HC Deb 22 May 1855 vol 138 cc891-7

On Question, that certain Papers be laid on the table,


Sir, I avail myself of this opportunity of making a few observations without having given any notice, a custom which, I think, ought never to be abused. I confess it appears to me that the present position of affairs is very critical, and that the honour and reputation of the House of Commons are concerned in not passing them by without notice. This House will, perhaps, anticipate me, but I more particularly allude to what took place in this House last night. Upon that occasion the language of Government was, to my mind, so equivocal, and their demeanour so discouraging, that I confess I myself shrunk from the responsibility of acceding, under these circumstances, to the Resolution of the House to adjourn for the recess, for an unusual period, without some means being taken by which—I may use the term—the heart of the country may be reanimated, and by which may be obtained some more clear and explicit information of what the position of the country is with regard to the great question of peace and war than they at present possess. Sir, I say that I think that this is a question which principally affects the honour and reputation of this House. The House will, perhaps, recollect that in the year 1853 there were, as we were informed, negotiations of great moment then taking place, on the issue of which the question of peace or war depended. Now, under those circumstances, great and natural as was the curiosity of the country to know in what position it really was placed with reference to a contingency so awful—ready as many Members of the House were, in the fulfilment of unquestionably their highest duty, to obtain information from Government during that Session of 1853 on that important question—the House will recollect that it was totally impossible to obtain any opportunity to discuss that important question, because, upon all occasions, those who were anxious to obtain information, and to invite the opinion of this House on those important circumstances, were always informed that negotiations were going on, and that any remarks in this House might have an injurious effect on the course of our diplomacy. Well, Sir, the House will recollect in what that forbearance ended. There was silence in this House during the whole of that Session, notwithstanding the anxiety of the country, and the result was, that the country "drifted into war." The country found itself engaged in a vast and perilous war, without the satisfaction of knowing clearly for what object we had entered into war; and, humiliated and oppressed with the feeling that its representatives in its own House had never made an effort to obtain that necessary information. Well, Sir, the year—I may say even years—have rolled on. We find now that we are involved in a struggle of the largest dimensions. We find that at the same time that we have again, and for a long period, been engaged in negotiations for peace—we find that these negotiations are carried on by the same characters, in the same city, and under the influence and the inspiration of the same Court. The result of the negotiations of 1853—that covered the whole Session of Parliament; that muzzled the expression of the opinion in this House; that lowered, on account of this conduct, the character of this House in the opinion of the country. The result of that silence was not that we assisted Her Majesty's Government in their efforts to secure peace, for war was the consequence—the character of this House was lowered, and the object of Her Majesty's Government was not attained—the consequence of the conduct of this House then was, that we drifted into what I must call a disastrous war. Sir, it appears to me that there is a great probability, now that the negotiations are still proceeding—the same circumstances being in existence, the same characters in employ, the same Court the scene of action—that, if the consequence of our former forbearance was, that we drifted into a disastrous war; the consequence of our prolonged forbearance now may be that we may drift into peace—perhaps an ignominious peace. Now, Sir, we are on the point, in a few days, of adjourning for a period of relaxation of unusual duration at this time of the year, and, under the circumstances, I think full of danger to the country. We were told last night, amongst the many ambiguous declarations which were made, that the Conferences at Vienna were closed, but had not ceased to exist; that they might at any moment be opened; may they not be opened in the Whitsuntide recess? may we not assemble then to hear that peace has been obtained on terms which may not be satisfactory to the country? What will be the feelings of the people of this country when they learn that the forbearance, again repeated, of their representatives has led to consequences which, in their opinion, are disgraceful and degrading? Sir, it is impossible to deny that there is in the country a feeling of dissatisfaction and distrust at the ambiguous conduct—I would rather say the ambiguous language and uncertain conduct—of Her Majesty's Government with respect to these negotiations for peace. I believe that this feeling of dissatisfaction and distrust exists also in this House; and I am persuaded that it is our duty, before we adjourn for the recess, to take means that it shall not be laid to the fault of the House of Commons any longer that this uncertainty and ambiguity prevail. Sir, it is for this reason that I have felt it to be my duty to take the first opportunity that is available to me to ask the opinion of the House on this subject—to ask this House to give its opinion on the conduct and language of Her Majesty's Government with respect to this great question of peace and war, about which so much ambiguity prevails; and as there have been so many alarming and often equivocal phrases and conduct, that this House should take some step to show that there is no uncertainty in its conduct, that there has been no change in its opinion, and that it is prepared to continue to support Her Majesty in this war, until she obtains for herself and her Allies a secure and honourable peace. Sir, I think it is my duty to this House, after what occurred last night, and as there is a very short time intervening, that I should give the present notice of my intention to submit a Resolution to the House, the terms of which I will lay on the table of the House during the course of the evening, which I hope the House will adopt, and which will embody the views I have attempted to express. Sir, I know that to obtain the opportunity I desire I must appeal to the indulgence and kind assistance of hon. Gentlemen who have a previous right to the opportunity which I understand Her Majesty's Government have announced they will give to them on Thursday next. I understand that the House will on Thursday next go into a Committee of Supply, not for the purpose of voting public money, but for the purpose of enabling hon. Gentlemen who wish to do so to have an opportunity of calling attention to important subjects. I believe the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Layard) has given notice of a Motion which he intends to bring forward on that occasion. Of course I have no right to express a wish that that hon. Gentleman should give way to me, nor can I presume for a moment to press it; all I can say is, that if I have an opportunity I will make the Motion of which I will give notice on that occasion; and if the Motion of the hon. Member for Aylesbury is brought forward and disposed of on Thursday, I still shall attempt, before the House adjourns for the recess, to bring forward my Motion, and to ask the House to adopt the Resolution which I hope to have the opportunity of submitting for its acquiescence.


I cordially agree in all the sentiments which have been expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. It appears to me that the question is one of such vital importance that, although I consider the notice which I have given also of some importance, I shall undoubtedly give way to the discussion which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to raise on Thursday.


Sir, according to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, a scene was enacted here last night—[cheers and laughter]—if it be true that a scene was enacted in this House last night, the scene which has been enacted at this moment far exceeds anything which then took place, and it most certainly does great credit to all the actors concerned. Now, Sir, Her Majesty's Government can have no objection whatever to meet the Motion which the right hon. Gentleman has stated his intention of bringing before the House on Thursday, and if he had simply announced his intention I should have thought it unnecessary to say anything whatever on the subject. But the right hon. Gentleman has complained that the language of the Government upon the present position of affairs has been equivocal and ambiguous. Now, I must entirely deny the justice of that assertion. If the right hon. Gentleman means that we have not thought it consistent with our duty, when asked to do so, to detail the precise condition of communications that are passing, or have passed, between Her Majesty's Government and the Governments with which we are in communication, my answer is, that I think it would have been a great breach of public duty if we had answered the calls made upon us, and if we had not observed that necessary reserve which it is the duty of the Government to maintain upon matters of international communication between itself and the Go- vernments of other countries. But, Sir, the right hon. Gentleman says that in consequence of the silence of this House in 1853 this country drifted into war. Now, I beg leave to say that I think the forbearance which this House manifested in the year 1853 very much increased the chances of preserving peace, and that, so far from this House having anything to reproach itself with for that silence having contributed to cause the war in which we are now engaged, the charge may sit easily upon the minds of hon. Gentlemen who pursued that course, inasmuch as any imprudent interference in the negotiations then going on might have prevented those chances of accommodation which, to the last moment, were thought within the possibility of our reach. So far, therefore, from its having been a reproach to Parliament, I think this House ought to congratulate itself upon not having prevented those chances of peace being taken advantage of which the nature of things placed within the reach of the Government. Now, what is the present state of things? It is made a charge against the Government, that we have pursued negotiations in that form, and under the same auspices, as the negotiations in 1853 were conducted, which, unfortunately, proved unavailing. Why, Sir, would it not have been a reproach—a great and just reproach—to the Government, if, while we believed so great a Power in Europe as Austria was disposed to afford us its assistance in our endeavours to bring about an accommodation with that Power with which we are now engaged in war—would it not have been a great reproach to us if we had refused its assistance—if we had refused its advances—if we had said to Austria, "We will have nothing to do with you. We choose to conduct our negotiations without your assistance, and we will do what we please?" I say that Government would have much to reproach itself with, if we had not availed ourselves of the good offices of Austria, and if we had not endeavoured by the assistance and intervention of Austria to obtain from the enemy, if possible, satisfactory and honourable terms of accommodation. Therefore, so far from thinking that we are liable to blame for having continued our negotiations under the auspices of the Government of Austria, I think we should have much neglected and deserted our duty if we had refused or declined to do so. But, Sir, I can quite understand that we might be open to blame, if it could be justly said that, relying upon the prospects of peace—that, trusting entirely to the good offices and friendly intervention of Austria, we had neglected to pursue those other means by which a war is likely to be carried on to a successful and honourable termination. But that reproach cannot be laid to our charge. We have, it is true, endeavoured to avail ourselves of the good offices of Austria for the purpose of obtaining from Russia terms of peace which we might think safe and honourable to this country. But we have not relapsed for one moment in the carrying out of those measures which, if there had been no negotiations going on, we should have felt it our duty to make for the purpose of an energetic and vigorous prosecution of the war; and, therefore, while on the one hand we have not thought it right to shut the door to overtures for accommodation, on the other hand we have acted in regard to the prosecution of the war as if no negotiations had been going on, as if we had no chance but by our own means, or those of our ally, of obtaining a settlement of the question at issue. The right hon. Gentleman says that the reason why he thinks it necessary to call for an expression of the opinion of the House before we separate for what he calls an unusually long period, for the Whitsuntide recess, but what is in reality only some two days more than has sometimes been the period of adjournment—the reason which the right hon. Gentleman gives is, that during that eventful week the country may find itself, by the misconduct of the Government, bound up by a disastrous and ignominious peace. Now, Sir, I do assure the House and the right hon. Gentleman that so long as those persons who now are charged with the conduct of the affairs of this country shall remain in the trust which the House has reposed in them, he need be under no alarm—this House need be under no alarm—the country need be under no alarm—that any peace will be made which shall not be honourable to the country, which shall not give safety for the future, which shall not accomplish the objects for which we have entered into the contest. It is not from those who sit on these benches that ignominious terms of peace will proceed. I trust there is no man in this country, however much he may wish for peace—and Heaven knows every reasonable man must wish for peace, if it can be properly obtained—I trust there is no man who calls himself an Englishman—no man whom the country would not thrust forth as a degraded outcast—who would give his name or sanction to such a peace as that which the right hon. Gentleman has seemed to indicate.