HL Deb 27 April 1932 vol 84 cc208-17

LORD LAMINGTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, following on the reply given by Lord Passfield on the 20th of May, 1931, the desirability of the affairs of the Arabic-speaking peoples of Arabia, Egypt and the Sudan being dealt with by one Government Office has been further considered; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the next Question which I have on the Paper deals with a subject which I brought to your notice in 1926, and on which last year a very much fuller debate was initiated by Lord Trenchard. It was a more important debate, because sonic alarm was felt by many of us interested in the Near East as to the exact responsibility for affairs in the Near East at the present time. There were so many Departments and so many Governments concerned in those affairs—the Government of India, the Colonial Office, the Home Government and three Defence Departments, all connected with or interested in the general question of Arabian administration.

Lord Passfield gave a very satisfactory assurance at that time. While there were so many Departments concerned in the administration of Arabian affairs he reiterated quite definitely that the Cabinet undertook the control of all issues of policy in regard to the countries concerned. Lord Trenchard was very much reassured by that explicit statement, and I have no reason to doubt that the present Government will continue that policy of concentrating all responsibility upon responsible questions attaching to Arabia and the adjoining countries in the Cabinet and in the Government's own hands. That is the first consideration, but Lord Passfield made this admission in a passage in his reply. He said: But let me say at once that this subject has engaged. … and is still engaging the attention of the present Government, and I am not going to contend that the present arrangements are either perfectly satisfactory or that they will necessarily escape reform as things happen.

The object of my Motion is really to elicit from the Government whether any steps have been taken to put the whole matter on a better footing. It must be remembered that this great Arabian peninsula, more than any other part of the globe's surface, offers a solid block of country which is a geographical unit. Its national characteristics are all of the same kind—it is a great desert country, except for the Yemen. The population are practically all of one race. They have one language, and they have one religion. I think, therefore, that that is a sufficient reason why it would be very desirable, if possible, to have one Department of State dealing with such a very homogenous country.

I have also included Egypt in the scope of my Motion, because Arabia may be considered a connecting link between Asia and Africa. Egypt, although it lies in Africa, is inhabited by Arabic-speaking people, whose religion is Mahomedan. They have constant intercourse with Arabia and many communications, especially with regard to the holy cities, which are mostly to be found in Arabia. Therefore I have included Egypt within the scope of my Motion, because it would seem to be advantageous that there should be a service of officials who can speak Arabic and therefore pass for any part of that area of country. For the reasons which I have given it must be clear that all the questions arising are more or less of the same character. There is a basic understanding between all the people inhabiting that part of the world, and therefore if you take an officer from one part and remove him to a distant part he will not be coming as a stranger.

All the questions affecting that area are really of the same character. How strong is the feeling underlying the various tribes in Arabia was shown when the declaration of a national home for the Jews in Palestine was made, because it provoked resentment right down to the Yemen. Angry protests were made, and in 1925, when Lord Balfour went to Palestine, and then to Syria and Damascus, a very unpleasant incident arose when he was at Damascus. It had nothing to do with the Syrian people or Syria itself, but arose because they were so closely connected with Palestine. There is a wonderful interconnection between all those parts of the East, and it is very desirable, I think, to get a number of officers who can transfer from one part to the other. At present, I believe, the system is to find anyone who can talk Arabic, and post him wherever a man is wanted, without any regard to his particular suitability or to whether he has had a special connection with Arabia. In general, I imagine there is no real service of officers, unless it be in the Sudan; otherwise I think it is just a mixed-up affair—any man can be posted anywhere if he be suitable. I cannot conceive a better reason for having a service of officials of the kind I have just indicated.

Then comes the question of who could administer this service of officials. It seems to me that the one Department which is concerned with all the issues that arise from time to time in that part of the world is the Foreign Office. At present the Colonial Office, who deal with mandated territories and with Aden, are only concerned with Aden, Palestine, and Iraq, but Iraq, it must be remembered, will very shortly be represented at Geneva and therefore cease to be a mandated territory. Consequently, the Colonial Office will deal only with Palestine and Aden. I understand that the Government of India still administers all the posts on the Persian Gulf—Bahrein and so on. I do not think that duty has been taken over by the Colonial Office; I think the Government of India is bound to be interested in the policy in the Persian Gulf. But the reason I think the Colonial Office ought to be eliminated is this. I do not know whether it is so at the present moment, but certainly when the Colonial Office was first put in charge of any mandated territories or places like Aden great opposition was aroused. Because people like Ibn Saud, Chief of the Wahabi in Central Arabia, and the Imam of the Yemen in Southern Arabia, are very important sovereigns indeed, and they say, "What have we got to do with the Colonial Office? We are not a Colony; we ought to deal directly with His Majesty's Government." And I do not blame them at all. It may be a mistaken view on their part, but it is a very natural view to take. And it does seem to me very desirable that you should take away the purview of these matters from the Colonial Office.

It may be said that the Foreign Office is not a suitable Department to deal with a mandated territory; that they made a mess of affairs in Somaliland, and are not likely to do any better in Arabia. The answer to that is, first, that the Sudan is administered under our Government, and I imagine has to deal directly with the Foreign Office. And I would say, without any criticism of those who are responsible for the Colonial Office administration in this country, that it seems to me a perfect disgrace that in 1921, and for six or seven years, you had the Imam of the Yemen sending down his forces to Dthala, a place within sixty miles of Aden. We continued to pay a subsidy to him at Aden, and yet there were the forces of the Imam of the Yemen in full occupation of this place Dthala for six or seven years—a place directly under the Protectorate of Aden, and nothing could be accomplished by the Colonial Office to get rid of this force.

I understand that there has been an improvement in regard to our relations with the Imam, that he is in some way or other more amenable to the idea of having a treaty, and undoubtedly he has withdrawn all his forces from the Aden Protectorate. That was my great charge against the Colonial Office—that they allowed such a state of affairs to subsist for six or seven years. Our country was put into a very ignominious position. I think it was worth while, in view of the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Passfield, which I have already mentioned, making an attempt last May to bring the general administration in the Near East and Arabian matters into better order, and I should be glad to know from His Majesty's Government if they are still trying to elucidate this problem, which, I admit, is very complex, and whether better methods are now employed than was the case two or three years ago. I beg to move.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has raised this Question has such a distinguished career behind him of service in India, and such a profound knowledge of conditions in Arabia and what is vaguely called the Middle East, that I will not attempt to follow him in all his geographical discussions, but I will endeavour, as far as possible, to give him a direct answer to all the questions which he has raised, whether they specifically appear in his Notice of Motion or not. The noble Lord refers in his Motion to the debate which took place in this House in May of last year, when the noble Lord, Lord Passfield, replied for the Government. Since that occasion there has been really no change to report in the situation, as far as what we were told on that occasion by Lord Passfield is concerned. He explained that closer methods of co-ordination were being adopted, and those closer methods of co-ordination have been made considerable use of in the last year, and have been found to work satisfactorily. If I may quote from what the noble Lord, Lord Passfield, said on that occasion, referring to His Majesty's Government, he said this: They have made an organisation which is an improvement on anything that has gone before, and which, we think, secures constant vigilance With regard to minor matters, and the reservation of all issues of policy for the Cabinet as a whole. It will obviously be impossible for me to enter into any further details as to that organisation, but I can assure the noble Lord that His Majesty's Government are satisfied therewith, and do not feel that any further change in the existing arrangements is required for the moment.

The noble Lord went on to refer to the question of officials in Arabia and the Middle East generally, and I was not quite clear from what he said whether he was anxious to secure that only officials whose knowledge of Arabia was above suspicion should be posted there, or whether he was demanding a special service of officials to render administration in that area. But on the question of language I should like to inform him that, so far as I know, in all essential cases officials in Arabic-speaking countries have a knowledge of the local language—a principle which is followed in the Indian service and the Colonial Empire generally, wherever we are concerned with the administration of peoples speaking another language. I need hardly explain that these officials have to go through an examination. The noble Lord referred to the question of Palestine and Transjordania. Officers of the Transjordan frontier force are, within two years of their appointment, required to pass an Arabic language test, failure in which militates against an officer's prospects of promotion and may result in the termination of his appointment.


Does that apply to the Colonial Office?


Yes. The conditions of service of British officials appointed to the Iraq Government service provide that the official will be required to pass a language examination drawn up in accordance with local regulations and that failure to pass the examination may involve stoppage of promotion or, in the event of repeated failures, the termination of the official's contract without compensation. In the Sudan political service, as I think the noble Lord mentioned, officials have to qualify in Arabic also. The same applies, I think I may say, to all areas of a similar nature where a knowledge of the language is essential.

I think it will be obvious that if what the noble Lord meant was the formation of a Middle East Service it would be impossible to contemplate that at the present time. Such a service would have a variety of functions to discharge—diplomatic, administrative and advisory, and, failing the establishment of a single co-ordinating authority, would be subject to vicissitudes of control which could not fail to prejudice efficiency. As a matter of fact, the present arrangement by which the Foreign Office provide diplomatic and consular officers, the Colonial Office officers primarily for administration, and the Indian political service men for the peculiar advisory functions appropriate to the Persian Gulf, works well in practice and is free from many of the objections to which an amalgamated service would be open.

The noble Lord has asked me about the Imam and whether there has lately been any trouble. The answer is that that area has been free from trouble for several years now, since 1928 or 1929, and our relations with the Imam show, I am informed, definite signs of established improvement. I think that deals with most or all of the questions raised by the noble Lord. He will realise that there is really no change of any magnitude in the situation to report, since this Question was last raised in your Lordships' House last year. I hope I have been able to satisfy him that His Majesty's Government are convinced that the present system of administration and control is working well.


My Lords, I only rise to say that my noble friend Lord Passfield, who is specifically mentioned in the Motion, regrets very much that he is not able to be present to-day, but I have had communication with him. I am glad to hear the pronouncement from the Government that the noble Lord has just made because I feel convinced that the present method, though somewhat complicated, works really satisfactorily. This particular part of the world where East meets West is of extreme importance and its constitution is of great complexity. You have independent sovereignties, mandated territories, and colonies, and I do not imagine that any specially coordinated service for the Middle East would deal more successfully with the various points of administration than the present system.

Like the noble Lord who has just replied for the Government, I did not quite gather what the proposal of the noble Lord. Lord Lamington, was. That he criticised, as he did the last time this matter was discussed in your Lordships' House, the present method was clear. But I was waiting to hear from him some specific suggestion as to what system should be chosen as an alternative, and I do not think he made any such suggestion. I feel confident of what the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, said with regard to the efficiency of the various services of consular officers and other administrative posts in this district—that they are efficiently chosen and are very well qualified to carry out the difficult duties that they have to perform. I do not think that the constitution of a new service would be an advantage in any way, and I am sure my noble friend Lord Passfield will be glad to hear that there has been no change in the policy of the Government with regard to this matter.


My Lords, if, as we have been told by the Government, the system works extremely well, he would be a rather fractious individual who attempted to suggest any other. But the knowledge I have of its working myself and, indeed, the very good description we have had from the noble Lord makes me feel that the system works well, not because it is a good system, but because we have such a remarkable capacity in this country for working either no system or a bad system. I listened with great interest to the question that was discussed as to the amalgamated service, and I must say that the complications of that service as described by the noble Lord made me wonder that we really could have different services working under such different conditions and all being well. I am not so familiar with the matter now as I used to be, but one could give a great many examples from the past where there was great difficulty because of the conflict between the services and also the Departments which were controlling them. I am very glad to hear that has all passed away. It is possible that there is not such strain and stress as there was five, six or seven years ago.

As regards the general control of the Departments, what I understand is that we have more Departments mixed up in this matter than in regard to any other quarter of the world. I entirely agree, if I may say so, with my noble friend Lord Lamington, as to the solidarity of the Arab race and the extent to which various difficulties in Palestine are watched all over that great Arabian peninsula in a way that is not always realised here. I recognise also that these different Departments necessarily impinge, as it were, upon the Arabian peninsula in many ways. But is the system—I am only asking the question so that it may have consideration—as good as could be devised? We are told that different officials, I suppose from five or six Departments, meet together and settle matters day by day, and that matters of policy are under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet. Matters of policy that are under the general jurisdiction of the Cabinet are really under nobody's jurisdiction. It surely is much better that there should be some one Minister responsible for policy, and that all these duties and responsibilities should not be shared generally by many different members of the Cabinet, all of whom have great responsibilities of their own. Would it not be better that one Department should, if possible, have the guiding responsibility?

I quite understand that a great many Departments have to be consulted—the Foreign Office, the India Office and so on. No one would deny their responsibility, but is it not better to have one office which would have the general control? That one office would, of course, have to consult these other different offices, but would it not be better than having this diffused responsibility over six or seven different Departments. Such a system often ends in there being no general responsibility at all. I merely put forward the suggestion. I know the difficulties of selecting any particular office for the work. We are at once told that the other offices have much more to do with it. One might suggest, for instance, the Foreign Office. The jurisdiction of the Foreign Office in these matters must be constantly increasing. That is so in the case of Iraq. I do not think we need go back to some ancient history about what the Foreign Office did in Somaliland. That is a very old story, and the Foreign Office has gained in experience since then. A reference was made to the Sudan administration, which, I am sure, is an extremely good administration. That is shown by the fact that in the last few years I think not more than one or two questions have been asked in Parliament about the Sudan. You could not have a higher test of the success of an administration than that. I do not know whether the matter could be concentrated by giving it to the Foreign Office instead of having this generally diffused responsibility. It would be better in the times of stress that may be coming. Arabia is full of movements, full of activity, religious and otherwise, and there should be some concentration under one office, that office having consultations, if you like, with all the other offices that are concerned.


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Peel for the general support he has given to the terms of my Motion, but he rather alarmed me when he said his experience of Government showed that when the Cabinet has decided on an issue of policy it means that there is no real responsibility.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? I did not say that. I did not say when the Cabinet has decided the issue of policy. What I said was that when the Cabinet generally is charged with some question of responsibility, and no specific Minister is responsible, then you have a general diffusion which is not very successful.


General satisfaction was felt last year when the noble Lord, Lord Passfield, gave reiterated assurances that all these matters were very carefully attended to and administered. In regard to what my noble friend who answered for the Government mentioned about the Foreign Office and Colonial Office and other officials, I should like to know how many officials we have now dealing with the area in question. I do not suppose there are more than twenty at most. In such a very small Department the officers have very little chance of promotion, or of gaining knowledge outside their limited spheres of action. Surely it would be much better to extend their area of vision and have a Department from which men would have a chance of rising to high and responsible positions instead of being confined to a small area. One complaint of the present system is that it is so very minute. In such circumstances I do not see how you can get capable people to carry on the various forms of administration. I agree with the remark made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that we are wonderful people, and that is perhaps the one justification of the present system. I have raised this Question once again in the hope that there will be an advance in the management of these minor affairs and responsibilities, and that His Majesty's Government will carefully consider whether something cannot be done to bring about a general improvement. I beg to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.