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European Situation

Volume 345: debated on Friday 31 March 1939

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Captain Margesson.]

2.52 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked me this morning whether I could make a statement as to the European situation. As I said this morning, His Majesty's Government have no official confirmation of the rumours of any projected attack on Poland and they must not, therefore, be taken as accepting them as true.

I am glad to take this opportunity of stating again the general policy of His Majesty's Government. They have constantly advocated the adjustment, by way of free negotiation between the parties concerned, of any differences that may arise between them. They consider that this is the natural and proper course where differences exist. In their opinion there should be no question incapable of solution by peaceful means, and they would see no justification for the substitution of force or threats of force for the method of negotiation.

As the House is aware, certain consultations are now proceeding with other Governments. In order to make perfectly clear the position of His Majesty's Government in the meantime before those consultations are concluded, I now have to inform the House that during that period, in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty's Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect.

I may add that the French Government have authorised me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty's Government.

2.54 p.m.

May I, in one sentence, transgress in order to say that I am quite sure that this House realises the potentialities that might arise from the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made. It may prove to be in its consequences as momentous a statement as has been made in this House for a quarter of a century. It is very difficult with such recent statements before us to say very much, but may I ask the right hon. Gentleman one or two questions which I do not think he has made quite clear in his statement. I would like to ask him whether the statement which he has now read is to be regarded as the first step in a developing policy to deter or restrain aggression, and, if so, will the Government take immediate, active and energetic steps to bring into this arrangement other Powers? Will he especially think of the value of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics together with other Powers, large and small? Will he do so with the wider object of obtaining the maximum amount of co-operation in the defence of peace? Will he consider now the advisability of an immediate conference of those Powers who might be prepared to range themselves on the side of peace as against aggression?

2.57 p.m.

:I will try to answer the questions which the right hon. Gentleman has put to me. I think the statement makes it clear that what I have said is intended to cover what I may call an interim period. The Government, as has already been announced, are in consultation with various other Powers, including, of course, the Soviet Government. My Noble Friend the Foreign Secretary saw the Soviet Ambassador this morning, and had very full discussions with him on the subject. I have no doubt that the principles upon which we are acting are fully understood and appreciated by that Government. The House is aware that we are expecting a visit next week from Colonel Beck, the Foreign Secretary of Poland. There will then be an opportunity of discussing with him the various further measures that may be taken in order, as the right hon. Gentleman has put it, to accumulate the maximum amount of co-operation in any efforts that may be made to put an end to aggression, if aggression were intended, and to substitute for it the more reasonable and orderly method of discussion.

There is a point to which the right hon. Gentleman did not refer—the possibilities of a conference. May I put this point, and I want to put it quite frankly, as I think the House will not be without a feeling of responsibility at this moment. Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether in his view he would welcome that maximum co-operation from all Powers, including the U.S.S.R.?

Yes, we should welcome the maximum amount of co-operation. On the question of a conference, in our view it is simply a matter of practical expediency. We have no theoretical views about a conference. If it proved to be the best way we should not hesitate to use it. If we find that there is a more effective way of achieving our object, we might dispense with a conference.

With regard to the Prime Minister's original statement, may I ask whether there has been time for full consultation with the Dominions?

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that there are no idealogicial impediments between us and the U.S.S.R.?

3.1 p.m.

The Prime Minister has made a very important statement, which has been received with great satisfaction in all parts of the House. I would like to suggest to the House whether it might not be desirable, in view of what we have heard to-day, to postpone the Debate on Monday? The Debate was principally aimed at eliciting certain information. The House has now had that information. It is doubtful whether there will be anything new on Monday, and perhaps it will be desirable to put the Debate off for a day or two as a debate in these delicate circumstances might land us in much more harm than good.

May I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that this House, faced with the gravity of the situation, will, I hope, have a Debate on Monday, which will be in accordance with the best traditions of this House.

May I support the right hon. Gentleman in resisting the suggestion made by the noble Lord? I feel that it would be quite improper, having regard to the earlier part of the Prime Minister's statement, to say one critical word, but I would not like to assume that we would not have an early opportunity of surveying the new situation that is created by the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement.

3.3 p.m.

The Prime Minister has made a statement that if Poland is attacked we will go to war. May I draw attention to the fact that what everybody desires is the most immediate unification of the peace forces to prevent us going to war, and I suggest to the Prime Minister that if he wants to give real service to the country in such a critical and dangerous position he will give the opportunity and give the responsibility to some one who all along has believed in the principle of collective security to organise a government that will pursue with the utmost speed a policy that will save us from war? [Interruption.] This is a very serious matter. We have heard from the Prime Minister that in the event of certain things happening this country is going to war, and we from these benches declare that if the present methods are adopted—

I understand the policy of the Labour movement—and I have been a member of the Labour movement all my life—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I pay my dues to the Labour movement, and there is no need for anybody in the Labour party adopting such an attitude as that of the hon. Member. The serious and important thing is that Members on this side of the House have continuously asserted that with collective security peace could be saved. The Prime Minister's policy has collapsed. Now he has led the country to the brink of war and I suggest the time has come when this Government—[HON. MEM BERS: "Sit down!"] If Members on this side had stood with me— [Interruption] —and prevented the Prime Minister from going to Munich, we would not be discussing going to war now. I ask the Prime Minister to do a real service to the country and to give to those who believe in collective security an opportunity of forming a Government and saving the people of this country and the people of Europe from the menace of war.

May I ask the Prime Minister, in view of the tension that undoubtedly exists between Poland and Germany at the present moment, whether he is aware of any approach by the German Government to the Polish Government with a view to securing peaceful discussion of their differences?

3.6 p.m.

I should not have risen to make a few remarks if it had not been for the suggestion made by the Noble Lord opposite and the way in which certain remarks which have just been made by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) have been received by Members of the House. Hon. Members know that I am not usually associated with the hon. Member for West Fife in his remarks, but I want to say to the House that we on these Benches realise the gravity of the statement which the Prime Minister has just made. We who have vivid memories of 1914 know what that statement may mean, and probably will mean, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that, if the Debate takes place on Monday, we shall have some critical remarks to make about the right hon. Gentleman and his policy, which I believe has led up to the position in which we are at the moment; and I can assure hon. Members that, just as we on these Benches have fought for our country in the past, and would do so again—[HON. MEMBERS: "So have we!"]—Members on all Benches, shall I say—and we would do it again—nevertheless we are not quite satisfied in our own minds that, if the occasion should come, the Prime Minister is the one to lead this nation.

3.8 p.m.

Since we all seem to be expressing our particular points of view, I would like just to express mine in about two sentences. At the time of the crisis last September, I expressed certain views with regard to the Prime Minister. I thought then that he had made in the past very serious mistakes, but I thought there was every justification, in all the circumstances, for his doing what he did at Munich. I want to say this further. There may be an alternative Prime Minister to take charge of the affairs of this country at this grave hour, but—and this, of course, is an absolute condition— if the Prime Minister is now genuinely and sincerely convinced, without any mental reservation, that it is necessary for him to pursue this new policy of rallying the friends of peace, if he is convinced of that and is quite sincere about it, and is not looking back upon the dead past, then I think, in view of his world reputation as a man for peace, he is probably the best man for the job.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight Minutes after Three o'Clock, until Monday next, 3rd April.