HL Deb 29 July 1948 vol 157 cc1328-35

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, in accordance with the arrangement pronounced by my noble friend the Leader of the House on Tuesday last, I rise to make a statement on the foreign situation at the same time as my right honourable friend makes his Statement in another place. He is now speaking and I will use his own words:

"I am grateful to honourable Members who have accepted the request of the Government to avoid a general debate on the international situation at this time, and I would like to make a statement about the latest position regarding Berlin.

On June 30 I made a statement on behalf of His Majesty's Government setting forth the position which had arisen in Berlin and Germany generally. I referred to steps which had been taken to prevent us from exercising our rights and remaining in Berlin, and which interfered with our obligations to feed the population and provide for the industries of that city and the proper communication with our Forces. I indicated then that we could not submit to compulsion, either to yield up our position or to negotiate under duress.

I would like to set forth the steps which have been taken since that date to deal with the position in Berlin. We have, of course, had to resort to what is known as the air lift. This has been organised with energy and pursued with vigour, and steps are how being taken to secure still further increase. The airport at Gatow has been improved, and arrangements have been made for the use of the Havel lake by flying boats. In the British Zone a second airfield has been put into commission, and is already in use for traffic to Berlin. It has consequently been possible to fly into Berlin a considerably greater tonnage than at one time seemed possible. For this achievement the Military Governor, the Royal Air Force and the Occupation Forces deserve the greatest credit. The United States Government are also dealing vigorously with the problem. The United States Military Governor has made a public statement to the effect that, a large number of additional C-54 transport aircraft are now being made available to him. He believes that with this reinforcement it will be possible to deliver to Berlin, in conjunction with the Royal Air Force, some 4,500 tons a day. There are already considerable stocks of food in the Western Sectors, and deliveries on this scale will be sufficient to supply the population with essentials.

Questions have been raised about defence. It is well known to the House and to the world that we have carried out a very considerable demobilisation of our war-time Forces. Since the end of the war we have turned the whole of our attention to the work of reorganisation and rehabilitation of this country and have been using our manpower to overcome the ravages of war and to re-establish our economy. Whilst we recognised that the situation might become difficult, I must confess that in our calculations we did not assume that the policy of our war-time Allies might lead to a situation which would involve the use of force. The situation which has now arisen has of course compelled us to re-examine the whole position. His Majesty's Government are fully determined to take any measures which seem necessary to meet the situation. I am sure, however, that the House will recognise that it is not desirable that I should make a public statement now on the measures which are being taken or may have to be taken to meet future contingencies.

Regarding the immediate steps which have had to be taken, it is clear that such an air lift on the scale I have described is already imposing an additional burden on our resources and has also imposed a strain on the Armed Forces and interfered with the release of trained men in certain categories. This burden naturally falls mainly upon the Royal Air Force. Members will have read in the newspapers that in a certain number of ground staff trades in the British Air Forces of Occupation and in this country men who would, in accordance with published release programmes, have been eligible for release from the Royal Air Force in August and September next, will have to be retained for a period after that date This is necessary in order to make good gaps in these vital trades which have resulted from the rapid run-down of the war time Forces under the age-and-service scheme of release.

To the extent to which comparable problems arise in the other Services, steps will be taken to extend similar measures to them as may be found to be necessary. In publishing the release programmes from time to time a warning has always been given that some measure of deferment might be required. Finally, as regards the diplomatic position, the House will recollect that on July 6 we addressed a note to the Soviet Government, and on July 14 we received a reply, which has also been published.

The great difficulty about the situation has been the hindrance to discussion caused by methods of duress. As I informed the House on July 22, we are prepared to enter into discussions with the Soviet Government on the situation in Berlin, and in fact we have never declined. But His Majesty's Government cannot be expected to do this under duress; that is to say, under the conditions which have been created by the Soviet Government.

We are aware of the wide implications of the situation in Berlin, and we have consistently pursued a policy of attempting to settle progressively the difficulties which have arisen. The Soviet Government have claimed that the introduction into Berlin of the currency of the Western Powers lies at the root of the present difficulties. If so, our representatives in Berlin are prepared, and always have been prepared, to enter into discussions on the question of currency. I would add that His Majesty's Government have never objected to the introduction of a unified or even a Soviet Zone currency into Berlin, provided this is done under quadripartite authority. And if the methods of duress are not used, we would be prepared to go on to discuss any other problems affecting Germany which may have been the cause of difficulties between the four Governments. These discussions might be broadened to cover other problems as well.

As a result of the conversations in London over the past few days, general agreement has been reached with the United States and French Governments in regard to future discussions with the Soviet Government; and we will seek the earliest possible opportunity to represent to the Soviet Government our willingness to enter into discussions with a view to the progressive solution of the difficulties which have arisen. It is unfortunate that at this juncture our Ambassador in Moscow should have been incapacitated by illness, and though he has recovered from his recent indisposition his doctors have advised him not to travel by air. I have therefore arranged for Mr. Roberts, who is my private secretary and has recently served in Moscow for nearly three years to fly to Moscow. His experience will enable him to co-operate with the United States and French Ambassadors in handling this matter with the Soviet Government. He will act in conjunction with Mr. Harrison, who is Chargé d'Affaires in the absence of Sir Maurice Peterson.

In conclusion, I should say that the object of the diplomatic steps now being taken is to clarify the position, in order to ascertain whether there is any prospect of removing the obstacles to discussions taking place, with a view to a settlement which His Majesty's Government desire and which, we hope, may lead to peace and security in Europe for us all."

That, My Lords, is the statement being made by the Foreign Secretary.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that I am speaking for all noble Lords on this side of the House when I thank the noble Lord for the firm tone of the answer which he has given. I think I may assure him that in the policy which has hitherto been followed the Foreign Secretary has had the support of all sections of opinion in this country. The last thing I want this afternoon is to embarrass the Government in any way in the difficult situation which exists. But perhaps I may be allowed to say this: I think we were all glad to hear of the steps that are being taken to stabilise and strengthen our Defence Forces. The Opposition are, of course, not in the confidence of the Government and they do not know what the defence position is. I do not propose to press for any details but I would, if I may, with diffidence and deference, remind His Majesty's Government that a firm policy such as we all desire connotes adequate Forces—and adequate Forces in a state of readiness in case of an emergency, even though, as we all hope, that emergency may not arise. We must be ready for anything which may conceivably happen. Therefore, I hope the Government will not in any way relax the steps that they think it necessary to take to keep our Defence Forces in a proper state of readiness, even though—as may well be the case—that may be the cause of difficulty and unpopularity in some quarters.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, all Parties concur that it was inexpedient to hold in your Lordships' House the debate that had been planned for yesterday on the situation in Germany, and the reasons that led us to hold that such a debate would have been unnecessary yesterday apply equally to-day. Therefore, I am sure that no one in this House would wish to engage in any close examination of the Statement that has been made, or to ask that it should be supplemented. In any case, let me say at once that for my own part—and I think I speak for all noble Lords on these Benches—I see no ground for criticism in the terms of the Statement, or with regard to the policy that it embodies. The tone is indeed serious, for the situation is serious. It is marked, as the noble Marquess has said, by firmness; but firmness is necessary. At the same time, it is marked by restraint; and I am very glad that it ends on a conciliatory note. Hard words never serve any useful purpose.

Whilst I agree that it is necessary in present circumstances that the readiness of our defences should be looked to, I hope that the public mind will not immediately jump to the conclusion that a situation of the utmost gravity is inevitable. The word "inevitable" is a word which is freely used where the right word would be "possible"; people see what is possible and probable, and from that they quickly slip into thinking that it must be inevitable. To use the word "inevitable" is an abandonment of responsibility, of will, and of effort, and, as I say, it is a word that should be removed from our political vocabulary. I feel sure that all sections of your Lordships' House will support His Majesty's Government in the steps that they are now taking, the purpose of which is to maintain in Europe both peace and liberty.


My Lords, while welcoming the firm tone of the Government Statement, may I ask, pursuant to what was said by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, whether we can also have an assurance that the Government will press on with all possible speed with the practical co-ordination of the common defences of the Western Democracies.?


I think I can give the noble Lord an assurance that we are carrying out the obligations enjoined upon us by the Brussels Treaty, which were binding. I will convey to my right honourable friend the special concern which the noble Lord has expressed this afternoon.

On behalf of His Majesty's Government I should like to express thanks to the noble Marquess and the noble Viscount for their assurances of support in the policy which, on behalf of my right honourable friend, I have indicated. I shall be happy to report to my right honourable friend the assurances to which expression has been given this afternoon.


My Lords, I would like to say a word on this matter from the Services' point of view. I should like to ask His Majesty's Government whether they quite realise that this air lift, on the organisation of which they have congratulated the Royal Air Force, is bound to weaken the Royal Air Force. Although it is a great work that they are doing, it does not make them any stronger. Having been Chief of Staff myself at a critical period, I hope that His Majesty's Government will do all they can to help the three Chiefs of Staff to carry the great responsibilities that are theirs.


I think I can give the noble Viscount an assurance straight away that His Majesty's Government are fully alive to the points which he has raised. I can assure him that the Chiefs of Staff have the full confidence of His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, further to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Vansittart, about the common defence of Europe, I presume that His Majesty's Government will have noted that, on the whole, our hands are strengthened by what the Americans call the bi-partisan foreign policy of this country. I, for one, lend my full support to that; but it seems to me that we on this side of the House have some grounds for anxiety. In conducting their foreign policy, His Majesty's Government are inclined to lean towards a partisan foreign policy, in singling out Parties in Western Europe who are rather more of their own way of thinking than are others. Therefore, would the noble Lord convey to his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, that when, in another place, he congratulates the people of Berlin upon their fortitude, we concur with that praise, but we feel considerable anxiety when he attributes that form of fortitude to a particular partisan belief. I refer to a statement made recently in another place, when the Foreign Secretary mentioned the name of a Socialist master—Engels. Would the noble Lord point out to his right honourable friend that, at the very moment when we want unity, not only in this country but also amongst all the nations of Western Europe, that sort of statement does more to divide Europe than any other form of policy he could conduct.


My Lords, I am always willing to bring to the notice of the Foreign Secretary any observations of noble Lords, but I cannot allow to pass the suggestion that my right honourable friend, in dealing with international affairs, is guilty of partisan approach. On the contrary, I think the Foreign Secretary has throughout taken up a very proper national and international standpoint.