HL Deb 04 April 1944 vol 131 cc392-6

LORD NOEL-BUXTON had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, whether in view of the importance attached throughout the world to the Atlantic Charter and in view of the statement made by the Prime Minister, that there will be no question of the Atlantic Charter applying to Germany as a matter of right and barring territorial transferences or adjustments in enemy countries, His Majesty's Government will make clearer the bearing of the Charter on the future of Germany; and to move for Papers.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, rises to speak I should like to make an appeal to him to postpone his Motion to-day. Some little time ago, the noble Lord intimated to me that he proposed to raise a discussion on the application of the Atlantic Charter to Germany. At that time—I want to be quite frank with your Lordships' House—I did not ask him to refrain. But subsequently further statements were made on behalf of His Majesty's Government in another place in answer to questions, and in particular last week, on March 30, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said: I do not want to say much about it at the present time. I think that it might lead us into more difficulties. In view of this statement I got into touch with the noble Lord, Lord Noel-Buxton, and asked him to postpone his Motion until the subject could be properly discussed. Unfortunately, he felt unable at that time to meet 111e, except on the condition that the debate should take place at a fixed date immediately after Easter.

I do not say this in any spirit of complaint—I am fully aware that I gave the noble Lord extremely short notice—I only state it a; a fact. I must, however, tell your Lordships' House what I have already told the noble Lord, that this Motion at the present time puts His Majesty's Government in a position of very considerable difficulty. Evidently the time is approaching when a further statement on this subject must be made. As the Prime Minister himself said in another place on March 22: It is evident that, as the changing phases of the war succeed one another, some further clarification will be required of the position under the document which has become honourably known as the Atlantic Charter, and that this must be a subject for renewed consultation between the principal Allies. Until that consultation has taken place, it is really not possible for a further statement to be made by His Majesty's Government. The Atlantic Charter, as your Lordships know, has now received the adhesion of the Governments of all the United Nations and if each of these Governments started to give its own interpretation of its provisions, great confusion must result, which would be of no assistance to those who ultimately will have to frame the peace. I can tell your Lordships' House that His Majesty's Government are at present proposing the initiation of discussion with their Allies on this subject. Moreover, I would remind your Lordships that the Dominion Prime Ministers will be here in the comparatively near future, and no doubt they will have something to say on this matter. To anticipate all these discussions by a unilateral declaration would not be helpful, as I am sure your Lordships would agree, to the deliberations of the Governments concerned, and might very naturally be resented.

His Majesty's Government have again carefully considered the terms of the noble Lord's Motion since I spoke to him last week, and with every desire to meet your Lordships' wishes they are bound strongly to deprecate a debate on this question for the time being. They believe that it is likely to be harmful, and might be very harmful, at the present juncture. I say this with great regret. As your Lordships know, it has been my main concern since I have had the privilege of leading your Lordships' House to ensure that every practicable opportunity is given for full and free debate. But the needs of the international situation at a time like this must outweigh every other consideration. If there are any of your Lordships who feel that they must express their views to-day, that is a mattter for them and not for me. I can only appeal to them as strongly as I may. But I hope they will, in any case, understand that it would be impossible for His Majesty's Government to add to-day to what the Prime Minister has already said. I could make no further contribution to the debate.

I would not, however, wish the House to think that there need necessarily be any long delay in clarifying the position under the Atlantic Charter. I am authorized to say that a statement will be made in the future, and possibly in the near future, when the situation allows of it. But I cannot, to-day, fix a date. My chief regret is that your Lordships have been brought here to-day on what may appear to be false pretences. But for that I hope the House will acquit me of any intentional discourtesy. I can only express my most sincere regrets for any inconvenience which may have been occasioned, and which I certainly would have avoided had it been possible. The desire of the Government—I will repeat it once more, if I may—is that a statement should be made as soon as possible; and then they will welcome expressions of your Lordships' views. Until then, I hope the House will exercise patience. Hasty or unconsidered words can only do more harm than good, and prejudice the chance of that just and enduring peace on which all our minds are set, and which alone will make worth while the sacrifices and sorrows which we have endured.


My Lords, I am bound to say that I deeply regret that the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, has had to make this request. I think that it would have been to the public advantage that views held among your Lordships should be expressed on this very vital question, but in the circumstances I, naturally, have no course open to me but to accede to his request. I shall have his approval, I think, in keeping the Motion, in some form, on the Paper, and we shall look forward to the debate which the noble Leader foretells at a not too distant date. I should like to ask him if he will make a very particular point of informing me, at the earliest possible moment, when he comes to the conclusion that a debate would be in the public advantage. With that, I express my willingness, or I should say my decision rather than my willingness, to accede to his request.


My Lords, may I take this opportunity of paying a tribute to the Leader of the House in this matter? We know that he must have been exceedingly reluctant to make the statement which he has had to make at this late time, and we acknowledge the great courtesy with which he has always tried to meet our wishes in initiating discussions. In the circumstances, when he assures us, as he does, with full responsibility, that it would be harmful to have this discussion at the present time—I am using his own words—my noble friend Lord Noel-Buxton clearly has no alternative but to accede to his suggestion. I hope that the noble Lord may be assured, and I think that he will be, that the noble Viscount, the Leader of the House, will agree to his keeping the Motion on the Paper in some form, and that the noble Viscount, as soon as he can, will let him know when it is opportune for us to discuss this vitally important subject.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Noel-Buxton for his courtesy in agreeing to postpone his Motion in the rather abnormal conditions which prevail. I can assure him that I will certainly inform him when it is possible for the Government to make a statement on this subject, and I hope that the date will not be too long delayed. It is certainly not the object of the Government to hold up discussion on this question. It is merely the international situation that makes it difficult for them to accede to his wish to -day. I think that what he suggests—namely, that the Motion should be left on the Paper with no date named—would be an admirable plan, and I hope that he will adopt that course.

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