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Orders of the Day — Policy of His Majesty's Government.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th October 1938.

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Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby 12:00 am, 6th October 1938

I rise to support the Amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) yesterday afternoon. Last week Europe was on the brink of war, and the grand inquest on how we came there has only just begun. We believe that the true cause lies in the abandonment of the rule of law which began seven years ago, and in the progressive demoralisation of the institutions and procedures by which that law had been upheld. Our Amendment, or at least the positive, important part of it, demands a return to the principles of the Covenant of the League, to a system which was built up—which, if I may say so, I saw being built up—during the first decade of the history of the League of Nations by Lord Balfour, by Lord Cecil, by Sir Austen Chamberlain, by Mr. Arthur Henderson, and by a long line of other statesmen from the Dominions and from foreign countries, who worked with them. By that system the methods of this House, of democratic government, were introduced into the conduct of international affairs. Public debate was substituted for private bargaining, government by reason for government by force. Debates were carried out in accordance with the rules of fixed, binding constitutional procedure, as much a guarantee and as indispensable a guarantee for justice and liberty in international affairs as it is in this House in our own national affairs.

Disputes were dealt with by public debate, with impartial, non-governmental inquiry into the merits of the case, and verdicts were rendered and decisions were made on the basis of accepted treaties and the rule of law. If those verdicts or decisions were challenged by the use of force, as they were on four or five occasions, members of the League of Nations were prepared to act together to uphold them. Those are the principles on which all progressive government is based. They are indeed the fundamentals of the dynamic civilisation in which we live. They are the principles by which Lord Balfour and his successors were building up, to a remarkable extent, a new system of stable peace and order in international affairs. It is the retreat from those principles that brought us last week to the edge of war, and it is in the return to those principles that there lies the sole hope of "peace in our time."

I do not want to retrace the history of the last seven years by which this system has been virtually destroyed. That has been done, as I think with devastating effect, by other hon. and right hon. Members earlier in the Debate, but let me add one word. That system has shown surprising vitality whenever it has been used. The Minister of Transport asked us, with some contempt, if we could tell him one single thing which the League of Nations could have done in the recent Czechoslovakian dispute. I say at once that it is no use his speaking as if the League of Nations were some supernatural being with which His Majesty's Government have no connection or concern. If His Majesty's Government had asked the League of Nations six months ago to intervene in this Czechoslovakian dispute, as they had a treaty right under the Minorities Protection Treaty to do, if they had proposed the sending to the Sudeten areas of a strong, impartial, international commission to examine the merits of the dispute, if they had set up, a s they had a right to do and as President Benes very certainly would have agreed to do, a strong and numerous corps of independent international observers in the Sudeten regions, British and Americans among them, to investigate any incidents that might arise, if they had announced six months ago that we would lead the members of the League in upholding this procedure by whatever means might be required, and if we had made our position absolutely plain at every stage, we should now, I profoundly believe, have had justice for the Sudeten Germans, justice for the Czechs, and stable peace for them and all the world.

That is what we asked the Government to do, but they chose another course. I am not going to examine the new foreign policy which they have substituted for that of the League of Nations or its application in the last few weeks. The Minister of Transport made a speech in which he asked us to believe that the substance of the Munich Treaty, the transfer of territory which has been made, is simply an application of self-determination. To hear his speech, one might have thought the Germans were a pitiful, depressed minority, torn from the bosom of the German Reich, that they were unanimously longing for reunion with the Reich, that this policy was dictated by impartial justice, and that it was one on which the Sudeten Germans, His Majesty's Government and the country had been long agreed. That is a fantastic travesty of the facts. These people, these Sudetens and Czechs, have lived together for a thousand years, and much of that time they have been not only neighbours, but they have been friends. Herr Henlein's own mother is a Czech. In the new Republic they have played their full part in the life of the State. Until February of this year they had three Cabinet Ministers in the Government by which the land was ruled. Herr Henlein's programme was the Prime Minister's programme—"reasonable concessions within the framework of the constitution of the Czechoslovak State." He was negotiating on that programme until three days from the time when Herr Hitler made his speech at Nuremberg.

Indeed, the first time Herr Henlein ever asked for secession from the Czechoslovak State was the day on which the Prime Minister flew to Berchtesgaden. The immediate response to Herr Henlein in Prague was the constitution of the new Sudeten council to negotiate with President Benes, and on the day when the Anglo-French Agreement appeared and was temporarily destroyed the organisers declared that it had behind it the majority of the Sudeten people. I am certain that the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Acland) was right when he told us, in a wealth of personal experience gained in the last few days, that if we could have a free vote of the Sudetens this morning a great majority would still stand for remaining as they were. This Munich Treaty, this transfer of territory, has not brought natural justice, as the Minister of Transport and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have told us. It has not brought release to an oppressed minority. It is not self-determination. It is naked conquest, justified, as the Chancellor had the grace to admit, only by surrender to the sword. Is there greater justice in the means by which the transfer is being carried through?

The Prime Minister gave us an elaborate explanation why the Munich Treaty was an improvement on the Godesberg ultimatum. On paper the case looks pretty well. Indeed, it sometimes looks too well, for it is forgotten that Godesberg was dated 23rd September to 1st October—eight days. Munich was dated 29th September to 10th October—11 days. The Prime Minister gained 72 additional hours for the Czechs to give up this land. Time is the very essence of the matter. The Czechs have 11 days until Monday next to evacuate an army of 1,000,000 men from defences which they have held for 20 years. I remember that at the Hague in 1929, when we were negotiating the evacuation of the Rhineland, the French asked for six months and the British War Office told us it was reasonable and fair. The Czechs have had 11 days to get away personal and other property which they are allowed to move. The Prime Minister talked about the peasants and their cows. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) I was in the retreat from Caperetto, and I remember the condition of the roads. General Goering has driven all Europe to choose between butter and guns. The staff of a retreating army must make that choice at one remove; they must choose between cattle and guns. In 1917 on the Alonzo Isenzo and the Tagliamento the Italian staff left the peasants' cattle on the roads and they lost 5,000 guns. That does not surprise the Prime Minister. Refugees who are arriving in Prague to-day are virtually without a penny in the world, as the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. H. Nicolson) said last night.

At Godesberg Herr Hitler had two purposes in view, to throw the Czechoslovak Republic into financial, economic and social chaos, and to leave it at the mercy of the German armies whenever Herr Hitler decided that his drive towards the Rumanian oilfields should be resumed. Whatever the Prime Minister's paper safeguards, no one can deny that those two purposes were achieved at Munich. There is still much we could do to help the Czechs. More money and much more is required. There must be strong help to these unhappy refugees, especially those who must go to foreign lands overseas, and a strong stand in the so-called international commission for the rights of the Czechs under the Munich Treaty. I hope all that will be done. Whatever we do, neither in its substance nor in its execution does the Munich Treaty bring justice to the Czechs, to the Sudeten Germans, or to the world. It is not a triumph of negotiation but a triumph of the sword. It is said that it has brought us peace in our time. I am afraid that it has brought us the kind of peace which there has been in the Mediterranean from Spain to Palestine since the Prime Minister made his Treaty with Signor Mussolini six months ago.

I want, with all respect, to put some questions to the Prime Minister. Did he at Munich ask for or secure the stopping of the German propaganda against the gallant people who have been abandoned in their hour of need? Did he obtain or did he ask for the cessation of the wireless propaganda inciting Slovaks, Hungarians and others to break up the State? Did he say a word for President Benes, the greatest man in Europe, and never greater than in the hour of his resignation? Did he ask for or did he obtain the demobilisation of the German Army, or has he left it as a still standing menace to Europe and the world? Did he secure the hope of any check to the arms race which Herr Hitler has forced upon us all? We know the answers to these questions. We know that the German war machine in all its parts—propaganda, military and the rest—is still in operation. We know that the Prime Minister himself has asked us to make good the present deficiencies in our forces. Among those deficiencies, if the Government continue their present policy, we must reckon the loss of 1,000,000 Czechoslovak soldiers, 1,000 Czechoslovak aircraft, 3,000 modern Russian aircraft, 2,000 Russian tanks, and a vast Russian mechanised army, which the "Times" told us last Monday week is mobilised on the Polish frontier.

The Prime Minister has brought back at least the Anglo-German Pact, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, I put that in its proper framework of "Mein Kampf." I would like to add a detail to the picture. If the Prime Minister will read the speech of Herr Hitler in the Sports Palace in Berlin 10 days ago, he will find the wording of it accords remarkably with the declaration which he signed in Munich. Herr Hitler spoke of the Naval Treaty, and said: It is impossible that we should say, 'We will never fight England,' and that England should say from time to time, 'We will fight you if we want you' This Pact in Munich is an attempt by Herr Hitler to get us committed never to take part in any collective action against aggression again. An enlightening comment was made in the Nazi paper "Angriff" a few days ago. It says that the German diplomatic offensive in recent years has destroyed or rendered inoperative the following institutions and treaties—the League of Nations, the Little Entente, the Locarno Treaties, the Rome Agreement, the Franco-Belgian Military Agreement, the Polish-Czech Military Agreement, the Franco-Czech Pact and the Franco-Russian-Czech Pact of Mutual Assistance—all treaties against aggression, all founded on the Covenant of the League and controlled by the League, and all swept, as Herr Hitler hopes, into the limbo of forgotten things.

Our Amendment says that the Munich Treaty has brought us not peace and justice but shame and danger. It goes on to say that there is still a way out from the danger in which we stand. I want to ask the House whether the Covenant system is really dead for good and all, and I believe that the answer to that question may fix the course of history for centuries to come. We do not believe it is. We believe that in that system lies the one hope for ourselves and for our children, and that that hope is still alive. May I support that view by a reference to events at the culmination of the crisis a week ago? I was profoundly struck by the statements made by the late First Lord of the Admiralty and by the right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) that one of the things which helped to stop Herr Hitler from going to war was the authorised declaration on Monday night in which it was said that France, Britain and Russia would stand together if aggression occurred, and that another was the mobilisation of the British Fleet. They asked why it was that at Berchtesgaden and at Godesberg the Prime Minister had received two brutal ultimata, and that last Wednesday and Thursday, for the first time, Herr Hitler seemed prepared to hold his hand.

After the Anglo-French declaration, as we all remember, Poland and Hungary jumped in. Czechoslovakia seemed to be, as she is to-day, surrounded by a ring of hungry foes. The situation looked desperate. It was then that Hitler made his second, or Godesberg, ultimatum. We hesitated or, rather the Government hesitated about its answer to that ultimatum. Then at last, we made our authorised declaration of which I have spoken. On Wednesday morning we had not only Great Britain, France, Russia and Czechoslovakia on our side, we had Rumania's declaration that she would be with us, a declaration of vital importance; we had the warnings given by the Little Entente to Hungary; we had the warning given to Poland by Russia; we had at least some hope that Turkey would stand in; we had President Roosevelt evidently trying to make Herr Hitler believe that he would throw the moral strength, and perhaps the economic resources, of the United States against him if he went to war.

On the other side we had the withdrawal of Poland, of which I have spoken, the withdrawal of Hungary, the very evident decision of Signor Mussolini to stand aside. Even General Franco said he would be neutral if war should come, which shows how desperate must have seemed Herr Hitler's prospects. Far more important we knew that the barrier between Herr Hitler and the Rumanian oilfields could not be broken for many months. We had an oil sanction. I have not found a military expert who does not think that that oil sanction would have prevented Germany sending her air power into the air after a period at most of six months. Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer has referred to the evident feeling of the German people against the policy which Herr Hitler was pursuing. I do not want to overstate the case. I only say that I find it difficult to believe that any general staff, faced with that vast array of military, economic and moral forces against it, standing quite alone, uncertain even of its own civilian morale, would have allowed its Government to go to war. As to that we cannot know, but I am sure there were many factors operating. I yield to no one in my admiration for the Prime Minister's personal self-sacrifice and effort, but it may well be true that when the records are opened historians of the future will say, "Herr Hitler could not make his war last week; his own staff would not have let him," and that it was our stand for collective security against aggression which was perhaps decisive in securing peace.

Now I want to ask the House why this stand was made. It was not made because the Governments in France and Great Britain were standing firm and demanding that the peoples should follow their lead. It was because the peoples demanded that the Governments should stand firm. We have seen uprisings of the public conscience against Governments in times gone by. I think of the peace ballot after the failure of the Disarmament Conference, I think of the Hoare-Laval Agreement, but I do not think we have ever seen anything like the universal expression of public opinion 10 days ago—calm, determined, ready for every sacrifice but determined that armed aggression should not succeed. It is not in Governments, it is in that spirit of the peoples, that our hopes are founded. We know that it is going to be incomparably more difficult to rebuild the League of Nations than it would have been a week ago. We know that democracies everywhere are demoralised and discouraged. President Benes, who had become a great symbolic figure of our cause, has gone. We know that doubting Governments are hastening to make their peace with Hitler.

But we do not yet despair. There are many senses in which the aggressor Governments have feet of clay. I have been in several of what I may call the marginal countries in the last few months and in every one, beneath the surface, there is a seething cauldron. Not only the politicians and the professional classes but the workers and the peasants everywhere understand these issues. They detest, consciously and violently detest, the new scourges of internal slavery and of international injustice and aggression. Beneath the calm outward surface there is a vast gathering of feeling which, with every defeat and disappointment, grows only more intense. That feeling, I profoundly believe, is a volcano which will erupt the very day when real leadership appears. We believe that with the moral forces which were unleashed a week ago we can still create a great combination to prevent aggression and to make the League of Nations a real instrument of peace, and that when we have checked the fear of war we can on that basis of security re-establish the machinery of the League for dealing with international disputes, using it, as we might have done in the case of the Sudeten question. We could revitalise the system of minority protections, eliminate the fears and the suspicions which poison international relations at the present time; we could not only recreate the institutions of the League but, more important, could reanimate its soul.

There is a second and no less urgent part related to the task of which this Amendment speaks. We believe that we must deal at once with the economic forces which have helped to bring us to our present pass. Unfortunately, we may never be able to persuade the Government to believe that one of the major causes of the present chaos is the grinding poverty of great masses of mankind. Herr Hitler came to power in Germany largely because of the 7,000,000 unemployed and of the fearful sufferings of the people during the economic crisis. Herr Henlein was strong largely because the Sudeten country was a depressed area such as those we have here. Poverty has made the vast majority of all the violent revolutions, and we shall have to deal with the problem of poverty. We believe that by inviting all nations to the conference which we suggest we shall be able to go forward with those nations who choose to come, and that we can make a group of powerful peoples who are agreed to restart the wheels of international trade, restart the flow of international lending sufficiently to finance great public works and to carry out a programme of international economic reconstruction for which there has for years been at Geneva all the preparatory material, ready to be used. Under British leadership such a group could, we believe, be set up and perhaps within a few months the credit created would have an attractive force for peoples who might at first choose to stand aside.

That is our case and our programme. In the last six years we have been brought to the edge of war. The last three weeks have brought us and the Sudetens and Czechs not peace and justice but shame and danger. The new technique of negotiation imposed by the dictators has multiplied the risks of a policy founded on surrender to aggression. We believe that the Government, confronted with those risks and dangers and without any shadow of policy to arrest them, having scrapped for all serious affairs, the League of Nations, have done nothing to replace it in order to restore the rule of law. Indeed, this issue of law versus violence has hardly been mentioned from the Treasury bench this week. The Government are certainly flirting with the Four-Power concert like that which met in Munich a week ago, but the concert is without basis of authority in morality or law, and I believe that the world, and even Europe, will not long accept it. The Government seem content to drift from crisis to crisis until the final catastrophe engulfs us all.

We ask this House and the country to turn their faces in a new direction and to give the lead for which people have been waiting all these years; to call on men and women everywhere to stand at last for law and justice, to work together for their common welfare and to start to reconstruct the system so as to bring to suffering multitudes of mankind the things for which they long—justice, bread arid peace.