HC Deb 17 February 1860 vol 156 cc1267-75

said, he rose to ask for an explanation of the 11th Article of the Treaty of Commerce with France, which engaged Her Majesty not to prohibit the exportation of coal. The Article was framed with great simplicity of anguage, but evidently without any consideration of the possible contingency of war. It might be very suitable in their new Plenipotentiary, but those who did not believe in the immediate approach of the millennium might be allowed to object to it. The terms of the Article betrayed great carelessness on the part of the negotiators, and a certain amount of blame was also to be imputed to the Foreign Secretary who had ratified the Treaty. Still, as everybody knew that negotiation was not the forte of the noble Lord, some blame must also lie at the door of the noble Viscount at the head of the Government for not exercising that superintendence over his Foreign Secretary which the interests of the country demanded. Probably, for the sake of keeping peace in the Cabinet, the noble Viscount had allowed his Foreign Secretary more licence than was permitted to himself in a former Cabinet, when the situations of the two noble Lords were reversed. This Article, as he read it, bound us, even in the event of war being imminent with the French, to permit them, up to the very day of war being declared, to export as much coal as they wished for the purpose of making war against us. If we were at war with any other nation this Article bound us to allow France to take as much coal as she pleased from any of our ports and dispose of it as she pleased to the other belligerent. And in the event of war between France and any other country we were bound not to use our neutral rights, but to permit the export of coal to go on, so that our colliers might run the risk of being captured by the cruisers of either belligerent, and we should have to submit to the insult or be dragged nolentes volentes into the war. He hoped the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary would give the House his interpretation of the Article at once, and not delay it until his speech on the Budget, when so many questions, political, commercial, and financial, would have to be discussed that the insignificant question of our national defences might be forgotten, perhaps, altogether. If the noble Lord did not give any explanation, or if the explanation were unsatisfactory, he should feel it his duty to submit a Resolution on the subject.


The objection taken by the hon. Gentleman to a certain part of the Commercial Treaty does not refer to commercial interests or trade regulations, but to its effect on our political relations with France. I believe that that Article, which has certainly met with a great deal of comment, was inserted in the Treaty without any political view. Our negotiators took no political view of the question, and the French Government have declared—indeed I fool assured—that they had no political view in agreeing to it. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps, is not aware that it is our general policy not to impose export duties. On this particular article Sir R. Peel proposed an export duty, in which I supported him, and it met with the concurrence of this House, but it excited such great discontent in the country, as being opposed to the principles of trade, that in the following year he remitted it. Our general policy, therefore, is in favour of not imposing export duties and not preventing the export of coal. The hon. Gentleman, I suppose, would wish to have a power reserved of prohibiting the export of coal to France, either while it is exported to other countries, or else a general prohibition. But a general prohibition would be opposed to the interests of a large number of our countrymen; and the export of coal increases so much from year to year that no Minister would be able to carry such, a proposition. Well, if you cannot have a general prohibition, to make a special prohibition in the case of France might be held of itself to be a symptom of hostile relations with that country—an indication of your intention to go to war before any long time; and you would give France the right of asking what your intentions were, and whether you meant to go to war with her or not. In fact, apart from all questions of the Treaty, you could hardly venture on such a measure unless you meant to place yourselves in a hostile position towards France. But the hon. Gentleman will say that if that is the general policy of this country it is still unnecessary to make your exports a subject of treaty. But, perhaps, he is not aware that stipulations with regard to exports do not first appear in this Treaty which he says Earl Cowley and Mr. Cobden have negotiated without sufficient attention and which I have too carelessly ratified. A treaty was concluded not long ago with Russia under the direction of the Earl of Malmesbury, by an Article in which we agree not to forbid exports of any particular article to Russia unless we also forbid them to all other countries. Coal comes under that provision, and therefore we have already existing an agreement with Russia, sanctioned by the Earl of Malmesbury, not to prohibit the export of coal unless we prohibit it to all other countries. And yet we are quite as likely to go to war with Russia as with France. For the last forty-five years we have not been in a state of hostility with France, but we have been with Russia. But even if there were no 11th Article in the Treaty, by the "most favoured nation clause" we should be compelled, while we allowed the export of coal to the United States, Spain, or any other country, not to prohibit its export to France. We should have to choose between stopping the trade altogether or permitting it to France as well as to all other countries. This being the state of the case I think it is quite a delusion to attach any great importance to this article. It is an article in favour of a branch of our export trade which is of great importance, and which it is our interest to continue; and I cannot see that the Treaty in the least affects any practical interests. The hon. Gentleman says we may some day be on the brink of war with France, and what would happen then? No doubt, in the present state of steam navigation coal is an article of great importance in war; but there is another article which has lately become of much more importance—rifled ordnance. We were informed in the course of the autumn that very considerable orders had been received in this country for rifled cannon. How absurd it would be to allow rifled cannon to go into France at the moment we were prohibiting the exportation of coal to the same country! The fact is that when we come to a state of approaching hostilities there will be an end of commercial treaties, and we shall unquestionably take whatever measures we may deem necessary for our own security. In 1793 complaint was made that the Treaty of 1786, which has been mentioned to-night, was violated by the British Government in prohibiting the exportation of wheat. What was the answer made to that complaint? Mr. Dundas said, "I am perfectly aware of everything you say, but we were about to go to war. My object was to distress the Power which was likely to be our enemy, and, therefore, I prohibited the exportation of wheat as measure of defence." So, in like manner, the present Treaty is intended for a time of peace. The hon. Gentleman may not value peace. [Cries of" Oh, oh!"] I have no wish to use any harsh expression, but the hon. Gentleman seemed to think himself at liberty to cast reflections upon me. The object of the present Treaty, I repeat, is to maintain relations of commerce while we are at peace with France. If, unfor- tunately, we should ever approach the brink of war we shall take measures to protect ourselves, and the 11th Article of the Treaty will assuredly not prevent our doing so, any more than the treaty made with Russia last year would prevent our prohibiting the exportation of contraband of war and warlike munitions to Russia in the event of an impending war with that country. Such is my answer to the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the 11th Article of the Treaty has no such importance as he supposes. It was not considered when the Treaty was negotiated to have that bearing which is now attempted to be given to it. The same obligations would be imposed by the article relating to the most favoured nations, and therefore the objections of the hon. Gentleman are entirely destitute of force.


The importance of the subject now under discussion cannot, I think, be overrated. The noble Lord has, I venture to state, entirely misapprehended the question. There is no controversy, I apprehend, on either side of the House, as to the policy of export duties. I have not heard any person say he hoped the time would come when an export duty, even on the article of coal, would be a desirable duty. The question before us is an infinitely more serious one than the comparatively trifling question of export duties. What are the powers at present possessed by the Executive Government with respect to the exportation of coal? They are defined by Act of Parliament; they have been conferred upon the Crown by an Act of the Imperial Legislature, and no later than 1853, when many noble Lords and right hon. Gentlemen opposite were themselves in office, they were given in these words:— The following goods may, by proclamation or order in Council, be prohibited either to be exported or carried coastwise:—Arms, ammunition, gunpowder, military and naval stores, and any articles which Her Majesty may judge capable of being converted into or made useful in increasing the quantity of military or naval stores or provisions. There is here, therefore, a power granted to the Crown by Parliament, on any emergency of the State, of prohibiting the exportation to any place, or to all places, of anything which can be converted into military or naval stores. 0 course coal is, above all other things, the article now which can not only be converted into naval stores, but without which any other naval store would be comparatively immaterial and useless. I apprehend that, as a matter of constitutional law, there can be no doubt that the power thus committed to the Crown to be exercised for the benefit of the State is a power which it is not in the right of any British Minister or Government to advise the Crown to surrender or part with for either ten years or the space of one year. I mean, of course, without the consent of that Parliament which has bestowed the power. But the noble Lord says, "You are talking about war with France. In the first place, we do not expect to go to war with France; and, in the next, if we did, we should put an end to the Treaty altogether." The noble Lord adds, moreover, that we could not prohibit the exportation of coal to France without prohibiting it to all other countries. But the question is not war with France— it is war with any country on the face of the globe. Here is a power given to the Crown to be exercised by the responsible advisers of the Crown, in the event of war either actually declared or imminent, with any country in the world, to prohibit at once by proclamation or order in Council the exportation of coal to the whole universe. What then will be the consequence of the 11th Article of the Treaty? It is not an Article by which the Crown engages not to prohibit the exportation of coal to France, but an Article by which the two high contracting Powers engage not to prohibit the exportation of coal to any place whatever. If the Treaty obtains the assent which it requires, the consequence will be that the power of the Crown to prohibit the exportation of coal to any country whatever will be terminated. We do not desire to put even hypothetically the case of the country being at war, but let us so far do violence to our feelings as to suppose that we were at war with Russia or the United States. What is the power which the Government at present possess? The Minister of the day can advise the Crown, by order in Council, to prohibit the exportation of coal to any country in the world. But now we are asked to come under an obligation with one country— namely, with France—by which we should tie our hands with respect to the power we already possess as regards every country on the face of the earth. The noble Lord has cited the treaty with Russia. What does that treaty say, according to the statement of the noble Lord himself? I understand from him — for I have not had time to refer to the treaty—that there is a clause by which we engage not to prohibit the exportation of coal to Russia without prohibiting it at the same time to all the world. I believe that is a reasonable clause, and one which does not interfere with the general power of the Crown. All the Crown has to do in consequence of the Russian treaty is to exercise the power which it already possesses of prohibiting the exportation of coal entirely. No one can suppose that any Government would be so foolish as to frame an order in Council which, upon the ground that we wanted to prevent America being supplied with our coal, should merely prohibit its exportation to that country. The exportation would be prohibited to all the world, and that is the power which the Crown possesses at present Exclude one country from the prohibition, and the whole world will be able to obtain coal. Here, then, is a question deserving the serious consideration of Parliament. The present is not a fitting opportunity for discussing it fully, but I want some information from the noble Lord. We are asked to go into Committee upon Monday next with the view of repealing the wine and spirit duties, and duties on manufactured goods, under the Treaty with France. The Resolutions which have been prepared expressly state that it is in consequence of the Treaty we are asked to repeal those duties. Suppose the House agrees to the propositions of the Government, I presume the consent of Parliament is to be taken in some shape or other to the 11th Article of the Treaty. I do not believe that any Minister can be found who would advise the Crown to surrender a power conferred by Parliament for the public good without the assent of that Parliament which has given the power. By Parliament I mean, of course, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Suppose, then, we repeal the duties and afterwards refuse to surrender the power of prohibiting the exportation of coal. What would be our position then? The Emperor of the French may say, "I, as one of the contracting parties, am prepared to accept the Treaty as a whole; but you cannot get the assent of Parliament to an important clause, and therefore I refuse to go further in the matter." We are told by the noble Lord that the 11th clause was not intended as a political clause; but, at all events, it was regarded as a clause of some importance. I do not think it was of much importance to us to obtain a promise from the Emperor of the French that he would not prohibit the exportation of coal. The importance, therefore, was to the Emperor of the French to bind us not to prohibit the exportation of English coal either to France or to countries from which she could procure it. What would he our position if the Emperor, under the circumstances I have suggested, were to decline to accept the Treaty? In the meantime we should have repealed our duties, because we all know that the passing of Resolutions upon the Customs Acts is, for all practical purposes, an immediate repeal of duties. By so doing we should have placed these trades, and all those dependent on them, in a position from which it will be difficult to extricate them. I want to ask, therefore, whether the Government intend to take the assent of Parliament to the 11th section of the Treaty; and, if so, whether they have any assurance from the Emperor of the French that he will accept the Treaty without that section which Parliament may refuse to sanction. If they have no such assurance, and if they fail to obtain the assent of Parliament to the 11th Article, will they be prepared to ask us to rescind those Resolutions for the repeal or modification of duties which in the meantime we may have passed? We are entitled to have these questions answered. It is idle to discuss the Articles of the Treaty, or the propriety of dealing with certain duties, until we know that our discussion will not be altogether purposeless and nugatory.


I cannot suppose that the hon. and learned Gentleman imagines that Resolutions of this House, so far as the levying of duties is concerned, have the power of an Act of Parliament.


I said, "For all practical purposes"—using the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his letter published in the newspapers to-day.


I cannot conceive that any one, especially a constitutional lawyer, can suppose that, should Parliament be prorogued without any Bill being passed to alter these duties, a mere Resolution of this House could effect them. Should that be the case, the whole matter would fall to the ground, and the duties would not be reduced. The other questions of the hon. and learned Gentleman I may have occasion to answer on a later day.


said, that in pressing on the consideration of the Army Estimates which had only been delivered to hon. Members on Wednesday last, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War was treating the House with great disrespect. These Estimates were larger than any that had ever before been submitted to Parliament in a time of peace, and would provide for a force in this country, including militia, yeomanry, constabulary, and rifle volunteers (a most important force), of 267,000 fighting men. With the navy which had been already voted he did not believe that any number of foreign troops could ever land upon these shores which would require one-tenth of that force to dispose of them. Moreover, the Estimates were composed of between 2,000 and 3,000 items, and therefore required most attentive and careful consideration.


said, he wished to state, in answer to a question of an hon. Member opposite (Mr. Darby Griffith), that the Commander-in-Chief had had under his consideration the subject of assaults committed by soldiers with their belts, and intended to deprive any badly-conducted man of that portion of his accoutrements. He also purposed to put in operation a military police, which had been attended with great success in some of our large garrison towns, and which it was hoped would put an end to all complaints.

Motion agreed to.