European Situation.

Part of Orders of the Day — CONSOLIDATED FUND (No. 2) BILL. – in the House of Commons on 26th March 1936.

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Photo of Mr Robert Boothby Mr Robert Boothby , Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire Eastern

It is my privilege to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for East Fulham (Mr. Astor) upon what, I am sure, the House will agree was a most successful maiden speech. It is trying enough to make a maiden speech in any circumstance, but to do so in a big Debate of this character is one of the most difficult and harassing experiences that anyone could undergo. Yet the hon. Member interested the House from the moment he rose until he sat down. He made a very thoughtful contribution. His style is startlingly dissimilar from that of the Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor), and perhaps I may say that it is just as good. I am sure we all hope to hear him on many future occasions. I do not find myself in full agreement with everything he said and I should very much like to know who brought fervent pressure, on behalf of the British Government, on the French Government not to sign the Soviet Pact. That was news to me, and if that was done I cannot help thinking that it was rather unnecessary in view of the then existing situation, if indeed it was a wise thing to do in any circumstances.

The speech which interested me most to-day was that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George). I think it showed that, whoever else may be out of date in this House, he certainly is miles out of date. He is living in a different world and in a different generation from most of us, and I never heard him, brilliant speaker as he is, carry less conviction than he did to-day. His speech was an echo from the past, and not a very good past at that. I yield to no one in my admiration for what the right hon. Gentleman has done for the social services of our country, but as an international statesman I never regarded him as anything but a calamity, and I think that is the view of all my generation. He was one of the most powerful members of the Government which, rightly or wrongly, got us into the War. He cannot escape all responsibility for that, although he has frequently tried to do so. When he said that an electoral atmosphere was not one in which to begin negotiations, some of us could not help casting our minds back to 1918. We remember the sort of atmosphere which the right hon. Gentleman took over to Paris with him. We remember how his supporters then were stumping the country saying that we were going to squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeaked. We remember the right hon. Gentleman himself talking about hanging the Kaiser. Why, even the French had to restrain him then. Now he comes down and says that we have been very unfair to the Germans.

The Versailles Treaty is at the bottom of all this trouble, and for Versailles the right hon. Gentleman bears a tremendous responsibility. I take a rather different view, however, from those who would attempt to condone what Herr Hitler has done. I think that, recently, the British public has been not unnaturally suffering from a reaction against Versailles, against the occupation of the Ruhr, against the failure on the part of this country and France to give the Weimar Republic a real chance. There was another occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs lost a great opportunity. At the Genoa Conference it was two days before he would even speak to the Germans, and that was several years after the War. Dr. Rathenau could get nothing then and eventually, it will be remembered, he was assassinated.

Then we had Stresemann, one of the very greatest statesmen of Germany, and here I may say that I have never believed that the policy pursued by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Sir A. Chamberlain) after the signature of the Treaty of Locarno was a wise one. There was an opportunity. That was the time to send the British Foreign Secretary to Berlin—after the Treaty of Locarno, and not after the repudiation of the Treaty of Versailles. But instead of making a real practical gesture to Stresemann by offering one-quarter of what we have now allowed Herr Hitler to take, we kept on the armed occupation which ought to have been removed immediately, if Locarno meant anything; and we kept on those ridiculous reparations which finally had to be paid for by means of loans made to Germany by the City of London. That went on year after year and it was not until the economic crisis, which really swept the Nazis into power, that we began when it was too late to take steps which, earlier, might have stabilised a great political system and created a great country out of the Weimar Republic.

I believe that what is called the wave of pro-German opinion in this country, although I am not sure that it is so strong as has been represented, has been due very largely to a reaction on the part of our people against a foreign policy in which they never believed, and which was carried out in a manner which they thought was grossly unfair to Germany, and which was in fact grossly unfair to Germany. But things have changed. There has been a marked change in Germany. I do not say that it is necessarily a change for the worse, but the conditions are markedly different to-day. Indeed, I do not think that the man-in-the-street realises how completely different is the Germany of to-day from the Germany, which existed before the Nazis came power. After the course of events which I have described, the policy of "repudiation by coups" began. We ought to have begun to resist this repudiation from the beginning, instead of making concession after concession, at a time when we were in a position to make much stronger protest than we did make. Particularly was this the case when it came to rearmament. That is one thing that we need not have countenanced on the part of Germany. We never made a sufficient protest against it at a time when our protest might have been effective.

I feel that this House and the country must not forget the character and the methods of those who are governing Germany. I do not say that we ought to condemn them here, or use strong language about them, but their methods are not ours. Neither the methods by which they attained power, nor the methods by which they now maintain themselves in power are methods of which we can ever approve. They are now using similar methods in the field of foreign affairs. They are following the method of the coup of the fait accompli. They give the greatest assurances, and smooth everybody down, and, when everybody is feeling happy and nobody looking, they pounce. That is what hey have done in Bavaria, and what they did in the Rhineland the other day. They gave specific assurances that nothing was going to happen and then, within a few hours, they made a dramatic move.

There is an interesting passage in "Mein Kampf" which justifies in international affairs a policy of bluff, provided that the bluff is big enough. If a real big bluff can be brought off that is, according to Herr Hitler, the acme of statesmanship in international affairs. I believe that they are. bluffing at this moment, and I think if a resolute line were taken, a British line and not a French line, as indicated in what I take the leave to describe is the magnificent speech of the right hon. Gentleman, we could call that bluff. What were the reasons for what is diplomatically described as a démarche, in Germany? It was done, not for strategical reasons, but from economic weakness. Anybody who has studied the economic -position in Germany can tell you how bad it is, and how necessary it had become to divert attention from it by another coup. In Germany, they have no party warfare of their own. They cannot win victories over each other inside, unfortunately; and if the chief minister wants to bring off a spectacular victory, he has to look outside his own country. That is always the case with these dictatorships, and that is why these coups are undertaken. They are undertaken at the expense of their unfortunate neighbours, and not at their own expense.

The move into the Rhineland bears all the characteristic imprints of Nazi methods. It was planned long ago. It was carried out, according to reliable information, in defiance of some of the weightiest advice that could be given in Germany. I think there is a consensus of opinion that the German general staff were opposed to it. It was a flagrant breach of a treaty freely signed. Those of my hon. Friends—and there are not many, I think, holding their view either in this House or in the country—who are so anxious to see us surrender now to everything that Germany demands, are the very people, in many cases, who, a few years ago, under the slogan of "Hats off to France" were denying everything to Germany, and backing up France when that country was deaf to all appeals for reason.

Even now, when they advocate making every kind of concession to Germany at the expense of Europe, I notice that when the question of colonies comes up for discussion they are curiously reticent. I think those of my hon. Friends who want to make substantial concessions quickly and without reasonable return, had better address their minds to that question. If they do not, the German Government is going to draw their attention to it very soon. They may not make it an immediate condition but the Germans have the colonies not in the background but right in the forefront of their programme and they will bring up the question at the earliest opportunity.

The fundamental fallacy in the arguments of hon. Gentlemen who are out to make unlimited concessions all round to Germany and buy them off at any price, is the idea that a day will come when we shall get the Germans and the Russians fighting each other and everybody else can stand back; and then, somehow or other, these two great menaces of the world will "do in" each other, and we shall be free from Communism and Socialism and everything else of that kind. That is at the back of the minds of a number of people, and on the face of it it is a simple and an alluring proposition, but that sort of thing does not happen and is not going to happen. If you were a member of the German General Staff, why should you choose to follow the hardest military road, when you have stretching out before you the most alluring road, which you have trod before with great success, which begins at Vienna, goes on to Belgrade, and finishes up at Bucharest? [An HON. MEMBER: "And Prague."] Prague would be very early on the line, almost before Vienna. It is far better that the House should face up to the facts; and this is going to happen, it is obvious, unless something totally unexpected occurs, and the question is, Are we at any stage going to take up a line, and say, "We are not going to let this happen"? I am sure that a moment will come when the whole of the people of this country unitedly will say to Germany, sooner or later, "You have got to stop." I agree that the moment has not come now. Nobody feels that we can apply very strong or stringent measures against Germany because she has put troops into the Rhineland, but she must know at what point we intend to say, "Eonugh". This country can never in the long run tolerate a Nazi Germany astride the whole of Europe, omnipotent right across the Continent.

I therefore ask the House to consider the possibilities of the future if we do not take a stand by the League and by France at the present moment. First of all, there would be the break up of the League of Nations. Europe is watching the League very carefully at the present time, especially the smaller Powers and above all Poland and the Little Entente. They are wondering whether the League of Nations is going to be of any use at all. They are getting more doubtful, not only every day, but every hour, but I think they will be very much less doubtful when they read my right hon. Friend's speech to-morrow. I think that will have done more to restore confidence in the League of Nations than anything else. These nations, like Poland and the Little Entente, are not in a position to stand alone, to stand by themselves. They will have to make what terms they can with Germany, and M. Flandin has, in fact, threatened to leave the League and make what terms he can, if the policy of collective security is ineffective.

I think this could only lead to a policy of military alliances in Europe, and inevitably to war in the long run in which sooner or later we should be involved, as we always are involved in any major European war. If our people realise, or when they realise, that the result of the policy adopted by the Government has been the destruction of the League of Nations, there will be a frightful revulsion of public opinion, and they will go right back, They will say, "You did not explain that what you were doing would mean the destruction of the League and of the principle of collective security." I believe you will get, as I say, a great revulsion of opinion. I, therefore, suggest that hon. Members in this House who agree with the Government and with this point of view generally—and they include Members on both sides of the House—might do well to explain to the country that this is not an issue between Germany and France at all. It is really the issue put by the right hon. Member for West Birmingham, namely, the issue between international law and the reign of brute force in international affairs, involving military alliances and, in the end, war.

I was very much reassured by the speech of the Secretary of State, and I feel happier about the position than I have done for a long time. I believe that my right hon. Friend meant every word he said. He looked as if he meant it, and he said it as if he meant it, and. I have no reason to suppose he does not. I think that is most satisfactory, but there is a point raised by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) which is important as affecting the future. I think the people of this country are profoundly uneasy about bilateral pacts, and I do not think that a pact with France should be anything more than of a temporary nature. If we really intend to keep the League of Nations going, we shall have to devise a system of covering the League as a whole, and not merely individual nations inside it; because it is obvious that otherwise the implication must be that a bilateral pact between two members of the League is stronger than the Covenant of the League. If that were not so, there would be no need for Locarno; but there is an absolute need for Locarno now. During the period of tension there is a need for the assurance we have given to the French; but I think the Government will have to give their attention to this question, and see whether we cannot build up, as a result of these negotiations, a League strong enough to stand on its own feet, without the necessity for these endless little bilateral agreements, crosscutting it, which tend to diminish the strength of the League as a whole.

With regard to the German position, I feel that if we talk to the Germans under the present duress, without their having made a single gesture at all, force will have won. I do not say it will mean the end of the League now; hut force will have won again, and again the whole principle of collective security and international law will have been endangered. If Hitler is sincere—and those who know him best say there are moments when he is passionately sincere, even on this question of peace—let him make a gesture, a contribution. All that we say is that that contribution, if it is to mean anything at all, must relate to the occupation of the Rhineland, as I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs staked quite clearly in his speech. If he does that, well and good. We can then talk to him, not only on the basis of equality, but on the basis of the complete separation of the Treaty of Versailles from the Covenant of the League. If he will not make any contribution, I feel passionately, and I think most hon. Members of this House will also feel, that we must stand in with the League and that we must stand by the principle of collective security, if we want to save any form of civilisation.

After all, we are a pretty strong and formidable nation still, with an immense influence, not only in Europe, but in Germany. These other countries want, however, to know where we stand, and some think that it is because they were not clear in 1914 where we stood that war came. I think there comes a point when we always make our mind up, and when we do, we are usually, it may be after a long and bloody struggle, irresistible in the end. I think hon. Members would agree that it would not do any harm, and might save the whole cause of peace and civilisation, if we made it plain to France, to Europe, and to Germany where we stand now, what we stand for, and at what point exactly we propose to make that stand. If we do that, I am sure there will be peace, not for 25, but for 100 years.