HC Deb 13 February 1857 vol 144 cc622-9

Before you leave the chair, Sir, I wish to ask a question of the noble Lord at the head of the Government on a subject to which I attach great importance,—I mean our relations with Persia. It would doubtless be in the recollection of the House that at the beginning of this week I gave notice of a Motion on the subject. I did so notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Control had stated negotiations were taking place at Paris, and a selection of papers would be laid on the table. My reason for persisting was this: It is almost unprecedented that a war should be entered on virtually while Parliament is sitting, and peace concluded while Parliament is sitting, without Parliament having an opportunity of expressing its opinion upon so important a subject. Another reason was that I am led to believe we are about to enter into treaty engagements with Persia, which may involve us in hostilities with most of the nations of Central Asia. I believe that there are many Gentlemen in this House and in the country who agree with me in that opinion. I therefore think, before the treaty is signed at Paris, and this country forms engagements which may lead hereafter to serious complications and to many wars, that the House of Commons should have an opportunity of expressing an opinion upon our Central Asian policy. I certainly have been told privately that the negotiations are in such a state that a debate in this House might lead to their interruption and perhaps to the continuance of war. The greatest of all evils is the continuation of war, and, as I should be most imprudent under such circumstances to press the debate, I beg to ask the noble Lord at the head of the Government whether he will state seriously and positively that a debate in this House upon the Persian question would so far interfere with the negotiations as to prevent their successful issue, and to lead to a continuation of the war. If the noble Lord make that statement I must throw myself upon the House, at the same time protesting against the policy of the war as dangerous and bad. If, on the other hand, the noble Lord will not state that a debate will lead to the interruption of negotiations, I trust that the House will enable me on the earliest day—perhaps on Monday next—to bring forward the subject so as to obtain the opinion of the House upon a question of the most vital importance to the interests of the country.


Of course, Sir, it is impossible for any person to say what will necessarily be the result of any debate which may be raised in this House. We are, however, in negotiation at present with Feroukh Khan at Paris, and I think, upon a general view of the matter, that persons less experienced in diplomacy than my hon. Friend must see that a debate upon the subject of negotiations could not fail to produce very injurious consequences. Whether it would occasion a continuance of the war is more than I can possibly tell, but certainly I can undertake to say, as a Minister of the Crown, that negotiations having been commenced, and having been hitherto conducted in a promising manner, such negotiations must be very much damaged and the public interests must be injured by a discussion in this House founded upon imperfect information, and bearing upon many points which may, perhaps, be settled in negotiation. Speeches by persons who are imperfectly informed of the facts must necessarily have an injurious effect, and I assure the House that it is the anxious desire of the Government to conclude peace with Persia upon conditions which shall be honourable and satisfactory to both countries, and which shall give some fair security for a continuance of peace. Under these circumstances I certainly consider that any discussion on the subject at the present moment will lead to embarrasment and great public inconvenience.


Sir, I wish to ask the noble Lord whether he has any objection to lay upon the table of the House the ultimatum which was sent by the Persian Government previous to the declaration of hostilities? This is, I believe, the first time in which the people of this country have engaged in a war without knowing what they were fighting about. As far as we can learn up to the present period, it would appear that we are fighting because Persia took possession of the town of Herat; but Persia says that that is not the point now in dispute; that England has made fresh demands; that the question about Herat might have been settled long ago by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, and that Feroukh Khan had full instructions when at Constantinople to enable him to effect that object. Fresh demands had, however, it seemed since been made by Her Majesty's Ministers, and I ask is not the House of Commons to know in what those demands consisted? The questions which, under these circumstances, I wish to ask the noble Lord at the head of the Government are, whether he is prepared to state to the House the nature of those new demands, and whether he will lay upon the table of the House the ultimatum to which I referred?


Sir, I regret that I cannot answer the questions of the hon. Gentleman in the affirmative. To give him the information which he seems to desire, would be to adopt a course dangerous, if not fatal, to the success of the negotiations in which we are at present engaged.


Sir, the situation in which the House is placed in reference to this subject seems to me to be most absurd, for the boasted supervision of this House is a farce. Let us consider for a moment the circumstances of our position. War is declared, and of that war the House of Commons knows nothing. War has been carried on, and of the mode of its prosecution we are in total ignorance. We are told that negotiations are now in progress. Of their nature this House knows nothing; and still more, this is a point upon which we are told we ought to know nothing; so that we are now in this situation—if we put a question before hostilities take place, we are told that we are too soon; if while they are in progress, we are told that we are intermeddling; and if after they have come to a termination, we then are told we arc too late. Now, I will ask when it is that the House of Commons is to inquire—if not before the mischief takes place, while it is going on, or when it has come to an end? The House, I again repeat, is placed in a most absurd position. Its influence, I repeat, is a mere farce. We pretend to govern the country, to overlook the conduct of Ministers; yet we sit down quietly at a moment when the best interests of England are at stake, and dare not say anything, because the Minister rises in his place and tells us that we are either too soon or too late.


Sir, the circumstances of the present time, with regard to the Persian war, appear to me to be unusual. I will not now raise the question whether the Government ought to have assembled Parliament before they gave orders for hostilities against Persia; but that question being set aside, we are in this peculiar position, that at the same time that we are informed of hostilities having been ordered and undertaken, we are likewise informed that negotiations have been commenced at Paris, and, as my noble Friend at the head of the Government has just stated, they have been opened in a promising manner. It appears to me that that position is quite peculiar, and I certainly think that it is one which requires the forbearance of this House. I can well conceive, if all the papers were now produced, and a discussion were to arise upon them, that the terms demanded by England before the war might be commented upon by some hon. Gentlemen as impolitic and excessive, and it is clear that such observations might tend to embarrass and disturb the negotiations which are now in progress. I can conceive, for example, that Feroukh Khan, or any one who is negotiating with Lord Cowley, might take encouragement from such a discussion in this House, and might not be so ready to agree to reasonable terms as would otherwise be the case; and therefore, though the circumstances are very peculiar, and though in an ordinary case it would be right to ask for the papers, I can very well imagine that the Government may be justified in withholding them at the present time. I believe, however, that this state of suspense cannot be of very long continuance. The majority of the points at issue were discussed repeatedly at Constantinople, and the Government must be well aware what the terms are which they mean to insist upon, and what those are which they will not press. I imagine, therefore, that we shall either hear before long that there has been a rupture of the negotiations, or that we shall be informed of the terms which have been agreed upon between Feroukh Khan and Her Majesty's Plenipotentiary. In either case the silence of the Government may then be broken, and every particular respecting the negotiations and the circumstances which preceded hostilities can then be communicated to Parliament. It may happen, even if peace should be concluded, that the circumstances under which hostilities were undertaken may not appear to be such as to justify the Government for having commenced warlike operations, and then it will be open to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Layard), or to any other Member, to raise a discussion upon the subject without any danger of that injury to the public interest which might now arise.


I confess, Sir, it appears to me extremely difficult for the House to arrive at anything in the nature of a final or conclusive understanding, at the present moment, with respect to a discussion on the Persian war, and I fully admit the force of the general considerations which have just been urged by my noble Friend the Member for the City of London, that it is most undesirable that we should incur any risk of frustrating negotiations which may possibly eventuate in the establishment of peace. I am, however, at the same time, bound to observe, that there are certain questions which must be anterior in the order of discussion to any which are involved in those negotiations. We stand in the very peculiar position of being made aware that a war, involving extensive political interests, has been commenced by Her Majesty's Government upon their own responsibility, and without the knowledge or sanction of Parliament. If I understand aright, papers are at present in course of preparation, which, while not containing anything which, in the opinion of the Government, would be likely, if debated, to interrupt the progress of negotiations, are to exhibit to us the causes for which the war was undertaken, and to put us in possession of such information as will enable us to exercise our constitutional functions of judging whether Her Majesty's Ministers did or did not outstep the powers with which the constitution invests them, in entering, without the knowledge of the Legislature, into the contest in which we are involved. I frankly own that I, for my part, can form no judgment upon this point until I see the papers which will inform us as to the time at which instructions were sent out for the despatch of the expedition from Bombay, and which will, I apprehend, disclose to us the cause of the war. When we are in possession of that information, then, I think, will be the time for this House to consider whether it be necessary to raise any question with regard to the policy in relation to the war which Her Majesty's Government has pursued. With respect to the negotiations, it appears to me at the same time that it is impossible for this House at present to give either by expression or by silence any absolute judgment upon the subject, but that we must, in the first instance, see the papers, and that until we have seen the papers relating to the war, and considered the origin of the war, it will be impossible for us to know how far the Government are in a condition to ask for the confidence of the House in reference to this question. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Layard) will, of course, take what he may consider the most prudent course with regard to any immediate discussion upon the subject; but I think it is plain that we cannot be precluded by anything that may take place to-night from raising a question with respect to the origin of the war. I am not sure whether I rightly heard my noble Friend the Member for the City of London, when I understood him to say that the question was set aside. I must confess that it appears to me that the question has not been in any way set aside, but that it remains entirely open for the future consideration and judgment of Parliament.


I have evidently been misunderstood by my right hon. Friend. What I said was that I thought the question remained entirely open.


It appears to me, Sir, that Parliament ought to look with the utmost jealousy at the negotiations conducted by the Government after a war has commenced. Before a war has been undertaken, and while there is merely a misunderstanding between the representatives of this country and the representatives of a foreign State, the greatest forbearance ought to be extended to the Government by an assembly like the House of Commons; but when hostilities have commenced, when they are in progress and raging, Parliament, I maintain, ought not to be prevented from criticising the cause of the war or inquiring into the mode in which it has been prosecuted, on the allegation that the subject was not to be discussed because a declaration had been made on the part of the Government that some agent, obscure or otherwise, was negotiating, or attempting to negotiate, with them a peace. It is well known that Prussia was overrun and conquered by Napoleon while negotiations wore pending between the Government of that country and the Government of France. It is of the utmost importance that the House of Commons should be given to understand that the negotiations now being conducted between England and Persia are negotiations which present a fair probability of their being brought to a successful and honourable termination. At present, all that we know is, that they are conducted on the part of the Persian Government by an envoy who failed in his attempt to effect a settlement of the question at Constantinople; and although I agree with the noble Lord the Member for London, that this is a subject which on the whole demands our forbearance, I think, at the same time, it is one on which the House should view the conduct of the Government with jealousy, because we might find that the Persian war had been continued, and that we had become involved in more than one campaign, while the Government could allege the existence of negotiations as a reason for preventing any inquiry into their policy by this House. There is one subject, Sir, upon which I think I may ask for information, without at all embarrassing the negotiations; and that is with reference to our interference in the affairs of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I cer- tainly understood from the language used in Her Majesty's Speech, at the commencement of the Session, that these papers would have been laid at once before the House; but although nearly a fortnight has since elapsed they are not yet in our possession. Under these circumstances I must urge the noble Lord at the head of the Government to produce those documents without any further delay.


Sir, I beg to remind the House of one declaration which the First Lord of the Treasury has already made to us—namely, that this country is to pay half of the expenses of the war with Persia. Now, seeing that the Government have pledged the industry of England to pay for the Persian campaign, I think they ought, when the war was commenced, to have given some little information to Parliament with respect to the origin and causes of the war.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the chair," put and agreed to.

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