HL Deb 07 May 1936 vol 100 cc874-98

LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are making preparations for proposals to the League of Nations for a thorough revision of the system of collective security in view of recent experiences; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is rather late but I do not think that your Lordships will blame me for the lateness of the hour. Considering that the main subject of debate this afternoon has been agriculture I consider myself very fortunate to get in before dinner at all. I am not going to say that because of the lateness of the hour I am not going to detain your Lordships. I am going to detain your Lordships, because the subject that I have put on the Order Paper is one of paramount importance and it is to be discussed at a very critical moment. I do not want to blame any one, least of all the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, for the business being so arranged that the debate does not take place until such a late hour, but I feel sure it is a matter which many of your Lordships want to face and to discuss very fully before Monday next. If in my remarks I express views that are clearly out of harmony with those expressed by the spokesman of the Opposition in another place yesterday, it will be understood I am sure by your Lordships, that that is the reason I sit where I do now and do not sit where I sat formerly.

We are faced with one of the bitterest tragedies that history records. I am not here to-night in order to indulge in recriminations, but I am here in order to ask the Government to face the future with very full knowledge of the lessons which they must have learned in the past. I do not think it is impossible that the tragedy of Abyssinia and the terrible betrayal of this undeveloped nation may have driven home lessons which, if learned, may lead to the strengthening of the League of Nations by the final disillusionment of the theorists who have pressed for straining the League capacity in a way which has amazed those of us who have understood from the first how limited that capacity must be in the nature of things as they stand at present. We have been too near the brink to regard with any complacency the machinery so far devised for the prevention of war. The crisis is not over. We are already faced with another, and that will not be the last. I want to press on the Government that they should make up their minds that the best diplomacy is not to take crisis by crisis with a view to steering round difficult corners, but to lay plans now for dealing with these international conflicts in a way that will be far better than any method adopted hitherto.

The Government have been too late in nearly all the steps they have taken. I think they realise now that, once the momentum of war is started, there is nothing that can really check it. I think, and I hope, that they realise now that it was in April, 1935, at the Stresa Conference, that this question of Abyssinia should have been faced. I see it said in defence of the Government policy that they waited for Signor Mussolini to raise the question. Of course he was not going to raise the question, and the very fact that Great Britain and France also did not raise the question allowed him to suppose that he had more or less a free hand. It is only by nipping these difficulties in the bud and by tackling them at the earliest possible moment that there can be any sort of hope of preventing the calamities of which we have been witness during the last year.

Now, my Lords, may I put to the Government certain questions to which I hope they have learned the answers? Do they realise now, and do the supporters of the policy which they have been adopting realise now, that whatever dispute may arise between nations, amounting even to actual conflict, and however apparently unanimous the condemnation of any nation may be, yet, as in human affairs, sides will be taken, and even a condemned aggressor will have sympathisers and friends? It is no good our blaming other nations for placing self-interest first. Of course they do, and of course they are reluctant to make economic sacrifices in the future. It is no good blaming France for having divided and conflicting loyalties. France found herself, just having made friendly relations with Italy, just having drawn up instruments by which she and Italy were drawn together, faced with a conflicting loyalty and obligation under the Covenant of the League. It is all very well saying that it is clear what France's choice should have been; but statesmen faced with a dilemma of that sort are hesitant, and if they are hesitant, there is a division of opinion in the country and they cannot make up their minds.

We also have been accused of being actuated by self-interest. It may be unfair: I am not saying that if in certain circumstances British interests had not been involved in any sort of way, we should not have come forward in defence of the Covenant, but it is very difficult to think of any part of the world, in view of our far-flung power, in which we cannot be suspected of having interests which guide our motives. Therefore I hope the Government have faced up to the fact that in an incomplete League there must be nations who will stand aside, nations who will go no farther than a declaration, nations who will reluctantly do as little as they possibly can, and just a few who will come in whole-heartedly to the fullest extent. This is not a hypothetical supposition. I have said it before, and I am only saying it now after it has become a conclusion that has been reached by positive experience. This is where the Government, I think, are to blame. I do not agree at all that the Government did not take the lead; I think the Government took too much lead. I do not agree at all that the Government did not press for sanctions. They did. What I blame the Government for is having gone in for the policy of sanctions without any conviction. Not only that, but, although it was the most extreme case possible, they had doubt in their minds as to the possibility of sanctions.

I must just refer to the great speech of Sir Samuel Hoare at Geneva, because he realised and expressed a doubt then. He said: The obligations of the Covenant remain; their burden upon us has been increased manifold. But one thing is certain. If the burden is to be borne, it must be borne collectively. If risks for peace are to be run, they must be run by all. The security of the many cannot be ensured solely by the efforts of a few, however powerful they may be. He would not have said that if he had not had grave doubts in his mind whether the other Powers were going to pull their full weight. The Prime Minister—I do not? want to quote him; I have quoted him so often—said that collective security in the present circumstances was an impossibility. He was right. Why, then, did not the Government have the courage to come out and say: "We do not believe, in the present situation, with a depleted League and national differences, that the full force of sanctions can be brought to bear against Italy, and we do believe that any attempt to do it incompletely and ineffectively is likely to cause very great danger to Europe." If they had done that, with their big majority and many of their own Party in favour of that policy, they would have saved a very great deal of the tragedy which we have seen.

The Government having never really-believed in the policy and yet having reluctantly gone on with it, sanctions such as have been imposed may have burdened the Italian people. The noble Earl who will reply for the Government has informed us that sanctions have to a certain extent been successful. My information is very different. At any rate sanctions have done nothing to stop the war. I would go farther, and I would say that sanctions have helped Signor Mussolini to consolidate his country in such a way as to win a rapid victory, which without sanctions he would not have done. That is just what he wanted. The disillusionment of the Italian people was always possible. The soldiers coming home from that sterile, devastated country would not bring good news to their families. But some exterior, international opposition—"the nations of the world," as he could declare,"against Italy"—that gave him just the impetus which allowed him to bring about his coup with such rapidity.

It is a matter of real surprise to me that in these circumstances there should be people who still continue to press for sanctions against Italy. What was the purpose of sanctions? To stop the war. We have not stopped the war. The war is now over. What is the purpose of sanctions now? To punish whom—the wretched Italian people who have been taken in? Sanctions are not going to touch Signor Mussolini; they are not going to affect the war, which is over. Just petulant vindictiveness, in order to prove that we want to go on and that we were not wrong in what we have done! Anything so foolish, anything so petty, anything so misguided as to suppose that sanctions against Italy are of any use whatsoever now cannot be imagined. No, my Lords; I hope the Government are sitting round a table to consider that Article 16 must be cut out of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Then have the Government learned that the nearer you get to parading force, to threatening force, the more dangerous the situation becomes? Of course, I have said from the very outset that you could never have economic sanctions unless you had force behind them, because if they are going to be effective there must be force in the background. So the Government found. Then began the movement of the Fleet in the Mediterranean, and then began public indignation in Italy against us as the main enemy, and then we got very near the brink where war would have been extended into Europe. Just as much as force is threatened or contemplated or prepared, so must the danger of the extension of war increase.

I know that in what I am going to say now I shall not get much support, but it is my firm belief that to feel pride in squadrons of aeroplanes, smart and sparkling regiments of infantry, and imposing lines of battleships may be natural enough, but to declare that international peace and national security are to be gained or maintained by such means is the purest and most unadulterated bunkum. Every man, ship, aeroplane, tank or bomb that you add, and that you spend your treasures upon, is bringing you nearer to the tragedy of war. I say that, not only of this country but of every country.


Including Abyssinia?


Force as a factor in the regulation of world affairs is of no avail whatsoever. The threat of it and the preparation of it only brings you nearer to the danger-point. I often wish that that doctrine was preached by the great organisation that has the power to do it, the need to do it, and the right to do it. I mean the Established Church. In the absence of the most reverend Prelates I do not want to attack that institution. I should like very much to have seen the Bishop of Durham in his place. The Bishop of Durham ought not to be a Bishop; he ought to be an Air Marshal. I find that sane pacifist opinion is held more in the Services, in the fighting Services, than you would ever find it in the Church. Your Lordships will remember what the late Field-Marshal Lord Haig said of the Church. He said: "Your job is to make my job impossible." They have not done much in that direction.

Now I hope that the Government are realising that there must be a redefinition of collective security. I am sick of the phrase. You hear people talking of it on platforms as if it were some magic. We have had an example of it, and for heaven's sake do not let us attempt another one. It has been shown that it is neither collective, nor does it mean security. It is straining the League of Nations to attempt the impossible, and expecting too much of it. A man who over-estimates his strength becomes a weakling. I was glad to see in a recent debate that the noble Earl who is in charge of foreign affairs in this House said: …if the League is eventually to take its proper share in the affairs of the world and to attempt to stop aggression and to bring forward conciliation, every nation must take its part. He also said: It is obvious that when the whole of this unfortunate struggle is at an end"— it has come to an end since the noble Earl spoke— both the League and this country will have very carefully to consider the whole situation, and to decide upon what our future policy will be based. All I can say is that I am very glad to hear the noble Earl express those views. I hope there will be no delay about it. There is a tendency in foreign affairs to think that you can do nothing in the intervals of crises. It is fatal to twiddle your thumbs between crises. I am not accusing the noble Earl of twiddling his thumbs, but we know that there is a good deal of thumb twiddling in Government offices.


Not in the Foreign Office.


Not an hour should be wasted in putting forward proposals for bringing to an end this whole system which, up to now, has been called collective security. What has saved us so far from a European War? What prevents us, to-day, from thinking that war is coming? We do not think so. What is it that has prevented that? Not collective security. Not the flaunting of Article 16, not the parading of the Fleet in the Mediterranean, not the speeches of His Majesty's Government, not the handling of diplomacy by the Government. It is one of those small things which people overlook and take for granted, but it is a most significant thing, and one reason why I wanted a League of Nations to be brought into being. It is not Article 16, but Articles 3 and 4 of the Covenant, which nobody reads. They are the Articles which make meetings of the representatives of the nations automatic—meetings to which they all agree to come; conferences, whether in Geneva, in Paris or in London; the meeting together of men who want to understand one another's point of view. There is nothing very spectacular about a round table. I know that fleets and armaments are much more popular, but I have great faith in a round table, especially in these days when events move so quickly. Here they have periodic meetings and are able to discuss together as representatives of their nations. It is that which has saved us from calamity.

Representative politicians, they may not be very wise or far-seeing, but they come together and they begin to understand one another's points of view. Claims, complaints, fears, jealousies must be faced and examined by these representatives of the nations. But here I hope I am going to press the Government to come to a decision. Do not let us have another Disarmament Conference. I have inveighed against the Disarmament Conference every time I could in this House, and again I was right. The rules for waging the next war are not going to be observed, but will be disregarded. Here you have seen, not some small undeveloped nation, but one of the great nations of Europe flouting the prohibition of poison gas. I say that the real danger with a nation intent on rapid victory, or a nation with its back to the wall, is that it is going to flout all these regulations which are drawn up by your Disarmament Conference. No, it is not the regulation of the weapons of war but the regulation of the desires and ambitions which make Governments want to use the weapons of war; that is what you have to get at. You have to get at the very basis of the whole trouble, and this must be the first concern of the League of Nations.

Before I sit down I am going to make a specific and constructive proposal. I read an article recently by the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, and there was one sentence in it with which I was in complete agreement. He said: The existing Covenant of the League may be neither perfect nor complete, but unless a nation's word is its bond the most perfect Covenant cannot conceivably work satisfactorily. I entirely agree. The question is how to make the nations accept their word as their bond. What is the trouble? The interpretation of these treaties. I remember very well in August, 1914, going to the House of Commons Library, climbing on a ladder, and taking from a dusty shelf the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium, the treaty of 1839. And as I looked down I saw a queue of members all waiting for it—nobody knew what was in it—a treaty that was between seventy and eighty years old and was our stand-by to take us into the War. What do we see in the case of the Treaty of Versailles? Year by year pieces nibbled off it, disregarded by this nation and that nation, flouted by the other nations. Treaties are supposed to be drawn up rebus sic stantibus—the existing things being as they are. What we see in the world to-day—the existing state of things—does not continue for more than a few months, and yet these treaties gradually get their coats of dust over them and nations are blamed for having dishonoured their word. We all want to know what our obligations are and what the obligations of other nations are.

My proposal is this, therefore, that all treaties should be submitted—not on the appeal of one nation or another nation, but automatically and periodically—to a permanent department of the League of Nations for examination with a view to their being confirmed, revised or, if need be, discontinued. Revision is always shelved now because of the awkward problems that will arise, or it is demanded by some nation or other, or else a treaty is flouted by some nation or other. But this, which should be part of the duty of the League of Nations, would bring every treaty periodically—I think every two years or five years—under review in such a manner as to make everybody aware what the obligations of the various nations were. Until you get that you will not get what the noble Viscount desires, that a nation's word should be a nation's bond.

We must get at the root of the trouble, and we must not wait until these discarded, disregarded, infringed treaties cause trouble. We ought to know what the commitments of other nations are. To give an example. I wonder if anybody in your Lordships' House knows that in September, 1920, a treaty was signed for a military alliance between France and Belgium. That treaty was registered under the League of Nations, but its provisions have never been published. It would make our grandfathers in the early nineteenth century turn in their graves to think that the whole of the coast was completely under the domination of France. We are friends with France. In the whirligig of time we never know where our friendships and where our enmities may be. In 1887, when there was a danger of an attack by Germany against France, there was not the smallest fear or disturbed feeling in this country in case Germany should infringe Belgian neutrality. In 1914 it was the casus belli. These things are matters of expediency, matters of the circumstances of the moment. By my suggestion the League of Nations would undertake to make nations clearly aware of what their obligations are, and if there is any complaint to make it should be openly stated in order that revision of the treaty should be made.

I put it quite specifically. Add to Article 18 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which is the Article under which treaties have to be registered by the League: All treaties thus registered shall automatically be subject to periodic examination every"— I should say— two years by a Department of the League, established for this specific purpose, with a view to their confirmation, revision, alteration or discontinuance, on the agreement of the signatory Powers in each case concerned. There must be an amendment of the Covenant of the League of Nations, and that is already provided for in Article 26. I hope that this suggestion of mine will be brought to the notice of the authorities by the noble Earl who will speak later. They will probably dismiss it and they will probably say: "Oh, this is just one of Ponsonby's notions." I hope that the noble Earl will then say: "Yes, but it is very curious that Ponsonby is almost invariably right." I hope others will join in this debate. I have gone on for longer than I intended, but I wanted to put these points. I think it is important that the opinions of so many noble Lords in this House who have great experience of foreign affairs should be expressed, and if it is too late to-night, as I fear it may be, I hope the Government will allow this debate to be continued on an early day next week. I beg to move.

Moved, that an humble Address be presented to His Majesty for Papers relating to any preparations for proposals to the League of Nations for a thorough revision of the system of collective security in view of recent experiences.—(Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede).


My Lords, I feel that your Lordships are grateful to the noble Lord for bringing forward this Motion to-night., because there is no subject upon which it is more important that we should clear our minds than the defects, such as they may be, found in the Covenant of the League of Nations, which for fifteen years or more has been accepted as the basis of British policy and Dominion policy in international affairs. I am glad that Lord Ponsonby has protested against the use of the words "collective security." I do not know who invented these words, but I have always felt they were a perversion of the underlying concept of the League of Nations, strengthening in every possible way the idea that it was fundamentally a League for coercion, and losing sight of the fact that in the original idea the Covenant was intended to be the means for altering situations which were out of date, and did not even rule out war as a method of bringing that about if no other method could be found. But I cannot agree with him when he says that force is of no avail in international affairs. I am afraid we have had only too clear an example in the last few months that force is of avail in international affairs. The real question is whether what the Covenant of the League of Nations, under Articles 10 and 16, provides is an effective method of dealing with the problem of uncontrolled force in the world.

I suggest—and it is the only main point I am going to make to-night, because it seems to me we have got to try to clear our minds as to where the root of the difficulty is—that the League as an idea has not broken down. I mean the idea of what I may call, not collective security, but collective diplomacy. What has broken down is the principle contained in Articles 10 and 16—that is to say, the assumption by the Members of the League of a universal, automatic, inescapable commitment to resist any alteration of the status quo anywhere which is attempted by force, by methods which, as the experience of the last few years has proved, can only be made effective by a resort to war. That is the core of the difficulty. It has always been, as I have felt, the central weakness of the Covenant, and it is the principle which has almost destroyed it, because no League of sovereign States can alter the status quo except by the consent of all the nations concerned, and collective action by sovereign States in the last resort can only be made effective by a resort to war; and because in a partial League any such resort to war, a police war, must risk extending a local conflict into a world war.

May I give some illustrations? The noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, will perhaps forgive me if I remind him of an episode which has probably escaped his memory, but in Paris at the time when the League of Nations Commission was holding its deliberations, Mr. Lloyd George, whom it is fashionable now to despise, asked the noble Viscount and General Smuts, who were the British representatives on that Commission, to come and have a discussion with him about the principles which were then emerging in the Covenant. He said, and a number of other people associated with him urged very strongly, that we should not attempt too ambitious a Covenant in the first instance; that the primary need was, as Lord Ponsonby said, to establish the habit and practice that all the nations of the world should sit round the table and see whether they could not mitigate one another's ignorance and prejudice and bring about agreed solutions of international problems—in other words, that the principle which has been so successful in the British Commonwealth of Nations, which contains none of these rigid, automatic, collective obligations, should be applied as the basic idea of this new, unexampled, and unparalleled experiment of making a League of all the nations with a view to preserving peace. I believe that was put about, but for reasons of which I am unaware it was disregarded, Articles 10 and 16 were embedded in the Covenant, and President Wilson, most unfortunately but most loyally, went about the United States saying that Article 10 was the heart of the Covenant.

I have been recently reading Senator Lodge's book on the history of the Senate and the League of Nations, and he says quite specifically—and I do not think there is any reason to dispute it—that Article 10 was the centre about which the whole controversy raged, because the Senate or a minority of the Senate—not a majority, but a sufficient minority to defeat the Treaty, which had to be accepted under the American Constitution by a two-thirds majority—were convinced that the only way in which a nation could live up to its obligations under Article 10 was by going to war. That conclusive argument was the argument, which, I think, was most effective in keeping the United States out of the League. Look at the Manchurian case. It was precisely the sort of obligation which we had signed under Article 10 which compelled all the Members of the League, when faced by that obligation, to begin to threaten in the kind of manner that they did threaten, though when it came to the point, for precisely the reason that has become clear recently, it was manifest they were not prepared to take their protest to the only point at which it could have been effective—namely, willingness to take action which would have resulted in war with Japan. Yet the same Articles, for these reasons, led to the withdrawal of Japan from the League.

Take the next case. Germany came into the League, and, as every noble Lord recognises, despite every effort, despite the loyal and energetic efforts of the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, to bring about universal disarmament, it proved impossible to modify the Treaties of Peace sufficiently to give Germany the equality she had been promised in December, 1934. And when in October Germany was asked to wait another four years before any effective steps could be taken in that direction, and was told by M. Paul-Boncour that any steps would be dependent on the political conditions at the end of the four years, Herr Hitler left the League of Nations and left the Disarmament Conference and began that rearmament by which alone he believed he could recover the equality of position in the world to which he thought Germany as a great nation was entitled.

Now we have got to the Abyssinian crisis, and, if you consider the question, what was it that made Sir Samuel Hoare take the position he did on September 11? I think it was an honourable act, though as I said at the time I thought he was personally misguided, but he did see, as Mr. Eden and everyone else has stated, that he was faced with the question: Does our signature mean anything or not? Not "is it wise or unwise?" but "we have pledged ourselves to take these unlimited economic sanctions in the case of aggression. Are we going to default of our signature or are we not?" It was that appeal, that call to this country, which I think more than anything else united this country behind the policy of September 11, and united fifty other nations as well. But what happened? Economic sanctions were put on, but as everybody knows, and many people prophesied, owing to a partial League of Nations, economic sanctions were either ineffective or became effective so slowly as to fail to produce the result that we intended them to have.

Therefore we were faced from October or November onwards with either having, let us say, oil sanctions or the closing of the Suez Canal under League authority as the only effective method of forcing Italy to come to the Peace Conference table. But from the moment in which it became clear, as Signor Mussolini persistently threatened, that if oil sanctions were imposed or the Suez Canal closed he would regard it as an act of war, and would retaliate with acts of war, every single Member of the League began to retreat, because none of them would face the responsibility of putting their own countries into modern war for the sake of Abyssinian or any interest which did not seem to them vital to their own security and their own national interest. There was not a single nation which did not retreat, not a Dominion that did not retreat, and Mr. Eden was honest enough yesterday to tell the facts. He said, quite emphatically, that in his judgment closing the Canal must inevitably have led to war.

I will say a word or two about that later, but that was his judgment, and I think it was quite clearly the judgment of His Majesty's Government. He said the reason why they did not propose that was not because they were afraid of the consequences, but because of their horror of war, and a very legitimate horror, too, when you consider what modern war is and the way in which it may spread all over Europe. Further, I do not believe any other nation was prepared to contemplate war, but, if they were willing to make any further advance towards the risk, it would only be as a result of our undertaking a similar obligation to go to war all over Europe. That meant we had to undertake to go to war to defend Austria from remaining under the control of Mussolini, and defend every other frontier in Europe, and if we pressed the nations to run the risk of war in the case of Abyssinia, it was not an illegitimate answer for them to make that we should also undertake the liability to go to war in matters that affected them. That is why the Covenant and why the Abyssinian enterprise failed. It is because nobody would face the inevitable consequence of Article 16 when they came up against it. That is the reason, and to that extent we have led Abyssinia into expecting things which many people who had thought about these things before realised from the start it was extremely unlikely we should ever fulfil.

Moreover, this universal, unconditional obligation to take action, as modern experience shows, can only be made effective by war. We cannot possibly apply it in half the things to which under the Covenant we are still pledged to apply it. Are we going to undertake to do it to protect Russia, and Japan, if she comes back into the League, or Germany, or Austria, or Latvia, or Italy itself? It is an inconceivable obligation for any one country, or any small group of countries to undertake all over the world. Therefore, I think, as long as we append our signatures to Articles 10 and 16—however much certain people may argue that it is possible to slip out of them by legal interpretations, the principle underlying them is perfectly clear—as long as we believe ourselves, or let the rest of the world believe, we are bound by those Articles, we are in a dishonourable and equivocal position; and the sooner we make it clear to our own people and the nations of the world that we cannot be expected, and shall not attempt, to honour this universal obligation which, in the light of recent experiences, can only be fulfilled by action which may lead to war, the sooner shall we get out of the position in which we are to-day, and back to a situation in which diplomacy may once more tackle the real problems of the peace of the world.

I go further. I do not believe you can possibly get the League to revive until you do this thing. I believe the League will revive as soon as its main function is peace and not war. It may even recover universal membership. There have been some very remarkable letters in The Times. I do not say they matter very much, but Americans write and say:

"If you can take Articles 10 and 16 out the people of the United States may come to look at this problem in a way quite different from the way in which they have looked at it hitherto." It is a straw and a small one, but I think it is symptomatic. Removal of compulsory sanctions would remove the fundamental objection in the United States to the League. I would not alter the Covenant in any other important respect. I believe that Article 11 is perfectly sound. When international problems occur which are serious and threaten the peace of the world, it is essential that the nations of the world should sit round a table and see what they can do to prevent it. But do not try to bind them beforehand by an automatic obligation which can only be fulfilled by going to war. They will not attend if you maintain that obligation. The only sound course is for them to sit down at a table without military commitment, and deal with a situation as it arises as we do inside the British Commonwealth of Nations, and do what they can agree to do in the light of the circumstances. I think all the provisions for delay, investigation and report and arbitration are perfectly sound, and certainly the provisions in Article 22 for international inspection of the way in which mandatory countries discharge their duties to colonial people are sound.


What about Article 12?


I cannot remember at the moment what Article 12 is.


Delaying the war for three months while the question is being discussed.


That is perfectly sound. What I object to is that we should all be bound to an obligation which can only be fulfilled by going to war, which can have no power to alter the status quo which we are bound to defend even at the price of war. Delay and investigation is one of the essential functions of the League of Nations and will be honoured by its genuine Members among themselves. When we excise this obligation I think the League may become a healthy organisation for the promotion of peace, and not what it has been in the last few months, an organisation for war—an organisation which, when you read the speeches of many of the champions of the League at this moment, has become an international movement busily inflaming the passions of war. Under such a League you will have to make other arrangements for regional security, but you still have the power to take collective action, and collective action which in certain cases may be decisive, when they can agree upon it in the light of the facts, but which will not be imposed on Members automatically. They will be able to consider how collective action may be made effective without the risk of war. The only point I want to make to your Lordships to-night is that until we remove this unlimited, universal, inescapable obligation to take action which now can only be fulfilled by war we shall be in a dishonourable and equivocal position, and the League will tend to perish and will be unable to revive.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, I feel, rendered a public service by initiating this discussion in your Lordships' House to-day. I think, however, it must have been a surprise to him, and perhaps also an embarrassment to find himself being cheered so heartily from quarters of the House that do not usually pay him that compliment. I agree with him that the Government owe to the nation—a patriotic, a very patient and very disillusioned nation—some explanation of what they propose to do in the present circumstances. I believe that no such national humiliation has occurred in my time as that which we have gone through or are going through at the present moment. One speaks under a sense of moral defeat and an overwhelming sense of shame that wrong has once more triumphed in the world. But in spite of that I do not feel able to join in the chorus of depreciation of the League of Nations. The Labour Party believes, for good or for ill, that in the League of Nations we have the one body which in its present or in a better form is likely to give and ensure peace to the nations of the earth. I beg that we shall not indulge ourselves by exaggerating its faults, by underestimating its difficulties, by hampering its power to do its real work.

There has always been a section in this country that has depreciated the League. It has never liked the League. It has always tried to injure its reputation before our country. But let us remember that the League is a body of men. It was not fashioned in the kingdom of heaven. It was formed at a time of international strain, and, as I have said before, it would have been a miracle if the League had been perfectly equipped for the work it had to do. On the other hand, let us make this quite clear to our own minds, that it is not the idea of the League that is wrong; it is the fact that the nations of the earth have not been able to live up to the great opportunity that it presented. If the time has come when the qualifications of the League for the work that it is to do, the powers it is to have, are to be reconsidered, let that question be approached with some sense of obligation to what the League has already accomplished. We hear so much about its failures and very little indeed about what it has helped us to get over. We should start again if necessary and never give up until the idea itself has been proved wrong, rather than the achievements.

My noble friend behind me said that the war was over. I wish it were. I am not at all certain that the war is over. I am not surprised at what has happened in Abyssinia, because I realised, and I have said so previously in your Lordships' House, that in one form or another this last remaining native kingdom would become subject either to some capitalist country or to some capitalist enterprise. What one feared has taken place. But I cannot feel that His Majesty's Government have any right to feel satisfaction for their part in what has happened. I hope it is realised by your Lordships how, and to what extent, our interests are involved. The black races throughout the whole of Africa are now going through a period of deep resentment and distrust of the Power they have looked to for protection and for strength. I believe that a black revolt has been brought twenty-five or even fewer years nearer because of what has happened. All our work in Kenya, Tanganyika and elsewhere in trying to build up the ideal of self-government has been jeopardised, and we are faced with the possibility of a black Fascist army being created in Abyssinia, to the menace, the danger, the disaster of the black races throughout the world. These are things that His Majesty's Government should take into serious account.

There is a great deal that I had wished to say on this matter and it is only because I find myself unable to be present at the time when the debate may be resumed that I trouble your Lordships by speaking now, but I will cut most of what I desired to say. I would like to say this, that Abyssinia was encouraged to resist and then her powers of defence were hampered and every capitalist country profited from trade with her aggressor. We have sinned against the Abyssinian people in that we did not tell them at the beginning that the capitalist nations of the earth, in spite of all their words, would never let a moral obligation interfere with the more sacred business of making illicit profits out of supplying war materials. If we had said that, then the Negus would have known where he stood. I feel tempted to go into questions of sanctions, but in mercy I refrain at this hour. I will only say that I have no theoretical objection to sanctions. If sanctions would have stopped the war I would have imposed sanctions at once. My sole doubt about them was that I felt that you could never trust the capitalist Governments to be loyal to their word.

I just take the opportunity of saying that France may take what pride she can for her part in this miserable business, because I feel that upon her falls the greatest responsibility of all. One can only be satisfied that it was not the wish of the French people, as has been recently proved by an Election. The French Election, I think, shows what the French people feel, and the Peckham election shows what our own people would feel if they had the privilege of expressing it. I do not know whether your Lordships realise that yesterday M. Blum, the distinguished leader of the Left in France, and destined probably to control the policy of France for some time, said: Hereafter Great Britain may rely freely upon France to support the collective action of the League of Nations. He went on: It is tragic that we have come too late to prevent the Italian conquest of Abyssinia but if the past was not in our hands, the future is. I hope His Majesty's Government will take note of this new France, and that they will advance to meet the new opportunities—or perhaps they will be too superior to have any contact with a wicked Socialist Government! But the opportunity is there, and the responsibility is there.

If it is necessary to go into the question of the revision of the League let it be undertaken, but always remember that if a revision is undertaken every effort will be made by the isolationists in this and other countries, by big business, by grasping Governments, to rob it of all authority, moral and otherwise, and to try to reduce it to the status of a mere secular prayer-meeting. I hope, in conclusion, to hear from the Government, when they reply, a little less about their own virtues and a little more about what they propose to do to deal with a situation for which their responsibility is as yet unassessed. I feel a debt of obligation to my noble friend for bringing the matter before your Lordships' House, and I very much hope that the Government will try to give the House more information than we have yet had.


My Lords, the hour is late, but I understand that the discussion is to be prolonged for a short time yet. The question which has been asked of His Majesty's Government by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby covers practically the same ground as one which I submitted some three months, ago. The reply which I received on that occasion was not very encouraging, and I probably should not have reverted to the matter, because I had rather come to the conclusion that I have been regarded in authoritative quarters as a sort of Cassandra, ever since, in the autumn of 1934, I laid before the proper authority what I conceived to be convincing proof of the intended invasion of Abyssinia. If I were frankly to state to-day the reasons which give me such grave preoccupation at the present situation, I should only encourage that reputation of a Cassandra still further.

I welcome very much, however, the reopening of the question by Lord Ponsonby, with whom on foreign questions I often find myself in cordial agreement. If I rise to say a few words to-day, it is because I should like to carry the whole question rather farther, and to say what seems to me to be a preliminary basis for any really valuable revision of the League of Nations. Collective security is no doubt a consummation most eminently desirable, but to-day two questions seem to me to be quite unavoidable. One of them is whether the principle of collective security is practicable in application, in view of the spirit in which it has apparently been interpreted in certain quarters; and the other is whether that principle can still be redeemed from the failures of which recent experience has given abundant evidence.

The Covenant of the League has been understood to constitute Part I of the various Peace Treaties concluded after the War. Violations of one or of the other may therefore fairly be placed in the same category as violations of the principle of collective security. Hitherto Members of the League, present or past, have shown a much readier disposition, when their own interests became involved, to believe in forcible action than to respect their obligations to Treaty or to Covenant. Witness the experiences of Fiume, of Vilna, of Memel, of Corfu, of the occupation of the Ruhr, of the transformation of Manchuria, and, lastly of the invasion of Ethiopia. Witness again the evasion, except on the part of Great Britain, of the general undertaking given to disarm, which, after a series of compromise proposals had been unceremoniously rejected, drove Germany into a direct breach of the Peace Treaty.

These negative experiences lead me on to the further, more positive, question whether any nations have really gained advantage by the adoption of the principle So far as we are concerned it has been responsible for our unilateral disarmament and for thus indicating the line of least resistance to those who advocate dangerous living and are ready to take great risks. I imagine that the far-reaching consequences of our attitude must be providing some matter for reflection to-day for those who constantly insist on our giving to other countries an example which not one of them had the slightest intention of following. It has also entailed for us the sacrifice of old and valued friendships without achieving any other practical result. (I am not, of course, now discussing moral obligations but merely questions of fact.) France, a warm advocate of the principle when it seemed likely to be to her advantage, was quick to show how little faith she had in that aspect of it with which she was most chiefly concerned—namely, her own security—and sought additional guarantees in alliances which were contrary to the spirit in which the League was conceived. So little faith, indeed, had her statesmen in the virtue of the principle of collective security that they have recently completed the encirclement of Germany by contracting a military alliance with Russia, which may very possibly diminish France's own security. China can hardly be said to have gained by her membership, and of Ethiopia, who rested all her faith on the League, it is impossible to speak.

The States which suffered defeat in the War were admitted to the League, but only under conditions which, if the other nations did not implement their obligations to disarm, offered no assurance of equality or independence, since the stronger Powers denied to the weaker the means of national defence. The smaller nations which looked to the League as a guarantee for their existence have had their eyes opened and have realised the unforeseen entanglements in which they may become involved. They have had to renounce the rights of neutrals and make economic sacrifices for sanctions, for which it appears that we are to be asked to compensate them. This mention of sanctions brings me to speak for one moment of them here. The aim of sanctions was to terminate war if an act of aggression had brought it about in violation of the Covenant. Any attempt—if there has been one—to make sanctions a matter of international bargain would manifestly be in contradiction of the spirit of the League. Sanctions were intended to be a means of exercising pressure and not a punitive instrument. With the close of the military campaign it is to be hoped that the whole question of sanctions, which we have been told by the Prime Minister lead to war, will be shelved until the League, belief in the efficiency of which has been so rudely shaken, has been considerably revised.

The League as at present constituted has failed either to prevent or to terminate war, and it has failed in establishing faith in collective security. It has revealed how the national bias of its Members can be exercised to evade or procrastinate procedure on the lines laid down in the Articles of the Covenant. The very words "collective security" and the "framework of the League" seem to me at any rate to have lost all sense of reality. Nevertheless we, or some of us, continue to pronounce collective security to be the basis of our policy. Are we not nailing our colours to a mast which has been quite inadequately stepped to carry such a heavy sail? Yet, my Lords, while endeavouring to make it clear that the League as actually constituted offers no basis of collective security, I do not wish to convey the impression that I in any way despair of a revised League. On the contrary, I can conceive of a reconstituted League binding the peoples of the world together in a moral solidarity which would replace the prevailing spirit of mistrust and mutual suspicion. Therefore I give my earnest support to revision.

The League probably attempted too much, in view of the absence of any real spirit of collectivity. It seems, as Lord Lothian recently suggested in a remarkable letter, that American statesmen saw more clearly the dangers involved in subscribing to the present League than our people, whose sentimental enthusiasm overlooked so many of its implications and entanglements. Had the obligations of the United States to intervene been confined to the American Continent, they might have taken a different view about adhering to the League. That was one of several reasons for my putting forward here, some ten weeks ago, a plea for three League Councils in three Continents, while maintaining Geneva as an ultimate Court of Appeal—a suggestion which, if it was held in the Government reply to entail more difficulties than advantages, has nevertheless brought me many letters of approval from the Continent and some support from South American statesmen. As it seems hardly possible in the present day for any single Power to be so preponderatingly strong as to be able to impose peace, and to prevent aggression, as the Roman Empire succeeded in doing over several centuries, an alternative prospect may seem perhaps to open out for the most optimistic of us in a preponderatingly strong block of Powers working together in a spirit of comradeship and common interest.

In the last two or three minutes that I wish to detain your Lordships, I really want to get down to bedrock things. No one can fail to realise that the principal obstacle to European unity, and to a great extent to the efficacy and stability of the League of Nations as we have known it, has lain in that almost unconquerable spirit of mutual mistrust which separates France and Germany. If Great Britain, France and Germany could only be brought into line, and reciprocal confidence restored, we should have that preponderatingly strong solidarity in Europe which would ensure its economic revival and guarantee a western civilisation, which is the greatest inheritance of humanity. I refuse to believe that it cannot be achieved, that the prejudices of an evil historical tradition cannot be eliminated, and that a better foundation and securer corner-stone for a new and more practical League of Nations cannot be devised.

The people of this country, though with minds which perhaps work more slowly than those of some of their Continental neighbours, can generally be trusted to form sane and right judgments. They have, if I am not wholly mistaken in the appreciation I have formed of public opinion here in all classes, very definitely made up their minds that the proposals put forward by the Chancellor in Germany, as a basis for twenty-five years of peace and friendly co-operation, offer a great opportunity which it would be deplorable to reject. We have heard from the Leader of the Opposition of the new France. Those who have recently had the opportunity of visiting Germany have been greatly impressed by the democratisation of the country, and the new social unity of classes which the Chancellor has so zealously promoted. They have seen there very much to admire, and something also to envy. The people of this country are, I believe, ready to grasp the out-stretched hand. There is in France a great and growing number of people also who wish to live on terms of amity with Germany, in spite of the gospel of mistrust which others continue to preach.

There is hardly a man in Germany who does not desire it, and wants nothing from France but good will and economic co-operation. There may be elements there—I wish I did not think there were—whose interests are bound up with—I will not say war, but the maintenance of unrest and the spirit of fear. In France the people only want the assurance of peace. Our guarantee to France is inviolable. It arouses no misgiving in Germany, because she has no sinister intentions against her neighbour. It is not only in Europe that our interests are intimately bound up with those of France. My Lords, we have before us a very grave Asiatic question as well as a European one, which people in this country do not sufficiently regard or realise. France and Great Britain are responsible for vast areas in the centre of that Continent, and having these immense interests to defend in the coming time, they must needs stand together. Therefore, I believe that our country has a very great part to play as an intermediary, to effect that reconciliation which is indispensable to the peace and economic recovery of Europe, and I trust and must believe that His Majesty's Government are alive to the potentiality and the duty of laying the foundations of a solid block which will ensure the fabric of a revised and more practical League of Nations.


My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.