Greece (Disturbances, Athens)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th December 1944.

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Photo of Dr Leslie Haden-Guest Dr Leslie Haden-Guest , Islington North 12:00 am, 5th December 1944

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he can give the House any information on the occurrences in Athens on Sunday, 3rd December, when the Greek police are reported to have fired on a demonstration of children and youths, and what are the casualties, in killed and wounded?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

So far as has been ascertained, the facts are as follow: The Greek organisation called E.A.M. had announced their intention of holding a demonstration on 3rd December. The Greek Government at first authorised this but withdrew their permission when E.A.M. called for a general strike to begin on 2nd December. The strike, in fact, came into force early on 3rd December. Later in the morning the E.A.M. demonstration formed up and moved to the principal square of Athens, in spite of the Government ban. On the evidence so far available I am not prepared to say who started the firing which then took place. The police suffered one fatal casualty and had three men wounded. The latest authentic reports give the demonstrators' casualties as 11 killed and 60 wounded. The demonstration continued during the afternoon but there was no further shooting, and by 4.30 the crowd had dispersed and tranquility was restored.

It is deplorable that an event like this should take place in Athens scarcely a month after the city's liberation and feeding. Greece is faced with the most desperate economic and financial problems apart from the civil war which we are trying to stop. We and our American Allies are doing our utmost to give assistance and our troops are acting to prevent bloodshed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh," and "Hear, hear."] Sometimes it is necessary to use force to prevent greater bloodshed. The main burden falls on us, and the responsibility is within our sphere. That is the military sphere agreed upon with our principal Allies. Our plans will not succeed unless the Greek Government and the whole Greek people exert themselves on their own behalf. If the damage of four years of war and enemy occupation is to be repaired, and if Greek life and economy are to be rebuilt, internal stability must be maintained and, pending a general election under fair conditions, the authority of the constitutional Greek Government must be accepted and enforced throughout the country. The armed forces must be dependent on the Greek Government. No Government can have a sure foundation so long as there are private armies owing allegiance to a group, a party or an ideology instead of to the State and the nation.

Although these facts should be clear to all, the Left Wing and Communist Ministers have resigned from the Greek Government at this dangerous crisis rather than implement measures, to which they had already agreed, for the replacement of the E.A.M. police and guerrillas by regular national services.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I say they have resigned. I am stating facts in answer to the Question. I thought the House would rather like to have a full answer. In addition, the E.A.M. leaders have called a general strike, which is for the time being preventing the bread which we and the Americans are providing reaching the mouths of the hungry population whom we are trying to feed.

Our own position, though as I have said it is a burden, is extremely clear. Whether the Greek people form themselves into a monarchy or a republic is for their decision; whether they have a Government of Left or Right is a matter for them. But until they are in a position to decide, we shall not hesitate to use the considerable British Army now in Greece, and being reinforced, to see that law and order are maintained. It is our belief that in this course His Majesty's Government have the support of an overwhelming majority of the Greek people. Their gaping need is to receive relief for their immediate requirements and conditions which give them a chance of earning a livelihood. In both of these ways we wish to help them, and we are working with experts, financial and otherwise, to do so; but we cannot do so if the tommy guns which were provided for use against the Germans are now used in an attempt to impose a Communist dictatorship without the people being able to express their wishes.

Photo of Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , Edinburgh East

While appreciating the great delicacy of the situation, I desire to ask the Prime Minister two questions arising out of his statement. Is he aware of the very grave anxiety felt in all sections in this country with regard to what has taken place, and will he undertake to keep the House informed from time to time in the immediate future so that we may know what the situation is from day to day? Will he also take care that the Government watch their step in this matter, so that their action in suppressing disorder shall not take the form of support of any one faction? We all recognise that law and order must be maintained but there is evidence, I think, that mistakes have been committed on both sides. This terrible shooting affair On Sunday suggests at any rate that a mistake was made by the Greek Government and that they are to blame for that action. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, if the Armed Forces of the Allies are to be used in support of the Greek Government, the British Government will impress upon them the need for a conciliatory policy and not assume that, because they have the support of the British Forces, they can take such action as they like?

Photo of Mr Herbert Williams Mr Herbert Williams , Croydon South

Are we not engaged in a Debate rather than asking questions?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

The answer to the first part of the question is that the newspapers give full and continuous reports from Greece and, in the event of anything important occurring which is not public property, I shall always be ready to answer any questions. I have no other wish than to keep the House fully imformed. I quite agree that we take a great responsibility in intervening to preserve law and order in this capital city which was so lately delivered by our troops from the power of the enemy. It would be very much easier for us to stand aside and allow everything to degenerate, as it would very quickly, into anarchy or a Communist dictatorship, but, having taken the position that we have, having entered Athens and brought food and made great efforts to restore its currency, and done our utmost to give it those conditions of peace and tranquility which will enable the Greek people as a whole to vote on their future, we do not feel that we should look back or take our hands from the plough. We shall certainly not be able to do so but we shall certainly take care that the Greek Government, which we are supporting—or perhaps acting in conjunction with would be a better expression, because General Scobie is for the moment in charge of order—is not used to fasten any rule of a faction—I think that is the word—on the Greek people. They will have the fullest opportunity of a free election. The Government of Mr. Papandreou three days ago represented all parties, including the Communists and E.A.M., whose representatives left suddenly on the eve of a quite evident attempt to overthrow the settled Government.

Dr. Guest:

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think some further information might be given? Is it not a fact that the demonstration which was fired on consisted of 200 unarmed children and youths? I quote from "The Times" correspondent. Is it not a fact that the firing went on for an hour, savagely and violently—I again quote from "The Times"—and is it not further a fact that there is a great deal of feeling in Greece that the collaborationists have not been dealt with, and that the security battalions which were appointed by the Germans to fight against the Greek movement are being maintained by the present Government; and is it not time that the whole Athens police force was disarmed, as they have shown themselves unworthy and untrustworthy to keep the peace?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

As far as the incident is concerned, I have told the House that His Majesty's Government reserve judgment upon it. It is a shocking thing that there should be firing by police forces on unarmed children. That is a matter which we should all reprobate. We should also reprobate the massing and the leading of large numbers of unarmed children to a demonstration, the scene of which had been banned by the Government, in a city full of armed men and liable at any moment to an explosion. So much for that. The other point of substance is the question of the security battalions. That is not to be dismissed as easily as the hon. Member has done. They came gradually into existence very largely, according to evidence which I have most carefully sifted, during the last year, in a large measure to protect the Greek villagers from the depredations of some of those who, under the guise of being saviours of their country, were living upon the inhabitants and doing very little fighting against the Germans. I could continue indefinitely to deal with these points but I am sure that I should be trespassing upon the indulgence which you, Sir, have already shown me.

Photo of Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence Mr Frederick Pethick-Lawrence , Edinburgh East

May I press the Prime Minister to answer a question put by me, which I do not think he did quite answer? I appreciate that the British Government are holding the ring for some future election in Greece, and the question I put to him is: Will he assure us that, so far as the British Government are concerned, any support that we give to the Government of Greece is accompanied by recommendations that the Greek Government should adopt a conciliatory attitude towards all sections in future?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

Oh, yes certainly, a conciliatory policy, but that should not include running away from, or lying down under, the threat of armed revolution and violence.

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

Will the right hon. Gentleman state whether, in addition to the military authorities, we have a political representative to advise the Government on political problems in Greece—a representative in first contact with the situation? I have in mind someone similar to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stockton (Mr. Harold Macmillan), who represents our interests in Italy. Is there anybody in Greece in a similar position?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

We have an Ambassador in Greece with whom we are in hourly consultation. Telegrams arrive with the greatest frequency, the wires not having been cut—so far. The right hon. Member for Stockton is attached to the staff of General Wilson, the Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean——[HON. MEMBERS: "Alexander."] Well, General Wilson, the former Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, who is at this moment carrying on until the changeover takes place—and is frequently referred to by him for advice on the political aspects of the military measures which he has to take.

Dr. Guest:

I wish to move the Adjournment of the House to discuss the grave situation which has arisen in Greece as a result of the firing by the Athens police on a demonstration on Sunday, 3rd December, as a matter of urgent public importance.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I am afraid I could not accept the Motion. Quite obviously the hon. Member can put down an Amendment to the King's Speech.

Photo of Mr Aneurin Bevan Mr Aneurin Bevan , Ebbw Vale

There is an Amendment on the Order Paper dealing with foreign policy, which I understood from you, Mr. Speaker, last week, you do not propose to call. If an Amendment to the Gracious Speech is put on the Order Paper relating to this matter, could we have your guidance as to whether you would call it for Debate?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I will consider it. That is all I can say now.

Photo of Mr Aneurin Bevan Mr Aneurin Bevan , Ebbw Vale

Further to that, may I respectfully suggest that, in the circumstances, the reason for not accepting the Motion for the Adjournment falls? We either should have an opportunity for an immediate Debate or, in my respectful submission, you, Sir, are obliged to address yourself to the question whether this is a matter of immediate and urgent public importance. May I further point out that there is deep disturbance in the country on this matter, and deep anxiety among the Armed Forces lest it may appear that they are to be used for purposes for which they were not originally mobilised? May I therefore suggest to you, Sir, that you accept the Motion for an immediate Debate?

Photo of Mr George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals

May I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, in reference to your answer to the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) that we can debate this matter on the King's Speech by means of Amendment, that that is not saying whether the matter is urgent or not. The Motion suggested by the hon. Member says that the matter is of sufficient urgency to be debated to-day, and not some other day. I put it to you that this matter is so urgent that the Debate ought to take place at once, whatever view one has on the merits of the subject, on which I express no opinion—I submit that this matter is so gravely urgent that not another day should elapse before the House of Commons discusses the facts. After the cross-examination of to-day the Government must see that it is urgent, not merely for the House of Commons to state its view, but for the Government's position to be stated. May I ask, Sir, that you should make a statement on the point of the urgency of this matter and not whether we could have a Debate on the Address in reply to the King's Speech?

Photo of Mr Francis Bowles Mr Francis Bowles , Nuneaton

May I put one other consideration to you, Sir, and that is that General Scobie's ultimatum expires at 12 o'clock to-morrow night, which adds to the urgency?

Photo of Sir Percy Harris Sir Percy Harris , Bethnal Green South West

Would it not be quite in Order, if anybody were fortunate enough to catch your eye, Sir, to raise the subject to-day?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

In reply to the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), in the general Debate upon the King's Speech the matter can be raised to-day.

Photo of Mr George Buchanan Mr George Buchanan , Glasgow Gorbals

May I point out that while a Member may be called, that is not a reply to the issue? The issue is that the House of Commons wants to discuss a matter of definite urgent importance—not as one of a group of important matters in the King's Speech, but as a definite matter of urgent importance. Could I ask you, Sir, to give a definite Ruling, because this is urgent and important?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I gather that the hon. Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) wants to discuss the firing by the Greek police upon a Greek procession. No Minister in this House can answer for that, and therefore it is not a definite matter. The question, therefore, becomes rather a general matter of policy towards the Greek Government, and that is hardly a definite matter.

Dr. Guest:

My moderation in framing my question in order not to excite antagonism, should not be accepted as an excuse for putting off a matter which is, in fact, of very urgent public importance, because it involves the possible issue of civil war in Greece. With all respect to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he is not fully informed of the situation—and neither am I. We want to debate this matter and I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, and I appeal to the House, that we should have the Adjournment in order to debate this matter now, because it is one on which I believe this British House of Commons could come to a unanimous agreement, which would be very helpful in bringing the issue to a close.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Seaham

I understand you to have said, Mr. Speaker, that this question can be raised by any hon. Member in the course of the general Debate to-day on the Address. May I ask, with great respect, whether it is not the case that you agreed that to-day should be devoted to the subject of social insurance, and if that Debate should be interrupted by a long discussion upon events in Greece would not that be a violation of the agreement that has been reached by hon. Members? My second point is that you have said that this is not the responsibility of the British Government, but in fact the Prime Minister has admitted that General Scobie is in charge.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

Pardon me. I should not like my hon. Friend to be in error. In fact, General Scobie was not at the time exercising the plenary responsibility which has now been taken.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Seaham

That in no wise affects the point I am putting. General Scobie is our military representative on the spot. Moreover, my right hon. Friend has stated that there is a Resident Minister on the spot. Unfortunately, the Resident Minister is on the back benches opposite, the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Harold Macmillan).

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I never said he was on the spot. In answer to a general question on political guidance being available for the military in the theatre now concerned, I said that in Athens we had an Ambassador and that there was available for General Wilson the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Macmillan), who had been specifically mentioned; but I was speaking of the general principle on which our affairs are carried on, and not with reference to the exact location of the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Seaham

As my right hon. Friend has interrupted me, I will put my point of Order in another form. If the Prime Minister seeks to absolve His Majesty's Government of all responsibility, that is one matter, but if he accepts a measure of responsibility for the events in Greece and for general administration in Athens is not that a matter for this House to consider?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

The hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) has put two questions which really cross each other out. He asked, first, whether to-day was not to be devoted to national insurance, and would it not therefore be a breach of faith, so to speak, to turn aside to something else. I had intended that to-day should be devoted to national insurance, but if hon. Members of that party wish to take the Debate away from national insurance to Greece it can be done. As far as the responsibility of the British Government is concerned, that has nothing to do with me.

Photo of Mr Aneurin Bevan Mr Aneurin Bevan , Ebbw Vale

May I call attention to the fact that the Prime Minister in his statement specifically said that the Forces under the control of His Majesty's Government will be used to prevent civil disorder in Greece, and that reinforcements are already on the way, so that His Majesty's Government are now, through the Prime Minister, accepting responsibility for the maintenance of order and for the disarming of the forces of E.A.M.? Does not that, therefore, fix the responsibility directly upon this Government and upon this House? Therefore, may I respectfully suggest to you that all the conditions that are required for the Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North Islington (Dr. Guest) are satisfied—that here is a matter of urgent, immediate and public importance which ought to lead you to accept the Motion which he has moved to enable the House to debate this matter at the earliest possible moment?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I regard this matter as very close to an operation of war, and if we were to have Motions for the Adjournment on definite matters of urgent public importance where it is a question of the conduct, or possible conduct, of a general in control in a theatre of war, I think that would be a very great mistake.

Photo of Mr William Gallacher Mr William Gallacher , Fife Western

On a point of Order. I want to join in pressing the urgency of accepting the Motion for the Adjournment on the ground that General Scobie attacked the demonstrators before the demonstration took place. General Scobie is our military representative there, and it is conceivable that his action may have encouraged the rashness and folly of the police. That is a responsibility of this Government and this House, and I suggest that the matter be accepted as a subject to be discussed on the Adjournment.

Photo of Mr Neil Maclean Mr Neil Maclean , Glasgow Govan

In view of what has happened in Greece and in Belgium, and also, earlier, in France, is it not necessary for this House to discuss whether the policy that is being pursued in the countries that we are liberating is the proper policy, and whether we are not allowing men to be placed in power who were actually working with the Fascists in the past, and, consequently, are not acceptable to the people of those countries?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

That question is far too wide to be considered as a definite Motion.

Photo of Mr Richard Acland Mr Richard Acland , Barnstaple

Is it not clear that this House should have an opportunity for the widest possible Debate on foreign affairs during this week? If the Amendment in my name on that subject is inadequate, then I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you would favourably consider an Amendment on this issue if it were put on the Order Paper to-night by a sufficient number of hon. Members?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I do not propose to treat this matter as one of definite, urgent public importance. Hon. Members who object can always put down a Motion criticising my Ruling.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

May I, with great respect, Mr. Speaker, put one point arising out of what you said? Several hon. Members on both sides of the House who would normally take part in such a Debate on foreign affairs, have already exhausted their right to speak in the general Debate on the Address. Is that not another reason why it is desirable that they should be given this opportunity?