Debate on the Address.

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech. – in the House of Commons on 5th December 1935.

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Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg Lieut-Colonel Sir Edward Grigg , Altrincham

It is well for France that there is not. Every step is being taken by responsible people in France to prevent anything in the nature of a Labour Government coming into power, and I am bound to say that those who represent that trend of opinion there are anxious not to take responsibility at the present moment. The budgetary situation in France has caused difficulty, the future of the franc is uncertain, and any country passing through difficulties of that kind is bound to look anxiously on external difficulties, which, if they became more acute, would make internal problems the harder to solve. What would have been our attitude during the crisis of 1931 if at that moment France had been asking us to take some particularly difficult line in international affairs? What would have been our attitude if we had had not only a financial crisis but also a threat to the constitution of the country and to the normal system of Government by armed Leagues? I think we should have been inclined to say that our internal problems were quite enough to keep us occupied for the moment and that we wished to have as little external trouble as possible. If that is the attitude we should have been likely to take up at that time, then we should show sympathy at the present time for the Government and people of France.

When the hon. Gentleman pleads for the immediate imposition of an embargo on oil, he must realise that that embargo involves dangers greater than any which have been presented by sanctions hitherto. Obviously the more effective the economic sanction the greater is the danger of retaliation. That is a point which every responsible statesman is bound to take into account. From the French point of view it is particularly necessary to take that into account. In the event of retaliation we might assume that we should have no trouble to face except naval action of some kind, and that any other danger involved would fall on remote places like Malta and Egypt. That is not the situation in France. The consequences for France might be serious. It is possible indeed that general mobilisation might be involved, and no Government in France at the present time can be anxious to face responsibility of that kind.

It is quite right and proper that the French Government at the present moment should be straining every nerve to prevent this trouble from spreading, to secure a settlement if it possibly can. I was delighted to hear the phrase in which the Foreign Secretary affirmed his determination to arrive at a settlement if a settlement can be arrived at which will be approved by the League. France will certainly strain every nerve in that direction, and we will certainly give her co-operation. The strangest point about the hon. Gentleman's speech was that after his talk about France he went on to speak about the collective system, and, holding up his hands, asked: "Have we no friends in Europe?" I should like to tell him that speeches such as the one he made will ensure that we have no friends in Europe. After all, the key to the collective system in Europe, about which hon. Members above the Gangway are always talking, is France. You cannot get that collective system working without the whole-hearted co-operation of France. There is no hope for such a system without the co-operation of France. It is well, therefore, that we should seek to understand the difficulties of France and the spirit in which France is meeting them instead of making irresponsible, unforgivable attacks upon the French Government.

Having said that about the speech of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, I would like to turn to the point raised by the right hon Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain). He dealt with a point which is of very great importance, and which I know is exercising the minds of people in France, when he asked whether the British Government really meant that the only terms of settlement of the Abyssinian dispute which could be supported were terms satisfactory not only to the League but to Italy and to Abyssinia. If that is to be the formula, it seems to give the Abyssinian Government a veto over any settlement. That is one of the defects of the Covenant as it is now framed. Under Article 10, if that Article is to be read literally, all members of the League give universal and unconditional and unqualified guarantees to every State member throughout the world. Article 19 is an article which merely suggests that the League should recommend the revision of arrangements or treaties which might be found inconvenient, but Article 10 is absolute and unconditional. It means as it stands that any State in the world, however backward, however unreasonable, however unwilling to regard in any way the advice of the League, can stand out and say: "We are guaranteed in our independence and territorial integrity, and we insist on the protection of the League." That is one of the things that will have to be considered in due course. In any case there can be no question of allowing the Negus to take his stand on that principle.

It must be made perfectly clear that if the Negus is not prepared—and indeed if Italy is not prepared—to accept terms which are regarded as just and reasonable by the League, then the protection of the League must be withdrawn. This is a very important matter, because, unless the point is made clear at an early date, there may be opposition from Abyssinia to a reasonable settlement which might strain the situation in Europe. I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for League of Nations Affairs will deal with that point when he speaks with reference in particular to the difficulties in the Province of Tigre. What is going to happen in Tigre? The Abyssinian Government might claim that, whatever has happened in Tigre, Tigre is part of the Empire of Abyssinia and must remain part of the Empire of Abyssinia.

I can only say that in this matter some consideration should be given not only to Abyssinia but to the population of Tigre itself. There is such a thing as victimisation, and I cannot conceive that the League of Nations, if it is really going to face its responsibilities in this matter, will hand back people who have declared that they wish no longer to be governed by Abyssinia. The record of the government of Abyssinia in dealing with its outlying provinces is well known; it is on record. The effects of its administration in many of the outlying provinces have been cruel and brutal in the extreme. Its record in dealing in outlying territories with people who are not of Abyssinian blood is as bad as any record can be, and that must be taken into consideration when we are discussing the future of a province like Tigre, which, in so far as its legitimate ruler is concerned, and many of its chiefs, seems quite voluntarily, when the opportunity was given, to have thrown off Abyssinian rule and joined the Italians. I hope that in the question of Tigre there may be no question of returning people who have once thrown off the sovereignty of Abyssinia to that sovereignty again.

The other point on which I should like the Minister for League of Nations Affairs to say a word is this: We have quite rightly taken action against Italy, in accordance with the Covenant, for breaking treaty faith. We must be scrupulous to keep it ourselves. I do not think we can argue that we are absolved from the tripartite treaties and the undertakings we gave Italy in those treaties merely because Italy herself has broken faith. A breach of the Covenant does not annul other people's obligations. We remain bound by the undertakings we gave to Italy, and it must be made perfectly clear that we are prepared, in any settlement that is made, to honour the undertakings we have given in treaties, some of which were signed long before the League came into existence and which have been reaffirmed and registered with the League. That is a very vital matter at the present time, and I raise it with seine anxiety because it seems to me that the Committee of Five, in the proposals which they made before Italy broke with the League, did not take that sufficiently into account.

Under the terms of our treaty engagements to Italy we are bound to recognise certain special rights of Italy in certain parts of Abyssinia once there is an alteration of the status quo. There is no question that the proposals of the League were an alteration of the status quo and brought into play our treaty obligations to Italy. I have never felt certain that the proposals of the Committee of Five gave adequate weight to that point.

Abyssinia did not accept them. But that does not make us any less bound; we signed them ourselves. I absolutely refuse to accept the statement that a treaty is no longer binding which is registered with the League. My view, which is taken by a majority of this House, is that this country keeps its engagements, whatever they may be, and that we are not absolved from our engagements merely because other people have broken theirs. That is the point I wish to make. The criticism which I have ventured to make of the proposals of the Committee of Five has been made by impartial international jurists in Europe, and, therefore, I think that some attention should be paid to it.

The Debate has drifted away from defence and I do not propose to bring it back to that point. But before I sit down I should like to express my strong agreement with the appeal made yesterday by the hon. and gallant Member for Wellingborough (Wing-Commander James). There is a strong feeling of anxiety amongst those hon. Members who have experience of the problems of defence and are interested in them, as to the co-operation of the Services, whether or not there exists any adequate doctrine or plan for the co-operation of the Services at the present time. Before the War this House always understood clearly what it was voting for when it dealt with two of the Services. The role of the Navy was well known and the role of the Army was well known, and when the House voted the Estimates for either of these Services it voted for a definite plan of defence which it understood. There is no such plan now which the House understands. When we vote for the Navy, Air Force or Army we are voting for Services which overlap and which have intermingling responsibilities, and we do not know how these responsibilities have been worked out. We feel great anxiety that the money to be spent on them may not be well spent, that much of it may be wasted if a very clear doctrine is not worked out and stated to this House. The House should know what it is voting for when these Estimates are presented. I support strongly the appeal made by the hon. and gallant Member for Welling-borough, and I hope that it will not be overlooked when we come to the Estimates which will be presented early next year.

I should also like to ask whether the Government have any intention of making any statement on naval policy before the Naval Conference. Very vital matters are to be discussed there, and there is some anxiety about the commitments which may be made. I think it was an undesirable precedent that in the Naval Conference of London in 1930 our cruiser policy, the basis of our cruiser policy, was altered without reference to this House. It was presented as a fait accompli and was one of the worst things ever done by any Government. I am very much afraid of that limitation on our cruiser strength being accepted again. I am not sure that such a limitation is not implied in the German Treaty, but when we were discussing a limitation of naval armaments at Washington there was no question of limiting our cruiser strength, which is purely defensive and cannot be offensive, by ratio with other Powers. Our cruiser strength is based entirely on the needs of our world-wide trade, and no other basis was accepted until the Conference of 1930. There is real anxiety amongst those who care about the principle of defence as to whether this new plan of basing our cruiser strength on that of other Powers, regardless of what their requirements are, may not be accepted again. I ask that some statement may be made on that subject before commitments are made at the Naval Conference.

Cruiser strength is a matter of vital importance in our naval policy. Big ships are built in order to keep other big ships from our cruisers. Our cruisers are our fleet, and this principle of limiting our cruiser strength by what other Powers choose to do in that line is unsound and dangerous. This is not a matter on which I ask for an answer to-night because the Debate has gone beyond that point, but while wishing the right hon. Gentleman God-speed on the difficult and responsible journey he is about to undertake, and wishing him a rapid recovery when he reaches his holiday on the other side of his task in Paris, may I ask that an answer shall be given to the two points in regard to Abyssinia which I have raised?