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European Situation

Volume 345: debated on Thursday 6 April 1939

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4.7 p.m.

The tail-end of a holiday adjournment Debate does not offer exactly an alluring prospect of raising an issue of general policy. All the same, I think it would be wrong, at a time so grave as the present, if one or two voices were not raised in order to draw attention to the implications of our present foreign policy and of the foreign situation in the sphere of defence. In the last few months the dangers which confront us have multiplied in many directions. The consequences which we have drawn from these dangers in the field of foreign policy themselves constitute new and most formidable commitments. The question we are bound to ask ourselves, and the House is bound to ask itself, is whether the preparations made by the Government to meet these dangers and to honour our commitments, are in any sense commensurate with our present national policy. Let me remind the House what those dangers and commitments are. We have, to begin with, those which directly affect our own Naval and Imperial position in the Mediterranean. We understand—and I suppose it will be confirmed before long—that General Franco is joining the Anti-Comintern Pact. We may hope that in the eventuality of any international conflict, Spain may stay neutral, but at the same time we should be foolish if we ignored the possibility of danger to Gibraltar, of danger arising from Ceuta, opposite Gibraltar, and of the possibility of danger to our whole Naval position created by the holding of the Balearic Islands by a potentially hostile Power. We have to consider the position in Malta. A position, possibly even more serious, might arise to Egypt and Palestine if hostile forces should concentrate there. All those are commitments which, apart from our air and sea preparations, would inevitably call for a very considerable exercise of military force.

Over and above that, we have our commitment to France, and the French Alliance is by common consent an indispensable element of our security to-day. That commitment was serious enough in any case. It has not been made less serious by developments in Spain. Over and above those commitments, for which our preparations, I venture to say, have been quite inadequate in the past, we have now undertaken the most formidable commitment of all, our guarantee to Poland. May I remind the House of one essential difference between that guarantee and our guarantee to France? In the case of France, the help we might give is essential for the purpose of enabling France to defend herself. Success in mere defence would attain its object. In the case of Poland, at any rate so far as we are concerned, the only chance of fully honouring our obligation, in the event of war, would be if our opponents were so completely crushed that at the end of the war they had to surrender any attempt upon Poland and give up any territory which they might have occupied. It is a much more serious undertaking that we have given in respect of Poland, from the military point of view, than anything we have given hitherto.

We are bound to ask ourselves what is the military force which we have behind these commitments, and, more particularly, what is the military force we shall have available at the outbreak of war, the vital moment, the moment when everything may be decided one way or the other. What is the force we shall have available then? Let us face the actual facts of the situation. There is a force of, perhaps, five Regular Divisions. That is all we shall have—I am pot quite sure we shall have even that—available at the outbreak of war. Whether any of that force will be available to help France, I am not sure. The other commitments of which I spoke might quite easily absorb the best part of five divisions. The forces of potential opponents in that part of the world, in the Mediterranean, certainly amount to a great deal more than five divisions; and therefore, we cannot with any certainty reckon upon assisting France at the outbreak of war with anything like five divisions.

I may be told that we are going to raise a great new force. Such terms are very relative in the world of to-day. The new force may be a great force, relative to what we have done in the past, but it will be very small, relative to the forces with which we shall have to deal. This so-called great force is to consist of a further 13 Territorial Army divisions, making 26 divisions altogether. Now it is essential that we should face the facts about this. I hope we may get the men. I hope that the patriotism of this country, even under the averse conditions of so-called voluntary service, will find the men prepared to join. But what is the position to be when it comes to the outbreak of war? Will any of these divisions be ready to take the field? Of course not. To send troops with the kind of training which it is possible to get in spare time—anoccasional evening's drill and a week or two in camp—to send troops with that amount of training, to face trained armies with modern equipment would just be massacre. It would be a crime against the nation to dream of sending these troops into the field for at least two or three months after the outbreak of war—two or three months during which the fate of Europe and the British Empire might be decided.

That is one aspect of the matter. Again, it would be criminal to send troops into the field if there were no reserves behind them. Has anything been done to provide reserves for any of these Territorial divisions? We know quite well that there are neither reserves nor cadres in which trained reserves are being provided. Is it not perfectly obvious that so far as a force available at the outbreak of war is concerned, these 26 Territorial divisions are just eyewash? They may form a nucleus for training, for sending divisions to the front some months after war has begun, but that is all. They will not be available at the outbreak of war. Those of us who urge the principle of universal liability for service have been told, "Your ideas can only be developed after some time, and this is an emergency measure." I wonder whether the doubling of the Territorial field force is, in fact, the most rapid emergency measure which we can take?

From that point of view, I would draw attention to what was said by the Secretary of State for War only the other night at Bermondsey. He was contrasting for his own purposes—and I do not propose to pursue the contrast—the inestimable advantages, as he called them, from a military standpoint, of universal service, such as equality of service and an equal chance to all, and he went on to point out that if all recruits were given a continuous period of training with the Regular Army the men could be brought to the centres where skilled staffs and equipment existed. It must be realised, he said, that under the Territorial system the staffs and equipment had to be brought to the recruits and had to be dispersed. In other words, the slowest way of building up forces for an emergency is the Territorial system and any other method, whether voluntary or not, by which you could rapidly raise men and have them trained where the facilities for training already exist and where the equipment for training already exists, would, from the emergency point of view, be very much preferable.

We are told that we cannot raise more than a certain number of men because the equipment is lacking. Is it not a terrible reflection that no equipment seems to have been ordered, beyond the requirements of the existing Territorial Force, after the events of last Autumn? One would have thought that, even if there were difficulties in raising the men, we could at any rate have looked ahead sufficiently to provide the equipment—uniforms, boots, machine guns, artillery—but apparently even for the second 13 divisions that is only now being got ready. So far as we know, nothing is being got ready for the necessary reserves or for any expansion. We all know that if war broke out to-morrow, as it might, we should at once have to face the necessity of framing some sort of clear, comprehensive, and coherent plan on a scale commensurate with the danger. Is it really impossible to do something of that sort to-day, even if we cannot carry out all the measures? Is it impossible to envisage to-day the kind of measures which we know will be wanted if the present European situation should end in war and not, as we sincerely hope, in peace?

Let me just state to the House what are the obvious conditions that have to be taken into account. The first, of course, is the maximum number of men that we can make available after other essential needs—naval, air, munitions— have been met; the next is the minimum period of training at the end of which we can venture to put troops into the field with modern equipment; the next is how to provide the necessary training staff for those troops; the fourth is how to provide the equipment for them; and, lastly, and by no means least important, by what method actually to get hold of the men when we have decided how many we must have and on what lines we are to train them. On each of these points I want to say a word or two.

As to the number of men which we can make available, obviously in this country, with the calls upon us for the Navy, the merchant service, the Air Force, and other purposes, we are not likely to be able to mobilise as many men on land as some other nations of the same population as ours. But how many less? Perhaps 1,000,000, perhaps even 2,000,000 less. Certainly, I cannot imagine that that list of 6,000,000 in the reserved occupations, more than half of them still of fighting age, is a really serious way of facing the problem, with no arrangements for substitution or replacement. Take it at its very lowest, make the most sweeping reductions you like, and the figures that we ought to be planning for are not another 170,000 or 250,000, but another 1,700,000 or 2,500,000. That is the kind of scale to which we ought to be working, if we are really confronting the seriousness of this problem; and if we are, then obviously we should be beginning now to take the necessary measures to build up a training staff, which is the most essential first step. Nobody suggests that we should call out men before they are wanted or before they can be trained, but once you have made your plans, you can begin to organise the necessary training staff.

The next thing we should begin to do, and to do at once, is to see to the munitions programme. Hitherto our whole munitions programme has been a hand-to-mouth programme. After a bit the Government have yielded to the pressure of the House of Commons, or possibly of allies, and said, "We will add something to our Forces." Then they say, "We must order some more munitions." How can we face so grave a problem with methods like that? The natural consequence, if we once had to face a scale of equipment based on a real plan, is that we should have to come to some decision on the question of a Ministry of Supply, on the question of necessary priorities being given, on the question of co-operation with the trade union world, and on the question of the definite limitation of profiteering. All these things out to be decided now, and it is terrible that this problem of the Ministry of Supply, and all that flows from it, has been postponed from month to month, and that even now, when we may be on the very verge of war, no decision has been taken.

I come to the question of the minimum period of training. I do not think anyone would dream of suggesting that the present Territorial training can create troops fit to take the field at the outbreak of war. The patriotism of the men who give night after night and the best of their holiday times to the Territorial Army is admirable. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) said not long ago, it is almost sublime. You would not get it in any other country. All the same, we cannot get from the most patriotic people under present conditions more than spare-time service, and that will not give us the months of continuous and intensive training that are the very minimum which will make soldiers fit to take the field. It is not for me to suggest a particular figure, but, judging from the experience of the most democratic countries, countries least affected by militarism like the Swiss, the Swedes, or the Norwegians, I should say that from four to six months is the very least period of effective training that we can give in fairness to the men whom we ask to risk their lives for their country.

Then comes the question how, with that period of service, we are going to get the men? We may get a certain number, and we ought to try to get a certain number at once, on voluntary lines, by offering sufficient pay to build up as quickly as we can something corresponding to the old Special Reserve—100,000, 150,000 or 200,000 if we can. These we should form into a certain number of divisions and build up the reserves for those divisions. Nor should we hesitate at a moment like this to take the maximum advantage we can of the able men of military age who are now refugees from countries in Central Europe. Let us make use of every emergency reserve we can get. But I cannot see how we can get anything like the numbers that are wanted without taking our courage in our hands as a nation and deciding that we must in some form or other accept the principle of universal obligatory service. I do not wish to elaborate that point further. All I say is that that is the big issue which we ought to face now rather than disperse for the holidays and think that this matter can be postponed.

Taking the issues I have mentioned together, the things that are necessary to-day demand an effort on such a scale that they can only be carried out by a united nation. I believe we are to-day a united nation so far as foreign policy is concerned, at any rate, on essentials. The House showed that clearly last Monday. If we are united with regard to the end, can we afford to be disunited with regard to the means? Is it really impossible for the Government and the Opposition, the leaders of industry and the leaders of trade unions, to get together and honestly, and from the foundations, to examine the facts of the military situation and ask themselves what are the steps which we must take if our policy is to have any chance of being carried through to success? I hope the Prime Minister, who is, after all, the natural leader of this House and of the country at this moment, will take his courage in his hands and approach others, and somehow or other find means of getting together in agreement. Whether that takes the form of closer consultation or the form of widening the basis of government it is not for me to say; but in some way or other it is time we faced the gravity of the present situation, and faced it as a united nation, united not merely on our general ideas of policy, but united on what is indispensable if that policy is to succeed, namely on the means by which that policy can be carried out.

4.32 p.m.

I remember that on the occasion of that very difficult ordeal, the making of my maiden speech in this House, I had the honour of following the right hon. Member for Spark-brook (Mr. Amery), and I was then astonished to discover the extent to which I agreed with him, and again to-day I would like to state that I am proud to say that I agree with him in a very great measure, because I think he is one of the most sincere men in this House, and that is not a reflection on other people. I am speaking to-day because I feel most strongly that it is time that we in this House realised that a world war is actually in progress, even though it may happen that, so far, there has been very little bloodshed. I believe that we have got to learn to think strategically, and I confess, as one who spends a good deal of time reading foreign newspapers and listening to the menacing broadcasts, the insulting broadcasts, about this country which reach us, that I think it is time that we altered our whole conception of defence. The failure of this Government to think strategically in the last few years has lost us the most important positions in the Mediterranean, in Northern Africa, in the Far East, in South-Eastern Europe, and now, as we read in the papers only this morning, in Spain.

As I see it, the only hope of Germany to destroy this Empire is to win what they themselves call a Blitzkrieg, a lightning war. If Germany cannot win a war in a very few weeks, then our much greater resources, and probably our greater number of allies, will be the decisive factor in victory. As I see it, we have to do everything to make sure that in the first few days or weeks of war, if war were to happen, we should not be found unprepared. As far as foreign policy is concerned, there are obviously two things we ought to do, in my opinion. One is, with the very greatest speed, to make an alliance with Russia; because whatever we may think of the internal situation of Russia there can be very little doubt that the Russian Army to-day is much more effective than the Tsarist Army of 1913, and yet, as we know, even after the Americans were fully in the war, when Russia went out of it and the Germans were able to transfer their divisions from the eastern to the western front, just 19 years ago, we very nearly lost the war, because Germany was no longer fighting on two fronts. I, personally, am very grateful that the Government have concluded this Agreement with Poland, because that, to my mind, is a great deterrent, but I think we have got to see that that is expanded as quickly as possible to cover Russia.

The second thing that ought to happen is, surely, that our foreign policy should be one that wins the fullest confidence of the American people. It is certain that Herr Hitler and President Roosevelt between them have abolished the American conception of isolation. That is a remarkable change, to which we pay far too little attention. The realisation that even if Germany were to succeed in a Blitzkrieg, in a lightning war, and in frightening the British and French people so much that they would demand peace, which I do not believe would happen, the knowledge and realisation that behind the British and French people were the great people of the United States would be the greatest of all deterrents for Germany. In other words, it seems obvious that our foreign policy must make quite sure that if Germany tried to declare war she would have to fight on two fronts, and would have the prospect of having to face the great resources of the United States.

I wanted to speak to-day on the question of domestic or home defence. I confess that I am horrified that we are going away for the Easter holidays at a moment when every Member of this House is deeply disquieted by the news from abroad, and at the difference between the temper of the preparations for war in this country and in Germany. In those totalitarian States we find the whole national industry concentrated on the preparation for war, but we are still going ahead with no decision on deep shelters, the question of a Ministry of Supply or the concentration of food reserves, and we are still told that we must not interfere with business as usual—although from all I hear there is very little business with which to interfere.

The result is that when we appeal to the small nations of Europe, which are desperately anxious to maintain their independence, and of which there is not one which is not terrified of being dominated by Germany, when we say that after years of very indecisive foreign policy we now propose to build up again this idea of collective security which the Government, throughout years, have done nothing to defend but, on the contrary, have done a great deal to destroy, and when we say, "At last we have learned our lesson and we want to build a system of collective defence," hardly one of them has sufficient confidence in the power of the British Empire to come down definitely on their side. I saw a statement in a paper a day or two ago by the President of the Norwegian Parliament—andwhat country is closer to us than Norway?— that the Scandinavian countries did not want guarantees of help from the great Powers because they had seen lately to what such guarantees amounted. The arrangement with Poland seems to be a great step forward but, welcome though it is, it will not alone give us real security. I do not want to take up the time of the House talking about foreign affairs, but I suggest that there must be two developments. If we are to avoid the outbreak of a lightning war we must have our manpower prepared. Each man and woman in this country should know roughly what they are called upon to do.

I am afraid that I am very new to the Rules of this House, but I am told that in a Debate on the Adjournment we must be very careful to say nothing to suggest the institution of new legislation, and I do not want to do that, but I know that any idea of compulsory military service is bitterly opposed by the people who have put their trust in me as a Member of Parliament. I am fully prepared to meet that committee of the people who sent me to this House; in fact, I am anxious to meet them. If, by supporting conscription, I lose their confidence, I shall be very ready to resign at once, but there are times when the only voice to which one should listen is that of the dictates of one's conscience. I believe that one of the great deterrents at the present time to the Powers that are determined to destroy the British Empire would be the institution in this country of some form of compulsory military service. If we had to accept some form of compulsory national military service in a moment of crisis if war were to break out, the Government would probably get that accepted by the country almost without conditions. I am not sure, but I think there would be, nevertheless, throughout the Labour party and the Liberal party a great feeling of discontent about it. I do not believe it is fair to arrive at a moment of great national crisis and then ask the people to accept compulsory National Service. I think it is better to face up to that issue before the crisis arrives, and I do not think it is fair to ask the people to make that great change in their whole national make-up. I believe the only States which have not got some form of compulsory national service are Luxembourg and Monaco. [An HON. MEMBER: "San Marino."] It is accepted as a normal system by a great number of thoroughly democratic States, but it marks a very great change in our make-up.

I am convinced that it is not fair to impose that upon the British public without a very drastic change in the composition of the present Government. If you have conscription of man-power, you must also have the most rigid conceivable system of conscription of wealth, because there is not a Member of the House who wants a repetition of the war profiteering that we had between 1914 and 1918, and also, I think, you would have to have a very considerable change in the composition of the Government. Too many supporters and members of the Government have suddenly discovered the benefits and the blessings of collective security. They have been converted with a. rapidity which is only exceeded by that of Saul on the road to Damascus. During these Easter holidays, if we are given Easter holidays, I would suggest that Members of the Government should reflect very seriously whether there ought not to be a drastic change in the Government which involves not only bringing in other Members, but getting rid of certain Members in it who in the past have done a great deal to destroy the League of Nations.

After all, every one of us who was in the last War, and every one who has children who may have to fight in the next, knows that the only constructive and decent thing that came out of the war to end war was the Covenant of the League of Nations. We have seen that Covenant torn by article by article, and now we are paying the price. Every one of us wants national unity. We are faced with the gravest crisis the Empire has ever been called upon to face. Let us have a united nation. We cannot have a really united nation, whatever the votes of the House, whatever the comments of the national Press, unless we have a Government which has the absolute confidence of the great mass of the people. Therefore, may I express the hope that by the time we come back after the holidays the Government will have realised that if, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook hinted, we must adopt a different system of bringing our man power into the service of the State, we can only do it by a complete change in the outlook of the Government. It is time we got rid of some of these people who for years have done nothing to build up the collective system which we must have if the Empire is not to be destroyed.

4.45 p.m.

I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) was right in pointing out that there is a very difficult and grave position in foreign affairs to-day, and it was not out of place for him to draw attention to some of these important problems. As he said, the Debate last Monday showed very little of the spirit of controversy. The country as a whole is completely united on all major questions of foreign policy. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) said on Monday, this is no time for party political recriminations, nor is it a time when any ideological differences should be allowed to divide us. The whole country is now united. There is complete unity in all ranks and classes. This unity of people and parties is a powerful factor on the side of peace. It will greatly help the National Government in any negotiations with foreign Powers in the future.

I thought that the German Chancellor's last speech contained a number of sinister threats, as, indeed, did the German official commentary issued last Monday, which stated that England was throwing all her resources into a policy of encirclement against the vital interests of Germany on the Continent, and that the Reich had no intention of waiting until the encirclement net had been closed and rendered untearable. I thought that that was a grave threat. Of course, as the Prime Minister has shown, no one desires the encirclement of Germany. That is not desired by any country. But some of Germany's smaller neighbours fear this policy, and they have every reason to do so. Czecho-Slovakia lost her freedom through it, and the smaller States surrounding Germany are naturally most apprehensive of German encirclement.

It is sometimes said that all this political trouble and this continued phase of crisis is the aftermath of Munich. I have always held the view that the Munich policy was right at the time. There was no practical alternative policy. Nobody has been able to put forward any constructive suggestions for an alternative policy which might have been adopted at the time. At Munich the Prime Minister gave a powerful impulse to the wheel of history towards peace and ordered freedom. I think the Prime Minister's statement to-day with regard to the Polish guarantee will give to the smaller States in Europe every cause for hope and encouragement. It has been made perfectly clear now that the Government are making a most courageous and energetic attempt to master the spectre of war. I feel that the Prime Minister, like his distinguished father, has shown that no other statesman of our time has surpassed him in the two great qualities of courage and confidence. As was said by Mr. Asquith about the Prime Minister's father, his confidence was buoyant and unperturbed in the justice of his cause, and his courage persistent and undismayed in its steadfast pursuit.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook made reference to the important question of compulsory service. It is a very urgent question, and it is very much in the minds of the people of this country. I feel that the free and voluntary system will bring greater unity to these islands. I think that, if any compulsory system were introduced in peace time, it would seriously disturb the unity of this country, and might encourage foreign aggressors to take advantage of that disunity. It is true that compulsion has often shown impressive results, but in reality it is something of a sham in times of peace, and I feel that it is best to continue with the present policy, as it has shown such good results. Our free institutions certainly do not encourage compulsory methods. Our existing Constitution is flexible, and has shown great powers of adaptation. Nor can it be said that we have a new Constitution hastily framed by private ambition or popular enthusiasm. States with such organs are in danger of collapsing in fragments at the first shock of conflict. I feel that it would be much better to continue as at present with our voluntary system, rather than take the advice of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook. Turning to another point, I hold the view that the new diplomacy, of personal contact between heads of States, which has been utilised in the last two years, is direct and effective. Events move with greater speed to-day, and these new measures are necessary.

The old method, like chain armour and wooden battleships, has had its day, and will soon take its place among the things which have an interest for collectors and dealers in antiques. Now history shows us—and this was pointed out in a very able memorandum by Sir Eyre Crowe— that a danger threatening the independence of any nation has generally arisen out of the momentary predominance of a neighbouring State at once militarily powerful, economically efficient, and ambitious to extend its frontiers. The only check on the abuse of political predominance derived from such a position has already consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence. We seem to be reaching the necessity for such a combination, for the crooked cross caste its ever-lengthening shadow across Europe. At a time like this, I feel that measures of this kind are most necessary. That this political predominance is likely to be abused is quite clear from recent events. The German Chancellor has said that there is no German who, even in his most secret thoughts, has the intention of causing the British Empire any difficulty. But that is not a matter on which we can afford to run any risks. Would it be right or prudent for this country to make any sacrifices, or see any other friendly nations sacrificed, in order to help Germany to build up an universal preponderance, in the hope that Germany will promote the welfare and happiness of all other peoples without injuring anyone at all?

It may be that the German Chancellor is anxious to usher in some new, happy, golden age of innocence and freedom. But we have at present no evidence pointing in that direction, nor is it a matter in which this country can afford to take any risks, because, as the hon. Member for Bridgwater(Mr. Bartlett) said, in a most interesting speech, nothing less than the freedom of these islands is at stake. A study of pre-war Anglo-German relations shows that during that interesting diplomatic period there were many acts of direct and unmistakable hostility to England on the part of the German Government. The policy carried out by the present Government in Germany is very similar to that carried out in pre-war times by the German Foreign Office. There was, during this period, also displayed a noticeable disregard of the elementary rules for straightforward and honourable dealing, which was naturally resented by a succession of British Foreign Secretaries. There was, for example, the deception practised by Bismarck on Lord Ampthill, with regard to the first German annexation of South West Africa.

There is a long list of historical examples. There was the sudden seizure of the Cameroons by a German doctor armed with official British letters of introduction to the local people. There was the deception practised on the Reichstag by the publication of certain pretended communications to Lord Granville which were in reality never made. There were the German Chancellor's threatening speeches in Parliament; the abortive Germain raid on St. Lucia Bay and the hoisting of the German flag over vast parts of New Guinea, while negotiations were actually continuing with Britain; and there was the German pretensions to oust British settlers from Fiji and Samoa.

In all cases the British Government showed remarkable moderation, and in the same way the forbearance and restraint showed by the Prime Minister in the face of provocation has to-day given him the moral leadership of the world; and now under very different conditions we find complete unity in this country. In all these cases I have mentioned the British Government tried out the policy of friendly settlement of any outstanding differences with Germany. In the course of time, after more and more demands had been made, it was not to be wondered at that the British Government began to despair of ever reaching any satisfactory relationship with Germany by a policy of concession and compromise. In some ways the position is very similar to-day.

There was the odious Press campaign, for example, against the character of the British Army in Palestine last year, which was very similar to that which was engineered by Germany at the end of the South African War. The character of German foreign policy seems to have altered very little. At the beginning of this century Germany's restless, dynamic, and disconcerting activity with regard to other States caused widespread alarm and concern. The result was that there was provoked a hostile combination of other nations, in arms, as they felt their vital interests endangered. To-day the smaller States in Europe no doubt know what pan-Germanism means. It can only be built up on the foundation of the wreckage of European freedom and national independence. It is to be hoped that the time has now come for the peace-loving nations to stand together and form an alliance against further aggression. The spirit of restraint and accommodation which has been shown by the whole State in recent times has given this country the leadership of the nations. Therefore, I would say, in conclusion, that, armed with new weapons and ancient loyalty to peace, let us show our united resolve to preserve our freedom.

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

Adjourned accordingly at One minute before Five of the Clock, until Tuesday, 18th April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day