. After that each of them will hold office for three years. Not more than three of the nine are to be again eligible at the conclusion of their term of office and only then if the Assembly should so decide by a majority of two-thirds. The remainder are not to be re-eligible for a period of three years after their term of office. That is the object which has often been pressed in the Assembly—the idea that there should be a rotation of office in the Council so as to give Members the opportunity of sitting there and learning- the work in what is, perhaps, after all, the most important portion of the League. That is the basis of the change that is to be made with regard to the non-permanent Members.

There are two small additions to that—namely, that the non-permanent Members are to take office in future immediately on election. Up to now it has been the practice for them not to take office until the ensuing 1st January. That was felt to be an inconvenient arrangement for several reasons and really to have, no justification at all. The Committee decided without a dissentient that for the future they should take office immediately upon their election. At present, under Article 4, the Assembly is authorised at its discretion from time to time to elect the non-permanent Members, the elective Members, and it was urged in the Committee and generally agreed that that gave to the Assembly the absolute right, at any moment if it chose, to say: "We are not satisfied. We do not think the existing elective Members represent the Assembly. We want a general election now immediately." It was thought very undesirable to take that power away from the Assembly, partly because it could not be done without a change in the Covenant, which would take a considerable time, and partly because it was very important that the elective Members should represent the Assembly. But it was thought that a power such as that ought not to be exercised except by a considerable majority, and the Committee agreed that, though they did not desire to deprive the Assembly of the right to proceed to an election of all the elective Members at any moment, yet that right should not be exercised except on a vote of a two-thirds majority. It would then be for the Assembly to settle under what conditions as to term of office and so on the elected Members should then hold office.

The result of these changes will be that every year three Members will be elected to the Council. One of these will be a re-eligible Member and the other two will not be re-eligible. There will be a rotation which gives an opportunity to the Members of the Assembly to serve on the Council. The third, of course, will be re-eligible. He may, of course, be re-eligible only for one term, but it is probable that the re-eligible Member will be elected for several terms in most cases. There was some protest made against the increase of the non-permanent Members and, in particular, several members of the Committee urged that three Members was too large an increase. But the number was adhered to for this reason: It was felt that in order to give anything like an effective rotation you must have two Members re-elected from year to year. Therefore you must have six Members of the Council, if they were to hold office for three years, who would be non-re-eligible, rotating Members, subject to rotation. That involves six ordinary Members.

It was an essential part of the scheme, for reasons with which your Lordships are familiar, that there should be a certain number of re-eligible Members and the question then was whether you should have two or three re-eligibles. If you only had two, you would be placed in this difficulty. Either you would allow both to be re-elected from Europe and allow no re-eligible Member from outside Europe or else only have one re-eligible Member from Europe. For reasons familiar to your Lordships, it was thought that this would be a method which would prove unsatisfactory in view of its difficulties. In spite of all the criticisms that were raised it was thought that on the whole it was essential to have nine Members, three being re-eligible and six non-re-eligible, what I have called familiarly rotating Members.

That will give a Council of fourteen with the existing permanent Members and Germany. It was assumed through all our discussions that Germany would be very shortly—in September—one of the permanent Members of the Council and if and when Russia and the United States enter the League that would make a Council of sixteen. I do not dispute that for some purposes sixteen is too large. I would rather have seen a smaller Council, if it had been practicable, but the Committee were ultimately nearly unanimous, Sweden reserving her decision. There was no other opposition to the view that the best way out of the difficulties in which we found ourselves was to have a Council of sixteen and I see no reason why a Council of sixteen, or of fourteen immediately, should not work with reasonable success, as Cabinet Councils of that number or even more have worked in this country. That was the solution at which we arrived with reference to the non-permanent Members.

With reference to the permanent Members there was considerable discussion and, as that discussion is reported verbatim, perhaps it would be convenient if I place a copy of the verbatim report in the Library so that any of your Lordships can refer to it. In the end it was decided not to come to any decision on the point for the moment and that matter was adjourned until the next sitting of the Committee, when, no doubt, a decision will have to be taken. It is satisfactory to be able to say that in the end, largely through the tact and skill with which our debates were conducted by our Chairman, M. Motta, the eminent Swiss statesman, no Member of the Committee voted against any of these proposals. They were provisionally agreed to without a dissentient voice. It is quite true that two Members of the Committee, Spain and Brazil, reserved their opinion generally for the adjourned meeting, that China and Poland made also a rather less emphatic reservation, and that Sweden, as I have said, reserved her opinion on the question of the increase in the Members. No other Members of the Committee (there were fifteen of us) reserved their opinion or expressed any dissent, and it is perhaps worth record- ing that the German representative, though he had doubts about certain provisions, expressed general assent to the solution that had been arrived at.

I ought, perhaps, to add this. In the Interim Report which the Committee has presented to the Council and which, I believe, is to be laid before Parliaments—certainly, so far as the Government is concerned, there can be no objection to laying it—your Lordships will find at the end a statement that the Committee were unanimously of opinion that no less than three of the non-permanent Members should be representatives of South American States. That is, roughly speaking, the proportion to which the South American States are entitled on their numbers. They are about one-third of the Members of the Assembly, and are entitled, broadly speaking, to one-third of the elected Members.

I think it right to say that every one recognised the very great part which South America has played in the League, and we all felt, as I am sure the noble Lord opposite will feel, that the very fact that the South American States are aloof from the storms and difficulties of Europe makes their presence, even in European questions, particularly desirable. Certainly we had no thought of under-rating their value to the League; on the contrary, the Committee unanimously accepted the view that they were entitled to these three Members. Whether one of these Members will be a re-eligible Member or not will be very largely a matter for them to determine, because I feel quite certain that the Assembly will be ready to meet them on a point of that description. I believe that all the Members of the League are anxious to co-operate fully, completely and with the most entire respect with the South American Members of that body.

We also, in view of the reference to us asking us to consider the geographical distribution of Members, expressed the view that the Asiatic countries ought to have adequate representation. I am not here to say to your Lordships that the provisional settlement that we arrived at was an absolutely perfect settlement. I think it would be quite easy to present criticisms—indeed, some criticisms were presented. I believe that on the whole it was the best settlement that could be hoped for in the existing circumstances. Certainly I think that it does give solid ground for the hope and expectation that it may prove to be, I will not say a permanent, but a relatively permanent, settlement of this controversy. I am very strongly of opinion that controversy of this description is exceedingly harmful to the League and that the sooner it is settled, and settled on reasonable terms, the better for the League. It is not a satisfactory state of things that the whole attention of the countries should be concentrated on the question of the exact composition of the Council. This certainly is not that which the League was brought into existence to do. It was brought into existence to try to establish an era of peace and good will throughout the world and it is more than time that it should concentrate its attention on this great work and leave the question of the composition of the Council reasonably settled, as I hope it is, and not to be disturbed in future years.


My Lords, I desire most heartily to thank the noble Viscount for the statement he has made, and I should like also to add something that I could not have said in the first instance because I was not sufficiently informed—namely, that I entirely agree with him in all that he has said regarding the constitution of the Council, so far as the non-permanent Members are concerned. I forbear to say anything about the permanent Members because, as the noble Viscount has very truly stated, the matter is still under discussion and I think it will be wiser to adopt the attitude that he has adopted and not to seek any further information upon it at this point. The important statement that the noble Viscount has made is that the non-permanent Members, according to the preliminary recommendation of this Committee, will be made up to the number of nine. From my knowledge of the Council I came to the conclusion, and more than once stated in public, some time ago that the number of non-permanent Members ought to be increased, and that nine would be a suitable number. Accordingly, I can say at once that I entirely agree with the noble Viscount's remarks on that point.

I also agree with what he said on the question of representation. He is very well aware that for some years now the question of representation has been accepted in principle, but it has not been brought into practical application owing to some technical rule regarding the number of nations which are required to assent. It is quite time that this matter was settled. It is time, as the noble Viscount has said, that we paid our attention to the great underlying principles with which the League of Nations should deal without spending too much time on questions of constitutional differences. I also agreed fully with what he said about Asia and the Latin Republic of South America, but I will go a little further than he went. I think it is highly important that, for geographical reasons, three of the nine should come from Latin America. So far as possible I should like three to come from what I may call the Asiatic influences—I do not want to put it more narrowly—and three, of course, from Western European countries. I do not desire to lay that down as an absolute principle, because in particular cases certain deviations will have to be made, but generally I think it is very important that all countries should from time to time be adequately represented on the Council and that this representation should be carefully preserved with due regard to that geographical distribution.

I wish to say only one more word as regards the number. I do not think that, even when it rises to sixteen, the number will be too great, and for two reasons: First of all, the non-permanent Members represent more directly than the permanent ones can do the wishes of the Assembly itself, which I regard as a matter of great importance. Secondly, if you are to have the wishes of the Assembly represented in this way upon the Council, it is hardly possible to have a real representation of a world assembly unless you have, I think, as many as nine non-permanent, or as I should prefer to call them, nine elected, Members. I am not prepared to assent to what the noble Viscount has said as regards the words "at its discretion." I should doubt very much whether that implied the revocation, as I understood him to say, at any time of an election, which prima facie was to endure for a longer time. I know the matter has been raised, but I hope that before he makes up his mind finally upon a point of that kind he will give further thought to what, in the ordinary sense, the words mean, and I do not think they go so far as he suggests.

I understand that he is prepared to place upon the Table, I suppose in the form of a White Paper, at an early date, what has passed, or a précis of what has passed, at the preliminary discussions at Geneva. I think it will be a valuable document, which will be read most carefully by those who are really interested in this question, and the number of those who are getting interested in it in this country is constantly growing, as everyone knows who has worked for the League of Nations Union. I hope that in that way information will be diffused as widely as possible. As I understand the noble Viscount is prepared to lay a Paper on the Table, it is not necessary for me to press my Motion.


Perhaps I might explain. What I suggested placing on the Table was the Report of the Committee which states very accurately the conclusions which were arrived at. I propose to have it printed and laid on the Table in the ordinary way. I also propose, if it is desired, to place in the Library a verbatim copy of the debates which took place. That is my suggestion. I do not know whether it will meet the noble Lord's views.


I understood that, and certainly it will meet my view. I am much obliged to the noble Viscount for the suggestions he has made.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.