Events have moved with appalling swiftness during the past week. Austria is at war with Servia [Serbia], Germany is at war with Russia and France, and we ourselves are on the very verge of war with Germany. We are confronted in Europe with a situation that has no parallel since the first Napoleon was at the height of his career of almost world-wide conquest.
The scene in the House yesterday was one of extraordinary significance. I have never before seen so many members at prayers, and for the first time in my experience, room had to be found for members by providing rows of chairs on the floor of the House. By general consent Questions were postponed. The House was too deeply interested in the forthcoming statement of Sir Edward Grey to concern itself with details. Breathlessly we awaited a statement that must of necessity mean much for our country and for every one of the electors we represent in Parliament.
How do we stand as a nation in the midst of the European conflagration? The Government has entered into certain obligations in our behalf. First, we have promised to protect the French northern and western coasts, and French shipping, against naval aggression. Secondly, we have undertaken to maintain the independence of Belgium. So far our obligations go and no further.
I am not minimising the responsibilities we have taken on ourselves. In the event - and nobody can tell at present how the situation will develop - we may yet be able to maintain a relatively independent attitude. On the other hand it is beyond question that we may be drawn into the heart of the conflict. The latter is indeed the more likely alternative.
At such a juncture as this it behoves each and every one of us to examine his own conscience, to survey the whole situation coolly and as fully as his knowledge of it permits, and to form his own judgment. We dare not allow statesmen or newspapers to decide for us. In this matter we cannot shift our responsibility to other shoulders.
The main question is whether or not we as a people should have stood entirely aloof from the conflict. Put in other words, the question is whether having regard to our obligations to other countries and to our own ultimate welfare we should have been right in adopting an attitude of rigid neutrality. How far do we stand committed by our Entente with France? How far had that informal arrangement compromised us? Again, what is our duty to Belgium and to the other small independent States of Northern Europe?
Let this be said perfectly frankly. There is probably not a single Member of Parliament of any party who goes into this business without serious misgivings. There are few amongst us, I believe, who desire the humiliation of Germany. There are still fewer who would welcome the domination of Russia in eastern Europe. After all, Germany stands for a civilisation that we understand and that is nearer to our own civilisation even than that of France. The world owes an infinite debt of gratitude to the science, the scholarship and the culture of Germany. I think I do not misinterpret the sentiments of the mass of our fellow countrymen when I say that, if it had been possible, we should have preferred a friendly working arrangement with Germany to one with any other European country.
It must be admitted, I think, that the Entente with France has compromised us more deeply than we knew. Relying on our friendship, the French Government removed its fleets to the Mediterranean and left its northern and western seaboards bare of defence. Incidentally, it must be remarked that the presence of a strong and friendly French fleet in the Mediterranean eased the position for us in those waters and enabled us with greater confidence to mass our naval forces in our home waters.
We learn, too, from Sir Edward Grey that there have been "conversations" between British and French naval and military experts as to the best means of carrying on concerted operations in the event of war. I am strongly of the opinion that the fact that such conversations were taking place ought long ago have been communicated to Parliament. Let that pass.
How is the plain man to distinguish between an Entente and a formal Alliance if an Entente leads to the most intimate relations between the Powers concerned and even to discussions as to the best means of conducting defensive and offensive operations in partnership?
Well, we have seen the Bank Rate go to 10 per cent, we have seen the Stock Exchange of the United Kingdom closed, we have seen the Houses of Parliament rush a Bill through in an afternoon's sitting in order to safeguard the whole structure of credit from ruin and collapse, we have seen prices of foodstuffs beginning to rise in every market, we have seen all the forces of the Kingdom in rapid course of mobilisation. We are not to be blamed if our faculties are a little numbed by this astonishing sequence of events.
Fortunately, there is useful work for all of us to do at this supreme crisis. We must keep cool, we must do what in us lies to calm the apprehensions of our neighbours, we must above all things strengthen the hands of the Statesmen who are straining every nerve to limit the area of the war and to reduce to the narrowest compass our own responsibilities in connection with it.
One practical step I hope to see taken by the Government at the earliest possible moment, and that is to prevent an artificial rise in the prices of the necessaries of life. I am not aware at the moment what powers the Government possesses in this regard. If an Act of Parliament is required, it should be put on to the Statute Book without any delay. It is certain that as the war proceeds considerable hardships would fall on the poorer members our community unless the measure I advocate is adopted. A 10 per cent rise in the prices of necessaries amounts to a loss of two shillings in the £ on wages, and so, proportionately, as prices rise. It is a comfort to know, as we learn from the Board of Agriculture, that our existing supplies of corn are sufficient for a four months' consumption.
Our great Navy should be equal to the task of keeping open the routes to the west, and to the east, whence the greater part of sea-borne supplies are drawn. It is not doubted that the supplies of food will be abundant. The question of prices is almost equally important. This vital question is engaging, and for some time had engaged, the earnest attention of the Government.
What is the prevailing feeling in the House? It is one, I say, of grave misgiving and anxiety. I found no trace of light-heartedness among members yesterday, no evidence whatever of the jingo spirit that marked the outbreak of hostilities in South Africa. In the streets outside crowds of excited youths cheered themselves hoarse and waved British and French flags.
We were in no mood for such untimely displays. We comported ourselves as serious men who have embarked on a most perilous enterprise. Out state of mind, nevertheless, was not one of unrelieved gloom. If Germany respects the integrity of Belgium and refrains from naval attacks on the coast towns of France and on French shipping, we may yet be able to hold our hands.
Let me say how great was the pleasure given to the House by the speech of Mr Redmond [John Edward, Irish Parliamentary leader]. It was an extremely difficult speech to make. Until now the sympathies of Nationalist Ireland have not been with us when we have been engaged in international difficulties. Mr Redmond has assured us of the intense loyalty of Nationalist Ireland at this juncture, and in doing this he has made a host of friends for himself and his cause in every camp.
House of Commons,
Tuesday, August 4th, 1914
PS: As I close my letter there is still uncertainty as to what reply Germany will make to the British ultimatum that expires at 12 o'clock tonight.