HC Deb 25 February 1859 vol 152 cc869-82

Sir, I rise, in pursuance of the notice which I have given, to make some few, and I promise the House they shall be very few, observations upon the state of affairs on the Continent, and also to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are in a condition to make any communication which shall encourage the hope that the general peace of Europe will be preserved? I can assure the hon. Gentleman opposite that I take this step in no factious—I may say, no party spirit. I do not wish to create any embarrassment to Her Majesty's Ministers. What I desire to do is to perform a duty which I think incumbent on the House of Commons—namely, to inquire, in the present state of things, what are the prospects to which this country can look forward in regard to the coming spring?

Sir, it is needless to attempt to disguise that there is a general apprehension, not in this country only, but throughout all Europe, that the ensuing spring will be marked by great conflicts between military Powers. The last communication which we had from Her Majesty's Government on this subject was that of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the first night of the Session, now more than three weeks ago. What he then stated was, that the continuance of peace was not absolutely hopeless. He, indeed, qualified that observation afterwards in the course of his speech; but it was evident that such was the impression at that time resting on his mind. I think, therefore, that I am not taking an undue liberty with the House in giving to the Government an opportunity of saying whether that is still the impression under which they labour, or whether anything may since then have intervened which imparts a more cheerful colour to the aspect of affairs, and encourages them to hope where hope before was not absolutely out of the question. Sir, I do not blame the Government for having hitherto made no communication to this House. It is not the practice, nor do I think it the duty, of Her Majesty's Ministers to volunteer communications, except when some event has happened of sufficient importance to justify that step. But it is, I hold, the duty of the Members of this House, in moments of great uncertainty—great public anxiety—to give to the Ministry an opportunity, by interrogatories put to them, of making such communications as, consistently with their responsibility, they may think it expedient to offer for the information of the country. If they are enabled to state that from the relations betwen us and foreign Powers, or from the relations subsisting between the different continental States, there is a fair prospect and hope that peace will be maintained, that is an announcement which would be highly satisfactory to the public and most useful to all the commercial classes of this kingdom, who are now about to make their arrangements for the ensuing year—arrangements which must greatly depend on the probability whether they will be encouraged by peace or thwarted by war. On the other hand, if Her Majesty's Government are in possession of knowledge which compels them to say they are greatly afraid that all attempts to prevent hostilities will be vain then I say "forewarned is forearmed." Better that the truth should be known—better that commercial men should understand the position in which they are placed—than that they should be led to take steps in the dark, and perhaps afterwards find themselves on the brink of an abyss.

What, then, is the ground on which I think it necessary to put this question to Her Majesty's Government? Why, we know that from one end of Europe to the other there is not only great expectation of an approaching conflict, but that Governments are arming, that vast preparations are making for warlike enterprises—that, armies are collecting—I will not say being increased, because most of the great military Powers of the Continent have been maintaining in time of peace a force ready for the outbreak of war but it is notorious that military stores are being accumulated, muskets making, cannon are casting, horses being bought, troops moved from point to point, fortifications being strengthened, ships being equipped, transports got in readiness. All these things indicate an anticipation on the part of the Governments engaged in them that in the course of the ensuing spring and summer they may be called upon to make some great military or naval efforts. This being the state of the case, one naturally asks one-self what is all this about? what is the cause which has led these different Governments to make these extensive preparations? Is it the fact that any one Power has given to another great cause of offence, or inflicted some great injury for which redress has been demanded and refused—that honour and dignity on the one side are committed against honour and dignity on the other, and that therefore nothing is left but to submit the ground of quarrel to the arbitrement of the sword? Sir, I am not aware that any such cause exists. I have yet to learn that between any two great Powers of Europe there has arisen any ground of difference which would justify or require an appeal to arms. Then I ask myself, has any great Power manifested an intention to set aside those treaties which form the groundwork of the existing settlement of Europe, by making an unprovoked aggression upon any of its neighbours? To begin with France—I cannot suppose her to entertain any intention to commit a wanton violation of treaties; because, while it may be true that the treaties of 1815 were not altogether such as the French nation might wish—although they left France untouched as one of the greatest naval and military Powers of the Continent, although they left her powerful by her natural resources, by the intelligence of her people, by all her means of offence and defence—I say whatever the French nation might have thought of those treaties, every successive Government in France from the year 1815 down to the present hour, whether that Government has been monarchical, republican, or imperial, has respected and observed those treaties with signal good faith. And I have yet to learn that there is any reason for imputing to the existing Government of France any intention to depart from the loyal conduct which has hitherto characterized the rulers of that nation. Then, Sir, is Austria going to break these treaties—Austria, who rests upon them her title to possessions to which—unwisely, I think—she in point of fact still clings? Is Austria likely to set an example of breaking the engagements to which she appeals as the title deeds of some of the territories that she prizes the most? I cannot believe anything of the kind. Is Austria likely to enter into an unprovoked conflict with Sardinia? The Austrian Government must be too wise to contemplate an undertaking which, whatever might be its first result, must ultimately end in great discomfiture and disaster. Well, is Sardinia preparing to commit an unprovoked breach of those treaties?—Sardinia, which holds by these very stipulations the possessions which are a chief source of her wealth and prosperity. I cannot believe that the sagacious monarch who rules Sardinia, or the wise Minister who governs under His Majesty, can contemplate anything so wild and insane. Then, as to Russia and Prussia, surely they have no intention to disturb the peace of Europe by a wanton and unprovoked infraction of treaty. But if there is no question pending between any of these Powers which would naturally lead to war,—if there is no design on the part of any of them to violate the treaties which form the settlement of Europe,—what is it that has produced the general impression which prevails as to their disagreement and their preparations for an appeal to arms? Sir, I think we must look for the cause of all this to the state of Central Italy. It must lie in the ancient rivalries and jealousies which have so long existed between France and Austria in regard to Italy, and which have now been brought into more active operation by the joint occupation of Central Italy by the troops of those two Powers. That, in my opinion, is the only point to which we can refer the anxiety that exists, and the preparations of which we are told. That occupation of Central Italy, which began under excusable reasons, and was meant to be only temporary, has now continued for nearly ten years. It is high time that it should end. And, Sir, if it be that which is the real cause of these jealousies and differences between two great military Powers, why the obvious and ready method by which the general uneasiness of Europe can be calmed down, and any contest between France and Austria avoided, would be their mutual and simultaneous evacuation of the States of the Church, and their retirement within their own respective frontiers. I know only that which everybody knows; but I should say that the French Government must feel the embarrassment of their present position. I should think that if either party shows a disinclination to assent to such a mutual retirement, that disinclination must be on the part of Austria—on her part, I must say, from a mistaken view of her own interest as connected with this question. It is said that Austria may think that if she withdraws from the Papal State a revolution would break out; that the flame once kindled, might extend to her own boun- daries; and that the only way to guard herself against danger, is to maintain the occupation of the Roman States. I believe that to be a short-sighted and fallacious argument. It is urged, indeed, that if my neighbour's house is about to take fire I should not wait till the conflagration has reached me, but must go into his house and put it out. Now, I would give different advice. I should say—"Make your own house fire-proof by good government—establish an efficient fire-brigade within your own premises, and leave your neighbour to deal with his house as he pleases." But why should these misapprehensions be entertained? Why should the occupation of the Roman States by a large foreign force be necessary for the preservation of tranquillity? Has not the Roman Government troops of its own? Has it not Roman soldiers to maintain order? But it is said, "Every Roman soldier is against the Government, and if an outbreak were to happen they would join the insurgents, instead of supporting the Government." Why, Sir, do those who maintain that argument consider what a reflection it implies—that the Government is so bad that it cannot find in its own population a faithful body to defend it against insurrection? But then they have the Swiss troops; but they say, "The Swiss, too, would join the insurgents." The Swiss, who have proved faithful to the tyrannical Government of Naples—who stood by their employer in that State with a fidelity which, in fact and in truth, was praiseworthy, although perhaps misapplied in that particular case—are we told that even they will not stand by the Roman Government in the event of an insurrection? Why, Sir, if that be so, it is the greatest condemnation which can be passed upon the Government of Rome; but that the Roman Government is so bad that neither native nor foreigner in its pay can be induced to support its authority, is no reason why France and Austria should be there to maintain it. But it is said that these are Catholic Powers, and that they are actuated by a sense of duty to the head of their religion. Why, Sir, am I to be told that it is essential to the ecclesiastical and spiritual authority of the head of a large section of the Christian Church, that a Government should be maintained which is so bad that it condemns two or three millions of its subjects from generation to generation, to civil and political martyrdom? That is a libel upon the Catholic Church; and so far from thinking that the maintenance of such a Government is any advantage to that Church, I am persuaded that a reform of the administration of the Roman States would be beneficial both to itself and to the Catholic religion. Indeed, I have heard it seriously argued that I, as a Protestant, ought not to endeavour to procure an improvement in the administration a Rome, because the bad character which the Roman Government has obtained is an advantage to those who differ from the Roman Catholic belief. I cannot see that that is any reason why a Protestant should not wish for an improvement in the temporal arrangements of the Roman States; but I am sure that it is an additional reason why every good Catholic ought to desire such an improvement.

Well, then, if this is at the bottom of the differences which have led to these military preparations—and I am unable to see any cause, except this mutual jealousy between France and Austria—I say that the Government of Great Britain is in a position in which it may be able, by the exercise of its good offices, and the influence of its sound advice, to render most important services to Europe. We are in intimate alliance with the Government of France, we are on the best possible terms with the Government of Austria. Neither of these Governments can suspect the motives which may actuate us in the endeavour to produce an accommodation; neither of them can believe that we should advise either to take any step which would be inconsistent with its honour, or would impair its dignity; and therefore both must be willing to accept our counsels in the spirit in which they are given. Whether they adopt them or not depends upon their own disposition; but there can be no reason to prevent the Government of this country from taking such steps in negotiation as they may think calculated to avert the evils of a general war; and I cannot but hope that Her Majesty's Government is taking the course which may produce such a result. We all know that Austria has certain treaties with the States of Italy. Those treaties, I believe, contain engagements of two kinds—one to protect them against external aggression, and the other in certain cases to afford them internal assistance. Nobody would ask Austria to forego the first of these engagements. Between the ruling families of many of the Italian States and that of Austria, there are relationship and consanguinity which would peculiarly justify engagements for mutual defence from external attack; but, even without that inducement, nothing is more common than that a powerful State should feel it its interest to make engagements with a weaker one for the defence of the latter against hostile attacks. We have our engagements with Portugal; Austria may justly have her engagements of the same sort with some of the Italian States. But the other engagements, those which go to interference in the internal affairs of the States, are such as Austria might, with perfect honour, and perfect dignity, put an end to; and unless these engagements cease, I am afraid that a momentary evacuation by France and Austria would produce no permanent effect. Unless it was clearly established that the French troops and the Austrian troops should go away, never to return, except in the case of foreign war, the mere momentary evacuation would be of no permanent avail.

Sir, I know it is urged that the Governments of these States, especially that of the Roman States, say, "For Heaven's sake don't leave us; because, if you do, we shall be liable to the greatest disasters." Why, that is very like a story that we have all heard of a nobleman, a relative, I believe, of a Member of this House—a generous and kind-hearted man—who, walking one day in the Park, was accosted by a labouring man, who, telling a piteous tale, said, "If your honour don't assist me, I shall be driven by desperation to do that which nothing but despair would induce me to do." The nobleman gave him half-a-crown, and then, returning after a few steps, said, "Now, my good man, what was it that you would have done if I had had not relieved you?" "Why, Sir," replied the man, "cannot you guess it? I should have been compelled to go and look for work, and nothing but the depth of despair would drive me to such an act." So say the Roman Government, "For Heaven's sake don't leave us, for if you do, the greatest of all possible calamities will befall us," and if you were to ask them what that calamity is, they would, if they told the truth, reply, "Why, we should be compelled to reform our administration and improve our institutions, and that is what we should consider the greatest of all possible calamities." For my part, I think that they ought to be left to that greatest of all possible calamities, and that any arrangement which would be calculated permanently to secure the peace of Europe must be founded, first of all, upon the retirement of foreign troops from the central States of Italy; next, upon the engagement that they should, under no circumstances, go back again; and thirdly, upon an endeavour by friendly advice to procure an improvement in the administration of those States. In tendering that advice, we should not be doing it for the first time. In 1832, England, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia, all united to give good advice to the Roman Government. It is unnecessary to go into the details of that counsel; but it was advice which, if taken, would have afforded contentment to the bulk of the Roman people, and would have obviated many things which have occurred since. I do not mean to say that any reforms or any alterations would entirely and effectually prevent desperate men from raising occasional disturbances. The best Governments are subject to those inconveniences. We have had our cabbage-garden rebellion; we have our Phœnix Society treason; we have had our Chartist riots; we have had our Canadian insurrection; we have bad our Sepoy mutiny; but the bulk of the people being satisfied with the Government under which they live, these temporary local and partial disturbances have been put down by the strong band, and no danger has been incurred to the institutions of the country. So would it be in the Roman States if a good and enlightened system of administration were established. There might be desperate men who here and there might produce disturbances, but the bulk of the people would be contented with the Government, and no serious danger would thereby occur to the State.

Well, Sir, I would, therefore, venture to submit, as an individual opinion, that if Her Majesty's Government were to succeed in obtaining from Austria and France by negotiation and by friendly advice, the evacuation of the Roman States, and an engagement that, come what might, their troops would not return, they might then address themselves to the Four Powers, and ask them to unite in a repetition of that which took place unfruitfully in 1832—an endeavour by friendly counsels to procure such an improvement in the condition, not only of Rome, but also of the other smaller States of Italy as would secure the future tranquillity of those countries. At all events, whether such efforts were successful or not, the British Government would have done its duty, and would stand acquitted whatever might be the consequences.

Well, then, Sir, in the interests of peace, I make this appeal to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. I have chosen this opportunity of doing it because I felt that the spring was coming on fast, that the period for commercial enterprise on the one hand, and for military operations on the other was nearly approaching, and that delay might expose me to the imputation of supineness. I felt that no one would blame me for taking this step so soon; that many might perhaps find fault with me for having delayed it so long; but that this was a peculiarly fitting moment to do it, because, when the House is about to enter into the consideration of those Estimates which are intended to provide for the defence of the country, we are entitled to know how we stand with regard to the prospects of the coming summer—whether we are to expect to see a conflagration involving all the countries of Europe—for if the flame begins in one corner, there is no saying that it may not extend over the whole surface of the Continent—whether, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, we are to expect a state of things which, if it occurs, may, no doubt, render it necessary for this country to collect its strength and to watch events in order that it may be prepared to exercise its influence where it would be most effectual; or whether, on the contrary, there is such an appearance of the continuance of tranquillity that we may look only to what would, under ordinary circumstances, be the peace establishments of the country, always securing that reserve which a wise Government would maintain in order to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances. I think, therefore, the Government will see that in the spirit in which I have made these observations there is no desire to embarrass, and no party feeling; but that I am giving them an opportunity, which, perhaps, they could not with propriety have sought of their own accord, for calming—if they are able to do so—the public anxiety in regard to die state of affairs on the Continent. If it should please the Government to say that communications are going on which would render it impossible for them, consistently with the public interest, to make any statement at all, I, of course, would be the last man who would not accept such a declaration on their part. I should infer from it, cm the contrary, that their hopes prepon- derate over their fears, and should certainly not say or do anything which might tend to prevent the accomplishment of the object we all have in view.

Sir, that being all I have to say, I can only add that I have chosen this particular occasion because I feel that any great discussion in this House upon matters which are hanging in so nice a balance might be inconvenient to the public interests. I have, therefore, not given notice of a Motion for any papers; I have not chosen a day on which any lengthened discussion could arise; but I have purposely selected an occasion when this House is anxiously waiting to hear the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty upon a matter of the utmost national importance, and when, therefore, the few observations which I have made will probably draw some statement from the right hon. Gentleman opposite, without being calculated to lead to a general discussion; for it must be obvious to all that, with the different views which many Gentlemen take of these questions, and with the imperfect information which we possess, things might be said that might tend to thwart the very objects which we all have at heart. I believe the whole country and every man in this House wishes for the continuance of peace, not from any fear of the dangers that war would bring upon us, but from a sense of the general inconvenience to which all nations would be subjected by the occurrence of hostilities, and from a desire that Europe should continue to enjoy that state of repose which tends so powerfully to promote its commercial interests, its intellectual progress, and the happiness and welfare of its people.


—Sir, I am not surprised that the noble Lord, occupying the position in this House of leader of the Opposition, should have availed himself of this legitimate occasion, in tfie present critical state of affairs in Europe, to make the inquiry which he has addressed to Her Majesty's Ministers. I feel it quite unnecessary to assure the noble Lord that we acquit him on this occasion of even the possibility of being influenced by any party feeling in the course he has adopted. And I hope, Sir, I may appeal to the course which at a moment of great difficulty in this country—I mean before the late war occurred—I hope I may appeal with confide1nce to the conduct of Gentlemen who sat on this side of the House, at that period, to show that it is possible to conduct an Opposition in this country without a want of patriotism at a moment of great national difficulty. Sir, the state of affairs no doubt fully justifies the noble Lord in putting the inquiry which he has addressed to us. It is notorious that military preparations are taking place in various parts of Europe. It is notorious that the resources are being marshalled of two at least of the great military powers of the Continent;—indeed, I cannot contemplate a juncture which would render it more justifiable on the part of an individual occupying the position of the noble Lord, to address an inquiry to the Ministers of the Crown, or one which would render the House of Commons more sensible that there is a duty to be fulfilled, however anxious we may be to exercise that reserve which circumstances may appear to require. I entirely agree with the view which the noble Lord has taken of the position of the great Powers interested in the settlement of 1815. I think the noble Lord has shown, in a satisfactory and lucid manner, that it cannot be the interest of any of those Powers to disturb that settlement. It is my belief that it is not the wish of any of them to do so. But I agree with the noble Lord, that there are circumstances in existence—that there is an anomalous state of affairs brought about in Italy—which might lead to very disastrous consequences—which might even occasion war—although the object contemplated in the commencement of those hostilities might not be a desire to challenge or to impugn the settlement of 1815. Sir, the noble Lord has given us a lively picture of the military preparations that are now taking place in France and other countries. He has described the preparations for the armaments which may be required if the hostilities which are feared should occur. Allow me to assure the noble Lord that when all have been so stirring and so active Her Majesty's Ministers have not been altogether idle. We have endeavoured, to the best of our ability and with the utmost vigilance, to take that course which we believed was conducive in the present difficult position of affairs to the maintenance of the general peace. We have felt the position—the noble Lord has rightly described it—the favourable position which must be occupied by this country between the two Powers between whom those rivalries have lately sprung up. We possess, and I hope we shall long possess, an intimate alliance with France. We are, as the noble Lord truly observed, on terms of cordial understanding with Austria. We are, therefore, in a position in which we can offer advice, of which the motives cannot be mistaken. We have given, and we have received, proofs of friendship from both of these Powers, and we have no other interest in their good understanding in the present instance than that interest which all States and all men must have in the maintenance of peace.

Sir, the noble Lord wishes to know whether it is in our power to make any communication to the house with regard to the present state of affairs on the Continent. The noble Lord has very liberally and generously admitted that if it is not in our power to make any such communication—that if we state that it would be inconvenient and injurious to the public interests at this moment to make such a communication—he will not only not press us for an answer, but will give us credit for doing our duty to our Sovereign and our country, and take the most sanguine view of the future that under the circumstances is possible. I have the satisfaction of informing the noble Lord and the House that we have received communications which give us reason to believe that ere long the Roman States will be evacuated by the French and Austrian troops, and that with the concurrence of the Papal Government. Under these circumstances, Lord Cowley, who enjoys the entire confidence of Her Majesty's Government, has repaired to Vienna in a confidential capacity. The House will not press, nor expect me to enter into any details as to the precise character of his mission, or the nature of the instructions which Her Majesty has been pleased to give to Her Envoy. Enough for me to say that it is a mission of peace and conciliation.

Now, Sir, I have treated the House with candour, and I trust, that they will not misconceive the spirit in which I would venture, under these circumstances, to make one other remark. The proceedings and debates of this House are nicely scanned in foreign countries: expressions used in our freedom of debate are very often subject to interpretations which the speakers them-selves never contemplated. It is impossible to say what effect at this moment a heated debate or an injurious and indiscreet phrase might produce. I trust, therefore, that I shall not appeal in vain to the House when I impress upon them the importance of postponing discussion on this subject for the present. I can assure the House on the part of her Majesty's Government, that every effort will be made on our part to maintain the general peace; and I can also assure the House that it will be only upon principles that are consistent with the dignity and welfare of Europe.


I am very glad that my noble Friend the Member for Tiverton has made these inquiries. I was quite sure that he would make those inquiries in a spirit which would at once tend to the preservation of peace; which would be becoming his position, and be for the interests of Europe. And now, my noble Friend having made those inquiries, I congratulate the House upon the answer which they have elicited. It was a matter of great anxiety to know, in the first place, whether Her Majesty's Government took that view of their position, that they were in a favourable situation to use their influence, and to give their advice to the Powers between whom these differences have arisen—to tell both France and Austria what was, in their calm and deliberate view, the situation of the affairs of Europe. I rejoice to find that Her Majesty's Government have taken that view of their position. I think it was an advantage which was not to be foregone. But, in the next place, we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman not only that declaration, but that advantages have already flowed from the interposition which has taken place; that it is the intention of those great Powers to evacuate the Roman territory—that it is also the intention of Her Majesty's Government, through Lord Cowley, to interpose at Vienna with such influence as in their opinion may be most conducive to the general peace. Now, Sir, I shall expect from the calm sagacity and intelligent prudence of Lord Cowley every-thing which diplomacy can effect. Of course, I do not wish to say anything as to the terms upon which the negotiations are to be conducted. With regard to the terms which may be fit to be accepted by France and Austria, it is for those powers to decide, and no doubt their honour will be sufficiently guarded in the advice which may be given them. But there is another country, with respect to which I would wish to make one, and only one, observation. It has frequently fallen to my lot—it has frequently appeared to me to be my duty—to call the attention of this House to the state of Italy, as a state which at one time or other must, if the danger were not sufficiently provided against, become perilous to the peace of Europe. But at this time I have only this observation to make,—I observe that in the Senate and Parliament of Turin it is supposed that the sympathies of this country as regards Italy have of late become impaired and weakened. Now, Sir, it is my firm persuasion that no war, if it arose, by whatever triumph it were attended—whether a war on the part of the Italian people unassisted, or whether a war of the Italian people assisted by a great Power, would bring such advantages to Italy, or would be so fraught with benefit in the future of Italy, as the pacific arrangements which may be made with the great Powers of Europe. It is, therefore, from no diminution or weakening of my sympathy for the Italian people who have been suffering, but it is, on the contrary, from a warm desire to see them prosper, that I express my opinion that they ought not to stake their future happiness on war, but that they should use every effort, and give every facility to enable France, Austria, Great Britain, and any other Powers who may take past in these proceedings to arrive at a pacification which shall promote the happiness and welfare of the Italian people. I have no doubt this House will think it right to refrain from making further observations.

Motion agreed to; House in Committee of Supply.