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Personal Explanation

Volume 307: debated on Thursday 19 December 1935

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3.46 p.m.

The House always gives a sympathetic and generous hearing to a former Minister who explains the reasons for his resignation. I ask to-day for a generous measure of that indulgence in view of the complexities with which I shall be dealing, and in view of the special difficulties which have confronted me during recent days. I would gladly have been in my place 10 days ago when this question first came into prominence. Unfortunately, under my doctor's orders, I had to go abroad. More unfortunately still, having gone abroad, an unfortunate accident prevented my immediate return. The result has been that criticism, doubt, and sometimes perhaps misrepresentation, have so far gained possession of the field that it is very difficult for me at the present moment to put up any line of defence at all. None the less, with the indulgence of the House I propose to deal, and to deal fully, with the circumstances that have led to my resignation. I would ask you, Sir, and right hon. and hon. Members of the House, to allow me somewhat greater latitude than is sometimes allowed in these personal explanations. While I will do my utmost not to impose unduly upon the time of the House, it must needs be that in the nature of the case I must go into the question in some detail.

Ever since I have been at the Foreign Office I have been obsessed with the urgency of two grave issues. Day in and day out I have been obsessed with the urgent necessity of doing everything in my power to prevent a European conflagration. Secondly, I have been no less obsessed with the urgent duty of doing everything in my power to avoid an isolated war between Great Britain and Italy. I believe that those two grave issues were two of the issues that were mainly in the minds of the electors at the last Election, the fear, on the one hand, of a general European conflagration; the fear, on the other hand, of isolated war between Great Britain and Italy. When the Election came to an end, war had already been in progress for some weeks. We had done our best to stop its outbreak. I, myself, had done everything within my power to mobilise world opinion against it at the Assembly at Geneva. In spite of our efforts the war broke out, and every day that it continued it involved the world in greater and more dangerous problems. There was trouble in the East; there was trouble in Egypt; there was trouble brewing in more than one quarter of Europe; and, not least, there was the depressing fact that the war seemed to be compromising British relations with a large body of public opinion in France.

It must have been clear to every hon. Member that the threat of war and the outbreak of war had raised very difficult questions between ourselves and France. It must have been obvious to every hon. Member that a great body of opinion in France was intensely nervous of a breach with Italy, and intensely nervous of anything that was likely to weaken French defence. In view of those facts, I did everything in my power to make a settlement possible, and while loyally continuing a policy of sanctions and coercive action—I do not think anyone can charge me with any hesitation in pushing that policy both here and at Geneva—I never allowed a day to pass without attempting by some means or another to find a peaceful settlement to this hateful controversy. That was the position after the Election. We were engaged upon our double task of taking our full share in collective action and also with that other task imposed upon us by the League itself of trying to find a basis of settlement of this unfortunate dispute. Particularly was I concentrating upon the second of those two tasks in view of the situation that I saw inevitably developing before me in the immediate future.

In both these fields, in both the field of collective action and also in the field of peaceful negotiations, we reached a turning point about a fortnight ago. The turning point came sooner than many of us expected. Perhaps it came as a result of the success of the sanctions that had already been imposed and the collective front that, I am glad to say, had been created at Geneva. In any case, about a fortnight ago it was clear that a new situation was about to be created by the questionn of the oil embargo. It seemed clear that, supposing an oil embargo were to be imposed and that the non-member States took an effective part in it, the oil embargo might have such an effect upon the hostilities as to force their termination. Just because of the effectiveness of the oil sanction, provided that the non-member States had a full part in it, the situation immediately became more dangerous from the point of view of Italian resistance. From all sides we received reports that no responsible Government could disregard that Italy would regard the oil embargo as a military sanction or an act involving war against her. Let me make our position quite clear. We had no fear as a nation whatever of any Italian threats. If the Italians attacked us we should retaliate, and, judging from our past history, we should retaliate with full success. What was in our mind was something very different, that an isolated attack of this kind launched upon one Power without it may be—and I shall refer to this subject again in a minute—without it may be the full support of the other Powers, would, it seemed to me, almost inevitably lead to the dissolution of the League.

It was in these circumstances 10 days ago that I went to Paris. I did not want to go to Paris. I was in urgent need of a period of rest, but, apart from that fact, I dislike intensely the practice of the Foreign Minister leaving this country and conducting negotiations in a foreign capital. None the less, I was pressed on all sides to go, and I was pressed in such a way as to make refusal impossible. It was in an atmosphere of threatened war that the conversations began, and it was in an atmosphere in which the majority of the member States—indeed, I would say the totality of the member States—appeared to be opposed to military action. It was a moment of great urgency. Within five days the question of the oil embargo was to come up at Geneva, and I did not feel myself justified in proposing any postponement of the embargo, unless it could be shown to the League that negotiations had actually started. It was a moment when, while most member States had taken a part in the economic sanctions, no member State except ourselves had taken any military precautions.

Lastly, it was a moment when it seemed to me that Anglo-French co-operation was essential if there was to be no breach at Geneva and if the sanctions when functioning were not to be destroyed. For two days M. Laval and I discussed the basis of a possible negotiation. We were not discussing terms to be imposed upon the belligerents. We were discussing proposals that might bring the two parties into the same room and that might make subsequent negotiation possible. The proposals that emerged from those discussions were not French proposals or British proposals in the sense that we liked them. Neither M. Laval nor I liked many features of them. But that basis did seem to us to be the only basis upon which it was even remotely likely that we could at least start a peace discussion. It was certainly the minimum basis upon which the French Government were prepared to proceed, and this minimum was only reached after two days or strenuous discussion. So far as I myself was concerned it seemed to me to be so important to start a negotiation, even if it had to be on this basis that, much as I disliked some features of the scheme, I could not withhold my provisional assent. I felt that the issues were so grave and the dangers of the continuance of the war were so serious that it was worth making an attempt, and that it was essential to maintain Anglo-French solidarity. It was in this spirit and this spirit alone that we agreed to the suggestions. That alone is the explanation and justification of the Paris communique.

What were the suggestions that we put forward to the belligerents and the League? I am aware that many of my friends have said to me, "Say nothing about the proposals. They are dead. The world is against them." I could not accept that advice in justice either to myself or, what is much more important, in justice to the gravity of the issues that are raised by it. I would venture, if I may, to ask the indulgence of the House for two or three minutes whilst in my own words I give a description, I hope a not controversial description, of the actual proposals, for I am anxious to have these proposals on the records of the House in order that it can be seen what in actual practice were the proposals that led to my resignation.

There were three classes of proposals; the first for international supervision; the second for territorial exchanges; and the third, for opportunities for Italian economic expansion and settlement. These were the three principles of the Report of the Committee of Five, and it is important to remind the House that whilst Signor Mussolini refused to accept them the Emperor accepted them in principle when the threat of war was hanging over him. Secondly, it should also be remembered that not long ago the Emperor himself showed his great desire for an outlet to the sea by offering to exchange for it the vast region of Ogaden. The Paris proposals substituted for Ogaden a part of the Tigre province that is now in Italian, occupation and in which the Abyssinian chieftains seem to have gone over to the Italian side, but they would have meant the Italian evacuation of certain of the occupied territories, including the sacred town of Aksum. Secondly, they suggested a strip of Danakil and Ogaden territory of limited area. This territory is entirely desert.

As to the port, let me make it quite clear that the proposal was for an effective outlet, with a wide corridor in full sovereignty for Abyssinia, at Assab, and no stipulation was discussed concerning any restriction upon it as to the building of a railway. The Zeila alternative was only included as an alternative if both sides preferred it.

As to the South, a large area was to be set aside for Italian economic development and expansion. This area is non-Amharic. It represents comparatively recent conquest by Abyssinia; it is sparsely populated, slave raiding has devastated it in some parts, while slave ownership is prevalent over the whole area, as indeed over the whole country. Here, however, let me make it as clear as I can that there was to be no transfer of sovereignty, and that the administration, while continuing to be Abyssinian, was to be under the guidance and control of the League Plan of Assistance. What I understand to have been an early objection raised by the Committee of Five against anything like a dual administration was thus met. At the same time, and as was bound to be the case in an area in which Italians were to settle and Italian capital was to be sunk, officials of Italian nationality would take a predominant part in the local control, but that local control would be subject to the League Plan of Assistance. You will find such development clearly foreseen in the Charter of Assistance drawn up by the Committee of Five and included on page 4 of the White Paper. In no sense was the area to be a transferred territory, nor, so far as the League supervision was concerned, was it to be differentiated from the rest of Abyssinia.

I am aware that this part of the scheme has met with the fiercest criticism. I would, however, remind hon. Members firstly, that a free hand was left to the League to fill in this chapter as it willed; and, secondly, that from all parts of the House we have heard demands for Italian colonial expansion. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Let me say then from more than one part of the House. I would also remind hon. Members that by various instruments, more particularly the 1906 Treaty as regards the French and ourselves, and the 1925 exchange of Notes between ourselves and Italy, we have recognised Italian economic interests over a much wider area of Abyssinia than that comprised in this southern zone, whilst only recently we have made it clear that so far as we ourselves are concerned we have no other economic interest in the country than those centred in the waters of Lake Tsana and the Blue Nile.

These proposals are immensely less favourable to Italy that the demand that Signor Mussolini made to my right hon. Friend the Minister for League of Nations Affairs last summer. They are immensely less favourable to Italy than the demands that Signor Mussolini has subsequently made. In the summer Signor Mussolini said that in any settlement without war he would require to annex all those parts of Abyssinia which did not form part of Abyssinia proper but which had been conquered by Abyssinia, and to control Abyssinia proper. The parts of Abyssinia which Italy then wished to annex are far greater than the cessions contemplated in the Paris proposals. Moreover, Signor Mussolini made it alto clear that if he had to go to war to secure his ends his aim would be to wipe out the name of Abyssinia from the map. I venture to make those observations to meet the charge that is made against me that I have approved of terms more favourable than those which Signor Mussolini demands himself.

I have spoken of the Italian side of the controversy, but let no hon. Member think that throughout these difficult months. I have not equally been thinking of the Abyssinian side of the controversy. I will tell hon. Members what has constantly been in my mind. I have been terrified with the thought—I speak very frankly to the House—that we might lead Abyssinia on to think that the League could do more than it can do, that in the end we should find a terrible moment of disillusionment in which it might be that Abyssinia would be destroyed altogether as an independent State. I have been terrified at that possibility, and I could not help thinking of the past in which, more than once in our history, we have given, and rightly given, all our sympathies to some threatened or down-trodden race, but because we had been unable to implement and give effect to those sympathies all that we had done was to encourage them, with the result that in the end their fate was worse than it would have been without our sympathy.

It was on that account and with that fear constantly in my mind that I approved of the telegram going to Addis Ababa that appears in the White Paper, in which I asked, or in which the Government asked—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] When I made that observation I had nothing in my mind except to make the position clear and to avoid appearing an egoist. It was on that account that the telegram went to Addis Ababa, asking the Emperor to give favourable consideration to the possibility of negotiations. The telegram in no way meant that we wished to impose terms upon him, but we did feel, looking to the dangers of the future, that it was for the Emperor to think with responsibility and seriousness whether in his own interests it was better or not that he should favourably consider negotiations.

The fact is that there are only two ways of ending a war—either peace by negotiation or peace by surrender. If it is to be a peace by negotiation, I do believe that when the time comes it will not be found that that peace will have to be made upon the three principles that I stated at the beginning of my speech. If hon. Members have any other suggestions to make, I hope they will make them in this Debate. If it is to be a peace by surrender, it will mean the complete collapse of one or other of the belligerents. My own view—and I state it frankly to the House—is that I believe the end of the war will come by peace by negotiation. I believe that it will not come by peace by complete surrender either of one side or the other. When peace comes it will be found that the three principles that I have stated will be the basis of it.

In any case the present peace negotiations have failed, but the problem of settlement still remains. Failure makes the position more difficult and dangerous than it was before. This fact I had constantly in mind in my talks in Paris. I knew that if the negotiations proved to be impossible the situation must inevitably become more acute. The situation has become more acute.

It is necessary for me in a few sentences—and they will be very few—to say something to the House upon the situation as I see it to-day, now that the negotiations have failed. It is necessary for all the members of the League to take stock of the position. Hitherto, they have worked together, and they have worked well together. They have imposed economic sanctions and, on the whole, they have co-operated successfully the one with the other, but up to the present this economic pressure has not brought us into the danger zone. Now that we are entering a new phase, I should not be candid with the House were I not to say that I believe we are entering upon a much more dangerous phase.

I make no complaints or any recriminations against any member State in the past. They have done their best, but I do say that up to the present they have taken no military precautions. Now that we are entering upon this new chapter in the war, it is essential, if collective defence is to be real and effective, that we go beyond the period of general protestations and that we should have actual proof by action from the member States that are concerned. There is no secret about what I am saying to the House. We alone have taken these military precautions. There is the British Fleet in the Mediterranean, there are the British reinforcements in Egypt, in Malta and Aden. Not a ship, not a machine, not a man has been moved by any other member State. Now that negotiations have failed, we must have something more than these general protestations of loyalty to the League. I say that again, not because we, the British Empire, are afraid of an Italian attack upon us but because without this active co-operation collective security is impossible and the League will dissolve. I say it further because I believe that without this active co-operation it will be impossible to have more than an unsatisfactory peace. You cannot have a 100 per cent. peace if you have only got 5 per cent. co-operation that goes to the making of it.

If every member State will by action prove that it is determined to take its full part in resistance of an aggressive act, if an aggressive act is made, then it will be possible to have the kind of peace that we all of us desire. Let the House remember the conditions of modern warfare. Let them remember that in modern warfare events move very quickly. Let them remember that the aggressor has a great advantage, that the aggressor has his forces mobilised and is ready to strike and that, in the conditions of modern warfare, he can strike with appalling speed. That makes it all the more necessary that all the member States should here and now make themselves ready, not for an event, improbable though it may be, that will take place in three, four or six months, but an event that may take place at any time. I say this not with a view of creating panic, not with a view of suggesting that we are afraid of an Italian attack, but because I believe that unless these facts are faced, and are faced in the immediate future, either the League will break up, or a most unsatisfactory peace will result from the conflict that is now taking place. It is a choice between the full co-operation of all the member States and the kind of unsatisfactory compromise that was contemplated in the suggestions which M. Laval and I put up.

I am greatly obliged to the House for allowing me to make this somewhat protracted explanation. I felt it to be my duty to put the position, and to put before them as clearly and as frankly as I could the dangers that I see lurking in the future unless we face the facts that actually confront us.

I come now to the conclusion of the matter as far as it concerns myself. I ask myself, looking back, whether I have a guilty conscience or whether my conscience is clear. I say with all humility to the House that my conscience is clear. So far as the judgment of others is concerned, I am painfully aware that a great body of opinion is intensely critical of the course that I adopted. Knowing my own deficiencies, having no illusions about my own abilities, I should I naturally have wished to accept the view of this great body of men and women from one end of the country to the other, but, looking at the situation as I see it, looking back at the position in which I was placed a fortnight ago, I say to the House that I cannot honestly recant. I sincerely believe that the course that I took was the only course that was possible in the circumstances. It may be that the great majority in this House disagree with me. It may be that many of my best friends disagree with me. None the less I am sure that in dealing with these grave issues the only course to take is that course which one genuinely believes to be the right course. I believe it was the right course. I believe that in the future, when opinion is somewhat less excited than it is to-day, at any rate some of my friends will think that there were better reasons for the course I took than they think to-day.

In any case, there is the hard ineluctable fact that for the time being I feel that I have not got the confidence of the great body of opinion in the country, and I feel that it is essential for the Foreign Secretary, more than any other Minister in the Government, to have behind him the general approval of his fellow-country-men. I have not got that general approval behind me to-day. As soon as I realised this fact, without any prompting, without any suggestion from anyone, I asked the Prime Minister to accept my resignation. I asked him to accept it for this reason alone, that I believe that in the circumstances I should not carry weight and influence in the councils of the world unless I had behind me the great body of opinion in this country—and I knew I had not got it in the present circumstances. I can do no more than wish my successor, whoever he may be, every kind of success in the political tasks with which he will be confronted, and I will only add that I hope he will have better luck that I have had in the last two weeks.