HL Deb 02 May 1934 vol 91 cc996-1009

LORD MOTTISTONE asked His Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take in order to call the Dominions into consultation with a view to formulating a common maritime policy for the British Empire. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not apologise to your Lordships for raising this matter, which has been debated more than once recently in your Lordships' House, because it is really urgent, for reasons which I will presently give. It is the fact that our mercantile marine is rapidly losing way as compared with the mercantile marines of other countries, and, for various reasons, that is extremely dangerous to this country. I propose that His Majesty's Government should take steps, not presently but immediately, to formulate a common maritime policy for the whole Empire. No doubt it is desirable—and I will try to show how desirable it is in a minute—and I believe also it is attainable, because it is on these lines that the greatest unanimity can be found in the efforts at Imperial unity.

Your Lordships may remember that when the late Mr. Chamberlain started his tariff reform campaign the one part of it which received universal assent from the whole of the Liberal Party and from what was then the small band of the Labour Party, as well as from the great body of Conservatives, was his proposal that there should be an Imperial maritime policy. I dare say your Lordships will remember that Mr. Asquith, who led the campaign in opposition to Mr. Chamberlain's tariff reform movement, was always at pains to say that, though he did not agree with Mr. Chamberlain on the tariff issue, he agreed with him entirely upon the maritime policy issue; and that he reiterated again and again. As that was so then, so I believe it is equally true to-day, for I have ascertained that without doubt all organised Parties in this country are in sympathy with that view, as they were then.

This objective being attainable, therefore, let us enquire for a moment whether any effective steps have been taken to carry out a policy which obviously has the approval of the great majority of the citizens of this country and, I believe, of most of the citizens of the Dominions and Colonies. Apart from that, two very strange things have happened quite. recently. One exemplifies the dangers of not being in close touch with the Dominion Governments, for it shows that they may take action which probably could have been avoided if we had been in closer touch—action which is undoubtedly inimical to our mercantile marine. The other shows the extraordinary lengths to which the policy of subsidies can be carried by another Power in efforts, whether conscious or unconscious, to drive the British flag off the sea.

The first is the case of South Africa. Not long ago, just before the present Government carne into power, an agreement was come to between South Africa and the Kingdom of Italy by which the Italian Government were to pay a subsidy of £300,000 a year and the Union Government of South Africa a subsidy of £150,000 a year, making a total of 450,000, in order that Italian ships might carry South African produce. Of course it is not for us to quarrel for a moment with the policy of Italy in giving this huge subsidy in order to carry South African produce to the Mediterranean or elsewhere. But when there is not the least doubt that the Empire depends upon maritime power — as I shall presently try to show, in greater and greater degree—I am sure it will be conceded that it is very extraordinary that one of our own Dominions should enter into this arrangement deliberately to reduce the volume of our mercantile tonnage when, in the event, of trouble, it is our fleet, as they have always willingly admitted, that is the only one that can protect those ships. It is very extraordinary. The venture in this particular case, I gather, has not been at all successful. Very few passengers have been carried, and very small quantities of produce. But it is going on for a little time yet. The contract was for five years, although I dare say it may be possible to shorten it. It is very undesirable that such a thing should occur, and I believe it would not occur if there were some body to keep us in touch, and in constant touch, with the Dominions.

The other case affects New Zealand. A New Zealand shipping line, for I do not know how many years, certainly fifty years, has been carrying passengers and goods and mails between that wonderful little Dominion and the west coast of the North American Continent. Quite recently the United States Government came along with a subsidised line and the subsidy is so large that it looks as though this old and valued British line flying the British flag may be driven off the seas. Your Lordships may ask what sort of subsidy is given. The High Commissioner has given me permission to snake the statement that the subsidy is not a direct subsidy but is in the form of a mail subsidy amounting to the fantastic figure of £10 a letter. When I asked the High Commissioner whether I might quote that if ever I had the chance he said: "Certainly." It is indeed the fact. £10 a letter!

It is quite dear that we cannot allow that sort of thing to go on and do nothing, because the effect would be, not perhaps that our flag would disappear from the seas, but that it would appear in very greatly reduced numbers. That would be extremely bad for this country. I forget which of our statesmen it was who, when he had given some foreign concession which was unpopular at the time and was asked why he had done so, said: "Well, you must have some friends." In the present state of the world it is more than ever essential that we should have some friends and I will go so far as to say that we do not seem to have any at all except among our own Dominions and Colonies. We ought, therefore, to foster that friendship in every way we can. I have tried to show that these other methods, tariffs and quotas, admirably designed as they may be, have inherent difficulties which make it very difficult for us to proceed as far as one would wish on the lines of Imperial co-operation.

In the case of shipping we can cooperate more easily, or with less difficulty. Moreover, not only is it more easy to get Imperial co-operation in that way, but it is really more vitally important. Some people talk rather loosely of the air having made Britain cease to be an island. I do not know what they mean by that. I see the noble Marquess, the Secretary of State for Air, is in his place. At one time I filled that office and I am sure he will not quarrel with me when I say that, viewed in the larger aspect of Imperial, defence, all that has been done in the way of modern invention, especially in regard to air power, renders sea power for Britain not less, but more essential than it was before. I will not go into the reasons why, but I think the more one reflects upon this matter the more one feels that our fleet should be maintained, that that is of just as great importance as it was before air power came along, not less. If that is so, is it not abundantly clear that our mercantile marine also must be maintained at full strength?

It seems to me—and I submit to your Lordships that it is a self-evident proposition—that whether you are going to avoid the making of special contracts between the Dominions and other Powers, or whether you are going to argue with and if need be defy foreign Powers who try to drive our flag off the seas, we shall be in a very much better position if the whole Empire acts as one unit. I believe that there is not a single Dominion that would not welcome the action I am venturing to urge upon the Government. I understand that the noble Lord who will reply will not be unsympathetic, but if I had any word of criticism to make of His Majesty's present advisers it would be that they do not sufficiently realise that we put them there to take action, and swift action, that it will not do for them to be Victorian and to belong to the Manchester school. That is not why we put them there. They were not put there in order to say that a matter has the earnest consideration of the Government and then, when they are asked what they are going to do, to say that in six months there will be another conference. I hope I am not being unduly combative, but I want the noble Lord who will deal with this matter to tell the Government that here is a thing that wants doing and that must be done. If it is objected that the Dominions will not agree, I say that most of them will. In any case action must be taken, and taken at once, to see how far we can go. I say: "Set up some body to co-ordinate this matter and do it now."


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has certainly justified his intervention with regard to this Question. There cannot be two opinions with regard to the importance of maintaining our tramp shipping. When we consider the services which it has rendered for a very long time, and particularly during the War I think it cannot be questioned that it is absolutely necessary that the Government should take some action on this matter. It is most important that we should carry out the suggestion of the noble Lord who has just spoken and get into communication with our Dominions, and, if possible, get the Empire to act as one concern. Subsidies ought to be stopped and I think that our great Empire working together could stop them. I do not mean that that could be done by giving larger subsidies, although that is one way of dealing with the matter. When it is remembered that this country is the greatest country so far as sales of goods and so far as exports and imports are concerned, surely we ought to have great power in dealing with other countries. Surely, too, we ought to see whether it is not possible for this matter to be dealt with by the Empire as a whole instead of by different sections of the Empire.

Consider what other countries do. Italy, Germany, France and the United States prohibit any British ship carrying on their coastal trade, and there are others who do the same thing in a similar way; and we do nothing whatever about that matter. But supposing we were to put our heads together arid say that we would ignore the question of distance and would prohibit anyone carrying on trade between different parts of our Empire: I think it would be rather a staggering blow to the people who are paying these subsidies. I mean, if we said to them: "Unless you stop these subsidies we shall be obliged to take that action." We could do it either by stopping the ships coining to these ports from the countries who pay subsidies, or by putting an increased tax upon them. It is a question which I think ought to have due consideration. So far as I am concerned I am certain that unless something is done we shall lose a great deal of our tramp trade.

It is not only competition in shipping from which we are suffering; we are suffering from competition in other industries. There is a great set against the British Empire from all parts of the world. We have never had such competition as we are meeting now. We see a great change. Other countries are developing their industries. They have got the best machinery, they have got the cheapest labour, and many of them have great skill. I think we are now in such a position that we shall have to fight if we are to maintain the position which we have occupied for so long, and which this great Empire is entitled to occupy, in commerce. I hope that His Majesty's Government will deal with this question and consider all these matters and do so as soon as possible, so that it shall be clearly known that we mean not to allow things of this sort to go on, and that we will fight for our position. Depend upon it, we have got to the stage now that we shall never regain our position unless we fight for it. So far as I know the British character, I am sure that we shall fight with all our might if we do fight, and the sooner other countries get to understand that, the better it will be for our statesmanship.


My Lords, I think it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the question which my noble friend Lord Mottistone has raised this afternoon. It is becoming clearer to all those who have to study this question that it is impossible for British shipping to continue to face the competition of subsidised foreign ships, and it has now come to a pitch where British shipowners are beginning to sell their ships to foreign lines, which can run them at a profit whereas the British shipowner cannot. A case of that kind was brought to my notice the other day, where a British shipowner, a patriotic man, who had been carrying on his line in the Mediterranean at a loss of some £5,000 a year for a good many years, had now come to the conclusion that he could no longer afford to carry this heavy loss, and he sold his line to an Italian firm who, with their subsidy, were in the position of being able to run coal-free and therefore to make a very handsome profit out of the trade. And that is what is happening in many parts of the world and what is likely to continue to happen.

It has been said that the foreigner is trying to drive the British flag off the seas. Possibly that is a harsh way of putting it, although that may be the net effect. I think the foreigner is trying to do exactly what we have done—to establish his flag on the seas; and it can only be established at our expense. Therefore the question is whether or not we are strong enough to prevent this. If it comes to a question of subsidy, really it is rather childish. Are we going to allow British shipping to be driven off the high seas by a series of semi-bankrupt countries, when we have got a large surplus on our Budget, and we are about the only country in the world that has We are really allowing our shipping to be defeated by sums of money which our Treasury would not admit even exist, but they seem to arrive at the vital point to enable foreign ships to compete with ours.

This is not a question of getting some agreement with the shipping industry as to whether or not they want subsidies. As has often been said, the shipping industry say that they do not want subsidies. I do not see that that comes into it. The question is a question for the Empire and for this country. It is vital and essential for us to maintain our shipping industry. We must do so. If the foreigner wants to compete with us by subsidies, very well, we can very easily beat him at that, and it will not take us very long to do it, either. It is not only a question of intercommunication or of the shipping industry alone. I feel sure that many of your Lordships have reflected that the shipping industry means a good deal more to Great Britain that merely running the shipping lines in question. The whole of the great shipbuilding industry, the engineering industry, the iron and steel industry, the coal industry, all depend upon our maintaining our shipping power. This goes right to the very root of our island economy, and we cannot possibly allow it to be attacked in the way in which it is to-day being attacked, as everybody admits. That is so far as the general question of shipping is concerned.

We then come to the point of Empire shipping. One might say that it is a curious thing that foreign countries are prepared to spend so much money to run shipping lines at a loss. What can possibly be their object? It is plain to any one who has made a few voyages that when a ship arrives at a foreign port there is a connection set up between that country and its nationals, and the shipping line in question. Take for example an Italian ship going into Egypt. Ask the people on board and make some inquiries when you arrive, and you will find that at the port of call there grows up a little Italian colony, of the brothers, the uncles, and the business friends of the people concerned in going backwards and forwards on the line. In that way, of course, influence and trade spread, and that is precisely the reason why foreign buyers desire to have shipping lines in existence. It is for the general spread, not only of prestige but of trade, by foreign shipping; and it is that indeed which, above all things, should bind the Empire together. It is exactly for that reason, that it is an Empire and not merely an English policy which is necessary.

I think the methods of discouraging foreign shipping in our ports and in Imperial ports are well known to His Majesty's Government. They have been used many times over in earlier phases of our history, when in a very virile manner we were building up our shipping industry. There are a great many devices which may be uncomfortable to other people, and there are a great many ways of encouraging your own ships. It is necessary that we should do it, not in this country alone, but in consonance with the Imperial Governments. It is important to realise, and I believe that your Lordships will agree, that in this matter there are other considerations, and perhaps wider considerations, than the mere question of economy or of economics. The British Empire is not only a question of pounds, shillings and pence. It has very much greater reason, and we have a very much greater duty towards it, than merely to make provision for the immediate and most profitable methods of its administration. It is essential to bind it together by every means in our power. It is essential to protect it and to protect its communications. If the argument is raised against it that this is not an economical way of doing it, and that it is an expensive thing, I do not believe that that is the true answer which might be given to the point. We have a graver duty than that, and we have other considerations to take into account.

It is also sometimes argued that the Dominions and the Colonies are unreasonable and that it is not possible to deal with them. Frankly, my Lords, that does not appeal to me as a very valuable argument. There have recently been disputes with Southern Rhodesia and with New Zealand. Southern Rhodesia is a place I know well. I lived in it for some years and I know most of the people there who are concerned with its affairs. If I were charged with a mission on a matter of business to go out and deal with them, I should not myself feel that I had been given a particularly difficult task because the people with whom I had to negotiate were particularly unreasonable. They are not. They are perfectly rational, and in the case of Southern Rhodesia intensely loyal, very anxious indeed to arrive at a practical and reasonable agreement with the people of this country, and very anxious indeed not to do anything which is going to injure us, though at the same time naturally anxious to foster their own trade and to improve their own position as far as they can in consonance with the general interests of the Empire.

I believe that to be equally true of New Zealand. All I know about the people and Government of New Zealand is that in them we have not got difficult and unreasonable people to deal with, but perfectly rational and loyal people, and that we ought to be able to make an agreement with them. If it is said that we cannot, then there must be something wrong with our methods, and possibly we ask too much and expect too much. I do hope that the Government will act in this matter and act promptly and effectively. It is of no use bringing back the excuse that this is a thing which the shipping industry does not want, and which cannot be arranged with the Dominions. It is a thing which the population of the Empire desire, and which His Majesty's Government, the greatest Government in the Empire, as the noble Lord opposite has said, were sent to their position to carry through, and I sincerely hope that they will carry it through.


My Lords, I think, of course, it is very necessary that there should be some sort of maritime agreement within the Empire, and I think that Lord Mottistone is absolutely justified in bringing forward this matter. I hope also that the Government will take action as suggested, but I venture to suggest two aspects in any action which is taken which I hope will not be lost sight of by the Government. In the first place, we have had one or two rather militarist and aggressive speeches. I think, in particular, the term which we must avoid at all cost was that we must sweep other flags off the seas and prevent in all circumstances any modification of British preponderance in the mercantile marine of the world. I hope that any Empire policy which is adopted will not be so aggressive in tone as that, but that it will all the time be remembered that, while it is true that for many years Great Britain and the Empire had a preponderance of the maritime carrying trade of the world, yet in justice other nations must be entitled to their share of that carrying trade. I hope, therefore, that any policy adopted will not be one which will still further increase the feeling of enmity against the British Empire which is caused to grow up by the adoption of an aggressive policy.

The other point which I hope will be considered in any agreement with the Dominions is as to the pay and conditions of the officers and crews of our mercantile marine. I happen during the last few months to have travelled on the finest and best of British ships, and I have been appalled at the conditions under which some of the crews were living. In one of the biggest of British liners I found it to be the case that none of the stewards had a mess room where they could ever sit down to a meal. They had to stand up to every meal in that ship, which was a luxury ship of the most expensive type. That wants looking into, and although it is true that our great mercantile marine is going through financial difficulties at the present time, they ought not to be difficulties to be remedied at the expense of the salaries and comfort of the crews.

With regard to the officers of British ships the position is extremely difficult. The recent merger has caused numbers of officers to be put on the retired list without any pension. There is no adequate pension scheme at all for mercantile marine officers, except one or two voluntary pension schemes, which are so small that nobody could live on those pensions —£20 or £30 a year on retirement. The salaries of officers of the British mercantile marine are much lower than those of most other nations, and I hope that in any agreement reached with the Dominions some step will be taken to secure that the wages and conditions of service of officers shall be at least as good in Great Britain as in any other country in the world. I have here the scale of officers' salaries prepared by the International Mercantile Marine Officers' Association. For example, take navigating officers. The pay of a first mate is, in Holland, £27 a month; in Denmark, £25; in France, £23; in Germany, £21; in Norway, £21; in Sweden, £20; and in Great Britain, £16 a month. Below come Belgium, £14; Esthonia, £12 19s.; Spain, £12 19s.; and Portugal, £10. Do we want to be classed with Esthonia, Spain, and Portugal as the lowest-paying country in the world for mercantile officers? For second mates the conditions are even worse. The highest pay—in Holland—is £20, and in Great Britain, £13 1s. For a third mate, holding an officer's certificate—and often with twenty years' certificated service—the highest is Holland with £14 11s.; France, £15 6s.; Germany, £13 8s.; Sweden, £11; and Great Britain £10 7s., a month. That ought not to be the state of things, and I hope that in consultation with the Dominions we shall press for an improvement in the conditions of the officers and men of our mercantile marine.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate on this exceedingly important subject, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Mottistone. We have had speeches in addition from Lord Joicey, from my noble friend behind me and from the noble Lord opposite, all of whom brought forward very important points. Lord Marley will, I am sure, forgive me if in reference to his speech I say that of course I did riot know that he was going to bring forward these particular points. The particular Question I was asked was what steps the Government were going to take in order to call the Dominions into consultation with a view to formulating a common maritime policy for the British Empire. Therefore I really am not prepared with any answer or defence to the figures which he has brought forward, but I can assure him that I will send the debate to my right honourable friend, as I always do, so that he shall know what has been said in this House and know what feeling there is on the point.

As regards Lord Mottistone's speech, I am sure that nobody in this House is more fitted to bring forward this subject from every point of view, because I happen to know that the noble Lord has during his Ministerial career served in three Departments of the State. I think he started in the Colonies, continued in the War Office, and then went to the Air Department. The Admiralty is the only one of the big Service Departments in which he has not served his time. I must; however, join issue with him on two things that he said. I rather gathered that at the end of his speech he accused His Majesty's Government of not taking decided action in anything. Coming from him I was rather surprised, and I say without fear of contradiction that in a great many subjects action, and speedy action, has been taken by His Majesty's Government, and far speedier action than by the Government of any Party that has ever gone before. He also accused us of still sticking to the tenets of the Manchester school. From a member of the Liberal Party that is rather extraordinary. He had better consult his colleagues, I think, or at any rate his colleagues in another place.


I did not accuse His Majesty's Government of belonging to the Manchester school, but I implored them not to behave as if they did, and I beg to repeat that.


It sounded as if the noble Lord did accuse, and I am sorry if I misunderstood him. He has brought forward various suggestions indicating the way in which he thinks the Government should go. For those suggestions I thank him, and I shall convey his suggestions and those of my noble friend behind me to the proper quarter. He asks me a specific Question—namely, what steps the Government propose to take in order to call the Dominions into consultation with a view to formulating a common maritime policy. To that Question I am afraid I cannot give a specific answer, because, as I stated here a fortnight ago, the Government have not yet formulated their policy. Speaking on April 18, I said that my right honourable friend hoped to make a statement in another place on this subject at a relatively early date, and that pledge still holds, but he has not yet been able to do so.

May I repeat what I said in my speech a fortnight ago in answer to Lord Strabolgi? The present position is that the matter is divided, as it were, into three parts. First of all, the shipowners have submitted certain proposals to the Government, which include consultation with the Dominions. Secondly, the Governments of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands have sent a Note as to their willingness to co-operate in various matters to find remedies against the evils from which the shipping industry is suffering. Thirdly, there is the question which we are considering here, of action to assist our mercantile marine to meet foreign subsidised competition, including a request for a subsidy by the tramp shipowners, which is still under discussion. Of those three items the first two, at all events, will obviously require consultation with the Dominions. I regret that further than that I cannot go to-day.

I can assure the noble Lord that in this matter, although he may think the Government dilatory—and I may not agree with him in that—he really is pushing an open door. The Government are most exercised and most anxious about this serious question of shipping, as was emphasised by the President of the Board of Trade in a debate in the House of Commons last December, and as was stated in similar terms by my noble friend Lord Stanhope in February last, and by myself a fortnight ago. As regards the specific question of consulting the Dominions, the noble Lord may rest assured that as soon as the President of the Board and His Majesty's Government have formulated the main lines on which they propose to proceed, the Dominions will be consulted in every respect. I thank the noble Lord for raising this subject in the way he has done. I think that speeches such as his and those that we have heard to-day can do nothing but good in helping the Government to deal with this very important matter.


My Lords, I spoke on this subject in February, and I want to repeat the points I made then. In the event of our ships being driven off the seas we shall be in a very vulnerable position if any trouble ever occurs between us and other countries; we should then very quickly have to cave in to a foreign Power. It is to me much more important that we should have a strong maritime fleet than that we should increase enormously our military and air forces, because in this respect we are the most vulnerable nation in the world unless we have a strong mercantile marine to carry our food and raw materials to this country to feed and maintain the population.

Another point is that we are suffering from lack of shipbuilding orders, and the practical step which the Government ought to have taken before now was to see that our shipbuilding yards were again occupied and that ships were being built. I suggest that the Government should lend the money to shipbuilders to build new and up-to-date ships, which would be far more effective than the foreign ships with which we compete on various lines throughout the world. It will also be much more economical to run new ships than old ones. Most of the ships on our mercantile marine list now are over twenty years old. We should scrap many of them, and new ships should be built. The old ships should not be sold to foreigners, but the scrap iron should be used in our blast furnaces in order to produce plates for new ships. In that way I believe we could establish a new scheme for shipbuilding which would do away with nearly the whole of the unemployment that exists at the present time. We should give employment in blast furnaces, in the coalfields, and in the shipbuilding yards. Money would circulate all round, and instead of our maintaining men on the "dole," they would be hard at work, and such a scheme would be of value not only to this country but to the whole Empire.