TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE BLOCKADE DEBATE.
IHE debate in the House of Commons on the blockade, and the explanatory speeches made by Sir Edward Grey, Lord Robert Cecil, and the other defenders of the Administration, have greatly strengthened the position of the Government. That, we make no apology for saying, is a matter of the first importance, and should be the subject of universal congratulation. We are delighted to see the Coalition Government strengthened, not because we think they have made no mistakes, but because it is of vital importance to the welfare of the nation that a War Cabinet should have the confidence of the people. Unless the Government can obtain and keep that confidence, they can never act with the strength and certainty of aim which are essential to the striking of those swift and overwhelming blows which win wars.
A careful study of the speeches of the Government, and of Members, like Mr. Leverton Harris and Mr. Pollock, who have been assisting the Government in official capaci- ties, shows two things : (1) That a very much better case can be made out for action under Orders in Council than for action definitely labelled " a blockade " than has generally been supposed. (2) That the Government, though anxious, and rightly anxious, to do all in their power to consider the feelings of neutrals, are not going to let such consideration interfere with the sternest prosecu- tion of the war. In effect, the Government tell the nation that it is a mistake to suppose that better results can be obtained by a blockade than by the policy of Orders in Council. The Government admit in the fullest degree that we must do our utmost to throttle Germany. They tell us, however, that it is their deliberate opinion that such throttling can be more effectively accomplished by their method than by the method which has been propounded by their critics. Thus we reach a clear and definite issue. In all the circumstances, it is, in our opinion, the duty of the good citizen to accept the Government's deliberate and considered plea, and not to attempt to drive them into adopting a policy which it is clear they believe would not merely be ineffective but actually harmful. Ministers, in effect, say to the country : You ask us to carry on the siege of Germany effectively, and we accept that task. But you must let us do it in the way we think effective, and not attempt to prescribe the means. If you do attempt such dictation in detail, we cannot secure you the results we all aim at." By taking such a line as this the Government no doubt incur a very great responsi- bility, and they know it. But the fact that, knowing it, they are willing to take it is a good and not a bad sign. In matters of this kind the greatest danger is in drifting, and in the Government pursuing no clear and consistent policy, and not really appreciating what they are doing. Indeed, we may say of Cabinets, in the words of an apocryphal Scripture : " 0 man, if thou knowest what thou art doing, thou art blessed ; if thou knowest not, thou art accursed."
The present Government have, at any rate, shown that they know what they are doing, and that being so, they must be allowed, as long as they remain a Government, to carry out their policy. To attempt to force a policy upon them in which they disbelieved would be fatal. To say this, however, is not to say that harm has been done by the criticism which the Government policy has received. Rather, it has done great good. In the first place, it has made the Government clarify their own schemes—go through them point by point and strengthen them where they were weak. Next, it has done good in bringing the neutral Powers to realize that our Government could not, if they would, make undue concessions, or break down the siege of Germany by allowing breaches in the wall to be made out of consideration for this or that claim for greater freedom of trade. Governments are obviously rendered stronger in negotiation if they can point to the fact that if they go beyond a certain point in the matter of con- cessions they will cease to rule. Finally, the criticism ending in the debate of Wednesday has given an oppor- tunity to the Government to put forth in the most solemn and striking way a warning to the neutral Powers that, be the result what it' may, and be the risks never so great, we are not going to give up or raise the siege of Germany because that siege causes inconvenience to neutrals or prevents their traders from growing rich.
That portion of Sir Edward Grey's speech which won unanimous approval in the House of Commons, and which will win it in the country, was that in which, with perfect courtesy of language, but also with perfect plainness, he described to the neutral states what our policy is and what it must be. We may claim to take a special interest in this part of Sir Edward Grey's speech, for a fortnight ago we almost exactly anticipated its spirit. Our policy, we declared, must be a policy of siege :- " Call it a blockade, a policy of retaliation as regards war zones, the organic development of contraband of war, or what you will, the fact remains that, come what may, we mean to use our sea power to bring Germany to her knees, and shall not allow the accident of the peculiar geographical position of certain of the neutral Powers to defeat a policy essential to our existence as a free people. Germany is a besieged nation, and we are the besiegers. That is the long and short of the matter. To imagine that we are going to raise the siege, or maintain it as a bloodstained sham, because of the geo- graphical difficulties of which we have spoken is utterly to misread the character of the British people. They are no more going to surrender to a punctilio of this kind than the Government of the North would have surrendered to it during the Civil War. Any Minister here who was to suggest that we ought to relax our hold upon the neck of Germany because we could not `square' it with some foolish statement made three or four years ago as to the Declaration of London would be literally hurled from office by his indignant fellow-countrymen. No departure from the policy and practice of a siege can or will be tolerated by us. But while we shall insist upon the maintenance of the siege of Germany, and not allow it to be rendered void by the technical claims of neutrals or by that sinister figment called the freedom of the seas,' invented by the Germans as a lure to American public opinion, we shall of course do nothing which will infringe the substantial and legitimate rights of neutrals. We cannot allow them to feed and supply Germany under the cloak of neutrality. On the other hand, we have no desire to make them suffer any unnecessary hardships because we aro at war with Germany. All their just rights will of course be respected, even though we cannot concede that Germany must be supplied with food and articles necessary for the manufacture of munitions as long as there is a neutral label upon them and somebody is willing to swear that they are not consigned to German merchants or intended for German consumption."—Spectator, Januaryl5th,1916 .
This policy of siege the Government accept to the fullest extent, and they mean to carry it out without, on the one hand, inflicting unnecessary suffering on neutrals, but, on the other, also without allowing neutrals to say in effect that they forbid us to win the war because it would inter- fere with the very lucrative trade which is now being carried on between them and our enemy.
Before we leave the subject of the debate on the blockade we must say a word as to that portion of Sir Edward Grey's speech in which he dealt with the curious and some- what sinister fact that the sinking of merchant vessels, and even of neutral merchant vessels, by German sub- marines has caused " nothing like the amount of protest by neutral Governments that had been made with regard to some portions of our own procedure which we believe to be perfectly justifiable in law and which is beyond all doubt perfectly humane." We take our prizes into port, and then let them be investigated by an Imperial tribunal. If we have made a mistake in the seizure, we pay compensa- tion for the injuries we have done. What would have been said of us if, instead of doing that, we had sunk neutral vessels without regard to the character of their cargoes and without regard to the lives of the innocent and defenceless crews ? Neutral vessels have been sunk again and again by German submarines without warning, without inquiry as to the nature of their cargoes, and without regard even to their destination. They have been sunk when proceeding from one neutral port to another. Though, perhaps wisely, Sir Edward Grey did not enforce the meaning of these facts, it is evident. The acquiescence of neutrals in the action of the German sub- marines has created a precedent for naval action to which we have a right to appeal, and against 'which neutrals are estopped from raising objection, since they cannot venture to assert that there is one law for Germany and one for Britain. That precedent may prove of no incon- siderable value to us in carrying out the policy which Sir Edward Grey well crystallized in a sentence when he declared that " we shall continue to exert all our efforts to put the maximum possible pressure upon the enemy, and part of that pressure must be to continue to do the most we can to prevent supplies going to or from Germany' and using the Navy to its full effect."