HC Deb 14 March 1821 vol 4 cc1219-26
Mr. Robert Smith

(Bucks) rose to make his promised motion. In stating his reasons for proposing to institute an inquiry into our claims upon Austria, the hon. member spoke to the following effect:—I shall, in the first instance, recall to your memory, that in 1794, application was made by the court of Vienna, to the monied interest of this country, to raise a loan for the purpose of carrying on the war, and that the negotiation failed, Mr. Boyd not being able to raise sixpence upon the security he offered. A message then was brought down to this House by Mr. Pitt: and, in answer, an address was presented to his majesty, enabling him, under proper conditions, to guaranty the loan to be raised by the emperor. In consequence of this, on the 4th of May following, a convention was signed at Vienna, between his majesty and the emperor, by which the sum of 4,600,000l. was advanced, his imperial majesty solemnly pledging himself to discharge regularly the payments which might become due in consequence of the said loan, so that these payments might never fall as a burthen on the finances of Great Britain, pledging as a positive security the revenue of all his hereditary dominions, and, as a collateral one, an obligation on the bank of Vienna for the repayment of 400l. for every 300l. that might be advanced, with also the additional privilege of being able to sue the emperor according to the established forms of his own courts of justice. On the 29th of April, 1797, a second message was brought down to this House, and a new loan of 1,620,000l. was again granted, under similar security. The House must be already aware, that from the 1st of May, 1797, down to the present day, not a single penny, principal or interest, has been paid by the Austrian government; that no communication has been made to parliament on the subject; that the dividends due on the money thus raised are paid by the people of this country; and that the only article in the treaty so solemnly entered into which has not been violated is the valuable present of the Vienna obligation notes, which are carefully locked up in a tin-box at the Bank of England, and constitute, I understand, one of the principal lions shown to the curious who visit that very interesting building. The House is also aware that these loans, together with the dividends and other charges upon them, amount to the enormous sum of 17,400,000l.; and it is here fair to add, that at the liberal suggestion of the right hon. gentleman opposite, the calculation was made at simply 5 per cent interest, and not at compound interest, as would have been, perhaps, most fair; so that the loss to this country is not only the interest of the original loans, but also the interest of the seventeen millions; making, altother, an annual loss of more, than one million. Now, Sir, I hope the enormity of this sum will justify me for calling the attention of the House to the subject, and that the noble lord will have the goodness to satisfy the country, at a moment when economy and retrenchment are 60 loudly called for, by giving us a copy of the different applications and remonstrances which must have been made by government to the court of Vienna on this subject. Sir, with the policy of advancing these loans to Austria we have now nothing to do; nor am I about to allude to the debates which then occurred, for the purpose of bringing that question into discussion; but I must refer to them to show that it was the intention of the government of the day that this debt was a bonâ fide one to this country from Austria, and that there existed no understanding whatsoever that this advance was to be considered as a subsidy, and not as a loan. The words used by Mr. Pitt on bringing down the king's message are very strong. He said "that this loan was made in the face of the public, and solemnly and deliberately concluded in the eyes of all Europe." The conduct of Austria had never been such as to infer that she would, forgetting honour, justice, and policy, barefacedly break the conditions solemnly entered into. In her pecuniary engagements she was interested above all others, and a breach of faith in them would be attended with consequences destructive to herself. She had ever been obliged to have recourse to loans; and, from her situation in Europe, it was impossible she could always maintain it without at some future day again entering into a similar transaction. With "such a necessity under her view, could she give that fatal blow to her credit which she must give if she broke faith with this country?" On the 23rd of the same month, on the debate on the budget, Mr. Pitt went further, and stated, that it was a subject of satisfaction and consolation to him in a financial point of view, so favourable to this country were the terms upon which the money was raised. To which Mr. Fox replied, though he denied the fact, that if it were so advantageous to the emperor, it was not very honourable to us as a nation tending our credit to guarantee the payment; and that we should remember that those who are the readiest to comply with exorbitant demands, are the least likely to be punctual in fulfilling their engagements; and he then quoted, from a scene in "The Confederacy," where. Mrs. Amlet says, that "their court ladies never make two words about the price: all they haggle about is the day of payment." Such, then, was the understanding of the government of 1795; and I am happy to add, that a similar view of the question was taken and publicly expressed by his majesty's government in this House as late as the year 1817, on the motion of an hon. gentleman who, I regret, is no longer a member of the House. I find that the noble lord opposite then opposed the address proposed to the House on account of the financial difficulties of the Austrian government, and also of "the importance of strengthening the position it had been placed in, which he considered as highly congenial to the general interests and permanent tranquillity of Europe." But he desired, at the same time, not to be understood as representing the debt to be obliterated, but on the contrary as subject to be revived in the ordinary progress of diplomatic intercourse. Circumstances, he added, might even arise that might render the renewal of the claim an act both of good faith and statesmanlike wisdom. Sir, I neither accuse nor blame any one, and I only ask for information; but I must think, that when the landed proprietors are, in point of fact, scarcely in possession of their estates; when the present unfortunate system of Poor laws has practically introduced the Spencean system among us; when the order of things is reversed, and the tenant thinks he obliges the landlord by taking his land; when rent is paid out of capital, I must think that an act of better faith or of statesmanlike wisdom could not be achieved than by entering into every inquiry by which relief can be thought, even if erroneously, to be found, and among others, to prove to our constituents that there is a just expedient cause, if such exist, for abandoning this claim, the validity of which no one has as yet disputed, and the acknowledgment of which in these days of distress would be so very acceptable. Sir, I believe that, taking into view the relative situations of the different countries at the commencement of the war, there is perhaps not one which has made so great an accession of strength and influence in Europe as Austria, or one which has so materially suffered or placed herself in greater difficulty and distress than England, and provided fewer additional means of indemnifying herself for the sacrifices she has made. The distress of all ranks and interests is too deeply felt not to have become an acknowledged truth. But, is this the case with Austria? On one side her dominions reaches the fertile plains of the Venetian Lombardy; on another, it penetrates into Istria, Hungary, and Dalmatia; and on the north into Poland. It contains nearly thirty millions of population, with, I believe, greater resources of riches and power than any other empire in Europe, if her government were directed by common sense and reason, and did not appear to turn a deaf ear to the common principles of political economy and some of the first rules of commercial intercourse. It is a notorious fact, that the largest personal treasure in possession of any European sovereign, belongs to the emperor of Austria; but if we consider, independently of her immense hereditary revenue, the 6,000,000l. she received from France; if we reflect upon the system of extortion which she has been carrying on in her Italian provinces; if we look at the policy she has pursued there, as if the only object of her government was, the actual plunder of the inhabitants; and I have been told, from the best source, that 8,000,000l., of our money were annually transmitted from this source to Vienna, and I believe I understate the sum very considerably; surely any fear, if such a fear, under present circumstances, were for a moment justifiable, of impoverishing and exhausting her government, ought not in reason to exist. Why then should not Austria be called upon to pay for these advantages? Why, after she has enjoyed them for eight years—after she has had time to recover from those difficulties which at first arc said to have oppressed her—should she not be called upon to relieve the impoverished, the still-suffering people of this country, from the burden they have imposed upon themselves for the purpose of procuring for her these mighty advantages? But, according to her own account, she is almost relieved from her financial embarrassments; for in the Vienna Court Gazette of the 14th Nov. 1820, it is officially announced, that not only a great part of the old debt, but also a considerable proportion of the new debt, has been paid off; and I think that we have a right to ask the noble lord opposite whether he has neglected to put in the claim of the people of this country, or whether, again to avail myself of the words of Mr. Pitt. "Austria has—(forgetting honor, justice, and policy)—barefacedly broke the conditions she so solemnly entered into?" But the fact of the Austrians being able to engage in this war against Naples must be a sufficient proof, that before these unexpected events took place, which were certainly not anticipated by them, they must have had it in their power to have entered into some arrangements with this country towards at least the gradual re-payment of the debt. It therefore follows, that unless some arrangement has taken place, of which I ask for information, the money which we believed to be due to the people of this country contributes towards the support of this crusade. And now I beg to call the attention of the House to the circumstances under which Mr. Pitt was induced to recommend this measure to parliament; it was, to use the words of his majesty's message to this House, "for the great object of re-establishing, on secure and honorable grounds, the peace and tranquillity of these kingdoms, and of Europe." The parliament of this country considered that it was their bounden duty to make every sacrifice, to strain every nerve, to oppose the inroads of France upon the political independence and existence of other nations. They were animated by a detestation of military tyrants and foreign usurpers, and they sympathised with those who were struggling for the perservation of their natural rights against unprincipled invasion. Putting, then, aside all question of economy, every idea of the distress of the country; even were our treasure as great, our resources as unexhausted, as those of Austria I believe to be; I say there is a higher motive for the House of Commons demanding information from the ministers on this occasion, that there may not go out to Europe a suspicion of our having indirectly lent our assistance to this transaction (against Naples); and that we may not be reproached of secretly acting in determined hostility to the principles of our constitution, and to the strict observation of that neutrality to which we are pledged. I have endeavoured to show that the government of Austria, from being the mistress of such fertile and productive territories, from being in the receipt of so large a revenue, and from the fact of her being able to wage a distant and expensive war, must at least have been able to have entered into some train of settlement for the re-payment of the debt due to us; and I cannot understand how any feeling of delicacy or of political wisdom ought to have operated on the minds of the English government to overbalance the expediency, in our present state, of putting in our claims. Her commercial laws are as equally hostile to this as to every other nation—no symptoms of favour or of acknowledgment of our zeal in her welfare, by moderating in favour of our produce the extreme severity of this most absurd system; she is become the avowed patroness of those principles, in abhorrence of which we have spent so much blood and treasure, and against which, should they ever be brought to bear upon our national honor and independence, I think we could show that, though injured, our resources are not exhausted, and that our spirit is the same. I trust that the peace may long continue uninterrupted; but, reflecting upon what is now passing in Europe, I say there exists an additional argument in favour of a strict investigation on the part of this House upon every subject which may tend to rescue us, in however small a degree, from our financial difficulty. Without insinuating a suspicion of blame—though I think some communication from the government ought to have been made to the House—I shall move for these papers; and I have taken the liberty to anticipate, that neither any idea of financial difficulty on the part of Austria, any wish to support at our cost her influence in Europe, after I the use she has made of it, or any delicacy arising from supposed beneficial effects to this country, the result of the intimacy of our political connexion, can have, for one moment, induced the government to hesitate in making an open, unequivocal demand upon Austria, for at least an acknowledgment of this fair, and, as yet, uncontradicted claim.—The hon. member then moved for "Copies or Extracts of any Communications between his Majesty's Government, and the Austrian Government, so far as the same relate to the re-payment of monies due to this country under the Conventions of 1795 and 1797."

Lord Castlereagh

said, he had no intention to oppose the motion. He could not, however, help remarking, that the hon. member had not acted altogether fairly in stating the debt due from the Austrian government at 17,000,000l.; undoubtedly that sum was due when both the principal and interest were taken into the account; but the hon. member could not fail to know that the original debt was only 4,600,000l. increased afterwards by another loan of 1,620,000l. When the House was in possession of the correspondence moved for, it would see that this government had not forgotten to urge the claim which it had upon the Austrian government, and that the claim was now in full vigour. The present question was not, however, new to parliament: it had been agitated in both Houses in 1817. Indeed, in the House of Peers it had been very fully discussed; and the result to which the Lords had then come was, that though the debt was {still in full vigour, there had been no neglect on the part of the British government in pressing for it. It was then stated to parliament that Austria and Prussia were in the greatest pecuniary distress, from having had to stand the chief brunt of the war against Buonaparte. Indeed that distress was so evident, that Great Britain and Russia suffered them to take the advance made on the contributions imposed on France by the allied powers. This statement appeared satisfactory. Since that period another effort, which had not been successful, had been made to obtain payment of that loan. Why it had not been successful, the House would see more clearly when it had all the correspondence placed before it. Though he thought the claim of the country ought not to be expunged, there were difficulties attending the urging of it at present, of which the House could not judge until it saw the correspondence which had taken place between the governments of the two countries.

Sir J. Newport

protested against the House being bound by what had occurred in another place in 1817. Besides, there was all the difference in the world between the circumstances in which Austria was placed in 1817 and those in which she stood at present. Austria was then avowedly in a state of great pecuniary embarrassment; but she had since promulgated her ability to make good all her engagements. The principles of the self-called Holy Alliance ought to teach the powers who were parties to it, that one of their first duties was to keep, faith with their creditors.

The motion was agreed to.