2016 07 -Parliament And World War One

Parliament And World War One

By Dick Barry

Votes Of Credit

On 12 February 1917 the House of Commons considered a proposal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Andrew Bonar Law to agree a sum of money for the war effort. Ramsay MacDonald replied for the Labour Party and following a brief comment on the proposal he spoke about the war situation.

Mr. RAMSAY MACDONALD:

We have listened this afternoon to a financial statement which has been quite accurately described by the hon. Baronet who has just sat down as both colossal and staggering. I do not understand why the Government has not resorted to compulsion so far as money is concerned. I do not understand why the laws of supply and demand are left to operate freely upon the money market, whilst they are wiped out so far as the labour market is concerned. I feel perfectly certain if, some months ago, the Government had taken stock of the property resources of this country and had devised some scheme, say, like the Death Duties, the basis of which is pretty well known from the annual reports of the Inland Revenue Commissioners, and had taken by compulsion the property of individuals in precisely the same way as they have taken the lives of those individuals, the financial position would not have been so bad as it threatens to become. I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Gentleman did not mean that cursory comparison that he made between the conditions at the end of the French War to be thorough. A more comparison between the relation of public expenditure and national income is of course, the mere beginning of an examination. I venture to say that anyone who wishes to come to just conclusions on this point must take into account the complete sociological and industrial conditions of the country, and in particular compare the total cost of government in this country after the Battle of Waterloo and the cost of government this year or next year, when the War comes to an end. The point will require a much more thorough examination than the right hon. Gentleman made this afternoon.

The problem that is going to face this country is the problem of debt. After the Battle of Waterloo, at the finish of the French War, every writer on political economy and sociology in this country pointed out the fact that the industrial development of the country was being enormously hampered on account of that debt of something short of £900,000,000. For three-quarters of a century every Radical agitator hammered in this point: The cost of the French War was so great to this country that they proposed the repudiation of the National Debt as the only way out of the difficulty. I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Gentleman, and those who stand for property in this country, will not lightly face an agitation during the next twenty-five or fifty years of the same kind as their representatives three-quarters of a century ago had to face as the result of the National Debt which the French War imposed upon us. I would therefore venture to suggest to hon. and right hon. Members opposite, if they are going to judge of the condition of affairs now compared with those that Pitt and his successors in office left behind them, that they will find that the comparison is much more serious than that made by the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon.

I did not rise, however, to pursue the financial Debate. There is the question of the policy of war as well as the finance of war, and the two cannot be separated from each other. We have got to try and take an all-round view of the situation. I do not resist for a single moment, either in my heart or with my lips, the statement that the War has got to be finished. These words beg questions, and during the last two years there has been a coinage of phrasing in this country that is absolutely meaningless, because it is so indefinite—”Finish,” “Victory,” and so on. Surely the time has come when, in view of the tremendous sacrifices that this country is bearing, and is prepared to bear, if necessary, without a grumble and without any withholding, I this House at any rate, whatever may be true of the great crowds outside that are to be kept at boiling point in order that their enthusiasm and determination may not slack, should calmly and sanely consider the whole policy that is behind the War, or is likely to come from it, and what is the best way to secure the real victory which we all desire.

The other day the War entered upon a new phase, and all its horrors were magnified tenfold. Killing became murder. The German Note regarding the submarine policy is a Note which proclaims that all humanitarian considerations must be put upon the scrap-heap, in order to hit your enemy as hard as you possibly can. After that Note war has become unapologetic barbarism. The most primitive instincts, the most primitive methods of brute beasts meeting each other in the forest and trying the one to kill the other, are now the rule, or the lack of rule, and the lawlessness of Europe. It is very hard, in view of that Note, to have any thoughts except those of killing the enemy. But somebody has got to live after it is all over. The moment that the War ceases Europe has to face the problem of peace, and the problem of peace has never yet been faced by Europe in such a way as to solve it successfully. The great trouble has been this: After every war, the French War, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and so on, the peoples of Europe have been absolutely unprepared to consider upon what conditions they are going to live in times of peace. Therefore you had your Napoleonic War heralded by precisely the same phraseology that we hear time after time from that box from which Government representatives address this House, great phrases about “the liberation of small States,” about “a League of Nations to enforce peace,” and so on.

Those are not twentieth-century phrases; those phrases were born at the beginning of the nineteenth century. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Education can probably trace them to even a more hoary ancestry. You fought the Crimean War for precisely the same purpose, and when the time came for us to make peace, the Plenipotentiaries sat down round a table with all the moral phrases in their mouths that we have been using as political and patriotic coinage during the last two and a half years. I say nothing against those things. I never have done. It will be a bad day for England when our political thoughts are not properly expressed. These diplomatists, however, in spite of their phrases, could not make peace. But what I do feel is that what Ministers are somewhat responsible for is this, they ought to make their phrases a little bit more definite and a little bit more precise, because if this War, even though you can put your soldiers on to the streets of Berlin, is not going to end precisely as all other wars have ended, then the peoples of Germany-Austria on the one hand, and France and Great Britain in particular on the other, will require to have some conception of what the international problem of peace is, and it is not enough for them to simply give Ministers blank cheques to go on fighting, and fighting, and fighting, until their enemy lays down its arms and says, “We have got enough.”

One of the most melancholy circumstances of to-day is this, that peoples have got no chance of understanding each other. We get our newspapers carefully selecting Germans news. I challenge anybody who has got the advantage of reading, say, French newspapers which publish German news, as I do from day to day, and of seeing the translations that we get in our English newspapers and who has then compared the two, whether they really do not wonder whether they have been reading the same accounts. We are paying too much for carrying on this particular policy of simply keeping enthusiasm at boiling point. I do not believe that the people of this country are so miserable that you have got to keep their enthusiasm to boiling point by misleading them and keeping them ignorant. I believe that the people of this country upon the sane, calm merits of this War will give you the same results that you imagine you can get only from misleading them as to the state of things in Germany and elsewhere.

With a view to the future and with a desire to make Europe really a home of liberty and of peace, it is absolutely essential that this War should be conducted in such a way that the nations will accept what has happened and begin, for the first time in the history of Europe, a peace by consent of the peoples that have been hitherto at war. I should like to impress upon the House that if this War does not conclude with a full knowledge in the minds of the peoples as to its causes, as to what it is for, as to how it is to end, so that they may begin peace in such a way that they are really laying the foundations of that peace to make this the last of war, then this War will not achieve that end. People tell me that you can only do one thing at a time. I say that it is absurd and nonsensical and pernicious if you concentrate your attention upon merely one side of the problem and throw into the unheeded background all the other aspects of it, all the co-related aspects, all that is going to happen ten years from now, and if your actions of today have no relation to the responsibilities and duties of to-morrow. Though it is very hard to say it, you are then simply sacrificing lives in vain by not taking a sufficiently far view and a sufficiently wide and co-related view. That is all we have ever said in spite of the malignant things and lying about us since the War broke out. All we have ever said, and all we have ever appealed to the people of this country to do, was to take a wide and properly related view of the responsibilities in this War, and to see to it that it was going to be the last of the wars, and that if they believed in that they would require to adopt new methods from any hitherto adopted.

Another thing I should like to say is this. I was very much surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bonar Law) the other day say in a casual sentence, and I do not want to put more importance into it than I am sure he himself meant to put, that he had nothing new to report on the military situation. Anyone who has followed the military situation, so far as he can with the meagre information available, must see a complete revolution in that military situation. I do not want to blame this Government for that for which it is not blameworthy, but there were certain members of it in the late Government, and they must bear their share of that responsibility. It is undoubtedly true that until quite recently the key of the situation was in the West. I remember perfectly well the first year of this War every military critic who knew his business was emphasising to this country that the critical battlefield was in the West. Ah, yes, but if the Government had backed up that with diplomacy, that would have been all right. There is not the least doubt about it that if the military policy of this country, backed up by diplomatic policy, had confined the War to the West the War would have been over by now. But that was not what they did. If they had the issues would not have been so involved, and you would not have had Gallipoli and certain other unfortunate examples. It was not merely that those were dear in themselves, but they misled your policy, widened the scope of the War, and led you into the position you are in to-day, in which the West is not the critical position of the War. It has become the East. That is the new military situation.

Because, what has happened? The Germans are beaten in the West—absolutely beaten. It is only a question of driving them out; and I doubt very much if, when you start your spring campaign, you will find very many of them there at all—very much. If they are going to shorten their lines, as they certainly ought on the West, and are to attack you in the East, where the diplomatic and military policy has developed so favourably to them, then, I think, you will discover you have got into a new phase of the War which will be far more troublesome than any phase you have hitherto had to face. But if you are fighting merely for Belgium and France, and if by your diplomacy you had prevented the middle East and whole of the Balkans becoming part and parcel as they now are of the German Empire, at any rate, in political influence, if you had prevented the development of that pan-German idea so well expounded in Naumann’s book on “Middle Europe,” you could easily have prevented it by diplomatic policy, or if when Serbia was threatened you had done what the present First Lord of the Admiralty urged you so much to do at the time, and about which he gave up his position in the Cabinet, then that would have prevented the extension of the War, and the extension of the issues of the War, and the making more and more complicated the problems of the War, and would have enabled you to have fought it in the West and to have shortened it, and to have saved thousands of lives and millions of money in consequence. That is all gone.

To-day the situation is that the Germans in occupation of the East and the Balkans have, as a matter of fact, got their influence over Middle Europe, and it is very hard—I do not want to discuss the thing further—to see how they are going to be dislodged except by negotiations. I am afraid we have got to take rational views, calm views of these things. Certainly I believe this House will agree with me in this, that if negotiations can do it, it should be done that way—and by negotiations I do not suggest that the Foreign Secretary should address a Note to Berlin, but I mean simply that diplomacy should use the opportunities which it now has got and that it should keep on defining its position, expounding its position, removing misunderstandings, and that as a matter of fact our Foreign Office should show the same activity which our Army in the field is showing. And one of the great weaknesses of this country has been since the War broke out that whilst our Army has been exceedingly active and exceedingly successful our diplomatists have been exceedingly placid and quiet and not very successful in the operations they have undertaken. The question is, What is to be the Europe of the future? I do not mean the military position; I mean the political one.

I come back to the point I made first of all, and I emphasise that war is not merely a military affair, but war is also a political affair. As Clausewitz lays down so clearly in his great book on war, the results of war are political, and unless we are bending our energies and turning our attention to the political aftermath of the War, then we are not in a position to use the opportunities a successful war presents to us. Are we to go gambling, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee (Mr. Churchill) said we ought to, so far as Gallipoli and such expeditions are concerned? I say it is the absolute duty of this House to see to it that not a single soldier’s life is going to be sacrificed in vain. I refer to those men whose magnificent courage has only been equalled by their good humour and whose capacity to undergo sacrifices must have harried the hearts of all right-thinking men who have read of the trials and difficulties through which those men have come, and I say that those who sit comfortably at home enjoying all the privileges of home life have the responsibility of seeing to it that those men are not unnecessarily exposed to danger or to risk, and that we ought to do everything we possibly can in support of them.

Then there is the question of money. Business men know perfectly well that after this War is over the industrial condition of this country is going to be very critical. We are not merely going to compete with Germany. If we were it would be perfectly simple, as she, with us, will be pretty far down on the road of bankruptcy. But we have got to compete with neutrals and with America in particular, and America is piling up colossal resources and capital which will be spent immediately peace comes for the purpose of maintaining the markets she has got and of extending them in every possible way. Therefore it is necessary for us to take the two sides of the ledger, the loss and the gain. Now I am one of those who never resisted the argument that this War ought to result—and in fact I may say it must result, if we are wise and if the nations of Europe are wise—in a complete removal of those conditions from which wars in previous generations have come. If this is not going to be the last War, then this War is going to be a failure. If this War is not going to leave Europe in such a frame of mind that we can steadily reduce the cost of armaments upon the taxpayers, then this War has not brought the results which millions of men who accepted it believed it would bring.

Therefore, never having resisted that at all, always having been quite prepared to do what is necessary in order to bring about that end, at the same I have doubted very much whether the means adopted were going to secure that end. Take, for instance, one cry, “A fight to a finish.” If that is inevitable, it must be done. There need be no quibble about that. I am not trying to evade that issue. If the fight to a military finish is absolutely necessary in order to secure the political and moral results which we have put before us as the end of this War, then we cannot help it; it must be done. But I do not believe it is. It is there we part company, not in our phrases about fights to finishes and so on. This country has never been without victory. This country was on the right side so far as victory is concerned at the end of the French wars. We were victorious in the Crimean War, but although we were victorious in the Crimean War and fought that War for all the moral issues for which we are now fighting this War, as we are told, the result of the Crimean War was five further European wars, and that was considered a war which was to end war.

You get the best illustration of how little related political victory is to military victory in the Franco-German War. There the Germans took possession of the enemy’s capital. The German Staff found its headquarters in the Royal headquarters of the French nation. France could not lift a little finger in her own self-defence when the Germans had done with her from a military point of view. The peace that was imposed upon France was really an imposed peace. There never was a vanquished nation so dejected. What was the result? A patched-up peace, a premature peace. The results in terms of actual effect, of substantial and real effect were, because of this military situation, precisely everything that those who disagree with us in the attitude we have taken imagine is associated with those things that they call a patched-up peace, and so on, and which, having been called a patched-up peace, nine people out of ten never take the trouble to think out at all. You have related to that kind of military victory, the effect of a patched-up peace far more intimately than you have them related to other kinds of military victory, like the victory of Germany over Austria, when, because Germany wanted to win the friendship of Austria, she refused to carry the war to the military extremity that her military leaders wanted her to do. Those are considerations which this House of Commons ought to take into account. If we read our histories more than we read our newspapers our patriotism might not express itself quite in the smug and flamboyant literary forms it takes, but it would be far more a tribute on the part of men who are not fighting themselves to those magnificent fellows who have gone into khaki and who have laid down their lives for the nation and for us. The way to show our gratitude to these men is not to shout at them or with them, but to think as statesmen, as honestly and as stubbornly as we can.

From that point of view, perhaps, the Committee will allow me if I intrude a few sentences upon the Note the Allies sent to President Wilson the other day. We are all fighting to establish guarantees of peace. I cannot understand why that Note cannot have a full discussion in this House. What are we here for? They will not allow some of us to sit on Committees to help them. They will not allow us to contribute any experience we may have had. They will not allow us to help them by, quite as honestly as themselves, putting all the intelligence we have into a common pool. We may be absolutely wrong, but, with all due deference to the eighty right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who are entitled to sit on the Treasury Bench or on the corresponding bench in another place, when we take into account their records during the last two years, at any rate, to put it very mildly, they ought not to close the door against discussion. Take this Allied Note. I think we ought to consider it. This House ought to understand the policy which the Government is pursuing, because it is a policy which does not commit us for this year only, but a policy which is going to commit us for generations. When I spoke in this House somewhere about last May I said that Belgium ought to be restored and reparation made. I withdraw nothing of that; I think so still. I also said that France should be restored. I think so still. But since then the tide has run far and fast and has carried us a great way. Ask the men who volunteered, say, when Lord Derby started his campaign, what they were fighting for? Liberty, Belgium, small nationalities and no conquests to benefit ourselves! The issues have changed. They may have changed by necessity. Ministers may come and say, “We could not help ourselves.” You ought to have thought of that two years ago.

Let us take the new issues. There are two points on the Continent of Europe which I venture to say that this Empire ought not willingly to surrender to the possession of a great Power. One is Belgium and the other is Constantinople. You simply have to look at the map to see that, if this Empire is going to rest in security, you must not allow a large European Power to take possession of Belgium, and you ought not to allow it to take possession of Constantinople. I rather like to avoid prophesying, but I venture to say that if I live for ten years after this War ends, and if a great Power has taken absolute possession of Constantinople and has fortified it and the Dardanelles, this country will be busy with an attempt to solve the problem of Imperial communication in a form which it has never had to face before. Your only reply is to make Egypt a fortified station. You could not afford to do other. The whole circumstances of the case would be such that militarism would be more necessary for Imperial defence than ever it was before. You cannot simply throw away the future in order to grasp the advantage of the present and then leave the future to look after itself. That is what is being done by Constantinople being given over to another great Power at the present time. This House ought to know why the old policy of this country, namely, the internationalisation of Constantinople and the Dardanelles has been departed from. The Prime Minister in his constituency the other day said that he was carrying out Mr. Gladstone’s policy. It is nothing of the kind. He applied the expression bag and baggage as though he was under the impression that Mr. Gladstone meant that to apply to Turkey in Europe. If the right hon. Gentleman had only referred to the pamphlet in which that expression was used, he would have seen that it only applied to Turkey in Bulgaria. His other  references to Mr. Gladstone’s policy were as mistaken as that particular one. The fact of the matter is that the interests of this country—I use the word “country” in its wider Imperial sense—the interests of this Empire are wrapped up in Constantinople being an international port and the Dardanelles being an international waterway. Surely it is so grave, and it is fraught with so many consequences if this change should take place, that even it we had more confidence in Ministers than we have, Ministers ought to have given some opportunity to the country to say what its views were before it departed from its traditional policy.

I want to refer to another part of the matter. This Note deals with the Balkan problem. One does not like to use the word “amateur,” but again if you take the Note, then take a map and read the Note in the light of the map—a good racial map—the Note is either meaningless or very mischievous. What is to hinder this Government from saying that it insists upon the whole Balkan difficulty being referred to an authoritative international tribunal, with instructions that that tribunal will follow, as far as possible, historical, racial, and religious lines in settling its lines of demarcation? If that were thought satisfactory, it could be done. I know perfectly well that it may not solve the problem, but it will solve the problem with more promise of peace to Europe than by anyone trying to solve the Balkan entanglement in the position of victor and vanquished. I should like to have a vision of the future of Europe ten years after the Czech-Slovak kingdom has been established, say, in that very interesting corner surrounded by Poland and Austria, with a great many Germans alongside of it, and so on. If you are going to solve the problem, it is no use doing it with your heels; you have to do it with your head. It is a perfectly simple thing for any Power in Europe to fight a war like this, and then say, “It suits us that Bohemia shall become this and Moravia shall become that.” What happens? The result is the day after you make your settlement it is challenged in the names of millions of people without doubt.

We want this War to end war. We want this War to settle the Balkan problem. The Balkan problem may be, of course, in itself very difficult. We have to set up such an international committee as I suggest—nothing else will do it so well—while if that international commission were kept alive, at any rate nominally, so that its further services could be used from time to time as further developments cropped up, then in the end, and not a very long end, you could solve the Balkan problem, at any rate to this extent—that it would not be a menace to the peace of Europe. There is no guarantee in the Allied Note of anything of the kind. You settle it either on military or on political lines, in view of the situation in which you find yourselves to-day, and in view of that only. No sooner are you out of the situation, no sooner are you faced with a new Europe, than you discover and your children will discover that you have handed over to them precisely the same problems that your fathers and grandfathers handed over to you.

Then there is the final question. I think we ought to know when it is going to end. There the Note is. It was officially issued. But since it was issued the Secretary of State for the Colonies has been adding further items. Are other English Ministers going to add to it? Is it something that is infinite in itself and capable of a variety of extensions? I doubt very much if we have yet appreciated the tremendous difficulties of making a peace which is going to be final, and I think this House ought to pay more attention to these problems, whilst it votes its money and renews its declarations that we are going to fight to a finish, and so on. It is not quite worthy of this House to use such words as “finish” in an indefinite way. We ought to understand exactly what we mean. To me “finish” means the gaining of those political ends which you want as the result of the War. To me “finish” is the securing of the maximum political result from the minimum military effort, although that minimum may be a very big one. If the House does not do that, if we simply gamble the future of Europe and throw away the prospect and the guarantees of the future of Europe, in view of the position in which we are now, do not let us delude ourselves that we are fighting the last of the wars, because we are only fighting one of many which are still to come. If, on the other hand, the bravery and self-sacrifice of our troops are backed up by some democratic thinking on our part, the people thinking and acting as well as their Government, then it may be that before long negotiations, explanations, the removal of misunderstandings will end this War; and, when this War is ended, people will accept the peace, and it will never be broken again.