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The Russo-Polish Situation

Volume 41: debated on Monday 16 August 1920

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My Lords, I had hoped before we separated this afternoon to have been in a position to make some definite statement to your Lordships either about the progress of hostilities in the Eastern parts of Europe or about the negotiations which have been started between Poland and Russia at Minsk. But I am incapacitated from doing so for the reason that the information possessed by the Government is in no respect in excess of that which has already appeared and is appearing from hour to hour in the columns of the Press. It is clear that fierce fighting is going on in that part of the world between the two parties. We hear of towns being taken and retaken, and evidently the Poles are putting up a strenuous fight for their capital. On the other hand it would appear that the Red Armies are closing in upon Warsaw, and I cannot conceal from your Lordships my impression that that city is in very grave danger. I might mention that the Allied Legations and Missions have retired from the town and are now safely established at Posen.

As regards the negotiations, the delegates of the two parties have already after long delay—which it is rather difficult to explain and the responsibility for which is thrown by the one party upon the other—at length met at Minsk, and the negotiations are no doubt now proceeding. In those circumstances it appeared to His Majesty's Government that it would hardly be fair to keep Parliament sitting from day to day at this period of the year in the hope of receiving information which may or may not come and which may in any case be delayed for a few days longer. I therefore propose, in this House, to ask your Lordships' assent to a repetition of the Resolution which you have passed on two occasions during the past six years. The first was at the opening of the war in August, 1914, when, upon the adjournment, it was thought very desirable to provide an opportunity, if necessary, for the re-summoning of this House in order to hear any important Ministerial statements that might have to be made. There was an interesting discussion upon that occasion, to which reference has since been made. The second occasion was in April of the present year when, being about to separate for a holiday rather longer than that which was to be taken by the House of Commons and it appearing to be not unlikely that a Ministerial statement might have to be made in both Houses Of Parliament upon there-assembling of the House of Commons, your Lordships again passed a Resolution admitting of the summoning of this House in those circumstances. In the discussion that took place it was, I think, laid down by the noble Lord who is opposite me, and was accepted by myself speaking for the Government, that it would only be in the event of a national emergency of considerable importance that such a step would be taken by us.

Accordingly the terms of the Motion which I will make, identical with that winch we have discussed previously, are as follows—

That this House on its adjournment do adjourn to October 19, except that if it appears to the satisfaction of the Lord Chancellor that the public interest requires that the House should meet at any earlier time during such adjournment, the Lord Chancellor may give notice to Peers that he is so satisfied, and thereupon the House shall meet at the time stated in such Notice and shall transact its business as if it had been duly adjourned to that time.

I may here mention also that it was agreed on the last occasion that in the event of such a situation arising, of which, of course, the Leader of the House as a member of the Government would be the best judge, he should put himself into communication with the Lord Chancellor after ascertaining the views of noble Lords who sit opposite, and that that should be the way in which this procedure should be set in motion. I may add that, following the useful example which we have thus set on two occasions, the House of Commons is, I believe, this afternoon for the first time in its history going to pass a similar Resolution; so that, my Lords, we have the advantage of having inaugurated a procedure which, although it ought to be carefully safeguarded, is, I think, very useful for any emergency of the character that I have described.

I may add that of course we should not ask Parliament to meet again merely to hear news that you can gain from other and non-official sources. The only condition so far as I can see in which it would be thought desirable to summon Parliament during the recess would be if, contrary to the hopes that we entertain, events which are happening at Minsk involve any direct infringement of the independence of Poland and of the maintenance of her ethnographic frontiers which we, along with our Allies, are pledged to maintain. That obligation, my Lords, is laid upon all of us by the Treaty of Versailles, by the Covenant of the League of Nations, and by the pronouncements and declarations which we have all of us made from time to time.

Our policy—here I am referring more particularly to the policy of the British Government—has been the same throughout in respect of Poland. It has never wavered one iota. It is the policy that was pronounced along with that of our Allies at the Conferences of Boulogne, of Spa, and of Hythe. It was stated in another place only last week in a speech of considerable fulness by the Prime Minister, and that policy I submit to your Lordships has been endorsed by the unanimous public approval of the country. What are our objects, my Lords? They can be stated in a couple of sentences. The first I have already indicated—it is to secure the independence of Poland within her legitimate frontiers, not, I may say, an aggressive or imperialistic Poland which might be a menace to her neighbours, but the Poland with which we are familiar in history, a Poland that shall be able to maintain her national existence as a bulwark of civilisa- tion and a bar against anarchy in that part of Europe. Our second object, and even a wider one, is the peace of Europe. We want, so far as it rests with us, to bring peace to a distracted world. This country no more than any country that I know is in a mood for fresh wars, least of all wars that are dictated or suggested by impossible aims. We in this country neither have the available forces nor have we the available treasure to indulge in any more such adventures, and I think I may add, too, that the country has not the spirit or the stomach for any such further undertakings. Public opinion here and everywhere is bent upon securing, if that be possible, a just and an honourable peace; and since the beginning of the war, when the nation flamed forth in a spirit of unbroken unity in support of the then Government, I can recall no occasion when the public sentiment of this country was more united in this respect than it is at the present time.

My Lords, that is the advice which we have given to the Polish Government, and I may add incidentally that only this morning we had a telegram from our Italian Allies to say that that advice, which has been challenged in some quarters, met with their complete and enthusiastic support. I hope that circumstances will not arise that will demand the meeting of Parliament under the Resolution which will be moved later, but no action by His Majesty's Government in excess of or in opposition to the policy which I have laid down will be taken without giving an opportunity to Parliament under this Resolution of expressing an opinion upon it.