HC Deb 14 March 1856 vol 141 cc153-62

On the Motion that the House at its rising do adjourn till the 31st of March,


said: I will take, Sir, the opportunity afforded by this Motion to recur to a question which I addressed yesterday to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and to which he returned a reply somewhat remarkable—I might almost say amazing. Yesterday a rumour of authority was rife in this town, to the effect that an event of the greatest importance with respect to the Conferences at Paris had occurred—namely, that an invitation had been given to Prussia to assist at those Conferences, and that the invitation had been accepted by that Power. Later in the day, after this House met, information of even a much more authoritative nature reached this capital, and we learnt that not only was it true that an invitation was given to Prussia to attend the Conferences at Paris—not only was it true that Prussia had accepted that invitation—but that that Power had even gone so far as to name the Plenipotentiaries to whom she would intrust the exercise of her influence and the management of her policy on this occasion, and that the persons she had selected were men not less considerable than Baron Manteuffel and the Prussian Minister now at the Court of the Tuileries. It was impossible for me to give the noble Lord notice of the question I wished to put to him on this subject; nor indeed, in my opinion, was that necessary. The ordinary rule which obtains in this House as to notifying to Ministers the purport of questions that may be addressed to them by hon. Members is not merely an affair of courtesy, but it arises from the very nature of things. The inquiries addressed to Ministers generally relating to the details of their departments, it is absolutely necessary, for the sake of accuracy and the dispatch of public business, that a previous intimation of their nature should be given to the heads of particular branches of the Government, to enable them to make themselves acquainted with the information which may be required by the House. But in the case of questions of high policy, questions of peace or war, questions regarding the progress of negotiations, or bearing on important circumstances that have occurred at foreign Courts, especially when those questions are addressed to the First Minister of the Crown, it never yet has been deemed necessary to give notice of the intention to make such inquiries; and, indeed, in the present state of affairs, so rapid is the communication of intelligence that it is wholly impossible to give any timely intimation to a Minister in such a matter. Why, the news often arrives while we are sitting on these benches, and when it may be necessary that no delay should be suffered to intervene before an appeal is made to the Government. Well, I thought that yesterday was an occasion when it was the duty of this House to give an opportunity to the Minister of informing Parliament and the country whether in fact so important an event had occurred as the invitation and the accession of Prussia to the Conferences. What, however, was the answer I then received from the noble Lord? I confess that if it were not as fresh in the recollection of all those who listen to mo as in my own, I should suppose that I must be labouring under some hallucination when I recall its terms to the House. The noble Lord declined to give me any information on the points of legitimate and important inquiry to which I invited his attention—merely observing that the first Resolution at the Conferences of Paris was, that there should be complete secrecy as to all their proceedings, and that, therefore, it was not in his power to give any answer to the inquiry which I made. It may be expedient—indeed, in the present case there can be no doubt that it is expedient—that the negotiations should be secret; but there is a very great difference between negotiations being secret and negotiators being unknown; and the very fact that the negotiations are secret is an additional reason why the negotiators should not be so. The first condition of confidence is, that you should be acquainted with those who are transacting the affairs in which you are interested, and, instead of the Resolution of the Conferences which the noble Lord quoted being an argument for not answering the questions I addressed to him, it appears to me to be a reason—if it were necessary to argue on such a point—in favour of the utmost frankness as to the names, and even, if possible, as to the powers of the persons deputed to act as Ministers. But it is quite superfluous to argue this question, because the principle laid down by the noble Lord is absolutely impracticable. If it were true, as I intimated to the House yesterday, that Prussia not only had accepted the invitation to join the Conferences, but had even nominated her representatives—if it were true, as I believe it to be, that her Plenipotentiaries have in all probability already arrived in Paris, surely these are incidents which cannot be concealed. If the Plenipotentiaries of Prussia are at Paris, no reserve on the part of the noble Lord can, I apprehend, keep the fact a secret from those who have the pleasure of living in that polished capital. If Baron Manteuffel and his colleague are in that city, it is not to be supposed that they attend the hotel of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in disguise, or that they go to Count Walewski's masked. On the contrary, their presence is notorious, and, more than that, it is palpable; and the very course of circumstances alone shows that the position of the noble Lord is perfectly untenable. Nay, I find that to be the fact which I did not know yesterday—namely, that in the Moniteur of that day there is an official announcement from the French Government that an invitation has been given to Prussia to attend the Paris Conferences, that she has accepted that invitation, and that she has nominated as her representatives Baron Manteuffel and Count Hatzfeldt, the present Minister of Prussia at the French Court. I want to know, therefore, why the French people are (notwithstanding the preliminary Resolution of the Conferences of which we have heard) informed by their Government of what has happened, while the Parliament of England is the only place where no information is to be given; and where, in a matter of momentous interest like the present, the Prime Minister is to prevent my authoritative intelligence from being imparted to the country, on a plea of which, I think, he must upon reflection acknowledge that he ought never to have availed himself. I am therefore at a loss, Sir, to conceive what could have induced the noble Lord to refuse the House the information which I should hope he will to-night, on further consideration, feel it not only in his power, but also to be his duty, to communicate to us. I should be sorry to suppose that the noble Lord finds in the circumstance that Prussia is now a participator in the Conferences any cause for dissatisfaction. I should be loth and sorry to believe this for two reasons. First of all, if the noble Lord regards that fact as any ground for regret, it would seem as though the counsels of this country at the Conferences were not so influential as I am sure every Gentleman in this House, on whatever side he may sit, must naturally wish them to be. But if it should be a source of any regret or mortification to the noble Lord, I should still more lament it, because I cannot but think, for my part, that the circumstance so disparagingly viewed by the First Minister of the Crown is one upon which we may fairly congratulate both this country and Europe. I look upon it as auspicious of a satisfactory settlement of the grave questions now pending at Paris, and as offering another augury for peace; because, whatever may be the wild opinions sometimes expressed, and expressed often without thought, and occasionally without temper, I cannot but believe that the solution now contemplated is more likely to prove lasting if all the great Powers of Europe sanction it than if one of those Powers, and one so peculiarly situated as Prussia, stands aloof and isolated, and is in no way connected with the adjustment which we desire to sec arrived at. Independently of the general principle that no settlement at Paris is calculated to be permanent to which one of the great European Powers is not a party, there are peculiar reasons why we should desire that the sanction of Prussia should be given to the pacification which we hope is about to be concluded. The presence of Prussia at the Conferences is, as it appears to me, the only means by which the sentiment and opinions of Germany can be represented and expressed on this memorable occasion. It is very true that there is another German Power which, from the first, has participated in the deliberations of the Conferences—a Power of which I wish to speak with all due respect; but, on this point, I remember the saying of a great statesman whose views I may quote with great propriety, as they are not likely to be prejudiced, being those not of an Austrian merely, but of a most eminent Austrian Minister.—I recollect Prince Metternich once observing that Austria was the true type of an empire, and, therefore, that all her interests must be imperial. Austria has many kingdoms and many races dependent upon her, and constantly demanding her solicitude; but Prussia is homogeneous—Prussia is German—Prussia, one might almost say, is Germany. For that reason alone, therefore, irrespectively of all other considerations, I—and I should think all those who are deeply interested in the welfare of Europe—feel desirous that Prussia should take part in the Conferences, and should feel that an authoritative announcement of such participation would be matter of congratulation to this country. But if it be of European interest that Prussia should be present at the Conferences—if it be, on general grounds, adverse to the public interests that a great State should remain in isolation on such an occasion—if, for the sake of representing German opinions and German sentiments, it be of importance that Prussia should be present at the Conferences—it is, I say, equally desirable, in my opinion, for English interests. Whatever we may have heard of the conduct of Prussia—which, allow me to observe, has never been the subject of debate or discussion, at least in the House of Commons—it would be well for us to recollect that, if there be such a thing as a natural ally, we may fairly describe Prussia as the natural ally of England. From the time when Prussia entered into the highest class of sovereignty, with one brief exception, when she notoriously acted under compulsion, she has been our ally; and from historical associations, from her geographical position, from the nature of her produce, from the character of her inhabitants, and, I may even say, of her religion, Prussia is a Power which, I am sure, will always be regarded with great sympathy by the people of England, and with profound interest by the statesmen of England. I know there are some who are apt to believe, because it is said to have been proposed by Russia that Prussia should be a member of the Conference, that that is a sufficient reason for the refusal of the proposition by the great Powers—[Mr. ROEBUCK: Hear, hear!]—and the hon. Gentleman, who has devoted some attention to the study of foreign affairs, assents by his cheer to that position, one which I believe to be crude, delusive, and fallacious. Now, I can conceive nothing of greater importance to Russia, still our adversary, than that the settlement, which I hope will take place at Paris, should be of a partial, and not of a general or universal character. It will be of infinitely greater importance to Russia that in making this settlement she should be treating with only two or three Powers, and should have the opportunity of falling back on a future occasion with a greater Power not connected with the settlement, than that she should have to meet the united will and voice of Europe, and defer to an arrangement sanctioned by their concord. As a mere ruse of diplomacy, nothing could be more dexterous on the part of Russia than the proposition that Prussia should be a partaker in the Conferences. If the proposition was acceded to, Russia had paid a flattering compliment to Prussia; if it failed, Russia treated only with part of Europe, and not with that universal Europe of which she is really afraid. I do not suppose, however, that any Minister of England would decide such a question as this with any regard to the interference of Russia in the affair. A British Minister should decide—as I cannot doubt he has decided—on the conviction of what is the real interest of Europe and of this country. I cannot believe that, on such an occasion, the passions of Cabinets or of individual Ministers can influence the course of public events. The diplomacy of passion has already worked great injury to this country, and I hope we have outlived the time when a repetition of such conduct as no one can look back upon with satisfaction will be witnessed. I think, therefore, instead of viewing the original proposal of Russia, that Prussia should take part in the Conferences, as an incident offensive to this country, we should be careful that our decision is founded merely on a consideration of what the interests of Europe and of England alike demand, and that passion should not be permitted to influence the decisions of the councils of kingdoms. In consequence of the unsatisfactory reply given by the noble Lord last night, I have availed myself of this opportunity to introduce the subject again to the notice of the House. I believe that the statements to which I referred yesterday are in every sense true and accurate. It would afford the utmost satisfaction if those statements were confirmed by an authoritative announcement on the part of the Government, and I trust that, upon reflection, the noble Lord has felt that the Parliament of England ought not to be less informed by Her Majesty's Ministers than is the population of Paris by the Moniteur of the French Government.


Sir, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I do not at all complain—nor do I feel that I have a right to complain—of any want of courtesy on his part in not giving me notice of the question he put to me last night. It was undoubtedly a question which, if it was fitting to be put at all, did not require that notice should be given to the person who was expected to answer it. On the other hand, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I was not guilty of any intentional want of courtesy with regard to the answer I felt it my duty to give to his question. It is perfectly true that when the Conference met, the first Resolution they adopted was that their proceedings should be kept secret; and they entered into an engagement, not only for themselves, but for their respective Governments, that secrecy should be observed. That arrangement was not intended to cover any sinister or mysterious proceedings which might be at variance with the interests of the countries concerned, or with the honest discharge of their duty by the Members of the Conference; but if it was only adopted with reference to the Houses of Parliament, I say that it was a wise and prudent decision with regard to the ultimate objects for which the Conference is assembled; for if hon. Gentlemen were to get up, from day to day, and, founding questions upon telegraphic messages and upon articles in foreign newspapers, were to ask the Government what had passed in the Conference with respect to transactions which were unfinished, and to discussions which were still in progress, I appeal to the good sense and judgment of the House whether the successful issue of the negotiations would not be a matter of the utmost difficulty, if not of absolute impossibility. I think, therefore, Sir, that the Resolution of the Conference was one which was right and fitting, and which had for its object the promotion of those purposes for which the Conference was assembled. Acting upon that Resolution, I gave my answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Bowyer) with reference to the affairs of Italy, and I gave a similar reply to the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire. That right hon. Gentleman has, however, put his question to-night in a manner which, I think, renders it my duty to give some explanation to him and to the House. It is perfectly true, as he says, that Prussia is one of those States which have hitherto been technically called the "Five Great Powers of Europe," and which have been accustomed of late years to enter into communication together for the purpose of coming to an understanding upon important questions of European policy. In the years 1840 and 1841, when treaties were made with respect to the affairs of the East, they were concluded by Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia, in concert; and if, upon the recent occasion, it had only been necessary to assemble a Conference of the great Powers of Europe to discuss general questions, no doubt Prussia would have been invited to be a party to such Conference. But the Conference which has recently met at Paris has assembled for the purpose of negotiating and concluding a treaty of peace between powers that are at war. The natural parties to such a conference are, therefore, England, France, Sardinia, and Turkey on the one hand, and Russia on the other. Austria, although not one of the belligerents, has, nevertheless, entered into engagements towards Turkey to maintain and defend her principalities; and Austria also acted the part of mediator between the belligerents on the occasion which led indirectly to the present negotiations. Austria, therefore, cannot be omitted as a member of the Conference. But Prussia stood in no character which made her in any way whatever a party to these negotiations. I will not follow the right hon. Gentleman into a discussion as to which of the Powers of Germany are the most homogeneous, or which of those Powers most accurately and fully represents the public opinion of the States of Germany. Prussia is a great Power; Prussia is undoubtedly a Power with whom it must always be the interest of this country to maintain the most intimate relations of friendship; and I trust those relations will always be maintained, and will become stronger and stronger as time advances; but Prussia, for reasons which we are not entitled to criticise, has deemed it for her interest to abstain entirely from taking any part whatever in the war. She has maintained an attempt at perfect neutrality. She has declined entering into any engagements with the Allies; she has avoided taking any part against Russia. There is, then, no character or capacity in which Prussia can become a member of the Conference assembled with the view of making peace between belligerent parties. Therefore it was that Prussia was not at first invited to become a member of the Conference at Paris. Nevertheless, part of the objects which the Conference has in view consists of the revision, to a certain degree, of those Treaties of 1840 and 1841, to which Prussia was a party—I mean the treaties regulating the Straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles; and, even upon that narrow ground, it was from the beginning judged not to be right that the negotiations should be concluded without inviting the participation of Prussia in the revision of treaties to which she had originally been a party. Undoubtedly, therefore, it was always thought that, as the negotiations proceeded, and in proportion as there seemed to be any reason to expect that they might terminate in a satisfactory manner, Prussia should be invited, not to negotiate the Treaty of Peace, but to accede to the result of the negotiations of those who were more directly interested in the matter. I believe—indeed I know—that an invitation to that effect has been addressed to the Prussian Government, and I presume that invitation will be, or has been, accepted. Of course Prussia is desirous to be a member of the Conference now, as she was desirous to be so even at a time when it was not thought right, on other grounds, that she should take part in the negotiations. That Baron Manteuffel is at Paris at the present moment I very much doubt; I believe, indeed, that he has not yet left Berlin; but, of course, being Prime Minister of the King of Prussia, he is a very likely person to be sent to Paris, where he would be associated with Baron Hatzfeldt, the representative of Prussia in that capital. Sir, I repeat that nothing could be more inconvenient than that questions should be asked from day to day with regard to the course of the negotiations at Paris. The answers that would be given to such questions would lead to misconstruction—would either excite expectations that might not be fulfilled, or create unfavourable opinions that might not be justified by facts; and, therefore, I am sure the House will see that the Conference was perfectly right in the decision at which it arrived. Under these circumstances, I hope hon. Members will not think that they are acting judiciously in endeavouring to force the Government to depart from that discreet reserve which I believe is the only course consistent with a favourable termination of the negotiations now in progress.