HL Deb 24 March 1938 vol 108 cc390-400

My Lords, I beg to ask the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, if he has any statement to make on foreign affairs.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government have expressed the view that recent events in Austria have created a new situation, and think it right to state the conclusions to which consideration of those events has led them. They have already placed on record their judgment upon the action taken by the German Government, and to that they have nothing to add. The consequences of the action, however, remain. There has been a profound disturbance of international confidence. In these circumstances the problem before Europe to which, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, it is their most urgent duty to direct their attention, is how best to restore this shaken confidence, to maintain the rule of law in international affairs, and to seek peaceful solutions to questions that continue to cause anxiety.

Of these, the one necessarily most present to many minds is that concerning the relations between the Government of Czechoslovakia and the German minority in that country, and it is probable that the solution of that question, if it could be achieved, would go far to re-establish a more normal situation over an area wider than that immediately concerned. His Majesty's Government have accordingly given especial attention to this matter, and in particular they have fully considered the question whether the United Kingdom, in addition to those obligations by which she is already bound by the Covenant of the League and the Treaty of Locarno, should, as a further contribution towards preserving peace in Europe, now undertake new and specific commitments in Europe, and in particular such a commitment in relation to Czechoslovakia.

It is right that I should here remind your Lordships what our existing commitments are which might lead to the use of our arms for purposes other than our own defence and the defence of territories of other parts of the British Commonwealth of Nations. They are, first of all, the defence of France and Belgium against unprovoked aggression in accordance with our existing obligations under the Treaty of Locarno, as reaffirmed in the arrangement drawn up in London on March 19, 1936. His Majesty's Government have also obligations by treaty to Portugal, Iraq and Egypt. Those are our definite obligations in relation to particular countries.

There remains another case in which we may have to use our arms, a case which is of a more general character but which may have no less significance. This is the case arising under the Covenant of the League, which was accurately defined by the former Foreign Secretary when he said: In addition our armaments may be used in bringing help to a victim of aggression in any case where, in our judgment, it would be proper under the provisions of the Covenant to do so. Such a case might, for example, include Czechoslovakia, and the ex-Foreign Secretary went on to say: I use the word 'may' deliberately, since in such an instance there is no automatic obligation to take military action. It is moreover right that this should be so, for nations cannot be expected to incur automatic military obligations save for areas where their vital interests are concerned. His Majesty's Government stand by these declarations. They have acknowledged that in present circumstances the ability of the League to fulfil all the functions originally contemplated for it is reduced. But this is not to be interpreted as meaning that His Majesty's Government would in no circumstances intervene as a Member of the League for the restoration of peace or the maintenance of international order if circumstances were such as to make it appropriate for them to do so. And His Majesty's Government cannot but feel that the course and development of any dispute, should such unhappily arise, would be greatly influenced by the knowledge that such action as it may be in the power of Great Britain to take will be determined by His Majesty's Government of the day in accordance with the principles laid down in the Covenant.

The question now arises whether we should go further. Should we forthwith give an assurance to France that in the event of her being called upon, by reason of German aggression on Czechoslovakia, to implement her obligations under the Franco-Czechoslovak Treaty, we would immediately employ our full military force on her behalf? Or, alternatively, should we at once declare our readiness to take immediate action in resistance to any forcible interference with the independence and integrity of Czechoslovakia, and invite any other nations, which might so desire, to associate themselves with us in such a declaration? From a consideration of these two alternatives it clearly emerges that under either of them the decision as to whether or not this country should find itself involved in war would be automatically removed from the discretion of His Majesty's Government, and the suggested guarantee would apply irrespective of the circumstances by which it was brought into operation, and over which His Majesty's Government might not have been able to exercise any control. The position is not one that His Majesty's Government could see their way to accept, in relation to an area where their vital interests are not concerned in the same degree as they are in the case of France and Belgium; and it is certainly not the position that results from the Covenant. For these reasons His Majesty's Government feel themselves unable to give the prior guarantee suggested.

But while plainly stating this decision I would add this. Where peace and war are concerned, legal obligations are not alone involved, and, if war broke out, it would be unlikely to be confined to those who have assumed such obligations. It would be quite impossible to say where it might end and what Governments might become involved. The inexorable pressure of facts might well prove more powerful than formal pronouncements, and in that event it would be well within the bounds of probability that other countries, besides those which were parties to the original dispute, would almost immediately be involved. This is especially true in the case of two countries like Great Britain and France, with long associations of friendship, with interests closely interwoven, devoted to the same ideals of democratic liberty, and determined to uphold them.

It remains for His Majesty's Government to state their attitude in regard to the proposal made by the Government of the U.S.S.R., that an early conference should be held for the purpose of discussion with certain other Powers of the practical measures which in their opinion the circumstances demand. His Majesty's Government would warmly welcome the assembly of any conference at which it might be expected that all European nations would consent to be represented, and at which it might therefore be found possible to discuss matters in regard to which anxiety is at present felt. In present circumstances, however, they are obliged to recognise that no such expectation can be entertained, and the Soviet Government do not in fact appear to entertain it. Their proposal would appear to involve less a consultation with a view to settlement than a concerting of action against an eventuality that has not yet arisen. Its object would appear to be to negotiate such mutual undertakings in advance to resist aggression as I have referred to, which for the reasons given His Majesty's Government, for their part, are unwilling to accept. Apart from this, His Majesty's Government are of opinion that the indirect, but none the less inevitable, consequence of such action as is proposed by the Soviet Government, would be to aggravate the tendency towards the establishment of exclusive groups of nations, which must, in the view of His Majesty's Government, be inimical to the prospects of European peace.

Great Britain has repeatedly borne witness to the principles on which she con- siders the peace of the world depends. We do not believe that any stable order can be established unless, by one means or other, recognition can be secured for certain general principles. The first is that differences between nations should be resolved by peaceful settlement, and not by methods of force. The second, admittedly of no less importance, is that a peaceful settlement, to be enduring, must be based on justice. Holding these views successive British Governments have accepted the full obligations of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and clone their best to discharge them; they have acceded to special instruments designed to pledge the nations afresh to refrain from resort to aggressive war; and they have reinforced the general obligations thus undertaken by specific undertakings within the framework of the League towards countries with whom they enjoy special relations or in which they have special interest. On the other side they have constantly lent, and are prepared to continue to lend, their influence to the revision of relations between nations, established by treaty or otherwise, which appeared to demand review. They will continue, whether by way of action through the League or by direct diplomatic effort, to exert all their influence on the side of bringing to peaceful and orderly solutions any issues liable to interrupt friendly relations between nations.

So far as Czechoslovakia is concerned it seems to His Majesty's Government that now is the time when all the resources of diplomacy should be enlisted in the cause of peace. They have been glad to take note of and in no way underrate the definite assurances given by the German Government as to their attitude. On the other side they have observed with satisfaction that the Government of Czechoslovakia are addressing themselves to the practical steps that can be taken within the framework of the Czechoslovak constitution to meet the reasonable wishes of the German minority. For their part, His Majesty's Government will at all times be ready to render any help in their power, by whatever means might seem most appropriate, towards the solution of questions likely to cause difficulty between the German and Czechoslovak Governments. In the meantime there is no need to assume the use of force or indeed to talk about it. Such talk is to be strongly deprecated. Not only can it do no good; it is bound to do harm. It must interfere with the progress of diplomacy and it must increase feelings of insecurity and uncertainty.

His Majesty's Government accept the obligations which already rest upon them, and have made and are making strenuous efforts to place themselves in a position adequately to fulfil them. Nevertheless, in accordance with their expressed intention of reviewing their programme from time to time in the light of the circumstances of the time, they have considered the position afresh and have decided that still further efforts are now called for. These efforts must be devoted to increasing production and accelerating the completion of the rearmament programme. The details of that programme have been from time to time laid before Parliament. Recently in connection with the Estimates for the Defence Departments, statements have been submitted in another place as to the steps to be taken in the next financial year. The existing programme, however, has been carried out with the intention of interfering as little as possible with normal trade. In practice, notwithstanding this limitation, an increasing degree of priority over civil work has been gradually accorded to rearmament orders with the result that in some cases the execution of orders for home and export trade has been delayed. The additional skilled and semi-skilled labour required by the programme has occasionally had to be provided at the cost of withdrawing labour from other activities. Only by such means has it been possible to undertake the large-scale programme of production which, in spite of some delays, is now continuously and rapidly increasing in volume.

His Majesty's Government had hoped that further acceleration with its consequent interference with normal commercial work might have been avoided, but it has been more than once made plain that the defence programme was flexible and was subject to review from time to time in the light of changes in the international situation. We have now come to the conclusion that in the present circumstances acceleration of existing plans has become essential, and moreover that there must be an increase in some parts of the programme, especially in that of the Royal Air Force and the anti-aircraft defences. In order to bring about the progress which we feel to be necessary men and materials will be required, and rearmament work must have first priority in the nation's effort. The full and rapid equipment of the nation for self-defence must be its primary aim.

His Majesty's Government gratefully acknowledge the way in which workers and employers have co-operated in carrying out the programme hitherto. Such co-operation will be even more necessary for bringing to practical and early fruition the plans to which I have referred, and the Government are confident that they can rely on the continued help and good will of all concerned. In the view of the Government it is not for them to try to dictate to the great industries the detailed action which will be necessary for overcoming difficulties. It is in accordance with our traditions that these industries themselves, through their joint machinery, should work out the details in the matter which is most likely to be effective. Steps are already being taken to inform organised workers and organised employers of the nature of the demands which the accelerated plans will make upon their industries, and thus to place them in a position to devise practical methods for meeting those demands by mutual arrangements and with a minimum of Government interference. By such means it is expected that the volume of production, which in the new circumstances is not sufficient for our needs, will be substantially increased. The building operations necessary for the expansion of the three Services will be expedited. This will facilitate the process of recruitment of naval, military and Air Force personnel. The action already indicated will serve to accelerate the production of naval equipment. Similar measures will be taken for completing at the earliest date possible the erection of new factories. Further capacity with a view to advancing the output of antiaircraft and other guns will be put in hand. This priority will also enable us to expedite the programme of air-raid precautions. The satisfactory response to the appeal for recruits in connection with air-raid precautions is evidence of the widespread interest that is being taken throughout the country in this urgent question. By these and other measures within the Defence Departments themselves for the purpose of ensuring full and adequate co-operation with industry His Majesty's Government are satisfied that they will be able to facilitate production and secure the necessary acceleration of the defence programme.

His Majesty's Government, however, do not differ from those who feel that the increase of armaments alone is no sure guarantee for peace. They earnestly hope that it may yet be possible to arrive at a reasonable balance of armaments by agreement rather than by free and unlimited competition. They have on the other hand felt it right to make their view known that in the present state of the world, reliance upon the assertion of loyalty to the principles of the Covenant was not enough, in the absence of practical strength by which those professions might be supported. Accordingly the policy of His Majesty's Government recognises, and is based upon, the necessity both of working untiringly to strengthen the cause of peace and also of taking all steps requisite to make this country strong enough to meet whatever call may be made upon it. In their view the knowledge in all parts of the world that such steps are being taken with determination and dispatch will be a valuable contribution towards international reassurance.

There is another subject which is of such great importance that the House will rightly expect me to make reference to it. With regard to the unhappy situation in Spain the policy of His Majesty's Government has been plainly declared. That policy has consistently, from the outbreak of the conflict, been one of nonintervention in Spanish affairs and loyal observation of our obligations under the Non-Intervention Agreement. This policy was adopted in view of the dangerous international situation which threatened to develop with the first signs of civil strife in Spain. From the early stages of the conflict the prospect of open and active assistance to both Spanish parties from outside constituted a real menace to the peace of Europe. If nothing had been done to check this process, it might well have culminated in a general European war. His Majesty's Government acting in concert with the French Government came to the conclusion that the only way to avert this very serious threat was by doing their utmost to induce other European Powers to fall in with their own determination to adopt a completely impartial attitude to both parties in Spain and to refrain from giving material assistance to either side.

His Majesty's Government are fully alive to the fact that repeated infringements of the practice of non-intervention from more than one quarter have taken place and they deeply regret it. But serious as are these infringements, they do not alter the judgment of His Majesty's Government that the policy of non-intervention, even though infractions of this policy may take place, still affords the best means of avoiding a major conflagration. In the meanwhile His Majesty's Government, in a spirit of complete impartiality, have devoted their efforts to such humanitarian work as has been possible for the benefit of the Spanish people as a whole. They have greatly deplored the excesses committed during this strife as affecting the civilian population, and they have taken every opportunity which presented itself to convey to both sides their strong disapproval of the employment of such methods which have earned public condemnation and are contrary to the rules of International Law. It will be within the recollection of your Lordships that so recently as March i8 last my right honourable friend the Prime Minister expressed his horror and disgust at the indiscriminate bombing which was being carried out at Barcelona at that time, and strong representations have since been made to the Salamanca authorities on this matter in conjunction with the French Government.

I do not propose on the present occasion to enter upon a discussion of our conversations with the Italian Government. These have been carried a considerable distance, and the results are full of encouragement to those who, like His Majesty's Government, regard appeasement in Europe as an objective to which the efforts of all men of good will should be directed. The House will remember that just before these conversations were opened, the Italian Government informed us of their acceptance of the British formula for the withdrawal of volunteers and the granting of belligerent rights. While gladly welcoming this assurance, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister impressed upon the Italian Gov- ernment through their Ambassador the necessity, if the conversations were to succeed, not only that they should lend whatever help they could along with others in the bringing into operation of the withdrawal plan, but that in the meantime the situation in Spain should not be materially altered by Italy sending fresh reinforcements. It was never demanded or expected of the Italian Government that they should effect a unilateral withdrawal, and I think it right to say that, during these last weeks while the conversations have been proceeding, His Majesty's Government are satisfied of the fulfilment by the Italian Government of the conditions which had been indicated to them.

The Italian Government have now again asserted their willingness loyally to assist in the execution of the British plan and, what is perhaps most important, they have repeated a declaration which they made some time ago and which was made public here at the time, to the effect that Italy has no territorial, political or economic aims in Spain or in the Balearic Islands. His Majesty's Government place full reliance upon the intention of the Italian Government to make good their assurances. They believe that, with the spirit of mutual confidence in which both Governments are addressing themselves to the task, it will be possible through these conversations to reach complete agreement.

His Majesty's Government have sought to give to Parliament and to the world as full an indication as possible of their attitude upon the several matters which are at present occupying the thoughts of all nations. They are fully sensible, as I have said, of the extent to which international confidence has been shaken and of the consequent apprehensions existing in many quarters. They would, however, deprecate the use of language here or elsewhere which can only have the effect of exacerbating the situation, and of exciting fears which it is permissible to hope that the event will prove unfounded. The only result would be the creation of an atmosphere in which the elements essential to wise judgment would be dangerously obscured. His Majesty's Government have reached these decisions on the large questions of European order only after full and most careful review of all relevant facts and considerations, and with a keen sense of the great responsibility that rests upon them. His Majesty's Government do not believe that any difference of opinion exists in any quarter as to the broad purposes of preservation of peace and the association of peace with justice to which the policy of this country should be directed, and His Majesty's Government have reached the clear conclusion that the course they have decided to pursue provides the best means by which this policy can be made effective.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Viscount for the statement that he has made to the House. I do not feel that it would be useful for me to comment upon that statement today. Therefore I propose to ask for time to discuss the whole matter at an early date.