European Situation.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 3rd April 1939.

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Photo of Sir Stafford Cripps Sir Stafford Cripps , Bristol East

The hon. and learned Member would have been just as prepared to give the guarantee at that date, when Czecho-Slovakia was still an ally, as he would to-day to Poland. After the Prime Minister has himself confessed the folly of his past actions, it is not the time for his supporters now to try to excuse him. France, England and Poland may form a group strong enough to preserve the independence of Poland, provided that war is risked in doing it, but that is not the only point where the spread of Fascism is to be feared. If the preservation of the independence of Poland means nothing more than was meant by the preservation of the independence of Czechoslovakia, of which the Prime Minister boasted on his return from Munich last September, there is very little value in the guarantee that has been given. What the Government is now finding itself forced to do, or to make a gesture of doing, for the protection of the interests of this country, admits conclusively the wisdom of a proper policy of collective security such as the Opposition have been trying to induce it to adopt ever since, in 1931, Japan went into Manchuria. The dishonesty of the warmongering accusations has now been demonstrated beyond all possible doubt, and the least that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite could do would be to make a public apology and a recantation of this false propaganda by which they have attempted, unfortunately with some measure of success on some occasions, to mislead the people of this country as regards foreign policy.

Whatever may now be the professions of the Government, it would in my view be foolish of anyone to place faith in them, in the light of the Government's actions during the last six years. Those actions have shown a complete carelessness for and disregard of those principles of democracy, liberty and freedom which we regard as basic to our civilisation. The Government's only concern has been the interests of those whom they so ably represent in this House—the vested interests of British finance, industry and land. The attitude adopted by the Government towards the totalitarian countries, with their brutal suppression of all freedom and liberty and their sadistic persecution of other races, has been quite uncritical; indeed, it has been friendly, if not encouraging. Fundamentally, the National Government and its supporters have sympathy with the totalitarian view that it is necessary to suppress the common people and take away their freedom in order to save capitalism and Imperialism. That is why they have permitted democracy after democracy to be sacrificed to Fascist aggression. An hon. Member opposite laughs. What of Austria? What of Czecho-Slovakia? What of Spain? I know that the hon. Member approves of the policy, so naturally he laughs.

For the National Government, the problem is purely and only that of protecting their British supporters, and not that of saving the principles of democracy and freedom, which means, indeed, the saving of civilisation itself. They have disregarded throughout, and have boasted of disregarding, the ideological struggle that is proceeding in the world; and, as the ideology of democracy, liberty, justice, international law and order means nothing to them compared with their own interests, now, when they turn to the problem of protecting Poland, it is with a view to the strategical problems of this country, and not in the least because they desire to uphold democracy against Fascism. Indeed, many of them and of their supporters would be only too glad to use this opportunity of crisis to introduce measures of compulsion and suppression into our own country, on the best and most efficient Fascist model, as is being done already by their friends in France, to the great detriment of the working class and to the enormous profit of the armament and other manufacturers. It would be poor comfort to the British workers if the price of their protection of the vested interests of this country were to be the loss of their own liberties and their own freedom.

The true democrat to-day, I believe, regards the ideological struggle as the real essence of the present world situation. While deeply concerned with the safety of this country, as still the home of democracy and freedom, he has throughout the last eight years been most conscious that freedom, like peace, is indivisible in the world, and that, if it is sacrificed or allowed to perish in any other country, its maintenance in our own country becomes more and more difficult. He realises that the democrats of Spain and Austria and Czecho-Slovakia were our surest allies to preserve our own freedom, and their defence ought to have been our greatest interest in this country. That, unfortunately, has not been the view taken by the National Government, nor is it the view that they now take. I believe that the kite-flying articles in the "Times" are more truly representative of the views of this Government than the statements put out to contradict them by the Foreign Office.

We on this side of the House regard it as vital that every effort should be made at once in the direction of saving the democracies of the world, and that risks, if necessary, must be accepted in so doing —risks which have been largely created by the follies of the National Government during the last eight years. We have no desire, on the plea of national crisis, to copy the model of what is happening in France, and hand over supreme power to suppress all working-class freedom to a National Government which is in sympathy with Fascist dictators and which represents the interests of people like the Federation of British Industries, who chose the day upon which Hitler's troops entered Prague to sign their agreement with their opposite numbers in Germany, entirely careless of the overthrow of democracy in Czecho-Slovakia and of the breach of every pledge that had been given by the German Government. Yet that, I believe, is the danger which overshadows this country to-day. If this Government remains in power, with the tacit Support of the Opposition parties, it will be compelled to take measures to force the people into its support, since their distrust of the Government will very probably prevent them from giving that support willingly. Already the cry for conscription is being raised in the Press, and inside this House as well. On the other hand, the Government are making efforts to prove that the voluntary system has not yet broken down, and in those efforts the main Opposition parties have been summoned and have come to the aid of the Government, so as to give the appearance of a united front for National Service.

The reason why the Government have been forced into this position is that their own behaviour, in foreign, imperial and domestic policies, during their entire term of office has deprived them of the confidence and support of the mass of the workers in this country. That is why, all over the country to-day, resolutions against the National Register have been passed by working-class organisations of every kind, representing millions of workers. The agenda of the forthcoming conference of the Labour party contains more resolutions condemning the National Register than on any other point, and there is not a single one supporting it. This, I believe, is the true reflection of the disgust of the people with the policies of the Government, and it is to try to counteract the opposition based on that disgust that the support of the Opposition parties is being called in. It would be more consistent with the true workings of democracy if the distrust were allowed to take its proper course in increasing the power of the Opposition, and so leading to the overthrow of the Government. It becomes confusing to the electors if there is national unity on National Service while the appearance of opposition on other matters is continued. It is not to be wondered at if, in such circumstances, the electors are uncertain as to the course they should take, and lose interest in their democratic institutions.

While this attempt to preserve voluntary service under an unpopular Government is being made, others, seeing its inevitable failure, press forward with a policy of military and industrial conscription, realising that it will be necessary to force the people to give their support. The opposition does not come from fear, or from carelessness as to the future of the country. The people of this country are as brave and as willing to serve as they have always been, but they are becoming more intelligent and aware of the traps laid for them by their rulers, by which they may, quite unnecessarily, lose all their liberties. Many still remember the last War and its effect on working-class rights and liberties in this country, and they are not anxious for a repetition of the events that then took place. I am convinced that it is infinitely more important to try to revitalise and strengthen the free democracy of this country, so as to make it vigorous in its own defence against the loss of liberties, whether the danger be from those at home or abroad, than to try to concert measures to compel people to do that which they are unwilling to do without compulsion. That defence can be created only by a Government which will, by its energy and progressive policies in all spheres, encourage and inspire people to a belief in the effectiveness and efficiency of their own democratic institutions.

I share with, I am convinced, millions of others, a complete lack of faith in this Government. Where there is such lack of faith in a Government, there will be, inevitably, apathy and listlessness in a democracy which continues to tolerate such a Government. I believe that no firm stand will ever be made against the spreading danger of Fascism unless we can greatly strengthen the free determination of our people, and we cannot do that by applying conscription, which is a method fit for a servile and suppressed population but not for free people. I regard the first and most vital thing in the defence of our country and our civilisation as being a change of Government in Great Britain, substituting for the present discredited Government—discredited on their own confession—who reflect nothing but a reactionary Conservatism, a Government reflecting the free desires of our own people, in the domestic as well as the international sphere.

Although it would be inappropriate to enter into any detail on home affairs in this Debate, it must be realised by the House that the ordinary man and woman of the country will assess the value of democracy in their country, and determine their keenness in its support, very largely on the measure in which it responds to the duty of providing them with their elementary needs of domestic security and a decent standard of living. If, for instance, all those affected by unemployment, the old-age pensioners, the youth of the country, and the great army of low-paid wage-earners, feel that they are being neglected in favour of the great industrialists, the shipping interests and other vested interests, as they are to-day, they cannot be expected to rise up in support of a Government which does not intend to satisfy their urgent needs. They will be apathetic and frightened, as so many are to-day, and we shall not, in those circumstances, get that willing self-sacrifice in a great cause, the cause of freedom, which alone can, in my view, give to the democracies the power to stay the onrush of Fascist aggression.

Many people to-day are, I believe, on the point of being deceived once again by a call to national unity. Unity is an excellent and desirable thing, but its value to those who share in it must depend largely on its leadership and the purposes for which it is organised. It is an easy cry for a Government which has lost the confidence of the people to use to rally the electors to its support. Unfortunately, many may be caught by that cry. Granted that unity is desirable and necessary, why should it be a unity of forces under the leadership of this Government reaction? Have they proved themselves by their past conduct to have a monopoly right to such leadership. Does the history of the last eight years of failure and betrayal present any reason why this Government should continue in office? National unity is not any argument in favour of the continuance in office of a particular party Government, such as the present one has shown itself to be. Its refusal to take any steps for the unemployed and the wage-earners—for the miners, the railwaymen and the cotton operatives, to take instances—is no reason why, when it is to these very people that the appeal for support is being made, the present Government should claim to be the rallying point for democracy and freedom. Such a history of failure to respond to the just demands of the workers demonstrates precisely the opposite.

The examination of the past eight years shows that the Government are entirely unfit to govern a free democracy, and they are incapable, as they will be proved to be, of rallying the common people to the defence of the country. Some alternative must be found if our democracy is to survive, to remain free and to become vigorous and effective in its own defence. Nothing, I believe, with the most supreme elements wedded to a desire to maintain power at all costs, can permit the present Ministers to retain office in existing circumstances. The sense of decency or loyalty to the traditions of democracy would at once terminate their period of office. In the place of the present Government there should come a Government of the united forces of the Opposition, who have uniformly attacked the foreign policy of the Government and their betrayal of democracy, and who are prepared to deal with the Imperial and domestic policy of the country, not in the interests of a small class of wealthy and powerful persons, but in the interests of the common people of this country, the Empire and the world. I believe that only so shall we ever rally the true strength of our democracy and make it the leader, as it ought to be the leader, in the struggle for world democracy against Fascism.