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House of Commons Hansard
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International Situation
29 August 1939
Volume 351

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

2.50 p.m.

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:Since the House met on Thursday last there has been little change in the main features of the situation. The catastrophe, as I said then, is not yet on us, but I cannot say that the danger of it has yet in any way receded. In these circumstances it might perhaps have seemed that it was unnecessary to ask the House to meet again before the date which had been fixed, but in times like these we have felt that it was right that the House should be kept as far as possible continuously in-' formed of all the developments in the situation as they took place. That will continue to be the principle which will guide us in further meetings of this House.

There is one thing that I would like to say at this moment with regard to the Press. I think it is necessary once more to urge the Press to exercise the utmost restraint at a time when it is quite possible for a few thoughtless words in a paper, perhaps not of particular importance, to wreck the whole of the efforts which are being made by the Government to obtain a satisfactory solution. I have heard that an account purporting to be a verbatim description of the communication of the British Government to Herr Hitler was telegraphed to another country last night or this morning. Such an account could only be an invention from beginning to end. It is, I think, very unfortunate that journalists in the exercise of their profession should take such responsibilities upon themselves, responsibilities which affect not only themselves, but the inhabitants, perhaps, of all the countries in the world.

I hope that it will not be necessary this afternoon to have any long Debate. I will attempt to give the House an account of the events of the last few days, but, of course, there has been no change in the policy of the Government, and, therefore, there would not appear to be any necessity for any lengthy discussion. On the day after the House adjourned—on Friday, that is—we received information in the course of the morning that the German Chancellor had asked the British Ambassador in Berlin to call upon him at half-past one that day, and in the course of the afternoon we were told by telephone that Sir Nevile Henderson had had an interview lasting about an hour and a half with Herr Hitler, that he was sending us an account of that interview, and that Herr Hitler had suggested to him that it would be a good thing if he were to fly over to this country the next morning in order to give us a verbal and more extended account of the conversation. We received the record of the interview from our Ambassador on that evening, on Friday evening, but it was not completely deciphered until after midnight, and I did not myself see the whole of it until the next morning, Saturday morning. On Saturday Sir Nevile Henderson arrived by plane from Berlin shortly before lunch, and we understood from him that in Berlin it was not considered to be necessary that he should go back the same day, as the German Government were very anxious that we should give careful study to the communication he had to make to us. Accordingly, we devoted the whole of Saturday and the Sunday morning to a very careful, exhaustive and thorough consideration of the document which was brought to us by the British Ambassador and of the reply that we proposed to send back, and our final answer was taken by the Ambassador yesterday afternoon, when he flew back to Berlin and delivered it to the Chancellor last night.

I should be glad if I could disclose to the House the fullest information as to the contents of the communications exchanged with Herr Hitler, but hon. Members will understand that in a situation of such extreme delicacy, and when issues so grave hang precariously in the balance, it is not in the public interest to publish these confidential communications or to comment on them in detail at this stage. I am, however, able to indicate in quite general terms some of the main points with which they deal. Herr Hitler was concerned to impress upon His Majesty's Government his wish for an Anglo-German understanding of a complete and lasting character. On the other hand, he left His Majesty's Government in no doubt of his views as to the urgency of settling the German-Polish question. His Majesty's Government have also frequently expressed their desire to see the realisation of such an Anglo-German understanding, and as soon as circumstances permit they would naturally welcome an opportunity of discussing with Germany the several issues a settlement of which would have to find a place in any permanent agreement. But everything turns upon the manner in which the immediate differences between Germany and Poland can be handled and the nature of the proposals which might be made for any settlement. We have made it plain that our obligations to Poland, cast into formal shape by the agreement which was signed on 25th August, on Friday last, will be carried out. The House will remember that the Government have said more than once, publicly, that the German-Polish differences should be capable of solution by peaceful means.

Meanwhile, the first prerequisite, if there is to be any general and useful discussion, is that the tension created by frontier clashes and by reports of incidents on both sides of the border should be diminished. His Majesty's Government accordingly hope that both Governments will use their best endeavours to prevent the occurrence of such incidents, the circulation of exaggerated reports, and all other activities that result in dangerous inflammation of opinion. His Majesty's Government would hope that if an equitable settlement of Polish-German differences could be reached by free negotiation, this might in turn lead on to a wider agreement which would accrue to the lasting benefit of Europe and of the world at large. At this moment the position is that we are waiting for the reply of Herr Hitler to our communication. On the nature of that reply depends whether further time can be given for the exploration of the situation and for the operation of the many forces which are working for peace. A waiting period of that kind is often very trying, but nothing, I think, can be more remarkable than the calm which characterises the attitude of the whole British people. It seems to me that there are two explanations of that attitude. The first is that none of us has any doubt of where our duty lies. There is no difference of opinion among us; there is no weakening of our determination. The second explanation is our confidence that we are ready for any eventuality.

The House might like to hear one or two particulars of the preparations which have been made. Obviously, there are many things which I cannot very well say here because they could not be confined to those whom I see before me. My statement must, therefore, be in very general terms. Some of the measures which we had to take, such as those in connection with requisitioning, necessarily must cause some degree of inconvenience to the public. I am confident that the people of the country generally recognise that the nation's needs must now be paramount and that they will submit willingly, and even cheerfully, to any inconvenience or hardships that may be involved. At any rate, we have not had to begin here by issuing rationing cards. To deal first with the active defence of the country, the Air Defence of Great Britain has been placed in a state of instant readiness. The ground anti-aircraft defences have been deployed and they are manned by Territorial anti-aircraft units. The regular squadrons of the Royal Air Force have been brought up to war strength by the addition of the necessary reservists, including a portion of the Volunteer Reserve. The fighter and general reconnaisance squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force have been called up and are standing ready and the balloon barrage is in position. The Observer Corps are at their posts, and, indeed, the whole warning system is ready night and day to be brought into instant operation. The coast defences are ready and are manned by the coast defence units of the Territorial Army. Arrangements have also been made for the protection by the National Defence companies, by the Militia and by units of the Territorial Army of a very large number of important points whose safety is essential for the national war effort.

As to the Navy, the House will remember that in July last it was announced that the Reserve Fleet would be called up at the beginning of August in order to take part in combined Fleet [The Prime Minister.] and Air exercises. For that purpose a number of reservists were called up under the provisions of the Reserves and Auxiliary Forces Act. As a result, the Navy was in an advanced state of preparedness when the present crisis arose, and the whole of our fighting Fleet is now ready at a moment's notice to take up the dispositions which would be necessary in war. A number of other measures have been taken during the past week to increase the state of our naval preparedness. I need not go into all the details, but the naval officers in charge of the various commercial ports have been appointed and have taken up their duties, and the naval ports and bases have been put into an advanced state of preparedness. As hon. Members will be aware, the Admiralty has also assumed control of merchant shipping acting under the powers conferred by the Emergency Powers Act, and written instructions have already been issued to merchant shipping on various routes. A considerable number of movements have been carried out of units of the armed land forces both at home and overseas. These movements are part of pre-arranged plans to provide that in order to ensure a greater state of readiness a number of units should, if possible, move to their war stations before the outbreak of war. The Civil Defence regional organisation has been placed on war footing. Regional commissioners and their staffs are at their war stations.

The main responsibility for the organisation of Civil Defence measures generally rests with the local authorities. Instructions have been sent to the local authorities to complete all the preparatory steps so that action can be taken at the shortest notice. Plans for the evacuation of school children, mothers with young children, expectant mothers and blind persons from certain congested areas— plans which have involved an immense amount of detailed thinking—are ready. Those who have to carry out those plans have been recalled for duty, school teachers in evacuation areas have been kept in easy reach of school assembly points since Saturday, and a rehearsal of the arrangements for evacuating school children was carried out yesterday. Nearly a week ago local authorities were warned to make arrangements for the ex- tinction of public lighting and to prepare the necessary aids to movement when the lighting has been extinguished. Arrangements have been completed for calling up at very short notice the personnel of the Air-Raid Precautions Service, and duty officers are available throughout the 24 hours at key posts. The last item I mention is that the necessary preliminary steps have been taken to prepare hospitals for the reception of casualties.

I have given a number of instances of steps which have been taken over and above the measures which have already been put into operation. A complete and continuous survey is being carried out over the whole range of our defence preparations, and preparatory measures are being taken in order to ensure that further precautionary measures, if and when they should be found necessary, can be given effect to as rapidly as possible. The instances I have given to the House are merely illustrations of the general state of readiness, of which the House and the country are aware. I think that they justify and partly account for the general absence of fear, or, indeed, of any violent emotion. The British people are said sometimes to be slow to make up their minds, but, having made them up, they do not readily let go. The issue of peace or war is still undecided, and we still will hope, and still will work, for peace; but we will abate no jot of our resolution to hold fast to the line which we have laid down for ourselves.

3.11 p.m.

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We meet again today to hear a statement on the changing international scene. This is not a day the value of which can be counted by the number of words that are uttered, but by the pregnancy of the meaning of the words that are uttered, and, though the international scene may change kaleidoscopically, whatever else may change my party's inflexible determination to defend liberty, to uphold the rule of law against the arbitrary use of force, still remains. In the most emphatic words I wish to say that, so far as we are concerned, aggression must cease now. Poland will not be allowed to follow to the grave those nations that were martyred by the aggressors. Our determination once and for all is that threats, menaces and open aggression shall come to an end. What I said last week I stand by to-day in the name of my party. Our spirit has not weakened; our spirit has deepened. On this issue we are adamant and immovable, and he who to-day, whether on those benches opposite or outside in this country, or abroad, would dishonour the pledges which have been given, endorsed, re-endorsed and endorsed again, would be a traitor to the peace and freedom of the world.

The door is still ajar. The Prime Minister has told us that a further reply may be expected from the German Chancellor. I hope the door will remain ajar until it closes with the angel of death and the monster of aggression outside the threshold for ever. It is to be hoped— we long and we pray for it—that the holocaust will be avoided, but should it be otherwise the responsibility will rest on the shoulders of one man. I quote, as an illustration of that, President Roosevelt's appeal to Poland and to Germany. To that appeal there was magnificent response by Poland, showing every sincerity in their desire to avoid the worst and to come to a solution of their difficulties by peaceful means. Herr Hitler has not replied. On his shoulders lies the responsibility for the making of war. No nation in Europe— no nation in Europe— will make war except one— [An Hon. Member: "Name it!] — no nation in Europe, and, therefore, there will be no war unless Herr Hitler wills it. If it can in honour be avoided, it must be. And then with this horrible nightmare behind us, it will be the duty of the states-men of the world to head mankind to-wards peace and to create an atmosphere and conditions in which the problems of mankind can be settled by peaceful discussion and honest co-operation. But only on the understanding that aggression has ceased finally and for ever.

It has been since the end of the last Great War the unwavering policy of my party to build up permanent peace, and, if the present situation can be resolved, a new chapter in world history will have been opened; and perhaps the mental agonies through which we have been passing will have been worth while if we have learned their lessons. In that event Labour will make its constructive proposals for the permanent preservation of peace and freedom. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman has told us, and told the world, that we are not unprepared. I am grateful for that statement. I think it is as well that our own people should know, I think it is as well that those nations in Europe which might be involved should also know, that while we strive for peace we are leaving no stone unturned to meet the situation should the fateful blow fall.

The right hon. Gentleman told us about preparedness with regard to evacuation. On that I want to make a very special appeal to him. On this side we have, during the past three years, pressed hard for adequate measures with regard to air-raid precautions, and especially with regard to evacuation. There is no man in this country who has pressed this matter and has himself done more than my right hon. Friend the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison). We have pressed these things. The question which I want to put to the Prime Minister is this: Is preparation enough? As I understand it, it may be two or three days, or perhaps four days, before evacuation can take place to the extent which is visualised in the great centres of the population. Suppose— and one lives from hour to hour in these days— the storm breaks on Saturday. Unless we evacuate now, the responsibility for the deaths which are caused will lie upon that side of the House and not upon us.

The right hon. Gentleman told us that the people are calm. The people of this country are calm. The atmosphere to-day is enormously different from the atmosphere of a year ago. The people would not be scared if the order for evacuation went out to-morrow morning, and this House would then feel that it had done all that it could to protect the lives of people—of nursing mothers, of cripples and of the blind people who, in the nature of things, cannot help themselves. I would press this point upon the Prime Minister. I do not understand the reluctance somewhere on that side to say the word. The point is this: Although the Lord Privy Seal has worked like a Trojan in this matter, he has worked to cover up the sins and the delinquencies of two previous years; but are we yet satisfied that if the bombs began to rain on any city now, evacuation would be successful? In this country, evacuation is an entirely new problem. We are working theoretically, but rehearsals are not enough.

I say to the Prime Minister that were it to cost £ 10,000,000, £ 20,000,000, £30,000,000, or even £50,000,000, and if we were to bring the people back in a week—we should all be glad if it were so —the experience would have been worth it. I am satisfied that until you do evacuate seriously you will not know the defects in your organisation and that from a week of actual evacuation you would learn more of the problem that you had to face and the weaknesses in the machine than you could ever learn by partial rehearsals and by people sitting in offices and thinking things out. I hope that the Prime Minister will take that point of view, that evacuation now might be carried out before the blow falls, and that evacuation afterwards would be a disaster in the state of confusion which would exist. If the blow did not fall it would be one of the finest pieces of national insurance on which we could engage.

I have said that I did not think that length of speech was an asset upon an occasion of this kind, and I hope to set an example of that nature, as I have said on previous occasions. I end, therefore, with two sentences. It is every-body's desire that the negotiations which are now proceeding should be successful on the lines of justice and honour. Should they fail, those who have created a new situation will meet with an irresistible, iron determination in this country to end aggression for ever.

3.25 p.m.

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The Deputy-Leader of the Opposition has just made a very strong appeal to the Government to consider an immediate measure of evacuation. For my part I can see, on the one hand, the importance of the considerations which he urged as to the necessity of putting the organisation to a thorough and practical test, and I can also see the practical difficulties in the way. I am sure that the people would not want to be wrenched from their homes before they were convinced that it was necessary. It does not seem to me— if I may say so with respect to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman— that it is a matter on which here should be any difference as between parties. I feel sure that it is a matter in which Members of all parties feel deeply concerned, and I hope that the suggestion which the right hon. Gentleman has made will receive, as I am sure it will, the most careful consideration of the Government.

The Prime Minister warned us in his opening speech that while catastrophe was not yet upon us, he could not say that the menace has receded; at the same time, he appealed to the Press to preserve an attitude of restraint. Certainly, my hon. Friends and I, and I feel sure hon. Members in all parts of the House, would wish to be associated with that appeal; but I think the Prime Minister will not resent it if I say that it is not only one particular kind of newspaper, not only the popular newspaper, which has grievously erred in recent days. I would also ask the House to consider the immense responsibility—I know this is in the mind of the Prime Minister, and I am not suggesting that there is any difference between him and me on this point—which rests upon the editors of newspapers at the present time, of having to deal with news coming in from all quarters of the globe, with the public thirsting for information and with the newspaper staffs depleted as they are at the present time by the calls of national service. This is one reason, although perhaps not the most important reason, why I welcomed the assurance which the Prime Minister has given us this afternoon that he wants during this critical time to keep in the closest association and co-operation with the House of Commons, because I know, from having talked with responsible editors of newspapers that in that way their burden of responsibility is to some extent eased.

On the main issue of the Debate, let me say with what pleasure my hon. Friends and I have listened to the Prime Minister's assurance that His Majesty's Government are standing firm in the sup-port of, and in the discharge of their obligations to, Poland at this critical time. We cannot go on from one September to another, always with a new crisis over some fresh series of demands. This must be stopped. Let me say, too, that my hon. Friends and I are equally grateful to hear the Prime Minister say that every possibility, within the framework of that determination, of a peaceful solution, is being sought. In that way Britain finds herself in harmony with world opinion in the search for a peaceful solution of world problems. Only the other day the King of the Belgians in his broadcast message, said, on behalf of himself and the rulers and statesmen who were associated with him:
" We solemnly formulate the view that the men on whom the course of events depends should accept submission of their claims to open negotiation in a spirit of brotherly co-operation."
The Pope said:
" Let men understand one another again and start negotiating. By negotiating with good will and respect for their reciprocal rights, they will realise that peaceful negotiations never exclude an honourable success."
Then there was President Roosevelt's appeal to Herr Hitler and President Moscicki of Poland to avoid war by direct negotiation, by arbitration, or by conciliation, it being understood, the President was careful to add, that:
" upon resort to either alternative, each nation will agree to accord complete respect to the independence and territorial integrity of the other."
King, Pope and President all appeal in the name of humanity to the Governments and peoples of the world that war should be avoided by the reasonable process of negotiation between the disputing parties, Germany and Poland. British Liberals certainly, and I believe British public opinion in almost complete unanimity, endorse those appeals. It is because I know the British Government are pursuing that policy in the name of the British people and because they are straining to bring about negotiation between Germany and Poland based on mutual respect for one another's rights, that at this momet I agree with His Majesty's Government, and believe them to be entitled to the support of Parliament and of all peace-loving people in this country.

President Moscicki has made Poland's willingness to negotiate abundantly plain in his letter to President Roosevelt. The last word now rests with Herr Hitler. I know of nothing that His Majesty's Government could have done at this stage and which they have left undone to make it possible for Herr Hitler to speak the word of negotiation and peace. I know of only one road which is barred by His Majesty's Government, and that is surrender to demands based on no higher sanction than the alleged national will of a single nation and backed by the threat of force. That is not a road to peace. At best it would lead us to another turning where we should have to choose again between war and submission. It would be the road of destruction for freedom, justice and international good faith, the very foundations upon which alone lasting peace can be established.

Let me in conclusion, only say this—that, moving about as I do among people of all kinds, knowing them to be hearing rumours of every kind, many of them foolish and false rumours, seeing as they do men and women of their own families and among their own friends called up one by one for national duties of different kinds, lacking the sure sources of information which are open to Members of Parliament, I am astonished in this hour of suspense and anxiety at their firmness, coolness, dignity and patience, and I associate myself with the tribute the Prime Minister paid to the British people. At this moment, when the turn of a phrase or, still more important, when the pre-mature publication of a statement of policy, by hampering the subsequent adjustment of views, may endanger peace, it would be a betrayal of the national interests to press the Prime Minister to go further in imparting information than he has done today. But if he is going to say a word in reply— I do not know whether he is or not—

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indicated dissent.

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In that case, I do not think I am misinterpreting the Prime Minister's view when I say that his undertaking to co-operate as closely as possible with Parliament means that he will take every opportunity of giving to the people of this country and the Press the greatest possible amount of information so as to relieve the inevitable strain upon the patience of the public in these anxious and difficult times.

3.36 p.m.

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I want to suggest that since Thursday I have been among the people perhaps more than any other Member. I have had to answer questions and participate in discussions to an extent to which I have never had to do before in my life. Wherever I have been I have found that, however resolute the people may be, there is a terrible dread in the heart of every mother in this country; and we have to take that into account. While I stood last September, and stand to-day, for no concession of any kind to Fascist aggression— for never can we get peace that way— no conceivable step should be left untested in order that everything may be done to prevent this unspeakable catastrophe from coming on the world. Why should not this Parliament act? Why should we simply hear statements? I wrote a letter to Mr. Speaker suggesting that Parliament, through Mr. Speaker, should send a message to the peace-loving peoples of the world, and should send a message to the other Parliaments, in order to strengthen the great drive for peace. If there is one man in this country who understands the feeling that has been aroused, I am the man. I have never been allowed to forget it wherever I have gone.

But it is not personal feelings that should determine our course of action now, and, therefore, I say that it would be a desirable thing for this Parliament to send a message to other Parliaments, including the all Soviet Parliament, which is at present in session. [Interruption.] Yes, and I would be in favour of this Parliament sending a delegation immediately to that Parliament in order to make an appeal for assistance in maintaining and preserving the peace of the world. I say again, as I said last September, that under no conditions can you save peace by making concessions to Fascist aggression. We must be absolutely firm on that. But no step should be left untested in order to save the people of this country and of all Europe from the terrible catastrophe that confronts them. Therefore, this Parliament, often referred to as "august Parliament," should speak as a Parliament, and, through its Speaker, send a message throughout the world in order to strengthen the demand which is being made everywhere for resistance to aggression, in order to uphold the principles of justice and democratic rights.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.