HL Deb 13 February 1930 vol 76 cc563-74

LORD CUSHENDUN had given Notice to call attention to the negotiations for a commercial treaty between this country and the Soviet Government, and to ask His Majesty's Government whether we may rest assured that any eventual definitive treaty of commerce and navigation with that Government will not be brought into force without the House of Lords being given an opportunity to express its views thereon.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as you are aware Notice has been given of other Questions and Motions referring to the subject of Soviet Russia, and one at least—that of which Notice was given by my noble friend Lord Birkenhead, and which I understand has only been postponed from to-day until next week—will raise a very large question with regard to the whole consideration of the conditions under which we resume, or have resumed, diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia. I do not want this afternoon to anticipate anything that is likely to be said upon that occasion, and I will reserve anything that I have to say upon the larger question until the debate which is to be initiated by my noble friend Lord Birkenhead. I wish rather to restrict myself, moderately strictly at all events, to the Question which appears upon the Paper. It has been stated quite unequivocally in another place that negotiations are proceeding between His Majesty's Government and the Soviet Government with a view to the conclusion of a commercial treaty, and it is with reference to that that my Question appears upon the Paper.

I need not remind your Lordships that a very short time ago a question was raised as to whether or not a pledge given by the Government for the consultation of Parliament did or did not apply to your Lordships' House. The somewhat startling constitutional doctrine was relied upon by the Government that your Lordships formed no portion of Parliament—


Oh, no!


—and that opinion, I understand, was confirmed by the Attorney-General, although, when it was repeated in this House—I was not present myself, but I read the debate—some of the highest legal opinion in the country in your Lordships' House had no hesitation in saying that that doctrine was entirely wrong. That being so, it becomes necessary to exercise a certain amount of vigilance in these matters and not to assume that any promise or pledge given in another place will be applicable to your Lordships' House. I do not know that any pledge in the larger sense has been given in another place. I do not allege that on this occasion there was any statement made that Parliament should be notified or consulted in the matter. But I would like to read to your Lordships the words that were used by the Foreign Secretary the other day, in answer to a Question in the House of Commons. He said, with reference to this question of a commercial treaty:— In any case the hon. Member may rest assured that any eventual definitive treaty of commerce and navigation with the Soviet Government will not be brought into force without the House being given an opportunity to express its views thereon. "The House," of course, meant the House of Commons.

What I am doing now is asking noble Lords opposite representing the Government whether they will give to your Lordships an exactly equivalent pledge to that which has been given in the House of Commons. Your Lordships may notice, possibly, that the words of my Question follow precisely the answer which I have just quoted as having been given by the Foreign Secretary. I ask, therefore, for the assurance that this House will be treated with the same consideration and the same constitutional importance as are accorded to the House of Commons in this matter. I might have been content to rest my case there, simply asking for flat assurance, but I think it is necessary to add that there is only too much reason to distrust the Government a good deal in this matter. This Government is certainly not distinguished for its manifestation of the understanding of economic theory. It has not shown conspicuous ability in that direction, nor has it shown any conspicuous desire to conform to the recognised principles of economic science. It is very difficult, therefore, for us to decide in our own minds to what extent the members of the Government are or are not victims of the same fallacies as their followers. No one can read what is said in another place and on many platforms without seeing that the followers of the Government are making a good many wild and even absurd statements regarding the economic position of Russia, upon which must very largely depend the wisdom or folly of making a commercial treaty with that country.

Without going into any detail, there is no doubt whatever that the economic condition of Russia has been absolutely shattered in the last few years. It is being shattered more and more almost every day. The basis of the whole economic wealth and potentiality of Russia rests upon agriculture; agriculture is and must always remain the staple of that country. At this present moment the Soviet Government as represented—I do not know, I never can quite tell the exact technical position of the various officials of the Russian Government, but Stalin at all events is a man of immense influence and power. Whether he is actually the dictator in Russia does not very much matter; he is, as I say, a man of immense influence and power, and he is engaged at the present time in restoring throughout Russia the serfdom which was abolished in 1861. He is militarising, or attempting to militarise the agricultural districts on exactly the same lines as those attempted shortly after the Napoleonic wars and at various times since then. That has always been recognised as perhaps the mast terrible blot upon the Government of the Czars. That is the course which is now being taken by the Soviet Government. They are endeavouring to re-form the serfdom by destroying the independent peasants and compelling them and those who have any independent position at all to do labourer's work for the State. They are compelling them by terror, because instances have been quoted where peasants refusing to do this slavery have been summarily shot.

That being the condition of Soviet Russia, it requires very great vigilance on our part to determine to what extent a commercial treaty ought to be entered into. We are told that immense orders are probably coming to this country for tractors and other agricultural machinery which is to be used, I suppose, by the managers of these communistic farms to produce corn which the kulak peasants refuse to produce themselves, very naturally, because they are denied the proceeds of their own labour. Many of us would feel in these circumstances that, even if orders were forthcoming for agricultural machinery from Russia, much as we need an extension of our trade, greatly as we desire anything that would alleviate the position of unemployment in this country, the supply of these tractors to Russia at the present time would be simply supplying that dictator and that narrow Government of dictators with the weapons whereby they might continue to oppress these wretched people, who, of course, have no power of resisting such oppression as may be brought to bear upon them.

There is one other question which I hope the noble Lords opposite will bear in mind. It is very satisfactory to have been told by Ministers in the House of Commons that there is no intention on the part of the Government of extending any loan to the Russian Government. When we remember the disastrous proposals of 1924, when I remember, as I do very well, the share in them of my noble friend who has so lately joined your Lordships, and whom I am glad to welcome here—when I remember the share that he bore in those transactions it fills me with very grave misgiving to think that he is still in a position to influence the position of the Government. But we have been assured that there is to be no loan. I hope not only will there be no loan, but that there will be nothing which will be the equivalent of a loan, because your Lordships will easily see that in the case of Russia the sole purchaser of foreign goods, the sole importer, is the Government itself, and, consequently, if that Government were to delude our people, as it is deluding them every day by an illusory promise of vast orders for machinery or for industrial plant, and if, in order to obtain those orders, our Government were asked to guarantee a credit for the purchase of these things—a longer credit than it could procure in the ordinary course of industrial life from the industrial community—your Lordships will see that it would be exactly the same thing as a loan for that amount to the Government of Russia. Therefore I earnestly hope that nothing of that sort will be done. I do not wish to pursue the matter in any detail at the present moment, and I will content myself with asking the noble Lords opposite if they will give me the assurance that is asked for in the Question on the Order Paper.


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot follow the noble Lord who has just sat down into the field of discussion which he has opened up with regard to serfdom in Russia, and the nature and character of a loan, because, as he justly said, there is going to be no loan. He seems to be afraid that some arrangement which we may, in his view, enter into with Russia would amount to much the same thing as a loan. I can only assure him that His Majesty's Government in this matter will act on the advice of the best expert opinion available, and will proceed about their business in a thoroughly business-like fashion. If I may say so with the utmost respect to the noble Lord, there was not the faintest hint of these large questions in the Question on the Order Paper, and I therefore trust he will not accuse me of discourtesy if I do not follow him into what, with the utmost respect, I must describe as somewhat irrelevant topics.

As regards the Question on the Order Paper it is fairly direct, and I trust I shall be able to give the noble Lord some satisfaction. In regard to the first part of the Question—namely, that in which the noble Lord draws attention to the negotiations for a commercial treaty between this country and Soviet Russia—I can say to him that for the moment the negotiations for regulating our commercial relations with Russia have not got beyond the preliminary stages, and no statement as to their nature is yet possible. This matter is being investigated from every angle, including some of those angles referred to by the noble Lord in his remarks. It is not being stamped in any way. I think I may say that His Majesty's Government are as well informed in regard to the commercial situation in Russia as any British Government ought to be, and that is saying a great deal.

As regards the second part of the Question I could, I think, reconcile it with my conscience to say, "Yes," but I do not think that would be quite fair or quite sincere to the House, and, with your Lordships' permission, I would like to give a brief explanation of the situation as it exists to-day. In regard to the conclusion of a definitive treaty of commerce and navigation with Soviet Russia, His Majesty's present Government will follow their own practice in this matter, and their usual practice. That practice was first introduced in 1924, and the form that it took was that of laying, immediately after signature, as a Command Paper, all treaty engagements involving the United Kingdom which needed ratification. I may say here that the last Government did not follow that practice. They definitely discontinued it, and to that extent they treated both Houses of Parliament with discourtesy, according to the notions now advanced by the noble Lord, who claims it as a right for this House to exercise unceasing vigilance over the activities of the Government in regard to the conclusion of treaties.

I have here a very partial list of some of the treaties entered into by the last Government with other countries. First, I find, that four conventions were concluded with the United States about rights in Palestine and other mandated territories. Most delicate questions were involved, but was either House of Parliament consulted by the Government of that time of which the noble Lord was himself a spokesman and a member Was the view then held that unceasing vigilance was required by both Houses of Parliament over the foreign activities of the Government? I find, again, that an extradition treaty was signed with Esthonia. Extradition involves a great many delicate questions. Was it considered necessary to consult this House? Why was not the vigilance of this House required on that occasion? I could give you many other instances but I come to commercial treaties which were ratified with Greece, Yugo-Slavia and Siam. Was the wisdom of the last Government in regard to business matters so much superior to that shall we say of the advisers of the present Government, that they could afford to disregard both Houses of Parliament and conclude these treaties over their heads?

No, the present Government do not propose to follow that bad example. We shall continue to follow the practice we inaugurated in 1924, and, if it is any comfort to the noble Lord, I will quote an answer given in the House of Commons on July 17, 1929, by my right hon. friend the Foreign Secretary. He then said— I am prepared to restore the practice of 1924 and to lay on the Table of the House, prior to ratification, those treaties which have to be ratified. The Government have no intention of departing from that excellent practice in regard to the treaty mentioned by the noble Lord in his speech. A Paper will be laid in both Houses of Parliament and, therefore, an ample opportunity will be given, without raising any constitutional issue about what is meant by the term "Parliament," for noble Lords here to discuss the treaty if they think that by so doing they will help matters. But I feel bound to say, and that is why I have inflicted this statement on your Lordships, that this procedure does not, of course, imply that His Majesty's Government consider that the consent or approval of this House is a necessary condition to subsequent ratification. I trust that that answers the Question of the noble Lord. I have purposely refrained from going into the constitutional issue which he raised, because, although he was himself unavoidably absent, he admitted that that question was gone into very thoroughly in a debate in this House the week before last. I hope I have answered the noble Lord's Question completely.


My Lords, we have no quarrel with the conclusion of the noble Lord. In substance he has been good enough to comply with the suggestion made by my noble friend that the necessary Papers should be laid before your Lordships' House at the same time as they are laid before the House of Commons. Therefore an equal opportunity will be afforded to this House to discuss the matter. I wish the noble Lord had followed his first impulse and merely said affirmatively that he is quite prepared to comply with the suggestion made to him. But the noble Lord could not refrain from making one or two what I might call Party points in his reply. We made no Party points, but the noble Lord thought fit to do so. He says that the late Government did not consult both Houses of Parliament about their treaties. There was a certain extradition treaty with Esthonia, I think, which the noble Lord thought of the very greatest importance and which he—


I did not say that.


He apparently thought it of the greatest importance, because he relied upon it in his argument. He thought we ought to have consulted both Houses of Parliament about the extradition treaty with Esthonia. I do not remember very much public attention having been called to the question at the time. My memory is a weak one—it does not compete, no doubt, with the memory of the noble Lord—but I do not remember that there was any question in the public Press or in Parliament as to our extradition relations with Esthonia. The number of criminals pending between the two countries was not supposed, as far as I remember, to be of gigantic importance. That is playing with the question. The noble Lord seems to think that our relations with Russia, and among other things our commercial relations with Russia, are something to be quoted in the same breath as our extradition relations with Esthonia. The noble Lord will, I think, remember that it was the question of our relations with Russia which led to the fall of the last Labour Government. History may repeat itself. I cannot think that he really supposes either that the matter is unimportant or that the country has such immense confidence in the management of our relations with Russia on the part of the present Government that they think they may be trusted to carry them out without a certain vigilance of Parliament. Circumstances alter cases and they have to be considered in that light.

Then the noble Lord says: "You shall be given every opportunity of discussing this matter, but the Government cannot agree to be bound by your opinion upon it." I do not for a moment claim, of course, for your Lordships in matters of finance equality with the House of Commons. That would be a claim which has never been put forward for many centuries so far as your Lordships' House is concerned. No doubt the matter of a commercial treaty does apply primarily to the House of Commons. But that is no reason why this House should not express an opinion about it. We take care to remember, though it is a little difficult, that the Prime Minister at the very outset of this Government asked Parliament to act as if it were a great Council of the Nation—that is to say, that other Parties were to be treated on a perfectly fair basis of consultation. It is merely in the spirit of that doctrine that we ask that your Lordships' House should be consulted. After all, whether it be the House of Lords or the House of Commons, whether it be the Government or the Opposition, we are all subject to the supreme control of public opinion, and it is in relation to public opinion and in stimulating and awakening public opinion that discussions in your Lordships' House are so valuable.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Marquess opposite really gave due weight to what my noble friend Lord Thomson said. What he stated was—and he gave some illustrations—that the constitutional practice of the present Government, as initiated by them in 1924, gave an opportunity for discussion and publicity in both Houses of Parliament which the Conservative Party, when in power, did not give. That is the point. It is a difference in constitutional practice, and not a difference between an extradition treaty with Esthonia and a commercial treaty, although as a matter of fact my noble friend Lord Thomson gave a series of instances of what I should call commercial treaties, amongst other relations, between ourselves and the United States. I should like to emphasise a further point. I think it is extremely important that both Houses should have an equal opportunity—if you like to call it that; I think it is right—of discussing these important matters. There really is no more important matter as regards the national interest than those which are very often comprised within the terms of a treaty or definitive agreement such as the noble Lord, Lord Cushendun, has referred to, and it is because of that and of our desire to have full publicity that His Majesty's Government at the present time, as in 1924, have adopted the practice before ratification of placing the terms of a treaty or definitive agreement in a Command Paper before both this House and the House of Commons.

Of course the further step—I do not think the noble Lord referred much to it—of approval is a different question. I entirely agree with him in what he says. I was reading the other day a very interesting preface, written as recently as 1927, by the noble Earl, Lord Balfour, to the last edition of one of the best books on constitutional principles, Bagehot's "Constitution." He there states very clearly in far-reaching terms that this House has never claimed a position of domination—that is to say of veto—and further that it is an essential feature of our Constitution that in these matters, and, in fact, in all matters, the lead should be with the House of Commons. I do not think any one will deny that. I have done all I can, I am sure, to respect the rights of this House, but to increase them or to extend them so that they really become competitors with those of the House of Commons on large matters of constitutional principle I regard as quite impossible, and I think it is a great mistake—I do not say it in any threatening terms—that we should not remember our limitations. In that way we have much greater influence than by seeking to become in any sense the rival of the House of Commons.


My Lords, I am not quite sure that I understand what was meant by the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said: "We will lay these Papers on the Table; it does not really make much difference, because we do not recognise that you have any right to interfere with them, but there they are." That appeared to me to be scant courtesy to thus House. It is not supposed that these Papers are to be laid on the Table merely to provide us with an opportunity of reading them. But the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down has gone one step further. He said that in no matter is this House ever to take the lead. I should like to know why.


I did not say that.


There are several things in recent times in which this House has taken the lead and its lead has been ultimately approved in another place. I must say that the one thing that disturbs me is the idea that such powers as this House has are to be slowly atrophied by a general recognition that they are of no value. He did not say it, of course, but that is exactly what was meant, and we find it put before this House again and again. I have said before, and I desire to repeat, that our powers are undoubtedly curtailed by Act of Parliament, and they are certainly modified by the practice which invariably creeps into a House like this after centuries of work; but, subject to that express limitation and subject to that modification, the powers of this House are, by the Constitution, exactly as strong as those of another place. I see no reason whatever why we should depart from that view.


My Lords, I hope that my noble and learned friend will not be too hard on the noble and learned Lord who leads the House. I do not profess to have followed his remarks with any greater comprehension than my noble and learned friend did, but I did think that I detected one thing in the speech of both the noble Lords who addressed us. This marks a definite, if not very dignified, retirement from the position of heresy—ignorant heresy—which has in recent times stated that, in what the noble and learned Lord opposite is in the habit of calling "matters of this kind," the House of Commons is Parliament. At any rate I take it, after the dissertation that we have heard, that, it is quite clear that it is now recognised by the present Government that, when it comes to laying before Parliament information, the rights of this House are equal with the rights of the other House. We must remember, of course, that when a retreat has to be beaten it is not altogether inappropriate that, like the cuttlefish, the Government should surround itself with a cloud of obscuring dark particles.