HC Deb 29 July 1859 vol 155 cc659-70

said, he rose to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether there is any intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government to reduce the Naval Armament of the Country. The question involved considerations of such importance that he should beg the indulgence of the House for a few moments while he stated the grounds upon which he was induced to put it at that particular period. He would admit at the outset that the question was suggested solely by public rumour, but the subject affected so closely not only the honour and the interests, but the very existence of this country as a nation, that he was sure it would be received as more than a sufficient reason for the course he had adopted, and an ample justification for his pressing for a clear and conclusive answer on the part of the Government. He trusted that those who had done him the honour of noticing his conduct in that House would acquit him of being influenced by party motives. He could assure the House that he entertained no such feelings; but he could not ignore the history of the past; he could not forget that a very few years ago, at the outbreak of the Crimean war, they had in office what was called a coalition Government. The noble Lord at the head of the present Government and the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs both held influential positions in that Government, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that day was again Chancellor of the Exchequer in the present day. In short, the existing Government was of the same composite order as that which so unfortunately characterized the Government of the year 1854. The conduct of the Government in 1853, at the outbreak of the Crimean war, must be fresh in the recollection of almost every hon. Gentle- man in the House. It would be remembered that the early stages of that war were attempted to be conducted upon a peace establishment. It would be also in the recollection of the House that the unfortunate course then pursued resulted in the loss of a large number of valuable lives and the wasteful expenditure of large sums of money, and when he remembered that the same influential names were to be found composing the present Government which had composed the Government at that time, it appeared to him to be a duty doubly imperative on the House to inquire what were the intentions of Her Majesty's Government, and what was the course they proposed to pursue with reference to the armament, and more especially the naval armament of the country. Since he had had the honour of putting his notice on the paper a fresh announcement had been made and circulated in the journals of the day, which appeared to give more importance to the question and make it still more necessary that his question should have a clear and distinct answer. It had been stated in the public journals, and he believed upon authority, that it was the intention of the Emperor of France to commence a system of disarmament, and the consequence of that announcement was that articles had been published congratulating the country upon now being able to reduce its immense expenses for naval and military purposes, and looking forward with hope to the advent of that millennium which everybody would like to see, but few were sanguine enough to expect. Now he contended that the fact, if it were a fact, that the French Government were about to reduce their armaments, was not only no reason for any reduction of the armaments of this country; but further than that, that be the reduction of the French military and naval armaments what it might, the duty of the English Government was to continue, irrespective of the conduct of the French, their endeavours to put our military and naval defences in a more efficient condition than they had yet attained. It was because we were told that the French Government were about to disarm, and that that was a ground for a reduction in the defences of this country, that he was the more inclined to press upon Her Majesty's Government the view he had ventured to put forward, and that we ought to proceed uninterruptedly with all possible energy and exertion to increase to the utmost of our power the efficiency of our defences. He should like to put the case in this point of view to the House. Let them suppose for a moment that the Emperor of the French were to say to the Government of Her Majesty, "I am about to reduce my army by 100,000 men, and I call upon you in fairness to do the same." What would he the relative position of the two countries if his request were complied with? Why, the French would be left with an army of 500,000 men, whilst we should be left with nothing. That might be carrying the argument to an extreme, perhaps; but it was the only fair way of looking at the question. So far with reference to a reduction in military force; but the difference in the relative position of the two countries with reference to naval armaments was even more striking still. There was no parity or resemblance of any kind between the position of France and England with respect to the amount of naval armaments which they required for maintaining the honour and safety of the country. France had no demands on her navy for the defence of extensive colonies at a distance; and when we were told that the returns of the French navy amounted to so many ships of the line, and so many frigates and other craft, be that fleet what it might in point of numbers, it could only be for the purposes of home defence, or in the event of war breaking out, for foreign aggression, whereas this country must always have a large fleet for the defence of her numerous colonies and distant stations, besides what was necessary for her home defences, before she could dispense with a single ship. He would put it again that the Emperor of the French proposed a disarmament of the naval forces of the two countries; and let it be supposed for a moment that that suggestion was unfortunately acceded to: what would be our position then? Say that they each paid off the crews of twenty line-of-battle ships to-morrow what then would be the relative position of the two countries? Why, just this: France could reassemble the whole of her men by a telegraphic order within forty-eight hours, and, in point of fact, it would be no disarmament at all; whereas when we paid off our men it would not only be a question of months, but almost of years, before we could by possibility obtain and drill the crews to such a state as that it might be said we had a really efficient navy for the defence of the country. He hoped, then, that Her Majesty's Government would never dream of consenting to any disarmament, on the part of this county, or to any reduction of our naval forces, especially on the ground that France had proposed or even commenced a naval disarmament. Such, he would repeat, was the construction of the French navy that in one sense it could not be disarmed. Whether the men were afloat or on shore, at Brest, Toulon, or Cherbourg, they were equally available in a few hours; whilst our men, once they were paid off, could not be collected together again; and if we followed out that policy, and proceeded on any ground whatever to disarm, we placed ourselves at the mercy of France, or of any other power whose navy was on the footing that the French Navy had been for many years past. There was another point to which he desired to refer, and on this point he would address himself in particular to the hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) who played a distinguished part in the debates in that House as the champion—and properly so—of the commercial interests of the country. He would ask the hon. Member for Birmingham what was to become of our commercial interests if once we suffered ourselves to lose our preeminence on the seas? Was the hon. Member prepared to encourage the hope that the vast foreign commerce of England would continue to exist if we lost that maritime supremacy which we had enjoyed for years past, and which was the sole cause of our commercial superiority? The hon. Member shook his head; he (Mr. Bentinck) only trusted that, before the debate closed, he would be good enough to tell the House the ground upon which he hoped to see British commerce flourish without the existence of the British Navy. On a recent occasion they had heard it stated upon very high authority that Her Majesty's Government ought to suggest to the Government of the Emperor of the French a mutual disarmament. Now, he (Mr. Bentinck) was not one of those who would concur in sactioning such an appeal to the French Emperor, or, who believed that, however courteously worded, any appeal of the sort would have much effect upon his policy; but if he were correctly informed, and he believed it was the case, the suggestion adverted to had already been made. He had heard circumstances casually mentioned in the course of conversation, from which he concluded that the suggestion that Her Majesty's Government should propose to the Emperor of the French an immediate and mutual disarmament had been for some time since antici- pated. He believed he was correctly informed that that suggestion had been made some months ago. There were few Gentlemen in that House who did not remember the fetes at Cherbourg. He understood that it was at that time that the suggestion was made, and that the Emperor, who, unlike many of his critics in this country, always exhibited the qualities of a high-bred and courteous gentleman, answered the suggestion with a smile, and in a few words said that he himself was perhaps the best judge of what was requisite in the way of military armament for the honour and well-being of France. He then went on to say, if he (Mr. Bentinck) was correctly informed, that, in his opinion, it was necessary for the welfare and honour of France that she should have fifty sail of the best screw line-of-battle ships—not ships like those which were then assembled at Cherbourg, many of which were of an inferior description—he meant fifty of the best modern screw line-of-battle ships that could be constructed; and, he added, that if he might venture to offer a suggestion to England, with regard to what was her policy, in his opinion it was her policy to have 100 line-of-battle ships of that description; and that that would be the best means of securing a firm and lasting peace between the two countries. He gave this story of course for what it was worth, but as he had said before he believed it to be true. At all events, whether it was true or not, the policy of the Emperor of the French had been in strict accordance with the views which he was supposed to have expressed on the occasion to which he had alluded, and he (Mr. Bentinck) was prepared to maintain that nothing could be so fatal to the interest of this country, or so alarming to every Englishman, as the rumoured intention of Her Majesty's Government to relax their exertions in strenghening our naval defences. He had, therefore, given notice of the question in the shape in which it stood on the paper, and had prefaced it with these remarks in order to induce other hon. Members more influential than himself to give him their support in eliciting from the noble Viscount a clear and distinct answer as to what were the intentions of the Government respecting the naval armaments of this country.


said, that before the noble Viscount rose to reply he would beg leave to suggest that one of the best means of protecting the interests of this great constitutional empire would be by the establishment of a liberal and constitutional Government in the North of Italy. It was impossible for England to isolate herself from the great federation of European nations, and it was the bounden duty of Her Majesty's Ministers to take every opportunity of urging upon other contries the establishment of those liberal forms of government in Northern Italy which be believed would tend to promote the alliance between France and England, and would form the surest pledge for the future peace of Europe.


said, he would wish to put the question to the noble Lord in a different shape, as he presumed that his conduct would be guided by the intentions of the French Government in this matter. He (Mr. Lindsay) had always maintained that while France went on increasing her naval armaments we should be under the disagreeable necessity of increasing ours, so as to maintain the relative strength of the two countries. He believed it was false economy to allow our defences to fall down to the low point at which they stood in 1852; and to have maintained our navy in an efficient state would have been cheaper than to have suffered such losses from unfavourable exchanges and fluctuations in prices as we had experienced for want of that efficiency. He wished to put this to the noble Lord. If what they saw in the newspapers was true,—he said nothing about the army, because there were Austria, Prussia, and other places, upon account of whom France might assume it to be necessary to maintain a large army, while it was solely on account of England that she kept up her navy—the Emperor of the French had made the first move towards us, showing that he honestly desired to maintain peace, which was certainly his best and wisest policy. That being so, he sincerely trusted that the noble Lord—considering there had been an increase of £4,000,000 in the Estimates, saying nothing of the sum of £600,000 proposed by the Bill which was introduced late the other evening, which would raise the amount to nearly £5,000,000—would meet the Emperor of the French in a like spirit. He trusted the noble Lord, under such circumstances, would not fail to reduce our armaments, and so terminate this enormous expenditure of money.


said, he wished to draw attention to the circumstance that the Church Rates Abolition Bill was amongst the Orders of the day. Such a measure ought not to be brought on at two or three o'clock in the morning, at all events without some Member of the Government being present to express their views respecting it. He (Mr. Cross) had placed certain Amendments on the paper which came to the House not with his authority, but that of the Government of 1856, of which the noble Viscount was the head. Those Amendments were proposed by the then Home Secretary (Sir George Grey), and on that occasion the noble Viscount expressed his opinion upon them in these words:—"That the more the proposal was considered the more hon. Members would feel it to be admirably calculated to obviate the difficulties of the case." Upon that proposal, however, the House had never yet had an opportunity of pronouncing an opinion, and he thought that before the Bill was allowed to proceed further, the House was entitled to some explanation from the noble Viscount upon the Amendments which he had so favourably regarded in 1856. If then the Bill was brought forward at two or three in the morning, and the Government declined to express an opinion upon these Amendments, he should certainly oppose any attempt to proceed with it.


said, that recurring to the question of the hon. Member for Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck), he thought the House was likely to be misled by the term, "reduction of forces," which had been used by the papers that were said to convey the intentions of the Emperor of the French. It might easily be made to appear upon paper that when the French Emperor had laid up his ships in ordinary and dismissed his crews the forces of the two countries would be equal, but that would not be so in reality. It would be found that when our ships were laid up, we had no means whatever for reassembling the crews. We had no reserve to fall back upon in case of attack; whereas the French seamen were placed in barracks, so that the Government had nothing to do but to press every workman they could find into their dockyards, fit out their ships, to be in a position to put an enormous number of men on board in an incredibly short space of time. Under these circumstances he did think the Government would not be doing their duty in making any reduction whatever, unless they received an absolute pledge from the Emperor of the French, not only that a portion of his ships would be laid up in ordinary, but that he would not build any more ships of that sort.


said, this subject was of such stupendous importance to the country, that he could not help soliciting the indulgence of the House while he addressed to them a few words in relation to it. He maintained that in comparison with the efficiency of our navy, everything else connected with the maintenance of a defensive force sank into insignificance. It was all very well to dilate on the value of the army, and it was very well, too, to talk of the usefulness of voluntary rifle corps; but unless they had an efficient navy, well manned and equipped, able and willing to meet the enemy wherever he appeared, they could not consider that the country was safe from the aggressions of a foreign foe. It was argued that the Emperor of the French was about to reduce his naval force, and that we ought to follow his example; but what, he should like to know, did the proposed reduction of the Emperor of the French amount to? Simply to the placing of a few ships out of commission, the crews of which might be despatched to Brest or Toulon, or some other of the great naval depots of France, where he would be able to lay his hands upon them whenever they were needed. But what would become of our sailors if they were discharged? They would be scattered to the four quarters of the globe. He (Lord Ashley) had had the honour of serving in the Black Sea fleet, and he believed a finer body of men than the crews of the ships composing that fleet never left our shores. But what had become of those men now? Some had gone to America, some to Australia, some had gone on board South Sea whalers, and, in fact, they were scattered over all parts of the world. After the war was over a reduction took place; the men must have bread; and as they could not be employed in the navy they went on board other ships in pursuit of the means of existence. It would therefore be found impossible to collect those men together again, and months must elapse before practical and efficient seamen could be found to supply their place. It was said, it took he knew not how many months or years to make a soldier, but a still longer time must elapse before a man could be made an efficient sailor; and that being so, it was, in his opinion, of the utmost consequence that our navy should be maintained in the utmost state of efficiency, without regard to the attitude which might be assumed by any of the other Powers of Europe. Her navy it was that had made England what she was, and without it she must sink into the position of an inferior Power. That being so, he could not help, therefore, raising his voice in cordial sympathy with his hon. Friend opposite, and he hoped they would have such a satisfactory answer from Her Majesty's Government as would enable them all to sleep sounder on their pillows that night.


remarked that he did not see that any credit would accrue to the House, or any honour and dignity to the country, from these alarming speeches. It was only a few weeks since the government of the country was placed in the hands of noble Lords and hon. Genlemen opposite, and if they were thought fit to be entrusted with that responsibility he would recommend the House to leave the duty of providing for the defences of the country in their hands. He for one did not think it either a wise or a dignified course to raise these alarms, and to excite that agitation which was now-a-days so rapidly spread through the country by means of the press.


said, he agreed very much with the hon. Gentleman who had last spoken. He did not rise to prolong this discussion, but to ask the Government when the report of the Commission appointed by the late Government on the subject of Dockyard Expenditure would be laid before the House. He thought, considering the importance of the subject, they ought to have some pledge that the report would be laid on the table before the prorogation.


Sir, if I did not at once reply to the questions which were put to me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cork (Mr. Scully), it is because I thought it desirable that I should defer doing so in order that I might be in a position to reply to the other inquiries which I found by the notice paper were to be addressed to me upon this Motion. My hon. and learned Friend asks whether the Pope has agreed, or is about to agree, to become a member of the Italian Confederation, and whether in that event Her Majesty's Government would think fit to open direct diplomatic relations with him? To the former of those questions I am not competent to give an answer, inasmuch as in the first place the confederation is not formed, and in the next place our relations with the Pope are not such as to induce him to communicate very freely to us what the intentions upon the subject are which he entertains. I would refer my hon. and learned Friend for information on the point to the hon. and learned Member for Dundalk (Mr. Bowyer), as being more likely to be a person—especially after what passed last night—in the confidence of His Holiness than myself. But, to speak seriously, I possess no information which would enable me to give to the inquiry of my hon. and learned Friend upon this head a satisfactory reply. With respect to the other question which he has put to me, I can only say that there would be nothing in the formation of an Italian Conference with the Pope at its head, or even as one of its members, which would bear upon the subject of our entering into direct diplomatic relations with the Court of Rome. As in the case of the German Diet, with which, as the organ of the German Confederation, we hold diplomatic relations, so in the case of the organ of the Italian Confederation similar relations would be established. But then it must be borne in mind that our representative at the Diet is accredited to that body, quite independently of any diplomatic relations which we may have with the several Powers of which the German Confederation is composed. It would, perhaps, be well that I should take this opportunity of explaining what the state of the question is with respect to our diplomatic relations with the Pope. It will be in the recollection of hon. Members that some years ago an Act of Parliament was passed in this country enabling Her Majesty to enter into such relations with the Court of Rome, and that in the other House of Parliament a clause was added to that Bill which prohibited the Sovereign from receiving, as the representative of the Pope, any ecclesiastical personage. The Court of Rome chose to regard that proviso as constituting a bar to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Great Britain. I may now remind the House that the Government of Prussia, which is Protestant, and that of Russia, which is non-Catholic, have both declined to receive at their respective Courts an ecclesiastic as the Papal representative. I do not know whether that refusal is the result of a legal enactment, but, at all events, such is the settled decision and practice in those countries. Notwithstanding, however, this state of things, the Pope has received at Rome diplomatic agents and representatives from Prussia and Russia; and I cannot, therefore, comprehend on what ground he draws that distinction between England on the one hand and Russia and Prussia upon the other, which involves the demand upon his part, before he will consent to enter into diplomatic relations with us, we should repeal the Act to which I have referred, and do that to which Russia and Prussia have declined to accede. Such is the position in which the question stands, and I thought it was perhaps desirable that I should offer this explanation to the House with respect to it. Next comes the question of the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck), and in dealing with it I might, perhaps, content myself with simply stating that my answer to it must depend on a great variety of circumstances, which in due time, and at the proper moment, it would be the duty of Her Majesty's Government to take into their consideration. The inquiry which the hon. Member has addressed to me is whether it is the intention of the Government to make any change in the military and naval establishments of the country, as they now stand in accordance with Estimates which have been prepared by the late Administration, and which we have adopted? The subject is one on which it would perhaps be only respectful to the House that I should make a few observations, over and above that general reply which I have just indicated. The hon. Member bases his inquiry on the assumption that the information which reached us yesterday to the effect that the Emperor of the French was about to reduce his naval and military establishments, afforded a ground why Her Majesty's Government might be supposed to deem it expedient to make a similar reduction in the naval and military departments of this country. Now although the receipt of the information to which I have referred may furnish a very good opportunity to the hon. Member for the expression of his own views, and for eliciting the opinion of the House on this subject, yet I cannot help thinking he is somewhat premature in asking the Government what course they may think it their duty to take in consequence of an event which has not yet happened and of the probability of which they received intelligence only yesterday. With regard to the anecdote which he relates, I was at Cherbourg at the time and I rather doubt the authenticity of the story, but some right hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House will be more competent than I am to say whether such a conversation ever passed. I have no hesitation in perfectly concurring with him in the principle which, as I understand, he laid down—that it would be impossible for the Government of this country to enter into an agreement with any other foreign Power for the reduction of establishments, naval and military. If there were no other Powers in the world with armies and navies except England and France, I should say, even then, that any agreement was impossible for us to enter into; because the circumstances of England and France, the interests which they have, the position which they have to maintain are so entirely different that you cannot make an arithmetical agreement between two such Powers, that as to one there shall be a reduction of a half and as to the other a similar reduction. There is no parity of position, and, therefore, there can be no equality of consent. But the House must remember that there are other Powers, besides England and France, who have navies with whom we now are, and I trust shall continue to be in friendly relation, but with whom possibly that relation may alter. If by any misfortune we were engaged in a war with France, we might be engaged in hostilities also with them. Therefore, our naval and military arrangements must depend, not in what is done by any foreign Power, but on what the responsible Government of the day from time to time consider necessary at the time for the protection of those various interests which it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government for the time being to protect. I can say no more than that. It is, of course, the duty of the Government, while on the one hand they propose to Parliament such establishments as they conscientiously believe to be necessary, on the other hand, not to be led away by the false alarms and exaggerated notions, and expect the country to bear burdens greater than their real interests make it necessary that they should sustain. With regard to the question of the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hall) I have consulted my noble Friend the Secretary to the Admiralty, and he tells me that the report to which allusion has been made, will in a few days be laid on the table of the House.