HL Deb 02 April 1940 vol 116 cc1-12

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make upon the general situation.


My Lords, during the Easter adjournment this country and the Empire have had to deplore the loss of two statesmen whose lives lay far apart but who shared in common a deep sense of public duty and a wholehearted desire to give of their best to the task of winning the war. Sir John Gilmour's face and figure were everywhere familiar, and particularly to members of another place. He had innumerable friends and no enemies. To his colleagues, and especially to those of us who had been associated with him for many years, his sudden death has come as a grievous shock and a sad personal loss. He had a long career of usefulness in various high offices of State and only recently he accepted responsibility for a new and arduous task solely out of regard to the public service. He has died, as he would have wished, in harness, and he has left behind him the memory of a brave, honourable and kindly gentleman. The nation's sympathy will go out to Lady Gilmour and her family in their bereavement.

To our fellow citizens of New Zealand, too, our sympathy goes out in the loss of their greatly loved Prime Minister. Mr. Savage devoted his whole life to the service of the people among whom he lived and his courage, his sincerity and his devotion to his task in spite of failing health had earned him the widest respect and affection. Those who met him constantly during his visit to this country at the time of the Coronation were no less impressed with his qualities, his outspoken opinions, his quickness of apprehension and his intense loyalty to the Imperial connection. He was a true lover of peace, but he recognised that the time had come when if freedom was to be saved it was necessary to take up arms. We shall not readily forget him or those broadcast addresses composed and delivered during his mortal illness. His words so straight, so brave and so simply eloquent, were an inspiration to the whole Empire.

Your Lordships will desire to hear something of the last meeting of the Supreme War Council in London on March 28. This meeting gave the British representatives on the Council an opportunity to welcome M. Paul Reynaud there for the first time since he became President of the French Council. He was, however, already well-known to them and to the general public in this country for his great work as Minister of Finance, for the part he played in bringing about the Anglo-French Financial Agreement of last December, and for his untiring devotion to the common cause which unites our two countries. The Supreme War Council reviewed the developments in the strategic situation since their last meeting, and took various important decisions regarding the future line of action of the Allies. This is not the occasion to reveal the terms of those decisions, but the House will have no great difficulty in guessing at the general nature and tenor of the discussions which were so harmoniously conducted.

In the meantime, what emerged from the meeting and was displayed to the public eye was the solemn declaration to which the two Governments set their hands. In recent months the collaboration and unity of purpose between this country and France has been growing ever closer. I have already mentioned the financial agreement of last December. Since then we have expanded our arrangements to cover commercial questions, and the supply of munitions, and only the other day my right honourable friend the Colonial Secretary met his French colleague in Paris, where they together agreed on plans for the closest co-operation in the Colonial sphere. By the solemn declaration our two Governments have now extended the scope of these arrangements to all spheres affecting the interests and security of the two nations.

The declaration, which was issued on March 28, reads as follows:

"The Government of the French Republic and His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland mutually undertake that during the present war they will neither negotiate nor conclude an armistice or treaty of peace except by mutual agreement.

They undertake not to discuss peace terms before reaching complete agreement on the conditions necessary to ensure to each of them an effective and lasting guarantee of their security.

Finally, they undertake to maintain, after the conclusion of peace, a community of action in all spheres for so long as may be necessary to safeguard their security and to effect the reconstruction, with the assistance of other nations, of an international order which will ensure the liberty of peoples, respect for law, and the maintenance of peace in Europe."

If this declaration had dealt only with the conduct of the war it might have been criticized as unnecessary in view of the complete unity of purpose already existing between the two countries. But it goes far beyond the expression of British and French determination to fight together to a common victory, and provides for continuous Anglo-French co-operation in the establishment of peace and in the reconstruction of an international order designed to ensure the liberty of peoples, respect for law and the maintenance of peace in Europe.

Your Lordships will have observed the two salient features of the declaration—namely, first, that any proposals for peace, whatever their source, would not even be discussed before this country and France had reached full agreement on the requirements for a true peace safeguarding their own security and that of the other free nations of Europe; and, second, that, after the conclusion of peace. while the assistance of other nations will be welcomed in the reconstruction of Europe, Anglo-French community of action will be maintained in all spheres so long as may be necessary to effect and consolidate this reconstruction.

A word must be said here of our Polish Allies to whom we are already bound not to make peace except by common agreement. My right honourable friend the First Lord of the Admiralty spoke eloquently the other evening of them and in particular of the prowess of the units of the Polish Navy at present operating with the Royal Navy. Divisions of the Polish Army are re-forming in France and Polish airmen are being trained both in this country and in France. We are confident that these forces will give a good account of themselves in the common struggle in which we are now engaged.

Returning now to the meeting of the Supreme War Council, the picture which was presented to the Allies by the present situation was of a Germany putting her own interpretation on the obligations of neutrals, and accompanying it by threats of the dire consequences which might result to them from failure to comply with German demands. This problem which Germany has raised of a double standard of neutrality is one which we and the neutrals now have to face. The policy of the Allies has been determined by a scrupulous regard for neutral rights, whereas Germany has not hesitated to destroy neutral property and murder the nationals of neutral States, whenever it suited her policy to do so. She has not scrupled to threaten the invasion of neutral countries in order to prevent them taking steps to assist their neighbours against aggression or to protect their own interests. Our respect for neutral rights and our sympathy for the practical difficulties of neutrals must not blind us to the fact that any aid they may give to Germany might if carried far enough render them in the end liable to the hideous fate that has overtaken the previous victims of German policy.

If we are to bring this war to a close with the least possible destruction and dislocation of our common spiritual and material civilization we must deprive Germany of the materials most essential for the prosecution of her aggressive policy. The Allies are therefore determined to prosecute the economic war to the utmost of their power. Already much has been accomplished. Negotiations for war trade agreements have been successfully concluded with Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Belgium and Holland, and an agreement with Denmark is being signed at the Foreign Office this afternoon. Discussions are also proceeding in Paris for a similar agreement between the Allies and Switzerland, and commercial agreements of an important character have been reached with Spain, Greece and Turkey. We have been happy to welcome to this country M. Belin, Vice-Governor of the National Bank of Yugoslavia, who is at present in London for economic and financial discussions, and a Mission is expected shortly from Rumania to discuss a revision of the existing payments agreement. We are also looking forward to the visit to this country at the end of the week of M. Georges Monnet.

All the war trade agreements into which we have entered contain stipulations regulating the exports of neutral countries' own domestic produce to Germany. For example, these stipulations provide for the strict limitation of the export to Germany of the fats essential to her war effort. Another weapon in our armoury is that of purchase. It is obviously out of the question to purchase the entire exportable surplus of Germany's neighbours, but concentration on certain selected commodities, such as minerals, fats and oil, is to an ever-increasing extent reducing the supply of these commodities available for Germany. For instance, we have completed arrangements to purchase the entire exportable surplus of Norway's current catch of whale oil, and though it is preferable that I should not go into detail, I can say that Allied purchases of minerals in South-Eastern Europe have been on a large scale. British trade with a number of Germany's neutral neighbours is undoubtedly capable of being substantially developed, and we can look forward to an intensification of trade exchanges to our mutual benefit. At the same time the countries concerned must realise that we cannot agree to make available to them products drawn from Empire sources, unless in return they are prepared to give us guarantees as to the limitation of their future trade with Germany.

Most important of all the weapons of our economic warfare is the employment of our sea power, and the Allies are determined to continue and intensify the blockade in every possible way. His Majesty's ships have already taken certain practical steps to interfere with the un-impeded passage of German cargo ships from Scandinavia. These operations have been carried out in close proximity to German naval bases, showing once again how empty are the German boasts that the control of the North Sea has passed into their hands, and other measures are under consideration. Your Lordships may be assured that we have not yet reached the limit of our effective operations in this region, the scene of the sinking of so many neutral ships and the murder of so many neutral seamen. Our attention has also recently been drawn to the possibility that Germany may have been finding ways and means of increasing her supplies from neutral sources by routes confined to the land and hitherto hardly used. We have carefully reviewed the situation and we intend to take suitable measures. I may remind your Lordships in this connection that His Majesty's ships have recently stopped in Far Eastern waters Soviet ships suspected of carrying contraband destined for Germany via Vladivostok.

We have heard a great deal recently of possible developments in South-Eastern Europe. It has even been suggested by German propaganda that it is our aim to disturb the peace of the Balkans. This is, of course, untrue, and we are confident that our agreements with Turkey have, on the contrary, contributed most effectively to maintain peace and security in South-Eastern Europe. In order to examine the many urgent problems, both political and economic, presented by the situation in South-Eastern Europe, it has been decided to summon to London, for purposes of consultation, His Majesty's Ambassador at Angora and His Majesty's Ministers at Athens, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia and Budapest. They will be in London early next week. We shall also have the advantage of the presence in London at that time of Sir Percy Loraine, His Majesty's Ambassador in Rome, who will be on short leave of absence. I am sure that the House will welcome this initiative, which we hope will have fruitful results, both for the Allied cause and for the maintenance of peace and security in that area.

Each successive meeting of the Supreme War Council has illustrated more clearly the strength of the ties binding this country and France together. The Supreme War Council is in fact the outstanding example of Anglo-French collaboration in all spheres, of which the solemn declaration published on March 28 is the most recent development. It is our hope that these meetings may be held more frequently and at more regular intervals, not only to forward the prosecution of the war, but also to enable us to perfect the machinery which will be required for consolidating European peace when victory has been won.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friends and myself would like to be associated with the words used in the statement respecting, first of all, the death of Sir John Gilmour and the death of the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Sir John Gilmour was known to those of us who were happily his colleagues in another place better perhaps than to your Lordships who have not had that advantage. We always found him a kindly, a consistent and an unpretentious opponent of ours; he never used an ungenerous word and he never delivered an unfair blow, He took his own line with a steadfastness of character which we admired and with a simple geniality which both gained and held our friendship.

The death of Mr. Savage, The Prime Minister of New Zealand, must in any case be a very heavy blow to that greatly respected Dominion. A man who had no advantages of birth or of education, by his own industry and his native capacity and character he rose to the position of Prime Minister in his adopted country—a country in which he had, as all of us have, a very wholesome pride. And I cannot help feeling that so long as our British Commonwealth can continue to produce men of the character and capacity of the late Mr. Savage, so long will she endure and bring blessings to her people and to mankind.

I do not feel able to criticise the statement which we have just heard, but I wish to thank the noble Earl for what he has been able to tell us. It is not a very easy thing immediately to disconnect one's mind, influenced as it is by the speculations of an inventive Press and by the imaginative gossip of politicians wherever we may chance to meet them, and to adjust oneself to the picture of events as presented to us by the statement we have just heard. Therefore, I do not propose to make any critical comment to-day, although much has happened since the last statement which is of immediate importance and interest. The tempo of diplomacy seems to have been quickened, the position in Scandinavia gives to all of us a certain anxiety, there are the absorbing problems of the Balkans and the Near East, and there is also the question of our future relations with Soviet Russia. All these themes could be spoken about at length but, as the statement confined itself almost exclusively to the meeting of the Supreme War Council and to deductions to be made from that, I propose only to say that we rejoice with other people that a basis of real understanding exists between ourselves and the French Republic—an understanding not temporary or based on war emergencies alone, but a permanent and co-operative policy for peace as well as for war, a pooling of the powers and possessions of two great peoples upon whose combined strength nearly all that is precious in modern civilisation depends. These two peoples have very different qualities, but they are, nevertheless, qualities which are complementary to each other. There is the quick, logical genius of France, her dashing gallantry and her undaunted bravery, associated with our own powers of resolution and endurance.

We favour entirely the prosecution of the blockade, its sole purpose being to shorten the war and to end it satisfactorily. We have some hesitation in our minds as to whether that economic blockade has been effective, whether there have not been leakages that might have been arrested, and also as to whether the Treasury have been as helpful in this matter as might have been expected. I do not propose, therefore, to criticise this afternoon the conduct of the Department of Economic Warfare because it has difficulties of its own to contend with. We are most anxious, however, that the small nations shall not be under any ungenerous coercion on our part. International Law is a most complex and difficult thing to understand, and a layman would be very brave if he even atempted to speak upon it; but it does appear that Germany has violated neutral waters and that she has played a game of piracy upon the high seas. She apparently claims the right to sink, for her own purposes, Norwegian ships and to murder Norwegian seamen, and at the same time to slink through Norwegian waters under cover of that International 'Law which she is daily engaged in violating. At the same time there is from Germany a shrill scream of abuse if one of our ships, even by accident, crosses the line into neutral waters. I do not know what the way out of this situation is, but I suggest to His Majesty's Government that the way of co-operation with the small neutral nations may yield better results than a mere threat to imitate what Germany is doing. I cannot help feeling that we might have been in a better position if more preparation on these lines had been undertaken.

These small nations, however, must be reminded that whatever the difficulties are, if Germany wins this contest they will have lost their freedom, and lost it for ever, whereas, if we win, their freedom will be unimpaired and made permanent. Let us not under-estimate the difficulties. Germany is a formidable foe, but unless we have entirely lost our faith in the power of right to prevail over wrong, we need not thereby be depressed. Our loyalties in this matter rest upon our responsibilities as free men. Those of Nazi Germany rest upon the fear of the Gestapo. We follow ideals which we believe are of permanent value, and they crawl before men. We stand, as we see it, for the freedom of the world, and they stand for the domination of the world. In such a contest, we believe there cannot be any question as to the result. I can only ask of our Government, as far as it is possible, that we shall take care to conduct this war so that when the end comes the British Empire may look hack on what it has done without any sort of misgiving. I repeat, again, our sympathy with the relatives of Sir John Gilmour and with the Dominion of New Zealand, and beg to support, in general, the statement that has been made.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, may I revert to what has been said to express the sympathy we feel with His Majesty's Government in the loss of a distinguished colleague? Sir John Gilmour had many friends, quite apart from his Party ties, and anybody who knew him would see from his personal character and bearing how natural that was. He was a man, as has been said, who had no enemies. He did good service in many capacities, first as a soldier and then in the holding of many important offices in the State. I have no doubt that the noble Lords who come from Scotland will remember with particular interest the admirable manner in which he performed his duties there as the First Secretary of State for I think 150 years. I also, of course, join in the expression of regret for the loss of Mr. Savage. As it happens, I had some special opportunity of hearing much of the estimation in which Mr. Savage was held by his fellow-countrymen in New Zealand, and of the appreciation of his services by people of all views and opinions not merely in the Dominion itself but also in this country. I am sure we all desire to express our hearty sympathy with the people in New Zealand in the loss which they have sustained.

The noble Earl started his statement by an allusion to the recent meeting of the War Council, and he spoke of the closer association which exists between our two countries, both in everything concerning the war services and also in the economic field. I should like to add that in another respect, that of the education of young people, it is still found possible in spite of the war conditions to carry on some of the work of the interchange of students and of occasional visits by learners of all kinds between the two countries. I think it is an admirable thing that in spite of the difficulties of transport and communication caused by the war it should still be possible to carry on that most important side of our association with France.

Both the noble Earl and the noble Lord who leads the Opposition said something on the subject of International Law and the infractions of that law which, as we know, have been lately so conspicuous. As Lord Snell said, International Law has always been a subject of extreme complication and difficulty, and it is so especially to those like Lord Snell and myself who have not been able to make any special study of the subject. One difficulty of the moment turns on the duties and privileges of neutrals. That point has again become obscured by the fact that, I think I am right in saying, three great countries in Europe have announced that although they are not taking part in the war they do not wish to be precisely regarded as neutral. On the other hand, there are the smaller countries, those to which Lord Snell has alluded, whose neutrality is undoubted and who have been seriously outraged by the action of Germany. We are alleged to have outraged their neutrality also by the search not merely for what is technically known as contraband but for other articles of commerce destined for Germany. But I think we are entitled to point out to them that such losses as the neutral countries, or people within them, may sustain by that action are purely matters of pounds, shillings and pence, and so far as it is possible to offer compensation for loss of that kind I have no doubt this country would desire to do it; whereas the outrages on neutrality by Germany are of course of a different kind. As Lord Snell has described them, they include not merely the destruction of ships and their cargoes but also the actual murder of harmless seamen belonging to those countries.

In the last war the position of America was, as we know, a very difficult one, and in the earlier years of that war almost daily complaint was being made on behalf of the American Government by the American Ambassador here. I have, however, some words which were used by President Wilson in reply to a deputation that came to him with a demand that the export of munitions of war from the United States should be stopped. Owing to our command of the sea these munitions of war naturally came to us rather than to Germany. President Wilson said: The Allies are standing with their backs to the wall, fighting wild beasts. I will permit nothing to be done by our country to hinder or embarrass them in the prosecution of the war unless admitted rights are grossly violated. The real interest of that statement lies in the date at which it was made. It was made in 1915, two years before America entered the war and at a time when the great body of American opinion was strongly opposed to taking part in the war. It must be noted, too, that in 1915 the acts which President Wilson denounced consisted in the invasion of Belgium and the maltreatment of the people there. It was long before there had been any question of indiscriminate U-boat warfare or sinkings of noncombatant vessels. Surely that makes the indictment infinitely stronger than if it had been made towards the close of the war.

The fact is that in the last war, in the main, the criminal acts of Germany represented the traditional brutality of Prussian militarism. Now, surely, they are infinitely worse because they represent the deliberate and elaborate barbarities devised in civilian minds by men poisoned with political hatred. For that reason I repeat that we are entitled to ask the neutrals to realise the difference between such almost technical infractions of International Law—disregard of the three-mile limit and so on—which we may have committed or may commit, and the acts of piracy which the Germans are prepared to commit to an almost indefinite extent. I have really nothing to add with regard to the statement as a whole. The noble Earl informed us of what indeed we all knew to be certain, that there could be no question of a separate peace being made by any of the Allies. He mentioned the rights of Poland, and I think he might have added that those of Czecho-Slovakia would also have to be carefully weighed before any question of peace could be entertained.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before five o'clock.

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