HL Deb 12 May 1936 vol 100 cc935-44

Order of the Day read for resuming the debate on the Motion of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, moved on Thursday last, That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to any preparations for proposals to the League of Nations for a thorough revision of the system of collective security in view of recent experiences.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, resumes this debate may I perhaps ask the Government, as it is now rather late and a great many noble Lords have come down specially for this debate, whether it will be possible for them again to continue the debate on another day, perhaps on Thursday; and may I plead that on that Thursday the day will be kept clear of sugar, cotton and gas?


My Lords, that is a very reasonable request, and we propose to meet your Lordships' convenience by continuing the debate on Thursday. I can promise that cotton shall be cleared out of the way on that day, and that we will take the Cotton Spinning Industry Bill next Tuesday. I fancy that gas has exhausted itself. I cannot give an absolute undertaking about sugar, but we will keep the day as clear as we possibly can.


Why has cotton always to give way to gas and to sugar?


Because it is so important that it ought to have a day to itself, which it would not have had on Thursday.


Sugar is by far the most important. I should be glad of an assurance about sugar.


My Lords, possibly my noble friend will, before the end of this evening, be able to give a more direct assurance to my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. At any rate I think I had perhaps better employ the time which still remains to us this evening in making the observations that I desire to make to your Lordships on this subject, which I think, with my noble friend, is certainly one of the most important subjects which this House could possibly have to consider. We began the debate the other day and four speeches were delivered. Except the speech of my noble friend Lord Snell, I think all proceeded on this broad thesis, that collective security had failed and that it must be abandoned. That it has failed in the case of Abyssinia is so far unhappily true; that is to say, it has not succeeded; but I personally am altogether unconvinced that it would be right to abandon this great effort, the greatest effort that has ever been made in the history of civilisation to substitute for war some more reasonable method of settling international differences.

The three speeches which were made against collective security disagreed considerably amongst themselves. There was my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, who maintained the thesis that he has continually maintained on the subject; he was in favour of the total abolition of anything that savoured of the use of force by international bodies, because he was against the use of force altogether in international matters. I hope I am not misstating him, but he regarded the use of force as useless and pernicious. My noble friend Lord Lothian, whose absence to-day we all deplore, particularly for the reason that has caused it, took a less drastic view. He wanted indeed to abolish Article 16, that is true, but as I understand both from what he said in this House and what he has said in his letters to The Times, he does propose to maintain the use of force to this extent that he proposes to have what he calls "regional security," but which used to be called more clearly, "a defensive alliance," with France, confined—though I am not quite sure on that point—to her western borders. The view of my noble friend Lord Rennell, whom I am glad to see here and with whom I disagree very little, if at all, was not the abolition of collec tive security, but, if I am not misinterpreting him, he thought—and there is a good deal to be said for that view—that the obligation to exert force ought to be confined to European disputes.

I should be the last to deny that a very grave international disaster has occurred. It is unnecessary to emphasise it now, because, however much we may disagree as to what ought to have been done, we are all agreed, without exception, as to the very grave events which have taken place. Nobody put it more strongly than my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, and I need not repeat it. We all profoundly sympathise with the Emperor of Ethiopia. We all regret the events which have driven him from his Throne, at any rate temporarily, and we all deeply deplore the action and the policy of the Italian Government. But I venture to hope we shall not, nevertheless, exaggerate the general result that has been produced on the policy of collective action. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby did not deal much with the general case. I think he regards it as so clear that the conception of sanctions is wrong, that it is not necessary to argue very much about what has happened, because it is quite in accordance with what he expected and therefore he thinks it is unnecessary to dwell on the failure that has taken place. My noble friend Lord Lothian took a totally different view. His view was that force was right. He rejected altogether the conception of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. He said force was essential, but he thought it had been shown conclusively, by what had occurred not only in Abyssinia but elsewhere, that the conception of collective action in order to repress aggression—in order, that is, to make peace sure—was a hopeless conception and must be abandoned.

He based himself in the first place on his recollection: of conversations which he said took place during the Peace Conference between Mr. Lloyd George and, I suppose, myself and General Smuts. I do not want in his absence to make any criticism of him. Therefore, I shall merely say it is a rather inconvenient plan to base any considerable argument on private conversations which took place nearly twenty years ago. Though I do happen by chance to remember the incident to which he referred, I cannot say that I agree with the colour that he gave to the discussion. As I remember, after the matter had been before the Commission of the Conference for some little time—I do not remember how long—I received, and I suppose General Smuts received, a message suggesting that the whole conception of a League of Nations as we understood it was wrong, and that the proper plan would be merely to have some general affirmation of the principles of peace, and leave it at that. Indeed, in my recollection, the kind of suggestion that was made was that we should revert to the Holy Alliance—the true Holy Alliance—to the proposals made by Alexander I after the Napoleonic Wars, which, as your Lordships will remember, were simply an affirmation that it was desirable that international relations should be conducted on the principles of Christian morality. A very large number of countries signed that declaration. I believe we did not, but almost all the other countries did, and of course it never produced the very slightest effect of any sort or kind. I think my view, as far as I remember it, was very clear. If we were merely to do that kind of thing, it really was not worth while putting provisions of that description into the Treaty, and it was on those grounds that we represented to Mr. Lloyd George that that would not be a desirable course.

I do not remember any conversation with him. It may have taken place—my memory is not so trustworthy as to enable me to say confidently that no such conversation took place; but I am sure there was no insistence on this view. The reason, of course, is quite obvious. The proposals we went to Paris to submit to the Conference had formed the subject of most elaborate consideration in this country. They began with a paper which was submitted to the Foreign Secretary and, I think, circulated to the Cabinet as early as the autumn of 1916. That paper was considered. A very important Committee was appointed to discuss it and investigate it, presided over by the late Lord Phillimore and on it sat three very eminent civil servants, members of the Foreign Office, and two or three—I forget now which—gentlemen who had made it their business to study International Law and international history. They reported as far as this provision. Article 16, which was then part of the proposals submitted to them, was concerned, as far as I remember, without dissension in favour of it. It then went to the Cabinet and was considered by them. It went to the War Cabinet, the large War Cabinet on which the Dominions sat. It was considered by them and approved by them. General Smuts was much attracted by the suggestion, and he brought out a very brilliant pamphlet in which he elaborated the proposals and added certain proposals of his own. That pamphlet earned the enthusiastic approval of Mr. Lloyd George. I am sure he will remember, because he was very much struck by it, as indeed everyone was. It was again considered by the Cabinet. There was, I remember, a Cabinet Committee on the subject, and so on, and it was part of the instructions to the delegates who attended the Conference to accept the suggestion which we understood was going to be made by the President of the United States.

Therefore it is not at all likely that Mr. Lloyd George, having considered this matter with great care as Prime Minister of the Cabinet for two years, should suddenly, in obedience to suggestions which may have been made to him by my noble friend, his secretary, or someone else, throw the whole thing over and have an entirely different plan. He may have said, "I hope you will consider this alternative plan." I do not think he did more than that. I am sorry to trouble your Lordships' with these recollections, but since the matter has been raised it-is right to mention how it stands. I may add this in one sentence, that since that time the question of the Covenant of the League of Nations has repeatedly been under the consideration of successive British Governments. They have consistently supported it, and used the most emphatic language in connection with it. It has, of course, also been supported and endorsed by very numerous international statements, among them the statements made during the Conference of Locarno, and very often during the discussions at Geneva, so that I think, if we are to consider merely the question of authority, which I certainly should not have pressed at all, that against the rather casual suggestions made, if they were made, by Mr. Lloyd George, there is a very much larger weight of authority on the other side.

My noble friend went on to refer to one or two other cases besides the Abyssinian case. There was the case of the Far East, and there was the case of the Disarmament Conference. May I just say a word or two about each of them? As far as the Far East is concerned my noble friend said that the ordinary threats—I have the phrase here if it is necessary to use it—were used with regard to Japan. I happened to be the representative of the British Government during the earlier part of that discussion. No threats were used to Japan at all. On the contrary, there were two or three meetings of the Council, and at most of them the conclusions were accepted by Japan. At only one of them, I think, was the Japanese representative unable to assent. That was because there was some question of a time limit to which he felt he could not agree. But, broadly speaking, during all that period, the case was this: Here has been an unfortunate clash of arms in Manchuria; no doubt it can be put right in the ordinary way in which such clashes have been put right before. We relied on Japan and her opponents—China, of course—to collaborate in putting the thing right. The discussions proceeded during two meetings of the Council at Geneva, and a very long meeting, which lasted four or five weeks, at Paris. Conciliation, mediation, and every phase of the kind you may like to use was carried to its most extreme point, but no question of threat of any sort or kind arose.

At the end, with the assent of Japan and the collaboration of Japan, it was agreed to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to see what could be done. Your Lordships will remember that my noble friend Lord Lytton, with four colleagues drawn one from each of the principal Powers, went to the place, and, with the collaboration and assistance of a Japanese representative, investigated the whole thing, examined a great number of witnesses and so on, and did everything they could think of by way of conciliation and discussion. Finally, they made a Report of an extremely valuable kind in which certain proposals were made. I ought to add that nothing resulted. When the conclusions of the Lytton Commission were adopted by the Assembly of the League of Nations, Japan announced her withdrawal from the League. All that I would say is that so far from that being an argument against the use of sanctions, it seems to me a very conclusive instance—no single instance can be absolutely conclusive but a very powerful argument—to show that mere discussion, mere conciliation, unless it is backed somehow or in some way with some form of force, of coercion, will not be sufficient to stop aggression of that description. That seems to me to be the only conclusion you can draw from the history of the Far Eastern case.

It is perfectly true that I thought—I am sorry to be so egotistic; it does not matter a straw what I thought—but many people in this country thought it would have been desirable, with the assistance of the United States—it could not have been attained without—to have tried some form of coercion. I need not go into all that, because in point of fact that was not done, and the conclusion, therefore, that I draw is that the conception, if my noble friend will forgive me, that you can do a great deal by sitting round a table and discussing is really not in accordance with the fact when you have to deal with a determined aggression. No amount of discussion round a table stopped Japan, and no amount of discussion round a table would have stopped Mussolini.

The next instance that my noble friend gave was disarmament. I do not really know why he thought the failure of the Disarmament Conference had anything to do with Article 16 or Article 10. Disarmament at least was not a part of the League machinery. The Conference no doubt was called at the instance of the League, but it was an ordinary International Conference and nothing else, and it discussed, unfortunately unsuccessfully, these very difficult topics of international disarmament. It failed, not, I think, as my noble friend said, because there was some difficulty about granting to Germany complete equality, but broadly—and this was the real difficulty which ran through the whole Conference and which I think British Governments have never adequately faced—because, in order to obtain international reduction and limitation of armaments, you must satisfy those countries which are at present highly armed that they will be safe in reducing their armaments, and the only way of doing that is to assure them that the international guarantee that is offered to them is a real, serious, effective guarantee. I believe that was the real reason of the failure of the Disarmament Conference.

I know that my noble friend Lord Ponsonby hates these Disarmament Conferences and thinks they are entirely mistaken. I have never been able quite to follow what his reason for that opinion is. In his view, I suppose, it is really touching the accursed thing armaments. It assumes that some kind of armaments may be necessary, and that you are going to try to reduce them. That is not the view he thinks ought to be, adopted. But if the Disarmament Conference has any bearing on the present controversy it is that there, again, unless you are prepared to offer to the nations at this minute some real guarantee by collective security, you cannot make any serious advance in the direction of international peace. I do not want to dwell on these things, but it is important that we should know where we are and what the difficulty is that we have come up against before we attempt to apply a remedy.

I do not want to dwell upon the cases—perhaps they have been dwelt on too much—in which the action of the League was completely successful, but do not let us forget them. There were more, but I merely mention three which were very clear. There was the Serbian invasion of Albania, which was stopped by League action and stopped because it became known that the League, it necessary, would take coercive action. The result—I know the danger of saying these things, but it is essential to say them—was a great slump of the Serbian credit, and I have not the slightest doubt that that was one of the main causes of the complete settlement of that affair with absolute agreement by both parties. No further disturbance has ever taken place between those two countries.

There was the Bulgarian case, where Greece appeared to be about to invade Bulgaria. In the same way intervention by the League ended the matter. It was certainly true, and I believe it was known to both parties, that the Powers were considering what coercive action should be applied if peace was not made. Peace was made. Finally, there was the case of Corfu, where Italy, with a very real and genuine grievance against Greece, attempted to seize Corfu and did indeed occupy Corfu for a short time. In con sequence of the action of the League after rather heated debates the attempt by Italy to seize Corfu was abandoned. I am myself absolutely confident that but for the League and the possibility of coercive action by the League Corfu would be to-day an Italian island. All these things must be considered. It is quite true that they were all cases where the League was able to exert overwhelming force. In the case of Italy, for reasons I need not go into, she was quite unready to take military action at that time and the other cases were of small Powers which could be dealt with effectively. But these cases show that it is not true to say that force, sanctions, coercion are not useful in preserving peace.

We hear a great deal about the present failure, and it has been a failure. The force was not adequate to stop aggression. But I do not myself admit that no advance has been made. I think it was a great thing that we should have got fifty nations to agree on a common resolution and on common action and that, in spite of great damage—they must have lost a lot of money—they have not weakened in their economic action but have, in point of fact, maintained it. I think that is so far encouraging. I do not think it shows that coercion is impossible. It shows that you have got to be very clear as to what you want and very clear in recommending it to your colleagues in the League. My own belief is that if we had been clear and had recommended much more strong action it would have been equally accepted. But may I interpose this observation? The conception was that you should have small sanctions gradually increasing if they were ineffective until you got so great a pressure on Italy that it would be impossible for her to go on. It began very well. For two months, September and October, the proceedings were initiated with great smoothness and with great success. I may mention—I do not think it will be denied by anybody—that the position of this country never stood higher than during those months. It was universally looked up to by every country in Europe. The smaller countries said: "We have got leaders in this matter, we trust them, we are going to follow them, we are going to run risks"—because there were risks, and not merely economic risks, for no small country likes to offend a great country like Italy.

They did it, and then came that terribly disastrous mistake, as I think, the Hoare-Laval Agreement. Its immediate effect was crushing. It discouraged every single one of the small countries. They said: "After all, England is not in earnest. We always feared there might be some difficulty of that kind." America, which had shown signs of being ready to co-operate to some extent in the efforts we were making, withdrew instantly and has never advanced. Italy, which had been extremely anxious, according to such information as reaches me, up till then, said: "They will never touch us, evidently. We can go on to do anything we like. We can proceed to the extreme and use every weapon however horrible that science gives us, and force these people to submit as soon as possible." That, as I read it, is what happened and I think it was a most unhappy disaster.

But is it not rather unreasonable to expect unbroken success in the immense experiment we are engaged in? What is it we are trying to do? It is to substitute for war some better system of settling international disputes. It is a tremendous job, reversing the history of many centuries, taking from countries the right to go to war in their own causes, and substituting for it the acceptance of an international authority. I think it would be absolutely incredible that an operation of that kind should meet with no set-back in the course of its establishment. I cannot admit that it has had more than a set-back. If I am not wearying your Lordships I should just like to refer to the alternative suggestion by the two noble Lords, and I hope they will let me assure them that I speak with no want of respect. On the contrary I think they have put their case admirably. What do they say? My noble friend Lord Ponsonby says, in effect, sweep away the whole Covenant of the League of Nations.