HL Deb 20 November 1940 vol 117 cc733-8

LORD NEWTON had given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether the Ministry of Information have taken any steps to draw special attention to the statement by the Foreign Secretary on November 5 that "We, on our side, have repeatedly rejected all suggestions from the enemy for an agreement with us at the expense of France." The noble Lord said: "My Lords, this question is one of a belated nature, but that is not my fault. The speech referred to was delivered on the 5th of this month, and we are now at the 20th. As soon as I got an opportunity, I put it upon the Paper, but I was requested by my noble friend who represents the Ministry of Information to put it off because, he said, he would give me a much more satisfactory reply to-day. I await with interest his reply, but I have very little expectation that it will be satisfactory from my point of view. When two Governments are at war and when one Government makes peace approaches to the other, it is always treated as a matter of profound secrecy. Everything is wrapped in mystery. But upon this occasion there has been no mystery at all. My noble friend Lord Halifax made a definite statement that he had been constantly approached by the enemy to come to terms with them at the expense of the French, and that he had consistently refused to do so.

That struck me at the time as one of the most important statements that had been made for a long time. I did not call attention to it then because I was not perfectly certain of the words used by the noble Viscount, but the more I think of it, the more important it seems to be, and the extraordinary thing is that nobody seems to have paid any attention to it. I looked at the newspapers next day. There was, I think, a reference in only one of the big London newspapers to what I consider this most important statement. I have never seen any comment on it in the other place or anywhere; in fact I have been unable to find anyone who took any interest in the statement at all, with the exception of my noble friend Lord Selborne, who is not present here this afternoon. When a statement of this kind is made relating to peace overtures, there is as a rule great mystery and concealment, and the usual practice of Governments is to refuse to admit that anything has taken place at all. But in this case there has been no concealment whatever. The Foreign Secretary has stated openly to the whole world what has occurred, and that is an incident which seems to me of enormous importance.

It appears to have aroused no interest whatever here, yet one would have thought that nobody, however obtuse, would have failed to recognise the importance of the statement. Here, not for months but now for over a year, we have been exposed to the vilification of those champions of truth and virtue, Hitler and Mussolini, and a third might be added to them, M. Laval. They have consistently accused us of fomenting the war and betraying our Allies. Here is a statement of Lord Halifax which gives the lie completely to anything of the kind. Not only does it do that, but it places us in a most creditable position that the nation could desire, because it has shown that, in spite of the worst kind of provocation, we adhere to our promises and stand by them. This is a fact which I should have thought ought to have been made known all over the world, which ought to have gone forth at any rate all over the Empire and to America and every European country and especially France; yet I do not gather that anything whatever has been done.

The opportunity has been completely neglected. Whose fault is it? I have no hesitation myself in attributing the fault to the Ministry of Information. What do that Ministry stand for, and what is expected of them? In time of war the functions of the Ministry of Information are, first of all, to give the country correct and unprejudiced information about the operations that take place; secondly, to expose the malignant lies which have been frequently told about this country by our enemies; and thirdly, to make the best of every occasion on which by good luck or by our own skill we have achieved a success. That seems to be prefectly obvious and ought to be understood by everybody, but we have done exactly the reverse. One would have thought from the persistent silence which has been kept with regard to our action that we had done something of which we should be ashamed. I repeat that this was a heaven-sent occasion which we ought to have made the most of, and really we have made no use whatever of it.

If I am asked who is responsible for this complete lapse I say the Ministry of Information. I am not one of those people who have repeatedly accused the Ministry of Information of incapacity, but I must say that this last incident seems to me to show quite plainly that there is something wrong about that Ministry. At the present moment the Ministry's composition is very much like an organisation which existed in the last war. It so happens that I was for a short time before I was transferred to other duties, in a position in the Foreign Office department. We in the Foreign Office, as far as I remember, took no account of other people. The department went its own way and the result was overlapping and general want of efficiency. It was not until the last year of the war that a Ministry was formed, and then I suppose things were better managed. It seems to me that there is not sufficient coherence between the different branches. I presume that the responsibility with regard to this particular business is the responsibility of the Foreign Office section of the Ministry of Information. If that is so, and if owing to the Foreign Office action I have mentioned all this has been suppressed, then, although I do not like criticising a department of which I was once a member, I can only say that the people who man that department have a very strange conception of their duties and perhaps it would be well if a change were made.

Anyhow, the fact remains that an immense opportunity has been lost. We had the opportunity of showing the whole world what our attitude is and showing the world that we keep to our engagements. It could not have failed to have had the highest moral effect in all civilised countries. I repeat that this is a magnificent occasion which has been deliberately wasted. I do not know whether there is time to do anything now—I shall probably be told it is too late—but I urged that something should be done and gave my reasons for it in time. I urge this course because I feel perfectly certain that if the position is cleared up the effect will be very deleterious as far as our enemies are concerned. It will probably result in great embarrassment to them, and not only to them but to the Vichy Government as well.


My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord for providing the opportunity for an important statement on this subject. I would only differ from him in saying that instead of having said he would get a better answer if he waited (because the subsequent answer had not then been drafted), what was said was that in view of the very great importance of the point he made I was very grateful to him for deferring the question so as to enable us in concert with the Foreign Office to go into the question and give an adequate reply. Let me say that the noble Lord acknowledges that so far as the Government are concerned they did make a perfectly satisfactory statement on this question, and it is not the fault of the Government if some parts of the speech were not fully reported in the Press. I am not criticising anybody. I think this reply will cover the very important point which he raises and I hope that publicity will be given to it so that my noble friend will have achieved his object in raising the question in your Lordships' House.

Suggestions have repeatedly been made that if Great Britain were prepared to leave Germany a free hand in Europe, Germany would have no further quarrel with Great Britain or the British Empire. The implication, so far as France is concerned, is very plain, and such a temporary bargain at the expense of France could obviously never be accepted by His Majesty's Government. They have repeatedly proclaimed that their aim is the deliverance and restoration of France to her former greatness and independence. Before the French collapse, one of the basic themes of British propaganda was to maintain a united front with France and thus defeat the German efforts to drive a wedge between the two countries. Since the armistice between France and Germany constant emphasis has been laid by the Ministry of Information on the theme that the integrity of metropolitan France and the French Empire can only be assured by the victory of Great Britain in the war with Germany. The Foreign Secretary's statement does not contain anything that was not well known before, but it provides useful illustration of the main theme which the Ministry of Information wished to convey. It has already received wide circulation, and there would not appear to be need for special measures to secure further pub- licity for it beyond the statement I have just made.


My Lords, I do not know whether my noble friend below me will feel satisfied with this answer, but I confess that I personally do not. Why cannot further information be given as to when these overtures were made and how they were immediately answered? In fact, why cannot our case be documented in some way? I feel sympathy with my noble friend Lord Tryon in having to answer for a Department over which he has no control at all, but surely something more can be done. Surely some White Paper can be published as to these overtures and the like. Then again, if such a statement can be amplified and put on the wireless, not only for France but for all the world, I do not think it is too late. I do suggest that he should do his best to see that the two Departments concerned take active and immediate steps to carry out the purpose that my noble friend has in mind.


My Lords, I shall, of course, convey the suggestion of my noble friend, in view of its importance, to the Ministry of Information.