Debate on the Address.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am ar 6 Tachwedd 1928.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Ramsay Macdonald Mr Ramsay Macdonald , Aberafan

Once again the speeches of the Mover and Seconder of the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech have given me the opportunity of a very easy and a very pleasant opening to my remarks. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Banbury (Major Edmondson), who moved the Address, may be assured that, in whatever garb he may appear in this House, we shall always recognise the charm' of his manner and the graciousness of his speech. I am very sorry that the Seconder has delivered, according to the newspapers, something like a swan song. I regret that the newspapers have announced that he is to retire. One felt at times, as he went on with his very candid and most delightful speech, that he had been bottling up for the considerable time that he has been in this House a great many controversial speeches which he had never sought an opportunity to deliver. There was not only delight, but, if he will allow me to say so, a great deal of truth and more than truth in his half-finished sentence than there was in the full one. However, it gives me very great pleasure indeed to congratulate both our colleagues on the way in which they have done their duty, a very difficult and not to be envied duty, this afternoon. Before passing on, I would like just to dwell for an instant upon the memory that was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Banbury. We shall search these corridors this Session for a very familiar and a very friendly figure, and we shall not find him. The whole House is exceedingly indebted to the hon. and gallant Member for just pulling us up for a moment that we might all forget our party differences and the conflicts in which we are to engage this Session and remember our old and departed colleague.

Perhaps I might take the opportunity of asking the Prime Minister this point, as it might be difficult to fit it in anywhere else: if he can tell us what designs he has upon the rights of private Members in this House? I understand that he has sonic act of wild constitutional piracy up his sleeve; that he is going to come down to-morrow, and in one fell swoop annex the property of private Members without any compensation; and that these constitutional rights, which the private Member has enshrined in sacred Standing Orders and which ought to receive the unquestioning respect of the Tory party, are going to be taken away by the brutal application of a majority of 200 Members of this House. Will the Prime Minister be good enough in the course of his remarks to tell us what his piratical designs are?

This is a queer King's Speech. It makes a great departure. The Prime Minister, or whoever is responsible for it., has used words in this Speech with a meaning that has hitherto not been attached to them. For instance, when he and his Government have been doing their best to destroy the meaning of the Kellogg Pact, they describe that action as the signing of a pact in the form proposed by the Government of the United States"; when they have been doing their best to crib, cabin, and confine the activities and the development of the League of Nations, they describe that as co-operating in all its current activities"; and, when they have been doing their best to put every obstacle in the way of the Preparatory Commission inquiring into the problem of disarmament and security, they describe that as doing something to assist the League to formulate plans for a general reduction of armaments. The Prime Minister must really place some hounds to his revolutionary tendencies. Let us take the first paragraph on foreign affairs. The Government claim that they actually signed that Treaty in the form proposed by the Government of the -United States. Are they so much ashamed of their reservations that they refused to mention them or to think about them at all? Are the Government not aware that everybody who really has been trying to use that Treaty as an instrument for the outlawry of war has declared that the British Government's reservations have destroyed, not the form of the Treaty, but the substance of the Treaty? I would far rather change a form and retain the substance than retain the form and completely alter the substance. Take, for instance, what Doctor Morrison, one of the leaders of the campaign that has produced this Treaty, has said about us. He said: It is beginning to be evident that the British reservation is sabotaging the pact, that it leaves a huge gap in the renunciation of war—indeed, for Britain the gap is bigger than the renunciation. He went on: But this British reservation has confused the issue. It has introduced 'ifs' and 'ands'. Thus our Senate has been provided with a smoke-screen behind which it can completely emasculate the Treaty, if not reject it altogether—and in terms which make it difficult for us to hold them to account before the bar of our public opinion. That is the record of the Government fluent on the Kellogg Pact. A very distinguished jurist, Professor Borchard, of Yale, says: The Treaty now qualified by the French and British reservations constitutes no renunciation or outlawry of war, but in fact and in law a solemn sanction for all wars mentioned in the exceptions and qualifications. That, is the effect of the reservation of the British Government, the signature of which is put to this Pact in the form proposed by the Government of the United States. Take the second paragraph going on to deal with the League of Nations. They are co-operating in all its current activities. 4.0 p.m.

How? Have the Government forgotten—has this House forgotten—that the last great activity of the British Government in Geneva was in those Budget Committees, and every representative the Government had at Geneva on those Committees, in some cases absolutely alone, without the support of any other European Power, opposed extensions and the necessary money to make extensions in League work and League activities, until at last, almost shamefacedly, they had to with-draw from the discussion and content themselves by carrying out the instructions the Government gave them to vote alone against the proposals made at Geneva? As far as assisting the League to promote disarmament is concerned, again what is the story? It is no such thing. Where is the assistance to promote disarmament? Let us remind the Government of what has happened. There was, first of all, the last meeting of the Preparatory Commission. What happened then? There was, in the first the instance, a universal agreement that naval building tonnage should be limited. That was common to every country. Then within that agreement we proposed certain categories, to limit certain sections, certain parts of naval building. The French did not agree with us. The French proposed a compromise. We could not agree with the compromise. Italy refused categories altogether, and the meeting was abortive in consequence. Then with regard to land forces: The French refused any limit upon trained reserves. Germany would agree to nothing that did not contain a limitation of such reserves. We urged limitation which the French would not accept, and our limitation was urged without any regard for Continental conditions created by the fact that the Continental armies were conscript armies. An agreement could not be come to on that section.

Then we proceed to Geneva, and what is commonly represented as the Anglo-American Conference. Here, again, what was the position? America was in favour of limitation of the total tonnage, and, in addition to that, of certain categories, especially the 10,000 ton cruiser category. We were in favour of no limitation of light 6,000 ton cruisers, and America's need of defence in the event of war breaking out being totally different from our need of defence in the event of war breaking out, and the Government being unwilling to meet them, the Conference broke down and there was no result from it. Then we come to the next stage—what is known as the Anglo-French Agreement. Again, we came to an agreement which provides that there shall be no limitation of light cruisers and no limitation of 600 ton submarines, and also no limitation of trained reserves of land forces. I cannot believe that those who negotiated that agreement were unaware of the fact that there was riot a single new point in the agreement, but that every point on which we met France had already been rejected by America, by Italy or by Germany. It was an agreement not to limit armaments. It was like trying to confine armaments within an area, and putting up walls on three sides of that area, leaving the fourth side open for any sort of action in which individual States might care to indulge, and the programme of free building, the very kind of arm which was left subject to International competition, was the arm that would have struck us most of all in the event of a war breaking out. They sacrificed in that agreement the most elementary consideration of the safety of Great Britain, except upon one consideration only, that there should always be a pool of our own Government and the neighbouring country across the Channel, and upon that assumption so much mistake, so much false suspicion has been spread throughout the world, and for that we are solely responsible.

This was not only a failure to agree to limit armaments, That was not the only significance of this Agreement. It also meant this. By the way it was announced, first in this way, first this part and then the next part, the leakage in newspapers and so on, it upset the whole confidence of the Nations of Europe. No one could have been on the Continent at the time without seeing what a tremendous damage it had done to the calmness of the European mind. How could we do it? The excuse of the Government has been that all this was done in continuation of certain suggestions made by the Chairman and others of the Preparatory Commission. That is not the case. Whoever suggested, or whoever would have thought of suggesting that France and ourselves alone coming together, could possibly have produced a scheme that could be accepted by the nations of Europe and America? Two nations coming together in secret., devising means of an agreement, leaving America out, leaving Italy out, leaving out the other nations which had already disagreed, we two coming together and making up our minds, and then publishing in tie awkward and fumbling way the Agreement, could do nothing but damage the peace and security of Europe.

That is not all. When it did come out, what sort of candour did we exercise? If hon. Members will turn to the White Paper which has been issued, they will find on page 27 the telegram communicating the Agreement to Washington, to Tokio and to Rome, and that telegram made no reference whatever to the land side of the Agreement. You would think from that telegram that the question of trained reserves had never been mentioned. You would think that not a word had passed or had eventuated in any agreement or understanding of any kind between our representatives and the French representatives upon that matter, and the first notice of that comes from an alarmist telegram sent by our representative in Berlin. Sir Horace Rumbold says: German Government seem somewhat disconcerted by news of Franco-British naval compromise, and fear it may imply some concession on the part of His Majesty's Government in regard to the question of the limitation of land forces. That is the first way it comes out. The German Government suspect it, and are very disturbed about it. Was the reply an absolutely straightforward statement of what happened? Not at all. The reply from the Foreign Secretary, sent on 5th August, is as follows: The text of the compromise itself refers exclusively to naval limitation, but there is an understanding with the French Government, made before the text of the compromise was actually drawn up, that if they could meet His Majesty's Government on the question of naval limitation the latter would be prepared to withdraw their opposition to the views of the French and most other Governments on the question of trained reserves. … We have already informed the United States Chargé d'Affaires of the above. There is no further record of that in this White Paper until five days after that a telegram was sent to Sir Horace Rum-bold. Never mind. The question want to put to the Prime Minister is this: Was that reserve agreement after the agreement, or was it not? He will have a little difficulty in answering, because both answers, either if he says Yea or Nay, are contained in the official papers issued by the Foreign Office. If he will turn to page 31 he will find that. in the long explanatory telegram from Lord Cushendun, after everybody's ears had been hearing and everybody's tongue had been set wagging, Lord Cushendun had to send a long explanatory telegram, apologetic in some sentences and phrases, to Washington, and this is what he says about the land agreement: It has been stated in press telegrams that this naval agreement with the French represents a bargain, one part of which is that His Majesty's Government agree to support the contention of the French Government in the matter of military reserves. Here, again, there is some misapprehension. His Majesty's Government have reluctantly reached the conclusion that it will be impossible to move the French and the majority of other European Governments from the attitude which they have reached and consistently adopted on this question and that, in present conditions, no further progress in regard to land disarmament will be possible as long as this stumbling-block remains in the way. What is the impression there? Lord Cushendun tries—I must use the word; his language fully justifies it—Lord Cushendun tries to persuade the United States Government that when the French were negotiating with us this naval compromise we did not have in our minds any agreement with France regarding land forces, especially regarding reserves. Is that so? That is not true, because if the Prime Minister will turn to page 24 he will find the translation of M. Briand's Note from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in France to the British Embassy. The very first paragraph recites the gist of the bargain and the offer in the Note which Lord Crewe had previously communicated to him. In the recital of that, he says—"he" is our Ambassador at Paris— If the French Government shared these views"— that is, on the Naval Agreement— the British Government for their part would waive their opposition to the French standpoint in regard to the question of trained reserves.' I put it perfectly straight and pointedly to the Prime Minister: Is M. Briand right, or is Lord Cushendun right? Did we give the French to understand that if they would accept our naval proposals we would waive our objection to their proposals regarding trained reserves? The House knows perfectly well that when in any disarmament agreement we come to, the question of the number of trained and armed men is left out of the agreement, if no notice be taken of the number of men in a conscription country who are in civil life but have gone through an army training, the disarmament agreement will then not be worth the paper on which it is written.

Then there is another point about this, and a very serious one. In the document from which I have quoted, the French Foreign Office reply to Lord Crewe, the reply which enabled our Foreign Secretary to close the bargain, this is the final sentence. I hope the House will notice this, because it is a sentence about which a great deal of controversy is still going on, and which ought to be settled one way or another. This final sentence is paragraphed out, so that there will be no hiding it up. Whatever the result"— says M. Briand—that is, the result of the negotiations— and even should this hope prove illusory— that is, the hope of an agreement— the two Governments would, none the less, be under the urgent obligation to concert either to ensure success by other means or to adopt a common policy so as to deal with the difficulties which would inevitably arise from a check to the work of the Preparatory Commission. What does that mean? Is it a mere meaningless tale? As the Prime Minister must know, it is upon this that all the suspicions have arisen that behind this there is something more, and it is not in our interest, and it certainly is not in the interest of France, that those suspicions should be granted a longer life than is possible. Does this mean that we are forming, as A were, a sub-committee upon the Geneva Committee? Does it mean that the round table idea in which each nation, quite honestly, quite candidly and quite untramelled by any secret agreement, is doing his level best to produce not an agreement merely between A and B, not an agreement between one nation and another, but an agreement which will cover and encompass the whole of the European nations so that disarmament may be an accomplished fact in reality as well as in words has been abandoned? So long as that sentence remains, this desirable end cannot be consummated. The effect of the whole is summed up in the dispatch of the American Government that the case might be left there, but this is the key sentence in that United States dispatch: The American Government feels, furthermore, that the terms of the Anglo-French Draft Agreement, in leaving unlimited so large a tonnage and so many types of vessels, would actually tend to defeat the primary objective of any disarmament for the reduction or the limitation of armaments, in that it would not eliminate competition in naval armaments and would not effect economy. For all these reasons the Government of the United States feels that no useful purpose would be served by accepting as a basis of discussion the Anglo-French proposal. Never was a proposal made by one Government to another, or by two Governments to another, rejected so summarily, so bluntly and for such admirable reasons as this agreement has been rejected by the American Government. I want to know, and I put these questions quite specifically to the Prime Minister: What does that last paragraph of the French official dispatch mean—the paragraph I have read? Secondly, have we uncondi- tionally withdrawn opposition to the trained reserves, so that when the question comes up again in the Preparatory Commission we are not even able to make new suggestions for limiting the number of those reserves and putting a limitation, say by Budgets, or by length of training, or by the number of men to be taken up year by year under conscription schemes—there are various proposals made for dealing with what is undoubtedly the most difficult and one of the most intricate problems, that of these trained reserves—hut are now in this position, that we cannot make any alternative proposal in handling that question? Have we absolutely bound ourselves that when this question comes up again before the Preparatory Commission we have got to consent to the French proposal for leaving it outside the scope of the Agreement? The third question is—and this, again, is also an important one, because we had better know exactly where we stand—what is now the position of the. Agreement? Is it still alive, or has it dropped completely? Further, have we entered into further communication with America? Has any reply been sent to the American Note, or are conversations or negotiations of any kind on foot paving the way for a reply to the American Government? Finally, have any further communications been had with France on the subject of this Agreement? If communications have been had with France, might I ask the Prime Minister if they could possibly be published, because the publication of those communications would, I think, tend further to pacify public opinion?

Although the hon. Member who seconded the Address said that domestic affairs were more important than foreign affairs, I think at the moment it is desirable that we should be quite as alive to foreign affairs as to domestic affairs. I am not sure if I detected in his mind a desire to separate them, but I am one of those who feel that they cannot be separated, and that we cannot have national prosperity unless we have the nations feeling a real sense of security. Both have to be worked together by different departments, probably by men of different frames of mind, it may he by men of different interests; but, nevertheless, whatever the differences may be, these problems must he worked by men who are marching step by step and side by side, as the one cannot possibly get on without the other.

On domestic affairs an Amendment will be moved, and it is unnecessary for me to anticipate what will happen then. However, one reads rather grimly the reference to the mining population. I do not know whether the Prime Minister is an extravagant man or not, but I know he is extravagant in one thing, and that is in time. What opportunities he has had! Is this reference put in because this is his swan song? Is this put in for the Election? He may think that that is hard and unfair. Whether he does or not, I do not want him to think so. Let him put himself, say, in my position and look back, as he sits there this afternoon, over the four years since he sat there for the first time, and view how this situation has been growing steadily, how it has been growing from bad to worse all the time, how there has not been a single crisis in that industry but has been foreseen for months before it came; and how at last, every person who has a heart to feel and eyes to see—irrespective of class or party—who has gone down to the mining areas in. South Wales or to the mining areas of Durham, comes away feeling absolutely outraged in his conscience that such a state of things should have been allowed to develop in this country. All the Prime Minister says is—transmigration, migration. I venture to hope this, that any further schemes of migration he may put his hand to will he far better prepared, will show more forethought and foresight, and more anticipation, than that experiment in migration part of which I saw with my own eyes in the Canadian field. There is nothing that is moving the country more to censure than the neglect of the social conditions of our people, and particularly of our people in the mining areas.

Take the question of the unemployment pledges. The very first thing the Government did to-day after the new Session was open was to get the Minister of Labour to stand up and say "I am going to introduce a Bill which admits that everything I said last year on the unemployment question was wrong and that everything that the Opposition said was right." We are very much obliged to the Government for giving its case away in such an innocent but certainly a magnificent way. But take the question of the borrowing for the Unemployment Fund. What have they been saying for years every time that this question was raised? They have been telling us: "Business is going to get better and better; we are not going to provide for any continuation of this terrible distress in which we now are with 1,200,000 unemployed, or 1,250,000, or 1,300,000, or 1,500,000; we are going to make no provision for that at all, because under our benign influence those figures are going down, down, down and the Fund is going to be self-supporting." Now, at the beginning of the last Session of this Parliament, they tell us that the Fund is almost bankrupt and has reached its legal limits, and in order that the whole thing may be kept going, the Government have promised to introduce legislation to extend the borrowing powers of those authorities. If that criticism had come from hon. Members of this side of the House, we should have found the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health telling us that we were always pessimists and that they were optimists right through. Therefore, we accept the self-condemnation of the Government on this question.

The other Measures referred to in the King's Speech have been well thrashed out in a preliminary way, but I think the Prime Minister is standing upon rather peculiar grounds, because he must know perfectly well that there is not a party in the State which has failed to observe the great deficiencies in the present rating system of this country. The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Labour party has always been urging that the time has come for a reconsideration and a reorganisation of our system of local government, a system which has grown up piecemeal and has been patched up here and there by having services added. For many years the whole system has not been considered as a unified problem. When the local government proposals are presented I am not sure how far we shall be able to agree with them, but I can assure the Prime Minister that he will be addressing himself to a real problem.

I want to know what the Prime Minister is going to propose. I am afraid that he does not know himself, and I feel sure that if I had asked this question three weeks ago he would not have known. Probably if the right hon. Gentleman had told me earlier what was going to be proposed, he would by this time have sent me a letter of apology saying that he had changed his mind. He has had what is known as a trade show. In a trade show the picture is thrown on the screen in order that certain experts may have a look at it, and, if the experts do not like it, then the picture is withdrawn or touched up. Up to the present time the rating scheme put forward by the Government has been a complete failure. I have been watching the newspapers very closely and I have not found a single municipal county or rating authority which has not condemned this scheme. If the Prime Minister has any cause for self-congratulation it lies in the fact that his right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not present, has been condemned more vociferously in regard to the scheme, than the right hon. Gentleman himself.

In my recreative moments I, like the Home Secretary, sometimes read the reports of ecclesiastical bodies. The other day I came across a newspaper published in 'Scotland, and I found what seemed to be a most interesting report of a conference of clergymen and ministers in Scotland, and I read it. I found that the first part of the business at that conference was a wholesale condemnation of the proposals of the Secretary of State for Scotland with regard to local government. Another thing I should like to refer to relates to an omission. Why has the Prime Minister broken all his pledges in regard to the Factories Bill? In 1926 the Home Secretary was bold enough on a Friday afternoon to tell us in this House what a Factories Bill ought to contain, and what he mentioned did not consist of a lot of trivial things, because he convinced the House—as much on his own side as upon ours—that the time had come for a very comprehensive Factories Bill to be introduced and passed through.

The right hon. Gentleman told us that he was going to consolidate the law on this subject, but I would like to ask hon. Members if they think the confusion of the law on this question is any less now than it was in 1926. The Home Secretary told us that the division between textile and non-textile factories was bad, and he said that he intended to wipe that out. Why has he not done so? The right hon. Gentleman told us that the divisions between factories and workshops were going to be abolished. He also told us that the problem of cleanliness was an important one, and that he intended to make a great contribution towards that problem. The Home Secretary further told us that he was going to deal with overcrowding, sanitary conditions, lighting and temperature, and that he was going to introduce an improved medical supervision to deal with the liability to sickness and disease, which was very necessary. The right hon. Gentleman said some nice things about accidents and gave us to understand that, although a great many accidents were clearly acts of God in the sense that they could not be foreseen or prevented, there was a heavy toll exacted from those engaged in factory work by accidents. The Home Secretary contended that it was the duty of any Government to try and reduce the number of accidents by energetic and wise efforts, and he said that he believed they could be reduced. At that time, the right hon. Gentleman was trying to convince some of his own supporters who had rather revolted against him. It was one of those very mild revolts which we see occasionally in the House, but which we never see in the Lobbies. On that occasion, the Home Secretary found himself in a rather difficult position, but he was more eloquent than I have known him to be for a long time, and showed a genuine desire to do something in the present Parliament in order to deal with this question. The right hon. Gentleman was not only anxious to prove that he was all right, but, fearing that some hon. Members entertained suspicions in regard to the Prime Minister, he gave a further pledge which is to be found in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Debate on the Second Reading of the Factories Bill on 26th March, 1926, as follows: I am, therefore, authorised by the Prime Minister and the Government to say that I will introduce the Factories Bill during this current Session of Parliament for the purposes of consideration and discussion. The Home Secretary made it perfectly clear that that Measure was not going to be carried in 1926, but he was going to introduce it in order to have it considered and discussed. The Home Secretary went on to say: That Bill will be one of the principal Government measures of next year and we will do our utmost, and ask the House to pass it into law. In order to be still more emphatic upon this point, the Home Secretary continued: That is a categorical statement which I have been authorised to make in regard to this ma tter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1926; col. 1568, 103.] Does the Prime Minister deny that statement? I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are hundreds of thousands of people whose health depends upon that Measure and whose liability to disease depends upon it. This subject was mentioned in the King's Speech in 1924 and again in 1925. We were promised that it would be dealt with in 1926, and it is a remarkable fact that the King's Speech which has just been introduced does not mention this question. The Home Secretary told us that this subject was going to be part and parcel of the work of this Session, and I would like to ask whether a pledge of that kind is of an exchange value equal to a deteriorated Russian rouble. [Interruption.] I think the Home Secretary is too modest for that, because nobody knows more about roubles, or imagines he knows more about them, than the right hon. Gentleman, and I am sure he will understand the deadly effect of that simile.

I think the present Government have the worst record of broken promises that any party can show, and there is nothing to justify it except pressure upon the Government by certain vital interests. And so we ring up the curtain on the last act of the very sorry drama which has been played by this Government for the last four years. [An HON. MEMBER "It is a tragedy!"] The gallery is getting very restive, and it wants the actors to go and take a rest; and even the stalls are getting out of hand. The Prime Minister is finding that the small confidence which the people had in his Government is ebbing and ebbing away. The Prime Minister's record is that he has deepened the poverty of the country affecting hundreds and thousands of people; he has broken the pledges which he gave to thousands and thousands of the factory population of this country. The Home Secretary has admitted that years ago legislation for the protection of factory workers ought to have been passed, and yet the Prime Minister has broken that pledge. The Government have lost golden opportunity after golden opportunity of giving the nations of Europe security in order that they might, whole-heartedly join in a common arrangement for disarmament., and embark wholeheartedly upon peace. We are very anxious that the Prime Minister should hurry as fast as he can to that great assize of the country, and get the verdict passed upon him which will be passed before next summer is ended.