HL Deb 10 November 1927 vol 69 cc19-44

LORD WESTER WEMYSS rose to call attention to the recent Naval Conference; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in its endeavours to bring about reduction and limitation of armaments the League of Nations will have the good wishes of the whole world, and to a community such as we are, saddled with an unprecedented and almost intolerable load of debt and taxation, many of whom believe that in these vast armaments will be found one, of the causes of war, any prospect of relief must be very welcome. Though we shall all hope to see these attempts crowned with success we cannot, I think, close our eyes to the very serious obstacles which stand in the way of their realisation. For every country, no matter how genuinely anxious it may be to do all that lies in its power to help forward a measure fraught with so much benefit to the whole world, is naturally and even rightly primarily occupied with its own safety, with the question of the security of its frontiers and the maintenance of its interests. One never can consent to one's country's defensive forces being reduced to such an extent as would render them too weak for this purpose. It is in some universally-acknowledged system of rationing that lie our hopes for the success of these attempts and that rationing can only be gained by negotiation, but since in no case are the conditions and interests of any one country similar to those of another and interests differ sometimes even to the extent of being conflicting, we are faced with the initial difficulty of finding some basis for these negotiations which is acceptable to all.

In the late Naval Conference we have a very striking illustration of the difficulties with which the whole question is surrounded and we have, especially, the fact that for the purpose of effecting a reduction in the sea forces of the principal maritime nations only three of them found it even in their interest to attend. When those three did meet it was with what appeared to be every chance of coming to some successful arrangement, but it was soon found that only by increase could that balance be attained which it was the desire of the United States to see established; and as the negotiations went on they merely served to emphasise the differences, geographical, economic and even psychological, of the three countries. That our case was put forward with a lucidity and moderation that left nothing to be desired will, I am sure, be freely acknowledged, and that perfectly plain and outspoken exposition of our case should surely help to allay any restless spirit of suspicion which the size of our Navy may have raised in some quarters. It must be perfectly evident to everybody who has studied the subject and who therefore recognises the justice of that statement on the part of the Admiralty, that the force which we maintain for the defence of the trade routes is in no way too great to assure their security and that to reduce it would really be a risk which no responsible Government could take for whatever benefits might ensue from such a course, because these trade routes are indeed the arteries of that wonderful body politic the British Empire. Their severance at any time would be a disaster which might well prove to be irretrievable.

It is, of course, greatly to be regretted that our proposals, framed as they were, as it seems to us, on a perfectly just and fair view of the international situation, did not prove acceptable, because we all know they would have effected enormous economies. But it does seem to me that in these negotiations there was lacking one element of success and that is a perfect knowledge and understanding of other countries' policies. Naval armaments and all armaments are but the instrument of policy and until that policy is known it is impossible for any country to judge of the reasonableness of demands, either of its own demands or those of any other country. In this case the question has become more complicated from the fact that one of the three negotiants was bound by certain restrictions from which the other two were entirely free. Whilst we were bound by the restrictions of the Declaration of Paris, neither the United States nor Japan was a signatory to that Convention. Whether these considerations had really anything to do with the breakdown of the negotiations of course I am not aware, but what we have now to face is the failure of really the most important, as it was the most hopeful, attempt that has yet been made for the reduction of armaments.

To what extent that failure will affect the larger question of general disarmament it is perhaps difficult to see, but so far as we are concerned it must, I am afraid, have very considerably diminished, if not entirely eliminated, any chance we may have had in that direction, because for England armaments are naval armaments. All our interests, without any exception, are bound up with and dependent upon the sea. We who live in islands have not to choose what or where our defences shall be, nor are we capable of regulating the course our interests shall take. These things are decided for us. Nature, giving us the seas for our unchanging and unchangeable frontiers, has determined that only by the sea can an enemy reach us or we him. She has arranged that only by the routes of the sea can we trade and become prosperous. It is therefore sea force to which we must turn for defence both of our frontiers and of our interests.

I fear that within the last few years there has been no little danger of this elementary truth being overlooked owing to the preponderating military rather than naval character of the late War. It was on land and not on sea that the principal fighting took place, on the battlefields of France and Flanders, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and Palestine, where the Armies of our Empire side by side with those of our Allies fought and eventually conquered, gaining for themselves imperishable fame and the eternal gratitude of their country. By the very magnificence of their achievements they tended to obscure the fact that by far the larger portion of this great military effort on our part was due to our Fleet having been deprived of its offensive powers by a diplomatic arrangement come to some sixty years previously. So long as our Fleet is unhampered by diplomatic restrictions this country is able on account of its peculiar conditions, the result of geographical position, to wage war in a manner which has been denied, either entirely or in very large measure, to other nations—a manner which is swifter, surer, less destructive and far less costly in the expenditure of either life or treasure than ever can be the case with war waged on land—at sea, by cutting off our enemy's supplies and refusing to him the use of those resources which alone make it possible for him to continue to wage war at all.

Although every Englishman knows in a general sort of way that his safety, his welfare and even his national existence depend entirely upon the Navy, and realises that in consequence of this the Fleet must be maintained at a standard of strength and efficiency which will enable it to meet any potential enemy, he has as a rule very vague ideas of what must be done to secure that result, ideas which have been in no way clarified by the fact of the late War having been brought to a successful conclusion without that great spectacular naval victory which was generally looked for. What very few Englishmen understand is that our Fleet, in common with all Fleets, is possessed of a power other than that derived from its weapons, its guns and torpedoes, a power without which it would not be able to achieve its aim. I refer to the immemorial right of all belligerents to suppress entirely upon the sea all those resources and supplies of the enemy upon which his continued resistance must always chiefly depend. It is not a self-arrogated right. It derives existence neither from Government nor from Parliament but from an ancient, historic and universally acknowledged rule of the law of nations, that International Law which for centuries has by common consent regulated the actions of all civilised countries in their dealings with one another, especially in the matter of maritime war.

Up to the year 1856 a belligerent's rights in this respect were entirely unrestrained—that is to say, that he was empowered by this rule of the law of nations to seize, to confiscate for his own use, all his enemy's goods, whatever their nature, wherever they might be found, under whatever flag they might be found, with, of course, always due compensation to an innocent neutral carrier. It was a right which, from the very nature of things, could be fully exercised only by the belligerent which held the command of the seas. But the command of the seas is for this country an essential—that is to say, without the command of the seas we cannot continue to wage war at all, for once it has departed from our hands into that of our enemy, our resistance is broken down, we are cut off from the world, we are absolutely incapable of maintaining ourselves and we lie like some helpless log at the mercy of our enemy. Since, then, the command of the seas is necessary if we are to remain at war at all, and since it is only the Power that holds the command of the seas that is able fully to exercise its rights, it follows that these rights are of greater importance to us than to any other country and that in our hands they assume a value far greater than in those of any other. Therein is to be found the reason for all those attempts which from time to time have been made to suppress those rights, not by denying their necessity or impugning their legality—for of that there has never been, and cannot be, any question—but by trying to get us to renounce them, either by threats or by persuasion or by means of negotiations with the promise of some imaginary return that might be of some use to us.

Up to the year 1856 all such attempts had proved absolutely fruitless, for our statesmen, knowing by experience that these rights were indeed the very foundation of that power upon which our existence depended, had firmly and successfully resisted them, even, as we all know, facing the whole of Europe in arms. But in the year 1856, in conditions which even to this day are not perfectly clear, and certainly without any reference to Parliament, our Delegates at the Conference sitting at Paris at that time to arrange the terms of peace after the Crimean War, by signing the Declaration of Paris—which, as your Lordships are very well aware, provides that a neutral flag covers the enemy's goods with the exception of contraband of war—made permanent a temporary arrangement that we had come to with France for the conduct of that particular war. From that time forward, if ever we should be at war, our enemy's goods would go freely forward under the protection of a neutral flag, reaching him through neutral ports. The only right remaining to us in the matter was to suppress those which Prize Courts should adjudge contraband of war. That the effect of that act was not altogether unforeseen is proved by the writings and sayings of many eminent statesmen of all shades of political opinion, and by none perhaps more clearly than the late Lord Salisbury. Never was the point more pithily put. In a speech made in this House on March 6, 1871, he said that since the Declaration of Paris the Fleet, valuable as it was for preventing an invasion of these shores, was almost valueless for any other purpose. It had, in fact, been deprived of its offensive powers. And to the correctness of that great statesman's views we, who have lived to witness the greatest war of all time, bear ample testimony.

In order to make my meaning quite clear, I would ask your Lordships to bear with me while I describe as shortly as I can the functions of the British Fleet. In the time of peace its function is to police and guard the roads of the sea for the safety of all legitimate traffic, whether our own or that of others. Its function is, in fact, to maintain the freedom of the seas, and I use the word "maintain" advisedly, because the seas are now free, with the exception of a few local hindrances to be found here and there, but long ago abandoned by this country—for instance, the limitation of certain coastal trades to national tonnage. The seas are free for every possible legitimate use to which they can be put, and there is no sea trader who is not perfectly well aware of the debt that he owes to the British Fleet for securing to him, at all times and in all quarters of the globe, the safety of his ventures at sea. If, from some mistaken notion that the freedom of the seas would thereby be advanced or that the cause of peace would thereby be forwarded, the British Fleet were reduced to such dimensions as would no longer enable it to perform this universally beneficent duty, there is no sea trader, whatever his nationality, who would not be an immediate and severe sufferer thereby.

In time of war the function of the Fleet is summed up in one short sentence: It is to obtain and retain the command of the seas. The command of the seas precludes all possibility of the invasion of our shores and it allows us to maintain free use of the sea routes without interference on the part of the enemy for all those purposes which are necessary for our existence. This is essential to our remaining in the war at all, and to our very existence. Finally, the Fleet enables us to interfere with the enemy's trade and makes it possible for us to bring upon him a pressure which will eventually force him to comply with our will—which is, of course, the aim and object of all belligerents in every war. The only efficacious way of obtaining and retaining the command of the seas is the destruction of the enemy's main sea forces. But to destroy them they have to be found, and found, moreover, upon the high seas, where alone they can be brought adequately to action.

In a study of the naval history of the last 200 years, nothing strikes one as more remarkable than the inability of all our people to realise that the possibility of our fighting and destroying the enemy's Fleet at sea is entirely bound up with our ability and power to interfere with his trade. If, by some arrangement previously come to, it has been settled that in time of war our enemy's supplies shall go freely forward to him, it is very evident that any chance that we might have had of meeting and destroying his Fleet at sea will have almost vanished, for there is no imperious necessity for his Fleets to leave the shelter of their ports at all. So it turned out during the Great War, when, because and only because the enemy's supplies and resources reached him in vast quantities, the German High Seas Fleet never did leave its ports except for the purpose of evading our forces, carrying out some raid which, however successful, could hardly have any effect on the wider issues of the War, and returning again to their bases before our Fleet had time to intercept them, there to remain as a Fleet in being and, as such, a perpetual menace to our command of the seas.

It was because, and only because, the enemy's supplies and resources reached him in such vast quantities that he was able to maintain his resistance for four years, and obliged us thereby to raise in ever increasing numbers those vast Armies for the purpose of bringing to bear the pressure which the Fleet was no longer able to bring. As the War went on year by year and month by month, with increasingly intensive bloodshed, our people never realised how the Fleet was hampered by these diplomtic restraints, and they began to wonder how it was that the Fleet, the greatest naval force which the world had ever seen—the Fleet, upon which they had always learned to lean in time of national stress—was playing so inconspicuous and apparently unimportant a part in this great life-and-death struggle. It is true that the very existence of the Fleet made possible the presence of all those vast Armies on the Continent, but its inability to bring direct pressure to bear upon the enemy was the logical, nay it was the inevitable, result of the Declaration of Paris.

That before the War our Government had no prevision of the manner in which our conduct of the War, or of any future war, would be affected by this arrangement is clear, for in the year 1907 they definitely sought to give up even what remained to us of these belligerent rights. His Majesty's Government, in their instructions to our Delegates at the Conference at The Hague, expressed themselves as willing to abandon the principle of contraband altogether, and glad to see the rights of research altered as might be found possible. In that spirit, and under those conditions, the Conference at The Hague was conducted, and it was precisely those same conditions which pervaded the Declaration of London two years later, in 1909. Of course I am quite unaware of how the present Government regard this attitude on our part, but after the experiences of the Great War it seems at least unlikely that their views can be the same as that of their predecessors of twenty years ago. Nor does it seem probable that they will follow the policy adopted at The Hague.

But if the Fleet is ever again to be capable of offensive action, thereby becoming the defender of our interests, acquiescence in the present state of affairs will be insufficient, and the Fleet will have to be re-invested with its rights. I am, of course, perfectly well aware that such a proposal would receive strenuous opposition in certain quarters in this country, for there are those who still believe that the Declaration of Paris is a useful instrument for preventing friction between belligerents and neutrals in time of war, and that our retraction from it would be regarded with so much enmity as to bring down upon us something resembling universal hostility in time of war. But that theory, if it is a theory, has not in actual practice been upheld. A wavering neutral is all the more likely to favour in the end the British Empire successfully waging war with a full offensive force, than a British Empire hesitating and showing weakness, for it is strength and not weakness which attracts neutrals, as was proved by the late War.

We began by declaring our intention of waging war according to the precepts of the Declaration of London, and with a view of conciliating neutrals we issued Orders in Council which, so far from effecting the purpose, created difficulties, vexatious and even dangerous. When in February, 1915, we informed the neutral Powers of our intention not only of withdrawing from them the protection which the Declaration of Paris was supposed, or intended, to give to their trade, but also imposing upon it certain much larger and more stringent conditions than had ever been contemplated, that virtual withdrawal of ours from the Declaration of Paris did not turn one single neutral into an enemy. Later on, in March, 1917, an even stronger action on our part was actually followed shortly afterwards by the entry into the War, on our side, of the principal of the neutrals—namely, the United States of America.

The fact of the matter is that these fears of universal hostility are really founded upon an entire misconception of the nature of neutrality, and a forget-fulness of the existence of the British Prize Courts. The British Prize Courts, administering International and not British Prize Law, are a guarantee that neutral rights will always be upheld and enforced. But these neutral rights do not include, and cannot include, a right to trade in war exactly as if no state of war existed. That is impossible. What a state of war does is this: it imposes upon neutrals certain new obligations, and always must do so, because of their claim to neutrality. The chief of these obligations is abstention, absolute and entire abstention, from anything which may help either side in the conduct of his hostilities.

There are also those who argue that the very volume of our trade and shipping is one of the chief causes of its vulnerability, and that it is owing to this, and to the fact that we are entirely dependent upon the continuance of our trade, that the Declaration of Paris is of greater use to us than to any other Power. Surely that is an argument which is based upon a fallacy, for the very volume of our trade so far from from being a source of vulnerability is one of the causes of its safety. Its very volume is one of our principal strengths. It is owing to the great volume of our trade and shipping that during the War this country and its Allies were enabled to be supplied from overseas, always under the protection of the Fleet and not under the protection of any Declaration of Paris. To suggest, as the holders of this opinion must suggest, that this immunity of and protection for our trade is to be gained by its transference to neutral ships, is really to suggest the extinction of the mercantile marine and our dependence in time of war entirely on neutral shipping and neutral owners.

Nor can any objection really be taken to our retraction from the Declaration of Paris on the ground of sanctity of treaties. That Declaration is a mere declaration of intention; it is binding, of course, upon its signatories so long as they remain signatories, but there is no reason, moral or legal, why any of them should not retract from it at any time they like. If, therefore, it could be decided by the Government, and by them made known to all the world, that in any future war in which we might unhappily be engaged our Fleet would be used with its full offensive strength, as in the old days, our power in the world would become once more what it was in the past—a naval, and not a military one, not only securing us against the necessity of ever again having to break forth into vast military operations, but securing also Europe in a large degree from the continuation or the extension of any military conflagration that may break out there. But, if that is not done, it is very certain that the days of sea power, with all its restraining influence upon war, are over and done with. And even in that case we shall not be relieved from the necessity of maintaining a Fleet equal at least to that of any other Power, if only for defensive purposes. Also we shall have imposed upon us the possibility of having once more to raise vast Armies; and such a state of affairs could hardly be contemplated with pleasure, either by the Government or the people. But it seems to me that in those circumstances the necessity would inevitably have to be faced, even as it was faced in the last War.

I am aware that this question of the Declaration of Paris is one of high policy, with which no naval officer as such can possibly deal adequately. I am also aware that there are many other sides of the question besides the naval one, preponderating in importance though that is, which must be taken into consideration before any decision on such a question can be taken. But the points which I wish to make and emphasise are these: that the terms of the Declaration of Paris, however beneficial they may be or may be supposed to be generally, must infallibly prolong war when once hostilities have broken out, and it is to the prolongation of the late War that are due now all those evils, social and economic, from which the whole world is suffering. The next point is that adherence on our part to the terms of the Declaration of Paris brings us face to face with circumstances far more onerous, far more dangerous, than were ever contemplated by this country until War broke out and woke us from that dream in which we were indulging, the dream that our interests could be protected by the Navy. A further point is that so long as we adhere to the terms of the Declaration of Paris our unique geographical position will no longer be regarded as a natural asset to us in wartime. Those are the points I wish to make, and which I think nobody cart controvert.

War is a horrible thing. It is brutal, cruel, destructive and demoralising; but, bad as it is, there are things which are worse, and one of those things is a national habit of regarding it as an evil so great that it must and shall be avoided at all costs, and at every sacrifice. For, human nature being what it is, there are things for which nations must and will fight or else lose their nationality and integrity, their freedom and their honour; and any nation which, by word or deed, shows itself either unwilling or unable to fight is by the impression of feebleness which it produces upon others doing, I verily believe, just as much to engender war as do these vast armaments which we all desire to suppress. I sincerely hope then that in our natural and, indeed, our right desire to do all that we possibly can to ease the strain caused by the late War, and to avoid all causes for future war, we shall not go so far as to leave ourselves so weak as to make others think that we will go to any limits.

I trust that your Lordships will not infer from this that I am averse from any reduction of naval armaments. On the contrary, I think that in certain circumstances they can be reduced with safety and benefit to ourselves and the whole world, but neither in such a direction as will jeopardise our lines of communication, nor in such a manner as will leave the Fleet incapable of taking offensive action, which, we know, is the truest form of defence. The truth is that the British Fleet, the fleet of an island situated as we are, in the hands of a people such as we are, who require nothing but the maintenance of our interests and the defence of our shores, is so far from being a menace to peace that it is, indeed, one of the best assurances against war which imperfect human nature has yet been able to devise. A more general acknowledgment of this profound truth would do more towards making easy the reduction of armaments than these Conferences, which to all appearances are almost incapable of bringing forth fruit. We are all striving for peace and disarmament, but I verily believe that by a firm attitude on our part we shall arrive not at peace through disarmament but, I hope and trust, at disarmament through peace. With regard to the Motion for Papers which appears in my name on the Order Paper, I merely make that Motion with the object, if necessary, of giving me the opportunity of replying to any remarks that may be made.


My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord who has put this Motion before the House has, I am sure, moved your Lordships by the stirring remarks that he has made, and has obtained a very large measure of agreement for some of the things that he has said. I think your Lordships will all agree that the British Fleet has been in times past and, as I think, will be in the future, one of the greatest bulwarks of peace that the world possesses or has possessed in history. We shall all agree with him also that every member of your Lordships' House desires by such means as are possible to promote peace throughout the world. With this particular view in mind I say, and I think most of your Lordships will agree with me, that there is no country and no Empire which stand to lose so much by war as do this country and this Empire.

My noble and gallant friend placed on the Paper a Motion in regard to the recent Conference at Geneva on naval armaments. He has wandered rather far from the subjects discussed at that Conference; but he was good enough to inform the Government of the points he intended to make in his speech to your Lordships to-night, and, therefore, I will endeavour to answer them to the best of my ability. My noble and gallant friend raised questions of considerable delicacy which, in the opinion of the Government, do not lend themselves to a debate in Parliament. For obvious reasons no Government likes to discuss such questions across the floor of the House and this Government, of course, is no exception to the rule. There are, however, certain points I should like to clear up and I hope to give your Lordships a clearer appreciation of what is meant by the Declaration of Paris than has been given to-night by my noble and gallant friend or in publications which have been made on the subject. I should like in one respect rather to cross swords with my noble friend. As a member of the sister Service in the recent War I hold, perhaps, a stronger view of the great work performed by the Navy in winning that War than apparently even he does. I think there are no officers in the Army but feel how great is the debt that was owed to the Navy in the War and how great was her share in winning it.

My noble friend referred particularly to the Declaration of Paris that was signed on March 30, 1856. He referred really to only one of the four clauses which it contains. Those clauses are as follows:—1, Privateering is and remains abolished; 2, a neutral flag covers enemy merchandise with the exception of contraband of war—that is the one to which my noble and gallant friend referred—3, neutral merchandise other than contraband of war is not seizable under an enemy flag; 4, blockades, in order to be obligatory, must be effective, that is to say maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the enemy's shore. Your Lordships will observe that there is no denunciation clause in the Declaration, and I am informed that it would be impossible, therefore, for this country to withdraw from that Declaration unless we were prepared to admit that a Treaty which contained no time limit could be denounced by any party at any time. I think your Lordships will agree that that would be a situation and a policy most dangerous for this country to accept.

The only other way of bringing this Declaration to an end would be either to obtain the consent of all parties to its abrogation or to induce the Assembly of the League of Nations to advise its reconsideration "as being a treaty which has become inapplicable" under Article 19 of the Covenant of the League. With the exception of Spain, the chief countries of Europe signed that Declaration by the end of July, 1856, and most of the States of South America acceded to it by the end of 1857. Spain finally acceded to it in the year 1908; but the United States have never adhered to it because they objected principally, in the first instance, to the abolition of the power of privateering. Your Lordships will realise that it would be an impossible task to get all these Powers to agree to the abrogation of the Treaty. I go further than that, and I say that even if it were practicable it would not be advisable for this country to have it brought about.

Your Lordships will permit me to deal very shortly with the history of the Declaration. It is only recently that that history has come to light owing to the discovery of papers. Those of your Lordships who are interested will find a fuller account than I propose to give the House to-night in the British Year Book of International Law for 1927. Briefly, however, what happened was that owing to the Crimean War the British and French Fleets had to act together. At that time the two Fleets had different systems of International Law in regard to the power to seize goods at sea. England used to claim the right to capture enemy goods in neutral ships. France, on the other hand, claimed the right to capture neutral goods in enemy ships. It will be realised at once, of course, what a hopeless situation would have arisen had each Power, ourselves and France, decided to adhere to the rights thus claimed at sea. If a British ship had taken a prize into a French Prize Court the matter would have been decided by that Court under the French law, and in the case of enemy goods in a neutral ship we should not have been given the prize. On the other hand, had a French vessel brought a prize into an English Court the case would have been decided under English Prize Law and the decision would have been different from what it would have been had the case come before a French Court. Therefore, both Powers decided that for the period of the war they would give up the right of doing the respective things under the law as it stood at that time, in order that the situation should be made clear to neutral Powers.

When the war came to an end the question arose, of course, as to whether each Power should revert to the rights claimed before the commencement of the war, and it was thought that it would be extremely difficult for England to revert to claiming the right to capture enemy merchandise under a neutral flag. It is perfectly clear from the correspondence which has since come to light that the Government of the day decided that a suitable opportunity had arisen for making a bargain. Letters passed between Lord Palmerston and Lord Clarendon, who was conducting the negotiations in Paris. I will not go into the question as to whether it was a good or a bad bargain, but it is clear from those letters that the Government of the day felt it was worth while to give up our rights to capture enemy goods under a neutral flag in order to get rid of the power of privateering which had existed up to that time. I may say that although the Declaration was not endorsed by Parliament it is, of course, binding upon this country because it comes under the powers of treaty which exist in the Sovereign, and the Sovereign of that day agreed to that Declaration being signed on behalf of this country.

All those countries which either signed the Declaration of Paris or acceded to it at a later date were asked by this country, and at the instigation of this country, to sign that Declaration as one and indivisible, and therefore this question of abolishing the Declaration of Paris is not a question of abolishing one clause of the Declaration but of abolishing all the four clauses, which means that privateering would become legal and possible. I am sure that my noble friend will agree that if Germany had had the power of privateering in the last War—had had the power to issue letters of marque to ships fitted out possibly as Q ships in other countries of the world—our difficulty in clearing the seas of hostile war-ships would have been materially increased. That this country was justified at the time in abolishing privateering is, I think, proved by the fact that the losses of the British mercantile marine were very great during the years when perhaps our sea supremacy was at its greatest height. Soon after the Battle of Trafalgar considerable losses were suffered by privateering even though the French Fleet had been swept from the sea. Further, Clause 4 would have to go by which paper blockades are prohibited. Your Lordships will remember that Napoleon declared a blockade of the British Isles on November 21, 1806. But we need not go so far back as that for the declaration of a paper blockade, because even in the last War Germany declared a paper blockade against this country, founded on her submarines. Under the Declaration of Paris no neutral country took any notice of it and, therefore, neutral countries felt justified in bringing to this country the many articles that we required throughout the whole course of the War.

So far I have been speaking of this country solely as a belligerent, but, of course, there is the other point of view which is one that we hope will be the case in the next war—that this country will be in the position of being able to declare itself neutral. Clause 3 of the Declaration of Paris says that neutral merchandise other than contraband of war is not seizable under an enemy flag, so that in the event of our neutrality in a future war, if that clause were rescinded it would obviously be a great disadvantage to us. I turn to Article 2, the Article to which my noble friend referred and which he is so desirous that this country should rescind. I think it is only right to say that my noble and gallant friend stated that the Declaration of Paris was perhaps upheld because it was hoped that it would reduce or abolish friction between this country as a belligerent and the neutral Powers. There was constant friction before the Declaration of Paris was signed and, though it is true there was friction afterwards, so far as I am able to understand the Declaration of Paris made very little difference in that respect. Even before the Declaration of Paris was signed many continental countries disputed our right to capture enemy merchandise under a neutral flag. Supposing we were now to claim that right they would say we were claiming a right which they had never conceded that we possessed.

Apart altogether from that it is extremely doubtful whether that right is now in the least effective. What would be easier in these days than for goods destined for an enemy country to remain neutral property while at sea. Your Lordships realise far better than I do, with all the system of international finance and international credit, how easy it would be for goods not to become enemy property until they were, as would be said, out of harm's way. The experience of the last War proved that we should never be able to say that goods were enemy property according to the ordinary rules of municipal or commercial law. Under the rules of the British Prize Courts before the Declaration of Paris goods could only be regarded as enemy property if they were going to be delivered to an enemy country and under contract to become the property of the enemy immediately on arrival. What chance, I ask your Lordships, would there be of proving any such contract? As regards exports from an enemy country the old British prize rule was that if the title of enemy property other than produce of enemy soil had been transferred to a neutral before shipment those goods were not seizable. Therefore once again we should find that enemy goods had been transferred to the title of some neutral Power, and even under the rules of the old Prize Court before the Declaration of Paris it would not have been possible to have seized them and condemned them as prizes in our Prize Courts.

I have endeavoured to show your Lordships that in our view—and we have, of course, taken opinion upon this—it would be impossible for this country to withdraw from the Declaration of Paris even if we wished to do so. I have attempted also to show your Lordships that out of the four clauses in that Declaration the abrogation of three of them would be of undoubted and great disadvantage to this country and that the abrogation of the fourth would be, to put it mildly, of very doubtful advantage. I do not know that there is anything more that I can say to your Lordships. I have not gone into the question of what occurred at the Naval Conference at Geneva. I am not sure whether that is likely to be discussed in your Lordships' House at a future date and perhaps your Lordships would not wish me to say any more about it on the present occasion.


My noble friend the noble Earl has not said anything about the position of the United States of America and Japan, which was referred to.


I am not sure about the position of Japan. I thought I had told your Lordships' House the position of the United States. The United States did not conform to the Declaration of Paris and therefore it is not in operation between the United States and this country.


My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord who opened this discussion made a speech of much interest, not merely because he spoke to us with great knowledge, but because it was a speech made from the regular point of view of the Admiralty, and that in itself is a difficulty. As far as I could make up my mind the conclusions of his argument were these:—He was in favour of reduction of naval armaments provided it was all round. He was in favour of that kind of economy, but he wanted to accompany it with our withdrawal from the Declaration of Paris. He thought we should be safer and better off from a naval point of view if the Declaration of Paris did not bind us. I thought that the noble Earl opposite demolished that part of the case. We cannot withdraw from the Declaration of Paris and if we did we should get into trouble of other sorts than those of which the noble Earl spoke. What would be the use of going into propositions for reduction of armaments if they were accompanied by a proposal to withdraw from the Declaration of Paris? It would be said, for instance, that if you resume the right of privateering it will be all the more necessary to maintain cruisers—and cruisers of considerable dimensions—to look after these privateers; in fact, the very thing which we have been arguing against would be brought up against ourselves if the policy of the noble and gallant Lord were adopted.

I was very glad that the noble and gallant Lord expressed himself so clearly about disarmament—that is to say, about all-round reduction of armaments—because I am sure that is the true policy in this matter. I am quite ready to concede, having regard to the vast experience which we obtained in the last War about happenings at sea, that any proposal to revive the policy of the Declaration of London will require consideration in the light of that experience. It is new matter and it has to be taken into account. That at present is an academic question and therefore we need not waste time over it, but when you come to disarmament you have to be on very sure ground, and if I were to make any criticism of what the present First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Bridgeman, said at Geneva in the three speeches which are printed, it would not be criticism of his tone or temper, because I think these were excellent, nor upon his tender of specific information. It would be that he spoke too much, like the noble and gallant Lord, as a sea dog speaks when he deals with these things. If you want to get any agreement for restriction of armaments it is essential to my mind that it should come from a larger point of view than merely that of the question of the armaments immediately concerned.

When the noble Earl opposite went to Washington, where he negotiated with such conspicuous success in 1921, the ground was to a considerable extant known before he got there and when he got there he was able to use his materials. But at Geneva one has the impression—at least, I have the impression—that the naval propositions were too much thrown at the heads of the people with whom we were dealing. The question of disarmament is a very difficult one, because it depends on the special circumstances of several Powers—circumstances which may be different in each case. There was no difficulty here, I gather, with Japan. Admiral Saito was able to concur in the proposals which were brought forward by Mr. Bridgeman, or at least it appeared so. The difficulty came from the United States, and why did it come from the United States? I think very largely because there had not been nearly enough of that preliminary discussion which is essential if you are to have a good chance of getting an agreement. To my mind, as I have said, the proposal of the noble and gallant Lord, that we should withdraw from the Declaration of Paris, would have been fatal to any chance of getting American acceptance of our proposals, but I go further than that. I think these proposals have to be put forward on a wider basis than that of merely naval efficiency. Naval efficiency, yes. You want the guidance of the Navy in your specific proposals. You want the guidance of the Navy to tell you how far you may go and why you may not go farther; but when you have got these technical details—and they are very technical—they have to be turned into another form.

What I would have wished to see done before we raised this question at Geneva at all was that our plans and our necessities should have been fully described in a document prepared, not by the Admiralty—prepared with the assistance of the Admiralty, if you like, but prepared by the Government of the day, and, by preference, with the aid of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and that document should have gone into all the wide questions of policy which proposals of disarmament raise. For instance, there was the question of 8-inch guns on cruisers. We probably could have given good reasons both for thinking that we wanted a number of cruisers more than were to be willingly conceded to us and that we could do with smaller guns, but I should have liked to see that reasoned out, and I should have liked the Americans on the other side to have reasoned out their case for having 8-inch guns instead of smaller guns. I do not mean that these things should be merely technically set our, but I do mean that they should be set out in a document of a diplomatic character having such persuasive powers as there could not be if it was merely a departmental matter. The misery of Geneva was that it was an Admiralty affair, and in saying that I am not reflecting in any way on Mr. Bridgeman, who, I think, showed great good temper and tact, or on Mr. Gibson. It is simply that if you are going to hope for agreement on a matter so complicated as relative disarmament it seems to me to be essential that you should negotiate it out beforehand and negotiate it out diplomatically as well as technically.

It was a mistake to go to Geneva until you had come to a preliminary agreement. If the noble Earl opposite could have taken himself to Washington and with his persuasive powers put these things forward, I think it is possible we might have come to a basis which could have been turned into an agreement at Geneva, but I am not at all surprised when I read of the way in which the thing was, as it were, in the most polite and persuasive and kindly manner thrown at the head of the Americans, that they should not have agreed. The Americans on the other hand did not give us any materials on which we could say whether we differed or not. The result is that until the matter is taken in hand in another way I am not very hopeful of getting disarmament of any consequence at Geneva. That does not mean that I am hopeless about the situation. Mr. Bridgeman ended in a really good temper the third of his speeches, and I do not see why this matter should not come on again. I do not see why it should not be resumed, and I hope that when it is resumed it will be resumed in the fashion I have spoken of, in the manner of preparing the requisite documents diplomatically and with the aid of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Then you will get the whole of the technical assistance from the Admiralty as at present, but you will also get other assistance, and the whole thing will be looked at from a wider point of view. You will have a chance of sending something in advance to the United States and of seeing how far it is possible to negotiate an agreement between yourselves and the United States on broad lines. Only do not take it to Geneva until you have done that.

The mistake has been that we had not done nearly enough of that kind of work before the recent Conference. I say this because I am keenly interested in disarmament. I think it is our only way of getting any considerable economy, and I think further that if you get disarmament between the United States and this country and Japan you will also find Franco and Italy, who are standing out, feeling themselves compelled to come in, and if they come in then we shall get disarmament all over the world. To me, therefore, it is of supreme importance that this principle should prevail, and that it should prevail, if it cannot prevail further, to the extent at least of our getting round a table and talking about it, not in formal technical language but in diplomatic language, with the full materials communicated beforehand to each Power concerned. But if that is to be done, I am afraid we cannot listen to the suggestion of the noble and gallant Lord that the Declaration of Paris should be repealed or that we should withdraw from it. I am entirely content with the statement made on the subject by the noble Earl opposite. I thought he completely knocked the bottom out of the case for withdrawing from the Declaration. It would not do us any good and it might do us a great deal of harm, while it would certainly preclude our coming into a good position for negotiations for disarmament. Accordingly, speaking for myself, I am satisfied with the position that the Government has taken up to-day, though this does not make me feel the less that we owe a good deal to the noble and gallant Lord who introduced the Motion for bringing before us with special thoroughness and knowledge the topic that has been very profitably discussed this afternoon.


My Lords, I think that after the speeches to which we have listened there is very little that I can say with advantage to your Lordships on the present occasion. I might incidentally answer a question put by my noble friend, the noble Duke, who made a reference to Japan.


The point was alluded to before, that of the principal naval Powers neither the United States nor Japan were signatories to the Declaration, and it was asked what in consequence our position would be in that regard.


The United States certainly is not a signatory, but I believe I am correct in saying that Japan has informally joined, if not formally, and that during the war with Russia Japan acted upon the Declaration of Paris and all the decisions of her Prize Courts were made in accordance with that Declaration. Whether that procedure was preceded by formal adherence to the Declaration of Paris I cannot say with any assurance, but I think my noble friend may take it that Japan does adhere to that instrument. After the speech of my noble friend Lord Stanhope I think the House will agree with him and with the noble and learned Viscount opposite that the actual suggestion of my noble and gallant friend who moved this Motion is one which cannot be carried into practical effect. I do not feel called upon to offer an opinion one way or another upon that ancient instrument, the Declaration of Paris, but I feel perfectly certain that there are two insuperable objections to its abolition. One is that, from our point of view, it would not be in conformity with our interests, and another is that, from a diplomatic point of view, it is wholly and utterly impossible. By those who think with my noble and gallant friend it may be put aside as a counsel of perfection, as a policy that they would like to see carried out, but the idea that it can be carried out by any diplomatic means in our power or, indeed, in existence must, I think, be put on one side without further consideration.

The noble and learned Viscount opposite, in the short but, if he will allow me to say so, judicious speech dealing with a very delicate subject which he has just delivered, gave us some advice for the future which, I suppose, carried with it some implicit criticisms on the past. He seems to think that we managed our affairs at Geneva last July without due consideration. It is both easy and legitimate to make criticisms after the event. We learn by experience, and the admitted ill-success of the Geneva Conference, no doubt, suggests that when, as I earnestly and sincerely hope, this subject is again resumed, in the conduct of any negotiations that may then take place we shall certainly not be so foolish as not to learn what we can learn from the past. The subject is a difficult and delicate one. It is not one which, I think, can with great advantage be discussed in debate, either in this House or in the other House. I do not think that much is gained by the sort of statements that will be made on one side and the sort or answers that will be made on the other They almost certainly lead not to harmony but to discord, not to peace but to differences of opinion which seem irreconcilable. I do not believe that these differences of opinion are irreconcilable, but I admit to your Lordships that they are difficult of reconciliation. It requires a full understanding of the position of all the countries concerned before we can hope for an agreement.

This is a subject that has to be looked at from all points of view. My noble and gallant friend, for example, did not consider the position either of this country or of any country when it was neutral. His whole interest was in our efficiency as a belligerent when we were at war—a very proper view for a sailor to take, but I hope that we shall very seldom be at war and I hope that we shall be far more seldom at war than other people. Accordingly our position as a neutral when war is going on is one that has to be considered, as well as the much rarer position of our being a belligerent with other people as neutrals. All sorts of difficult and delicate questions are raised, and one of the most difficult is that the circumstances under which the Declaration of Paris was made are materially different from those that exist now. I am given to understand by those who have more intimate technical knowledge in these matters than I have that enemy's goods—goods that are really and truly enemy's goods—may be disguised beyond all power of recognition under modern methods as neutral goods. They may in fact belong to one of the belligerents, but from every legal point of view, from every point of view which a law court would be able to take into account, the ownership would be concealed, and the provision on which my noble and gallant friend sets such store would really be proved in practice to be almost ineffective. However, I do not go into that point and I think it is much better not to go into these incidental discussions.

My noble and gallant friend made an excellent speech. He showed, as he would be expected to show, a full appreciation of many aspects of naval warfare and, if I have a criticism to make upon that part of his speech, it is only to repeat the criticism already made by my noble friend near me—the criticism, I mean, that he surely under-rated the part which the British Fleet and my noble friend himself, who is a most distinguished officer in that Fleet, played in the late War. My own personal opinion is that but for the British Fleet the War would indeed have come to a much more rapid end than it did, or than my noble and gallant friend thinks would have been the case if there had been no Treaty of Paris. In my opinion the end would have been a very different end from that which as a matter of fact crowned with success the efforts of the Allies. I do not see how, without the British Fleet, the War could have lasted a year. If Germany had had the command of the Seas, and we had not, I am quite unable to see how French resistance would have been possible. In my opinion, for what it is worth, it would have been a matter of months, and I hope that my noble and gallant friend, one of the most distinguished ornaments of the British Navy, will not belittle the efforts and the extraordinary part which the great profession to which he belongs really played in the successes of the Great War.

I think the discussion has not been without its uses, and I trust that the future will bring better success than the past to these negotiations for a diminution of armaments, on which all of us set such store, but the inherent difficulties of which, while fairly obvious before the Geneva Conference broke down, became even more obvious then. As regards the questions both of maritime and land armaments, I believe we are going to have another debate shortly, and I do not think it is necessary that at the present moment I should further trouble your Lordships.


My Lords, in asking leave to withdraw my Motion I should like to say a few words, and to apologise for detaining the House. Lord Balfour, in his very kind remarks, rather indicated that I had only regarded the matter from a purely naval point of view. I should be extremely sorry if I had made that impression upon the House.


I said the belligerent point of view. The noble and gallant Lord dealt with Great Britain at war, but not at peace.


If that is the impression I created I am rather sorry, because I thought I ended my speech by saying that although I, as a naval officer, could only take one view, namely, the naval point of view, I did, and do, fully realise that there are other very grave aspects, to which I have listened with the greatest attention. I said that in raising this question I had no intention of merely pushing my point of view, but that I did wish to impress upon the House the certain inevitable results which must follow upon certain circumstances, which in my view we cannot get out of. Whether those circumstances are so bad or so good as to be taken or left is a matter on which I cannot express an opinion. I thank your Lordships for listening to me and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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