§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]
§ Mr. COCKS
I rise to make an appeal to the Government to publish certain correspondence which has not yet been published which vitally affects the interests of the Arab population of Palestine and has a vital bearing upon the respective claims of the Zionists and the Arabs in the Holy Land. The facts which I wish to put before the House briefly are as follows: At the beginning of the War—in 1915—the British Government was very anxious to bring the Arabs into the War on our side to revolt against the Turks, and take our part in the campaign we were then waging with Turkey. In order to do that, on the instigation, I believe, or the suggestion, of the late Lord Kitchener, certain negotiations took place between the Arabs represented by the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, and Sir Henry McMahon, our High Commissioner in Egypt, representing the British Government, and negotiating in the name of the British Government. In the course of these negotiations, a large number of 1086 letters passed; very important correspondence took place. This correspondence has not been officially published. For many years now I have been interested in this matter and I have pieced together information from different quarters, and I have a very shrewd idea, as to how that correspondence proceeded. We have not the time to-night to go into the correspondence in detail, but briefly I should like to say that in July, 1915, the Sherif Hussein sent a letter to Sir Henry McMahon, in which he asked that the independence of the Arabs should be recognised in a certain area, the area being south of the 37th degree of latitude. That does not mean much to hon. Members who have not a map before them, but, roughly, it means a line drawn from the extreme north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean running across to the Persian frontier. He asked that the independence of the countries lying south of that line should be recognised by the British Government. Some other letters passed and eventually, on the 25th October, Sir Henry McMahon wrote a letter in which he said that he accepted the Arab claim, subject to certain modifications. He ruled out the provinces of Bagdad and Basra, in Southern Mespotamia, in which Britain had special interests. He also ruled out what he described as the portion of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, in which we were not "free to act without detriment to the interests of France." He said:Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories included in the boundaries proposed by the Sherif of Mecca.In a final letter in January, 1916, he said:I have received orders from my Government to inform you that all your demands are accepted.As a result of that correspondence and the pledges then given to the Arabs, they came into the War on our side and, under the leadership of Colonel Lawrence and others, did great service for the Allied cause. This correspondence took place and these pledges were given to the Arabs two years before the famous Balfour Declaration, in which we viewed with favour "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people." It has been contended 1087 that these pledges, which have not been published by the British Government but are in possession of the British Government, did not include Palestine. To my mind, after examining what I know of the documents, that argument cannot be sustained. The whole suggestion was that the land to be excluded from the pledge was the part of Syria which lies to the west of the four districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. If hon. Members will look at the map they will see that these four towns run up to the hinterland of Syria and lie to the north of Palestine. Damascus is on the southernmost point and lies well to the north of Palestine. The other three are still further north of Palestine. The territory to the west of these districts is clearly the sea coast, the coastal district of the province of Syria in which France has special interest and which, a few years later, became under the military occupation of France and now forms part of the mandated territory of France.
If it is still contended that Palestine is not included in the pledge, I suggest that if the Government will publish the correspondence, we shall know exactly what the pledges are, and be able to judge for ourselves. For two reasons I plead with the Government to reconsider their decision and to publish the correspondence. In the first place, the House will have to discuss the report of the Palestine Commission, a very important report, and very important matters will have to be settled with regard to the conflicting claims of Zionists and Arabs. It has been said by some that these pledges, as I have described them, conflict entirely with the Balfour Declaration. I do not say that. I do think there may be some diversity between the two documents, but it is the task of statesmanship to resolve difficulties of that nature. But I do say that if the pledges are as I think they are, then they are absolutely opposed to the extreme Zionist claim to make Palestine as Jewish as England is English.
We shall have to discuss this matter and come to some decision upon it, and the House, in order to come to a fair and right decision, ought to have these documents beforehand, so that we may be able to judge for ourselves. I ask the 1088 Government to publish these documents for this other reason. Our whole position in the East, as everyone will admit, is sustained not merely by our military power but because Oriental peoples believe that on the whole we rule according to the principles of justice, but there is a feeling amongst the Arabs, a growing feeling, that we got their assistance during the War by giving certain pledges, and the War being over, we do not wish to carry out these pledges and have suppressed the correspondence. The only way to stop that feeling is for the Government to publish the correspondence so that we may know what has happened and the nature of the pledges. I ask the Government to reconsider their decision and publish this correspondence in order that the truth may be known and judgment delivered.
§ Colonel HOWARD-BURY
I should like to support the plea for the publication of these documents. The Government cannot deny that these pledges were actually made. Certain definite pledges were given by Sir Henry McMahon in 1915, and on those pledges the Arabs came in and fought on our side. Later on, leaflets were dropped by aeroplanes in Palestine urging them to join us and giving the same pledges. In answer to a question I put to the Under-Secretary of State, he said that nowhere has this correspondence been officially published but that there are unofficial reports. It is most undesirable that there should be unofficial reports. We ought to have it definitely in black and white what we said, whether we were right or wrong. The peoples in the East to-day think that we gave the promise and, having given it, dare not publish the facts. Nothing is more mischievous in the case of Eastern peoples than for a person who has made a promise to go back upon it. Not long ago, when negotiations were going on between the Imam of the Yemen and Sir Gilbert Clayton, it was stated that we were going to carry out certain things. The Imam said, "How do I know that you are going to carry it out?" Sir Gilbert Clayton said, "You have the word of the British Government," and the Imam turned round and said, "Have you not made promises already to the Arabs; and what have you done?"
That broken pledge is going to affect our prestige throughout the East, and I 1089 beg the hon. Member to publish the correspondence and make perfectly clear what has happened. If we have not made these promises, as he says, and if it was not most definitely laid down in that letter of Sir Henry McMahon that they were to have the Mediterranean coast up to a certain parallel, if that it not correct, surely by publishing the correspondence, the Under-Secretary can clear himself and the Government of the charge of having broken the pledge. I hope he will consider this matter, and will tell the truth as to what has happened. We may have been wrong. We were in great danger at the time and we made pledges first to the Arabs, then to the Jews, and agreements with the French, some of them contradictory. I beg the Under-Secretary, although it is a long time ago, to publish the correspondence before we have those debates which are bound to come in regard to the future of Palestine, so that we may know exactly where we stand and the Arabs also will know exactly where they stand.
§ Mr. BROCKWAY
I wish to support the appeal which has been made for the publication of this correspondence. I am not associated either with the Arab committee, or the Jewish committee, because I hold that, somehow, the Government and the House must find a means of settlement as between the contending claims, but I suggest that, if we are going to judge the matter rightly, it is emphatically necessary that we should have all the facts before us. In order that we may have all the facts, I join in pressing that an official and complete report of this correspondence should be published. I wish to raise one other matter which has reference to this subject and about which I have just learned by cable from Jerusalem. On more than one occasion at Question Time I have pressed upon the Government the fact that one means of securing a better atmosphere in Palestine is by treating the political prisoners in a different manner from that in which they are treated now. Particularly I have asked the Government not to carry out the death penalty upon those who have been sentenced to death whether on the one side or on the other.
I regret that I have not been able to give the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies longer notice of the point which I wish to raise, but the cablegram has only been in my hands for a few 1090 minutes. It is a cablegram from Jerusalem stating that 39 working-class prisoners in the gaol there declared a hunger strike on 5th May. They claim the abolition of the death penalty in these cases, the abolition of flogging, handcuffing and enforced labour in the case of political prisoners, and the establishment of a special regime for those prisoners. I realise that the hon. Gentleman will not be able to give a detailed reply now but, no doubt, he has been considering the conditions under which these prisoners are confined, and I would ask him to inquire into this matter immediately and to do his utmost to create a better atmosphere in Palestine by treating such offenders in the best possible way during their confinement. I also ask him to consider very carefully the suggestion that the death penalty should not be imposed for offences of this character.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Dr. Drummond Shiels)
I am not quite sure what object my hon. Friend the Member for Broxstowe (Mr. Cocks) has in pressing me on this question of the McMahon correspondence. I must confess also to some surprise that the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Colonel Howard-Bury) should adopt the same line, because any criticism that he may make of us in this matter is, in reality, a criticism of the late Government of which I understand he was a whole-hearted supporter.
§ Dr. SHIELS
The present Government have taken no new or independent line in this matter. They have not struck out in any new direction. They have merely placed themselves in the position adopted by their predecessors during the past 10 years. I may carry the recollection of the House back as far as 1921 when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) who was then Secretary of State for the Colonies, made a full statement on this very question. He pointed out that the correspondence with the Sherif of Mecca was long and inconclusive in character and that it came to an end with the entry of the Sherif into the War before anything in the nature of a definite or formal agreement had been reached. He also 1091 pointed out that the pledges contained in the correspondence, whatever may have been their precise nature and scope, were given to the Sherif of Mecca and not to the Arabs of Palestine or of any other specific locality.
The nature of these pledges was fully explained in the statement of policy published in the White Paper, Cmd. 1700 of 1922. That White Paper, as the House may remember, was issued by the Coalition Government, of which the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) was the head. The definition there given was that the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was excluded from British pledges. Precisely the same line was taken by the Conservative Government which came into office on the fall of the Coalition Government in the Autumn of 1922. In a despatch dated 4th October, 1923, which was published in a White Paper, Cmd. 1989, the Duke of Devonshire, who held the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies at that time, accepted the general conclusions embodied in the White Paper of the previous year. Succeeding Governments have maintained the same attitude. I do not intend to enter into any detailed explanation of the reasons why it has always been thought inadvisable to publish the text of the McMahon correspondence. I will only say that these reasons have been held to be conclusive by successive Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, whatever their political views or those of the successive Administrations to which they belonged.
§ Dr. SHIELS
I have given one reason, the fact that these successive Secretaries of State have fully gone into this matter and have all adopted the same attitude. The arguments which the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford has addressed to the House to-night might more suitably have been addressed to his own friends while they occupied the bench from which I am now speaking.
§ Colonel HOWARD-BURY
Has the hon. Gentleman not been aware that for years past I have raised these questions in regard to Palestine?
§ Dr. SHIELS
I was going to say that if the hon. and gallant Gentleman could 1092 not persuade his own friends to modify their views, why should he expect to persuade me and my colleagues to do so? The point is one which has been repeatedly considered by different Governments and has always been decided in the same way. I see no reason to depart from the attitude which has always been adopted, nor do I see what useful purpose is served in pressing a point upon which so many competent judges have arrived at the same conclusion.
I beg the House—and I direct my appeal to all quarters of the House without consideration of party—to accept this conclusion as a definite and final one. So far as Palestine is concerned, no object will be served by reopening the subject. The present Government take the view which all their predecessors have taken, that it has no practical bearing upon the constitutional and political aspects of the Palestine question. That question has got to be decided on broad considerations of justice and equity. To the solution of this question His Majesty's Government are now engaged in addressing themselves in the hope of achieving a settlement which may be acceptable to all concerned. We fully realise the difficulties. Our attitude is not one of easy optimism, but we are determined to find a solution if we can; and we appeal to the House to have confidence in our good intentions and to believe that it is not by raking up the controversies of the past, but by tackling the difficulties of the present and of the future, that a satisfactory conclusion will be reached.
In regard to the matters which have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lepton (Mr. Brockway), as he has said, I had no notice that they were to be raised, and I had no information that the hunger strike which he described had taken place. I have already dealt in the House with the prison conditions in Palestine. I have said that we are not satisfied; the buildings are very old, there is no provision in many cases for separate cell accommodation, and the up-to-date administration which we all wish to see is not in every case, for physical reasons, possible; but all I can assure my hon. Friend is that we are anxious to see that the conditions in this respect are improved. We have been in correspondence for some 1093 time on the matter, and every effort is being made by the High Commissioner and by the administrators in Palestine to improve the buildings, to increase and improve the staff, and to do everything which is possible to make the present administration of Palestine beyond criticism. I am sorry that that is all I can say in that connection, as I have no information on the actual point which my hon. Friend brought forward.
§ Dr. SHIELS
Naturally; and if what my Friend said is true, we shall no doubt get official information, and we will take steps to find out the exact position. I would like to say in regard to the whole matter generally, that while I make no complaint about my hon. Friend and the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford raising this matter to-night, because I know that they have been very strongly interested in it, I would suggest that we ought now to look to the future in Palestine and not to the past. It is impossible to go over all the ground so far back as the middle of the War, and to decide on very controversial matters in regard to which in many cases it is difficult to get the exact position. I think that I have given good reasons why this question of the McMahon correspondence should now be allowed to drop, and why we should as a House concentrate on endeavouring to arrive at some satisfactory solution of the very great difficulties which are at present in the Palestine situation.
§ Mr. McSHANE
All who have listened to the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have listened to a perfectly clear but perfectly irrelevant speech. He has been asked to do one of two things. He has been asked if he will be good enough to publish the McMahon correspondence, or to give a reason for the non-publication of that correspondence. He has done neither. He has asked us to engage in an article of faith which I think it is too much to ask of us. It is equivalent to asking us to shut our eyes and open our mouths and see what he will send us. One of his excuses for not publishing the correspondence was almost too ridiculous to mention. The hon. Gentleman says he wants us, in dealing with that question of Palestine, not to deal 1094 with the causes of the trouble but to look forward to the future in some sublime hope, but how by forgetting the causes we can manage to get a remedy for the causes I do not know. Is it not perfectly true that we cannot really adequately discuss this question in the House, as it will have to be discussed, unless we know the whole of the facts? One of the most pregnant facts is what lies in that correspondence between Sir H. McMahon and the Arabs. It was very significant that in the answer that the hon. Gentleman gave to-day to a question he said there had been no official publication of this correspondence. There is a section of those in Palestine who do know what is in that correspondence and either there is something in it of which we ought to be ashamed or there is not. Either there is something in it that conflicts with the attitude that we took up in Palestine when that correspondence was written, or there is not.
I suggest that merely to put forward, as one excellent reason why we should not press for the publication, the fact that the Duke of Devonshire and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) when he was head of the Coalition, said it ought not to be published, is beside the point. Are the Labour Government going to follow in the steps of those right hon. Gentlemen? What are we doing here, is it merely to follow the precedent of right hon. Gentlemen opposite? Have we got no point of view distinct from them at all? Is there any reason for us being here if we are not to take up a distinct point of view? I do plead that, in spite of the hon. Gentleman having said this was his final word in the matter, he should take the view of those of us who have spoken here to-night, and which should command the approval and sympathy of most of those here. Those of us who have been into the question and have paid attention to the matter know that the Arabs there have a deep grievance. [An HON. MEMBER: "No!"] At any rate, the fact that my hon. Friend said "No" leaves the matter in doubt in this respect, that if that correspondence can clear it up, we ought to have it cleared up. I ask the hon. Gentleman to go to the Government and put our point of view, that unless there is something in this correspondence of which we ought to be ashamed, there 1095 is no adequate reason why it should not be published.
§ Mr. JAMES HUDSON
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go away feeling that there is very much dissatisfaction on the part of those who have heard his statement at the policy he has laid down. I, personally, have never taken any part at all in support of the point of view represented by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Chelmsford (Colonel Howard-Bury). Indeed, quite on the contrary, his point of view has generally very much irritated me, but certainly I do not think we can be fully satisfied that we can now proceed to get just arrangements in the Palestine quarter of the globe by shutting our eyes to important statements made on behalf of Great Britain in the past. There are two reasons why, in spite of what the hon. Member has told us, I still think there should be a modification of the Government's policy. If there is something to be ashamed of in this period of the War when, as the hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford said just now, we were hard pressed, and did all sorts of things we should not have done, it will be very good for us now, in these saner days, to have the truth about the dirty things done in those times, so that never again shall we repeat them. If some explicit promise has been made to the Arabs, and I suspect that an explicit promise was made, either to the Arabs as a whole or to certain Arab rulers, it ought to be taken into account in any final arrangements made about Palestine, and I am certain that the hon. Member and the Colonial Office are not serving the best interests of the Zionist movement, which I have very much at heart, by the continued refusal to publish what I consider to be important information.
§ Mr. MANDER
I cannot help thinking that this matter will be left in a very unsatisfactory position if the hon. Member is not able to say anything further. If he had been able to say that the matter had been carefully considered by the present Cabinet, and that they had, after a thorough review of the situation, come to the conclusion that it would be definitely contrary to the national interest to have this correspondence published, there would be something to go upon; but merely to say that the late Government did not approve of publication 1096 leaves some of us completely cold. In view of the opinions expressed in all parts of the House I hope the hon. Member will give an undertaking to make representations as to the general feeling of the House to the Secretary of State, with a view to having the whole question reviewed by the Government, so that a decision may be given by this Government regardless of what their predecessors may have done.
§ Mr. GORDON LANG
I, too, desire to add my voice to the representations that have been made to my hon. Friend that there may be some reconsideration of this matter. Very shortly we shall have to consider gravely and carefully the Report of the Palestine Commission. It is going to be a very anxious matter and all of us who hope to do justice in that matter will want to feel that there is no possibility of a rankling sense of injustice after our decision has been given. The Arabs make a very definite claim, a claim for which some of us feel there is a great deal of prima facie evidence, and I should regard the publication of this correspondence as being as necessary to remove such an impression, if it is a wrong impression, as others may feel it essential to have it published in order to justify the assertion. I feel that my hon. Friend is in a very serious difficulty to-night, or we should not have had what I am bound to regard as the extraordinary defence which he put forward for his action. Those of us who know him will feel perfectly sure that he must have been in a very delicate and difficult position; but it is partly my great regard for him which suggests to me that I should tell him that he will be in a much more difficult position when we discuss that Report if the correspondence has not been made available. I hope that when we do consider it we may do so with clear heads and open minds, and that will not be the case if this correspondence is withheld. In view of the general representations made to-night and the grave responsibility that will shortly come upon us, I hope my hon. Friend will be able to reconsider his position and that we may have more hope than we have had to-night.
§ Mr. McSHANE
Will the Under-Secretary make further representations to the Government on this question?
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'Clock.