HL Deb 17 November 1931 vol 83 cc53-66

LORD STRICKLAND rose to call attention to British interests and policy in the Mediterranean; and to move for Papers in reference to the giving of preference to British air routes and centres of air traffic. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships' House for again allowing me to call attention to the importance of Malta as a centre of air traffic, both from the point of view of commercial development and because of the importance of Malta as a most vital centre of British power overseas. Before any more is said, may I be allowed to join in the expression of heartfelt regret voiced in this House on the loss, in the discharge of his duty as Minister for Air, of Lord Thomson? To him Malta and myself are specially grateful because of his having recognised in your Lordships' House that Malta was, by its location in the centre of the Mediterranean, destined to be "the Clapham Junction of the Air."

Since this subject was before your Lordships' House, far-reaching developments have taken place, and startling opinions have been published. At a banquet given in honour of the new Governor of Malta his predecessor made in London a very pessimistic reference in the presence of the then Secretaries for War and for the Colonies as to the difficulties; of air defence at Malta. I do not agree with this pessimism; if the co- ordination of air defence has been neglected, let our Parliament hasten to provide effective remedies. Ex-Governor Sir John du Cane added when he prophesied disaster that perhaps he had "dropped a brick." It was at that banquet left to the then Secretary of State for War, Mr. Shaw, to pick it up; but his reply gave little hope that the deplorable lack of co-ordination between air defence and sea defence and land defence was then going to be dealt with either by the churning up of departmentally conflicting aspirations or by some superior authority with a strong and enlightened personality.

As forecasted in this House a year ago, the competition as to long-distance efficiency has, by mechanical developments, been decided in favour of the flying boat type of aircraft; consequently the natural advantages offered by the harbours of Malta have been greatly and definitely enhanced in importance. I therefore beg your Lordships' House to consider that night flying, which a year ago impressed the public as very dangerous, has already become normally admissible, and has to be rapidly organised as inevitably necessary. The controversy is still in its infancy as to whether the main air routes to the Far East and the South are to be co-ordinated by having Lord Thomson's prophecy as the leading light, that is, by keeping in view that the location of Malta under the British flag and its natural advantages of configuration have destined our Island to be a most important centre of the world's air traffic.

Malta on the map appears to be a little to the westward of the shortest routes, but on this point it may, and should, be said that the slightly longer way round is the shortest way there. On the more direct route towards India and onwards the facts are that, even in the daytime, regular air services are often dangerous when flying in the neighbourhood of the Alps and of the mountainous regions of Central Europe, or when travelling parallel to the long chain of the Italian Apennines; wherefore the straight route recently on trial is quite out of the purview of practical day and night flying, if this is to be operated on regular time-tables. In fact the present "straight air route" comprises many hours on the railway. Large flying boats have to fly low, much more so than small light planes; the reasons are imperative for avoiding the sudden air disturbances of mountainous neighbourhoods, so much so that to-day Imperial Airways on their Indian route include a regular 36 hours' train journey between Paris and Brindisi, which in itself entails a further loss of from five to six hours by delay in Paris itself.

Hence Malta, with its great, although yet undeveloped, air ports of St. Paul's Bay on one side and Marsaxoloc on the other side of the Island, that afford alternative landings according to the direction of the wind, must in the future constitute a principal stopping place on main routes to the East and South including Egypt and the Cape, India, Australia and China and beyond. Until last year Malta was considered too far to be selected for this purpose, but to-day it is an easy hop to Malta for a daylight flight in 10½ hours from Croydon, even with a cheap machine. We have witnessed the morning's Daily Mail distributed and read in Malta the evening of the day on which it was printed. Captain Barnard left England at 4.45 a.m. an Thursday, the 31st July, 1930, and arrived in Malta at 5.40 p.m. having flown 1,250 miles. He left Malta at 4.45 a.m. on 1st August and arrived at Croydon at 6 p.m. the same evening. The late Sir Sefton Brancker sent me a personal letter by the pilot, as did the Right Hon. J. H. Thomas, Secretary of State for the Dominions.

The National Government in England will no doubt keep in power for at least five years, if it does not hesitate to be a "John Bull" Government. We must assume that it will have foremost amongst its objectives the all-British air routes when their adoption is possible and wherever enterprise under the British flag offers openings and when geography and politics allow the wishes of the British electorate to be brought to fruition. From the point of view that a rapid day and night service must keep away from the ascertained dangers of atmospheric disturbances and to avoid the present anomaly of the air service having to be mixed up with a train service, not one, but two alternative routes should be encouraged; the first London-Marseilles-Malta; the second, from the West, by San Sebastian, over Spain to the Balearic Islands and Malta. Unless two routes are well tested as alternatives a monopoly might be organised and lead to political and commercial squeezing, which would be a danger to progress.

Moreover, the possibility of war must always be kept in sight. Si vis pacem, para bellum. It is difficult to-day to believe that compulsory peace can be enforced by the League of Nations in any great emergency, or when no sanction is applicable. Although an alternative route from England to Malta over Spanish territory may at first sight be laughed at, circumstances are in prospect that might revive the strategical importance enjoyed by Port Marion in the days of Nelson when it was a pied-à-terre for the forces of our King on Spanish soil with welcome assent of the inhabitants. Malta, is useful to the Empire as the most important "place of arms" overseas. Most authorities hold that Malta is indispensable to our Empire, but there are those who say that to-day Malta is not defensible against attack from the air. I reply to this exaggerated pessimism that counter attack is always the best defence. Such a defence can be made effective in the case of Malta if men are trained there and kept available in a well organised commercial base. The real problem is—to prepare to counter-attack as far as this is practicable at a cost that is not prohibitive.

The French maintain a regular air service from Marseilles to Tunis—I have myself in eight hours travelled by this route, which entails an hour's stop at Ajaccio for lunch. The Italians have an equally regular and effective service from Tripoli to Genoa. Their route is Tripoli-Malta-Syracuse-Naples-Ostia-Genoa. The latter route is open to interruption in winter on account of weather conditions. Thus, these two Mediterranean Powers are already training fine commercial pilots whose services will be available in time of war. When war approaches, and sooner or later war will be at the door of the nations as surely as death knocks at the abode of the individual, then it will be found that preparation of manpower in time of peace will have been more important than the possession to-day of many machines that to-morrow will be obsolete.

Facilities for alighting and for concentration and for repairs call for years of work in constructing adequate accommodation; on the other hand, machines of the latest type will be capable of production by the hundreds or by the thousands in a few weeks whenever war is clearly in sight. I, therefore, contend that to make Malta as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible the "Clapham Junction of the air" in peace time is the greatest and wisest contribution from the financial point of view that can be made towards the maintenance of British prestige and trade and in the defence of a great fortress and of its dockyard. Since, the days of our Phoenician ancestors the Maltese harbours have been controlled by the most important nation on the sea for the time being.

The development of Malta for peaceful and warlike purposes at the same time can be charged to votes of money so to be expended that the same votes will bear interest and produce permanent and remunerative results in two directions. Whereas, for example, a cruiser built to-day for, say, £3,000,,000 would be little better than unsaleable scrap iron ten years hence, a breakwater at Marsaxoloc would then be just beginning to earn money. In fact there is no more worthy object in sight for the application of the Colonial Development Fund than the completion of a harbour for flying boats at Malta: this is an object which is justified financially because of its twofold utilities for both peace and war.

I am not deterred from repeating and urging concrete proposals for this solution by the threat of having these projects misunderstood as heretofore by any spokesman of the permanent services in this House. Permanent officials were responsible for putting into the mouth of Ministers here that the Marsaxoloc breakwater, originally suggested by that fine sailor, Admiral Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, would cost £25,000,000, whereas in reality on a close estimate it has been proved that the cost would be only £3,000,000. There is a charge at present against the Colonial Development Fund of £3.000,000 to build—your Lordships' House will hardly believe it—an iron bridge across the Zambesi river in Portuguese territory, which bridge, with its railway approaches, is to become the property of the Portuguese in only six years' time. This bridge was proposed to carry to the sea, from African mandated territories, certain crops, most of which have already ceased to be marketable because of a fall in prices that is likely to be permanent. I trust your Lordships' House will hear what the policy of the present Government may be in reference to this waste of money. Experts with local Rhodesian knowledge assure me that if this bridge across the Zambesi were thus built, the traffic across it would not justify the operation of one train a week. As to passenger traffic across this bridge, the old dream of the Cape to Cairo Railway as a competitor with air service has already taken a third place on the shelf together with subsidised steamship services, because of the assured prospect that aircraft will profitably carry the through traffic of passengers.

If the National Government is going to be economical the contract with the bridge company for this iron "white elephant" should be at once cancelled and compensation paid. Other localities can, surely, be suggested for the better use of the iron so contracted for than the African jungle, where the traffic will never pay the cost of the paint necessary twice a year to save such a bridge from becoming a mass of useless rust. I appeal to His Majesty's Government to divert this £3,000,000 earmarked for the Zambesi bridge from being a subsidy for ironworkers to becoming a subsidy for cement workers equally British. Cement can thus be made from Kentish chalk for a useful purpose, which is to build the Marsaxoloc breakwater at Malta. This will be of great permanent value in peace and in war. It will be worth more than £3,000,000 from the point of view of defence and, moreover, the time will come when it will produce reasonable interest on the outlay and give to our British Empire the command of the air as well as of the sea in the Mediterranean.

I cannot pass from practical engineering to hotly debated Mediterranean politics without assuring your Lordships' House that I will be brief in remarking on the many-sided complications centred on Malta. I propose to-day to say nothing on questions of which the solution awaits the Report of the Malta Royal Commission, which has recently on the spot carried out investigations and which, when it reports, must necessarily produce a historic document. In the meantime, a Provisional Government in Malta that cannot to-day be criticised in a Maltese Parliament should not be exempt from criticism at the heart of the Empire. A form of Crown Colony Government in Malta, caused not by the suspension of the elections, but in particular by the illegal enactment of Ordinance V, is like an anaesthetic; it cannot last for ever and, if applied too long, it will furnish further proof that certain remedies may be worse than any disease.

The attempt to re-establish irresponsible personal government of a most arbitrary type has produced in Malta grotesque results so quickly that Imperial officials and the Maltese people may be thankful that the experiment was tried and that the period of doubt as to its inexpediency is over. It has been shown that full responsible government, under safeguards which have been submitted to the Royal Commission, should be quickly re-established. Further proof of this necessity has been furnished by events in Cyprus. In that Island the experiment with a form of representative government that is not responsible has shown that a system that leads all persons and Parties to be "against the Government" is best abolished. Unpaid legislators, wherever the leisured class is too small, go to Parliament principally because elected members hope to get permanent posts and other favours. For one irresponsible person who gets a favour from a Governor and is, perhaps, satisfied there are dozens disappointed.

Possible friends of England swell the ranks of our enemies under a tri-lingual system of education in Cyprus. There large national groups are heterogeneous and cannot be assimilated, there the Press and public opinion have inevitably been "against the Government," and, therefore, anti-English. No bureaucracy can run a helpful political Press successfully. Permanent Imperial officials in such circumstances are surrounded by designing flatterers; hence when foreign intriguers organise a crisis England can have no real friends amongst the local population. Officials are taken easily by surprise by unscrupulous groups, and the policy of abstention from the Legislature in Cyprus and from the swearing in of a Crown Colony Governor in Malta are indicative. On the other hand, abstentions from a responsible and paid elected Parliament are laughable, useless and unattractive. Representative Government that was not responsible was tried in Malta for two generations. It was a horrible failure. On the other hand, Constitutional Government in Malta has produced striking developments of material progress and a rapid moral and educational uplifting of the nation towards the ideals of British culture.

Self-government has not endangered, and cannot endanger, the Empire. It has developed Malta in every way, and it has saved the time of the Imperial Parliament required for appeals to obtain redress for the blunders inseparable from the working of personal government, and of the predilections of overworked officials in Downing Street. These are at times incapable at a distance of a thousand miles to realise tile needs of necessary development required under present-day conditions. They often give orders to attempt to please everybody with the result that chaos becomes chronic. It is unnecessary to add to-day to the examples already before your Lordships' House of these drawbacks of Crown Colony government as recently evinced in eighteen months thereof in Malta.

I beg leave to re-submit to His Majesty's Government the request made already in this House to publish, for the enlightenment of all interested in Colonial administration, the correspondence which I asked for on the 3rd March this year, containing selected examples of such blunders, and I desire to move that the same correspondence be brought up to date, and in particular, with regard to a bureaucratic attempt in Malta at company-promoting, undertaken behind the backs of the established Crown Agents through a temporary Agent-General, who was only appointed for political and social purposes by Ministers whom he has failed to support. He was debarred by the terms of his appointment from meddling in finance. He is still kept in office at Maltese expense when not wanted by any political Party in Malta. A Crown Colony Governor is bound by the Colonial Regulations to employ the Crown Agents in matters of finance. The continuance in office of a non-Maltese Agent-General, who should have resigned when he ceased to agree with the Ministry who appointed him, is an injury which becomes an insult when the Maltese have to pay for it, and when the Maltese Parliament has decided that the post, once established, was to be held by a Maltese.

I trust that all those who are in His Majesty's Government to-day will exercise caution in reference to any one interested in depriving the loyal Maltese of their rights, and of their hopes of development as a nation under the Union Jack. It is a duty in conclusion to record a warning: if there is long delay in interpreting the promise of the new Governor as to his personal endeavour for the re-establishment of self-government, Imperial authorities will lose prestige in a fortress to the detriment of its efficiency. Let there be no reliance on false friends open to be influenced by unconstitutional authorities. I beg leave to move for the printing of the correspondence covered by this Motion and by the Motion submitted to your Lordships' House on March 3.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strickland, has in his speech covered a wide area and I shall endeavour to reply to him in connection with the Department I have the honour to represent. I am very glad to see the interest which the noble Lord takes in the development of aviation and also his strong belief in its future. I am quite at one with him in his views as to the ultimate possibilities of air transport. The noble Lord has already raised this subject in your Lordships' House on two comparatively recent occasions and it was then the privilege of the late Lord Thomson, to whom the noble Lard has made a feeling reference, with which your Lordships fully agree, to reply. I am not sure that I shall be able to vary a great deal the reply which the noble Lord was able to give on that occasion.

At the moment, however, when the noble Lord, Lord Strickland, is suggesting the expenditure of £3,000,000 on constructing a breakwater in the Island of Malta, we must certainly have regard to the present conditions and devolopments which may be brought about in the near future. It is quite true the flying boat is developing very rapidly and that its range is steadily increasing, but to make use of Malta for the Indian or African services entails a much longer sea flight than is involved in the routes at present being flown, and then a flight along the inhospitable North African coast under much more unfavourable conditions than those which obtain on the routes at present followed. The fact that Malta has been reached in a light aeroplane in one day from England, of which the noble Lord told us, does not mean that the route could necessarily be used for a regular service carrying an adequate quantity of paying load in the shape of passengers, freight and mails, and working by a regular time table.

The economic commercial range of flying boats is gradually increasing, but at the present moment the average economic range may be regarded as about 300 miles. From Marseilles to Malta is 655 sea miles and from Malta to Alexandria is no less than 820 sea miles. Your Lordships will realise, therefore, that the time has not come when these stages can be regarded as practicable for a regular commercial air service, and experience has shown that the North African coast is loss suitable, both from the point of view of weather conditions and traffic, than the routes now being followed by Imperial Airways via Athens and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is for this reason, that His Majesty's Government have within the last year concluded agreements with the friendly nations of Italy and Greece, in virtue of which the flying boats of Imperial Airways now fly from Brindisi to Athens and thence, by way of Crete, to Alexandria, for the African service and, by way of Castel-rosso, to the Sea of Gallilee for the Indian service. These agreements were only made after very full consideration of what is practicable now and is likely to be practicable in the near future, and I see no reason at the moment, either from the technical, operational or political point of view, to think that these services will not be continued for some considerable time to come.

Apart from that there is the very large sum of money which is required to erect this breakwater. The noble Lord has quoted the expenditure of a similar sum for a bridge over the Zambesi as having been produced from the Colonial Development Fund. I am afraid that the noble Lord is not quite correct, or even nearly correct, in his facts. The charge against the Colonial Development Fund is not £3,000,000. It is limited to £500,000 contribution towards the interest on the total cost of the associated schemes, to be found from a loan raised by the Government of Nyasaland and guaranteed by the Imperial Treasury. The bridge is not to become Portuguese property in six years, as the noble Lord told us, but in eighty years; in fact the date is A.D. 2011. The decision to build the bridge and the railway to Lake Nyasa was not taken until the economic possibilities had been studied by a special Mission and thoroughly considered by the Colonial Development Advisory Committee in conjunction with the Treasury. At a time when, in the interests of economy, all Government expenditure is being drastically reduced, I feel that I cannot hold out any hopes of expenditure on this scale being agreed to for a service which, however desirable and advantageous, cannot be regarded as essential, especially when we must have regard, as I would venture to repeat, to our agreements with the friendly nations of Italy and Greece; but I will draw the attention of my right hon. friend the Colonial Secretary to the noble Lord's views on this matter.

The noble Lord also referred to the desirability of night flying on civil air routes. I agree that if full advantage is to be taken of the aeroplane, aeroplanes must eventually fly night and day on air routes. If, however, passengers are to be carried, this is a development which we must all agree must be made gradually. There is a certain amount of night flying at present carried out in conjunction with mail services on the Continent and the Air Ministry are keeping in close touch with this development, but again I do not think that the stage has quite been reached at which night flying can be regarded as normal for a passenger service. As the noble Lord no doubt knows, the number of Royal Air Force aircraft using Malta has largely increased owing to the increase in the number of aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Command. He will also be aware that to meet these increasing requirements the accommodation at Hal Far has been enlarged and the aerodrome is now used to its maxi- mum capacity. The Air Ministry would like to provide a second aerodrome in Malta for which a suitable site has been found at Safi, but owing to financial stringency it has not yet been possible to make a start with this aerodrome nor even to carry out some minor additions to the present facilities for seaplanes at Calafrana. I hope, however, that it may be possible to find money for these services in the course of the next few years.

In regard to the remarks of the noble Lord about the complications in Malta, Lord Strickland has expressed his intention of saying nothing on questions of which the solution awaits the Report of the Royal Commission, but he will no doubt realise that, particularly when that Report is expected, as it is now within a few weeks, there is scarcely any important Maltese question of which it can confidently be asserted that it will be unaffected by the results of the Commission's Inquiry. Meanwhile it seems to me, if I may say so, that the occasion is extremely inopportune for the publication of further Papers and I trust that the noble Lord will not press for such publication until the Report itself has been published and time has been allowed for its consideration in all its bearings.

The noble Lord has made certain other remarks in connection with the administration and the government of the Colony at the present moment. I find myself in a position of some difficulty in the matter, seeing that the noble Lord still retains his office as head of the Maltese Ministry and as one of the Government's advisers and at the same time is raising these questions of local politics in your Lordships' House. I do not think in the circumstances I can usefully say more than that when the Report of the Commission is received His Majesty's Government will give it their most earnest attention and that they anticipate with confidence that it will greatly assist them in handling the most pressing problems with which the Island is confronted.


My Lords, before asking the permission of your Lordships' House to withdraw this Motion, I hope your Lordships will allow me to express my grateful and respectful thanks to the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Air for having dealt so comprehensively and courteously with the whole of my remarks. The comprehensive information given by His Majesty's Minister is certainly encouraging to me and to all those who are devoting their lives and resources in the service of the many Dominions of the Crown overseas. The noble Marquess touched on a constitutional point with very great caution. On that point, may I be allowed to say a few words with less caution? I feel that it would be greatly in the interests of this House and of the Empire if every one of those who have at any time the honour to be principal Ministers appointed in the name of the King overseas were to have seats in this House during their tenure of office and not only when they may be here by some hereditary or other accident. I trust that by some new Imperial Legislation the Premiers from the Dominions may be able to add to the utility and importance of this House, and to the extent of the service which meetings here could render to a Second Chamber Constitution, to the future development and consolidation of the Empire and to posterity. This would be greatly enhanced if Ministers overseas had more encouragement to spend a portion of their term of office in this House, and if any objections were removed to their putting before your Lordships, within certain recognised limits of tact and moderation, views which are very dear to them and those they represent.

As to the accuracy or otherwise of the figures which I have quoted in connection with the Zambesi bridge it is a matter of much satisfaction to be able to ask your Lordships to note that these figures have been considerably altered since they were the subject of correspondence a year ago between the noble Lord, Lord Pass-field, then Secretary of State and myself. A year ago there was no denial of any of the figures which are referred to in the speech which I have just had the honour to address to your Lordships' House, and I take it that the remarks and representations made a year ago have caused alterations and emendations which diminish the grievance that money is being wasted in Portuguese territory. May I disagree with the noble Marquess who has just sat down as to the weight of the differentiation between the guaranteeing of money in this case and the having to pay interest thereon with little hope that the principal can be met by the nominal debtor? If £3,000,000 has been guaranteed on African assets by the British taxpayer then it will be just a repetition of what happened when War Loans were guaranteed to Russia, Italy and other Allies for American gold. The time will come when taxpayers here will have to pay. The £3,000,000 is a charge on English taxpayers, and those of us who own land are little better than unpaid tax-gatherers. Therefore, the financing of the Zambesi bridge is a waste of money. Responsible officials from Rhodesia a year ago were unanimous in holding the opinion—and so were writers in The Times and other newspapers—to the effect that after a few years that bridge would fall into the possession of the Portuguese. I can only express the hope that when the very remote date suggested by the noble Marquess eventuates that territory will have ceased to be Portuguese, either by some exchange, be it for territory or for cash, or by one of those adroit political operations such as the commotion by which the Republic of Panama was established when convenient to the progress of the world and the policy of the United States of America. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past five o'clock until eleven o'clock on Friday morning next.