HL Deb 17 December 1940 vol 118 cc116-22

LORDNOEL-BUXTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government if they will make a statement as to any suggestions, purporting to be aimed at terms of peace, which have been made to His Majesty's Government by the German Government since the entry of Italy into the war, and whether it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to keep the public informed when such suggestions are made; and to move for Papers.

THE noble Lord said: My Lords, I am submitting this Motion because of the importance attached by the public to the statement of the noble Viscount the Foreign Secretary on November 5, when he expressed the hope that France would not follow a course which would be a stab in the back of her former Ally, and said: We, on our side, have repeatedly rejected all suggestions from the enemy for an agreement with us at the expense of France. Great interest was aroused by those words. For instance, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who has great experience of affairs, wrote in The Times: I should have thought that these overtures ought to have been circumstantiated and given a world-wide publicity, especially in France. We have since learnt from His Majesty's Government what the noble Viscount referred to by his words. This was when the noble Lord, Lord Newton, raised in your Lordships' House on November 20, when speaking with regard to propaganda, the importance of issuing the statement for propaganda purposes. The interest aroused shows the public desire to be informed if and when overtures are made, and the noble Lord, Lord Ran-keillour, after the Government spokesman had made his statement, asked why further information could not be given as to when overtures were made. He also proposed that there should be a White Paper on the subject.

The point that I wish to make is similar to that made by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Rankeillour. I should apply the principle that they advocated to the future. If an approach comes to be made by the enemy the fact, I suggest, should not be concealed from the public without special reason. One very strong reason for that is that public confidence in the Government would be confirmed. The delicacy of the question is obvious to all of us, and I do not suggest that details ought to become public property, but if approaches are made the broad fact of such approaches ought to be made known by the Government. There may, of course, be unofficial communications which cannot be published. An illustration of that fact may be found in what happened in 1917; the interview between General Smuts and Count Mensdorff is a case in point. There had been no definite approaches by Germany or by Austria, and obviously the public could not be informed. The memorandum of General Smuts upon those talks at Geneva shows that Count Mensdorff would probably not have agreed to meet a representative of the British Government except: on the condition of secrecy.

The noble Viscount, however, seemed to allude' the other day to definite approaches. We have, as I have said, learnt from the Government what he meant, but his statement aroused very great interest, and it also occasioned surprise, because any serious offer from the German side would seem at the moment to be unlikely. Hitler knows that if it is a free hand to dominate Europe for which he is asking, as the Government spokesman said the other day, he would not be listened to for a moment. The real situation, of course, is not known to the public. Serious overtures may, for all we know, be made in the not distant future, and, if any serious offer is made, the knowledge of it would be of encouragement to the public, and would be on a par with the other grounds for encouragement given out from time to time by the Government. Recent speeches have shown that on the German side the desire for peace may become very urgent; for instance, the Minister of Economic Warfare dealt in a speech the other day with the extreme difficulty which is in sight for Germany in respect of the shortage of war materials. That sort of thing gives encouragement to the public, and I think that it would be more or less on a par with statements of that kind if the broad fact of approaches being made, when they are made, was made known. Public interest was also aroused by the words "agreement at the expense of France," and people asked what would be the nature of that "expense." They asked what sacrifices might be in view; they speculated whether it referred to Alsace or to Lorraine or to both, or whether it referred to the French Colonial Empire.

I think that we should draw a distinction between announcing serious approaches when the occasion is appropriate and detailed proposals. Details, of course, must be secret. Moreover, the Foreign Secretary ought to feel that the public trust him and do not expect information about the details, all the more because of his constant insistence that the essential of any settlement must be durability. He ought to be free to seize an opportunity by which, in his judgment, durability might be secured. I do urge, however, that the public would be uneasy if there were a feeling that they might be kept in the dark on the broad fact of a serious approach. By giving the appropriate information the Government would, I urge, ensure the support of public opinion. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, before a reply is given to this question, which is a Foreign Office one, I would like to say this. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Snell is going to reply for the Government, but, without any sort of reflection on his great abilities and on the high position which he holds in public life, I think that the Foreign Secretary might have been here. We are rising shortly, I understand, for quite a considerable recess, and we do not now meet very often or for very long hours. My noble friend who has just spoken has great knowledge on these matters; he has been known for many years as a student of foreign affairs of distinction, and I think that he deserves the presence of the Foreign Secretary.


My Lords, speaking on this matter purely as a private person, with no Government information whatever, as far as I am concerned I should like to say that I do not associate myself in the least with any criticism of the fact that the Foreign Secretary is not here and that my noble friend Lord Snell will reply for the Government. I should have thought that that was a reasonable course to take, having regard to all the occupations of the Foreign Secretary, and I can conceive of no one who is better fitted to state the views of the Government than the noble Lord, Lord Snell.

With regard to the subject of this Motion, speaking again as a private person and as one who is not in the same situation as those who speak for the Government, I wish to say with all the force at my command that I hope that the Government will not accede to the desire of the noble Lord who has moved this Motion. For my part, I cannot conceive of anything more unfortunate than that the Government should be pledged to say that there have been some offers made, almost certainly through indirect sources, in the nature of a suggestion of an armistice or a peace. I think that the Government, in particular with the present Prime Minister at their head, are well fitted to decide for themselves whether a matter of that sort should be made known to the public at the particular time and in the circumstances in which any such offer or approach might happen to be made. I have, in a very small way, a very large experience on the subject of negotiation; and this much I do know, that when you are negotiating you ought not to be subjected to all sorts of suggestions or objections or advice from irresponsible people who are not acquainted with the facts.

I do not think that the Prime Minister should be subjected to this, that as soon as some offer, which may or may not be serious, is made to the Government, he will be bound to let it be known throughout the Press that such an approach has been made. How it will be possible, having gone so far as that, to be silent on the question of the nature of the offer and through whom it had been made, I do not know; I cannot imagine the people and the Press of this country being content with the statement that such offers were being made without pressing for something more. I am guided in that view partly by the fact that the newspapers are always full of letters from well-meaning, intelligent and reasonable people expressing their views on what our aims should be in this war. The curious thing is that as soon as one able and intelligent gentleman writes to The Times or elsewhere stating what our aims should be, another equally able and intelligent gentleman writes next day and says that the first writer has missed the point, and that our aims should be something quite different. I could tell your Lordships of six different war aims that have been advertised in the Press during the last few weeks. For my part I think that all these discussions are idle and useless, and for this simple reason, that we do not know yet what the conditions will be at the moment when we have to discuss the terms of peace; we do not even know what people will be our Allies and what people will be our enemies at that date.

I do not want to mention the names of countries, but I can easily conceive some countries which will be fighting on our side as our Allies who themselves will necessarily have a voice in the sort of peace that we are to insist upon; and at the same time there are people in a very ambiguous position at the present time who may have openly entered the war as our enemies. That will very greatly affect the terms of peace which we shall then have to insist upon, and anything beyond the general statements that have already been given by His Majesty's Government would, I think, be perfectly useless. If that is so, I think it almost follows, at any rate it is the opinion that I press upon His Majesty's Government, that a pledge to tell the people of England what sort of terms may be at that moment under discussion would be most unwise and most deleterious to the true interests of the country, which are involved in the best peace being obtained that it is possible for the Government to obtain at such time as peace can be reasonably considered.


My Lords, I should like to support what has just fallen from the noble and learned Viscount on the Cross Benches. I think it is very important that expressions of opinion in the same sense should come from this side of the House. I should only like to say—and I am certain that I am expressing the view of the vast majority of your Lordships—that if the Foreign Secretary is not in his place it is because he cannot be for urgent reasons of State. I also have complete confidence in the ability of the Deputy Leader of the House adequately to represent him, and I think it is most unfortunate that any suggestion should be made that the Deputy Leader is not competent to reply to this question. As to our peace aims, I also feel confident that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are capable of deciding when the right moment is to make an announcement. Many people do want an announcement to be made. The difficulty is to make any announcement other than in general terms, which has already been done. There again I think I am not only speaking for many noble Lords in this House but for the overwhelming majority of the people in this country, who are prepared to trust the judgment of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.


My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House asked me to apologise to your Lordships for his not being here to answer the question of my noble friend Lord. As your Lordships are aware, the duties of the Foreign Secretary require his attendance very frequently at short notice on quite imperative business, and Lord Halifax was sorry that he was not able to remain. My noble friend Lord Strabolgi must remember that the only reason why I am on this side of the House rather than on the other was that I might on such occasions try to help my noble friend the Leader of the House. But there is indeed very little to be said either by the Foreign Secretary or myself in reply to the question which the noble Lord put upon the Paper.

As my noble friend the late Lord Tryon, then Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Pensions, stated on November 20, German suggestions that they would be happy to maintain good relations with Great Britain, provided they were left a free hand in Europe, have been repeatedly made during recent years. His Majesty's Government, however, have never been prepared to discuss any such arrangement with the German Government, since it could only be at the expense of our former French Ally and of the other free countries of Europe, including our present Allies. The more serious suggestions to this effect from the German side were naturally made before the outbreak of war and therefore before the entry of Italy into the war, and although there have been from time to time certain indications that the German Government might be prepared to renew these suggestions, these indications have not been of a sufficiently authoritative character to justify any statement by His Majesty's Government. I am glad, however, to have this opportunity to repeat that His Majesty's Government could never accept any arrangement which would have the effect of perpetuating German domination in Europe, and that they are resolutely determined to do all in their power to deliver the nations now under the heel of Germany from that yoke, and to restore to them their former independence and prosperity.


My Lords, I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.