Debating bombing and foreign intervention — IV

Time to put this increasingly misnamed trilogy out of its misery. (It's been going so long I can't remember why I started it!)

To reprise: on 21 June 1938, Philip Noel-Baker initiated a debate in the House of Commons about how Britain should respond to the increasingly-common (and, he asserted, illegal) bombing of civilian targets in warfare, as evidenced by China and Spain. He made a particular point of discussing Nationalist attacks on British-flagged merchant vessels in Spanish waters. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, responded, giving his own view of what sort of bombing was permitted by international law, and essentially saying that it was impossible in practice to do anything to defend these ships. A number of MPs rose to speak following the PM, largely on party lines. Here are the rest of them.

Wilfred Roberts, a Liberal MP, spoke passionately against the Government's policy on Spain. Franco, he claimed, was holding British shipowners to ransom, bombing their ships if they traded with the Spanish government and then denying their other ships landing rights in ports he controlled. He attacked the Conservatives for suggesting that the Spanish trade was somehow illegal, a rather un-Toryish position:

When Conservatives stand up and say that British sailors must not be defended from illegal bombing because the owners of the ships may or may not be making profits, I wonder why they did not take the opportunity of reminding us of that during the Great War.

He also noted a 'semi-official' rumour that was being passed around that the bombing was being carried out 'not by Italian but by German bombers', which takes the pressure off Chamberlain to criticise Italy in any way and thereby jeopardising his Anglo-Italian Agreement. Overall, 'The present policy of the British Government is designed to get a quick victory for Franco', far from the even-handedness it itself proclaims.

Arthur Evans, a Conservative from Wales, did not shy from taking the excess profits line, but had to be reined in by the acting Speaker when he started reading out a statement by the Committee of British Shipowners Trading to Spain. But his main point was that to take a harder line was to increase the risk of a general war:

But if the demand of the Opposition which has been made across the Floor of this Chamber to-day, both by the Socialist party and by the Liberal party, were put into operation, it would not be a question of 20 Mercantile Marine seamen losing their lives, but in all probability the horrors of war would be visited on the whole nation.

To which the interjection is recorded, 'War with whom?' Evans didn't answer, nor did he when asked twice more. The point of this question would seem to be that he is conflating war with Franco (the alleged perpetrator of the bombing attacks) with war with Italy (the actual perpetrator). One, it is implied, is to be feared, the other is not.

Evans was followed by another Welsh MP, the redoubtable Labourite Aneurin Bevan. He mocked Conservatives in general and Evans in particular (including accusing him of seeking a safer seat) for running away from the profit principle.

I understand we are to defend British citizens abroad only if the man attacking them is smaller than ourselves. If it is a couple of helpless negroes, down with them; but if it is the Duke of Alba, back him up. I never heard a more disgraceful suggestion.

Alleging that by saying there is nothing that Britain can do to do defend British merchantmen, Chamberlain is effectively announcing an embargo on trade with the Spanish government, Bevan thought that 'there is on the Government side of the House a deep sympathy for Franco':

We are now witnessing no other than a piece of naked class policy by the other side. They are anxious to bring about the victory of their friends. They say that they will take no risks at this moment in order to protect British seamen. I hope that we shall remember that fact when they ask us to take risks in order to protect their friends.

The third Welshman in a row to rise to speak was David Lloyd George, the former Liberal prime minister. He had some choice words for Chamberlain's speech: 'distressing', 'very deplorable', 'very pitiable': 'Frankly, I do not know of any House that I have seen which would have tolerated it'. Befitting, perhaps, his status as the only person present (the only person alive, in fact) who had led the nation at war, Lloyd George gave the most pugnacious speech:

He says "Well, if we were to do anything to protect our flag, what could we do?" In the first place, we know exactly where these aeroplanes came from. They came from the Italian camp in the Balearic Islands. We know where they are, and we could bomb those aerodromes until they stopped it. The right hon. Gentleman says, "Oh, but that is war." War with whom? Is it war with Franco? He would not make war. Is it war with Mussolini? Mussolini could not make war without accepting the responsibility for sending aeroplanes to sink British ships. Is he prepared to do that? I do not believe it; and if he did, well, we should have to stand up to him at last.

He warned that Germany and Italy were intervening in the Spanish war just to support Franco, but to secure advantageous positions and resources for another war:

First of all, the Germans have fortified the Northern ports. They have built aerodromes overlooking the Bay of Biscay, our high road to the Southern Atlantic and to the Mediterranean and vital to France. They have planted heavy artillery on both sides of the Straits of Gibraltar and the harbour of Gibraltar will be under the fire of those guns. There are Italian aerodromes in the Balearic Islands, on the sea route between France and her African Empire, and on our communications with Southern France. The Germans have a lien on the valuable mineral resources of Spain. Formerly they were largely in our hands.

In Lloyd George's reckoning, Chamberlain's devotion to peace was 'noble', but to take a 'wrong course' and stick to it 'in spite of every warning of fact -- that is not statesmanship, it is sheer dunderheadedness'.

Lloyd George was followed by one of his past tormentors, Brigadier-General Sir Henry Page Croft, one of the more right-wing members of the Conservative party. He claimed that L-G's proposal would itself endanger civilians:

The right hon. Gentleman would advocate that our country should send our Air Force on a bombing expedition against the Italian aerodromes in the Balearics. I must point out that that has been done frequently [by Republican forces], and that many civilians have been killed and wounded in precisely similar bombing attacks on the Balearics, on Palma and Majorca in particular, as he is now advocating.

Indeed, Page Croft was one of the few to dwell at length on the question of aerial warfare. He reminded Lloyd George of the conclusion of one of his own wartime committees, that 'The day may not be far off when aerial operations, with their devastation of enemy lines and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war'. (L-G had to be reminded of which committee this was, unsurprisingly since Jan Smuts did most of the actual work.)

Did the right hon. Gentleman dissent from that policy? I am asking this only in order that we may not be charged with being guilty of hypocrisy. I ask him further if he himself was not the prime mover for an independent Air Force which was to carry out this same kind of function which General Franco, rightly or wrongly, is carrying on in Spain at the present time.

Apart from his political-scoring, Page Croft wanted to get across the point that Spain was a war zone, and risks are inherent in war, whether it is to civilian populations or merchant vessels. If there was anyone to blame, then, it was 'the Government which has not succeeded in maintaining peace in that country', i.e. the Republicans.

Yet another Welshman then rose, Labour's David Grenfell. He denounced the non-intervention regime set up primarily by Britain and France as 'a farce [...] a subject for laughter': 'Aeroplanes go by hundreds where before the pact of nonintervention they went singly'. While he welcomed Chamberlain's expression of concern about the practice of bombing civilians, but it was his own policies which encouraged it. And who knows where it may end:

We are embarking upon a new method of warfare, which is being used in Spain because Spain has no influential friends. We can afford to treat Spain shabbily, and so the weapons of destruction from the air have been employed freely [...] We are witnessing the beginnings of a new system of the destruction of human life on a large scale which we may live to regret if it is allowed to grow until it becomes accepted by nations large and small throughout the world.

Grenfell wants an end to 'dishonest policy of non-intervention' and 'an honest effort at conciliation', to halt the spread of German and Italian influence and to save the lives of Spanish civilians.

Finally, R. A. Butler, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, closed for the Government. (The Foreign Secretary would presumably have done so himself, were he not a member of the other place.) His lengthy reply, addressed particularly to Noel-Baker and to Lloyd George, essentially boiled down to two points. The first was the announcement of arrangements for a new scheme, concluded that day by the Non-intervention Committee chaired by Lord Plymouth, for tightening the blockade on arms entering Spain by both land and sea. Of particular relevance to the present debate, it would involve every ship entering Spanish ports to carry a neutral observer to verify the non-military nature of its cargo. (There would then be no reason for Franco to attack those ships.) Butler's second point was the more general one, that all of the more 'heroic' suggestions made regarding the defence of British life and property in Spain -- bombing the Balearics, escorting ships across the three-mile limit -- would essentially mean going to war.

To conclude this Debate I think I can safely say that all who interest themselves in foreign policy regard themselves as realists. Hon. Members opposite regard themselves as realists because they say that they will save democracy by intervening in the Spanish War. -- [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] -- We say that we are realists because we are determined to keep this country out of war and to save peace. It is impossible to save democracy by taking any risks of going to war, and the object of our dual policy of international conciliation and national strength, is to save our democracy from War and so to retain it in peace.

After all that debate -- totalling about seven hours and nearly fifty thousand words -- the result was 278 against Noel-Baker's amendment and 148 for, about what you'd expect from given the Government's huge majority. Of course, he knew it was never going to get up, but he achieved his aim of forcing the Government to defend itself against its critics, and to allow alternative policies to be aired. No doubt this was small comfort for Republican Spain, and some satisfaction for Nationalist Spain.

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