Orders of the Day — Foreign Affairs and Rearmament.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 24th March 1938.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby

I quoted the "Times" as saying that at the battle of Teruel they used aeroplanes which had been made in Spain. I also said, which is a fact, that at the present time the Government can hardly send their aircraft into the air at all because of the inferiority in which they find themselves to-day. I am going to quote from the "Corriere della Sera" of 10th March a description of the advance of two brigades of Arabs, that is to say, Italian troops. The paper says: One saw giant convoys of moving artillery and columns of Fiats along the road which goes down to Cortes. It Spoke also of the Very violent preparation of the Legionary Artillery and the air squadrons, which have brought about the immediate destruction of the line of enemy fortifications. On 11th March the same paper said: The attack of the Legionaries was made after a terrifying concentration of hundreds of cannons. If General Franco had all that material in January and February, why did he not use it then? I end this part of what I want to say by reading a quotation from the "Popolo d'Italia," or I will try to translate it. I have the copy of that paper for 17th March: General Morro, reporting to the Italian Chamber on the battle of Teruel, said that recently the Commander-in-Chief of the Nationalist aerial forces in Spain gave out a message in which he declared that 75 per cent. of the victory at Teruel was due to aviation and, he went on to say, above all due to the Legionary,"— That is, the Italian— aviation, which he defined as magnificent in its efficiency, its courage and its precision. At that point the paper records that the Duce, the President, the Ministers and the Deputies rose to their feet and cheered. We believe that General Franco was overstating his case when he said about 10 days ago that this offensive, run by Italians and Germans with, as we believe, vast new supplies of materials of war, had definitely won the war for him, but we do believe that it has made a great change in the situation in Spain, and that that change has been made in violation of the pledges which Signor Mussolini gave to the Prime Minister. We believe that for that reason the Prime Minister's policy of negotiating with Signor Mussolini is, or ought to be, in ruins, and that he will never get an agreement from those negotiations to which the British people will agre.

I turn from the Spanish problem to the general problem of armaments and war, which, as I have said before in this House, is really, I believe, the whole substance of international politics at the present day. I do not propose to say that any hon. Member on the other side of the House wants war, and I hope that if I plead, as we all plead on this side, for the application of the Covenant, that no hon. Member opposite will say that we want war. No one in his senses wants war. We all loathe and detest war. We regard it with such horror that I, for my part, find it difficult to take much interest in the outcome if it once starts. We fought the last war to destroy militarism and autocracy in Prussia. Look at the results we achieved. I believe that if the next war were fought by the methods of Guernica and Barcelona we should emerge with a civilisation which would be morally and spiritually, if not materially, shattered, with a world in which sadistic cruelty would have become almost the principle of government which it seems to be in some countries to-day.

Our purpose is to prevent the outbreak of war. The difference between us and hon. Members opposite is as to the method of doing it. We face to-day a risk of war. Why are we engaged in this Debate? Because two weeks ago this House and the nation felt that they had come very near to war; because of the brutal invasion of Austria, which had been long prepared and which was suddenly carried out for the reason that the vast majority of Austrians were about to vote against incorporation in the Reich; because that invasion had thrown the world into an international crisis and everybody believed that a new statement of British foreign policy was required. I had a feeling in the Debate 10 days ago that many Members in many different quarters of the House had come to think that we were in that crisis because we had abandoned the policy of collective security through the League. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am only saying what was my feeling about the Debate, which was that many Members did have that feeling as they had not had it before, and that in that Debate, oppressed by a sense of being near to war, they did more than ever before share the conviction which appeared in the election manifesto of the Government in 1935 that only collective security by collective action can save us from a return to the old system which resulted in the Great War.

I cite that not to say that the Government have gone back on their pledge, but because I am convinced that it is the fundamental truth about international affairs to-day, and if our sense of that conviction that collective security is necessary is a little less urgent to-night than it was 10 days ago I believe it is because we feel that the international situation is a little less grave, that we are not so immediately faced by another serious crisis as we were then, and have a certain hope that now we may somehow scrape through. I am not suggesting that the international situation is, in essence, less grave than it was 10 days ago. Nothing has happened to relieve it, and I think that for those who wish to see the facts the Austrian invasion has cast a searchlight on what is almost certain to be the evolution of international affairs.

The Prime Minister this afternoon deprecated the talk of war. So do I, but on the Sunday after the invasion of Austria, Field-Marshall Goering used these words: Germany does not desire to and will not interfere in the affairs of any other nation. It must, however, be established that the German Reich considers itself as in every respect the protector and patron of all Germans, including those outside the frontiers. Anyone who attacks Germans, and therefore Germany, comes up against German guns ready to shoot. They are sinister words, and they are more sinister still if they are read in the light of the comment in the "Daily Telegraph" yesterday—it seemed to me inspired comment—that Germany was making it plain that she would bitterly resent any attempt by the Western Powers to intervene in the negotiations between herself and her Eastern neighbours affecting German populations. I have here a list of 10 or 11 countries in Europe and of seven or eight countries outside Europe, where there are German nationals whom Germany claims to protect. Let us think what this principle of the protection of Germans means.

Herr Hitler solemnly undertook to protect Austrian independence. He wanted only to obtain justice for all Germans. If he applies the method used in Austria to Czechoslovakia, which seems at present to be the next case, although I do not believe it personally; or to Hungary—the Hungarians are shaking in their shoes—to Yugoslavia, which knows it has a place on the programme; to Switzerland, where more than two-thirds of the population are German by race and language; to Luxemburg, which is obviously ripe to be absorbed; to the Flemish parts of Belgium where there is to-day a Hitler party heavily subsidised by secret funds; to Holland, where Dutch bears so much resemblance to German that the whole of Holland must appear in Dr. Rosenberg's programme; to Schleswig-Holstein, where there are Germans whom Herr Hitler intends to bring into the Reich; to Danzig, Upper Silesia and The Corridor as well, when Poland has served her purpose; and, lastly, to the Ukraine—that is the programme of which we have to think.

The calculation of the dictators is that the rest of the Powers will be so weak and democratic governments so hesitating that they will be able to carry through those operations one by one. They can choose the moment to suit themselves, and each success as it comes will make them stronger and will make resistance more difficult for the rest of the world. I submit that that is a realistic picture, which is fraught with the risk of a general conflict, and that it cannot be carried through very far without a European war. What is the policy of the Government as offered this afternoon to meet that danger? I note in the first place that the Prime Minister's language about the League of Nations was different from that which he used a fortnight ago. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not in the least desire to misrepresent the Prime Minister, and I recognise that he repeated some of the things which he previously said, but he also quoted a very important statement by the late Foreign Secretary, to which I attach a considerable amount of importance. I understood him to say that that represented the attitude of the Government towards the League. In addition, he also spoke of pledges to France and, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) said, he gave us a measure of reassurance about Czechoslovakia as well. In substance, he still rejects the League of Nations as a presently effective instrument for the maintenance of world peace, and he still pins his hopes of peace to a balance of power. That balance is to be founded on the principle that our frontier is the Rhine.

May I say a few words about that principle, because it is fundamental to the policy in which we believe on this side of the House? The theory that our frontier is the Rhine involves the conclusion that we cannot have Germany on the northern coasts of France and Belgium, that it is our vital national strategic business to keep them out, and that therefore we shall fight for that and we will not fight in other causes—in Balkan quarrels for example. Therefore, we limit our commitments to what we know we will and can and ought to carry out. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad I am stating the matter plainly. Will that policy keep us out of a war which begins in other parts of Europe? Will it keep us out of a war which begins in Czechoslovakia? I do not believe that it will. Let us consider the position of France. Are we to go to France and say: "You must give up the Covenant of the League of Nations and your other pacts, because we will not fight with you on anything that begins anywhere but on the Rhine"? We could not say that, but if we tried to say it the French Parliament would reply to us as they replied to the Prime Minister, five days after his speech on 21st February about the League of Nations, in a Resolution which they adopted by 439 votes to two, that they were obliged to assure the maintenance of peace and the respect of treaties within the framework of collective security and the League of Nations. The French Parliament would say to us that if they were to give up all their other commitments in Europe it would be rendering every French right indefensibly at the mercy of any dictator who cared to violate it.

If you were to put the same question to the French General Staff they would say that we were asking them to accept inevitable defeat in a European war, if war should come. They would say that they were very much obliged to us; that they would like our help, and that they attached immense importance to it, but alone we could not save them because, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping and other Members have said with such eloquence to-day, if Germany had the help of Eastern Europe, if she had the Czech armament industry at her disposal, the Rumanian oilfields to fall back upon, the Polish, Hungarian and Scandinavian food and Austrian and Yugoslavian mineral resources. Great Britain and France would not be strong enough to stand up against her. We cannot ask France to do such a thing; if we asked her, she would not do it. France, as we know, will fight for Czechoslovakia, and, when she fights for Czechoslovakia, we shall be drawn in. I am very glad that the Prime Minister went as far as he did this afternoon in recognising that fact. If, by this doctrine that our frontier is the Rhine, we do not escape the dangers of war, we cannot have the deterrent effect of a definite commitment that we are coming in—a deterrent effect which, as we believe, would be decisive.

Let me ask one other question about this doctrine. If we were in fact to make it work, if we could limit our commitments to France alone, what kind of war should we have to fight? We should have to meet the full weight of the attack that we had to meet in 1918, when the Eastern Front collapsed. We should have no chance, as has been said this afternoon, to use any effective economic weapon, as we had in 1918. We should have no chance of applying the oil sanction, which really ought to be very rapidly decisive against aggression if we organise Europe as we can. I believe that, on the very day that we enter upon such a contest as that, every Member of this House will be overwhelmingly in favour of collective security, and we shall go round Europe trying to buy allies by treaties, as we bought them in 1914. I suggest that, if the Government are to operate by pre-League principles, if they are trying to keep the peace by a balance of power, they ought at least to do what Sir Edward Grey did before 1914, and make a balance of power in which we bring in the East as well as the West of Europe.

If they were to make a definite, concrete, binding alliance with France, Czechoslovakia and Russia, they would, as I believe, have a chance, by the system of the balance of power, of keeping the peace for a considerable period of time. I am certain that that alliance would be far stronger than the Germans, and would remain stronger for a considerable period of time. We are too ready, I think, to accept the pictures of other countries as the German propagandists like to paint them. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd), in his speech at Biggleswade, painted a picture of Czechoslovakia for which I think he must have drawn upon the treasury of knowledge which Dr. Goebbels generously provides. Here is another picture from the same source, from a Nationalist paper of General Franco, also controlled by Dr. Goebbels: With mutinies in the Navy, revolts in the Dominions, and Communism installed in London, the British people are in no mood for fanfares and banners. I do not accept his picture of Czechoslovakia or his picture of Great Britain, nor do I accept his picture of Germany and Italy to-day. They are gambling very high on their military position, and at present, militarily and politically, they are far weaker than the alliance which I have described. But it is not that alliance that the Labour party ask the Government to make. We do not believe in power politics or in alliances of the old kind. As the late Mr. Arthur Henderson said in the Council of the League of Nations in 1930, we stand for no alliance but the great alliance of the League against armaments and war. What we want to do, and what we believe can be done, is to revitalise the Covenant of the League of Nations, to stand against aggression, to stand for law, and to put British power behind it. We believe, as I have stated quite plainly, in the pooling of forces, in the pooling of economic resources, in the immediate preparation of plans, and especially the economic weapon. That is not to say that our forces are to be ordered about by Czechoslovakia; they are to operate on the basis of the Covenant and the decisions of the Council of the League. Until you stand for law, you will never get peace.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) the other day described the process by which we have reached the present international chaos. He said that Chaco had followed Manchuria, Abyssinia had followed Chaco, and so on, and that is true according to the records of the daily Press. I was in Geneva when the Chaco War began. I was there on official duties, and am therefore able to know what was really going on. I heard the statesmen in the Council say, "We cannot step in and stop this war"—as they did two years later, very easily, by an arms embargo—"because it is not fair to do to a small country what we did not do to Japan." When it came to Abyssinia, Signor Mussolini said, in public and in private, "How can you impose sanctions against me when you did not against Japan, Bolivia and Paraguay?" And when it came to the Rhineland, the Germans simply acted on the principle announced by Dr. Frick, their Minister of the Interior, in 1932, when he said, "We admire the League but we thank Japan for their example." Germany went on to rearm, she built up her air force, she occupied the Rhine-land. You will never get peace until you stand for law; until you let Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and Yugoslavia, and Rumania, and Belgium, and Holland, and Denmark and other countries know, that if they will settle their disputes by law we will uphold the law in their defence.

I venture to cite the words of a great Conservative Foreign Minister, which I think will carry conviction with the other side: if you are talking of collective security, if you are talking of the sanctity of law, if it is your purpose to substitute the rule of law for the rule of force, you cannot pick and choose; you must act consistently whenever the occasion arises. You must adopt the same attitude and take the same course. If you choose otherwise, you must give up the idea of the League of Nations, and substitute the rule of law for the rule of peace in this world. Those words were spoken by Sir Austen Chamberlain in 1936.

This system of real collective security has never yet been tried. The Prime Minister suggested this afternoon that it had been tried in the case of Abyssinia; that it had failed to prevent war; had failed to stop war; and had failed to save the victim of aggression, I answer that it was never used to prevent war. We had nine months of private negotiation outside the League. For the first time, the regular procedure of the League, of public discussion, of despatching a Commission of Inquiry to the spot, was not adopted. If there had been the same procedure as in every case before at the time of Wal Wal, Signor Mussolini's aggression would never have been begun. Nor was the Covenant applied to stop the war when it had begun. We never applied Article 16. If we had applied even economic sanctions, if we had stopped all trade and shipping, Signor Mussolini would have been beaten within a year; even an oil embargo would have done it, as he himself admitted. No, we did not save the victim of aggression. We did not try very hard. We did not give him any arms. We forbade his Reckitt Concession, to save our honour, and gave him no direct help of any kind. The Abyssinian case is no test of collective security at all.

If we want to try this system, we must make other nations understand that we are starting again; that henceforward we will put our power behind the League, and really see to it that they are given security and peace. In the countries of which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping was speaking this afternoon, and in other countries throughout Europe as well, there are still immense forces that are in favour of democracy, of the League of Nations and of peace. I venture the assertion that a British lead to-day would bring in not only South-Eastern Europe, but Turkey and Greece, probably Poland, certainly Holland and Belgium, and Scandinavia, Finland and the Baltic States. Such a combination would be irresistible indeed. It must be founded on the law. And we admit with the Prime Minister that law in itself it not enough, that justice must be not static, but dynamic. There must be justice for the minorities in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

I was very glad when the Prime Minister said this afternoon that the arrangement made for the Czecho-slovakian minorities must be within the Czechoslovak Constitution. I wish the Prime Minister would deal with this question through the League of Nations and would send to Czechoslovakia a Permanent Commission of the League of Nations to reside among the Sudeten Deutch. What greater guarantee against aggression could there be? There have been such Permanent Commissions before. There was one in Upper Silesia, and a great guarantee of peace and good understanding it proved to be. We must have dynamic justice. We must have a League which will deal, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, with the economic misery of Europe today. I do not think that we yet understand how far the world crisis in 1931 caused the political disorders from which we are suffering at the present time. We must deal with the starvation of Europe by ending the policy of national self-sufficiency and restarting international economic co-operation on the greatest scale.

We must deal with the armaments race. And in all this work, we must bring in every Power which is willing to come. Hon. Members opposite say that we want to create an exclusive League. We want to exclude no one. We say, indeed, that our programme is the only hope of easing the suffering of the unhappy peoples of Germany, Italy and Japan. There is really no hope, in the present policy of the Government, of ending the fear of war or of dealing with the needs of the peoples who are resorting to aggression. We have to-day a universal fear of war. That fear is due to violations of international law. Those violations are still going on, indeed, are growing worse. They are accompanied by an armaments race which is leading all the nations to a common ruin. The Government statement of policy to-day will neither stop the violations of international law nor arrest the arms race. It will not keep us out of any European war; it will not even ensure our victory, when war begins. There is no hope in the present negotiations of the Prime Minister. You cannot feed the hungry masses of Italy by swapping tinsel titles with the King of Italy. You cannot stop the armaments race by obscure bargains with a single Power about naval bases. You cannot undo the wrong to Spain by pretending that it has not been committed.

These are not the realities of the present international situation. The realities are very different. The realities are the hunger and the misery of the common people in almost every land; the senseless waste of the arms race which is driving down the standard of their living; the common longing of all these people to be rid for ever of the nightmare of war. The world looks to be very much as it was in 1914; but in reality there has been a profound and fundamental change. The common peoples of the world no longer accept war as a necessary fact of nature. They no longer believe that prestige and power make nations great, and that military glory is the greatest achievement of mankind.

I hope that the Government is going to make a great appeal to the common peoples of the world. The speech of Sir Austen Chamberlain, from which I quoted, ended with the words: All the world, and most of all, the little States in the world, are looking to Great Britain to-day. I think that is still true. I hope they will not look in vain. I hope the Government will hear the voice of the humble multitudes who ask for peace, and that at long last the Government will give those humble multitudes the delivering answer: Henceforward the power of Britain will be behind the law.