HL Deb 28 July 1939 vol 114 cc665-78

12.20 p.m.


had the following Notice on the Paper: To call attention to the political risks that may be involved in Parliament adjourning on the 4th of August. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in calling attention to the danger, as I deem it, of the dispersal of Parliament at the present time, may I point out for a few moments the continuing gravity of the political situation in Europe in order to emphasize my Motion that this House should not adjourn at the present time? Almost a year ago to-day, in very different circumstances, Parliament went into Recess with a certain feeling of confidence and optimism. It is quite true that the country and the British Empire were in no way directly committed to intervention if the Czechoslovak difficulties led to war. We were only concerned, so far as we were concerned, in the general peace of Europe, and in the manner in which this affected our friends on the Continent. Almost exactly a year ago, on July 26 of last year, it was announced that my noble friend Lord Runciman would undertake his mission of mediation, and this plan was given a kind of welcome in Berlin that led some people to hope there might be a peaceful solution, although private information showed us that the aims that were then before the Government in Berlin were altogether divorced from any ideas of a peaceful settlement. However, Parliament went on a holiday with optimistic feelings, but returned in September under the dreadful stress and uncertainty of a major upheaval in Central Europe.

What I would like your Lordships to reflect to-day is whether this is to happen again, and whether it is likely to happen again. None of your Lordships would have any doubt that the international situation to-day is extremely grave. We can best judge of the international situation, and its real temperature, not from what appears on the surface, although there is enough on the surface to warrant a very great deal of concern, but from the steadily increasing military activities throughout the world, and not least in Europe. If we look near at hand, we see German armed forces mustering much in the same way as they did last year, and great military activities all over the country. No doubt we shall receive the same answer as we did before, that these are but "normal summer manoeuvres." Poland has been in a state of advanced mobilisation ever since March in defence of her soil and arteries of trade, France this year has produced an industrial and financial effort, a military organisation, and above all a spirit of determination that has rejoiced though not surprised her friends, and given pause to her enemies. Great Britain, as we all know, has made an immense effort, a gigantic effort, of rearmament, and our forces are going to be in a state of entire preparedness during the next two months. The defences of London are constantly manned, the Fleet and Air Force are in readiness, and a greater number of troops are in training camps than we have had at any time since the Great War. Not a single person in this country but is clearly advised now of the enormous importance of the present weeks—the dramatic importance of the present weeks—and even during the holiday period our rearmament programme and our military dispositions are going to proceed in accordance as the military situation demands.

That is only the briefest recital of the situation in which Parliament is going to disperse entirely. So much, in a few words, for the military situation as an index to the gravity of the moment. What about the political situation in Europe, which concerns more immediately Parliament itself? This is by no means at all clearly defined. It is not a situation in which Parliamentary assistance and advice ought to be dispensed with. Our political arrangements are not nearly so advanced as our military arrangements. Early this year, after the seizure of Albania had discomforted our friends and allies on the Continent, it was considered that to make Europe secure against aggression this summer, two major political events were needed. Much has been done by the Foreign Secretary. Rumania, Turkey, Portugal, Greece, all those countries, some of them among our oldest friends and some our new friends, have gathered round us in our attempts to thwart the aggressor, but there are two major political events that are essential to prevent further aggression in Europe this summer, which have not yet been settled. It was thought that the two best deterrents against aggression would be an understanding with Soviet Russia, on the one hand, and new American legislation on the Neutrality Act on the other. On the one hand the American Congress has gone into recess without altering the Neutrality Act, and on the other our negotiations with Russia, although they have, as I understand, made considerable progress, certainly have not yet been concluded. I am not one of those who wonder at the length of time that these negotiations have taken. Our rivals and critics, of course, have been quick to imply that there is very serious disagreement between Soviet Russia and Great Britain and France. I understand that that is really not the case, and at any rate it is not the main reason for the delay. The reason for the delay is that the pact we are aiming at completing embraces a very large number of States. Almost every European State has some interest in these negotiations, and it is not the custom of Great Britain and France to ride roughshod over the interests of other States in our diplomacy.

The point that I desire to make is that neither of these events—over one of which we have no control, but to the other of which we are busily engaged in giving effect—has been concluded; and besides that, there are events in the Far East which demand urgent and continued attention by both Houses. If all the indignities and insults heaped upon British nationals in the Far East in the past few months—if the attacks upon the British position and prestige which have been made in the past few months—had been suffered by us a few years ago, I cannot imagine that Parliament would have suffered them so supinely and calmly, and gone away on holiday, saying "This is all right, the Government will deal with the matter without us". Is Parliament to count for nothing in these days? I say very sincerely that to me it is amazing that in a moment of supreme crisis—I shall be accused by the Government, to use a very unfortunate expression, which was brought over by a member of the Government's Party from America, of "having the jitters," but merely to show apprehension of and to talk about a fact is not to show fear of it—to me it is an amazing thing that at the gravest crisis in the history of the world—that is no exaggeration—Parliament should calmly go away on August 12, or slightly before, so that there should be no accidents, and that nobody should think it odd or strange. We have taken upon ourselves the headship, and quite rightly; we are in the van of those nations who are pledged to resist aggression. And Parliament goes away, and shoots grouse!

At the present moment all is fairly quiet in Central Europe and Eastern Europe, but any day there can break out in Poland instigated disturbances like those that we witnessed in Sudetenland about this time last year; disturbances like those which are to-day being instigated in China, disturbances like those which occurred in Slovakia early this year, and those which are strangely troubling this country, too, in our very midst, at the present time—instigated disturbances. Is Parliament to pay no heed to this? Are they no care of Parliament? Is Parliament of so little value that no Government wants its advice? Is Parliament not to be consulted on these grave matters? These disturbances, say in the case of Poland, may not weaken Poland in the military sense, but they might be calculated, by those who instigate them, as being likely to drive the more timorous sections of public opinion in this country towards misgivings on the commitments which we have so clearly undertaken. All those things need the strength and the vigour of Parliament in Session behind the Government to prevent them.

The Prime Minister, it is true, made on July 10 a most precise statement that we would support Poland in defending her interests in Danzig, and the admirable speech of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary remains the guide and the guarantee of our foreign policy throughout these grave weeks and months. I think it is lucky that that speech was made, particularly fortunate because the smaller manifestations of our policy are not always clarifying to Europe. For instance, I should not be very surprised if some of our Allies were a little puzzled if they found, for instance, one member of the Government on one day making, I will not say improper difficulties, but making great difficulties about a loan worth about £35,000,000 to one of our friends, and another member of the Government the next day advocating a loan of £1,000,000,000 to one of our potential enemies.

I think we need Parliament here to point to Europe what is the real feeling of the country, and continually to do it lest these cloudy little incidents should occur. Luckily those plans of which I have just spoken have been firmly scotched by His Majesty's Government, and scotched not only in London but also, I was glad to see, in Berlin. I am speaking very seriously. I have not any hope that His Majesty's Government will listen to me or my friends on this occasion, but at any rate we shall have discharged a duty when we point out the enormous weight and burden of responsibility which His Majesty's Government are taking on their shoulders in not keeping Parliament in being, or, if not in perpetual being, in constant being, during the next few weeks. I cannot imagine a step that would have a more dramatic, and at the same time a more definite, effect upon public opinion in Europe towards peace than to see this great mark of vigilance, unaccustomed vigilance, on the part of this country in maintaining its Parliament in session for all eventualities. After all, the Territorials are not going on holiday this August and September; they are going to be at work, training: they are going to do their job. The munition workers are not going to have holidays; they are going to stand by.

If I may anticipate a possible objection by my noble friend, I. do not think that to do what my Motion suggests would be to cause lack of confidence. I repeat, I think it would give enormous confidence to our Allies and friends all over Europe. Perhaps my noble friend will object that it would be a mark of lack of confidence in His Majesty's Government to keep Parliament in being. I have heard that reply given or suggested. Is it really a lack of confidence in the Government that Parliament, on which His Majesty's Government depend, and from which they derive, should be at their side to support and help them during the most critical days of the year? Perhaps my noble friend on the other hand will reply: "Well, Parliament can very rapidly be summoned." It cannot be summoned so rapidly as the Dictators can take action. That is certain. You cannot summon Parliament and bring it back under at least two to three days. And we know what has happened, what still may happen in a few hours in the state of Europe to-day. Everybody is aware of Parliament's desire to have a little rest, but I think that rest could be postponed for a month, with immense advantage to the country and to the world. It is not much to ask members of Parliament, for once in their lives, to sit through a month of August during which we have to face the gravest dangers that we may have to anticipate for some considerable time to come.

I do hope that my noble friend will seriously consider this. I am perfectly aware of what the Prime Minister said yesterday. Some of us have not had the opportunity in this House of raising this question, but the Prime Minister replied in answer to a question that Parliament could rapidly be summoned, and the dispositions which he thought necessary for the summoning of Parliament would be made. That is not the same thing as keeping Parliament in session, either from a preventive point of view or from an actual point of view. It is an entirely different thing to let Parliament disperse, and then call it together after the event. The Prime Minister is not going to call Parliament together from its holidays unless something is immediately about to occur, or has occurred. My noble friend knows perfectly well that it must be too late in nine cases out of ten, in the particular circumstances which now prevail. I do hope that my noble friend will convey to the Prime Minister the sentiments that a great many of us feel both in this House and in another place.

12.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for calling attention to this matter, inasmuch as friends of mine in another place have taken similar action. We feel that, under the circumstances prevailing, it would be wrong on the part of Parliament to cease its control over the public affairs of the country. The Government may think it an incon- venient, and even pernicious, fancy, but members of Parliament do really feel that they, and not the Ministers for the time being, are responsible in the long run for what is done in England's name. They feel that they have duties and responsibilities which they cannot delegate—at least they cannot give a free hand to the Government at this time. What we suspect is that the Government have an unspoken desire to lock the doors of this place, and to be free from the troubles which accompany the existence of a vulgar assembly like the British Parliament. I understand that. I am as tired as anybody myself, and should welcome very much a rest, but at the same time we have very serious duties to perform that we cannot neglect because of our own desires.

As I have understood it, the Prime Minister has made a statement in another place, which the noble Lord has indicated, that Parliament could be called together quickly. But Parliament is the supreme authority in this country, and we intend, so far as we have the power, to insist that it shall so remain. We believe the nation feels safer when Parliament is meeting, when day-to-day statements can be examined and scrutinised by Parliament itself, and when it keeps control of the Executive. We feel, too, that the British people have a higher opinion of their Parliament than the Prime Minister appears to have. It seems to me that he is specially ungrateful, because no Prime Minister has ever had more generous treatment from any Parliament than the present Prime Minister has had. Our point is not quite that of the noble Lord. What we fear is that, once Parliament is up, the Government will change their policy, and when we come back that policy will be something that has happened and we shall be asked to agree to what will be called a fact in the name of political realism. We cannot, we dare not, and we do not tryst His Majesty's Government in this matter. The Government must bear the disadvantages of their own character. As we understand it, not only do their enemies dislike them, but very few of their friends trust them. On these grounds and on many others we ask that Parliament, if it does not sit continuously, shall be called together at short periods for two or three days as the case may be so that the British Parliament may function as the supreme authority in this country.

12.43 p.m.


My Lords, I have a great admiration for the energies and objects of my noble friend Lord Lloyd, but I am extremely sorry to differ absolutely from him on this occasion. Has he considered all the political risks that may be run if Parliament continues to sit? My noble friend was not very long ago in another place, but, apart from his experience there, if he will run his eye down the OFFICIAL REPORT Of another place day by day, he will see a series of carping, prying, self-advertising questions which divert the attention of Ministers from their work, impose an immense burden on the civil servants, and are particularly liable to cause misrepresentation and distortion elsewhere. I would remind him that in a similar case M. Daladier has been able to see as little of his own Chamber as he possibly can. After all, what can Parliament do, however grave may be the situation? What did Parliament do in the last week or fortnight before the War in 1914? I remember being in it, and I remember the general nervousness, but in the end Parliament could bring no pressure to bear and the Government had to do their best without it.

Supposing the worst comes and some crisis suddenly emerges, what advantage would there be in a day or two of Parliament being called together? It is not Parliament that declares war; it is the Government and the King, and if legislation—imperative and immediate legislation—is necessary, then any Ministry worthy of the name would give its orders and go for an Act of Indemnity afterwards. I am afraid the only result of taking the noble Lord's advice would be to impose a perfectly unnecessary strain on the Government, and the only people who would benefit would be the makers of stunts who have been only too busy in the last fifteen or eighteen months.

12.45 p.m.


My Lords, we have listened to a very interesting attack on the whole system of Parliamentary Government delivered by a Conservative Peer. It is not the first time in the last few years that Conservative Peers and Conservative Ministers have made attacks on the liberties of Parliament.


May I remind the noble Viscount that it was his father who said that the British Constitution is not a good fighting machine?


I do not know whether it is a good fighting machine, but I do know this, that in 1914 the Government of the day thought it necessary to have Parliament meeting every fortnight at least.


Did it act in time as the result of being there?


I am only pointing out that, in the view of the Government which had to conduct the Great War, it was very desirable to have Parliament continually in session, continually able to give advice, and continually able to explain to the people what the necessities of the situation really were. I am, unhappily, a complete believer in the Parliamentary system. I believe it is the best system that has yet been devised for government in this country and, I incline to think, elsewhere. My noble friend Lord Rankeilour thought it a useful observation to refer to what has been done in France. There are reasons for that which no doubt are admirable. I have nothing to say as to what happens in France. There Parliament has been set on one side in order to enable the Government of the day to carry through legislation which they doubted would be accepted by Parliament. That may be a proper thing in France. It would be a very dangerous precedent to follow in this country. I wonder my noble friend did not go a little further and appeal to the precedent of Germany or Italy. I expect he would greatly prefer government of the kind that now prevails in Germany or Italy. There you get rid of Parliament altogether. If Parliament is a bad thing, let us get rid of it. If Parliament is a good thing, let us make use of it to the fullest extent. I have little sympathy with this kind of attack on Parliament. I am quite sure the Government is stronger and better when Parliament is sitting than when Parliament is not sitting—at any rate, this Government is.

I have only a word or two to add to what fell from my noble friend Lord Lloyd, because I agree with every word he said. I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the depth of anxiety that pre- vails, not in this country only, not chiefly in this country, but all over the world—in America, Asia, and Europe. That anxiety is very largely concerned with what course the British Government are going to take. I do not want to make controversial observations about that more than I can possibly help, but it is the case that there is profound misgiving in all these countries—and I, personally, and others, have had direct evidence of it—as to what is going to happen in this country. It may be most unjust, but it exists. I can imagine nothing which would more tend to put an end to that anxiety than a statement by the Government that they were prepared to maintain Parliamentary control of the Executive even through the ordinary holiday season. That is all my noble friend is asking. He referred to Europe. He might have referred to Asia and America. The Asiatic situation seems to me, in some respects, the most anxious of all. We shall have an opportunity for discussing it and I am not going to go into it to-day. I do not suppose anyone will doubt that on the issue of what is now taking place in the Far East may well depend the whole future of our Asiatic Dominions and Possessions.

The situation is really extraordinarily acute and difficult. I cannot but feel myself that Parliament would be invaluable in case some difficulty arises, in case some doubt may exist in the mind of the Government as to how far they can go with the support of the people of this country. It seems to me, for all those reasons, the presence of Parliament may be of the greatest possible assistance to the Government, though I quite recognise, exhausted as they must be, every one of them, by their labours, they are anxious to be free of the additional labours of Parliament. I do beg them to consider whether in the end their responsibilities will not be lessened if they have Parliament there to advise them and to support them in the very great difficulties that may come upon them at any moment.

It is all very well to say that you will call Parliament together if some great emergency arises. Look back on the last few months. Is it not true to say that scarcely a week has passed without some great event occurring of which Parliament and the people have a right to know, and which the Government ought to desire, and I have no doubt do desire, to explain fully to the people and to Parliament, so that they may receive support to which they may be entitled? I will not continue the debate, because all has been said that need be said. I think that if the Government would make a gesture, a gesture of vigilance, a gesture of Parliamentary confidence, at this moment it would enormously increase their power for good in the very grave situation in which we find ourselves.

12.53 p.m.


My Lords, my only title for intervening in this debate is that, unfortunately, I myself have had considerably longer experience of Parliament than anyone present to-day. I entirely agree with my noble friend behind me that there is nothing to be gained from the course proposed by my noble friend upon the Cross Benches. Nobody is going to dispute the seriousness of the position, and what makes the position perhaps even more serious, I am perfectly certain in my own mind, is that nobody in the Cabinet, and nobody in any important position in this country, has the least idea what may happen within the next few weeks. In addition, what is gained by keeping, as the noble Lord apparently would like to do, Parliament in continuous session? He apparently is under the impression that the country is desirous that, so to speak, Parliament should be in permanent session. I suppose that is his experience of the outside world, but I can only say that my own experience is totally different. Whenever there is a really dangerous crisis I hear people on all sides say: "What a blessing it is that Parliament is not sitting," and I confess that I agree with this view.

In this country we produce a special monopoly of politicians who invariably side with the enemies of this country when a dangerous situation arises. They cannot resist the opportunity of creating difficulties. Somebody once—I rather think it was Lord Randolph Churchill—invented a most unfortunate slogan. He said it was the duty of the Opposition to oppose. I do not think that anything said in this country has ever done more harm than that principle. The fact is that Party Politics are so ingrained and so marked in this country that the people are unable to suppress them, and they cannot put aside, even when they are faced with a world crisis, the prospect of finding fault with their political opponents. I do not mean to say that this is applicable only to one side. It is a particular feature in English political character that there are always people who will oppose what the Government propose to do, and that constitutes a very considerable danger. I think that upon the whole much the best course is to leave things alone.

Unlike the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, I have complete confidence in the two men who are principally responsible for our policy, the present Prime Minister and Lord Halifax, and I cannot think of any other two persons in this country who would command more confidence. I personally should much prefer to leave them alone and wait until some decisive event has happened and then call Parliament together. In the meanwhile I think they have shown not only to us but to the world that they are above all desirous of maintaining world peace. I do not think there is anybody, except a few eccentric persons, in this country who doubt their purpose, and, that being so, I think we can safely leave them alone and wait till the emergency really occurs.

12.56 p.m.


My Lords, I confess I was not the least surprised at the two noble Lords opposite supporting the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Lloyd. After all, Lord Snell, as Lord Newton has said, has the duty of opposing, and we know from what the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, has constantly said that he utterly mistrusts the Government. I cannot imagine any better proof of the reason for Parliament going into recess than the speech to which we have listened from him this morning. He quite definitely implied, although he was much too clever to say so, that he thought the moment Parliament had risen the Government would then have an opportunity of changing their policy and doing something quite different from what they tell Parliament. That is not the view of those who believe in and support people such as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. I am somewhat surprised at my noble friend Lord Lloyd taking the view he has. He spoke of the political risks. What are the political risks? In the ordinary course of events this House rises on Thursday evening and does not meet again until Tuesday. I entirely agree with him that in these days at any time a crisis might arise with great suddenness. It is because of that that we have thought even a gap in the meetings of this House between Thursday and Tuesday might be too long, and I put upon the Paper—and your Lordships agreed to it on the 25th May of this year—a Motion that at any time the House could be called together either by the Lord Chancellor or in his absence by the Chairman of Committees, if that was necessary. Now I am informed—


I do not want to interrupt, but of course the period is much shorter in the case of the House of Commons; it is from Friday afternoon to Monday.


I still happen to think there are two Houses of Parliament, and therefore if anything has to be discussed or declared by His Majesty's Government this House should be summoned no less than the other House. Therefore, as I say, we took steps to close up even the gap between Thursday and Tuesday, in case that should be found to be too long, and the House can be summoned to receive any statement or take any action it thinks fit. That does not come to an end when we rise on Friday of next week. The power will still remain with the Lord Chancellor, or in his absence with the Chairman of Committees, to summon the House together at any time. Therefore, unless my noble friend really suggests that in these days the House ought to meet seven days a week all through the twelve months of the year, I fail to see what political risk he thinks we are taking.

What it really comes down to is this. If you trust His Majesty's Government then you have to rely on the Executive to summon Parliament at any time if a crisis should arise on which Parliament should be informed and on which we desire to consult Parliament. Of course if you do not trust the Government then I quite understand a Motion of this kind being pressed. But I should have thought there was another point of view, and that is this. No ship when she is at sea has her men standing always by their war stations. That does not mean that that ship is not ready, but it does mean that you do not expect anything to arise so suddenly that you cannot keep those men either at rest or under ordinary training, carrying out their usual routine, and yet able to go to their war stations in time to meeet any attack. That is exactly what the position will be with regard to Parliament. We propose—in fact we have in this House already taken action and no doubt the House of Commons will do the same thing—to take action to enable either House of Parliament to be summoned at any time.

I should think that, so far from disregarding any real political risk, that was the wise thing to do, and that to keep Parliament in session is really to encourage certain of the dictator countries to think that everything that they may say or do is of such importance that we must always be waiting on the tips of our toes wondering what is going to happen next. I should have thought the more dignified thing would be that Parliament should follow its normal procedure, but should take such steps as are necessary so that Parliament can be summoned in the very shortest possible space of time in order to take any action or be informed of any situation at any moment when that became desirable. That is what His Majesty's Government propose to do, and I should have thought that was the wise way of doing it. I hope that my noble friend after further consideration will think so, too.