TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE NEXT STEP.
THE position in which the British people and the British Government are now placed is one of extreme difficulty and danger. Of this fact there can be no doubt. We are hesitating and bewildered—a condition always fraught with danger in the conduct of human affairs. To what is this due ? It is due, in the first place, to the fact that Mr. Bonar Law, though his intentions were of the best and his policy and his aspira- tions unimpeachable, did not proceed to acts worthy of his hopes and wishes. He did not realize that there are moments when you cannot let things alone, when you cannot stand aside—when, in a word, a choice must be made. In many circumstances not to make a definite choice is almost as bad as to make a bad choice —perhaps, indeed, it is worse. He forgot, or ignored, what must be the consequences when, in effect, he said to France : "The course you propose is almost sure to have evil results and at the best cannot accomplish what we must assume you want—the discharge of Germany's debt to you in the matter of reparations. Therefore Britain can take no part in your policy, but must stand aloof. Nevertheless, that aloofness must not be considered as hostile to you or as friendly to Germany." He thought, in a word, that things could be and not be at the same time—that he could be opposed to France's policy and yet not opposed to her. In fact, he forgot that memorable text in the Second Epistle of St. John, " He that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." It is true that he did not say or mean " God speed " to France, but alas ! he did not realize that nonfeisance easily becomes mal- feisance. If you are in a position of responsibility you cannot get rid of your responsibility by simply doing nothing. No trustee can let his fellow trustee act alone and get rid of his duties by shrugging his shoulders and saving, " I think you are utterly wrong ; but you must take your own course and I shall not be so unfriendly as to prevent you." If you think a particular line of action is wrong, as Mr. Bonar Law undoubtedly did in the present case, you must tell your fellow trustee plainly what the consequence of your not being able to agree with him on a fundamental point must be, i.e., opposition to his will. You must make it clear that you are not giving him a negative any more than a positive " God speed." Otherwise the courts will hold You responsible for any bad results that follow from your inaction. You cannot put matters right any more than could Pilate by washing his hands and saying, " I am innocent of the blood of this just person : see ye to it."
No one suggests that Mr. Bonar Law should have sent an ultimatum to France or have gone to war to prevent our late Allies occupying the Ruhr. What he ought to have done was to register in the strongest and most public way his protest against French action. He should in the first place have warned the French that the consequences of their taking individual action must be the breaking of the Entente. It is no good to pretend that when there is a difference on a fundamental point the Entente is not broken. The old saying, " He who has a partner has a master," is true also of allies. Your ally in a sense is bound to be your master, and if you refuse to act with your partner or your ally on a funda- mental the partnership or alliance automatically comes to an end. In all probability France seven months ago would not have risked formally breaking with Britain, though as it proves she was quite willing to risk the semi-break of letting us, as she might have said, sulk in the corner while we allowed her a free hand. She was quick to note that, though we were so much per- turbed, we were not prepared to take the consequences of our action in refusing to go with her. She saw that we did not mean business and that we were appa- rently terrified of doing anything which might look like encouraging Germany to save herself, us, and the world from what we weakly pointed out must be the irretrievable disaster of the occupation by the French armies of an almost daily increasing area of Germany. Now we are reaping the harvest of our inability to remember that consequences are as inevitable when you refuse to act as when you act. But though our present danger is due to ignoring this painfully simple truth, our position is by no means irretrievable. We have sacrificed a great deal ; but we may still save ourselves and the world if we look ahead and remember what will be the consequences of doing nothing. The Sibylline books may still be bought though we shall have to pay a far higher price than we should have had to pay last January.
We have got to do something, whether it be to take a step forward or a step backward. In our opinion, what we must do in fairness to ourselves, to France, and to Germany, is not to be content with vague aspirations. As France will not agree to the plan which we have proposed, which is in effect to lay down in consultation with her a new way of meeting the reparation problem, we must put down in black and white, plain for all to see, what we believe to be the solution of that problem. Next, we must invite the adhesion of the rest of our Allies and of the other States of the world to our plan. In this invitation to adhere to the detailed British plan Germany must, of course, be included. We venture to say that if that is done the British plan will hold the field.
If it is an honest and specific plan, it will win the day. Remember that France, for practical purposes, has no plan. It is true that the present French Govern- ment have a plan, but it is one which they dare not avow, because it would madden Germany, horrify Europe and the rest of the world, and, what is more important to them, would be resented probably by a majority, certainly by a very large minority, of the French people. The French, as a whole, do not want to see themselves engaged in the task of breaking up Germany and of meeting the passive resistance of sixty millions of desperate people. The French people as a whole think they are collecting debts and creating security. When they find out that they are committed to the greatest scheme of militaristic conquest that the world has ever seen, we venture to say that they will find a sound and reasonable British plan in being a haven from the storm. No one who thinks the matter out can honestly say that our plan would prove fantastic, or that we have nothing to offer which will make it acceptable. We have a great deal to offer.
We should begin by laying it down that no solution of the new situation, which has arisen owing to the French policy in the Ruhr, will be satisfactory to Great Britain which does not include the following terms :- 1. The amount which Germany can pay must be finally settled by a Commission of experts, in which Commission France will be invited to take a part, but which will be carried on without her if she refuses.
2. When that total amount is ascertained, the sum payable to France shall be in the proportion already settled at the Spa Conferen6e. 3. No Power indebted to Great Britain will be required to pay its debt, provided that the British plan is ultimately accepted and registered by the League of Nations.
No doubt there would be objections to the last clause, but we are by no means hopeless of the British nation coming to understand that if the object is to get work for our people and not rest, i.e., unemployment, we shall not really suffer by cancelling the debts. The best way to use the gold which we are owed is to spend it in obtaining a settlement of Europe.
What would be the result of a settlement of this sort ? Germany, if she was wise, would at once adhere to the British plan and express her willingness to abide by it.
In all probability Italy and the rest of the more distant Allies would also adhere. They would be anxious to see the scheme carried out as it would involve the can- cellation of their debts. Belgium we may be sure would want to agree. If she held back it would only be through fear of France. France, no doubt, to begin with, would not agree ; but when she found that the British plan involved the evacuation of Cologne and the Rhine, and found also, for we are not afraid of facing the conse- quences, that the Germans were very much encouraged in their resistance by the putting forward of the British plan and the action of the other Allies, she would begin to hesitate. To occupy Cologne and the rest of the British area would probably require the use of another French army corps. But this would not be the end. There would be a daily advance required along the raw edge of the occupation. But every new town and new district occupied would mean more and more expense for France. She could, no doubt, find the men and money for three or four months longer, even though the franc had by that time fallen to a hundred, or more probably to a hundred and twenty. Next, let us look still further ahead. In six months' time France might be occupying over a third of Germany. But to occupy a territory inhabited by twenty or twenty-five million people and to be responsible for managing them and preventing them from dying of starvation is a colossal job, even when partly done by coloured troops. The strain on France's finance and upon the French army would be tremendous. Then gradually people in France would begin to ask, " How long is this to go on ? And on the top of all our other troubles the English and Americans are constantly telling us that if we can spend money in conquering Germany we should also be able to spend it in paying our debts." Next, they would begin to reflect that, after all, the British scheme, which would mean for them not paying out money but actually receiving money from Germany, and also the cancellation of the huge British debt once and for all, had considerable merits. True, M. Poincare and his Ministers could not retrace their steps ; but, after all, M. Poineare's Administration is not immortal.
When Frenchmen find that M. Poincare has not delivered the goods, either by getting them from Germany or by cancelling the debt to England, they will begin to note that these same goods are waiting in a siding labelled " British Settlement Scheme." Then we shall see the Poincare Ministry fall and France express herself willing to adopt the British settlement. Needless to say, we shall be ready to deliver the goods with every possible precaution not to injure, but to preserve, the interests of France.
Why should not Mr. Baldwin proclaim and carry out some such scheme as that we have suggested ? In doing so he will only be doing what he thinks right and what he knows the English people will ultimately insist upon. We have the strongest belief in Mr. Baldwin's strength and uprightness of character. All he needs to do is to be bold in leadership. That means that he must not listen to the people who tell him that he will break up the Unionist Party by premature action. We value the cohesion and maintenance of the Unionist Party as much as anybody can ; but we are certain that the way to preserve it is by leadership, not by drifting. And here we must be plain. The talk about revolting Die-hards in the House of Commons, fostered by the Opposition Press, is moonshine. The so-called Die-hards arc not really numerous, but even • assuming that they are as many as the pro-French newspapers represent them to be they are quite helpless. They cannot join Mr. Lloyd George, or Lord Birkenhead, in order to defeat Mr. Baldwin. It is still more obvious that they cannot join the Wee Frees or the Labour Party. With them it is Mr. Baldwin or nothing. Therefore, though they may grumble, they will not act. They are not going to kill Mr. Baldwin to make Mr. Ramsay MacDonald king.
That, of course, is not a reason for treating the Die- hards unfairly or with contempt ; but it is a very good reason why Mr. Baldwin should not give up what he thinks right and do what he thinks wrong. If he gives a lead the recalcitrants in the Cabinet, if there be any real recalcitrants, and if they are not, as we suspect, merely grumblers, will at most merely wait and see how the country takes it. When they see the country range itself behind Mr. Baldwin, as it certainly will if he gives it a chance, all talk of resignation will soon cease and be forgotten. France, as the Daily Mail is finding out, is not popular with the mass of the British people.
J. ST. LOE STRACHEY.