HC Deb 12 July 1855 vol 139 cc805-18

having brought up the papers respecting the Austrian proposals, said: These are papers, Sir, connected with the late negotiations at Vienna, and I maybe allowed, perhaps, to take this opportunity, though not very strictly in order, of adverting to the notice which stands in the name of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) for this evening, that he will move that the orders tomorrow be postponed for the purpose of enabling the hon. Baronet (Sir B. Lytton) to bring on his Motion. I wish to state, for the convenience of the House, that to that Motion Her Majesty's Government feel it their duty to object, and for this reason—these papers will not be in the hands of Members until to-morrow, and we think it not fair or right that the House should come to discuss the question so early as to-morrow, when Members will not have had opportunity or time to read the papers or inform themselves of their contents. Beyond to-morrow we shall offer no impediment to any arrangement which the hon. Baronet may have made with regard to his Motion.

The Question having been put, that the papers do lie on the table,


said, I will take this opportunity to refer to a statement which was made in my absence by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli), or rather it was a question addressed to me by the right hon. Gentleman—whether or not I had obtained Her Majesty's consent to the statement I had made with respect to the proceedings of the Cabinet of which I am a Member? Now, Sir, what I had stated with regard to the Cabinet was either perfectly known, or might have been inferred, from the course of events which followed. Count Buol had thought proper to issue a circular, which appeared in the public papers, in which he refers to confidential communications with M. Drouyn de Lhuys and myself. I stated that those communications had been considered by Her Majesty's advisers. I believe that no one could suppose, seeing in the public papers that the Austrian Government had made propositions with the view either to put an end to hostilities or to take part in the war, that the English Government would have refused to look at or consider those propositions. I stated further, that upon a full consideration these propositions had not been assented to. I conceived that every one might have been aware of that, because, if they had been assented to, there must have been further communications with Russia, and further conferences. The fact would have been notorious that negotiations were going on, instead of its being stated, as it was in this House, that the negotiations were closed. So that, in fact, there was nothing in what I stated which seemed to me to make it necessary for me to ask the leave of Her Majesty to communicate. As, however, the right hon. Gentleman has raised the question, I have submitted the subject to Her Majesty, and Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to sanction the statement which I made. Having made this explanation to the right hon. Gentleman, I may, perhaps, be allowed to say that, with respect to what I stated on a former night, a very erroneous inference has been drawn. As so much had been published, I thought it necessary to state what the Austrian propositions were, and what was my opinion with respect to them. It has been inferred and supposed, because I said that at the end of April and in the first days of May I thought those propositions might have been assented to, that I think now, at the present moment, those propositions may form a foundation for peace. Such a supposition would be totally erroneous. It is entirely contrary to the fact that I consider now those propositions would form the foundation of peace. It was my opinion—and, as I stated the other day, I retain the opinion as to what might have been done; but, after the events and proceedings which have since occurred, I believe nothing but a vigorous prosecution of the war will obtain terms upon which a satisfactory peace can be concluded.


Sir, it occurs to me that as the First Minister of the Crown has not thought fit to fix a day for the discussion of the Motion of my hon. Friend (Sir B. Lytton), it would have been more consistent if his noble colleague had not taken this opportunity to make a statement explanatory of the lengthened and matured narrative with which he favoured the House of Commons on Friday night, and which has so greatly disquieted the public mind. Now, Sir, I do not see that the statement which the noble Lord has made at all changes his situation with regard to the House, and, as respects the narrative which he made on Friday night, I did not hear that anybody then hinted as a consequence of the speech of the noble Lord, that he was at this moment of opinion that peace ought to be negotiated with Russia upon the basis of the propositions which he approved at the time he has now mentioned. That was a point which was not at all brought under consideration. What did startle the House, and I think I may say, greatly disquieted the public mind of this country, was that it came out, not by hazard, but with notice formally given, and evidently in a manner well matured, it came out on the part of the noble Lord that he had returned to England with a project of pacification which he approved, but which I believe the great majority of the House and of the country, neither at that time nor at the present time, would sanction; that he had recommended that project to his colleagues; that, in consequence of their ultimate refusal to adopt it, he had felt he was bound to consider whether it was not his duty to retire from the Government; and though, influenced by other considerations, he remained a member of the Administration, he shortly afterwards came down to this House and made a speech which conveyed to the country the impression that he was an uncompromising advocate of the war; that he had returned from Vienna with the conviction that an uncompromising prosecution of the war was absolutely necessary, and conveying also to the House the idea that he was convinced, from his experience in the Conferences at Vienna, that any attempt at negotiation with any reasonable hopes of success was utterly impossible—thereby conveying to Parliament and the country an impression which seems to me, and I think I may say to the majority of the House, to be utterly inconsistent with the facts of the case. Now, Sir, I do not think the statement which the noble Lord has just made—the announcement to the country that he is really in favour of a vigorous prosecution of the war—will greatly reassure the daunted spirit of the nation. Sir, I make no remark upon the observations of the noble Lord with respect to the question I was obliged to put in his absence on Tuesday night—a most constitutional question. The noble Lord has admitted that he had not the Royal sanction to make the communication with respect to what had taken place in the Cabinet with which he favoured the House the other night. He seems to think it was a matter of course that he should detail such facts to the House—that we had other means of getting the information with which he favoured us. But what really took place? The noble Lord informed the House that there had been discussions and differences of opinion in the Cabinet; that, in consequence of those discussions and differences of opinion on the most important subject of the age, the noble Lord even contemplated the necessity of tendering his resignation; that he was influenced by other considerations not to take that step, and then the noble Lord says we might have learnt all this from the usual organs of information, or from the circular of a foreign Minister. I differ entirely from the noble Lord. I say it was totally impossible for the House of Commons to have become aware of such a state of affairs had it not been for the communication of the noble Lord; and in making that communication, the noble Lord favoured the House with details of the confidential councils of Her Majesty. I have yet to learn that the noble Lord was authorized to take that step without having previously obtained the gracious sanction of Her Majesty. I have now to address myself to the remarks of the First Minister of the Crown, who seems to think that I was irregular in making those observations. Now, Sir, the noble Lord has found fault with the notice of Motion which I have placed upon the table for to-night, which was necessary to insure to the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire an opportunity of being brought forward to-morrow night. Let me ask the House to remember for a moment the circumstances under which that notice was given. It was on Friday night last that the noble Lord made that speech which has created so painful an impression upon the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire only anticipated, I am sure, the general feeling of the House and of the country in his conviction, that no time should be lost in bringing the opinion of the House to bear upon the statement of the Minister. What was the position in which the House and the country found themselves placed after the debate of Friday night? Here we are involved in a war of magnitude—a war which certainly demands the exertion of our utmost energies, and, on the part of the nation, that firmness of spirit which can only result from having a clear idea of what is at stake, and a conviction that those who are intrusted with the management of affairs are determined to use their utmost efforts in pursuance of that policy which the country has sanctioned. They suddenly find, at the very moment that one of the most eminent members of the Cabinet—an individual who has himself occupied the exalted position of First Minister for several years—they suddenly find that at the very moment when, some weeks ago, that noble Lord was addressing the country through this House, in a tone which conveyed to them the conviction, on his part, that this country was embarked in one of those great struggles which affect the destinies of nations, and that we should summon all our energies for the contest—that a very few days before that address was made, the noble Lord had recommended to his colleagues to end the quarrel in a manner which, if it he sanctioned by Parliament, proves that there is no issue at stake to justify the immense exertions we have made, and are called upon to make. I say the speech of the noble Lord on Friday night has greatly disquieted the public mind, and it has become inevitable that not a moment should be lost in taking the opinion of Parliament on the position of the Government, as at present constituted, and of taking a direct vote whether we have confidence in councils so swayed at a moment of such national exigency. It happens that we know from a declaration made by a member of the Administration, who was most competent to give proper information on the subject, that the House is to go into Committee of Supply to-morrow. Well, that was the earliest opportunity my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire could command, and it was also the most constitutional one. It is on such occasions that the grievances of the people should be brought under the consideration of this House for redress and remedy, and I want to know what national grievance is so great as that the country should be involved in a war of magnitude conducted by Ministers who are not unanimous in opinion as to the necessity for that war? Well, my hon. Friend (Sir B. Lytton) gave his notice, and what then happened? The noble Lord the Leader of the House instantly changes the order of business for Friday, and with the recollection of last Friday's debate still in his memory, and knowing, as every gentleman in this House knows, whatever his opinions may be, that no other subject than that has occupied the public mind since the notice of my hon. Friend was given, the noble Lord, when asked, in due form, what business he would proceed with on Friday, says, with great composure, "The New Partnership Bill and the Limited Liability Bill." These are the measures of deep and absorbing interest which are to be introduced to the consideration of the House of Commons at a moment when there is not a man walking the streets of London who is not asking, "What is to be the fate of my country if it is involved in a great war, and that war is to be prosecuted by a Cabinet which is not unanimous as to the necessity of the war? The new Partnership Bill? What the people of England want to know is the condition of the partnership in Downing Street. They want to know whether the principle of limited liability is prevalent in that locality, or whether the people are still to enjoy that general and collected responsibility of Ministers of the Crown, which hitherto has been the salutary and constitutional practice. Sir, the noble Lord seemed to demur to an observation of mine just now—he seemed to express his incredulity at my statement, that it had been his intention to go into Committee of Supply on Friday night. Well, suppose it was not his intention, I say it was the duty of the noble Lord to go into Committee of Supply. All I can say is I received authentic information—it was known to many Gentlemen on both sides—that the Government would go into Committee of Supply on Friday. But if that was not the intention of the noble Lord, I say—after the notice of my hon. Friend—he should have said, "We will give the earliest opportunity for testing the opinion of the House of Commons upon a question of this kind." Why, Sir, heretofore it has been the invariable custom of Ministers, when the confidence of the House in their policy has been questioned, to bring the matter as speedily as possible to an issue. But let the House consider the peculiar circumstances under which the question of confidence in the Government, as at present constituted, was to be brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire. It is not merely England, but it is Europe, that is watching anxiously for the discussion now impending. I should have thought that the noble Lord would seize the earliest opportunity to settle a question so important, and would not have remained with the energies of the Government paralysed, and the character of the Government impaired, by a Motion of this gravity impending over him. It is the general feeling of the country, and, I may say, without prejudging the issue of the discussion, of the House also, that upon this subject an early, an immediate, and, I will add, a complete discussion ought to take place. Now, Sir, what does the noble Lord say to-night? He says:—"Here are some papers which ought to be placed on the table, and which ought to be read by hon. Members before they venture to express any opinions upon the Motion of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire. "Well, I must say, with my view of the question at issue, that it is one which can be but little affected by any papers which can be laid upon the table. We have something more authentic than any diplomatic documents to guide our judgments on the present occasion. We have the most authentic evidence in the world. We have, Sir, the speech of a Cabinet Minister, the principal actor on the scene; and it is on his own confession, on his own revelations, on his own evidence, that I am perfectly prepared to form my opinion and to give my vote. No doubt, if the Minister rose and said that he thought it would be more consonant with justice—and which I hope will ever pervade and influence the discussions of this House—not to proceed with the debate to-morrow, the House would have assented to his proposal. I should not have raised any objection to the course he proposed if he had acted with frankness, and said he would allow the discussion to come on upon Monday; or if he had said, "When you have digested these papers I shall be prepared to give you a day." Did the noble Lord say that? No; the noble Lord stated that in the course of next week, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman might find an opportunity to bring his Motion forward. [Cries of "No, no!"] I appeal to the House if it was not so. Did the noble Lord say that he would go into Committee of Supply on Monday? Not a word of it; and I dare say he intended to take the Scotch Education Bill on that day, or if not then, to conclude the debate on the Limited Liability Bill, and, perhaps, take a vote upon that all-interesting subject. If the noble Lord says that on Monday he will go into Committee of Supply, so that my hon. Friend may then bring forward his Motion, and so that we may have a full discussion on this important subject, of course I shall not trouble the House with the Motion which I have placed upon the paper. Whatever I may think of the influence of these documents upon our opinion, it will be quite enough for such an intimation to come from a person in the position of the noble Lord to induce me to accede to it. But at the same time I say that it ought to be coupled with a clear intimation from the noble Lord of the time when the discussion will take place. If the noble Lord had risen to state that on Monday the discussion would take place, all that I should have done would be to ask the permission of the House not to press the Motion of which I have given notice for this evening. Of course, I shall persevere with that Motion, and shall ask the opinion of the House upon it unless I obtain from the noble Lord that which I am sure hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House expect—namely, an intimation that hon. Members will receive these papers to-morrow, and that he will on Monday next either give my hon. Friend a day on which to bring forward his Motion, or go into Committee of Supply and allow him to fulfil his original intention.


Really, Sir, I must say I think the right hon. Gentleman has made "much ado about nothing." In the first place, with regard to what passed upon a former occasion, I am not aware that my hon. Friend fixed the Committee of Supply to take place on Friday otherwise than in the way in which the Committee of Supply is always postponed, as a matter of course, from one Supply day to another. But this I will say, that if I had fixed the Committee of Supply for Friday, seeing the condition in which the House is placed with regard to the Motion of the hon. Baronet (Sir B. Lytton) seeing that the papers, with all the efforts that have been made to expedite them, could not be laid upon the table till to-night, and that they would not be in the hands of hon. Members till to-morrow, I should have pursued in regard to the Committee of Supply the same course which I announced my intention of pursuing with regard to the Motion of the right hon. Gentleman—namely, I should have postponed the Committee of Supply, as I intended to oppose the Motion, for the special and avowed purpose of deferring the discussion of the question until the papers had been in the possession of hon. Members time enough to enable them to read them. I do not shrink from the avowal that I should have taken that course if it had been necessary for me to do so. But, Sir, the right hon. Gentleman, as I have already said before, makes "much ado about nothing," because what I stated was this:—I stated my objection to take a discussion to-morrow on the Motion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire, and also the reason why I entertained the objection; but I said that after to-morrow I should throw no difficulty in the way of any arrangement which the hon. Baronet might desire to make. Well, Sir, the right hon. Gentleman objects to the totum as not including the pars. Why if I gave the hon. Baronet a whole week, surely I gave him Monday, if Monday would suit him. It was not for me to settle matters between the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire (Sir B. Lytton) and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), who has a notice upon the paper for the next day. I think it would have been very unbecoming for me to fix a positive day for the discussion of a Motion which might last probably more than one day. I thought that it would be best not to interfere with the Motions of hon. Members, and I left them to make their own arrangements. At the same time I am perfectly prepared to say that if the hon. Baronet wishes to make his Motion on Monday, on Monday I will move the Committee of Supply. I have no wish to shrink from the discussion, and I have nothing whatever to gain from postponing it. I quite understand, and I am sure the House will understand, that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli), having found that several Motions of censure and want of confidence in Her Majesty's Government had failed, in consequence of the House understanding the subject that was to be discussed, was desirous of hurrying on the Motion of the hon. Baronet before hon. Members had made themselves properly acquainted with the question. It was a perfectly legitimate tactic on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, and the House will quite comprehend it. It shows exactly the right hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the case which he has to urge, inasmuch as he feels the great importance of enabling the House to come to a decision upon the subject before they know anything of the real matter under discussion. I have now only one word more to add with regard to the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman with respect to what has fallen from my noble Friend (Lord J. Russell). The right hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with the remarks of my noble Friend as to the statement which he made on a former occasion, respecting a decision of the Cabinet, but he seems to think that, in stating generally that a certain proposition was considered and not adopted, my noble Friend forgot his duty as a Privy Councillor. Why, seldom n, week passes in this House that some Member does not get up in his place and ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will agree to certain things, or whether they have adopted a certain measure. It is absolutely necessary that we should state what the decisions of the Government are; but I never before heard any Member pretend to say that the announcement in public, either in this House or elsewhere, of the decision of the Government upon any given proposition was a departure from the duty of a Privy Councillor or a betrayal of the secrets of the Cabinet. It would be perfectly impossible to carry on the business of this House in a manner satisfactory to the House and to the public, if the Members of the Government were never to be allowed to state what was the general decision of the Government upon any question which might be brought before them. At present I shall not enter into any further details, but I hope that I have satisfied the right hon. Gentleman that he and his hon. Friend (Sir B. Lytton) may have Monday to do what they please with it, and that the hon. Baronet will meet with no obstruction in bringing forward his Motion.


Sir, the noble Lord has said that my right hon. Friend (Mr. Disraeli) has made "much ado about nothing." I am not surprised to hear such an observation from the noble Lord, for, if I am not much mistaken, in point of chronological order "Much Ado about Nothing" comes just after "the Comedy of Errors." As to the production of the papers, I do not think anything they contain can in any way enlighten the House upon the question it is my intention to submit to it. I am glad, however, that hon. Members will have an opportunity of looking into them before we go into that discussion. It is not my wish—nor do I believe it to be the wish, of any Member of the House—that anything unfair should be done towards the Government. And if there be a single point upon which an error can be removed by the information which the papers contain, I shall be glad that the House should make itself thoroughly acquainted with all the matters contained in these documents. So far as they are concerned, I willingly accept the excuse offered for this delay by the noble Lord. And upon the understanding that the papers will be in the hands of Members to-morrow, I accept the day the noble Lord proposes to give me. Will the noble Lord, however, allow me to observe—as it was suggested to me—it would be more convenient and more suited to the gravity of the question, if he would allow me to bring it forward as a substantive Motion, rather than as an Amendment to the Motion for going into Committee of Supply? I am to understand that I am to bring forward my Motion on Monday next.


I have no objection.


Then I have nothing further to say, except that I accept the day which the noble Lord has proposed.


said, he was anxious that the subject should not drop before the attention of the House was called to the striking discrepancy that existed between the statement of the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) that evening, and that which he had made on a former occasion. In describing the substance of Count Buol's circular, he (Sir J. Walsh) had at that time referred to the fact that Count Buol stated that he was prepared to submit an ultimatum to Russia, founded on the proposals which he had laid before the noble Lord; that he was prepared, if these proposals were adopted by England and France, to lay them before Russia in the shape of an ultimatum, and to make it a casus belli if Russia should refuse to accept it; and that the noble Lord gave his full adhesion and approval to those proposals, and agreed to press their adoption upon his Government with all the influence he possessed. The noble Lord, however, in the statement with which he had just favoured the House, had entirely omitted to notice those material circumstances which identified him personally, in the eyes of Europe, with the acceptance of these propositions, and merely observed, in a sort of cursory manner, that of course, as a matter of courtesy to Austria, it followed that he should not reject and refuse them; that they were submitted on his return to the Cabinet, and that the Cabinet rejected them. He (Sir J. Walsh) thought the important point as regarded the noble Lord was that, according to the statement of Count Buol, he had identified himself personally with the proposals which had been made; that he had agreed to support, and had given his whole adhesion to them; and that, when he had been requested either to affirm or to deny the correctness of Count Buol's statement, he had acknowledged its accuracy in the most comprehensive terms. That was a most material difference, and he should be unwilling that the House, many of the Members of which might have been absent when the noble Lord replied to his question, should take their impression from the extremely slight and soft statement with which the noble Lord had favoured the House that evening. Before he sat down he might address a few observations with reference to the two Motions of which notice had been given. It was perfectly true, as had been suggested, that the Motion of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck), and the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire (Sir B. Lytton) were so similar in character that they involved the same considerations, and, no doubt, there would be some inconvenience if they were both pressed simultaneously on the attention of the House. It was very probable, considering the magnitude of the question and the importance and comprehensiveness of the subject, which would be opened by the Motion of the hon. Baronet, that the debate upon that Motion would be adjourned. Now, what was the present position of the House with respect to the question of foreign policy at the present moment? His right hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) brought forward his Motion before Whitsuntide. That Motion bore upon the state of things existing at that time—there was an adjourned debate. Whitsuntide intervened, the negotiations were brought to a close, and all the important changes took place which resulted from the close of the conferences. The papers were quite ready at that time to be submitted to the consideration of the House, and they ought to have been enabled to form a conclusion on the complete state of things. The Motion of the right hon. Member for Portsmouth (Sir F. Baring) was, therefore, nugatory, and conveyed no expression whatever of the real sentiments of the House upon that important question. Two questions would now be raised by the Motion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire—first, a question involving the individual character of the noble Lord the Member for the City of London as a statesman, and the claim which he would hereafter have on the confidence of the House and the country. Considering the importance of the position filled by the noble Lord in that House as well as in the country, that question was by no means a light one. But there was another question not less important. It appeared clearly from the statements which had been made, that there had been two parties in the Cabinet, of which the noble Lord was a Member, one inclining to the acceptance of the last Austrian proposition, and another against that acceptance. He presumed that, as those propositions had been rejected, the noble Lord at the head of the Government had supported that side of the question. Still it was a most important question to decide, whether he was right or wrong in rejecting those Austrian propositions and prosecuting the war. That was the real question of peace or war, as it now stood before the House, and it was a subject of so large a nature, embracing so many considerations, that he did not think it could be determined in the course of one evening. He put it, therefore, to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Sheffield, whether it would not be desirable to make some arrangement by which his Motion should not interfere with the progress of the debate on the Motion to be brought forward by the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire?


Sir, the House will probably consider that I ought to make some statement after the appeal which has been made to me. I believe that the question about to be proposed by the hon. Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire is really one of the most important that can be submitted to the House. I think that the two questions ought not to be before the House at the same time; and, therefore, if the debate should be adjourned on Monday I shall accede to the wish of the House, and postpone the Motion of which I have given notice. I have only one object in view, and I believe that I shall best attain my object by adopting that course.


Sir, after what the hon. Baronet the Member for Radnorshire (Sir J. Walsh) has stated, I must say that nothing which I have said this evening is at all inconsistent with the answer which I gave upon a former occasion.


said, he would beg to inquire of the Government whether the circular of Count Buol was among the papers to be laid on the table of the House?


I do not think that that circular is in the possession of Her Majesty's Government.

The papers were then ordered to be laid upon the table.