Orders of the Day — London Naval Treaty Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 20th July 1937.

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Photo of Hon. William Waldorf Astor Hon. William Waldorf Astor , Fulham East

I am sincerely sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) has temporarily pulled out of the line of battle, because I wanted, not to send a salvo into him, but to offer him thanks for his wonderful justification of the amount which is being spent by His Majesty's Government on naval armaments. He pointed out that our expenditure at the moment is about one-third of the world total. It was in that same proportion at the time when he was responsible for the Navy, and it was in the same proportion before the War. Surely none of his supporters would suggest that the increase in the amount spent by the world on naval armaments has been due in any way to any lead given by His Majesty's Government either now or in the past. Surely, also, if we were spending less, in proportion to the other countries to-day than the proportion which we were spending when the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for the Navy, we would have a lower standard of security now than that which the Labour Government thought necessary at a time when there was, comparatively speaking, a lack of international anxiety. I think we can thank the right hon. Gentleman for having pointed out an argument which had not previously occurred to some of us. Of course, some of the increased expenditure has been necessary because capital ships were getting out of date owing to sheer old age and new developments in anti-aircraft warfare. This has necessitated a great deal of expenditure.

The Treaties which are now before the House may be criticised, but I do not think it can be denied that they are largely solving the difficulties of the European naval situation. It is true that they do not touch the Far East, but if we add to them the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, it can be seen that the naval problem in European waters is immensely simplified and improved by them. One shudders to think of what the situation would have been if His Majesty's Government had not had the independence and courage to negotiate and sign the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. It is almost frightening to think of what the position might be without that agreement. There are many bolt-holes and loop-holes in these documents, but the qualitative relations between the German and the British Navy are absolute. There are no escalator clauses in them. Of course the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) is afraid of people breaking their word, but at least we can say that in Europe since 1922 no nation has broken any of the naval treaties of disarmament, and if every nation including Germany has observed these Treaties, there is at least warrant for going on with them in the future, and for refusing to give up in despair while we have this good example.

The gap in Europe is, of course, Italy. We sincerely hope that nothing will be done which will discourage Italy from coming in and that with the liquidation of the present Spanish situation we shall see Italy signing a Treaty, in the drawing up of which she took a great part and left, not for technical reasons, but for political reasons which had nothing to do with naval limitations. The right hon. Member for Hillsborough referred to this Treaty merely as a scrap of paper, hardly worth the paper on which it is written. If that be so, is it really conceivable that foreign countries, including Soviet Russia, should have taken such immense pains to be quite sure of what was written on this scrap of paper? It was a long and laborious negotiation, in every comma of which they took a deep interest, and surely that shows that some value attaches to these naval Treaties. Of course, it is easy to imagine a much better naval Treaty. Everybody would like a quantitative limitation as well, and His Majesty's Government sincerely tried to get it, but, viewing facts as they are and viewing the fact that these Treaties are negotiated and not dictated Treaties, I think our Government are to be congratulated on the results.

The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton, speaking of the Far Eastern situation, seemed, as is his wont to lay the entire blame for it on His Majesty's Government. Anybody who has studied the Far East at all will know that the causes of the Manchurian dispute and of Japan leaving a collective system, leaving the League, and leaving the naval limitations agreement date very much farther back than that. They are due to internal economic and social problems, buried deep in the economic and social structure of Japan. The political results followed, and there is very little which was done in the Manchurian dispute or afterwards that affected those internal Japanese problems which produced the sad result.

If one were going to make party points over it one might point out that in 1932 we had a Labour Government which had got its finances into so obscure a condition that we had to have all these reductions, which led to the trouble in the Navy, and it is not perhaps entirely a coincidence that the troubles in Mukden followed very shortly after the troubles at Invergordon. The troubles at Invergordon were due to the economic crisis, which at least His Majesty's present advisers did nothing to bring on. Secondly, one might also point out that during the time when the Labour party were in office they retarded work on the Singapore base, and that if that work had been pressed on we might have been in a far different position vis-à-vis Japan, but without the Singapore base the British Navy was absolutely helpless. The hon. Member took much too superficial a view of the Far Eastern problem and of its causes, economic and social, which have got to be dealt with internationally. We certainly hope that the present trouble will increase the desire of His Majesty's Government to try and ease the troubles in the Far East.

As regards the Russian fleet in the Far East, which seemed to give the right hon. Member for Hillsborough such worry, I think he can he reassured. In the first place, the Russian fleet's record throughout history is not such as to inspire the Japanese Government with terror, and, secondly, it is very unlikely that Japan is going to sit and watch Russia building a formidable fleet under her very nose or that Russia will attempt any such hazardous experiment. The sovereign remedy has been given to us. It is said that the way to improve these naval Treaties is to strengthen the League in the Far East. But the Far East is one of the few places where any amount of strengthening of the League is likely to have extraordinarily little effect. It is much more likely to be done by paralleling our policy with that of the United States of America and getting the two navies working so closely together as to produce the same beneficent results in the Far East as our parallelism with France produces in Europe.

I think the attacks on His Majesty's Government in connection with these Treaties have extraordinarily little weight, and really these Treaties savour of the miraculous. To have been able in 1937, in view of what is happening in every other sphere of foreign policy, to have secured these highly useful and important Treaties is a thing on which the Foreign Office, the Admiralty, and those who have had to do the detail work deserve the greatest congratulation. It shows that the less ambitious methods of bilateral negotiation in the sphere of disarmament have had great success, and we only hope that His Majesty's Government will be able to follow up this success by similar methods in other spheres.