Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
“FREEDOM OF THE SEAS” (GERMAN INTERPRETATION). 14 February 1918
Mr. PENNEFATHER asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he has any information as to the meaning attached in Germany to the phrase, “The freedom of the seas”?
Lord R. CECIL The most recent declaration on the subject to which my attention has been drawn emanates from Count Reventlow, who is reported to have interpreted the meaning of the phrase as follows, at a public meeting in Berlin in March, 1917: What do we Germans understand by freedom of the seas? Of course we do not mean by it that free use of the sea which is the common privilege of all nations in time of peace, the right to the open highways of international trade. That sort of freedom of the sea we had before the War. What we understand to-day by this doctrine is that Germany should possess such maritime territories and such naval bases that at the outbreak of a war we should be able, with our Navy ready, reasonably to guarantee ourselves the command of the seas. We want such a jumping-off place for our Navy as would give us a fair chance of dominating the seas and of being free of the seas during a war. (Cheers.) The inalienable possession of the Belgian seaboard is therefore a matter of life and death to us, and the man is a traitor who would faintheartedly relinquish this coast to England. Our aim be not only to keep what our arms have already won on this coast, but sooner or later to extend our seaboard to the south of the Strait of Calais. It is, of course, obvious that the phrase as used elsewhere has a very different signification.
Mr. TREVELYAN Does not the Noble Lord think that a more important statement of the Central Powers is that of Count Czernin, in which he said that he accepted the interpretation of the phrase “freedom of the seas” given by the President of the United States of America?
Mr. SPEAKER The question here is as to the meaning attached to the phrase in Germany.
Mr. CHANCELLOR Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether Count Reventlow is supposed to be the official mouthpiece?
Lord R. CECIL I do not know that he is. He is a member and a representative of that clique in Germany which has usually exerted its sway over the Government of the country.
Mr. CHANCELLOR Is he anything more than a private person who happens to be a German?
Lord R. CECIL He may be a good deal.
Mr. ALDEN Does the Noble Lord think that Count Reventlow expresses anything more than the opinion of the German Navy League?
Lord R. CECIL It is impossible for me to say, but I should be glad if the hon. Member will tell me what in his judgment is the interpretation of this phrase in Germany.
Mr. LYNCH Can the right hon. Gentleman give us the meaning attached to this phrase in the United States?
Mr. SPEAKER That does not arise out of the question.
GOVERNMENT POLICY. 14 February 1918
James Myles Hogge (19/4/1873-27/10/1928) was a British social researcher and Liberal politician. He was first elected to the House of Commons in an Edinburgh East by-election in 1912. He held the seat until 1924, when he was defeated by the Labour candidate Drummond Shiels.
Mr. HOGGE I am sorry that the Leader of the House has not kept the agreement which I made with his party Whips. I was perfectly prepared to move the Amendment I had down on the Paper and to agree to finish my speech before eleven o’clock, and I rose at two minutes to eleven in order that my Amendment should be got on the Notes. The Leader of the House has frequently said that if hon. Members of this House are not satisfied with the Government the proper course is to move a vote of “No confidence.” I have no confidence that the Members of the Front Opposition Bench will ever move such a vote, for although yesterday they “got over the top,” in speeches, in “No Man’s Land” they sheltered themselves in the shell holes made by the Leader of the Opposition. I think the Leader of the Opposition will do me the credit of believing me when I say that I have never been afraid of stating my opinion regarding this Government. I have been prepared during the whole period of three days to move a Vote of “No confidence” in the present Government, because I do not believe in their capacity for making either peace or war. We have been discussing for three days a large number of Resolutions, all of which could have been included in one general vote of “No confidence.” We have had a teetotal Debate for the last two hours which could easily have been raised on a general vote of “No confidence.” It was not raised in that way, because the teetotal Members of this House are quite willing to wound the Government by an Amendment on a teetotal question, but are afraid to strike the Government when it comes to a question of voting against them. I believe in knowing where we are on subjects of this kind. I say quite frankly that I believe the present Government, from the Prime Minister downwards, are incompetent to make either war or peace.
In the Debate on Tuesday the Prime Minister accused me of deliberate falsehood in this House. He said he was not a party to any communication from Downing Street to the Press of this country. I told him, and I repeat it now, that he was not telling the facts with regard to this matter, and it is a prevarication which can be proved. I challenge the Prime Minister, and I hope the Leader of the House of Commons will convey the challenge to him, to set up a small Committee of three Members of this House of Commons, and let those of us who know the journalists who have been to Downing Street, and have got the information, give evidence before the Committee, which shall report to the House of Commons whether or not it is true that these bits of information and this Press campaign did emanate from Downing Street. I am perfectly prepared to stake what public reputation I have— I think very little about that at all; it does not worry me at all— on an inquiry of this sort, and that is the point I wish to raise. I do not mind arguments being against me, but I do mind Ministers in the House of Commons riding off on these side issues. If I had had an opportunity of getting in on the Address, I would have said certain things. I would have said that there is a great difference between the points of view which we must take up now and the point of view which we took up when we went into the War. When we went into the War it was absolutely necessary that there should be unity among the nations. At that time we all went to war for different reasons, and there was no time to consider all the various reasons that brought the whole of the people of this country into the War. But now that the War has developed to such an extent that it includes practically every nation in the civilised world. I think that we ought also to have regard to that second point, which is extraordinarily important, and that is whether policy now ought to supersede the question of unity. We as a nation must find out what is our best policy in dealing with this War, and whether we ought not to sacrifice to the question of policy the more superficial question of unity in regard to the War.
Those of us who make this kind of criticism are frequently asked what we would do. I am perfectly prepared to tell my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House what I would do if I were in his place. It may, of course, be very presumptuous, but, after all, in this House hon. Members are never afraid to consider the views expressed by another hon. Member, whatever his political views, and we arrive at conclusions here by a general consensus of opinion. I will tell my right hon. Friend what I would do if I were in his place. I would give up telling falsehoods in public about the strength of our Army and our Navy. I would give up misleading the public on those points. I would, further, give up telling more falsehoods when we get into Secret Session of this House of Commons. I accuse— and I do it deliberately, because I raised these figures originally— I accuse the Prime Minister of deliberately misleading this House of Commons after he has misled the public outside on his figures. After all, this is our country, and out of the complexity of this War we all want our country to come strongest. We do not want to be handicapped in the future race, and I say that if I were in the position of my right hon. Friend I would deliberately set about a policy— and I suggest it to him quite seriously— whereby I would ruthlessly comb out the Army on the Western Front until it contained, like the Army of Joshua, nothing but the most fit men for the purpose of fighting. I would release every other man for civilian and industrial work at home in order to build ships so that we might keep this country in food. Remembering what our small “contemptible” Army did in the early days of the war; remembering that it held up the advancing forces of the highest-trained troops in Europe, I would depend upon our modern Army, chosen in the way that I have suggested, sitting tight on the Western Front and preventing the Germans making any advance until the great power of the United States could be used against the Germans.
Why should this country go on sacrificing its men, and its money, and its material while there are other great civilised Powers in the world who are professing to help us? In all conscience we have done enough! We have served the cause of civilisation enough, and we want a policy by which our men and our country can be protected. It may not be the right policy. I do not claim it, but it might be. I put it forward as my policy, the ruthless combing-out of the Army, so that the German forces might be held on the Western Front until the forces of the United States are prepared to come in. I say I this deliberately, although I am not a military man— there are military men in this House who can say what they think of the opinion— that if we are to depend on a purely military decision in this War, this War may last for ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Now this Government to-day is putting all its money upon the military decision. That is proved by what is going on outside this House at this precise moment. I am quite certain that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons could not say to-night whether Sir William Robertson will be at the War Office in the morning. Everybody knows what is happening outside the walls of this Chamber. Everybody knows the kind of offers that have been made to the man who is in charge, who happens to be a Scotsman, and who happens to have this view of the situation— that if the Government do not like him they have to dismiss him. He considered himself competent enough for the work he is asked to do. If the Government do not think him competent the only way they can get rid of him is by dismissing him, which means that the Government is pinning all its attention on a purely military decision. I think that is wrong. When you look at the conquests of Germany in this War— and, after all, we have to face the facts— they have all brought material benefit to the German Empire. They have the coal mines, they have the granary of Europe, and everything that will help them to fight us. Every conquest that we have made— glorious as the military achievement has been in getting them— has been a burden to the country.
Colonel Sir R. WILLIAMS No!
Mr. HOGGE Yes— Palestine, Mesopotamia.
Sir R. WILLIAMS What about the Colonies?
Mr. HOGGE My hon. Friend again knows it to be so. Because of these things our great Navy and mercantile marine is so being used that we are not getting the food supplies for this country that we might otherwise get. I am not objecting. I am glad that we have done it. I am saying that they are a burden to us, and that Germany’s acquisitions in that sense are not a burden to them. Germany has got the granaries to supply them with food and the coal mines to supply them with coal. Our military achievements are actually weakening our position. Take the personnel of this Government. There is the Leader of the House of Commons. Incidentally, as a critic who perhaps has annoyed him as much as anybody in the House, I pay my tribute to him for the way in which he attends to the House of Commons. He is always prepared to meet us half-way. Take the speech which he made the other night on the alternative vote. He said that he and his Friends went into the Division Lobby because it was purely a party issue. Well, we Liberals—
Sir G. YOUNGER Did the same thing!
Mr. HOGGE My hon. Friend who, like myself, is a Scottish Member, says that we did the same thing. He is quite right about the fighting members of the Liberal party, but he will also know that the Liberal members of this Administration, which he supports, did not go into the Lobby in favour of the Liberal side of this Division. If he wants the names I will give them. If the members of this Administration who are drawing out of the same pool as the Leader of the House of Commons had gone into their Lobby, the Liberals would have had a majority of twenty-one in that particular vote. I do not think that the Leader of the House of Commons had any business to be thinking during the War of a party subject. He is a member of the War Cabinet. This War Cabinet should get its collar down either to the making of war or the making of peace. That is the burden of my complaint. The Leader of the House of Commons has done sentry-go in this House while a so-called Liberal, who is Prime Minister at the moment, has carried on this War. I could make a long speech if I wanted about the folly and incompetence of our present Prime Minister. He came into power promising this country victory and success. He came into power to do things now. He has given us neither victory nor success. He has given us 1s. 3d. worth of meat a week, ½lb. of sugar, and 2 ozs. of margarine.
This has been the achievement of the present Minister who presides over the destinies of this country. But what I should have liked would have been to come to grips with this Government. I think we want a new Government, a smaller Government, with fewer men in it, and with the one thought in their mind all the day, and all the week, and all the time, that either we must make war successfully, or we must bring this country out on terms of peace which are an advantage to it. They want to comb out all the Departments, they want to strafe all the hotels. This country is to-day in the hands of the policeman who used to direct the traffic, but who to-day direct the domestic lives of the people of this country. If the Government would get down to that that would be the business, and they would get the support of intelligent Liberals in this House instead of the support of the Front Opposition Bench. [Laughter.] The House laughs, but after all this is a tremendously serious thing. This country has spent a lot of money and has lost a lot of lives, and many on the Front Bench have lost the lives of the people they cared for most in the world. We have got to get out of this. What I feel at the moment is that there is too much of the policy of drift in the Government, who do not know where they are going. You have got the irony of this situation, that the Government which came in on the policy of “Do it now” is waiting and seeing at this moment. That is the trouble. We are told that Russia is out of the War. Everyone says Russia is out of the war. Is Russia out of the War? I suggest, in all seriousness, that Russia is not out of this War, and that if this country is thrown into antagonism to the Revolution in Russia, Germany, through Russia, may, on the policy of self-determination, attempt to set up new buffer States between Russia and India as the result of the policy which we also largely adhere to at the moment. One sees the kind of exhibition that went on yesterday from the Foreign Secretary. We have all witnessed many scenes in this House, but the one we witnessed yesterday reminded most of us of the days when we were at a public school and used to go paper-chasing. It is that kind of thing that makes me feel that the present Government has not got a grip. I am quite sure it has not got it.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cleveland told us yesterday that there were ninety-one members of the present Government. I do not know how we can recognise them. I suggest to the Leader of the House that he might suggest to the ninety-one members of the Government that they should wear a brassard so that we might know them when we came up against them in the House of Commons. In the half-hour on the Adjournment Motion one cannot develop an argument, and I should have liked on the Address to get really to grips. Either this Government possesses the confidence of the country or it does not. I have no wish for people to get up in this House and say it does not who are not prepared to test it. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will do me this amount of credit, that I will test it at any time he likes, even though there are only the two Tellers in the opposite Division Lobby. I am sick to death in this House to see leaders of progressive opinion who continually contend that this Government does not retain the confidence of the country and who ride off on all sorts of Amendments to the Address to the King. Let us take the gloves off. If the Opposition mean business let them take the gloves off and fight the Government. This Government ought to be fought. I believe it is the most incompetent Government that ever sat within these walls, with the laudable exception of the Leader of the House, who always meets the House quite fairly. That is why I should have liked the opportunity to move an Amendment directly challenging the policy of this Government. I believe I am only the harbinger, and that in a few months we shall have got rid of this Government and be on the road either to a successful military victory or to a settlement which will bring peace and contentment to this country.
Question put, and agreed to.