Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
On 20 February 1917, the House of Commons continued with the debate on the progress of the War and the policy of the Lloyd George government. (see Labour Affairs September 2016 for George Wardle’s speech of 14 February on Labour’s War Policy). Arthur Ponsonby opened the debate on 20 February.
Arthur Augustus William Harry Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede (16 February 1871-23 March 1946) was a politician, writer, and social activist. He was the third son of Sir Henry Ponsonby, Private Secretary to Queen Victoria. Ponsonby was a Page of Honour to Queen Victoria from 1882 to 1887. He was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford before joining the Diplomatic Service and taking assignments in Constantinople and Copenhagen. At the 1906 general election, he stood unsuccessfully as Liberal candidate for Taunton. He was elected as a Liberal MP for Stirling Burghs at a by-election of 1908.
In Parliament, Ponsonby opposed the British involvement in the First World War, and with George Cadbury, Ramsay MacDonald, E. D. Morel, Arnold Rowntree, and Charles Treveyan, he was a member of the Union of Democratic Control, which became a prominent anti-war organisation. Ponsonby was defeated at the 1918 general election, as an “Independent Democrat” in the new Dunfermline Burghs constancy. He joined the Labour Party and returned to the House of Commons at the 1922 general election for the Brightside division of Sheffield.
In 1927-1928, Ponsonby ran a Peace Letter campaign against British preparations for a new war, and from 1936 he was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union, contributing regularly to Peace News. In May 1940 Ponsonby resigned from the Labour Party, opposing its decision to join the coalition government of Winston Churchill. He wrote a biography of his father which won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1942: Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria’s Private Secretary: His Life and Letters.
The Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill affords an opportunity for a survey of the whole field, not only of the organisation and multifold activities connected with the War, but also of the policy which governs the further progress of the War. We have had some interesting Debates during the last few days on this Bill and the Vote of Credit, and the House has considered many aspects of the various activities connected with the War. But I think it is also the duty, more especially of this House, to give very careful consideration to the governing factor, which is the policy that is being pursued, that being the mainspring of all our activities. We have voted colossal sums of money, sums that are so large that even the greatest financial experts cannot realise what their true significance is—sums so large that to most of us they really only appear as figures, figures to which during the last two-and-a-half years we have grown accustomed. But we are about to spend also the nation’s greatest wealth; when I say the nation’s greatest wealth, I mean the young manhood of the nation; for the future of this nation, our welfare and our prosperity, depend on the young manhood which is about to be expended in a very costly way. We are entering upon a new phase of the War, perhaps a more dangerous and a more critical phase than any of those that have preceded it, and I think it is very necessary that this House should give careful consideration to this point, namely, the governing policy which is directing all our action.
Before I come to any sort of criticism of that policy, I should like to say just a few words with regard to the form of government under which we are now fighting. This, of all other moments, is one in which it is necessary that the whole country should feel general confidence in 1178 the Government. Obviously it would be very unfair to criticise any of the performances of the Government, seeing that they have not yet had time to carry out any of their projects for the prosecution of the War. But I, for one, cannot help having some misgiving at the tendency which has been growing now for some years past—it began before the commencement of this War—and that is the growing tendency to the divorce of the Executive from the Legislature, and more especially from the House of Commons. There were signs of it before this War began—but now it has gone further—and we have the House of Commons with the main Executive, the chief Executive, entirely removed from its control. I think this is a dangerous innovation. The Government in form is very different from any Government that has ever preceded it. There are over eighty-one members of the Government, and there are various Controllers that are being continually appointed. I saw this morning that a new Controller has been appointed, the Controller of Timber, and yesterday the appointment of a Controller of Food Production was announced. You may multiply your Controllers as much as you like, but that does not get the essential control, which is, the control of the House of Commons over the Executive. In fact, this very large form of bureaucracy rather prevents the House of Commons from exercising its control as it did in former days.
But we have not only this vast bureaucracy, we have this War Cabinet, which consists of five members, but to all intents and purposes of three, two, or one. There are people who believe a benevolent autocracy is the best form of government, but the difficulty is to find the benevolent autocrat. As to whether he has been discovered I do not know; it is too early to say. But I felt from the very first that the withdrawal of the Prime Minister, chief of the Executive, and two other members of the War Cabinet, from our deliberations here, is likely to lead to a great deal of confusion, and, more than that, to a want of confidence in the Executive. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, I think, I may say very respectfully, has earned the gratitude of the House for the courteous way in which he pays attention to all sections of it, has got a very heavy burden 1179 on his shoulders as head of his Department, Leader of the House, and a member of the War Cabinet. It is not, however, a matter of individuals, but the matter of a new system, and I must say that I regard with some misgiving the inauguration of a new system just at the moment when the country is about to pass through one of the most critical stages of its whole existence.
I want to pass on to a review of the situation in regard to the War as we find it now. This new period has been inaugurated by a German Note, and that German Note has plunged the warfare deeper down into the depths of barbarism. I regard with the greatest loathing the fresh steps taken by Germany in prosecuting the War with such savage methods. But when I read the terms of the German Note it appeared to me that Germany was driven to desperation, and I then turned to the Note of the Allies to President Wilson and analysed it more carefully. Before I examined the terms which the Allies set out in the Note to President Wilson—and I for one am very glad that at last the terms were definitely stated—I should like to call the attention of the House to the professions which have been made from time to time by leading Ministers in this country with regard to the aims of Great Britain in this War. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House (Mr. Bonar Law), in his speech on the Second Reading of the Vote of Credit, said that this country bail no selfish motives in going into this War. On 22nd December last the same right hon. Gentleman said even more emphatically: We are not fighting for territory, we are not fighting for the greater strength of those who are fighting. The Prime Minister, in an interview which was recently published by some American newspaper—the now recognised method of expressing views to the world— said we are not fighting a war of conquest. And the late Prime Minister, at the beginning of the War, said at Cardiff We have no desire to add to our Imperial burdens either in area or in responsibility.
I am perfectly sure that these emphatic statements, that this is not a War entered on for selfish motives, that it is not a War of aggression, and that it is not a War of conquest, express the sentiments of the 1180 people of this country when we entered on this War, and most emphatically described the feeling of the country at the outbreak of War in 1914. But I go further than that, and I will say that they really describe the motives and feelings of the people of this country at this moment. The people of this country do not wish this War to be a war of aggression, of aggrandisement, of supremacy, or of selfish motives. They were disinterested when they entered on it; they are disinterested now, and my complaint is that our general professions in this country not merely do not correspond with, but are in direct contradiction of our actual proposals. Let me just examine what some of those proposals are, because, after all, the terms we laid down in the Note to President Wilson are matters of the very highest moment and of the very greatest importance, and the War is continuing, it is being waged because those are the terms of the Allies, and the Germans have refused them and have taken desperate measures because they cannot accept them. Therefore it is the business of this House, if it is going to have any control over the policy being pursued, to examine the terms with some care.
We have made clear, not only in the Note to President Wilson, but by comments from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and further comments from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and from the Solicitor-General, what we actually mean. By our Note we declare that Constantinople is to be taken from the Turks, and we know that an agreement has been made with Russia by which Constantinople and the Straits are to go to Russia. We know further, by the Note and by interpretations that have been put upon it in high quarters, that the German Colonies are not to be returned to Germany. We know also that the continued endeavour which is being made with such gallantry and at such great sacrifice in Mesopotamia means that that region will fall to the British Crown. Egypt and Cyprus, in the course of events, have fallen to us, and, therefore, it means, when you sum up the whole territory, that something like 1,500,000 square miles will be added to the British Empire. That may be good policy, or it may be bad policy. I, for one, when I see the map on which the British Empire is painted red, feel no sort of pride at all—none whatever. I only feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility that this 1181 vast Empire which is placed under us should be well and properly and justly administered. I agree, too, with the late Prime Minister who said We have no desire to add to our Imperial burdens, either in area or in responsibility.
But whatever divergence of view there may be between myself and hon. Members opposite with regard to adding territory to the British Empire, I want to know how it is to be made clear that this is in conformity with the declaration that we have not entered on a war of conquest, aggression, or selfish motives. There is, in my opinion, a direct contradiction, and when that goes out to the world it is not surprising that interpretations have been put upon it meaning that we are indeed out for a war of aggression. In addition to this, it has been made clear that we do not desire in this War to dismember enemy countries. But again look at our terms. Constantinople is to be taken from Turkey. Armenia is to be taken from Turkey. Very likely that is an extremely good policy, but I am not now dealing with merits, I am only trying to show that there is a direct contradiction between our professions and our terms. A very prominent Russian statesman, a leader of the Liberals of Russia, a man of great responsibility, has also given his interpretation of the terms of the Allies. He goes further and gives Syria to France, Arabia to Great Britain, and Western Asia Minor and the territory round Smyrna to Italy. I am not quite sure where he expects the Turks to live, but anyhow proposals of that sort, put forward in high quarters by responsible statesmen, must be interpreted as meaning the dismemberment of Turkey. It may be a good policy, but do not let us say we are not out for the dismemberment of enemy countries. Then we have heard recently a great deal about the Czecho-Slovacs, and very few people, I find, have the remotest notion who they are, and I cannot help feeling that those responsible for foreign affairs in this country are also a little doubtful as to the territory occupied by the Czecho-Slovacs and the aspirations of the Czecho-Slovacs. Behind this, to many in this country an incomprehensible item in the terms of the Allies, there lies a very deep meaning, and that is that this, taken with other proposals in the Allies’ Note, means the break-up of Austria-Hungary. The break-up of the Austria-Hungarian 1182 Empire may be a good policy, or it may be a bad one, but do not let us say that we are not out for the dismemberment of enemy countries when in our own Note it is clearly shown that the break-up of Austria-Hungary and the break-up of Turkey are objects for which we are fighting.
I do not know to what extent the particular items that are placed in the Allies’ Note were drafted by the British Government, but it has seemed to me all along, and more especially in this last pronouncement, that when we have conferences and councils with the Allies we play a second fiddle, a minor part, and that our Allies are able to insert various proposals which have not been considered by our Government and which may greatly add to our embarrassments as time goes on. The Leader of the House made reference in his speech on the Second Reading of the Vote of Credit to the enormous advantage that conferences had been during the prosecution of the War. He said that a great many difficulties had been overcome by the personal relations that had been set up between the various leading Ministers in the Allied countries. I am very glad to hear it. I must say that I have some misgiving as to the part that our Ministers play. It does not seem to me to be always a leading part, but I hope this method of conferences will not only be a practice adopted in time of war, but that the old ridiculous idea that our Foreign Secretary must remain locked up in the Foreign Office and never travel in foreign countries and never communicate with foreign Ministers will be broken down, and that conferences between individuals meeting in various capitals may in future be one of the methods by which difficulties and misunderstandings may be overcome. I hope the Leader of the House may find an opportunity during to-day’s Debate to reply to some of the points which I am making, and which were made by two hon. Friends of mine last week. I do think it is very important that this should be cleared up, and that this contradiction which undoubtedly exists between our proposals and our terms should be disposed of.
We entered this War most undoubtedly for the protection of small nationalities, and we seem to be prosecuting the War now for the extension of large empires, and that does not add to our prestige, nor 1183 does it add to the favour with which we can be regarded by foreign nations, and even by our own Allies. We have often been accused of being a nation of hypocrites. It is most untrue. The people of this country are not hypocrites. They are perfectly clear as to what they want. The splendid spirit that has been shown from the very beginning, and the sacrifices that have been made, have been made most emphatically with a disinterested motive, and I think the Government ought not to degrade that motive by turning it into a desire for domination and supremacy. But it is often objected that even if we laid down terms which could lead to negotiations, a negotiated peace would not be satisfactory, but that we must have a dictated peace, and the two chief arguments for that have been mentioned in this House. The hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Wardle) in his speech the other day laid great emphasis on a point which is often made, I notice, in the Press, and that is, that Germany must be punished. He laid great emphasis on the chastisement of Germany. May I say that Germany is being punished. But who in Germany is being punished? The people of Germany are being punished— the workers of Germany. You are not touching the Government, you are not touching the Junkers, the militarists, or Tirpitz, or the Kaiser. As the War continues, you are punishing the people, not only of Germany, but of France, of Russia, of Italy, and of this country also. Therefore, this idea of punishment is a very misleading one, and, if I may say so, I think this vindictive idea, the desire for punishment, which can only be fanned up by hatred, is a very low motive for continuing a War.
A further argument is brought forward that if the War were to end by negotiation, you would leave Prussian militarism triumphant. I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Commander Wedgwood) said that the other night. In so far as militarism is an aggressive policy, it seems to me that the aggressive policy of Germany has been done for already; but I, for one, I have never believed that you can kill militarism by force of arms. Militarism can only be killed in the country by the people themselves, by the growth of an independent and free democracy, and 1184 what are we doing by this War? Instead of crushing Prussian militarism, we are destroying the one weapon that can crush Prussian militarism, and that is German Liberalism, because our extreme demands, like all extreme expressions that have been used since the beginning of this War, have had only one effect in Germany, and that is to crush the moderate party, to prevent them from being heard, to unite the whole nation together, because they are told that a war of aggression and dismemberment is being waged against them. I feel that it is of the utmost importance, considering what is before us, that we should make clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding that those are not our objects, but that these general professions that we make are genuine, and that our terms should be made to fit in with them. I feel that it is important that some declaration of this kind should be made. I know that Great Britain entered this War with clean hands, and a country that enters a war with clean hands should come out of the war with empty hands. That is what I believe, so far as possible. Otherwise a suspicion will attach to their motives. I do not want to see my country come out of this War a mere winner in a struggle for supremacy. I want to see my country the chief agent in the establishment of a new order founded on international justice and framed to promote a durable international peace.