Debating bombing and foreign intervention — III

So let's have a look at the responses to Chamberlain's response to Noel-Baker's parliamentary motion of 21 June 1938.

First up was Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal party. He was mainly concerned with foreign policy more generally, asking whether the recent Anglo-Italian agreement was not intended as part of an effort by Mussolini and Hitler to isolate France:

Aerodromes are being constructed near the frontiers of France, and within easy striking distance of the munition industries of the south-west of France. On the borders of Spain, on the German frontier, the Italian frontier, the Balearic Islands, on the flank of the French communications with North Africa, France is being encircled.

He dismissed Chamberlain's excuse that the government is seeking to come up with practical proposals to limit aerial warfare, since the outlines of the problem has been known for years and yet nothing has been done about it. Furthermore, Sinclair attacked the National Government's scrupulous interpretation of neutrality in the Spanish case:

Neutrality between the parties in a civil war, yes; but neutrality between the bomber and his innocent victims, when the bombers are all on one side and the innocent victims all on the other side, is neutrality between right and wrong.

Doing something -- defending British ships, punishing Franco -- just isn't as hard as Chamberlain makes out.

A Conservative MP, Sir Archibald Southby, was next. He opened by attacking the opposition for their partisanship, when 'almost the whole of the world' praised Chamberlain's efforts for peace. In particular, he defended the policy of appeasement, pointing out that if you don't want to fight dictators, you have to 'sit down and discuss the differences and difficulties which separate you'. As for bombing, it was inherently uncontrollable:

Unfortunately in attempts to bomb what are universally accepted as legitimate targets, the civilian population have suffered because of the impossibility of registering accurate shooting with bombs. This House would be a perfectly legitimate target for enemy aircraft in war time. Further up the river, a short distance away, are two large power stations, which would be perfectly legitimate targets, but across the river is a large hospital which would not be a legitimate target. I do not think that any hon. Member would deny that an aeroplane flying at 300 miles an hour, 20,000 feet up, would find it impossible to distinguish between those three targets, and that if it aimed at this House, the hospital might probably be hit. That is what is going on in Spain.

Thus the only way to limit the danger of bombing to civilians, in Southby's view, was to abolish aerial warfare altogether.

Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, a respected Labour MP (and incidentally great-great-grandson of the eponymous potter) then followed. He was particularly exercised by the government's refusal to defend British merchantmen, saying 'it is not the spirit of Nelson we have heard to-day' and calling Southby, an ex-Royal Navy commander, 'a miserable naval officer of this degenerate age'. Like Sinclair, Wedgwood argued that non-intervention was not the same as neutrality:

Now we are actually engaged in holding down the victim of oppression while the victim is being kicked by the bullies. A more dastardly piece of history I cannot imagine. We are refusing to allow anti-aircraft guns, which might save these people some of the destruction, to be sent to the Spanish people in order to save their towns, their property and their children. With a depth of hypocrisy we have never touched before we are pretending that we are impartial, pretending that we are avoiding intervention, and all the time submitting to our new friends, the Roman Government.

As the name 'debate' suggests, the order of speaking often alternated between pro and con. Thus Wedgwood was followed by a Conservative, Sir Malcolm Barclay-Harvey. Like Southby, he claimed that the opposition were out of touch with world sentiment on Spain, that is to say they wanted to inflame the situation whereas everyone else wanted to contain it. No risk of a general war should be taken:

Nobody deplores more than I do the fact that there have been these attacks on our shipping, which certainly are resented very bitterly, and if we can find any method short of war which will enable us to stop them, by all means let us carry it out; but do not let us allow a thing of this sort to involve the British Empire and the British people in the horrors of a European war.

On the subject of aerial warfare specifically, Barclay-Harvey was 'very glad that the Prime Minister and the Government are doing their best at least to get some satisfactory basis on which the horrors of modern warfare may be alleviated'. That is to say, he took his party's leader at his word that something was being done about bringing about an international agreement on bombing, despite the lack of any details.

Arthur Henderson, son of the late Labour leader of the same name, made a speech which began with the Brazilian revolution of 1893 and ended with a plea for the government to do something to protect Jewish and political refugees from central Europe. (He believed that 'appalling economic conditions' were largely to blame for this persecution.) In between, Henderson argued that the question of the bombing of civilian populations 'has become one of vital importance to the welfare of civilisation'.

According to the announcement of Japanese Imperial headquarters, during May alone there took place 1,800 air raids on Chinese towns. Between 28th May and 11th June Canton was bombed 12 times in 14 days. It is estimated that 3,000 civilians were killed and 5,500 wounded. On two days, 6th and 7th June more than 1,000 houses were destroyed. My hon. Friend who initiated the Debate referred to the telegram from the Mayor of Canton drawing attention to the terrible sufferings of the civilian population. In Spain there have been constant air attacks upon Barcelona, 976 more than 1,000 casualties in three days, at Alicante, 378 men, women and children killed, apart from wounded, and 500 casualties at Granollers, a comparatively small town. The British Minister at Barcelona has reported that there were no military objectives there. It is only too apparent that the Spanish insurgent authorities are carrying on an indiscriminate attack on the civilian populations of the parts of Spain that are opposed to them.

Henderson wondered why no international agreement had been reached to limit bombing: 'Is it not possible to do something to stop this slaughter? [...] Is it not possible to do something more than merely make speeches?' A good question, but the blame for this could hardly be laid at the British government's feet alone.

One of the MPs for Cambridge University spoke next, Kenneth Pickthorn. Interestingly he asserted a special affinity with those in peril on the sea, as he 'spent the first years of my life and considerable portions of my later years on tramp ships', something which few of his fellow Conservatives could claim. Despite this, he was not sympathetic to the claim that British ships deserved (or indeed, could be given) British protection inside the three-mile limit marking Spain's territorial waters. Moreover Pickthorn suggested that when ships are tied up at a dock, they are no longer ships, as far as international law was concerned, but just 'a piece of fixed alien property' with no special claims for protection in a war zone.

Pickthorn's claims prompted a short riposte from James Maxton, chairman of the Independent Labour party:

I know that in the seaports, in Glasgow [where Maxton's constituency was located], Liverpool, Newcastle, Cardiff, Swansea, the common folk there think it is simply damnable that British seamen can be done to death, that the British Navy cannot move, that the British Government cannot move, that no steps can be taken along either diplomatic or trade lines.

Apparently, 'in the face of the threats and the acts of this rebel traitor General [Franco], who two years ago was an underground plotter in the cafes of Europe, His Majesty's Government are completely powerless to take any step of any description whatever', if Chamberlain and his back-benchers were to be believed.

The next speaker was one of those back-benchers, but one who professed himself to be 'disappointed by the attitude adopted [...] by the Prime Minister this afternoon'. More than that, he believed that Chamberlain's lack of action would likely encourage Franco and so 'will cost British lives'. As one of Winston Churchill's followers, however, Duncan Sandys was something of a rebel on the backbenches, so this is not too surprising. (Churchill himself was not present, though he certainly opposed Chamberlain on this issue too.) But at least he had a practical suggestion: as the Nyon system of international patrols had been so successful in eliminating piracy in the Mediterranean, why not extend them?

Why not, therefore, extend the protection which has been so successful under the Nyon Agreement right up to the moment when a ship enters a harbour? That would not be inconsistent in any way with the policy of non-intervention. No action would be taken by our warships unless some illegal attack were made on British ships. Unless such attacks were made there would be no interference whatever.

As for ships actually docked, during an air raid they must share in the general risk of being hit by bombs dropping erratically.

On the other hand, if, as in recent cases, there is clear evidence that ships have been deliberately sought out and that aeroplanes have flown around and have fired machine guns at the crew, that is a different matter. If there is reliable evidence that ships have been deliberately bombed, we should then, in my opinion, demand immediate compensation from the offending authorities. If that compensation is refused, we should then in the last resort adopt a policy of reprisals. By reprisals I mean that we should seize goods, money or securities in this country belonging to the offending party, or, alternatively, if that does not meet the case, then we should instruct a British warship to arrest a merchant vessel belonging to the party concerned.

This is a more robust response than any suggested by Labour or Liberal speakers thus far. However, it only goes to the protection of British shipping, and does nothing for civilian populations being bombed.

This post is already getting long, and is only half way (and 2.5 hours) through the other speakers. So you'll be glad to know that I've decided to continue it later!

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3 thoughts on “Debating bombing and foreign intervention — III

  1. Post author

    To be fair, it was more rhetoric than dog-whistling per se. I probably should have quoted the next sentence, as it makes a bit more sense than where I left off:

    The great new Roman Empire, is intervening busily while we come to an agreement that their intervention shall continue, and that ours shall never take place.

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