HL Deb 11 December 1934 vol 95 cc179-85

My Lords, I trust I have your permission to make a statement with regard to a matter which I believe to be of real importance not only to myself but to this House. I have consulted the Leader of the House, and also the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, as to the propriety of raising the matter in this House, and they were both good enough to say that they thought it right that I should raise it, and therefore I do so, to-day. It has reference to a debate which I initiated on national and Imperial defence some time ago, and to the comments made thereon by the newspapers controlled by the noble Viscount, Lord Rothermere, who has for many years been a member of your Lordships' House, although I do not know whether he has taken his seat.

The matter is, I believe, of a serious nature. The debate which I initiated assumed great importance, of course after I had spoken, for the Leader of the House made a long and important statement on national and Imperial defence, and Earl Beatty, as representing the Navy, and the noble Earl, Lord Midleton, an ex-Secretary of State for War, also took part in the debate. As I know, it was widely reported, not only in this country and almost verbatim in The Times and other newspapers, but also in countries all over Europe. Not on the next day but on the following day—the debate took place on November 14, and on November 16 there appeared this statement in one of the newspapers which Lord Rothermere controls, under enormous headlines, calculated to draw the attention of millions of readers: Grossly inaccurate statement in the House of Lords. Official War Office figures. Very many more thousands than stated by Lord Mottistone. All that with reference to the German air strength towards the end of the War.

Following that, the same evening appeared still more injurious statements by the Evening News, which is also controlled by Lord Rothermere: To overestimate danger is the part of wisdom. What is folly, and wicked folly at that, is to do as Lord Mottistone did on Wednesday night and grotesquely understate facts and figures that are available for anybody who cares to refer to them. Lord Mottistone said: 'During the last War, towards the end, Germany had 3,000 aeroplanes.' The fact, however, is that at the end of the War, those entrusted with the aeronautical disarmament of Germany had 14,731 aeroplanes handed over to them. We are not so much concerned with the reasons for Lord Mottistone's distortion of the facts"— injurious words those— he was pleading for a bigger Army and Navy and discounting, as bigger Army and bigger Navy men habitually do, the potentialities of aerial warfare—as with the facts themselves. We have the fact that by the end of the War, with the blockade in full force and with aeroplane construction still in its technical infancy, Germany had accumulated over 14,000 aeroplanes. Those are very strong words to use of a member of this House by another member of this House, who, if he did not dictate the words, is without doubt responsible for them. Indeed, from a telegram which I will presently read, your Lordships will see that he does not disclaim responsibility—not for the words but for the policy.

Now I am here to say, my Lords, that when a man becomes a member of this House, as I have been for only a year and a-half, although I was for twenty-five years a member of the House of Commons, it is proper that he should conform to the good principle which has obtained in the House of Commons all through my recollection, and indeed, I suppose, for all the time we can remember—namely, that no member of that House, of the House of Commons, should make a bitter and venomous attack in a matter of high public importance, as this was, upon another member, thus throwing discredit not only upon the man himself but obviously upon all those who followed him in the debate but did not question his figures and ex hypothesi acquiesced in these mischievous distortions of fact—he should never do it, or permit it to be done, except by himself coming and making these gross accusations on the floor of the House, where he can be answered at once. I consider, and I trust your Lordships will support me in saying, that it is a good rule, a good plan, that no member of a House of Parliament should attack another unless on the floor of the House, where he can be answered forthwith.

I invited the noble Lord, Lord Rothermere, or his editors to withdraw and apologise, and, unable to gain satisfaction, as I have said, after consultation with the noble Viscount on the Woolsack and the Leader of the House, I bring the matter before your Lordships to-day. I told Lord Rothermere that the Leader of the House had announced that a statement would be made to-day, and that the matter was a grave one, and invited him to be present, by letter and telegram. I received this telegram: If any aspersions had been cast upon you by any newspaper of which I was a director I should have been the first to repudiate them. No one has over imagined for one moment that you intentionally misled tae House of Lords, or would mislead the House of Lords under any circumstances. I exercise a general political control over the Daily Mail. I was not acquainted with the statements made about your speech before publication. I have, however, gone into the matter very carefully since, and would prefer your statements were described as incautious instead of misleading. The editorial staff of the Daily Mail have sent me folly documented statements regarding the number of British and German planes at the end of the War. These figures bear little resemblance to your own."— I would ask your Lordships to remember this passage— I think if you had refreshed your memory before making your speech it would have been better, but then, after all, being as we are only human it is so easy to make mistakes over figures. I am going to the Continent next week to fulfil an old-standing engagement, but if later on you like to stage a debate in the House of Lords on the general question of aerial armaments I promise you I will attend and speak.—ROTHERMERE. Now this is a baffling telegram in so far as it is a friendly message from one man to another.

I gladly say that I know Lord Rothermere and have known him for some time, and the last thing I want to do is to have a personal quarrel with him, but on the big issue of responsibility to your Lordships it makes the matter far worse. Of course, had I really made grossly inaccurate statements, had I really distorted the truth, which I am told is a synonym for a lie, it would have been wrong of him, I think, to have thus attacked a member of the House except on the floor of the House; but if he is entirely and fantastically wrong, as I think I can prove to your Lordships, I must say I find it difficult to do other than denounce Lord Rothermere for not being here to-clay, or not having come here before to-day, to hear what I have got to say in the presence of your Lordships and either make good his attack or withdraw and apologise.

These are the facts, and never has there been a clearer case, as I hope your Lordships will agree. It will take me five minutes to settle this matter. I was speaking, as some of your Lordships who are here will remember, about the danger of wild exaggeration to recruiting and to national defence, and I pointed out that never was that danger greater than in relation to the wild statements about air bombardment which were, in my view, the cause of the fall in recruiting, because recruits said: "What is the good of joining anything under a voluntary system if we are going to be done in any way?" I tried to demolish the fantastic theory that this country's population can be decimated in a day, and I said that towards the end of the War Germany had 3,000 aeroplanes, and again I quoted the approximate number of 3,000 German aeroplanes in comparison with England's 3,300. For this I was denounced and told I should have quoted the number of 14,000. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that to have quoted such a figure would indeed have been a wild exaggeration. That figure included aeroplanes in all stages of repair and disrepair. What we have got to consider is, as anybody can see, what was the force available at the end of 1918 to destroy this country or partially destroy it by air bombardment? Clearly nothing more than the total first-line force available.

I have here the statement of the then Air Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, in introducing the Estimates on March 14, 1923. Every figure which I quote is an Air Ministry figure verified by the historical section: In November, 1918, at the end of the War the Royal Air Force was composed of 30,000 officers, 263,000 airmen, and 3,300 Service aeroplanes. That is what the Royal Air Force was composed of. Therefore if I had quoted any higher figure than that I clearly should have been wrong. Bearing in mind that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, reminded us in the same debate that we were the strongest air Power at the end of the War, as everyone knows, one begins to see that I could not have been wrong; but in order to make the thing abundantly clear I asked the Secretary of State for Air, who is in his place to-day, I am glad to see, if he could tell me the figures for Germany as compared with England, and this is the answer that I got.

It states that For purposes of considering the damage which may be caused by air raids it is obvious that the highest possible figure that could be taken would be that of all first-line aircraft. This was the figure used, as shown by the figure of 3,300 given for British aircraft. If there had been any question of giving the total number of aircraft in possession of Germany at the end of the War, or surrendered to the International Commission of Control—namely, 14,731—the corresponding British aircraft figure would be 22,098, which was given by General Seely— that is, myself— in answer to a question in the House of Commons on the 25th February, 1919. Here comes the extract which the Secretary of State was good enough to have sent to me from the secretary of the historical section of the Air Ministry: According to a figure given by the Reicharchiv the establishment of first-line aeroplanes on the Western front at this date— that is, the end of the War— was 2,390. If first-line aircraft on other fronts are added to this figure, it is clear that 3,000 is a reasonable estimate of Germany's first-line strength the world over at the end of the War. I trust there is no noble Lord in this House who does not appreciate that, unless the noble Viscount, Lord Rother-mere, wishes to say that the historical section of the Air Ministry are themselves guilty of distortion of facts, I have made good my case absolutely, and there is no answer to it whatever.

I stated a figure of 3,000. I have been accused of telling a lie in so stating it. The same figure is given, for the same purpose in every respect, by the historical section of the Air Ministry. Were the noble Viscount in his place now, I have no doubt that he would at once stand up and say: "I am sorry I have been completely misled. Having been myself Secretary of State for Air I do not dispute the accuracy of the statements which have been made. I withdraw and apologise." He is not here. I can only say that I now, here in this House, denounce him for his absence from this House, and that it is wrong that a man should control these great organs of opinion and circulate to millions of people wild statements which he could not possibly have attempted to verify. Had he asked for the information that I have given to your Lordships from the historical section of the Air Ministry, he would have had the same answer, and I say it is high time your Lordships expressed your view, in some way in which you can express it, that these things should not go on. I have said it is not so much a personal matter, but at the same time I was concerned to show that I did not mislead your Lordships' House. I trust I have proved to you that I did not mislead your Lordships, and I promise you, so far as in me lies, I never will.


My Lords, I have listened with considerable interest to my noble friend's statement, because years ago I was in precisely the same position myself. In consequence of a speech or speeches which I made in this place, I was violently attacked by the Daily Mail, and it occurred to me that the language used was actionable. I consulted all my legal friends, starting with Chancellors and Ex-Chancellors and working down to County Court Judges, and everyone of them gave me the same advice. They said: "Well, it is actionable, but a libel action is a very disagreeable thing to undertake. It is very expensive, it means a great deal of publicity, and you will be put to very great trouble. Supposing you are more fortunate than most people, supposing you come across a Judge who is inclined to be favourable to you, or come across a favourable jury, or if you make a favourable impression upon the jury, which is very improbable, you may get 40s. On the whole it clearly is not worth while." In spite of this discouraging advice I proceeded in my efforts, and ultimately, with the assistance of and owing largely to the persuasive authority of my noble friend Lord Hailsham, who was my counsel, I extracted £5,000 from the Daily Mail.

Why does not ray noble friend follow my example? If I am able to succeed to that extent, he probably would have an even more startling success. He is not afraid of publicity. He probably would enjoy it. Now I understand that Lord Rothermere contemplates appearing in his place some day and answering, but I do not know that any specific date was given for his appearance here. I should be inclined to think that it is an approximate date, and that it will probably be found that, for souse unforeseen reason, he is unable to appear at this particular moment, but that at some future period he will be here to reply. There is a good deal I could say upon the subject, but on the whole I think it prudent not to do so. I might prejudice the action, in case one takes place. What I trust is that, if the noble Lord does not get full satisfaction, and if Lord Rothermere does not appear here to defend himself, he will not hesitate to take action and administer a lesson which is richly deserved.


My Lords, I know your Lordships will not expect me, in the absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, to make any comments on the matter which has been raised, but I think that your Lordships will wish me to say, on behalf of the Government and on behalf of your Lordships, that we feel that the noble Lord was perfectly justified in bringing forward the matter when he found himself accused, firstly of misleading the House, and, later on, of having made an incautious statement. I am sure your Lordships will agree that he was perfectly right to raise this matter in this House, which is the proper place for establishing what he deems to be right.

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