I beg to move,
That this House, taking note of the statement of the Prime Minister on the situation at Bilbao, deplores the failure of His Majesty's Government to give protection to British merchant ships on their lawful occasions.
We are moving this Motion because of the action of the Government in warning British ships that they should not enter the port of Bilbao, and that if they do so the Government cannot protect them. We hold that this action is a surrender of the rights which this country has always maintained on behalf of our shipping, and is an acquiescence in a grave breach of international law. Let the House consider what the the facts of the situation. The Government in control at Bilbao and of the territorial waters around Bilbao is part of the constitutional Government of Spain, and that Government has all the rights of a sovereign State. Those rights we have always maintained. His Majesty's Government, in agreement with other Powers, have taken upon themselves, in the interest, they say, of maintaining peace, to shorten and abrogate those rights by the Non-Intervention Agreement, and in pursuance of that Agreement they have forbidden our nationals to take arms and munitions to Spain. They are now considering putting into force a special organisation to enforce that prohibition. They have also declared against sending volunteers to Spain, but they have not forbidden the nationals of this country or the masters of British ships to take food for the women and children of Spain. They have not forbidden us to trade with Spain, and our ships are free to go to any Spanish port to trade, provided they are not carrying munitions or volunteers.
On the other hand, what are the forces of General Franco? Those forces have no status whatever in international law. They are rebels against the government of their country. We have not recognised them as belligerents. They have no rights as belligerents, and I trust that they will never be given any rights as belligerents. The Prime Minister said on Monday that the Government cannot recognise or concede belligerent rights. Even if they were belligerents, no blockade of Bilbao has been declared. To declare a blockade there must be a formal declaration and prize courts must be set up, before which ships infringing the blockade may be brought. If a blockade has been declared, it must be effective, and, even if the blockade is effective, there is no right whatever in international law to sink neutral ships at sight. I understand that is the position in international law. What happened? A British ship on its lawful business was turned back by a rebel ship to St. Jean de Luz.
On Sunday the Cabinet met; the British Government met, the Government of the greatest maritime country in the world, the Government of the country which keeps a great Fleet for the express purpose of protecting British shipping. The issue, as I see pit, was simple: British ships proceeding on their lawful occasions had been turned back by rebels. Are we to protect them? Or are we to acquiesce? There is no question of starting a world war; there is no question of trouble with a great foreign Power. The threat comes from the rebels, whose principal land forces are on the run—rebels who have no great naval strength. That is the position. The Prime Minister comes down to the House and makes a firm declaration that we cannot tolerate any interference with British shipping at sea. The White Ensign is hoisted and then the White Flag is run up. British ships are warned that the Government cannot protect them. They are to all intents and purposes told that they must not go to Bilbao. General Franco may not be able to make an effective blockade, but the British Government will oblige him by doing so.
That is a very friendly action to General Franco, and it is interesting to see what his response is. General Franco promptly sends out by radio a message that any British ship found in Spanish territorial waters will be seized or sunk. That does not seem to have provoked any response at all from the British Government. But the action of the British Government has provoked a very wide reaction throughout the world. There was widespread amazement that this country should step down from the position that it has always taken with regard to the right of vessels at sea, and there is widespread suspicion that the British Government which is prepared to take action of that kind must be backing General Franco. The Prime Minister gave his reasons. The reasons were, fear of aircraft and fear of mines. We are apparently to acquiesce in the laying of mines before a port of the Government of Spain. This country has always protested against the indiscriminate laying of mines to the danger of neutral shipping. We have always asserted the principle of international law that it is forbidden to lay mines, whether within or without territorial waters.
The question is, on what evidence are the Government acting as to the laying of mines? It is curious that the Prime Minister seems to have such very precise information on the point, because the Government never know anything about the Spanish situation. If I had suggested in the early part of the week that General Franco was recklessly laying mines that might destroy neutral shipping, the under-Secretary of State would have told me that I must not believe everything I see in the Press. I want to know, I want to have a clear answer? What is the information that the Government have and what is the source of that information? Does it come from those curious people, our own consular agents, who seem so silent on the question of Italian troops landing? Does it come from British ships? We can never get any information when the Foreign Secretary answers questions in this House; the Government always know nothing. But on this point they seem to know all about it; they tell us what really happened; they say that Bilbao is in close proximity to the war zone, and there is a constant risk to shipping from the bombing of aircraft, and that the laying of mines by both sides in the approaches to Bilbao is now a grave risk to any ship seeking to enter the harbour unless mine sweeping is first carried out in Spanish territorial waters.
I hope that whoever replies for the Government will tell us when this state of affairs began and how long it has continued, because I have a statement here that is in entire contradiction. I propose to read it to the House. It comes from Senor Jose Antonio de Aguirre, who is the President of the Basque Republic, part of the Spanish Republic. He makes some very categorical statements. I hope that whoever replies for the Government will not evade these questions but will answer them, and will give us chapter and verse if these statements are denied. This is the statement:
The Basque Government, fighting for democracy and Basque liberty "—
I suppose that even the friends of Fascism below the Gangway opposite will not suggest that the Catholic Basques are Red Communists—
is compelled to draw your attention to the following facts of interest in the forthcoming Debate in the House of Commons: No foreign or Spanish ship has ever been detained or fired upon in Basque territorial waters.
If that is wrong, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give us the names of the ships that have been fired upon.
There are no mines laid either by the enemies or by us in the entrance or exit of the Port of Bilbao. In the first fortnight of April there have been 26 inward, including six British, and 32 outward sailings in the Port of Bilbao, including six British, all without molestation or difficulty in our territorial waters.
I have here a list of those ships and a list of the Spanish ships. There are 19 of them, mostly coastal vessels coming from Santander, and here are the names of the British vessels: "Blackhill," "Oakgrove," "Mostyn," "Thorpehall," "Brinckburn" and "Olavus."
Every night armed trawlers, aided by powerful searchlights from the shore, keep watch over the Port of Bilbao. It is enough to demonstrate the efficiency of this service to state that throughout the civil war no commercial vessel has been mined in our port or territorial waters. Powerful coastal batteries keep units of the rebel fleet over 15 miles from the shore, aided by our destroyers and submarines. Even to-day, 13th April, several ships, including a British ship, the 'Olavus,' have left the Port of Bilbao without molestation.
This is a port where the danger of mines is so great that ships cannot possibly move at all.
Guaranteeing, as we do, the safety of British ships within our own waters, forced to assume that if they are unwilling to enter the Port of Bilbao it is due to the inability of the British Fleet to protect them on the high seas. The Basques, therefore, appeal to your sense of justice and fair play'—
they are appealing to the British nation—
to lay these facts before the House of Commons. Do not forget that Basque shipping worked for Great Britain throughout the difficult days of the Great War when the danger that existed was real. I am sure that the Basques can depend upon your right spirit of justice and friendship, to a country as ours, small but democratic and independent.
I have also seen a member of the Basque Government and questioned him, and he confirms that statement. We want to know from whence comes the British
Government's information. Are they simply acting on what the insurgents have told them? Because that is a very simple way; it is what is called blockade on the cheap. Any country has only to inform the British Government that it proposes to sow a few mines and the British Fleet will go down and do the blockading for them. I want to know when this information came. Suppose that it is really true, what is the danger and what is the way to meet it? Obviously if the Basque Government are laying these mines they know the way in and out. I do not suppose that the British Government suggest that the Basques are laying mines in order to stop neutral ships coming in with food. Therefore, I never quite saw the point of saying that mines were being laid by both sides, unless it was to suggest that the Basque Government, who are in urgent need of supplies, were sowing the seas with mines everywhere, without knowing where they were.
Can nothing be done? Must we acquiesce? Norway apparently can act; Norway is sending a mine-sweeper. Why cannot we send one? Our warships have paravanes. Could not they protect our vessels? Is it suggested that they could not go because they could not enter territorial waters? Has any suggestion been made to the Basque Government? I wonder whether the British Government would take just this attitude if these things were done by anyone else but General Franco. Remember these things have happened before. Let me refer the House to the case of the "Huascar," the Peruvian ironclad, in 1877. There you had the revolt of a Peruvian vessel against the Peruvian Government, and it seized a British ship and took coal from it. It was engaged by vessels of the British Fleet. It was so close to the Peruvian coast that the British ships had to withhold fire for fear of hitting the Peruvian town of Ylo. Failing to sink the "Huascar," the British admiral despatched a torpedo boat to attack the "Huascar" when she was actually inside the Peruvian port of Iquique. It was only the surrender of the "Huascar" which prevented actual firing right up close to the coast.
The Government of that day thought it was perfectly right in protecting a British vessel, even within territorial waters. There are other precedents even later than that. The German steamer "Kamerun" was stopped on the high seas by the Spanish Government and the German Government instructed their commander to use force if necessary. I suppose that the British Government would have instructed the ship to go to St. Jean de Luz. Would the British Government have stood this action if it had been done by the Spanish Government? What is the explanation? Are the Government pro-Franco? We must remember that the First Lord of the Admiralty is the man who trailed the honour of this country in the dust over Abyssinia. The action taken now seems to be very remarkable. We have sent the "Hood" there. What for? I never quite know why we keep a Navy to-day, and if so why we send it anywhere. Why does the First Lord send the "Hood" there? Is it because it flies the flag? If so, which flag?
The fact is that affairs in Spain are in a critical position. To support Franco—and the right hon. Gentleman's answer was nothing but support for Franco—is to encourage Signor Mussolini in his aggression. I think that Signor Mussolini is doubtful as to whether he should not cut his losses and get out. There is the possibility of having volunteers withdrawn on both sides, and if they were so withdrawn, the civil war would end very soon. Consequently, the right hon. Gentleman's policy is to try to get the volunteers on both sides withdrawn as soon as possible. The results of the Government's action, however, will be to encourage interference. The British Government are always on the side of the advocates of force, and always against international law.
The position is that this brave people, the Basques, who are old friends of ours, are fighting for their liberty. The Prime Minister talks a great deal about the great fight that is going on for democracy. In this fight, what is he doing on behalf of democracy? In that conflict of rival 'isms which is dividing up the world, no one suggests that the Basques stand for Communism, but everybody knows what General Franco stands for. The Basques stand for democracy. The land attack of General Franco is failing in that area, and his hopes depend on starving the women and children—and the British Government are going to help. I wonder whether hon. Members are proud of the record of the Government. The Government pledged themselves to help the Abyssinians, but they left them to be massacred. It is now openly confessed and boasted by the chief agent, General De Bono, that the whole of the attack on Abyssinia was planned long before it was carried out. The conquest of the liberties of the Spanish people was planned long before Franco's revolt. There is plenty of evidence of the intrigues of the Fascist Powers.
Are we going to sit by and help in the murder of another free people? Are we going to help by the same modern and up-to-date method, the killing of women and children—in one case by poison gas and in another case by starvation? The Government have no right to put British sailors under this humiliation. They are asking British sailors to stand by and watch while men, women and children are starved to death, with the Government preventing those who would go to help them. We move this Motion because we feel that this action of the Government is worthy of the greatest condemnation by the House, with all its traditions of liberty.
Now that the terms of the Motion have been put on the Paper, and now that the House has heard the speech of the Leader of the Opposition in moving it, I desire at once to offer some considerations which have been entirely omitted from his review of the situation. I believe it will be possible for me to show—and to show to the satisfaction both of the House and the country—that the action that has been taken in reference to the Bilbao matter was completely justified, and that this Motion of Censure should be emphatically rejected. In listening to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, I was puzzled to know whether, for the purpose of the Debate to-day, he was stating that he accepts or that he rejects the principle of the policy of non-intervention.
For my part—and I think I am not alone—I think that the speech made by the Leader of the Op- position leaves us in doubt about that. Therefore, I will begin by making it entirely plain that the purpose of His Majesty's Government, in common with M. Blum's Government in France, is to uphold the policy of non-intervention
If my right hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment, I will deal with his point. [An HON. MEMBER: "Did you consult the French Government?"] May I continue my remarks? If we are to judge this matter fairly, we must be prepared to put it in its proper setting in relation to the policy of nonintervention, and for two or three minutes I would like to remind the House of certain considerations of which we were not reminded in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. Last August, when notes were exchanged between M. Blum's Government and His Majesty's Government, the purpose of the two Governments was declared. I invite the House to listen to what is the purpose, as declared by the Government of France and by this Government at the very begining of this matter. The purpose was stated to be:
To avoid all complications which might prejudice the good relations between nations, and to refrain strictly from all interference, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of Spain.
That is the declared policy of nonintervention. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to bear that in mind when we come to the particular instance that we are now discussing. It is true that in the carrying out of that purpose agreements were first made of a more limited character, and that the first agreement dealt with nothing but arms and ammunition. Food is not in that category. Later on we passed an Act of Parliament—the Merchant Shipping (Spanish Frontiers Observation) Act—to implement as well as we could the undertakings which we gave last November. The Non-Intervention Committee was set up, and most strenuous work has been done by Lord Plymouth and his colleagues for the purpose of extending agreements about nonintervention in other directions—propaganda, finance and so on.
I would like the House to notice that the declared purpose of the Government, as well as of the Government of France and other Governments, extends to this, to refrain strictly from all interference, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of Spain. In listening to the right hon. Gentleman just now, I began to wonder whether he and his friends really supposed that this action of the British Navy and the British Government, in dealing with the situation as they found it on the coast of Spain and in warning and counselling British shipping not to expose itself to the dangers there threatened, was done only last week. I will remind the House of a very well-known instance, occurring not so long ago, which it is very necessary for us to bear in mind before we pass judgment on this matter. Let me say first that, if we take the view that this country ought in all circumstances and at any length to help one side—[Interruption]. If one takes the view that the proper course for the British Government is always to help one side in all circumstances—[Interruption]. Perhaps hon. Members will allow me to make my point. If one takes the view that the Government should help one side, but strictly abstain from giving any help to the other, that is a different situation. I am putting this case upon the known basis which we have always declared, that the policy which we are trying to apply is the policy of nonintervention on either side.
May I remind the House of what happened last August and September? Last August, the greater naval force in Spanish hands appeared to be under the complete control of the Spanish Government. At that time, as far as any Spanish men-of-war had any, I will not say command of the sea, but any local control, they were the warships of the Spanish Government, which were exercising that control in the Mediterranean. I have no doubt that the House will recall that they announced that they intended to use their ships for the purpose of restraining the passage of merchant vessels to certain portions of the Spanish coast. They announced, for example, that Ceuta and Melilla, in Spanish Morocco, would thus be treated, and they proposed to act in the same way in regard to certain ports in Southern Spain. It is simply a question of fact. It is a fact that the men-of-war in the hands of the Spanish Government were at that time engaged in warning British merchant shipping that they were determined to put obstacles in its way if it attempted to approach those regions. [An HON. MEMBER: "Which side are you on?"] I hope the hon. Member will be good enough to listen to me. Not only that, but they declared that they would do their utmost to establish, in fact, a blockade. In those circumstances British shipping, which looks to the British Government to give it information, advice and warning, was given information, advice and warning.
Before we rush to pronounce judgment about this new case, I would ask the House for a moment to consider what happened in that case. This is what happened. In the first place, the British Government, though the Board of Trade and through the Royal Navy, directed British shipping destined for those coasts and areas instead to call at either Gibraltar or Malta. They were to go there in order to get advice before proceeding. The advice which they were given and the advice which was communicated to shipowners and published in all necessary quarters was this. First, if such ships were proceeding to a port which was known to be watched more or less continuously by the Spanish ships, then they were advised not to proceed there. [HON. HEMBERS: "What were they carrying?"] A de facto blockade has, of course, nothing to do with what ships are carrying. It is an announcement that ships will be prevented from proceeding. The British Admiralty and the British Board of Trade at the same time issued advice with reference to British merchant shipping proceeding down the Mediterranean or to the other coasts of Spain. The second statement was this. If it was not known to what extent the port to which the ships wished to proceed was being watched, then those ships were to be told of the uncertainty and warned that any attempt which they made to enter such port must be entirely at their own risk.
The right hon. Gentleman is attempting to draw a parallel. He has told us that there was a definite blockade in that case by a government, which he says was more or less effective, but here we have a specific statement by the Prime Minister that no blockade is recognised. Therefore, the conditions are entirely different.
I know the temptation to interrupt. I am often tempted myself, but the right hon. Gentleman in this case interrupts without any valid reason. I never said, and the British Government never said, that when the Spanish Government, which was not recognised as engaged as a belligerent, took upon itself to say that it would endeavour to establish a de facto blockade the blockade was admitted to be lawful. We have never admitted it. If the right hon. Gentleman will follow out the matter at his leisure he will find that, when one says that belligerent rights are not admitted or conceded, that applies to both sides. There is no more right in a government that is fighting a civil war to interfere as belligerents with ships on the high seas because they are a government, than there is such a right on the part of insurgents. Both sides are in exactly the same position, as I think every responsible sailor knows.
Thus we see that in the latter part of last year a situation arose in which British ships going about their lawful occasions were threatened with a danger to which it was thought necessary to call their attention and in reference to which directions were given. Those directions took the form of saying that the ships in question must go to certain ports other than ports within the area of conflict or trouble. They were able to get the information which they needed and they were, in fact, advised, as to the course they should take. The House will know that that course was taken and there was not, as far as I know, the slightest whisper of a suggestion that in taking it, we were not maintaining the doctrine of non-intervention. Now I want to know from hon. Members, if that is right, how can it possibly be said that this Bilbao case relates to an entirely new condition of things, and that we are adopting an entirely novel policy and betraying the principles on which we have declared we would try to act and therefore exposing ourselves to the censure of hon. Gentlemen opposite.
Let me give a brief account of the situation at Bilbao. I have provided myself with such details as I could obtain. I may say that I have got my information as far as I can from the Admiralty and I do not think that any hon. Member will wish to challenge it. On Tuesday, 6th April, that is, eight days ago, His Majesty's Ship "Blanche" reported that there was a close blockade of Bilbao and that that blockade seemed likely to be effective. The commander, the man on the spot, reported that serious incidents were likely to arise if merchant ships attempted to enter the port. Does anybody in the House desire to suggest that there is some better authority, such as a telegram from the Basque Government, than the knowledge of those on the spot as to what was happening? That was the report made eight days ago by the responsible commander of a British ship of war in the area, whose duty it was to form his judgment and to communicate his knowledge as best he could. That report having been made to the Admiralty and to the Government of this country, His Majesty's Ship "Blanche" was instructed to inform any British merchant ships that were going to Bilbao of the state of affairs. Does any one say that was wrong? Whatever else we may think, surely the officer was entitled, being as I say the man on the spot, to give that information, in all honesty, under the instructions of the Admiralty, to British shipping in that neighbourhood.
If my right hon. Friend will wait he will get full satisfaction on the point about which he wants information, but we must take the facts in their order. The commander was further instructed to advise any such British shipping most strongly not to attempt to enter the port, and I believe that several British vessels did in fact go to St. Jean de Luz. Last Friday—and I am now coming to the point which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind—the same ship, the "Blanche," reported that there were four British merchant ships lying at St. Jean de Luz—which, as the House knows, is not in Spanish territory but is on the extreme south of the French coast on the other side of the Pyrenees—and that those ships were waiting to proceed to Bilbao. He further pointed out that, if they did go there, they would encounter a de facto blockade.
I am sure the House would sooner have the facts stated without interruption. I ask the House to observe that up to this point we have got something which, if you accept the principle of non-intervention whichever side is involved, is closely parallel to what happened in the Mediterranean in the previous August and September. You have merchant ships diverted, on the advice of the Admiralty, to another port, and you have warnings given to them as to the danger which they would run if they proceeded on their journey. On Friday it was decided by the Government here to inform the British ships concerned that His Majesty's Government desired them, not to enter Basque ports for the time being on account of the dangerous situation. Following the usual procedure, that decision having been taken, the Board of Trade issued instructions. I rather think instructions were issued through the Board of Trade to the consular authorities to communicate the message. In the meantime, before the full message from the Board of Trade had reached there, the commander of the "Blanche," who was the person responsible on the spot, issued a letter to the merchant ships lying in the harbour of St. Jean de Luz. The House would probably prefer me to read the terms of the letter straight away without elaboration. It was as follows:
You are not to leave St. Jean de Luz for any port in the hands of the Spanish Government on the north coast of Spain until further orders. This order will be confirmed in due course by the Board of Trade through the British Consul.
I infer that he had already got some sort of abbreviated message or signal from the Admiralty to indicate that there would be a message coming from the Board of Trade and he therefore decided, I think perfectly rightly, that his duty was to hold those ships there until that message was received. The Board of Trade message came through the Consul-General at Bordeaux and shortly afterwards—the moment he received it—he cancelled the letter, or order if you like, which he had given and substituted for it the direct communication from the Board of Trade, the effect of which I have just given to the House. The consequence is that steps have been taken to dissuade ships from proceeding to Bilbao, just as we thought it was our duty to dissuade merchant ships from proceeding last autumn
to the coast of Morocco—in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons and in pursuance of exactly the same policy. [Interruption.] I want to put this point clearly to the House and I do not ask more than that hon. Members should see that it is a perfectly fair point to make as I am stating the case here. I say again, that if one is prepared to accept the application of the policy of non-intervention—that we are not going to treat the two sides differently—then it follows, necessarily, that there is no ground whatever for this Motion of Censure. We have acted in this case as I say from exactly the same motives and in the same manner and I believe with the same results as in the previous case.
Perhaps my right hon. Friend will not mind if I complete this point. I think it would be more convenient. I hope there will be no blockade and that we shall be allowed free passage here. I wanted to say in this connection something on the subject of mines because it is very important. So far, I have built my case on more general grounds.
The right hon. Gentleman is about to leave the subject of blockade by ships and to go to that of the blockade by mines. Before he leaves the blockade by ships we should like to know what was the substituted order given by the Board of Trade instead of the order given by the captain of the "Blanche," which was cancelled.
The right hon. Gentleman would not give way to me. That was just the point I wished to raise. We were very anxious to get hold of the Admiralty Order, and the right hon. Gentleman has been good enough to give it; but, in giving it, he made it clear that the order was subsequently withdrawn in favour of an order issued by the Board of Trade. It is vital that we should know for the purposes of this Debate exactly what the order was.
I have not the order textually before me, but if hon. Members had favoured me with their attention they would know that I read the substance of the message without any challenge. If anyone wants me to get the message I do not mind in the least. I have now had it handed to me. What I said earlier was that on Friday it was decided to inform the ships concerned that His Majesty's Government desired them not to enter Basque ports for the time being on account of the dangerous situation there. The actual terms of the telegrams sent by the Board of Trade to His Majesty's Consul at Bordeaux on, Saturday afternoon, l0th April, was this:
Please arrange immediately for local Consul to inform British ships now in St. Jean de Luz that British Government desire them not to enter Basque ports for the time being on account of the dangerous situation there and to wait at St. Jean for further communication."[Interruption.]
We all make mistakes, I as much as anybody, but on this occasion I happen to be right. The message which I gave the House a few minutes ago turns out to be word for word the message that was actually sent.
I want to say a few words about mines because this is perhaps rather more specially a question which makes the case of Spain different from the Mediterranean case last autumn. This is the situation so far as we have been able to ascertain it. There is no doubt—and I will presently give some good reasons for saying this—that the area of approach to Bilbao has been mined. I am repeating information provided by the Admiralty from the spot. There is reason to think that mines of one sort or another have also been placed at Santander. If they are there, they have been placed there by the authorities in control of that place, which, as far as I know at the moment, are the Basque authorities. Be that as it may, there is no doubt—and the House will take the information which comes directly to the Admiralty from the ships on the spot—
Why should it be supposed that in this difficult matter the British Government, who have British officers and sailors of vast experience there, should spend their time refusing to listen to them but listening to the insurgents?
I am sure the House will agree that, however smart that interruption may be, it has absolutely nothing to do with what I am saying. When I stand here and say that the British Admiralty and the British Navy make reports to a certain effect in a corner of the world where they are in the best position to know the truth, I cannot imagine why anybody supposes that we disregard their reports and listen to somebody else's. If the Board of Trade had learned that the insurgents say they have put a field of mines in such and such a place, what would anybody say of the Board of Trade if they did not take any notice of it? The right hon. Gentleman opposite apparently considers that the Board of Trade should never have mentioned what the insurgents have announced.
We have had it stated by the Prime Minister that there was reason to believe that there was danger of mines from both the insurgents and the Basque Government at Bilbao. The right hon. Gentleman has now told us that his information from the Admiralty is that mines have been laid by the Basque Government at Santander, but he did not state whether or not the Admiralty has reason to believe that mines have been laid by the Basque Government at Bilbao, as they pointedly denied. I should like to know whether they have that information.
I will deal with that, but I should really like to be able to make a continuous statement. As far as I am able to inform the right hon. Gentleman, the information which was given by the Prime Minister was the deduction that was drawn from the report that was made from the ships in that area. The Prime Minister said that he was informed there had been laying of mines by both sides in the approaches to Bilbao. That is, in fact, the report which the Admiralty gave of what they believed to be the situation. If it be the case that mines have been laid by one side and have not been laid by the other, I accept the correction, though why that should be supposed to reduce the risk to British ships I cannot see. Let me state some definite facts which the right hon. Gentleman will perhaps note. There is no doubt about this. General Franco's ships have got mines. There is no doubt that he has got minelayers in his Fleet. There is no doubt that these minelayers are engaged in laying mines. In the message which the right hon. Gentleman read something was said about searchlights. What are they for? Among other things, they are commonly used by those on the coast and headlands for the purpose of finding out if there be a minelayer operating at night. The message also included some references to armed trawlers. If my understanding is right, armed trawlers are frequently used as mine sweepers.
I state to the House, from information we have received from our authorities on the spot, that mines have been laid, are being laid, if not by day, then by night, by the minelayers of Franco's ships, and that there is, minesweeping going on by various vessels on behalf of the Government authorities. If anybody accepts the principle of non-inter- vention, does he seriously say that, if the British Navy were now to contribute its quota of minesweepers in order to join in the sweeping up by one side of mines laid by the other, that does not go by the name of taking sides? I will give the House further reasons why this is the serious view of the Admiralty. From information we have received, two or three of the Basque mine sweepers have been blown up in endeavouring to sweep away these mines. That, at least, goes to show that the mines are there.
I will give a further contribution to this subject which the House should consider. The House is aware that the British Navy has been for months past discharging a great humanitarian work off the coast of Spain. It has been removing the innocent victims of this dreadful tragedy to places of safety without taking any sides in the struggle. Does anybody doubt that it would be perfectly willing to go on doing it. The British Navy has already moved from the north coast of Spain 17,000 innocent people. Within the last two months, on the advice of the Navy itself, it has been thought unsafe, owing to the danger of mines, for any of His Majesty's ships to enter the ports of Bilbao and Santander for this purpose, and during the last two months there has been no evacuation from those ports.
I put it to the good sense of anybody in this House whether anyone really supposes that the British Navy, which has been discharging that humanitarian work with satisfaction and pride to us all, has given it up without any reason? Is it not perfectly obvious that if the Admiralty has felt it necessary for the time being not to risk our ships in that area, it is because there is something there which is dangerous to shipping? I cannot understand how anybody can have any doubt about that. Surely that fact of itself is sufficient to show that the danger of mines is a reality, or, at any rate, that the anxiety which the Admiralty entertains on this subject is a genuine anxiety—not an invention or an excuse—but a genuine anxiety which it must bear in mind when offering advice to British ships in the neighbourhood. Let me make this matter plain. There can be no doubt about this. Of course, the British Navy can force its way into any port in Spain. I am not suggesting for a moment that the British Navy cannot sweep things away, and make a clear passage. Of course it can. But it can only do it by bringing into action a great fleet of minesweepers. It can only do it if it is prepared to abandon the policy of non-intervention.
The hon. Gentleman has not quite followed the point I am making. I reminded the House at the beginning that the purpose of the French Government and ourselves was to abstain from intervention of any kind. It is perfectly true that, so far as we have signed agreements, the agreements are dealing with certain categories of things. That has never been the point here. The point is: You may take, if you like, the line that, Apart from strict written agreement, we intend to push in with whatever force we have got, and at whatever risk if we go on, for the purpose of doing what we think it right to do, though it benefits one side and hurts another. The other view—it is the view of the Government and I am asking support for it—is that our primary duty in this business is to be faithful to the declared purpose of non-intervention and so to conduct our proceedings that we, at any rate, cannot be honestly and correctly accused of having disregarded it.
I realise entirely the point which no doubt weighs on some minds. The right hon. Gentleman said it is all very well to declare that you will not recognise belligerent rights, but after all if you adopt this more prudent course is there any possibility that one side or the other will claim that you are thereby recognising such rights? That is a fair point. But the Prime Minister laid it down the other day that we neither recognise nor concede belligerent rights and will not tolerate interference with British shipping at sea. We have made that communication expressly to General Franco afresh in the last few hours. We have communicated with General Franco direct. That is not a very usual thing to do. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] The hon. Member may not know that the usual way of communicating is through the diplomatic channels. We have communicated with General Franco and we have told him that, as the Prime Minister said the other day, the Government cannot recognise or concede belligerent rights and cannot tolerate any interference with British shipping at sea, and we have added that any advice which we give to British vessels as to the course they should take does not of course affect the ultimate responsibility of General Franco if any damage were to be done to any British vessel, even if it disregarded the advice which we thought it our duty to give.
Mr. Lloyd George:
That is a very important and crucial message. Does the Government merely confine its right of action to suing General Franco for damages? What would happen if a British vessel were attacked by one of Franco's men-of-war on the high seas? Would the British Navy, if any British ship were attacked, take steps to protect that ship against that action?
Yes, certainly. The right hon. Gentleman, I think, is well justified in making the point raised here. It is really covered by the statement that we cannot tolerate any interference with British shipping.
I should have thought there was a very obvious difference to anyone who considered the question. If there were sent from this country a fleet of mine-sweepers for the purpose of sweeping a channel into the Port of Bilbao, no one outside a lunatic asylum would imagine that that is anything other than directly assisting the side that is now mine-sweeping and directly opposing the other side.
I should have thought that there would have been general satisfaction on the other side of the House, now that they have understood what was perfectly plain in the Prime Minister's statement that this policy which we have adopted does not involve surrendering ourselves to the sweet will of any insurgents or any foreign government whatever. It means that we take the view which we think the country, taking a long view, will consider the best course, and that is for this country to keep itself separate from interference with either side in this miserable business. If that is the position, then we are completely justified in the course we are taking now, and I think I have satisfied the House and I am not without hope that we shall satisfy the country. So far from having adopted, as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and his friends began by supposing, some new pusillanimous course, we are taking now in the North of Spain the same action we took last autumn in the South of Spain. Both actions are based on the same policy, pursued for the same reason and justified. I submit confidently to the House that taking the long view it is the best position for this country if, when this thing is settled, it is to be regarded as a friendly country which has done its honest best not to take one side against the other.
I have done my best to state to the House a case which, if lion. Members will take what I have said consecutively, is an overwhelming one in answer to this Motion. I submit to the House and to the country that the Vote of Censure is utterly misconceived, that it is only by taking a partial and wholly one-sided view that it can be supported, and that the Government is not open to censure in this matter, but is entitled to the support of the House and the country.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department had a difficult task to answer the masterly opening speech of the Leader of the Opposition. In circumstances of considerable difficulty, he acquitted himself with the dexterity and resource which we always expect from him. Having regard to the circumstances, it is not surprising that he had to speak rather longer than the Leader of the Opposition. But I could not help thinking that his speech might well have been summed up in a phrase in a letter which I received in my mail yesterday morning. It was, "Hands off Franco and his Spanish patriots." That was the tenor of the right hon. Gentleman's speech and of the cheers with which it was greeted on the benches behind him.
The right hon. Gentleman issued a challenge to those who sit on this side of the House. I can only answer for myself and my friends. But he said that the right hon. Gentleman who spoke first did not make his position clear, and he asked: Do we accept or reject the principle of non-intervention—"to refrain from all interference direct or indirect in the internal affairs of Spain?" I answer that challenge directly. I have stood for the principle of non-intervention all along in this dispute, and I make that my point of departure in the observations which I have to offer to the House this afternoon. I am an impenitent supporter of the policy of non-intervention. More than that, I am a patient supporter. I have realised all along the difficulties of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I never expected that this policy could be made thoroughly effective all round within the space of two or three weeks. Indeed, after the Non-Intervention Agreement was signed on 28th August I waited, not two or three weeks but months before I uttered a word of complaint. At last on 20th February we got the agreement for the prohibition of volunteers going to Spain, and the agreement to the observation scheme. That observation scheme was to come into operation on 6th March. It was postponed to 13th March, then to some date at the end of March and then to a fortnight after that. Now we are told that it is to come into operation some time next week.
We have waited seven or eight months for non-intervention to be made a reality, and as recently as three weeks ago Italian troops, we are told, were landing in Spain. The policy of non-intervention has not yet stopped Italian and German intervention in Spain. It has completely stopped any interference on the part of France or Britain in Spanish affairs, but it has not yet stopped continued interference by Italy and Germany, yet it has involved the withdrawal by France and this country of the rights which belong to the Spanish Government of purchasing in those countries the military supplies which they require to carry on their struggle. I think it was right in all the circumstances to withdraw those rights. I am not blaming the Government for doing it, but I say we have called upon the Spanish Government to pay that price for non-intervention, and in fact have not yet succeeded in making nonintervention effective.
Now what is the next step that is being taken? Is it action to make non-intervention effective as against Germany and Italy? Not at all. It is a further encroachment on the rights of the Basque Government. They are now not only to be prevented from buying arms and munitions, and from getting recruits to fight in their armies, but they are to be denied their rights to get delivery of the foodstuffs for which they have paid, and which they require for their civilian population.
The civilian population is about 400,000 in Bilbao alone, if we include the refugees, and the military people would number only 20,000 or 30,000. [Interruption.]
May I say two things in answer to the Noble Lord's point of Order? First, that I, at any rate, did not interrupt the right hon. Gentleman's speech, except on two occasions, when I asked permission to do so. [Interruption.] There are two kinds of interruption. There is the interruption by a Member who wishes to put a question in order to try to advance the Debate, and there is interruption by the mere making of zoological noises. What I did on two occasions was to ask the right hon. Gentleman for permission to intervene in order, as I thought, to advance the Debate. Having said that, let me make it plain that I do not object in the least to any kind of interruption, and I am perfectly prepared to put up with any reception which this House happens to give me on this occasion. As distinct from the Home Secretary who, I agree, had a very difficult task, I feel that I am on very sound ground.
As I was saying, we have already withdrawn from the Spanish and Basque Governments part of their rights, according to international law, and what is now proposed is to withdraw a further and vital right, the right to receive the delivery of goods which they have purchased, and which they need to save their civil population from starvation. The right hon. Gentleman asks, "How can it be said that we are entering upon another policy, betraying our principles, and exposing ourselves to censure, when we are applying exactly the same principles in this case as we applied in the case of the Spanish Government in the latter part of last year?" I deny that the two things are parallel, and I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman skated very rapidly over one part of his case here. He said that the order given to British merchant ships then was that they were to go first of all into certain ports, and that if they wished to proceed from those ports to certain Spanish ports they would do so at their own risk—that the high seas, at any rate, were to be absolutely free to them, but that within territorial waters they were to understand that the Government—[Interruption]. I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. That, indeed, was exactly the point I wanted to make. He never used the words. He said in fact that it was within territorial waters only that they had to fear any interference by the Spanish Government. They were to be free on the high seas. Were they not to be free on the high seas? Does the right hon. Gentleman say that he was not maintaining the right of passage for British ships on the high seas? [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] I pause for an answer. The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that he is opposed to there being a free passage for British ships on the high seas. All he meant was that within territorial waters only, could the Spanish Government rightly exercise its sovereignty.
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking in a very excited manner. It is right that the House should know the facts. They were informed that a blockade was de facto being established. The right hon. Gentleman knows, I suppose, that a blockade is not limited to territorial waters. The orders were these: that if merchant ships were proceeding to a port which was known to be watched more or less continuously they should be advised not to proceed—there is nothing about territorial waters there—and if it was not known to what extent the port was watched they should be told so—there is nothing about territorial waters there—and they should be warned that any attempt they might make to enter such a port must be entirely at their own risk. I am quite unaware of any reason for saying that that warning which was given was limited by what some people call territorial waters, a phrase, I may say, which a great many people use very confidently but very few people understand.
What is perfectly well understood is that within territorial waters the legitimate Government of Spain has a right to exercise its sovereignty. Outside them the British Government has a duty, and if it did not exercise that duty it was neglectful of it, to secure a free passage for British ships. It was the British Government's duty last autumn, and is the British Government's duty now, to secure free passage for British shipping on its lawful occasions on the high seas, and it is no answer to the charge which we are bringing against the Government this afternoon that it has neglected that duty, to say that it neglected that duty at the end of last year. As a matter of fact, as regards territorial waters, it is quite clear, of course, that the Spanish Government had a right to exercise sovereignty inside its own territorial waters last year, a right which is not enjoyed by General Franco to-day. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman saying—
I am very anxious to avoid a discussion about very difficult points of international law, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect for a moment. He appreciates, of course, that the Spanish Government is not at war with us. Is he really laying it down that the French Government, not at war with this country, is entitled to prevent any British merchant ships coming within its territorial waters?
The right hon. Baronet appears to be so excited that he cannot remember things. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I am sorry if I have said anything which the right hon. Baronet resents.
I would ask my right hon. Friend to take note that from first to last I never said one single word implying any right of the Spanish Government to proclaim a blockade in the Mediterranean. On the contrary, I explained as clearly as I could that when we denied belligerent rights that denial applied both to the Government and to the insurgents—both or either. That is a very elementary proposition of international law.
It is true the right hon. Gentleman said that in spite of denying that right the Government did in fact prevent British ships from asserting their rights. It advised British ships not to assert their rights of free passage on the high seas in view of the claims made by the Spanish Government. I go further, and I say that the Prime Minister, in reply to questions, has drawn a clear distinction between the right of passage on the high seas and the right of passage in territorial waters. He has told us several times that the Government is insisting on the right of passage for British ships on the high seas, and has told us several times that the Government is not insisting in so far as territorial waters are concerned. That distinction is not my distinction; it is one which has been drawn by the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman says that I speak excitedly, but the answer to that is quite simple, and is that I have to shout down his friends who sit behind him. I feel that it is not the manner in which I speak, but the matter of my speech which is of substance, and it is quite clear that the Government are not fulfilling the undertaking given by the Prime Minister to secure right of passage for British ships on the high seas.
This is not non-intervention. It is not refraining, as the right hon. Gentleman said was the policy of the Government, from direct or indirect interference in the internal affairs of Spain. If we were to refrain from direct or indirect interference in the situation which has arisen in the Basque country we should allow the Basque people to receive the goods which they have bought, which they have a right to receive in British ships, and which they need for the feeding of their civilian population. If we deny that right, then, indeed, we are interfering in the rebellion in Spain. If we accord that right, we are doing only what is legitimate. The action of the Government in advising ships not to go to Bilbao is, in fact intervention in the internal affairs of Spain. The right hon. Gentleman justifies that on the ground that the entrance to the harbour of Bilbao is blocked with mines, and is exposed to attack from the air. [An HON. MEMBER: "So was Zeebrugge."] In regard to the aircraft, Bilbao is 20 miles from the front line, and General Mola's aircraft are very fully occupied with military objectives; therefore, to represent the harbour of Bilbao as being under a ceaseless hail of bombs is a ludicrous distortion of the real picture.
I come to the question of mines. The right hon. Gentleman has told us that information about the mines has been received by the commander of the "Blanche." Did this officer visit Bilbao? How did he get his information? Did his information refer to the water within the three-mile limit or to the high seas? Does he mean that there are mines beyond the three-mile limit or inside the three-mile limit? The right hon. Gentleman further told us that the commander of the "Blanche" issued this order to the food ships: "Ships are not to go into any port in the hands of the Spanish Government on the north coast of Spain." It was only to ports in the hands of the Spanish Government on the north coast of Spain that they were forbidden to go.
Is the right hon. Gentleman criticising the action taken by the captain of the "Blanche"? [AN HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] if he is doing so, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman is putting to the House the point that the captain of the "Blanche" was taking sides in this dispute in favour of General Franco.
I am criticising this order. The captain of the "Blanche" is a servant of the Government, and the Government will no doubt defend the order. It will be for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to defend it. I am not attacking the man, but I am asking what the order meant. For all I know, his order was in accordance with instructions he received. I am only quoting the order. It will be in accordance with instructions he received from the Government. He may have consulted the Government before he issued the order to the food ships. I am entitled, as a Member of this House, to criticise an order which is given, and if my criticism is unfounded it will be dealt with by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when he replies; and I do criticise it. The right hon. Gentleman told us that there is a report giving in some detail the position of the mines. I would like to know what that report is. It is, of course, impossible for the Home Secretary to go into the full details of a report covering some scores of miles of coast, but may we see that report? Can it be lodged, so that we can see what information it actually was that the commander of the "Blanche" obtained.
Now we come to the instruction given by the Board of Trade, which superseded the order of the commander of the "Blanche." The instruction of the Board of Trade was that His Majesty's Government did not want British ships to proceed to ports in Basque territory, but to remain at St. Jean de Luz and to await further instructions. Have the ships had those further instructions yet? If they have had them, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what further instructions were sent to those ships? Meanwhile, I want to know very particularly from the right hon. Gentleman when he replies an answer to these questions: Is protection on the high seas withdrawn from those ships, or are those ships to be protected if they go to Bilbao? Suppose, in spite of the Board of Trade's instruction, the ships decide that they will take the risk and that they will carry their foodstuffs to Bilbao; will they be escorted arid protected up to the three-mile limit? Will those ships then have to take the risk of the mines? If there are mines on the high seas, will those mines be swept up, or are we to be told that sweeping up mines in the path of peaceful ships on the high seas is intervention in the internal affairs of Spain? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give clear answers to my questions.
We were told by the Prime Minister that His Majesty's Government do not recognise the blockade of the Basque coast; so far as British shipping is concerned the Government have instituted a blockade. They say: "We will not tolerate any interference by General Franco with British ships which are trying to get to ports of the Spanish Government," and they prevent any interference with those ships by preventing the ships from going anywhere near the ports.
The right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Front Opposition Bench referred to the "Kamerun" case; there was also the "Palos," in December, the German ship which was carrying arms, which was captured by the Basque Government and taken into Bilbao. It was captured inside territorial waters and found to be carrying arms. The German Government sent a cruiser, which turned its guns upon Bilbao. The Basque Government kept the arms and they kept as prisoner a Spanish passenger who was on board. He was alleged to be a spy. They returned the "Palos" to the German Government. The German Government were not satisfied. They shelled one Spanish cargo ship till it ran aground, they captured two other Spanish ships and they handed them over bag and baggage to the insurgent forces. That was the answer of the German Govern- ment to interference with their shipping and, as we know, interference with their shipping ceased. Cannot we secure as much freedom for our ships—[Interruption]. [An HON. MEMBER: "War"] "War," says an hon. Gentleman, but when Germany does it we do not have war. We do not accept that; we have only to do what the German Government are willing to do, and that is to secure a peaceful passage for our ships.
I do not say that the Navy does not dare, but that the Government dare not use the Navy. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs said in his speech that the one reason why he attached so much importance to the policy of non-intervention was the cooperation of the French Government. He said: "We are, in common with M. Blum, upholding a policy of non-intervention." Is this action being taken in common with M. Blum? Have the French Government been consulted? The Paris correspondent of the "Manchester Guardian"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] As a matter of fact, on matters of French Government policy and on the views and intentions of the French Government there are few correspondents as well informed as the Paris correspondent of the "Manchester Guardian." No one can possibly contradict that.
It is not a question of views but of news. Their correspondent is in Paris to get news, and it is not unnatural that the Paris correspondent of that newspaper should be in a position to get news about the attitude of the French Government. The Paris Correspondent of the "Manchester Guardian" says that the decision of His Majesty's Government has created a feeling bordering on consternation in French Government circles. On the other hand, the Germans and Italians are jubilant. They hail it as a clear sign of weakness. Senator Farinachi, who is a member of the Grand Council of the Fascist party in Italy and one of the leading statesmen of Italy at the present time, declares:
The British Government met urgently, with the intention of raising a loud voice against whoever dares to impose any limitation on the Union Jack. Instead, they had to
admit that Britain could not defend her own craft in Spanish waters.
That is the impression which has been made upon Italy. This is Abyssinia all over again, retreating step by step in the face of the threats of the dictators.
Speaking at Leicester last Saturday, the Foreign Secretary said that we need not fear the result of this war, that if General Franco won with his Italian and German allies, the Spanish people would turn the invaders out. He said that there were 24,000,000 reasons why Italian and German domination would never be allowed in Spain. So, after the civil war, we are to witness a war lasting, I suppose, another two or three years, to turn the German and Italian invaders out of Spain. That will take a little time. After all, it is not a case of the whole of the Spanish people being reunited after this war. If General Franco wins, he will be very grateful to his Italian and German allies, and he will be very much under their influence—I use a moderate word—for several years, for those very years which, Signor Mussolini said in a famous speech, would be critical years in the future of European history, from 1935 to 1940. During those years, if Italy is in occupation of the Balearic Islands, as she is now of two of them, as well as of territory opposite the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, in the Red Sea to the east of the Mediterranean, that will be a very serious position for the British Empire, and for those countries who are loyal to the League of Nations.
General Franco is so delighted and encouraged by the Government's action, that, as the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, his response is to sow mines round 810 miles of the Spanish coast. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to make it clear whether, before he embarked upon a policy which might have fateful results, not only in the struggle now proceeding in Spain but in the still more doubtful future which lies ahead for Europe, he consulted the French Government to secure that co-operation to which the Home Secretary attached such importance in his opening speech.
The Government's decision is going to be critical for this struggle in Spain. The "Times" says to-day that for four months Bilbao has been within a month off real famine. There is an influx of refugees from Durango, which has been so horribly bombed; there are 400,000 people crowded into the town of Bilbao; and the average amount of rations given to each inhabitant, including nursing mothers, is valued at 2d. a day by the "Times" correspondent in Bilbao. "Seagulls," he says "are regarded as a delicacy." The price of cats is soaring. Negotiations are apparently being undertaken for the transport of some of these refugees by sea to safety. "Meanwhile," he says. "they require food." Why cannot they have this food? Vessels carrying iron ore are moving to and fro; 58 ships, as we have heard from the telegram which the Leader of the Opposition read out, have passed to and fro in the last fortnight. Within the last day or two some ships, including the "Olavus," have passed out of Bilbao, since this report was made by the commander of the "Blanche." Why cannot these food ships be allowed in to convey the food which the hungry civilian population of Bilbao so greatly need?
The Foreign Secretary made one very remarkable revelation to-day. He said that for two months these mines had been outside Bilbao. For two months this shipping has been going to and fro without molestation, without the loss of a single commercial vessel. It is true that it is unsafe for warships to go, because their draught is so much greater, but the Foreign Office itself, only a week or 10 days ago, advised my hon. Friend the Member for West Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), who wanted to get a ship with some supplies for refugees into Bilbao, that those supplies could not be sent in a destroyer because of mines, but they told him to send them in a commercial ship, and it would be all right. Why cannot these commercial ships go with the food that is so urgently needed? General Mola is attacking the Basques now. He has been thrown back; his attacks have been beaten off; but he is sitting down to starve them out. That is the situation, and, if he succeeds, 50,000 men will be released for fighting on other fronts. What does the right hon. Gentleman regard as non-intervention in those circumstances? He regards as non-intervention the act of refusing to allow the Basques to get hold of the food for which they have paid, thus greatly forwarding the designs of General Mola, which are to reduce Bilbao by starvation.
The Foreign Secretary said on Monday at Liverpool, referring to the meetings of the Little Entente, that they added wisely to their communique:
This spirit of conciliation is not a sign of weakness, and all the three States are at all times ready to defend their national rights.
If it is wisdom for the Little Entente to be prepared to defend their national rights—such small States, faced with powerful neighbours—surely it is also wisdom for the British Empire, faced with these Italian encroachments at both ends of the Mediterranean, to insist on the right of our ships to pass freely on the seas of the world. That is a right which we certainly ought to defend, and, if we do not defend that right against General Franco, we shall only encourage other encroachments. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that in the Spanish conflict the Government had been guided by the principle of live and let live. How do they apply that to the situation in the Basque territory now? They are a brave, hardy, God-fearing race of fishermen and peasants, these Basques. They helped us in the War. They got food and raw materials through to us in Basque ships when, as the President of the Basque Government has said, the danger was real. They lost 30 ships in doing it. And now the gratitude of a cowardly Government is to stop those supplies which they need in the crisis of their fate. "Live and let live," says the right hon. Gentleman. As far as the Basque people are concerned, it is "Live and let die," because that is what is going to happen to the civilian population if they do not get the food which they need to maintain life.
In conclusion, I want to put four questions to the right hon. Gentleman. The first is: What do the Government propose to do to relieve this situation? Do they propose to evacuate the civilian refugees who are now in Bilbao? The "Times" hints that they do; but, if ships can go in to evacuate the refugees, why cannot food ships go in too? My second question is: If the protest against mine-laying is ignored or rejected, will the Government then take action to ensure free passage for British ships? The third is: Will they escort, up to the three-mile limit, British ships which are willing to take the risk of entering the harbour? Finally, if the observation scheme is not in operation, as the right hon. Gentleman said he hoped it would be, at the beginning of next week, will the Government be prepared to co-operate with the French Government in making non-intervention a reality by the use of the French Navy and the British Navy, as the French Government have been proposing, according to the "Times" Paris correspondent—
At any rate, they have discussed it. The "Times" correspondent said that it had been discussed, and they were prepared to consider the use of the French Navy and the British Navy to make non-intervention a reality. So far, intervention by Germany and Italy has been permitted, and non-intervention has resulted only in the infringement of the commercial rights of the Spanish Government.
We do not ask the Government to interfere in the situation in Spain. We do not even ask the Government to restore to the Spanish Government the ordinary rights of commercial intercourse of which it has been deprived by the Non-Intervention Agreement, if all other Governments are now prepared to observe that agreement. We do not ask the Government to interfere with any other Power which is carrying on peaceful intercourse with any part of Spain, or which is observing its undertakings under the Non-Intervention Agreements of 28th August and l0th February last. But we do ask the Government to declare that intervention in Spain must stop, that the Non-Intervention Agreements must be scrupulously observed by all parties, that there must be no further encroachments upon the rights of commercial intercourse which still remain to the Spanish and Basque Governments under those agreements; and we ask them to co-operate with the French Government in any measures which may be necessary to make that declaration effective. We ask them to go one step further. Ever since I first spoke on this subject I have begged the Government to take an early opportunity for mediation. The task of the peacemaker is proverbially hard, but our very position of detachment imposes it upon us. If there must be intervention, let it be intervention for peace; and, in working together for peace in Spain, the nations of Europe may perhaps find a way to establish peace in the world on a more enduring foundation.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a very strong and forcible speech upon, as I gather from his closing words, the virtues of non-intervention, but I am left wondering somewhat where he would find those reserves of voice and eloquence which would be required if he were to become the champion or the opponent of positive intervention. I do not myself wish to become too heavily involved this afternoon in the violent hostilities which apparently are proceeding all around me, because, quite frankly, I have not been able to work up the same state of passionate indignation or enthusiasm about either side in Spain that I see is so sincerely present in the breasts of many Members, not all by any means on one side in the Spanish matter, or on one side of the House. I have tried very sincerely to be neutral, and to adopt a neutral attitude of mind; I refuse to become the partisan of either side. I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazi-ism, I would choose Communism. I hope not to be called upon to survive in the world under a Government of either of those dispensations.
It is not a question of opposing Nazi-ism or Communism; it is a question of opposing tyranny in whatever form it presents itself; and, having a strong feeling in regard to the preservation of individual rights as against Governments, and as I do not find in either of these two Spanish factions which are at war any satisfactory guarantee that the ideas which I personally care about, and to which I have been brought up in this House to attach some importance, would be preserved, I am not able to throw myself in this headlong fashion into the risk of having to fire cannon immediately on the one side or the other of this trouble. I have found it easier, I must say, to maintain this feeling of detachment from both sides because it seems to me that, before we could give any help to either side, we ought to know what the victory of that side would mean to those who are beaten. I can understand a British subject espousing the cause of General Franco or Señor Caballero, but what would be that man's remorse if he found that, after contributing to the victory of either side, a horrible vengeance was wreaked, perhaps for years, upon the vanquished? Certainly I do not feel that the House of Commons ought to take any decisive action either way without, at any rate, knowing quite clearly what the results would be to those who were conquered as the result of any intervention in which we engaged.
I cannot feel any enthusiasm for these rival creeds. I feel unbounded sorrow and sympathy for the victims, but to give a decisive punch either way, without making sure that the result of it would not be to make yourselves responsible for a subsequent catalogue of foul atrocities, would be a responsibility which no one in the House ought to be willing to accept. [Interruption.] The right hon. Baronet, carried away by the strength of his feelings, seems to have forgotten altogether the appeal that he has made, and the advice that he would give to the Government, which is nothing more or less than to break the blockade by force of arms. There is nothing in this world, it appears to me, more horrible than the taking out of great masses of men, quite simple men, in batches, sometimes for no fault greater than to have been the secretary of a trade union or to have voted Conservative at the previous election, and shooting them by firing parties against a wall, yet that is proceeding on both sides to a terrible extent every day. I certainly do not feel able to work up this tremendous desire to intervene, nor do I desire to take upon my shoulders any share of the blood-guiltiness which would fall upon anyone who made decisive intervention in this struggle.
The right hon. Baronet is asking us to use our overwhelming sea power to break the blockade at Bilbao. A blockade is a perfectly legitimate operation of war. If a nation has naval forces strong enough to establish a blockade in a civil or any other war, it is perfectly entitled to carry out its blockade. He argues that we should be made at this stage to break the blockade which the insurgents have established and have, according to our naval officers, effectively established. We are told that we are afraid, that we have hoisted the white flag, and so on. Of course, if people are going to allow themselves to be provoked from the course, which prudence and careful thought had dictated, by taunts and high-pitched reproaches of that kind, they must have very little confidence in their own judgment. It is easy to point the finger of scorn and to accuse the Government of fear, but there is no need to fear. Overwhelming naval power is in our hands. But our policy is not to be drawn, certainly not single-handed, into this dismal welter. I thought we had decided to be neutral, and I earnestly hope the Government will bear the harsh reproaches that are addressed to them and move steadily upon the path they have taken.
Let us see what would happen if we were to break this blockade. We should immediately find ourselves sinking one or two ships that belong to the insurgent junta. I gather that that action would be agreeable to our non-intervener opposite. To show how far he allows his feelings of partisanship and partiality to carry him, he has even held up as a good example the bullying conduct of the German Navy. I do not think that is a good model to hold up to us. What would happen if, for instance, in a few weeks' time the Valencia Government regained command of the sea and established an effective blockade outside Cadiz or outside the Balearic Islands, and supposing German ships wished to carry merchandise or munitions or food into Cadiz, or, similarly, Italian ships wished to convey supplies of food to Majorca? If the Spanish Government declined to allow those ships to pass, the right hon. Baronet would, apparently, hold the German or Italian Fleets perfectly justified in sinking the ships of the Spanish Government.
I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, who has been First Lord of the Admiralty, and knows the agreement that has been made this year, if he is putting arms, the transport of which is forbidden under the Nonintervention Agreement, on the same footing as the transport of food, which remains free?
I am not arguing this matter as a lawyer at all. We have had a great lawyer's argument, and he seems to make out a very clear case for the impartiality of the Government. But I am attracted by what the right lion.
Baronet has said about the conduct of the German Government when they were offended in regard to the treatment of their shipping, and I am glad that the Government are following a different course.
The right hon. Gentleman must allow me to intervene. He is misrepresenting what I said. I expressed no word of approval of what the German Navy did, I quoted it as a clear illustration of the fact that war did not necessarily follow, as hon. Members opposite are always saying, from taking action.
I really never have seen for a very long time a Debate in which there has been such a vast number of interruptions. Another thing that I notice about all these interruptions is that hardly one of them has come off.
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will not forget that in August, 1933, the captain of a British ship actually boarded the "Miguel de Cervantes," a Spanish Government cruiser, and demanded and received an apology for interference with a British ship on the high seas?
I have not the slightest doubt that similar action would be taken if ill-usage of a similar character were meted out to our ships by the insurgent fleet, but that is quite a different thing from doing what is really wanted by those who put forward this Motion. What they really want is to use the British Navy to break up the blockade and thereby, possibly, fatefully determine the result of the struggle in Spain.
I do not think there is any doubt about it. Telegrams have actually been read out from a naval officer who says a blockade at present exists. What the Prime Minister said was that we had not recognised the blockade. We may not recognise it in a formal manner—[Interruption.]
I really must intervene. This is a Vote of Censure against the Government, and it is only the usual fairness of the House to allow those who have been attacked to reply. Orderly debate and the right of reply is the common tradition of the House which we regard as one of our greatest prizes.
I certainly have no desire at all to engage myself in violent recriminations upon this matter. There is another reason which makes me hold to the principle of neutrality, and that is the extraordinary even balance of the forces that are fighting in Spain. The Leader of the Liberal party speaks—not particularly this afternoon, but as he is accustomed to speak—of the Government and rebels. He seems to think that all Governments must be infallible and all rebels must be vile. It all depends on what are rebels and what is Government. To make out that this civil war in Spain is a straggle between a bland, sedate, authoritative, liberal and constitutional regime on the one hand and a few mutinous Fascist generals on the other is really not to envisage the facts. Before the fighting began in Spain, as fighting might begin in any country where such a situation arose, the Conservative party, even at an election in which the tide went against them, polled actually more votes, or practically as many votes as all the combined parties on the other side—2,500,000 either way. Is it to be pretended that there is any particular change in the balance of opinion, because Caballero's side is shooting Conservatives in large numbers in cold blood, and Franco's side is shooting trade unionists? I do not see how anybody can suppose that because a man's relatives, comrades or friends have been shot, executed in large numbers, he is likely to modify his political convictions and be the more inclined to embrace opinions to which he was thoroughly opposed. Terrorism makes great numbers of people keep quiet on both sides. Naturally, the fear of death is in all their hearts. It cannot be pretended that because General Franco has been shooting people because they are trade unionists, or because Caballero has been shooting people for being well-to-do or because they are members of local Conservative branches, that that has brought about any marked change of opinion from one side to the other.
If we look at territory, there, again, the largest part of Spain is in the hands of the rebels. Put it as low as you will, I say that Spain is divided 50–50. My opinion is that the vast majority of Spaniards if they could speak would like the whole thing stopped, so that they could get on with their work and enjoy life like other people. I expect there are others who think it abominable that foreigners should be intervening on either side, hotting up the struggle and hustling the Spanish people forward towards the furnace. The right hon. Gentleman does not give equal treatment in his mind to the enormous masses of human beings on either side. I read in the "Times" last week that the financial credit of the so-called rebel government is as good or better than that of the official Government, with the Bank of Spain and the gold reserves of Spain in its hands. Therefore, you cannot talk of the Spanish rebels as though they were unworthy of any kind of consideration. If ever there was a civil war it is the civil war that is going on in Spain, and we are absolutely right to preserve impartiality and neutrality in this matter. The case of the Opposition is that impartiality has not been preserved. They are perfectly entitled to raise that case, but most people will feel after the statement that has been made that there is impartiality and there is even-handedness, certainly far more even-handedness than would exist if we ordered our Fleet to advance, to sweep the mines from the sea and to open up the town of Bilbao.
When I hear my right hon. Friend opposite speak of rebels, I must remind him that, sitting there as he does in the seat of the Whigs, he is departing from Whig principles. The sacred right of rebellion was one of their first doctrines. In regard to Liberal statesmen, there the right hon. Gentleman sits, the successor of Mr. Gladstone, striving to uphold the great principles for which his party stand. But what was Mr. Gladstone's record? He was a strong supporter of rebels. He was a strong supporter of the rebels in the war of American secession. There, we had a civil war in which the rebels were not only rebels but slave owners. Mr. Gladstone went about the country, and in a famous speech either at Newcastle or Hull proclaimed that the Confederate States had not only founded an army, but that they had founded a navy, they had founded a government, and, more than that, they had founded a nation. [An HON. MEMBER: "He was a Tory then."] He was not a Tory then. Therefore, before one takes the view that rebels are like mad dogs to be put down and shot at sight, we should remember these things.
If we search the history of the nineteenth century we shall find many cases where British Governments have actually espoused the cause of rebels. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton), the leader of the Clydeside party, with his customary candour and frankness, made no bones about supporting rebels. He declared that the question was whether or not they were rebelling for the thing you wanted. Everyone will support rebels who are fighting for the things of which they approve, and they will criticise the Government which is fighting for the things which they dislike. Therefore, do not let us have too much of an attempt to make out that the Government in Spain have all the right on their side and the rebels none. It is one of the most evenly-balanced struggles, and one of the most unpleasant, and certainly it is the least tempting cause for us to espouse. If we were to take the course which is recommended by the right hon. Gentleman and to break the blockade, if we threw the might of the British Navy into the scale, could he guarantee or could he be sure that we might not provoke that very alignment and crystallisation in Europe along those unnatural idiotic—perhaps I had better say, idealogical—lines which it is our whole message and mission to rupture, or at least avoid.
I am going to give my vote on this occasion to the Foreign Secretary. I think he has done very well not only as regards our defensive alliance with France, which is our only means of safety in these years of tardy preparation, but in the Non-Intervention Committee. I expect that the Non-Intervention Committee is full of swindles and cheats; anyhow it falls far short of strict interpretation and good faith, but it is a precious thing in these times of peril that five great nations should be slanging each other round a table instead of blasting and bombing each other in horrible war. Is it not a great and a most encouraging fact that German, French, Russian, Italian, and British naval officers are officially acting together, however crankily, in something which represents, however feebly, the concert of Europe and affords, if it is only a pale, misshapen shadow, some idea of those conceptions of the reign of law and of collective authority which many of us regard as of vital importance?
The man who mocks at the existence of the Non-Intervention Committee I put on the same level as the man who mocks at the hopes of Geneva and the League of Nations. Even if you tell me that it is vitiated by humbug, we should not be daunted. Hypocrisy, it is said, is the tribute which vice pays to virtue. I am not sure that we can afford to do without any tributes which are going about. I say frankly that I would rather have a peace-keeping hypocrisy than straightforward, brazen vice, taking the form of unlimited war. We are not in a position to assume what will happen in this world, but there are a good many Members of this House who will feel that in the last six or seven months the Foreign Secretary has so guided our affairs as to avoid a number of frightful pitfalls, of many of which most of us are probably unaware, and any one of which might have proved injurious to the country and fatal to himself. Therefore, we ought on the occasion of this Vote of Censure to give him our solid vote to-night.
I should not like to sit down without indulging for a few minutes in a day dream. Alas, it is only a day dream ! Still, as an independent Member whose utterances are sometimes noticed abroad, I should like to unfold this day dream to the House. We have been talking about non-intervention, which is a policy to which we Should adhere. But suppose all the great Powers were willing to abandon the policy of non-intervention in favour of a policy of combined intervention in Spain. Suppose some of them stopped pouring petrol on Spanish flames and poured cold water and good sense instead. Suppose a voice went out from Britain which said: "Comrade Stalin"—or Mr. Stalin; I do not know what is the exact term—"we understand that you are not seeking the establishment of a militant Communist Government in Spain. All you want now is that there shall not be a Nazi or a Fascist Spain. Is that so?" Suppose he said, as I expect he would say: "That is so." Then suppose the voice said to Hitler: "You have rescued the German people from despair and defeat. Now will you not be the Hitler of peace? We understand that the Russian Government is not insisting upon the setting up of a Communist Government in Spain. Will you not also say that if the German people were sure that this would not happen, they would not insist upon the Spaniards adopting a Nazi regime?" Might not Signor Mussolini also hearken to these words of good sense and good faith? Might he not say: "I will not tolerate a Red Bolshevik State in Spain, but I am quite content to see the Spanish Peninsula settle down upon some Spanish basis which is neither one thing nor the other." Then might not the Liberal democracies of the West, France and Britain, and the British Empire, too, come along and say: "Well, if that is so, cannot the people of the middle view, the live-and-let-live people, have a chance? Cannot something be arranged which represents a purely Spanish solution and does not spell the triumph of any highly coloured ideology?"
I make bold to say that that is what nineteen-twentieths of the Spanish people want. They do not want to go on killing each other for the entertainment of foreigners. War is very cruel. It goes on for so long. What about some meeting at what Lord Rosebery once called "a Wayside Inn," which would give Spain the chance at least of peace, of law, of bread, and of oblivion? As I said, I trespass upon the indulgence of the House in uttering such day-dreams, but if they will bear with me, I should like to carry them one step further and try to cast sentiment into a mould. Of course, neither of the two Spanish sides can afford to say that it would tolerate the idea of a settlement. They are fighting for life; they are desperate men, and all their lives are at stake. They dare not show the slightest sign of weakness, but they have their seconds, they have their friends in these great Powers who are in close touch with them. Is it not the time when this horrible duel might for the moment be considered by the seconds and not necessarily only by the principal parties, and when the seconds could decide, as they often do in European duels, that honour is satisfied, or, if you like to put it more truthfully, that dishonour is gorged?
Suppose those five great Powers, whose fleets are now acting nominally on a common policy, after agreeing secretly among themselves, were to propose to the Spaniards a solution on the following lines—a period of six years, in three stages. The first stage would give little more than peace, order, and time to cool down, with no vengeance, no executions except for common, non-political murderers on either side. The second stage would be a kind of compromise, a hybrid Government of elements in Spain that have not been involved in the ferocity of this struggle—[Interruption.] Let hon. Members opposite not throw away this idea without considering it. If you wish for a common truce to this Spanish war, you must be bold enough to consider novel and even fanciful propositions. The third stage would see the revival of those Parliamentary institutions which, in one form or another, it is my firm belief that 19 out of 20 Spaniards never dreamt to lose or meant to see destroyed. Proud as they are, it might well be that the Spaniards, in their distress and agony, would not refuse outside help to try to put the locomotive back upon the rails or to pull their wagon out of the ditch.
When millions of people are lacerated and inflamed against each other by reciprocal injuries, some element of outside aid and even of outside pressure is indispensable, and if these five great Powers were agreed upon a plan, they might say, "If both of your factions refuse our proposals, well, then, go on with your war, and much good may it do you. But if one accepts and the other refuses, then we will all of us unite to give our favour and support, and that would be overwhelming to the side which does not accept the means of peace." If that course were adopted, it would show that we at any rate possess a leverage, a great leverage, in these matters, and it might well be that a result would come which would be acceptable to the mass of the Spanish people. There is fear in all Spanish hearts, even in districts which are apparently quite tranquil. They know that the turn of the wheel may send a new force into that area in which all their actions will be regarded as guilty that hitherto they have had to use for their own daily safety; and it is the same on both sides. I cannot conceive that it is not a supreme object of endeavour to try to give them reassurance. If we try and fail, what is our loss? It is nothing worse than what all suffer anyhow. If we try and succeed, then what is the prize? The prize is far greater than any issue now at stake in Spain. It may be that the peace and glory of Europe would reward the valiant, faithful effort of the great Powers.
We seem to be moving, drifting, steadily against our will, against the will of every race and every people and every class, towards some hideous catastrophe. Everybody wishes to stop it, but they do not know how. We have talks of Eastern and Western Pacts, but they make no greater security. Armaments and counter-armaments proceed apace, and we must find something new. Worry has been defined by some nerve specialists as "a spasm of the imagination." The mind, it is said, seizes hold of something and simply cannot let it go. Reason, argument, threats are useless. The grip becomes all the more convulsive. But if you could introduce some new theme, in this case the practical effect of a common purpose and of co-operation for a common end, if you could introduce that, then indeed it might be that these clenched fists would relax into open hands of generous co-operation, that the reign of peace and freedom might come, and that science, instead of being a shameful prisoner in the galleys of slaughter, might pour her wealth abounding into the cottage homes of every land.
I am sure that although every Member on this side of the House will not agree with much that was said by the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), I am sure that every Member of the House would desire that this fratricidal strife which is now devastating Spain should come to a speedy termination. At the same time, while the right hon. Gentleman stated that he was neutral, I frankly confess that all my sympathies rest with the Spanish Government. They are not responsible for the outbreak of hostilities in Spain. For what it is worth, they have just the same legal right behind them as our own Government claimed during the years when the Irish people were fighting to achieve freedom in our own British Isles. Whichever side wins, it is evident, I think, that Spain will be put back 5o years, and, therefore, we can only hope that in the very near future there will come an end of what is taking place in that country at the present time.
The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, who answered for the Government, made what I believe to be one of his most brilliant efforts, in that he was able to draw more red herrings across the trail than have characterised any speech given in this House during recent times. There is one great issue that we are faced with to-night, and that is, are the Government taking the right action in refusing to give protection to British ships seeking to carry foodstuffs into Bilbao? We are not discussing the general Spanish question; we are discussing that much narrower question. The Home Secretary started his defence by challenging the Opposition on the principle of non-intervention. I was either the first or second Member on these benches, in the adjournment Debate in July of last year, to take up the attitude that the Spanish Government, in accordance with international law, were entitled to come into our markets and purchase any or all of the commodities which they required, whether in the way of foodstuffs, munitions of war, or otherwise. I believe that to be the correct statement of the legal position. Later on I was prepared to accept the policy of non-intervention, provided that that policy was made effective. We were told by Members of the Government, with all their authority as Ministers, that the international situation was so precarious that the policy of non-intervention was essential if we were to avoid the dangers of an international conflict, and on that basis, and that basis only, the party on this side of the House was prepared, against its will, against its better judgment, to accept that policy.
As it has turned out, that policy has been more or less a complete failure, not necessarily through any fault of our own Government, but owing to the fact that, while the five great Powers were sitting round the non-intervention table, or playing round it, one, if not two of them, was pouring troops and munitions into Spain in contravention of the nonintervention agreement. But the issue that we are faced with to-night does not in any way put this party, the Opposition, into a difficult situation. We are, of course, entitled to ask the Government if they are basing their case on this principle of non-intervention, whether, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal party asked, they have consulted with the French Government. I would go further and ask whether this matter has been before the Non-Intervention Committee itself. If the Government are to base their case on this principle of non-intervention, then surely the decision that was taken by the Government should have been taken in conjunction with the other Governments represented on that committee.
When we ask that British ships should be given every protection up to the docks in Bilbao, we are not asking for our Government to contravene the Non-Intervention Agreement. The Home Secretary himself has told us that the agreement in effect is to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Spain. We on this side of the House are seeking to prevent General Franco from interfering in the internal affairs of Great Britain. So long as it is lawful for British ships to enter any port, whether it be the port of Bilbao or any other port, we say that it is an unlawful interference in the affairs of this country if General Franco is going to threaten British ships either with seizure or with being sunk in the event of their carrying out their lawful trading activities. The Home Secretary said that, in accordance with that principle, we must not treat the two sides differently. The Prime Minister said on Monday that there were mines of both sides in the approaches to Bilbao. Would it be treating both sides differently if British minesweepers were to sweep away the mines belonging to both sides?
Whether it is inside territorial waters or anywhere else. I am answering the point of the Home Secretary that we must not differentiate. I am suggesting that if we sweep away the mines of both sides we are not differentiating between them. We were told by the Home Secretary that the Government have known of the existence of mines in the vicinity of Bilbao for two months, yet it was not until the end of last week, when it came to th enotice of His Majesty's Government that General Franco was threatening to sink or capture British ships seeking to enter the port of Bilbao, that the Government came to the House and said that they could not give any protection to British ships seeking to enter the port because of existing mines. It is a curious coincidence that the first we hear of the danger of mines is on a date after General Franco has issued his threats. At the same time that the Government inform the House and the world that they cannot tolerate any interference with British ships at sea, the protection they give with the right hand they immediately take away with the left.
The right hon. Member for Epping takes a different view from the Government as to whether or not a blockade exists at the present time. The Prime Minister has said that he does not think it amounts to a blockade, and also that no blockade is recognised. I doubt whether any lawyer will differ from me when I say that, so far as international law is concerned, there is no question but that there is no de jure blockade in operation outside the Port of Bilbao at the present time. What is the position? According to recognised legal authority where there is no recognition of belligerency, there is not, in the eyes of international law, any war at all, and if it is not a war there is no obligation on the part of neutrals to respect any blockade or to allow their merchant vessels to be stopped and searched on the high seas, or, indeed, anywhere else. On the authority of the Prime Minister we have it that the Spanish insurgents have not been recognised as belligerents, and, that being the case, they are not carrying out lawful operations and have no justification for their actions under international law. On the other hand, British ships seeking to enter the port of Bilbao are carrying out lawful operations, and, therefore, apart altogether from the question of danger from mines, I submit that they are entitled to the fullest protection by British ships of war.
An extraordinary situation has arisen. For the first time ships belonging to this country have been refused protection by British ships of war in carrying out, or seeking to carry out, lawful operations. I know of no precedent for such a situation. There may be many precedents when there is a lawful blockade. If the Spanish Government and the Spanish insurgents had both been recognised as belligerents my case would go, but I know of no precedent for refusing protection to British ships when engaged in lawful operations when they are unlawfully molested by ships of another nation. An important issue is involved in this question. It is not only a question of prestige, and, unfortunately, we cannot overlook even the question of prestige in the present circumstances. The view expressed by His Majesty's Government is not, apparently, the view which is accepted in other countries. According to the "Times" to-day the decision of the Government is described in Italy as virtually a de facto recognition of the blockade of Bilbao, and, further, it is stated that it is due to the energetic language of Franco, and that the Prime Minister's declaration is tantamount to a recognition of Franco as a belligerent. The Under-Secretary of State may reply that we are not responsible for the views taken in Italy or by General Franco and his associates.
But what a state of affairs. It is a blockade which is being maintained by a dilapidated battleship, two or three rusty gunboats and half-a-dozen converted fishing smacks, and this constitutes a force sufficient to justify the use of the term "blockade." When I heard over the radio two or three days ago that His Majesty's Ship "Hood" had been ordered to leave Gibraltar for an unknown destination, a 42,000-ton battleship, the largest warship in the world, with sufficient shooting strength to take on a squadron of six times the strength of that outside Bilbao, I thought that at last the Government were going to show the world that, while they had no desire to intervene in the war, they were going to take all legitimate steps to prevent unlawful interference with British ships by General Franco or anyone else. I was disappointed; and to-day I find that, instead of seeking to prevent this unlawful interference by this assumed blockade of Bilbao by the ships of General Franco, preventing our ships going in or out, our own fleet, headed by His Majesty's Ship "Hood" is going to blockade our ships in St. Jean de Luz.
I regret that the Government are not prepared to take firm action in this matter. There is not only a question of prestige involved, but a humanitarian question as well. In Bilbao there are more than 400,000 civilians, and it is no exaggeration to say that at least 50 per cent. of them are women and children. It is quite obviously the intention of the Spanish insurgents to blockade that city until it is starved into submission. I should have nothing to say, apart altogether from the brutaity which always accompanies blockades, if a state of war existed which was consonant with the rules of international law. Whatever our views may be we should have little cause to complain. I cannot go so far as to use the word "pirates" in respect of General Franco's warships, because two countries have recognised him as a belligerent, and, however much we may regret that fact, it enables General Franco to say that his ships are not to be treated as pirates under international law. At the same time, there is nothing which justifies these warships seeking to prevent our ships entering the port.
The only point the Government have in justification for their course of conduct is the question of mines. Personally, I felt sceptical about the statement made by the Home Secretary. I have every respect for our naval officers, and I must confess that the little war experience I had was most of it, fortunately, on land, I however crossed the Channel several times during the War and I was told that mines were strewn here and there. I never saw a mine. The only information obtainable by our naval officers is from the Basque Government on the one hand and General Franco on the other. I can well understand that they have been told by General Franco that there are mines outside Bilbao, but the Leader of the Opposition has read to the House a cable received from the head of the Basque Government in which he says that there are no mines blocking the entrance to the Port of Bilbao. I should have thought that the Basque Government were in a better position to judge on that matter than anyone else. Therefore, it is very unconvincing to be told that the entrance to the port of Bilbao is so dangerous as to make it undesirable for our ships to enter.
Are not our naval officers, who are reporting to the Admiralty every day and who are allowed to go freely on the sea outside Bilbao or near it, able to judge better than the Basque Government who are actually at enmity with the Spanish naval forces which have command of the sea? How can the Basque Government obtain information?
I was dealing with the Basque Government in reference to the mines which have been supposed to be laid by the Basque Government; I am not dealing with mines laid by the insurgents. The Home Secretary said that he preferred to accept the view of British officers who have never seen the mines to the view of the Basque Government, who say that they have laid no mines at the entrance to the port. In view of the failure of the Government to protect British traders in carrying out their legitimate operations we are justified in tabling this Vote of Censure.
If only the speech of the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) could have been broadcast in Spain, and if the last part of his speech could have been heard and understood by the majority of the people there, I think it would have done more to ensure peace in that country to-day than anything which has been done since the war started. It is not often that the right hon. Gentleman's speeches in this House have the effect of calming the atmosphere that prevails, yet I feel that his speech to-day was one which, from the manner in which it was received by the House generally, showed that, although we may not agree with certain things he said, the House did approve a great deal of it. Far be it from me once again to raise the atmosphere of the House on this most contentious subject. I should, however, like to say a word in regard to conditions in Bilbao as I understand them to exist to-day. My information, I admit, is a few weeks' old, but it comes from a patriot who lived there for some time. I understand it is perfectly true that the Basque Government in Bilbao to-day is a Right Government, and that perfect law and order and full religious liberty are maintained, but that the Government itself, the Cabinet, is divided. The members of the so-called Nationalist Right Wing Basque Government are in a majority of only something like six to five, and therefore their hold on the situation is a precarious one. Although those conditions prevail in Bilbao itself and just in the surrounding districts outside, in Santander and elsewhere I understand that the extreme Left movement has got complete control.
Then the point has been raised, although I do not know how much bearing it has on this, that the Basque Government to-day claims to be an independent Government. In the telegram read by the Leader of the Opposition, the Basque Government claimed to be an independent Government. If that is the case, whatever may be said about our recognition of the Government of Spain to-day, we certainly have never recognised the Basque Government. I am not putting this forward as a strong point, but it has been raised in the French Press and elsewhere.
The position is that the autonomous Government in the Basque country has been recognised by the Government of Madrid to this extent, that it is represented in London by the Spanish Ambassador, who has a Basque collaborator who helps him.
It is difficult exactly to define what "autonomous" or "independent" means, but if that is the case, I do not quite understand the great differences which presumably prevail today between the Basque Government and General Franco's regime because he has stated that in many matters he has in fact recognised the characteristics of various parts of Spain and given them a measure of federal rule. That point has been raised, and it may be one which has some influence on the question we are debating to-day. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last quite frankly stated that he and his sympathies are on the side of the Government; quite frankly, all my personal sympathies are on the side of Franco. Much as the hon. Member wishes the Government to win and much as I wish Franco to win, I wish even more, that this country can keep out of being involved in this particular conflict. Whatever may be the principle involved in the Spanish Civil War—some people think it is democracy and others that it is civilisation—in my opinion no principle involved in the Spanish Civil War is worth a European war or this country being involved.
Personally, I do not believe that if General Franco prevails he is likely to establish a Fascist State in Spain, and, frankly, I do not believe that there will be ever established in Spain a Communistic regime on the lines of Russia. I have always thought that when this conflict is over the great majority of the Spanish people will reassert their national traditions and characteristics, but I admit that at the present moment partisans of both sides naturally use the ideas of both Fascism and Communism to support their arguments. I do not believe that when either side has won the Government which will eventually be in power will still be very sympathetic to those foreign nations which have supported it in the struggle. I believe that obligations are almost harder to bear than opposition. Therefore, I think that if we can maintain to the end of this struggle the non-intervention policy which we are pursuing to-day, after the struggle is over this country may well be the most popular country in Spain and the country to which Spaniards of all parties will look for assistance and advice.
All this depends on our being able to keep out of the struggle and maintain the attitude we have adopted up to date of non-intervention. We have pledged ourselves to this policy and have signed a non-intervention agreement. On the other hand, we have, up-to-date, refused to give either side what are called belligerent rights. In the past this country has given belligerent rights to both sides in a civil war. We did it in the War of American Independence, and we did what practically amounted to the same thing in the great Turkish War in the beginning of the nineteenth century. As an hon. Member has said, General Franco does represent at least half of Spain. At the present moment it seems to me that we are getting the worst of both worlds, as indeed we did the other day. On the one hand we have to proclaim that we do not recognise the blockade de jure, but in almost the same breath we have to admit that de facto we do, and that our ships cannot, must not, or should not, or are advised not to go to certain places. I wonder if it is possible for us to continue to maintain this attitude of non-intervention and at the same time deny belligerent rights to both sides.
Take the case of food ships going into Bilbao. Food may, and probably will, play a vital part in the success or resistance of the Basque Government. The right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Liberal benches said that if Bilbao fell it would mean that General Franco would have 50,000 men to withdraw from that front whom he could employ against the Spanish Government in another part of Spain. I am not questioning his figures, but the fact that he mentioned the matter surely shows the military importance of food in this particular situation. After all, terrible as it may be that we should deny to 400,000 or 500,000 people in Bilbao foodstuffs which they require today, it is hardly surely for us to take up this attitude. How many times in the War did not we say, "If only we could make the blockade more effective against Germany, the War would be over more quickly"? That may not be an exact analogy, but it seems to me a good enough case for us to be very careful before we take any very definite steps to insist on our rights in sending food to the people of Bilbao.
If we do not give belligerent rights, it seems to me that the position will be fraught with innumerable possibilities and dangers. At any moment if we insisted or apparently did not give advice to our ships and some German or Italian cruiser prevented or impeded their progress, and an incident happened, no one can foretell, especially in a civil war, how that incident would go. No one actually wants it to occur, but once it does 100 new possibilities and difficulties arrive. We are playing a most dangerous game in continuing this policy of refusing belligerent rights, and yet having to face every day the danger which the refusal of belligerent rights produces in Spanish waters. It would not to me present any humiliation if we granted those rights to both sides. If hon. Members on the Socialist benches think it is humiliation, I prefer some degree of humiliation rather than that we should be plunged into an international struggle, and it may be a European war, because of the refusal to give those belligerent rights.
The Government so far has pursued a policy of non-intervention, which has meant that this conflict has been confined to Spain. It may be that the day will come when there will be a stalemate, at least a stalemate for some time, between the two sides fighting in Spain. Then, I believe, we may be able to play a vital and an all important part in mediation. But our powers of mediation will only be sufficient to bring some measure of peace and sense to both sides if both sides believe that we have genuinely pursued a policy of non-intervention, and I am certain that as long as the Government continue to pursue this policy of nonintervention and of keeping this country out of the struggle then, even if it means giving belligerent rights or whatever else may be involved, the Government will receive the support of the majority of Members of this House.
There are one or two points made by the Home Secretary to which I would like to refer. The right hon. Gentleman laid very great stress upon the principle of non-intervention, and said that the British representative on the Non-Intervention Committee had tried to extend the operation of that principle. I must point out that food has never been affected by the deliberations of the Non-Intervention Committee and that no attempt has ever been made by our representatives on that committee to extend the operations of the committee to food. It is, however, very largely a question of foodships with which we are dealing to-night.
As to the Home Secretary's remarks on the question of mines and the reports from Naval officers in the Bilbao area, I would like to know whether the commanding officer of the "Blanche" ever reported that he felt unable to afford the protection or assistance necessary in order to get a British ship into Bilbao. We have had no information on that subject. The Home Secretary rather gave the impression that what was involved was the sweeping up of a very considerable mine-field, but I can hardly believe that to be the case. I am sceptical on that point, and I think it would probably be incorrect to say that a vast amount of mine-sweeping would be involved in order to give British merchant ships the protection necessary for entering the harbour. I do not believe it would necessitate large flotillas of minesweepers, as the Home Secretary indicated. I would like also to know whether the reports from the Naval authorities in those waters have indicated that a very considerable operation of mine- sweeping would be necessary in order to get British merchant ships into the port of Bilbao.
I know it would not be in order to widen the scope of the Debate as it has gone so far, but nevertheless I feel that I may fairly point out that the matter at issue to-night in this Motion of Censure is really on all fours with every incident that has occurred in foreign politics since the Manchukuo incident. We always hear exactly the same story in every crisis in foreign affairs. The Government's intentions are always the very best; they say so themselves and therefore, of course, it is true. They never have any intention of taking one side or the other, or to take sides between Fascism and democracy, but are always perfectly neutral. They always profess complete impartiality and neutrality, but the result is always the same. Our foreign policy invariably inures to the benefit of dictators and against the interests of democracy. It was so in the case of Manchukuo and it was so in Abyssinia. In every issue raised by Hitler since his accession to power we have led the retreat of the democratic Powers before him. Equally in Spain, every act of the Government had benefited Franco, has benefited Italy and Germany, and has operated against the Spanish Government. Our foreign policy with regard to Spain has shown the hallmark of Conservatism, which is expediency without any reference to principle.
Speaking at Bewdley during the weekend, the Prime Minister said that we were not going to take sides in any struggle between Fascism and Communism. But in all these instances it is clear that, when faced with that issue, the National Government have always opted for Fascism against democracy. They profess to be attached to something which they call democracy, but democracy in their minds means a Tory or a National Government in power on the benches opposite. The moment the principle of democracy means a workers' government in power on those benches, their fondness for democracy will vanish overnight like a dream. The Government are certainly showing no fondness for democracy in Spain at the present time. When the present First Lord of the Admiralty was Foreign Secretary, he came down very heavily on the side of dictatorship in the Abyssinian dispute, and now that he is First Lord he seems to be enjoying using the Fleet in Spanish waters on behalf of a would-be dictator in Spain. It is clear that the Government have a foot in Franco's camp. The answers which have been given to questions in the House show clearly that that is so.
My particular interest in this matter is not so much on behalf of one side or the other in Spain but that I am totally unable to understand the indifference to vital British interests in the Mediterranean shown by the the National Government both in regard to Abyssinia and Spain. Undoubtedly our interests in the Mediterranean have been very gravely compromised by these events. An answer given at Question Time about the port of Assab is an example of what I mean. There is not a Naval officer on the active list who does not know that our whole position in the Mediterranean has been very gravely compromised.
During the Debate on the Adjournment, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) impressed upon the House that Mussolini was not a bluffer. I disagree with him. I think the book recently published by General De Bono shows that in the Abyssinian adventure there was a very large element of bluff to which we yielded, with the result that our position in the Mediterranean has been compromised. Why are vital British interests and prestige in the Mediterranean being jeopardised in this way? Let hon. Members consider what is happening in Greece as the result of these events. I understand that Greece has now passed completely under the influence of Germany. Why are we so reluctant to declare what are our vital interests in this Spanish conflict? It is ridiculous to pretend that we have no such interests, and to adopt this absurd attitude in regard to the Spanish conflict of "May the best man win." We have vital interests there.
Why do we hesitate to say on Spain what has been declared over and over again by Government spokesmen, both in this House and outside, in regard to the Low Countries and the Channel Ports? No Government spokesman has ever been afraid to say that it is not a matter of indifference to this country who possesses or seeks to dominate the Low Countries and the Channel Ports. Why is there this reluctance on the part of Government spokesmen to say similarly that it cannot be a matter of indifference to this country who possesses or dominates the Western approaches to the Mediterranean? That is the issue involved in the Spanish conflict. If the Spanish war were a conflict between two contending factions in Spain, my feelings might go to one side or to the other, and I might agree to let them fight it out. But this is not a Spanish civil war. It is an invasion of Spain by Germany and Italy. It is an invasion which seeks to establish in Spain a Government which will be under the influence or domination of Germany or Italy. It is an invasion which seeks to establish in Spain, not a Government which shall be acceptable to the majority of the Spanish people, but a Government acceptable to or under the domination of Germany or Italy. Does the Foreign Secretary maintain that we can be indifferent to such a result? I maintain that we cannot.
Our interests in the Western approaches to the Mediterranean are just as vital to us as the question of the Low Countries and the Channel Ports, and I cannot understand why we do not make a firm declaration to that effect. Italy does not forbear to make declarations about Spain. She has declared that she will not tolerate a Government in Catalonia of a political complexion unacceptable to her. She has declared that the Italian armies will not leave Spain until the Spanish Government has been defeated. While these declarations are being made by Italy, we abstain from making any declaration as to our vital interests in the Western approach to the Mediterranean.
I feel that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, while our Government will preserve the outward forms where the Spanish Government is concerned, they would view a victory by Franco with very considerable equanimity, to put it as moderately as I can. I am certain that had their political sympathies happened to be with the Spanish Government, instead of being where they are, their conduct in regard to the Bilbao matter would have been very different. I believe I am voicing the opinion of all my hon. Friends on these benches when I say, without any particular party bias, that in recent weeks it has been pitiable to hear
the British Foreign Secretary, in making statements and answering questions, endeavouring to put the best gloss he could upon Italian and German evasions, duplicities and double-dealings in regard to Spain. It is becoming a pathological study of almost morbid interest to see how much the Foreign Secretary will stand. At any rate, at the present moment Franco is certainly giving him a good dose of medicine to swallow as regard the port of Bilbao. As usual the Government's words are very brave. The Prime Minister says that no interference with British shipping will be tolerated, and then he hastens to add that, of course, our shipping must not go where Franco does not want it to go. That is the National Government's version of the old nursery rhyme:
'Mother, may I go out to swim?'
'Yes, my little daughter,
But mind if you go out to swim
Don't go near the water.'
That is exactly what the Government are saying to British shipping: "There must be no interference with you or any sort, but do not go where Franco does not want you to go." We say that we will not accord belligerent rights to Franco but we accept his blockade of this port, and so, ipso facto, we are intervening against the Basque Government. We say "No interference with British shipping," but if a British ship wants to go to Bilbao she has to go without any protection from the British Navy. Why should Franco worry about whether he is accorded belligerent rights or not, or whether his blockade of Bilbao is recognised or not? He has got all he wants. Like every other decision of this highly impartial and icily unprejudiced Government, this decision has caused dismay to the Spanish Government and rejoicing to the insurgent leaders. That has been the case with every decision which they have reached in the name of non-intervention.
Although not recognised as a belligerent, Franco can institute an effective blockade of this port, because the British Government have been conveniently scared by his tales about mines. Why should he not extend the process, as, indeed, he appears to be doing until the collection of scrap iron he calls his naval forces have scared our Government into complete impotence in Spanish waters? Why do the Government condone such breaches as this of international law? Why are we saying to Franco that we shall not tolerate any interference with British shipping anywhere, when by anywhere we mean those places where he has no wish to interfere with our shipping? What a roar from the British lion. Once again the Prime Minister enjoys the commendation of Lord Beaverbrook, who said last night that this pusillanimous, equivocal policy was eminently sane and sensible? What a testimony for the right hon. Gentleman to take into retirement with him.
As Franco has no belligerent rights we are entitled to protect our shipping against him, inside territorial waters where the Spanish Government is the statutory authority. The legal position is perfectly clear. The ships have a right to go to Bilbao, they are entitled to the protection of the British Government in getting there, and the Basque Government has the right to receive and retain their cargoes. But the British Government refuse to British shipowners that protection which British shipowners pay taxes in order to have. Even if Franco enjoyed belligerent rights, do our naval authorities in those waters report that he is able to make the blockade of Bilbao effective? We heard something earlier from the Home Secretary about what the commanding officer of His Majesty's Ship "Blanche" said. With great respect to that officer, who is, I am sure, a most capable and efficient officer, he must necessarily be a comparatively junior officer, having regard to the ship which he commands. We have now moved His Majesty's Ship "Hood" to those waters and it would be interesting to know what reports we are receiving from the flag officer in command of that ship. Is he reporting that Franco is able to achieve an effective blockade of Bilbao? How can we reconcile the statement that Franco can do so with the fact that ships are sailing to and from Bilbao with considerable regularity?
We are told that if we protect our food-ships going to Basque ports, Germany and Italy may protect munition ships going to rebel ports. That is one of the arguments put forward in favour of this policy. But there is all the difference in the world between the two cases. Food ships are not affected by the proceedings of the Non-Intervention Committee and munitions are. Have we arrived at the point that the proceedings of the Non-Intervention Committee are so farcical that we cannot do what is legal lest other members of that committee use it as a pretext to do what is illegal? If so, what is the value of the Non-Intervention Committee, and of the Anglo-Italian Mediterranean Agreement—the "gentleman's agreement" as it has been called? Food supplies are neither munitions nor contraband of war, nor, as I say, are they affected by the proceedings of the Non-Intervention Committee. Nothing that we have signed interferes with our right to protect food ships going to Basque ports. When we were being informed about the position on Monday the Prime Minister said there was risk from bombing and mines in the approaches to Bilbao. What does he mean by "the approaches"? Is he thinking of the territorial waters or of the approaches to the territorial waters? What are the right hon. Gentleman's grounds for asserting that Bilbao Harbour has been sown with mines? Has it been sown with mines by the Basque authorities, in order to keep out the food ships which they want? Or are we to believe that Franco's naval forces have sown mines in the harbour itself? The Basque Government, which ought to know, claims that the approaches have been cleared of mines and are protected by shore batteries with a range of 10 miles. Therefore protection can be afforded up to the three-mile limit by our Navy, and inside territorial waters by the Basque Government, by means of shore batteries and of certain ships which they possess.
Have our naval authorities been told to investigate this position? Has the flag officer in command of His Majesty's Ship "Hood" been told to investigate the actualities and realities of the situation and report upon them? The Basque Government say that no rebel warships have been seen within 11 miles of the coast. Are we to disbelieve those statements by the Basque Government? Do the National Government contest them or not? Further, on what authority do the Government forbid our merchant ships to go to Bilbao? Can a ship go there if she wishes? Suppose a ship decides to go there, do we refuse to afford her any protection and tell her that she goes at her own risk? If so, it is no wonder that a report has appeared to the effect that the rebel authorities have now given warning that any British ship found in territorial waters will be seized or sunk. The Press of Italy, a country which is a member of the Non-Intervention Committee, is, I see, recommending the rebel leader to torpedo and sink any British ship found in Spanish territorial waters. Is there any evidence that the masters of British merchantmen are afraid to go to Bilbao? And, since we have been hearing about the opinions of naval officers, I would like to ask whether any naval officer has been found to say that he could not give such merchant ships all the protection they require if he were given orders to do so and bring them safely into the harbour? Has any naval officer been found to say that he would not gladly undertake that job and guarantee to bring it to a successful conclusion?
The hon. and gallant Gentleman is missing the point. If food ships got into Bilbao, it would be a breach of non-intervention because it would be raising a siege, and whatever we may think of the rights or wrongs of the dispute, General Franco has a right to besiege a place in the course of the civil war, if he chooses to do so.
There are several answers to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. I mention a few of them. First, Franco has not been granted belligerent rights. Secondly, we heard today that the front line is many miles away from Bilbao. Thirdly, food, as I mentioned earlier, is neither munitions nor contraband of war and has been specifically excluded from the matters dealt with by the Non-Intervention Committee. I should like to refer to the speech of the Foreign Secretary at Liverpool, which has been hailed in the German Press as a sign of weakness—of course, a very good augury for a Western Pact with Germany. I read the newspaper reports of that speech with great care. Of course, we have often been told by the Prime Minister that Press reports frequently misrepresent the speeches of Ministers. However, I read this report carefully, and it recalled a conversation which I heard a short time ago about the Foreign Secretary. Somebody asked, "Do you think he carries any guns?" The reply was, "Oh yes, he simply bristles with them, but they are all three-pounders." Certainly that speech was a salvo of three-pounders. The right hon. Gentleman said "there could only be good relations if countries take account of the rights of others." Well, we certainly have been very solicitous about the rights of the Spanish Government in this conflict. Is a policy which always favours the rebels and always works against the Government, consistent with the passage in the right hon. Gentleman's speech in which he referred to the principle of "live and let live"?
Then, the Foreign Secretary invited all concerned to regard Spain as "a field for co-operation." So that the trials of the Spanish people may lead "to a realisation of the advantages of co-operation which would be of infinite benefit to all." I remember the Foreign Secretary saying something similar to that after the disaster in Abyssinia. He told the House that, after all, the Abyssinians might not have suffered in vain if their disaster led to a happier state of affairs in Europe. But imagine addressing that language to the present rulers of Germany and Italy. Why it is simply the language of Rotary and "uplift" and has no relation to the practical problems with which we are confronted. What is wanted in these circumstances, as in all difficult crises, when it is hard to see the way, is to abandon expediency and hold fast to the certain things which we have got, in the shape of international law and respect for treaties and respect for the sovereign rights of other Governments. I believe that we shall find the real clue to the way out of the difficulties in which we are involved by the Spanish crisis, not in expediency, not in the miserable sort of stuff which we have to listen to at present about this so-called blockade of Bilbao, but in holding fast to the principles of international law and adherence to our signature to the Covenant of the League of Nations.
I hoped that the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton (Lieut.-Commander Fletcher) was going to confine himself to the question of Manchukuo. He evidently realised that the point at issue regarding Bilbao was much too narrow and too technical for a Vote of Censure such as hon. Members opposite have moved. He knows about these matters and is aware from his own experience of the intricacies, the difficulties and the dangers which arise in a case of this nature and render it almost impossible to lay down general principles or to follow in any rigid or specific manner the precepts of international law. I was sorry, therefore, when the hon. and gallant Member left the safe territories of Manchukuo and passed on to discuss and consider, first certain technical details and then questions of international law, on which I doubt whether he was very well informed. In fact, the whole difficulty, the whole controversy, arises owing to the fortunate, or unfortunate, fact that we have never recognised either side as a belligerent. If we had done so this Debate would never have occurred, and everything would have proceeded in a completely normal manner.
This situation places us in an increasing difficulty, which I think hon. Friends on this side of the House are apt to underestimate. I think there are many hon. Members on this side who do not realise and who have not quite understood the appalling amount of emotional sympathy, sentimental excitement and prejudice that will be aroused by this Bilbao incident. We must face the fact clearly that Franco is unlikely to be able to carry this port by storm; and we must make clear the fact that by direct force of arms he may not be able to secure the capitulation of the city. We must, too, face the important fact that it is only by the slow starvation of its inhabitants that he will enforce surrender. We must face the fact that that prolonged, unpleasant and poignant siege is likely progressively to cause in this and other countries a movement of sympathy and passion which will inflame still further the prejudices with which this whole Spanish question is surrounded. We have to realise that it works both ways. It is thus for us to admit that this refusal to risk our ships in these infested, dangerous and explosive waters is a bitter pill. It is not pleasant. It is a potion which is almost nauseating. It is a draught which I, for one, shall most unwillingly drink. The point is—and I put it to hon. Members opposite—it is not so much a question whether this pill is a bitter pill or a sweet pill. We all know it is an extremely bitter pill. The question is, have we got to swallow it? The answer is that surely we have.
Why? The very facts that make the pill so bitter make it necessary to swallow it. The fact that the food question is now essentially a military question at Bilbao, that food or starvation will be the determining factor in the military operations in those regions, renders any action we may take to provide one side with the elements of defence against this starvation, or to provide the other side assistance to enhance that starvation is an act of intervention. I sympathise with the feeling of hon. Members opposite that the intervention is worth undertaking; but I cannot understand the contention that because food is not on the list of contraband within the meaning of the Non-Intervention Pact, it would not be in fact and in spirit an act of intervention for us to convoy our food ships into Bilbao harbour and to take steps backed by the whole preponderance of our great naval power to carry out functions which one side in the dispute are not strong enough to carry out themselves.
Hon. Members opposite have continually talked, and I think the right hon. Baronet the Leader of the Liberal party also talked, of the denial of rights to the Basque Government. But the person who denies the Basque Government rights at sea is Franco, because he has command of the sea. We cannot possibly allow in this House the doctrine to be established that if a person be beaten in a naval warfare and we do not go to his help, we are denying his rights. We must face the fact, which to me is an irrevocable fact, that Franco has command of the sea, and we cannot say that because the Basque Government have lost that command we want to help them to regain it. This is not a question, as the hon. and gallant Member for Nuneaton said, of sending a few minesweepers. If we only sent one minesweeper it would be exactly the same in principle. If a ship flying the White Ensign goes to aid the Basque Government in carrying out the naval duties which they ought to be able to perform themselves, we are intervening.
That is one of the points which is disputed. The Basque Government say they have complete command, and they claim that they have it far beyond the three miles by the action of their shore batteries and minesweepers. In fact, in the last fortnight 32 ships have passed in and out of the harbour without interruption or damage. What is happening is that the Government refuse to give protection to our ships against Franco on the high seas.
I do not think so. I think that the right hon. Baronet is wrong. I would remind him of what I said at the beginning: that if it were not for the unfortunate fact that we hesitated to recognise both sides, this question would never have arisen. During the First Balkan War the Dardenelles were declared in the vaguest manner to be a dangerous zone, and as the Turks were recognised as belligerents, we accepted that. If we had recognised the belligerents in this Spanish case, the present controversy would not have arisen.
I return to the point I was making. If we now aid the Basque authorities by ships flying the White Ensign that would be intervention. Although that is a perfectly legitimate policy, it cannot be said that to break the de facto blockade would not be to take a definite line of intervention which would immediately give the Italians an excuse to tear up the whole agreement. We really must bear that in mind. With the utmost patience and skill and the most extraordinary toleration, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Lord Plymouth have built up this barrier. I admit that it is a rotten barrier. I admit that it consists of sandbags and that the water pours in between the sandbags, but it is something. It has kept out the maximum inundation, and if you begin pulling away one of the sandbags by intervening in Bilbao, the whole flood will come rushing through with added pressure and more torrential fury. It is because I so dread any excuse to the Fascist powers for renewed intervention at the very moment when they themselves are beginning to think it was a mistake, and because I so dread the moment when we may get their pride, ambitions and energies rekindled in terms of intervention, that I shall vote against this Motion of Censure.
The discussion to-day has concentrated largely round what might be termed high foreign policy, but actually the Vote of Censure is moved in order to deplore the lack of action of the Government in protecting our merchant service. I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that it was not through the Foreign Office that instructions were given as to the activities of the merchant service. Instructions were given by the naval commander and endorsed by the Board of Trade. Consequently, the action of the Government might be characterised as a repression of our ordinary trade and commerce. The Board of Trade has long had traditional connection with the merchant service. Personally, I have similar connections, not merely in the building of the merchant ships, but in the family relations who are in the service. I am assured that both officers and crews in the merchant service consider that the action of the Government is an infringement of their rights and a departure from the customary protection on their behalf, which amounts to an encroachment upon their liberties and an offence against the traditions of the occupation that they follow.
We have also to recollect that in the days of the Great War it was not merely the fighting Fleets that kept the high seas open. The merchant service ran even greater risks to provide foodstuffs for the people of this country, and we are going to deny them the right to-day to carry on ordinary trade and commerce in providing foodstuffs for the people of a country who are being attacked from inside and have never even comtemplated that they would be confronted with such a situation. The hon. Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Nicolson) seemed to take it to be part of ordinary warfare that a blockade could be put up with armed forces to starve a people into submission. Perhaps in actually recognised wars that may be considered part of the plan and scheme to defeat an enemy. But in a civil war of this kind surely there is a humanitarian aspect involved in the right of British seamen to take food, even in a neutral capacity, to the people who are being beseiged. Surely on that ground alone, apart from the tradition of our commerce and trade, which has always had open seas and open ports, the British merchant service should not be deprived of the right to provide people with the essentials of life.
The hon. Member for Leicester, West, in his interpretation of non-intervention, proved to a large extent only what we on this side have been impressing on the House for the last six months. While the Committee of Non-Intervention have been seeking to interpret and elucidate what it actually did mean and have been coming to decisions in stages for the banning of munitions and even of foreign volunteers, they have never held it to be within their province to consider that food should be kept out of the country, and food is not included in the embargoes put on what would be considered contraband.
I plead the rights of the shipping interests and maintain that the Government have done wrong in not affording protection for those ships going into the ports of Spain. It may be that this attitude will have its reactions at some future time, because the officers and men of the mercantile marine are not signed on as part of the forces that have to be brought into war. It may be that in future those officers and men may consider whether it is part of their duties to run blockades and do actions that are voluntary, as far as their own service is concerned, and different from the ordinary trade and commerce in respect of which they serve under signed articles. Because of these things, we are amazed at the Government's attitude. It is, in effect, a humiliation of ourselves as a nation before the world and a humiliation to our merchant service, which is prepared at all times not only to face the dangers and difficulties of their ordinary avocation but to run the gauntlet in maintaining the right of way on the high seas. It will be a bad day for British honour and tradition if the Government are going to waive those rights so that the merchant service cannot carry out their duties in the proper way. It is only because we wish to see preserved those ordinary trading and commercial relations between countries of all political colours, without distinction or preference, that some of us, at least, will stand by the traditions of the merchant service and endeavour to see that they are properly safeguarded.
I have listened with sympathy to many of the remarks of the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Adamson). One would only like to think that he was right when he suggested that a civil war could be conducted in a more humanitarian spirit than ordinary wars between nations. Unfortunately, it is the experience of history that civil wars have turned out, in practice, to be the more savage and brutal of the two. The Opposition have to-day complained that the Government have been lacking in energy in protecting British shipping. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was almost Palmerstonian in his attitude towards British rights at sea, but I wonder whether the Opposition's rather new-found solicitude for those rights is really a solicitude for British shipping. It seemed to me that their solicitude was really more for the Spanish Government, and that British shipping was to them merely a secondary consideration, dragged in in order to help their case. I think my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a most convincing case for the Government's action. Not only did he meet the rather flimsy complaint of the Opposition about the Government's alleged lack of impartiality, by which the Opposition mean that the Government have not shown sufficient partiality towards the Spanish Government; not only did he show that the Government had fully maintained their policy of non-intervention, but he certainly satisfied me that the Government had afforded most adequate protection to British shipping.
So far do I consider it unnecessary to add any words of mine in defence of the Government's action in regard to the protection of British shipping that I will go so far as to say that in my opinion the Government are affording too much protection to British shipping in Spanish waters. I share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Nicolson) that the Government will sooner or later have to recognise the belligerent status of the combatants, and the sooner the better. I therefore wish to discuss the question as to whether we are wise in continuing to deny belligerent rights to the combatants in this Spanish civil war. The sowing of mines off the coasts of Spain raises this issue in an acute and urgent form. The sowing of mines in peace time, whether carried out by a sovereign Government or by an unrecognised rebel community, whether the mines are sown inside or outside territorial waters, is a breach of international law. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal party was leading us a little astray when he tried to make a definite distinction between the right to sow mines inside and outside the three-mile limit and between a Government and a rebel community sowing mines. The fact remains that at international law the sowing of mines by any authority in peace time, or before belligerent rights are accorded, is a breach of international law.
The Prime Minister told us on Monday that mines have beeen sown in Spanish waters by both sides. Since some of these mines have been sown by the Spanish Government to whom we have not accorded belligerent rights, I would ask His Majesty's Government whether we have made a protest to the Spanish Government on the ground that no country in peace time is allowed to sow mines. If likewise some of these mines have been sown by the insurgents, then the position is even more complicated. The sowing of mines by an unrecognised community is at international law an act of piracy and constitutes an offence against all nations. If we have denied belligerent rights to the insurgents, their warships according to international law are pirates, and we, as a great maritime Power, would therefore have a duty to take active measures to sink those pirate vessels or to drive them off the seas. I am merely stating the position at international law as I understand it. If, as is the case, we are not prepared to take that drastic action, which I would be the last to support, surely we should do well to recognise the belligerent status of both combatants, and thus regularise our position.
How far have we already tacitly recognised belligerent status? Is not the whole paraphernalia of non-intervention, the presence of British, French, Italian, German and Russian warships around the coast of Spain, operating a system of control, clear proof that we have recognised in all but name the existence of a state of war? Surely it is. Again, if we do not recognise that the insurgent ships are lawful belligerents, and they are therefore technically pirates—because there is no intermediary status at international law between a pirate and a belligerent—how do we justify the manner in which we have dealt hitherto with cases of interference by insurgent warships with our merchantmen? There have been cases when a British warship has been summoned to the assistance of a British merchantman which had been stopped and fired upon by an insurgent warship. If, in view of our non-recognition of belligerent status, those insurgent warships are pirates, why is it, I ask, that British warships did not open fire, as they do in similar cases in the China Seas, where similar incidents occur from time to time? I am not suggesting that they should have done so, but I am urging that we put ourselves in a regularised position in relation to international law. If we do not recognise the belligerent status of the insurgent forces, how is it that after those incidents we lodged official protests both with the insurgent naval commanders and with the insurgent Government authorities at Burgos? Surely the lodging of official protests, and the fact that we refrained from firing upon insurgent warships which had interfered with our merchantmen, does imply a certain tacit recognition of belligerency.
Are we not, in fact, playing the dangerous game of trying to get the best of both worlds? Is it possible to deny to the combatants the rights and status of belligerents and yet at the same time to try to hold them responsible for observing the rules of war? I am glad that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite share my view, though I am surprised, because hitherto, so far from wishing to accord belligerent status to the combatants, they have always advocated the only course which is quite impossible, and that is to accord all rights to one side and none to the other. I am advocating that we should accord belligerent rights to both combatants. What have we got to lose by doing so? The Government, if they do not recognise belligerent status, which would be the normal thing to do, and would be in accordance with almost every precedent in history—
I think that the hon. Member will understand that you cannot accord belligerent rights to a Government, which implies recognising a state of belligerency, unless you likewise recognise the opponent against whom it is fighting. There must be two sides in a war, and if you are going to recognise a state of belligerency you have to accord belligerent rights to troth sides.
We already do that at the moment. [HON. MEMBERS "No!"] I understand that the Spanish Government have been asked to send representatives to the Coronation, and that in itself is evidence that we recognise the Spanish Government. There is only one Ambassador from Spain in this country, and he is the representative of the Spanish Government. But I do not think it would be in order for us to discuss that question. We are dealing at the moment with a Vote of Censure regarding the protection of British shipping, and it is in that connection that I am raising the question of belligerency. Now what have we got to lose by recognising belligerent rights? The first thing that occurs to us is the question of our commitments under the non-intervention system. Our minds are set at rest immediately on that score. The Foreign Secretary said on 1st December: "There is nothing incompatible between adherence to the policy of non-intervention and the recognition of belligerent rights." Therefore, we need have no anxiety on that account.
There are, however, two consequences of recognition which do deserve consideration. The first is that we would have to concede to both sides the right of searching our ships for contraband of war. However, as this trade in contraband of war, principally arms and munitions, is already forbidden by an Act which we passed in this Parliament, and as rigid control by the Non-Intervention Powers already exists, this would impose no additional restrictions upon the freedom of British shipping. Incidentally, it is well also to remember that non-contraband goods, even if the property of the enemy, are, under the Declaration of Paris of 1856, protected by a neutral flag. Therefore, all goods on a neutral ship except contraband of war would be unaffected by a decision to recognise a state of belligerency.
The second consequence of recognising belligerent status would be to impose upon us the obligation to recognise the existence of blockades which are effectively established by either side. To be valid, a blockade has to be effective. The insurgents' navy appears, in fact, to have established such a blockade in the case of Bilbao, but, of course, so long as we do not recognise belligerent rights that blockade, as far as we are concerned, does not legally exist. But let us examine what our position would be if we had recognised belligerent rights. So long as this blockade continued to be effectively maintained it would be unlawful for our ships to attempt to enter the port of Bilbao. Since, however, our Government, on account of the existence of these minefields, have already told our merchantment to keep away from the port of Bilbao, it does not seem that our ships would be any worse off than they are now as a result of a recognition of belligerent rights. It will, therefore, be seen that the recognition of belligerent rights in the circumstances of the present case would impose no further restrictions upon our shipping beyond those which already exist.
If there is nothing to be lost by recognising belligerent rights let us see what we might gain by it. I submit that the advantage would be considerable. It would put us, in the first place, in a position to hold the insurgents responsible for loss of life or damage to property. The Spanish Government can, in any case, be held responsible. Their position in that respect would be unaffected, but recognition would immeasurably strengthen our hands in dealing with the insurgents. The recognition of belligerent status would put us in a position to uphold our rights as neutrals, without having to resort to force to do so, which is the only manner in which we can do it at the present moment. At present if our ships are interfered with by the Spanish Government, that constitutes an act of war; if by the insurgents, it constitutes an act of piracy. But any protests or claims we may make to the insurgents, so long as we do not recognise them as belligerents, must necessarily be ineffectual and unimpressive. How much better would it not be if we were to regularise our position and place it upon a proper legal footing, compatible with the facts of the situation?
Further, we must not forget that we, as a great sea Power, have, in the past, often had to claim for ourselves the rights of search and blockade, and that we may on some future occasion have to claim those rights again. This is an extremely important point. We must see to it that we do not prejudice our own rights for the future. If, contrary to all historic precedent, we deny these rights to others, it may well be that others may in turn deny them to us on some future occasion. Lastly, there is the question of whether something cannot be done to limit the suffering in this unhappy dispute. There are many people who believe, as I do, that in this war, with its confined theatre of operations and its limited dimensions, it should be possible by outside mediation to mitigate the extent of the horrors and atrocities. But efforts of that kind will continue to be seriously handicapped so long as we and the other Powers refuse to accord belligerent status, and thus make it impossible for any formal, binding agreement to be negotiated with the insurgents, as a recognised belligerent community.
The precise circumstances will never be quite the same in every case. History seldom exactly repeats itself. Let us not, however, imagine that the problem with which we are faced to-day is altogether a new one. It is a problem which has faced Governments throughout history. In fact, it bears a very close resemblance to many features of the American civil war and to those of the Greek rebellion against the Turks, both of which occurred in the last century. In this connection I would like to recall the well known words used by Canning in 1823 when explaining the reasons which had led the British Government to accord belligerent rights to the combatants in the Greek rebellion:
The recognition of the belligerent character of the Greeks has been necessitated by the impossibility of treating as pirates a population of a million souls, and the importance of bringing within the bounds of civilised war a contest which has been marked on both sides by disgusting barbarities.
I ask His Majesty's Government to reflect whether those considerations are not equally valid in the case of the Spanish dispute, and I appeal to the Government, with the object of securing the safety of British shipping, of ensuring the success of their non-intervention policy and of assisting the efforts which are being made to humanise this horrible conflict, to reconsider the advisability of according belligerent rights to the combatants in the Spanish civil war.
I rise to support the Vote of Censure moved by the Leader of the Opposition, and to congratulate him on the tone, the temper and the content of the speech which he made. On this occasion, I find myself in complete harmony with the point of view expressed by him and by the Leader of the Liberal party. I have listened to the Government's defence, put by its official spokesman, the Home Secretary, and I was completely unimpressed. I felt that, although he is a great lawyer, with experience in dealing successfully with all sorts of cases, it was the fact that he had to present a worse case than he had ever had before which made him so completely unsuccessful to-day in his attempt to present the case for the Government. I have been a little more impressed by the voices of his supporters since. I was impressed by the peroration of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill), by the disquisitions upon international law by the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Nicolson) and the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Sandys), but I felt that all three speeches were rather in the nature of diversions, attempts to drag away the attention and interest of the House from the point at issue, and were not a defence of the Government's position.
The hon. Member for Norwood was particularly interesting in his presentation of the international law governing this issue, and I congratulate him on the way in which he has absorbed its principles. Some 20 years ago, for some reason that I have now forgotten, I took a course of international public law under a distinguished professor of Glasgow University. I must say that, at 20 years' distance, my impressions are very blunt of what I learned so far as details are concerned, but one thing that I did learn about international public law, as the result of my studies at that time, was that there was not any such animal. It just does not exist. There was a lot of aspirations, a lot of things that nations would like to see done, and a lot of things that it had been laid down at The Hague and elsewhere that they had all agreed would be done; but there never was any occasion in the whole of history on which that body of aspirations and rules and regulations had ever been observed by anyone who felt it desirable to break them. Therefore, I am not going into the question of international law, nor am I going into a general consideration of the Spanish issue; I am dealing simply with the issue that is before us here, as laid down in the Vote of Censure.
Although I have admitted that I am a whole-hearted partisan on the side of the Spanish Government, and have urged that the Government here should recognise the Spanish Government and give it all the ordinary rights that are normally accorded to Governments in various countries, I have never asked the British Government to intervene in a warlike way on behalf of the Spanish Government. I have simply asked that the Spanish Government should have all the normal rights that a properly constituted Government gets, and I have asserted here again and again that the Spanish Government would have got those rights if it had been a Government of the ordinary sort that is acceptable to hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. The reason why it did not get those rights was because it was a working-class Government, a Government that had expressed its desire to raise the status of the poor people of Spain. Because of that, it was accused of being red, and under the influence of Moscow, and all the rest of it, although every one of us on this side of the House knows that, if there is one working-class movement in the whole of Europe that is not merely not under the influence of Moscow, but antagonistic to the conceptions of Moscow, it is the working-class movement of Spain. Because the Spanish Government was a Government voicing and trying to give effect to the aspirations of a poor working-class population for better conditions of life, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite dub it a red Government, talk about being non-interventionists, and say that Britain should keep its hands clean.
I admit that there are many disadvantages in sitting on this bench, but there are advantages also. I know what the men who sit beside me on this bench really think, and I know what many hon. Members opposite think. Some of them have not hidden it. The overwhelming mass of opinion on the Government side of the House is not non-interventionist, but definitely pro-Franco. If I had given some of them notice about it. I would have mentioned their names and constituencies. They do not differ from the 'others except that they are a little more outspoken. In those circumstances there can never be an honest and straightforward policy. It is no good talking nonintervention and thinking and acting pro-Franco. That is the position in which we have been, and it is no wonder that the other Governments of the world feel that they are quite entitled and are able with impunity to treat the British Government, the British population and British shipping with contempt.
The hon. Member for West Leicester, in one of those clever speeches which he delivers, showed that for food to go into Bilbao is to help the Spanish Government. But these ships are not going into Bilbao to help the Spanish Government; they are going into Bilbao to deliver goods that have been bought from British merchants in the normal course of British trade. The British Government says that they are not to be allowed to do it, and that it will not support them in the doing of it. I read in an evening paper to-night about a ship going in ballast, with no cargo, that has been held up in France. It was going to the North of Spain empty, to get an iron ore cargo that is definitely needed for our purposes here. I understand that the Government are anxious to get iron ore into this country, and that the Navy is incapable of securing that that British ship, carrying either food or anything else, can go safely into an odd Spanish port and get iron ore that is wanted by manufacturers in this country—probably manufacturers who are trying to give effect to orders placed with them by the Government. That is not merely carrying out the non-intervention policy; it is not merely saying that we are not taking the side of one belligerent or the other; it is saying to Franco, "So decent are we that not only will we not interfere with your internal operations, but we will allow you to interfere with our internal operations." Franco says now in so many words that Great Britain is not to have her iron ore.
All of those ships that have been held up, waiting to go into Bilbao, even supposing that they had food cargoes, were hoping and expecting that they would have some other cargo to bring out. That was part of the normal operations of British trade, and a pirate has been allowed to interfere with it—for that is what the hon. Member for Norwood declared him to be. He was arguing that the Government should raise his status above that of a pirate by according him belligerent rights, but, until belligerent rights have been conceded, he is a pirate in the sense of international public law, in the same sense as Chinese pirates on the Chinese rivers are pirates. He has no more status than that. And Great Britain lies down and grovels. It has been referred to before, but I think it is worth repeating, that some years ago—many of us in this House will remember the occasion—there were a number of British engineers arrested in Russia by the ordinary processes of Russian law, and they were being tried according to the ordinary processes of Russian law, and the British Government of that day said to the Russian State of that day, "This has got to stop." There was a risk of war; there were all sorts of risks involved in making that demand. There was a complete breach of every principle of so-called international law. The British Government of that day said, "We do not care one brass farthing about your being the Government, or about your legal processes, or anything else. These are British subjects on their lawful occasions and you are not going to be allowed to treat them in that way."
I am not accusing the Government of being afraid of Franco. I do not believe they are afraid of Franco. I believe they are perfectly confident that they could deal with Franco on his own. But I accuse them of being afraid of Hitler and Mussolini, who, they know, are behind Franco. The right hon. Gentleman all through has shown a fear of these people which, I think, is degrading to the whole of the British population. I am not a militarist. I am not a fighting man. I was in favour, as hon. Members know, of non-intervention on the Abyssinian issue, but I was not in favour of non-intervention in Abyssinia meaning crawling on our stomachs before Mussolini. It does not mean to say that because I was in favour of non-intervention in Abyssinia I think the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to have missionaries bundled out of there as though they were rogues and vagabonds without an effective protest. The right hon. Gentleman has shown fear in the face of Fascist States, giving them the very food on which they feed, the capacity to turn round and say to their people, "See what we have done for you. We have made you respected and feared in the eyes of the world." That is what is being done to-day in a more definite and open way than ever before.
The appropriate, the dignified and the right British course is to say, "Our trade is going on. It may be that food going into that harbour will help the Government people in Bilbao. It may mean that food going into that harbour will be commandeered by the rebels and used for the benefit of the insurgent troops. But that is nothing to do with us. Our trade is going on, and neither Franco nor anyone else is going to stop it from going on." I know that that course involves risks which this nation must be prepared to face. I think if ever a Vote of Censure were justified it is justified to-day in the circumstances that the country has had to face over the week-end. We had every newspaper in the country featuring a special hurriedly summoned meeting of the Cabinet to deal with the situation. Every newspaper in the country tells us that the "Hood" has left Gibraltar and is steaming full speed to the North Coast of Spain. [Interruption.] I leave my hon. Friend alone. I have listened to a number of his interruptions. I am not objecting. I know that his views on this matter have been very largely influenced by the religious beliefs that he holds very deeply and sincerely. I hope he recognises that it is for his co-religionists in Bilbao that I am appealing to-night.
Never was there an occasion when a Vote of Censure was so justified when we have a Cabinet meeting on Sunday and the information that the "Hood" is steaming from Gibraltar to the North Coast of Spain. The hon. Member says, "Do not believe the newspapers." Is he suggesting that the Cabinet did not meet on Sunday? Is he suggesting that the "Hood" has not steamed, to the North Coast of Spain? Is he denying that the "Hood" is now operating in waters which have been declared too dangerous for British merchant ships? We have had no explanation here to-day that justifies any one of these things, only just the normal course of policy, which we have been pursuing from the beginning, of non-intervention. If it is dangerous for British shipping to knock about on the North Coast of Spain, it is surely very foolish procedure on the part of the Government to send one of the biggest and most expensive ships of the British Navy into these waters if it is just simply for the trivial reasons that have been put forward to-day and to meet a situation which has been adequately dealt with by the captain of the "Blanche" It will not do. There is a whole lot more that this House has not been told to-day by the Home Secretary. We are waiting to be told. We may get it from the Foreign Secretary at the conclusion of the Debate. [Interruption.] As the hon. Member says, the probabilities are that we shall not. The nation will be kept in the same ignorance that it has been all along, and indeed, in the ignorance which they themselves always profess they are in, because whenever they are pressed for definite information on any point of importance they have no information. In those circumstances, having regard to the humiliation that has been imposed upon the people of the country, having regard to the interference with the ordinary routine of British trade which is being agreed to and accepted by the Government, a Vote of Censure is justified in being put on the Paper, and I feel myself 100 per cent. justified in voting for it.
I am glad the hon. Member has made that point, because he will continue to keep the country as weak as possible and would place upon us further humiliations that we may suffer in the future. But that position is being remedied by the Government, and we shall be able to face those risks more boldly in the future when we have more armaments behind us.
Hon. Members opposite are always taunting us with regard to not taking risks without weighing up what those risks involve. They have done their best in the last few years to involve us in great difficulties abroad. In his speech the Leader of the Opposition said that we have shown weakness over Abyssinia and weakness subsequently. I do not, however, want to enter into the general question. I prefer to come back to the Vote of Censure. When we consider the Spanish problem and compare it with some of the other international problems which have arisen in the recent past, we should bear in mind that we are under no obligation to intervene. The speeches of hon. and right hon. Members opposite give the impression that we have that obligation. It is an internal conflict between two large and almost equally balanced portions of the population. A state of war exists, although belligerent rights have not been acknowledged. The Franco Government controls a large part of Spain. There is a de facto war taking place, whatever the de jure position may be.
The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) compared General Franco to the Chinese pirates. How can there be any kind of comparison between the pirates in Bias Bay and the Government of General Franco, which raises revenue, has a large army and controls a great part of Spain? I agree with the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. H. Nicolson) that it is perhaps a pity that the Government did not grant belligerent rights. If they had done so we should not have had the trouble that has arisen at Bilbao. Do the Opposition really suggest that at the present moment it would be in the interests of general peace or that it would improve the present position in Europe if the British Government gave instructions that the mines should be swept up outside Bilbao and that the food ships should be allowed to go into the harbour under the guns of the British Fleet? If that happened it would be intervention. I fully recognise the unhappy position of the people in Bilbao at the present time in that they are short of food. Other besieged cities have been in the same situation. It is part of the position which arises from a war, whether it is a civil war or an international war. If the position were reversed, and the Italian fleet escorted food ships, in spite of a Spanish Government blockade, there would be many protests from hon. and right hon. Members opposite. There is great danger in interfering and taking sides in the Spanish trouble. I hold the view that there should be complete neutrality. I share the view of the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) and I believe that to be the right course for this country. Whenever foreign countries have intervened in the past in Spain, such as in the time of Napoleon, they have suffered in the end. The "Spanish ulcer" was the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic regime, and I trust that if and when dictators interfere in Spain in future they will come to the same end.
No, I would not send Wellington, I would not intervene. I cannot help feeling that at the present time the partisanship which is shown on the part of the Opposition is having a very unhappy effect on our relations throughout Europe. They accuse His Majesty's Government of being a pro-Franco Government, but they have not produced a shred of evidence to support that charge. The partisanship which is being shown is playing the game of the dictators, who are anxious to divide Europe into two camps. It seems to me that if we favoured a partisan policy in regard to Spain we should forget our own interests and help to bring about the division of Europe into two camps. One hon. Member said that the Government were prepared to support Fascism against democracy. I think he forgot that the struggle in Europe is not between Fascism and democracy but between Fascism and Communism, and we have no sympathy with either. The obligations of our Government are, in the first place, to our own people. The hon. Member for Bridgeton spoke of the poor people of Spain. He should also think of the poor people of England. It is in the interests of this country that we should make nonintervention effective and remove one of the possible causes of friction. I admit that there are great difficulties. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for West Leicester said, that it is almost impossible to make non-intervention watertight. But we are improving it; the position is better than it was two or three months ago. I do not think that hon. Members opposite will be able to stir up feeling in this country, because the average man here is not looking for a Fascist or a Communist in every ditch.
I would make an appeal to all hon. Members, and that is to keep Spain in its right proportion in relation to the whole picture of foreign affairs. It is a disturbing, at times a dangerous, and always an important problem, but I would urge hon. Members to consider that it is only part of a very much bigger problem, and it sinks into a relatively minor place when it is related to the major problem of Germany and Central Europe. Spain should not be allowed to distract us too much and turn our attention away from these more difficult and more dangerous problems. There is the restless spirit of Nazism in Europe. The danger of a sudden attack on Czechoslovakia will be increased if we show signs of becoming involved in Spain, and it will diminish if we follow the wise and sane policy of non-intervention. The Government will succeed if they follow the policy of non-intervention and are not deterred by any of the attacks which have been made upon them to-day. These issues, having regard to their relation to the bigger questions, are minor issues, and if we follow the policy of non-intervention effectively, and if we succeed in keeping the countries of Europe from intervening too deeply in the Spanish problem, then we shall disappoint the hopes of those who think that if we become involved we shall be too weak to play an effective part in other parts of the world.
The hon. Member for South Derby (Mr. Emrys-Evans) twitted us on this side with not being able to face the risks or to see them. It is because we see the risks perhaps more clearly than he does that we are moving this Vote of Censure to-day. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) said rightly that we were feeding the dictators with what they lived upon Every time England gives way and shows fear we invite a further kick in the pants, and we bring nearer the day of reckoning. The main support of peace to-day is fear of Great Britain, not contempt of Great Britain, and it is because we feel that the measures that were taken at the Cabinet meeting on Friday last were just one more surrender, just one more evidence of weakness, just one more sop to the dictators, that we are moving this Vote of Censure and praying that even now the Government will change their policy and show their teeth. We do not want war; we want to take the only steps possible to prevent war coming.
One suggestion has come forth from this Debate to-night, from the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill). It was a dream—it was the best part of his speech—which the whole House would sympathise with and wish to see materialise, but how does he expect intervention by five great Powers to take place, and that intervention to convey to both parties in Spain a sense of justice and irresistible force. So long as England is feeble and despised, so long as every step taken by Germany, by Italy, or by General Franco, however hostile to the interests of this country, however much breaking down our determination to be impartial—how does he expect those five Powers even to work together so long as we show the white feather and explain repeatedly that we will always yield?
The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary made a speech this afternoon which, if he will forgive me for saying so, was not the best defence for the Government that could have been made. His speech was devoted almost entirely to a most elaborate plea that the Government have been completely impartial in Spain. He showed how, at the beginning of the war, in August last, with Government ships blockading insurgent ports, we warned shipping not to go to those ports and told them of the risks, and that just as we recognised in that case the blockade of the Southern Spanish ports when they were in the hands of the insurgents, so now we are doing exactly the same thing in the North of Spain. It is possible that the Home Secretary was not fully informed or had forgotten the history of last August and September, had forgotten what our Fleet did in those days, but most Members of the House must remember perfectly well how that ship, the "Gibel Zerjon," a ship that one often sees in Gibraltar, sailed from Gibraltar to Melilla. Melilla was blockaded at that time by the Government ships, and there was a destroyer and a submarine in the Straits, and they tried to stop the British ship going from Gibraltar to Melilla. Immediately that ship wirelessed for the support of the British Fleet, and the "Repulse" dashed out, cleared for action, told the Spanish ships what it thought about it, and conveyed the British ship into Melilla.
That was at the end of August. But the same thing happened again and again. That ship crossed over, backwards and forwards, escorted in the face of the Spanish destroyers and submarines, carrying, as a matter of fact, petrol and cement—cement, by the way, which has been used for building and fortifying the aerodromes which the Germans are using in Ceuta. That must be perfectly well known to the right hon. Gentleman, and one can hardly conceive his basing his case on an exact similarity of treatment when it is not true. Similarity is precisely what we ask for, what the British Fleet should do in the north of Spain. The right hon. Gentleman may have had his brief prepared for him, and that event of August may have slipped his memory, but if he did know that, I think it is the worst case of disingenuous pleading that I have ever heard in this House; it knocks the whole bottom out of his case. What we ask for is impartiality, that you should treat the port of Bilbao just as you treated the ports of Melilla and Ceuta, that you should enable British ships upon the high seas to receive protection, whether they are going to the aid of the Government or the rebels. We do not ask that you should take any steps whatever within the three-mile limit. I could trust the guns of Bilbao to keep the Spanish rebel ships outside the three- mile limit, but, so far as the high seas are concerned, every British ship should be protected in the north just as it was in the south; and the worst of this whole incident is that whereas in the south the Fleet acted automatically on one side, in the north it acted automatically, too, but on the other side, and ordered the British ships not to sail to Bilbao.
The action of the Fleet, or rather of the Admiralty, is what is being censured to-day, the action of the Admiralty in not acting in the north as they acted in the south, in not protecting our ships when the danger is from the insurgents' guns just as they protected them from the guns of the Spanish Government ships. In the case of Bilbao there are said to be mines outside the harbour. Those mines may be in territorial waters or in the high seas, but we have information from the Basque Government that there are no mines and that ships are going in and out. On the other hand, we have information, again from a source which is regarded as first rate but which is prejudiced, the Navy, that these mines make it impossible for ships to go in and out of port. Is the Government being run by the Admiralty, instead of the Government running the Admiralty? The Navy are our servants and should not impose their prejudices on the British Government. If the Government really means to be impartial then let the Fleet be impartial as well as the Government Front Bench.
No doubt the situation is extremely difficult. You have risks which British ships will run, but do not exaggerate these risks. Our battleships are built so that they will not be sunk by a mine explosion. We have been told that over and over again, and anyone who has studied naval architecture knows that that is so. The risk of real trouble from either side can be dismissed at once. Did the Fleet really believe, when they sent the "Repulse" full steam out of Gibraltar in order to rescue a tramp steamer, that the Spanish ships would open fire and do them any serious injury? Did they really believe that they would be injured if they escorted our merchant ships on their lawful occasions and then, within the three-mile limit, allowed them to go on at their own risk?
There are two things I want to make quite clear. During the speech of the Home Secretary there was no evidence that the Government's position was that they would prevent British ships from breaking the blockade. In the course of his speech, and by interruptions, the right hon. Gentleman admitted that there should be no forbidding of British ships to try to break the blockade, if they wished. Further pressed by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) the right hon. Gentleman agreed that on the high seas British ships were entitled to demand help, and would get help. The Debate will not have been in vain if that assurance is repeated, coupled with that further message from the Board of Trade, which ought to have been sent but which has not been sent, to British ships at St. Jean de Luz and Bordeaux that if they choose to sail they will have protection on the high seas, but that there are dangers inside territorial waters which they must face. In that case the Government would be able to say that, at any rate, as far as the Fleet is concerned, and as far as external commerce is concerned, they have been really impartial. Impartiality is what we want. Hon. Members opposite are not in favour of the Spanish Government. If I were 20 years younger I should not be here, but fighting for the Spanish Government. The least we can do is to hold the balance fairly, get these Italians and Germans out of the country and look forward to a settlement when we shall not have a Spain either Communist or reactionary, when we shall not see a Spain shorn of its provinces and colonies, handed over to Italy and Germany, but a free country once more with Parliamentary rule governing themselves.
It may be that I might possibly be found on the other side, but, all the same, even at his present age, if he went to Spain, he would acquit himself on whichever side he fought with the utmost credit. The right hon. and gallant Member and almost every other spokesman on that side of the House when they say that they believe in non-intervention are, in fact, pleading for a kind of veiled intervention. My sympathies are well known. Frankly, I sympathise with those who, I believe, are standing up for the rights of their religion and the freedom of property, but at the same time I do honestly believe in the most rigid nonintervention. I believe that 99 people out of every 100 in this country, whatever may be their sympathies in this unfortunate dispute, quite definitely do not wish to see a British ship or a British life lost in the dispute. If I am right in that, then I am right in supporting the Government in what I hope will be a most rigid policy of non-intervention. Let me put to the right hon. and gallant Member a hypothetical case. Suppose the Government controlled the open seas and Cadiz harbour were blockaded. Wines and fruit and oil are vital matters to General Franco, as in return for these exports he gets coal and capital.
It is the part of Spain which he now administers. He gets in return for these exports coal and capital, both extremely important, just as foodstuffs are important to the Government side. Suppose His Majesty's Government were to say, as I trust they have said in the present dispute, "You interfere with our ships on the high seas at your peril. On the high seas we protect our ships and shall sink any ship which attacks them." But suppose, in addition, we said, "We are going to escort our ships into territorial waters right up to the quay side and escort them out again." If we did that in the case of Cadiz there would be the most tremendous outcry on the part of the Opposition, and that outcry would be quite justified. They would say that we were risking British ships because there are mines about, and that the shore batteries are not very effective. They would also say that we were risking British ships in the most unjustifiable of all causes, in the cause of rendering very valuable indirect assistance to one party to the dispute.
Let me examine very briefly the actual trade we have with the two sides, because it is a very important consideration. From the insurgents we take wine, olive oil, oranges, fruit and mineral raw materials in large quantities, and in return we export coal and capital, both extremely important to them, the capital of which is directly employed in buying arms. There is no shortage of foodstuffs on that side. From the Government side we import olive oil and raw silk. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer goes fishing in Scotland all the gut parts he requires come from the Government side in Spain. We supply in return coal and food, and the food is not directly supplied because we are not an exporting country. What happens is that these ships employed in the food trade are chartered ships. That is, to all intents and purposes they are for the time being owned by the Spanish Government. They are hired for a period of months, it may be, by the Spanish Government; their seamen are paid special rates; the rates of hire are exceedingly high. The only connection for the time being that they have with this country is that they fly this country's flag, and it is a most undesirable position.
I cannot help wishing that when the Merchant Shipping (Spain) Act was passed, it had in fact forbidden all British ships to proceed to Spain except under licence as carrying cargoes between this country and one or other side in Spain, because I believe that that would have carried out the intention of strict neutrality far better than the present Act. This chartering of ships is an important consideration, because while we are certainly at present providing Franco with valuable capital we are equally supplying to the other side many of its vital necessities. I am not sure that that is real non-intervention. I have an idea that the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker), who is about to sum up, is going to shatter my arguments in one sentence, and I am going to try to get in one shot. I have an idea that he is going to say that these arguments are all right if the two parties are equal, but that in fact the two parties are not. One is the legitimate Government of Spain and as such is entitled to rights which ought not to be accorded to the other party. I take it that that is the basis of his argu- ment. It always has been in the past. He may direct it to a narrower issue to-night.
But, in fact, the hon. Gentleman does desire intervention in all sorts of veiled forms. Quite clearly in the North of Spain blockade is a legitimate instrument. Blockade in modern warfare cannot be ruled out. It may be undesirable, but it is a fundamental portion of the strategy of the two commanders, and if the Government were in control of the seas there is not the slightest doubt that the Government would be exercising with the full approval of hon. Members a blockade to the best of their ability.
I have a very few minutes and I do not want to give way if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I came across a very interesting document the other day and I would like to quote a few facts to the House to show that this is a civil war on a major scale, on a level with the Thirty Years' War or the war between our King and Parliament in 1640, a major civil war in which we cannot possibly say that one side is the legitimate government and that the other side consists of a lot of insubordinate rebels. I do not wish to develop the subject at length, because it has been dealt with before, notably by the hon. Member for one of the Surrey divisions; but it is strictly relevant to this argument in that most of the arguments of the Opposition speakers do uphold the special rights of the Government in the territorial waters as around the whole of Spain, even though the greater part of Spain is not at present under the control of the Government. During the short period that the Government ruled, about this time last year, a period of some six months, there were 84 churches burned, 36 political centres burned, four newspaper offices destroyed and 95 private houses burned down. Two hundred and fifty-six people were directly murdered.
I have been patient with most hon. Members to-day. Indeed I cannot help thinking that the early stages of the Debate to-day must have been very much like the Debate in the Spanish Cortes, the figures of which I am now quoting from the speech of Calvo Sotelo, who was taken out of his house by uniformed police and murdered.
The hon. Member may say that it is irrelevant, but it is not irrelevant as to whether or not the Government has privileges or rights over and above the insurgents. It is relevant as to whether or not these two parties in the dispute should be treated equally. I do not intend to develop the point, but I intend to submit to the House that in fact this was armed resistance to what was a most illegal repression.
I cannot help feeling that the Government deserve commendation for their thoroughly common-sense attitude. I wish very much that at the beginning of this dispute they had granted belligerent rights to both parties, because I believe that would have avoided a great deal of danger and inconvenience. I agree that now, without a suitable occasion, it would be very difficult to grant belligerent rights to the two parties. Let hon. Members recognise what this dispute is: it is a major civil war, each side of which has the active sympathy—often the too active sympathy—of a large section of Europe. Almost every country, except this country, has been intervening in one way or another in this dispute since it began. It is very undesirable that they should do so.
There is little hope of mediation—the day-dream to which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping pointed—unless non-intervention can first be made effective. It cannot be made effective unless this country shows definitely that not only is it prepared not to interfere in the internal affairs of Spain, but is determined to prevent anybody having any suspicion that it is likely so to interfere. I feel that the British shipping at present at St. Jean de Lux only fulfilled its duty towards its own safety and the spirit of the Non-Intervention Agreement, that we should entirely avoid any suspicion of intervention, by taking the attitude it took. In moving the Motion of Censure the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition made an extraordinarily effective speech, but it was the most partisan and the least non-interventionist speech—[An HON. MEMBER: "What is yours?"] I am one of the strongest believers in the whole House in the most rigid non-intervention. All my sympathies are with one side, but I strongly believe in the most rigid non-intervention. I hope the House will not accuse me of having made a biased speech. I believe the Government deserve the utmost commendation for having, during the period of eight months, kept this country out of the danger of war, and, as I believe, kept Europe out of the danger of war. To-day the position appears infinitely safer than it appeared eight months ago.
The Home Secretary, in stating the case for the Government, said that he had suffered a good deal of interruption—which was true—and that he hoped he had eluded a good deal of interruption that was intended for him. He did, but he eluded a good deal more besides interruption: he eluded the major issues that are involved in this Debate to-day. I believe this is the first time since 1588 that British ships have been menaced by the Spanish fleet. As I listened to the Home Secretary explaining away our naval rights, I thought that the ghosts of Queen Elizabeth and Francis Drake must be stirring uneasily in our midst, as indeed must have been the spirit of Admiral Jellicoe.
I do not wish to deal with the wider issues of the situation in Spain more than I can help, but I would like to say one word about the proposal put forward at the end of his speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill). I think there is no one on this side of the House who does not desire that the fighting in Spain should be brought to an end at the earliest possible moment. We regret, perhaps, that talk of mediation should be more active when General Franco is suffering reverses than it was when he was at the gates of Madrid in October last. We, perhaps, wish that the right hon. Gentleman had studied with more care the declaration of M. Litvinov at Geneva, that the Soviet Government did not desire to intervene in Spain, and the declaration made by the Government of Spain to the effect that they had no intention of setting up any dictatorial regime, but intended to adhere to the constitutional parliamentary government under which the country was being governed when General Franco started his revolt. Half of the conditions desired by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping have already been fulfilled, and if he can get Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to make declarations similar to those that have been made by the Russian Government and by the Spanish Government, then at least the first stage of his negotiation will be fulfilled.
The present crisis concerns the war in the country of the Basques. It is a special part of the conflict which presents various special features different from the rest of the war. I do not think that even the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Crossley) would say that those who are fighting against Franco there are, in the picturesque language of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping, ferocious or atheistic sects. They are Catholics to a man. Every ecclesiastical authority in their country is behind the government.
The Carlists may be, but in the forces which the Basques are sending into action there is in every battalion a Catholic priest. We have the evidence of a British Catholic, a member of the London County Council, known to many of us on this side of the House, who saw the destruction at Durango, the bombing of the church where a priest and 200 of his congregation were killed. I do not desire to go into that now, but that matter of prejudice can be excluded from our Debate. Like the rest of the war, the struggle in the Basque country is a struggle of the Spanish people against foreign invasion. There are Germans on that front; the artillery and the aircraft are German. If hon. Members desire to have evidence of the presence of Germans there, I have photographs of German troops taken from a German prisoner a few days ago. There are great numbers of Moors fighting on that front. There are no Russians—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—except perhaps some aviators, and there are now certainly a great number of Spanish aviators fighting for the Government on every front. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) interjected, we have a special friendship with the Basques. As he said, the Basques did a great deal for us during the last War. The Leader of the Liberal party told the House that certain Basque ships were sunk while providing Great Britain with the minerals without which our armaments could not have been made. [An HON. MEMBER: "Thirty ships."] Yes, 30 ships and 800 Basque sailors lost their lives as well. One firm of Basque shipowners handed over their entire fleet to the British Government to be used for our work, and so greatly did we value those services that we knighted the head of that firm and made him Sir Ramon De la Soto.
In this area we have also a special British interest at this moment because what the ships are bringing out of Bilbao is iron ore which is coming here. In the area under the control of the Basques the iron mines are more active than they were when the civil war began, and of the cargoes that have come out since the war began, every one has been brought to the United Kingdom except three which have gone to Holland. It is true, as the Foreign Secretary told us in answer to a question to-day, that some cargoes from General Franco's side are coming or have come to us, but it is also true, and I do not believe, the Foreign Secretary will dispute it, that the vast majority of the mineral ores exported from General Franco's country have gone to Italy and Germany. What greater interest could Great Britain have at this moment than that we should be sending food in our ships, it may be Dominions food, to women and children and refugees who will starve if that food does not reach them, and that those ships should be bringing out minerals required for the armaments programme to which the Government attaches so much importance?
Suppose the beleaguered people were no t the Government but Franco's supporters and suppose it was not Franco's forces but the Government forces which were blockading this port, would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to take the same steps as those which he is now advocating?
Of course, as long as belligerent rights are not recognised on either side, we are in favour of allowing the free transport of food. We do not think that blockades should be recognised while belligerent rights are not recognised. I will deal later with the whole point of the blockade.
There is another major British interest involved in the present situation to which the Government and the speakers on the other side have, so far, not given the slightest attention. Indeed, it has hardly been mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping said that he did not speak as a lawyer and he thought we had had enough of that part of the subject.
I apologise if I misinterpreted the right hon. Gentleman, but in any case the point which I desire to make is that vital interests of Great Britain are involved in the questions of naval law which are now at stake. The Government are, I will not say expecting, but fearing another major war. They are spending hundreds of millions on the British Fleet, and the British Fleet has always attached vital importance to the rules of international law under which it is allowed to operate. While this Spanish war lasts, we are creating, in this direction as in others, precedents for the future, and I venture to say that this is one of the most important matters which we have to consider.
Before I come to the questions of international law involved, may I be allowed to state once more, as we have done many times from these benches, our attitude towards non-intervention. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary asked specially that we should do so. We have always said that the Spanish Government is the legitimate, constitutional, elected Government of the country. As such, under the rules of international law, if civil war breaks out it has the right to buy arms from other countries and to demand that other countries shall not supply arms to the rebels. As a member of the League under the Covenant, if it is the subject of international aggression, it has the right to whatever measure of assistance Article XVI involves, and the Government admit that that, at least, implies economic sanctions. Civil war has broken out and international aggression has, by common consent, occurred. We agreed, at the beginning, that these legal rights of the Spanish Government should be waived in the major interest of saving European peace, but on one condition, namely, that arms should be supplied to neither side. We said that if one side was receiving arms and the other side was not, that was not non-intervention but was intervention of the most dangerous kind.
We adhere to that view. If non-intervention is made effective, if the Foreign Secretary can give us a control which will stop the flow of arms and of troops, we will support it, and we are confident the war will soon be over in that case. But as long as it is not effective, as long as it operates immensely in favour of the rebels and against the Government, as we are convinced it has done, then we say that the Government ought to redress the balance by suspending its operation until such time as the other side agrees to make it effective. Our purpose is not to provide a ready-made victory for either side. It is to ensure that the Spanish people shall be left alone to settle their own war, and if that were done we believe that they would settle it very quickly. But when the right hon. Gentleman asked us to state our attitude towards non-intervention, he implied that it had some connection with the sending of food to Bilbao. Non-intervention, however, is founded entirely in two international agreements, the first made at the end of last year, which related to the despatch and transport of arms and munitions, and the second made this year, which relates to volunteers and other kinds of troops. Non-intervention is limited to those two agreements and it has nothing to do with the despatch of food. The rights of British ships not carrying arms are governed by the rules of international law, which remain intact, except so far as those two agreements have made exceptions.
What are the rules of international law? The Government say that they recognise no belligerent rights to General Franco. [HON. MEMBERS: "Or the Government."] They say they recognise no belligerent rights on either side. Therefore, the question of this blockade of Bilbao must be considered first as a blockade by insurgents, having regard to the rules of international law in that respect, and thereafter in relation to the means which are being used, namely, blockade by air, by mines and by ships at sea. It is the Prime Minister's statement on Monday to which I am now referring.
On the general question of blockade by insurgents the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) said that, of course, there was a blockade, of course it was effective, and that, of course, we must recognise it, and that to send ships through that blockade would be intervention. The Prime Minister said on Monday, "I do not think it amounts to a blockade." Have we ever recognised the right of an insurgent Government to make a blockade? I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary could find a case, certainly not a case where an insurgent Government had received that right so soon after the civil war had broken out and when it was so tar from establishing its authority.
With great respect, I believe that every one of those cases is open to doubt. This is a highly technical matter, to which I have given a good deal of attention, and I do not believe that the writer in the "Herald" had done so. May I quote the general principles laid down by the Law Officers of the Government in 1867? They said, in answer to a question to the Government:
We are of opinion that if this 'Provisional Government' is to be treated as a belligerent de facto, they have a right, according to the general principles of international law, to resort to this means of self-defence and of aggression against their enemy, but if they are not entitled to the status of belligerents, and these privateers sail upon the high seas under no flag of any de jure or de facto Government, they would be liable to be treated as pirate vessels, and especially to be treated as such, if they should attempt to interfere in any way with the vessels of any foreign State.
The Leader of the Opposition this afternoon quoted a case where a British ship was sent into a Peruvian port to insist that the insurgents should not interfere with the rights of British shipping. In 1897 the German, British, French, Portuguese, American and Italian Governments
instructed their naval forces to communicate to Brazilian insurgents an order which they had received that no commercial operations in Rio de Janeiro should be permitted to be interrupted by those insurgents, and that if any interference by the insurgent forces occurred, those ships would be instructed to fire. That was a remarkably similar case to the situation which exists in Bilbao today. Unfortunately, we have surrendered a good deal of rights on this matter already by the statement which the Prime Minister made on Monday when, in fact, he in practice recognised General Franco's blockade. He said,
It has been necessary to take into account the practical aspect of the problem arising out of the efforts of the insurgent forces to invest Bilbao by sea and land,
and that therefore we had to stop our ships going. That has been interpreted—I have the reports in the "Times" here—both in Berlin and in Rome as de facto recognition of belligerent rights to General Franco. We have gone very far towards accepting something which this country has never accepted before, namely, the right of unrecognised insurgents to establish a blockade of this kind. How is this blockade being established? There are alleged to be, according to the Prime Minister's statement on Monday, three means that are being used—aircraft, mines and ships at sea.
The Prime Minister said that ships there would be in serious and constant risk of air bombardment. I do not believe there has been a case since the war began when the port of Bilbao has been bombarded. The Ports of Malaga, Barcelona and other places have been bombarded, and British ships have been allowed to go there. We protested against the bombardments and the infringement of their rights, and we went so far as to demand the establishment of safety zones in those ports. This air-bombardment argument does not hold water for a moment.
Equally dangerous is the argument with regard to mines. It is admitted that there have been mines at Bilbao. There were 42 laid by Franco last September, and 100 laid last December. British ships were allowed to go in, and it so happens that the shipping returns for those two months were higher than for any months since the war began. British ships went through the minefields because they were not very extensive and because
the Basque Government cleared them up at once. Photographs have been printed of the mines which the Basque Government have taken up and which they did not relay. The Home Secretary this afternoon was singularly unconvincing on the question of mines. He offered us no report, no dates, no specific facts. A British sea captain this morning declares in the "Daily Telegraph" that he does not believe there are any mines and that he is perfectly ready to sail from St. Jean de Luz to Bilbao. The Basque Government say this morning that there are no mines and that they have a fleet of mine-sweepers continually sweeping. [Interruption.] Here are the exact words:
The Basque Government has a flotilla of mine-sweepers on continuous duty, ensuring that any mine that the insurgents might lay would certainly be removed.
If the Foreign Secretary will look at the marine chart of Bilbao, he will see that it is perfectly certain that under the protection of coastal batteries the authorities of the port can keep the territorial waters clear of mines without any difficulty. In the attitude which the Government have adopted, they are again, as we think, compromising a most important British naval right. The question of mine-laying was dealt with at the second Hague Conference, and a convention was made allowing it under very narrow restrictions. Article II says:
It is forbidden to lay automatic contact mines off the coasts and ports of the enemy with the sole object of intercepting commercial navigation.
The British Government accepted that with a reserve, because it did not go far enough in safeguarding the rights of neutrals, because it gave too wide a right to lay mines, and they said that established international law went beyond that convention in restricting the rights of belligerents to lay mines. General Franco is laying mines in the territorial waters, in the open seas, and we do not even make a protest. We are allowing him to create a precedent of indis-criminate mine-laying. We are forbidding our ships to go there on that account, and we are not even explaining to him and the world at large that his actions are contrary to the rules of naval law for which we have always stood.
Lastly, there is the question of blockade by ships. The most effective part
of the case made by the Home Secretary was the analogy which he drew between the orders given now and those given last August to British ships. He said we were giving in substance exactly the same orders as then. I suggest there is no analogy at all. In the first place, British ships were then carrying arms or were entitled to do so. There was no question—the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—of a general blockade. I remember no announcement of a blockade of any kind. The Spanish Government's ships only wanted the right to search for arms. As to the orders actually given, we then advised British ships not to go to certain Spanish ports and told them that if they did they went at their own risk. We now definitely desire them not to go, and the Prime Minister says that, if any master or owner takes the responsibility of sending or taking a British ship into Bilbao, it will be a very grave responsibility because that master or owner will be risking the lives of his men. On the last occasion it was advice, but to-day in the "Daily Telegraph" is a statement by another British captain who says:
We were not merely advised not to go to Bilbao; we were instructed not to go by the Board of Trade, acting through the Admiralty.
Moreover, last summer we did not in practice tolerate any interference by Spanish Government ships, and when a British ship was stopped by a Spanish Government man-of-war we sent His Majesty's ship "Repulse," steaming at full speed, to prevent the Spanish Government ship from taking action. It is my profound conviction that after that step was taken there was not one other ship stopped on the high seas by a Spanish Government ship and I ask the Foreign Secretary to tell us if any single case occurred. I submit there is no analogy at all between the steps taken by His Majesty's Government now and those taken last year. The situation was different, the orders were different, and the action, in fact, then taken by the Government prevented interference with British ships. We did not then admit but, on the contrary, we effectively prevented the kind of blockade which General Franco now desires to carry out.
There is a further point. Even if General Franco had the right to declare a blockade; even if we recognised that right, is his present blockade an effective blockade in international law? The Leader of the Opposition cited 32 ships which have gone into Bilbao since 1st April. Ships are going into that port now. Is that an effective blockade? I was informed yesterday that five Spanish Government naval units had just reached Bilbao. As the hon. Member for Kingswinford (Mr. Henderson) pointed out this blockade, carried out by a few old ships, would never be effective unless His Majesty's Government made it so.
I want to ask the Foreign Secretary three questions: (1) Do the Government intend or not to protect British ships on the high seas? Will they prevent General Franco from interfering with them in any way up to the limit of the territorial waters? (2) Will the Government protest against the laying of mines by General Franco on the high seas and will they ensure that such mines are swept away? [AN HON. MEMBER: "On the high seas."] Yes, we have to keep His Majesty's ship "Hood" and a considerable number of naval units there. Surely in our own interests we ought to prevent the high seas being sown with mines. (3) Will the Government make it known to General Franco that we will not tolerate his ships firing on British ships, when they are in territorial waters, from outside that limit? Can the Foreign Secretary give us an assurance that General Franco's ships will not be allowed to fire on our ships when inside territorial waters, and that indiscriminate mine-laying on the high seas will not be allowed?
If he can, then this problem will be solved. But if he does not give that assurance, then he is sacrificing very important naval rights. Supposing we do have another major war and supposing our enemy endeavours to establish a blockade of Great Britain by aerial bombardment of our ports, are we going to agree to that? In this case there has not been a single case of ships being actually bombed but a mere declaration by General Franco that they may be bombed. Are we going to agree to the indiscriminate laying of mines? We are particularly sorry that it should be at this moment that the British Government are taking a new step in policy, that they are allowing threats of menace by air, mine and ship, which did not move them earlier, to induce them now to prevent British food ships going to Spanish ports. For it comes exactly at moment when the sending of food into Bilbao is a matter of military importance.
Another of those British captains quoted in the "Daily Telegraph" said:
I do not think the Basques will surrender unless they are starved.
We are sorry that this change should have happened now. The Spanish policy of the Government has not been notable for its luminous clarity, but to-day, against the background of its murky obscurity, the Government have flashed out a Franco sign. We know that it is a defeat for the Foreign Secretary. We all agree with what he wants to do. It is with his methods that we do not agree. He spoke the other night of pursuing his purposes patiently and persistently. We are afraid that his policy is all patience and very little persistence. His whole theory in dealing with dictators is that if he treats them gently they may stop intervening. When are the Government going to learn from their own experience?
The Foreign Secretary hopes that if we do not give him an excuse by insisting that our ships shall go in to Bilbao then Signor Mussolini will be good enough not to send any more divisions into Spain. But surely he has had lessons in what happens when he treats Signor Mussolini in that way. There was the original embargo on arms which we put on as a gesture to give him no excuse for not coming in. He came in when he thought he had done the job. The embargo on volunteers—exactly the same story. Yet the Foreign Secretary still tells us, in order not to offend Signor Mussolini, that so far as he knows there are no regular Italian troops in Spain, although we have had the interview of the "Times" correspondent with Major Luciano, who told him that his regular division of the Italian army, the Littorio division, had been sent to Spain with Italian Government equipment and at Government orders. We venture to think that that is not the right way to deal with dictators.
Last Christmas the French and British Governments spoke firmly about Morocco to Herr Hitler, and immediately Herr Hitler gave up his plans. The other day this House, principally through a great speech by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), spoke firmly to Signor Mussolini. Up to the day of that Debate there had been a violent anti-British campaign in the Italian Press, and on the Saturday, two days later, Reuter's reported that the anti-British campaign had ceased, and a few days later that 200 Italians in Addis Ababa were to, be punished for what had occurred. The right way to end this dangerous situation is for our Government to stand on British rights. We are convinced that if the Government will do that to-day, if they will do justice to ourselves and to the Spanish people, they will earn gratitude from generations to come. But if they allow this blockade to be made effective then they will have made a mistake which future generations will bitterly regret.
The hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Noel-Baker) has certain advantages which I have not. He is a student, I believe, of international law, though I am afraid I shall have to show the House that his studies have not been altogether correctly directed. The hon. Gentleman complained that the Government's foreign policy in respect of Spain lacked luminous clarity. Listening to the hon. Gentleman many of us must have felt that the indictment which he had to present lacked luminous clarity. He explained at great length, for instance, that there were no mines anywhere near Bilbao, and as there were no mines the Basque mine-sweepers were kept busy sweeping them up. He went on to say that we were exaggerating the dangers of mines upon the high seas, and then asked whether we had sent British minesweepers to sweep them up. I truly believe that much of this Debate is founded upon misapprehension. I regard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as a master of exposition, and I hope I may be allowed to say without undue criticism that I truly believe that if hon. Members opposite had not interrupted his speech so much the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken for the Opposition would not have had to repeat questions which had already been answered. This question is far more important than the Vote of Censure, and I shall do my best in the time available to try to make plain to all sections of the House what is the Government's policy, what are our responsibilities and how we propose to discharge them.
The hon. Gentleman said that the most effective part of the speech of the Home Secretary was that in which he spoke of the parallel between what is happening in Bilbao and what happened in the Morocco case in the autumn. I am dealing with this point only to clear up that difference, which will not affect my main argument. He said that this was not a true parallel because there was then no blockade, but the hon. Gentleman was mistaken. I have here a telegram which recorded a decision of the Spanish Government in August of last year, when the boot was on the other leg:
The Ministry of State informs me that Spanish ports in the hands of the rebels, such as Melilla, Ceuta, the ports in the Spanish zone of Morocco, the Balearic and Canary Islands have been declared to be in the war zone and consequently it is not possible for Spanish warships to allow merchant ships"—
not armed ships—
to enter those ports.
I do not in the least protest against that declaration, which is a perfectly proper form of blockade. But the parallel is much closer than the hon. Gentleman thinks between what happened last year and the present position in Bilbao. For instance, a decree was issued at the same time by the Spanish Government and one sentence of it ran:
Zones of protectorate and influence entrusted to Spain in Morocco and on the Western Coast of Africa will be considered as war zones and, therefore, subject to blockade.
That was the situation which was then, rightly or wrongly, accepted.
I want to come to the main charge of this Vote of Censure. As I listened to the greater part of the Debate I felt that the main charge was not so much what we had done or had not done in this business, but that the Opposition felt that we were generally poor-spirited in our conduct in the Spanish war, that the British lion was decadent and that, in the last century, had we been faced with similar circumstances, the British Government would have adopted a very different line. All that sounds very splendid, and is no doubt extremely satisfying to an Opposition, but is it true? I want the House to consider too for a moment the position of this Spanish civil war. What did the British Government do in similar circumstances last century, when men were braver than we are to-day? The most important internal strife of the last century, was, of course, the American Civil War. In that war we granted belligerent rights to both sides. It will have been familiar to most of us from our childhood that the granting of those belligerent rights resulted, among other things, in the famous Alabama case.
The Leader of the Opposition spoke earlier to-day as though the Government had given something up in this case. Of course, we have not given anything up, because you can never grant belligerent rights to one side only; they must be granted to both sides it they are granted at all. The hon. Gentleman remarked that he thought that never in history had there been any question of granting belligerent rights early in a dispute. As a matter of fact, in the American Civil War we did grant belligerent rights within six weeks of the outbreak of the Civil War.
We ourselves made, in point of fact, a declaration of neutrality out of which arose the granting of belligerent rights to both sides. That is what we did in the American Civil War. Of course, that does not stand alone; it is not the only example. The hon. Gentleman is probably familiar, I think, as I know something of his associations in this respect, with the Greek rebellion against Turkey in 1821–25. At that time also, belligerent rights were granted, and His Majesty's Government voiced this opinion, to which I would draw the attention of the House:
The character of belligerency was not so much a principle as a fact, that a certain degree of force and consistency acquired by any mass of population engaged in war entitled that population to be treated as a belligerent, and even if this title were questionable, rendered it the interest well understood of all civilised nations so to treat them.
At that time Canning was Foreign Secretary of this country, and Professor Phillips, in his "History of Modern Europe," deals with this very interest-
ing chapter of Greek independence. He says—curiously enough—
As in the affairs of Spain, so now his (Canning's) attitude was frankly based upon the interest of England. The interests of England, in his opinion, demanded peace. … The recognition of the belligerent character of the Greeks was necessitated by the impossibility of treating as pirates a population of a million souls, and of bringing within the bounds of civilised war a contest which had been marked at the outset, on both sides, by disgusting barbarities.
Those were both cases in which belligerent rights were granted. A third, and perhaps, in a way, even more remarkable case, was the revolt of the Spanish American Colonies against the Spanish Government, from which resulted the establishment of the South American independent Republics as we know them to-day. In that dispute we recognised the rights of the belligerent Colonies long before we recognised them in any other way, and, when I heard the right hon. Gentleman below the Gangway speaking earlier this afternoon, I bethought me that he might well have remembered the enthusiasm shown by the Liberal party of that day for those new States across the Atlantic to whom we accorded belligerent rights, though they were rebels against their own mother country.
What I wish to deduce from these three examples is that the natural thing, when a struggle has reached the large dimensions of the present war in Spain, would have been to recognise its belligerent character, and for States whose maritime interests are involved, as ours are, to grant belligerent rights to both sides. That would have been the natural thing to do. Recognition of belligerency is, of course, quite distinct from recognising anyone to whom you give belligerent rights as being the legitimate Government of the country. It has nothing to do with it. It is a conception simply concerned with granting belligerent rights which are of convenience to the donor as much as they are to the recipients. I will not go into the reasons, but for a variety of reasons in the present dispute we are not granting belligerent rights. What I want the House to appreciate is that, if we had followed the precedents which I have given, above all the precedent of the American civil war, and granted belligerent rights to both sides, both sides would have had a perfect right to stop British ships engaged in attempting to break the blockade, and would have been entitled to do it even on the high seas, and the British ships concerned could not have expected and would not in those circumstances have been entitled to assistance from His Majesty's Navy. I repeat that that was the position during the American civil war and in the other instances that I have mentioned.
What would the Opposition have said if we had acted in this dispute as we acted in the American Civil War? Would they not have said, could they have found the necessary vocabulary, that we were far more cowardly even than they allege we are to-day, and would they not also have said that we were affording the insurgents far more assistance than they allege we are doing to-day? The Leader of the Opposition said we had given up rights which had never been given up before. That is not true. If we had granted belligerent rights, we should have granted to General Franco and to the Spanish Government rights far in excess of anything that they enjoy at present.
On this occasion the Government have not gone as far in granting rights to the two parties as they did in the American Civil War. What we have done on the other side is to lay down quite firmly certain principles of nonintervention.
I should like to reply to one or two remarks made by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness (Sir A. Sinclair). He made a powerful indictment of the Government but, as I listened to his eloquence, I found it more and more difficult to understand wherein lay the divergence between his point of view and that of the Government. I will seek to meet the points that he made but, frankly, I do not know in what he disagrees with our present position. He did not ask us about warships in Spanish territorial waters. The conditions at Bilbao would not be safe for warships. What he did ask—this is the same question that the hon. Gentleman put to me just now—is, would we protect British ships on the high seas up to the three-mile limit, and he gave an example which I took down. If one of our ships disregarded the warning that has been given, would it be protected if it were attacked before it reached the three-mile limit? The answer is quite definitely "Yes" [Interruption.] That is one of the results of the absence of nonintervention earlier in the Debate. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with that point. If there is any doubt, I am glad to have the opportunity to make it clear.
Naturally, we hope they will not disobey instructions, but if they do and they are on the high seas they are entitled to protection. At the same time, we were bound to warn British ships of the dangers which we believe exist off the Bilbao coast and which we still believe, from our reports, do exist. We cannot guarantee, in view of the conditions there, that those ships would be safe in the territorial waters around Bilbao.
It is alleged that we have been, perhaps, unnecessarily timorous in our warnings to these ships. I think the Government would have incurred a very heavy responsibility if they had not given the warning which, on our information, we believe to be justified. We have heard to-night a good deal of belittling about the bombing going on in that part of the world. Just as I was getting up to speak I received a telegram from His Majesty's Consul at Bilbao, and in the very first sentence of it he said that there had been daily bombing during the past fortnight, destruction of the lines of communication and the suburbs of Bilbao on both sides of the river—aerodromes, factories and so on. One does not want to exaggerate, but it was surely the duty of the Government to make these facts known to British shipping. We have every reason to believe that British shipping, so far from sharing the objections of hon. Members opposite, fully appreciates and understands the action that we have taken. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has to-night received the following telegram from the Shipowners' Parliamentary Committee:
It is important that you should be aware that the Board of Trade has from the commencement given the industry the fullest opportunity of mutual consultation on the steps that should be taken to protect British shipping, from the points of view of British shipping trade and employment, and safety
of British seamen, and it has been satisfied from time to time that the Government was doing everything in its power to that end. The industry is now considering carefully the present situation and will lay the result before the Government immediately. Grateful if you will do everything in your power to avoid danger of giving Parliament or public impression that industry is dissatisfied with what has been done hitherto.
The next question the right hon. Gentleman asked me was: What about mines outside territorial waters? He did not ask hat we should go inside territorial waters and sweep up mines, but he asks what is to happen outside? That, the Government are considering. We can give no guarantee of what action we might have to take, but if it became necessary for the protection of British shipping to carry out mine-sweeping on the high seas, then His Majesty's Government are certainly prepared to consider it. That in itself is a very formidable task.
There seemed to me to be a very considerable divergence of view between the right hon. Member for Caithness and the party opposite. I have no wish to misquote the Leader of the Opposition. I may have misunderstood him, but as I understood the position of the right hon. Member for Caithness, they do not ask and have not asked us to take any action inside Spanish territorial waters. As I understand the party opposite, what they would like us to do is to sweep the approaches to Bilbao, whether within or without Spanish territorial waters, with British mine-sweepers, under the protection of the British Fleet, and escort shipping right into the port itself. If that is what they want us to do, what I find so difficult to understand is that they should not appreciate that action of that kind must inevitably, or could easily, be regarded as intervention.
May I say one word on this very difficult question of territorial water? Spanish territorial waters are places within Spanish jurisdiction, and it can be argued—there are two if not more schools of thought among legal authorities on this question—that to take forcible action within Spanish territorial waters would amount to intervention in the struggle just as clearly as if His Majesty's Government landed troops on Spanish soil to convoy lorries to a given point. Everyone who has studied this question knows how immensely complicated territorial waters questions are, but it is at least arguable that if territorial waters are to be treated as land, the arguments that apply to intervention on land apply equally to intervention in territorial waters. At any rate, I am not seeking to say that that is the right conclusion. All that I am seeking to point out to the House is, if these arguments are valid at all, what must be our criterion? Surely the only possible criterion is whether or not certain action of ours constitutes intervention in the Spanish conflict.
The hon. Member for Derby greatly narrowed, if I may say so, the scope of non-intervention, as we understand it and as we, the French Government and ourselves, agreed to it last August. What we agreed was not merely to apply nonintervention to arms and munitions and so on. It is true that the practical application of non-intervention has been limited to a certain number of things so far, but what we jointly agreed was to avoid all complications which might prejudice good relations between the nations and to refrain strictly from all interference, direct or indirect, in the internal affairs of Spain. What I contend is that if we were to send British mine-sweepers, supported by the British Navy, into Spanish territorial waters to rescue, by supplies, a beleaguered city, that might be argued to be intervention.
Let me try to give a parallel away from Spain, because it is so difficult, when we are talking of Spain, to keep our thoughts clear. Let us take a parallel in this country and suppose that His Majesty's Opposition are at war with His Majesty's Government, and suppose that His Majesty's Government are beleaguered by His Majesty's Opposition in the City of Bristol. What would be the feeling of His Majesty's Opposition, supposing neither of us had been accorded belligerent rights and supposing a foreign Power sent help to us in Bristol and forced that help through the cordon drawn up by His Majesty's Opposition? How would hon. Members opposite regard that? They would regard it as intervention. It would be nothing else. I hope I have successfully removed the doubts of some hon. Members as to what is the actual position.
What lies behind a great deal of this discussion is the attitude towards nonintervention. The hon. Member for Derby is frankly a partisan of the Government in Spain. In every part of the House there are hon. Members who have leanings for this and the other side, but it is the conviction of the Government that a policy of non-intervention is the only means at their disposal to prevent this conflict spreading beyond the borders of Spain. The right hon. Member for Caithness complained of delay, and said that after all these weary months the control scheme is not yet in operation. He said that we had to meet a new situation. I agree. I can assure him that however anxious he may be for this control scheme to come into force, he cannot be as anxious as I am. I do not believe that anybody, except possibly hon. Members on the benches opposite, would suggest that it is due to His Majesty's Government that the scheme has not come into operation sooner. We have spared no effort, no time, no money or endeavour to bring the scheme into operation at the earliest possible moment, and, in justice to everybody concerned, it must be remembered that never before in history has anything of the kind been attempted. I wish we could have done it through the League of Nations organisation; it would have saved much time, but we could not because two of the important Powers were not participating in the activities of the League. It had to be improvised in London, and the task has not been easy.
But something has been achieved. We have secured agreement about the supply of arms and volunteers, and also in regard to the observation scheme. More may be achieved yet. I am informed that discussion on the withdrawal of volunteers is going to be resumed by the Committee at its next meeting. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may scoff, but what is their alternative? Surely instead of active intervention by men, money and munitions, the correct policy for this country is to persist in doing everything it can to make non-intervention effective. If that is so, would it not be the height of folly for us to take a step at this moment which might be construed—I think with some justification; hon. Members opposite think with no justification at all—as a pretext by others to throw over the non-intervention arrangements. If we were to adopt the
view, which, I understand, is the view of the Opposition and send our minesweepers to Spanish waters with the British Fleet in support, if we fired our anti-aircraft guns at insurgent aeroplanes, can you be certain that you would not be giving a pretext for tearing this nonintervention agreement to pieces. If the non-intervention scheme were torn to pieces, who would benefit? Not the Spanish Government. I have here some very wise words which were written on this subject:
It is suggested that non-intervention should be thrown over, that the foreign Fascist troops should be withdrawn from Spain, that the Spanish Government should be provided with arms.
If these were the likely results of scrapping non-intervention now there is no one of the Labour Party who would not strive with all his might for the ending of that policy.
But in view of what has actually happened these last eight months, can it be reasonably doubted that the results would not be these, but the very reverse?
Can it be doubted that, short of European war (and if that is proposed, then out with it), the only hope of preventing the further landing of divisions of the Italian Army in Spain is the Naval control?
During the period before non-intervention in arms did not the rebels profit more than the Government …?
And if non-intervention were now abandoned, is it not certain that the Fascists would pour men into Spain until a Government defeat were asured?
That is the "Daily Herald" of 15th March.
It is very sound sense; whether that deserves a peerage I do not know. Above all our object must be to prevent this dispute spreading beyond Spain. That, I am convinced, is what this nation wants. We cannot discuss this question as though we were isolated in Europe. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) accused us of not facing up to the dictators. You cannot treat this question as though it were isolated from all others. The other day an international conference declared the international situation in Europe to be improved. I believe their judgment to be correct but no one can doubt its extreme delicacy at this time. I confess that I am not greatly moved by charges of cowardice, the white flag, the white feather or these charming tributes which have been handed out to the Government to-day. The Foreign Secretary of this country to-day is responsible not for his own life, which is quite unimportant, but the lives of millions of people. In my view an act of cowardice would be if in order to try to secure some fleeting success, or to try to win some temporary round of applause, he was to run risks of damaging peace which were not justified by the situation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) made an appeal for arbitration. I do not regret the words my right hon. Friend has spoken. They will go out to wider circles. He will not expect me to comment on them except to say this. If ever this country can make a contribution to bring this conflict to an end that contribution will not only be readily but eagerly made. Almost the only thing on which the right hon. Member for Caithness and the right hon. Member for Epping agreed was that they both said that this country's signal position of detachment well qualified us for that task. I ask for no better tribute to the work we have been trying to do, and it is sincerely in that spirit that we shall persevere.
one point? Am I right in interpreting the answer which he was kind enough to give to one of my questions in this sense: that if the food ships which are now lying at St. Jean de Luz intimate to the senior naval officer of that station that they intend, in spite of the Board of Trade's instruction, to carry their cargoes into Bilbao, they be afforded the protection of His Majesty's ships right up to the territorial limits?
In answering the right hon. Gentleman, I will be quite frank. Our hope is that they will not go, because in view of our reports of the conditions, we do not think it safe for them to go. Our reports of conditions inside Spanish territorial waters do not correspond to those which were read out this afternoon. That is why we have given that advice. If, in spite of that advice, those ships do go, then they will be afforded protection up to the three-mile limit.
|Division No. 139.]||AYES.||[10.55 p.m.|
|Adams, D. (Consett)||Fletcher, U.-Comdr. R. T. H.||Lunn, W.|
|Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.)||Frankel, D.||Macdonald, G. (Ince)|
|Adamson, W. M.||Gardner, B. W.||McEntee, V. La T.|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.)||Garro Jones, G. M,||Maclean, N.|
|Ammon, C. G.||Gibbins, J.||MacNeill, Weir, L.|
|Attlee, Rt. Hon. C. R.||Gibson, R (Greenock)||Mainwaring, W. H.|
|Banfield, J. W.||Green, W. H. (Deptford)||Marshall, F.|
|Barnes, A. J.||Grenfell, D. R.||Mathers, G.|
|Batey, J.||Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth)||Maxton, J.|
|Bellenger, F. J.||Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)||Milner, Major J.|
|Benn, Rt. Hon. W. W.||Groves, T. E.||Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)|
|Bevan, A.||Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)||Muff, G.|
|Broad, F. A.||Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel)||Naylor, T. E.|
|Bromfield, W.||Hardie, G. D.||Noel-Baker, P. J.|
|Brooke, W.||Hayday, A.||Oliver, G. H.|
|Brown, C. (Mansfield)||Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Parker, J.|
|Brown, Rt. Hon. J. (S. Ayrshire)||Henderson, J. (Ardwick)||Parkinson, J. A.|
|Buchanan, G.||Henderson, T. (Tradeston)||Potts, J.|
|Burke, W. A.||Hopkin, D.||Price, M. P.|
|Cassells, T.||Jagger, J.||Pritt, D. N.|
|Charleton, H, C.||Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Quibell, D. J. K.|
|Chater, D.||Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath)||Richards, R. (Wrexham)|
|Cluse, W. S.||John, W.||Ridley, G.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Jones, A. C. (Shipley)||Riley, B.|
|Cove, W. G.||Jones, J. J. (Silvertown)||Ritson, J.|
|Cripps, Hon. Sir Stafford||Jones, Morgan (Caerphilly)||Roberts, Rt. Hon. F. O. (W. Brom.)|
|Daggar, G.||Kelly, W. T.||Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)|
|Dalton, H.||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.||Rowson, G.|
|Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill)||Kirby, B. V.||Sanders, W. S.|
|Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton)||Lathan, G.||Sexton, T. M.|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Lawson, J. J.||Short, A.|
|Day, H.||Leach, W.||Silkin, L.|
|Dobbie, W.||Lee, F.||Silverman, S. S.|
|Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.)||Leonard, W.||Simpson, F. B.|
|Evans, E. (Univ. of Wales)||Leslie, J. R.||Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)|
|Smith, E. (Stoke)||Viant, S. P.||Williams, D. (Swansea, E.)|
|Smith, Rt. Hon. H. B. Lees- (K'ly)||Walkden, A. G.||Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)|
|Smith, T. (Normanton)||Walker, J.||Williams, T. (Don Valley)|
|Stephen, C.||Watkins, F. C.||Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)|
|Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)||Watson, W. McL.||Woods, G. S. (Finsbury)|
|Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)||Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. J. C.||Young, Sir R. (Newton)|
|Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)||Welsh, J. C.|
|Thurtle, E.||Westwood, J.||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Tinker, J. J.||Whiteley, W.||Sir Charles Edwards and Mr. Paling.|
|Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.||Colville, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. D. J.||Gunston, Capt. D. W.|
|Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G.||Cook, Sir T. R. A. M. (Norfolk, N.)||Guy, J. C. M.|
|Albery, Sir Irving||Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.)||Hamilton, Sir G. C.|
|Allen, Lt.-Col. J. Sandeman (B'kn'hd)||Cooper, Rt. Hn. A. Duff (W'st'r S. G'gs)||Hannah, I, C.|
|Amery, Rt. Hon. L. C. M. S.||Cooper, Rt. Hn. T. M. (E'nburgh, W.)||Hannon, Sir P. J. H.|
|Anderson, Sir A. Garrett (C. of Ldn.)||Courtauld, Major J. S.||Harbord, A.|
|Anstruther-Gray, W. J.||Courthope, Col. Sir G. L.||Hartington, Marquess of|
|Apsley, Lord||Cranborne, Viscount||Haslam, H. C. (Horncastle)|
|Aske, Sir R. W.||Critchley, A.||Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.|
|Assheton, R.||Crooke, J. S.||Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.|
|Astor, Viscountess (Plymouth, Sutton)||Crookshank, Capt. H. F. C.||Hepburn, P. G. T. Buchan-|
|Astor, Hon. W. W. (Fulham, E.)||Croom-Johnson, R. P.||Hepworth, J.|
|Baillie, Sir A. W. M.||Crossley, A. C.||Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth)|
|Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley||Crowder, J. F. E.||Herbert, Capt. Sir S. (Abbey)|
|Baldwin-Webb, Col. J.||Cruddas, Col. B.||Hills, Major Rt. Hon. J. W. (Ripon)|
|Balfour, G. (Hampstead)||Culverwell, C. T.||Hoare, Rt. Hon. Sir S.|
|Balfour, Capt. H. H. (Isle of Thanet)||Davidson, Rt. Hon. Sir J. C C.||Holdsworth, H.|
|Balniel, Lord||Davies, C. (Montgomery)||Holmes, J. S.|
|Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M.||Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)||Hope, Captain Hon. A. O. J.|
|Barrie, Sir C. C.||Davison, Sir W. H.||Hopkinson, A.|
|Baxter, A. Beverley||Dawson, Sir P.||Hore-Belisha, Rt. Hon. L.|
|Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.||Denman, Hon. R. D.||Horsbrugh, Florence|
|Beauchamp, Sir B. C.||Denville, Alfred||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.)|
|Beaumont, M. W. (Aylesbury)||Doland, G. F.||Hudson, R. S. (Southport)|
|Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)||Donner, P. W.||Hume, Sir G. H.|
|Beit, Sir A. L.||Dorman-Smith, Major R. H.||Hunter, T.|
|Bernays, R. H.||Dower, Capt. A. V. G.||Hurd, Sir P. A.|
|Birchall, Sir J. D.||Drewe, C.||Inskip, Rt. Hon. Sir T. W. H.|
|Bird, Sir R. B.||Duckworth, Arthur (Shrewsbury)||Jarvis, Sir J. J.|
|Blair, Sir R.||Duckworth, W. R. (Moss Side)||Joel, D. J. B.|
|Blaker, Sir R.||Dugdale, Major T. L.||Jones, Sir G. W. H. (S'k N'w'gt'n)|
|Boothby, R. J. G.||Duggan, H. J.||Jones, L. (Swansea W.)|
|Bossom, A. C.||Duncan, J. A. L.||Keeling, E. H.|
|Boulton, W. W.||Dunglass, Lord||Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose)|
|Bowater, Col. Sir T. Vansittart||Eastwood, J. F.||Kerr, H. W. (Oldham)|
|Bower, Comdr. R. T.||Eckersley, P. T.||Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.)|
|Eden, Rt. Hon. A.||Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F.|
|Bowyer, Capt. Sir G. E. W.||Edge, Sir W.||Lamb, Sir J. Q.|
|Boyce, H. Leslie||Edmondson, Major Sir J.||Lambert, Rt. Hon. G.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, Major Sir A. B.||Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E||Latham, Sir P.|
|Bracken, B.||Ellis, Sir G.||Law, Sir A. J. (High Peak)|
|Braithwaite, Major A. N.||Elliston, Capt. G. S.||Law, R. K. (Hull, S.W.)|
|Brass, Sir W.||Elmley, Viscount||Leckie, J. A.|
|Briscoe, Capt. R. G.||Emery, J. F.||Lees-Jones, J.|
|Brocklebank, C. E. R.||Emmott, C. E. G. C.||Leigh, Sir J.|
|Brown, Rt. Hon. E. (Leith)||Emrys-Evans, P. V.||Leighton, Major B. E. P.|
|Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Newbury)||Entwistle, Sir C. F.||Lennox-Boyd, A. T. L.|
|Bull, B. B.||Errington, E.||Levy, T.|
|Bullock, Capt. M.||Erskine-Hill, A. G.||Lewis, O.|
|Burghley, Lord||Evans, Capt. A. (Cardiff, S.)||Liddall, W. S.|
|Burgin, Dr. E. L.||Everard, W. L.||Lindsay, K. M.|
|Burton, Col. H. W.||Fildes, Sir H.||Little, Sir E. Graham-|
|Butler, R. A.||Fleming, E. L.||Llewellin, Lieut.-Col. J. J.|
|Caine, G. R. Hall-||Fox, Sir G. W. G.||Lloyd, G. W.|
|Campbell, Sir E. T.||Furness, S. N.||Locker-Lampson, Comdr. O. S.|
|Carver, Major W. H.||Fyfe, D. P. M.||Loftus, P. C.|
|Cary, R. A.||Ganzoni, Sir J.||Lyons, A. M.|
|Castlereagh, Viscount||Gibson, C. G. (Pudsey and Otley)||Mabane, W. (Huddersfield)|
|Cayzer, Sir C. W. (City of Chester)||Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir J.||McCorquodale, M. S.|
|Cayzer, Sir H. R, (Portsmouth, S.)||Gledhill, G.||MacDonald, Rt. Hon. J. R. (Scot. U.)|
|Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)||Gluckstein, L. H.||MacDonald, Rt. Hon. M. (Ross)|
|Cazalet, Capt. V. A. (Chippenham)||Glyn, Major Sir R. G. C.||MacDonald, Sir Murdoch (Inverness)|
|Chamberlain, Rt. Hn. N. (Edgb't'n)||Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)||Macdonald, Capt. P. (Isle of Wight)|
|Channon, H.||Grant-Ferris, R.||McEwen, Capt. J. H. F.|
|Chapman, Sir S. (Edinburgh, S.)||Granville, E. L.||McKie, J. H.|
|Chorlton, A. E. L.||Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)||Maclay, Hon. J. P.|
|Christie, J. A.||Gretton, Col. Rt. Hon. J.||Macmillan, H. (Stockton-on-Tees)|
|Churchill, Rt. Hon. Winston S.||Gridley, Sir A. B.||Macquisten, F. A.|
|Clarke, F. E. (Dartford)||Grigg, Sir E. W. M.||Magnay, T.|
|Clarke, Lt.-Col. R. S. (E. Grinstead)||Grimston, R. V.||Maitland, A.|
|Clarry, Sir Reginald||Guest, Hon. I. (Brecon and Radnor)||Makins, Brig.-Gen. E.|
|Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston)||Guest, Maj. Hon. O. (C'mb'rw'll, N.W.)||Manningham-Buller, Sir M.|
|Colman, N. C. D.||Guinness, T. L. E. B.||Markham, S. F.|
|Mason, Lt.-Col. Hon. G. K. M.||Rayner, Major R. H.||Strauss, E. A. (Southwark. N.)|
|Maxwell, Hon. S. A.||Reed, A. C. (Exeter)||Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)|
|Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Reid, Captain A. Cunningham||Strickland, Captain W. F.|
|Meller, Sir R. J. (Mitcham)||Reid, Sir D. D. (Down)||Stuart, Lord C. Crichton- (N'thw'h)|
|Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth)||Reid, W. Allan (Derby)||Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)|
|Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest)||Remer, J. R.||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.|
|Mitchell, H. (Brentford and Chiswick)||Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)||Sutcliffe, H.|
|Moore, Lieut.-Col. T. C. F,||Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool)||Tasker, Sir R. I.|
|Moore-Brabazon, Lt.-Col. J. T. C.||Ropner, Colonel L.||Tate, Mavis C.|
|Moreing, A. C.||Ross, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)||Taylor, C. S. (Eastbourne)|
|Morgan, R. H.||Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)||Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)|
|Morris, J. P. (Salford, N.)||Rowlands, G.||Thomas, J. P. L.|
|Morris, O. T. (Cardiff, E.)||Runciman, Rt. Hon. W.||Thomson, Sir J. D. W.|
|Morris-Jones, Sir Henry||Salmon, Sir I.||Touche, G. C.|
|Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.)||Salt, E. W.||Train, Sir J.|
|Nall, Sir J.||Sandeman, Sir N. S.||Tree, A. R. L. F.|
|Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H.||Sanderson, Sir F. B.||Tryon, Major Rt. Hon. G. C.|
|Nicholson, G. (Farnham)||Sandys, E. D.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Nicolson, Hon. H. G.||Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir P.||Turton, R. H.|
|O'Connor, Sir Terence J.||Savery, Sir Servington||Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)|
|O'Neill, Major Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh||Scott, Lord William||Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)|
|Ormsby-Gore, Rt. Hon. W. G. A.||Selley, H. R.||Warrender, Sir V.|
|Orr-Ewing, I. L.||Shakespeare, G. H.||Waterhouse, Captain C.|
|Palmer, G. E. H.||Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)||Watt, G. S. H.|
|Patrick, C. M.||Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)||Wayland, Sir W. A|
|Peake, O.||Shepperson, Sir E. W.||Weddernurn, H. J. S.|
|Peat, C. U.||Shute, Colonel Sir J. J.||Wells, S. R.|
|Penny, Sir G.||Simmonds, O. E.||Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.|
|Percy, Rt. Hon. Lord E.||Simon, Rt. Hon. Sir J. A.||Williams, C. (Torquay)|
|Perkins, W. R. D.||Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)||Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Petherick, M.||Smith, L. W. (Hallam)||Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)|
|Pickthorn, K. W. M.||Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)||Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.|
|Pilkington, R.||Smithers, Sir W.||Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl|
|Plugge, Capt. L. F.||Somervell, Sir D. B. (Crewe)||Wolmer, Rt. Hon. Viscount|
|Ponsonby, Col. C. E.||Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)||Womersley, Sir W. J.|
|Porritt, R. W.||Southby, Commander A. R. J.||Wood, Rt. Hon. Sir Kingsley|
|Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir Assheton||Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.||Wragg, H.|
|Procter, Major H. A.||Spens, W. P.||Wright, Squadron-Leader J. A. C.|
|Radford, E. A.||Stanley, Rt. Hon. Lord (Fylde)||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Ramsbotham, H.||Stanley, Rt. Hon. Oliver (W'm'l'd)|
|Ramsden, Sir E.||Stewart, J. Henderson (Fife, E.)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Rankin, Sir R.||Stewart, William J. (Belfast, S.)||Captain Margesson and Sir James|
|Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin)||Storey, S.||Blindell.|
|Rawson, Sir Cooper||Stourton, Major Hon. J. J.|