HL Deb 29 March 1928 vol 70 cc728-36

VISCOUNT CECIL OF CHELWOOD rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are in a position to furnish any information as to the progress of the American proposals for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy, and as to the negotiations recently referred to by Count Clauzel with regard to the principle of limitation of armaments; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a very few minutes. I only desire to ask whether my noble friend can give us any information on two points. The first is the question of the American proposals for the renunciation of war. I do not know how far those proposals have gone, and I do not know whether my noble friend can tell us, or whether there was any communication to the Government of this country on the subject. I do not know, indeed, whether my noble friend is in any case in a position to say anything about the position which the Government have taken up with regard to it. I certainly feel very strongly that the proposals made by the American Government are of very great importance and merit the most favourable and careful consideration by the Government of this country. I shall be very glad to hear if my noble friend can give us any information on the point.

The second point has reference to some observations which were made, I understand, at Geneva by Count Clauzel, the representative of the French Government. He seems to have said, according to the reports that I have seen, that negotiations were in progress with His Majesty's Government as to the adjustment of the different points of view held by the British and French Governments on the question of the restriction, limitation and reduction of armaments, and particularly with reference to the method by which the naval strength of the two countries should be measured. That is what I understood from the reports, and that, I think, was the impression conveyed by the statements in the public Press. I shall be glad to know whether they are true. I should also like to know whether my noble friend can tell us anything at all about the negotiation which Count Clauzel said were in progress between the two Governments. This is evidently a matter of great importance and we should know something about it, if it is not inconsistent with the public interest to give that information. I remember very well that it was partly, at any rate, in consequence of the difference of opinion between the British and French Governments that it was difficult last spring to make progress in the discussion of the questions in which we were then engaged. I do not desire, at this stage at any rate, to say anything more, but I shall be very grateful to my noble friend if he can give any information on the subject.


My Lords, I should like first to answer the question put to me in my noble friend's concluding words. It is a little difficult for me to say what was reported and what was not reported. I have not seen very many of the English papers dealing with the matter, and I have not seen the procès-verbal. My recollection, however, is that, if Count Clauzel was reported to have said that which my noble friend has repeated, this was a confusion between a report of his words and a general summary given by the pressmen out there, in their usual manner of dealing with these discussions. They cannot give a verbatim report, but they give a general impression. I am pretty certain that I am right when I add that there were two things which Count Clauzel did not say. He did not specify, I think, that the conversations to which he referred were between the French Government and ourselves—I do not think he specified any nationality—and I am also more than confident that he did not give any indication as to the subject-matter of those conversations, and that he did not say anything about disputes over naval matters.

My noble friend wants a little more information, if I can give it him, on the subject of these conversations. The difficulty is that in these days the word "conversations" is beginning to acquire, in regard to diplomatic matters, a rather more solemn significance than the actual connotation of the word itself, and the consequence is that it is becoming rather difficult to use the word at all without giving a false impression, because not only does "conversations" in these days apparently mean something which is not quite describable as negotiations, though very nearly so, but we also have to use the word for ordinary casual talk. These conversations to which Count Clauzel made reference were really conversations in the old sense of the word. They were not in any sense and could not be described as negotiations. So far as I know—I may not be fully informed—there was no formal conference and no notes have passed with regard to any point between these different representatives. What did happen, not with ourselves alone but with other nationalities, was that the technical experts met, some of them in Paris, some at Geneva and some, I believe, actually between those two places in the train.

These representatives, as my noble friend knows, are always meeting out at Geneva in a social way. They meet at the luncheon table and the dinner table and on the golf course, and there is constant conversation and talk going on between them. To use a very ordinary expression, they are always talking "shop." "Shop," to them, consists in the various point of agreement or disagreement that have arisen at the various Conferences they have attended, and in that sense the conversations which took place, I am told, although I have had nothing to do with them myself, at Paris and in the drawing-rooms elsewhere, were with a view to a better understanding of the particular points upon which, as my noble friend knows very well, there has up to now been an unfortunate disagreement with regard to disarmament. Count Clauzel referred to these conversations which he knew had been going on, and expressed the hope, and I expressed the same hope, knowing that they had been taking place, that they indicated that these points of disagreement are really not insuperable, and that with a little more patience and perseverance an attempt to come to an understanding might lead to more gratifying results. I do not mean to say—I am not in a position to say—that I would like to make any confident prediction as to its being a more fruitful result. I am not in a position to do so, and perhaps I am not of a very sanguine temperament—at all events I should not like myself to go very far in the direction of prophecy—but I certainly do hope, from what I have heard of the conversations which have taken place, that there may be an agreement arrived at, and not only with ourselves.

I do not want my noble friend to take the idea, which he appears to have got from Count Clauzel's remarks as reported, that it was mainly, or entirely, with ourselves that this conversation took place, or that it was on matters dealing only with the Navy. I think quite as important a point, and one which was quite as much discussed, had nothing to do with the Navy at all, but was as to a reduction of land forces, a point with which my noble friend is very familiar. That point, with regard to the reduction of effectives in land forces, so far as outward agreement is concerned is in exactly the same position as when he spoke upon it at Geneva last year, but there have been since that time attempts, of course, to arrive at an agreement with regard to the matter, not only as between the French and ourselves, but other nationalities, because it is a point on which there was a good deal of difference of opinion. Of course the naval question was not excluded, but it was more on this point that the conversations took place, and it was to a reduction both of naval forces and military forces on land that Count Clauzel referred in the speech to which my noble friend has referred. I am sorry that I cannot be more precise—not the less because I have nothing at all that I want to conceal—simply because there is no more to be said.

Then my noble friend asks me also about "the American proposals for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy." On that subject I am afraid that I can tell him even less. I will tell him exactly how the matter stands. We are not, ourselves, engaged in negotiations on this matter at all, as yet. We do not officially know anything about it. What has happened is, as I need not remind the House, because the despatches have all been in the Press, that there has been correspondence going on between the French Government and the American Government, based on the text of a proposed Treaty. Those two Governments have not yet arrived at an agreement. Of course, we know substantially how the thing goes on, and the actual correspondence has, I think, without exception, been published in the Press. We watch it, of course, as interested observers, and we have had the text unofficially communicated to us, stated to be for consideration; but we have no certainty that the original text will be the final form when an agreement has been reached between the French and the American Governments. Therefore, of course, until those two Governments have arrived at an agreement, and then, as we are told they intend to do, submitted it to us in a more official way and asked for our opinion upon it—until that stage has been reached it is quite obvious that it would be premature for me to express any opinion at all upon the merits of the proposal that has been made. I am afraid that is all the information that I have upon the two points put to me by my noble friend.


My Lords, I should like to say a word upon what has been said by the noble Lord who has just spoken. I am sure we are much indebted to him for the clearness of his statement, although I am afraid that that clearness results necessarily, as he thinks, in very slight information. I should like to see whether I understand him aright on the two points dealt with. So far as Count Clauzel is concerned, he states that there have been no negotiations, and nothing more than conversations in the ordinary sense of the term. Of course, there is a great distinction between a mere conversation, as he put it, at a dinner table and negotiations of a more formal character, but the noble Lord did express the view that whether there have been negotiations or conversations some progress was being made.

If he can answer this, I should like to ask him one question, as to whether progress is being made in what is called in the Question "the principle of limitation of armaments." I put stress on those words for this reason, that I have always felt that it is a mistake to go into expert detail until the general principle of what you desire is fairly fully understood, and as I read what was going on at Geneva it appeared to me that on that side of the question little or no progress was being made. There was some discussion about disarmament, and the noble Lord himself gave the figures of disarmament in the case of this country, but when you talk about principle what you want to know is whether any progress is being made in a League scheme, backed by the League as a part of the League policy. It has appeared to me that so far from getting nearer to the ultimate solution that we desire there is a tendency rather for people to drift apart, because they are not considering the real principle involved but are too much concerned with matters of detail.

As regards the American question, I understand the noble Lord to say quite clearly that so far as we are concerned we are not officially taking part in that at all. It is regarded as a matter that is going on between France on the one side and the United States on the other, and whatever ultimate form that Treaty may take it has not yet been decided. I only want to say that I admit personally I have great sympathy with what appears to be the effort of America to introduce what is called the renunciation of war, and I hope that if opportunity does occur and the opinion of the Government is asked, or if negotiations commence, all our influence will be thrown in the direction of a real all-round world peace policy.


My Lords, I only rise for a moment to say that in the circumstances I do not propose to press my Motion for Papers, because I understand that my noble friend thinks there are no Papers which could usefully be presented. Of course, that is conclusive so far as I am concerned on this occasion. So far as the American side of it is concerned, I do not wish to say another word. I agree with what has fallen from the noble Lord, Lord Par-moor, as to the desirability of doing our best to co-operate in this movement, if that call be done, but I quite recognise the difficulty of the situation. I confess I heard the noble Lord's explanation with regard to Count Clauzel's observations with some disappointment. I understood that what had happened at Geneva, though it is very difficult to follow these things in the reports which reach us by telegram, was this. Last spring we drew up the outline of a Treaty. A great many of the more important points were unfortunately left undetermined. The most important of the undetermined points, the one, that is to say, which produced the most definite clash of opinion, was the naval question, the question of method. The difficulty of arriving at an agreement over that was the final thing which made it impossible to get anything like an agreed convention.


May I interrupt? That is quite true, it was the final thing, but that was only because when dealing with the earlier point of military disarmament my noble friend himself, finding himself in a minority, very wisely proposed to leave it aside for the moment and go on to the other. But I do not think that my noble friend's recollection is right if he leaves the military question out of account, and makes it even secondary to the other in importance?


I do not want to go too much into the merits of these questions, because they are very technical and very detailed, but, broadly speaking, the view I take—I may have been entirely wrong—and the view I took at the time was that in matters of the Army it was necessarily the big military nations that were principally concerned. In matters of the Navy it was necessarily the big naval and maritime nations that were principally concerned. And, whereas I thought it was reasonable that we should do our best to meet the views of the big military nations on military matters, I thought they also ought to do their best to meet our views on the naval questions. That was the broad line which seemed to me to be a reasonable line to take, and it was because we failed altogether to get an agreement on the naval question that the negotiations were for the moment suspended.

When I read Count Clauzel's speech I very much hoped that there had been an approach to an agreement on this difficult question. Now that it has been explained that all that happened was that some of the experts on each side, or on all sides—because I gathered that there are other experts besides British and French experts—who were concerned were talking casually about it, and hoped to get somewhere nearer to agreement, particularly on the military side, I confess that that is rather a disappointment to me, because in effect nothing was done towards an advance as far as a convention was concerned at Geneva this time—nothing at all, in spite of almost a year's consideration of the difficulties. And I confess it seems to me rather difficult to answer those foreign critics who are now saying that the proceedings at Geneva did not indicate any great expectation of a successful result. However, this is not a criticism of my noble friend's courtesy on the present occasion. I gladly recognise that he has done the best he can to meet our desire for information. I can only express my great regret that he has not been able, from the nature of the case and from the facts of the case, to give us more satisfactory information, or information of a more hopeful character than he has felt able to give.


I wonder whether the House would allow me to say another word. I should like to be allowed to, after what has fallen from my noble friend, because I think it quite possible I may have given him a false impression. It is not very easy to reproduce exactly what has happened when these conversations are going on, but I think that the very thing which he said he was hoping might occur was what did occur. These conversations between the experts are, of course, reported to the leaders of the various delegations; and I do hope that the result of these conversations may result in an agreement on those very points which, as my noble friend says, could not be agreed upon last year. I do not quite agree with him in putting the naval question in such a prominent place in comparison with the other. That is the only difference. But the conversations certainly were upon those very points, and, although, as I said before, I cannot make any very confident prediction, I am hopeful that it may meet with some better result.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.