HC Deb 22 June 1860 vol 159 cc860-9

Before the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary replies, I shall be very glad to have the opportunity of putting a question to him; and, before doing so, I beg to thank the noble Lord for his kind consideration in being present, so as to be able to return an answer; and I hope it is an earnest that for the future the noble Lord will endeavour to be present in this House to defend the policy which the Government are following with respect to foreign affairs. I said last night, and I now take the opportunity of reiterating in presence of the noble Lord, that in my belief there is a general opinion throughout the country that the noble Lord is endeavouring to shirk the responsibility vested in him by the office the duties of which he has undertaken to discharge. It may not be the case, but such is my impression. We so seldom receive any information from the noble Lord with respect to foreign affairs that when any is obtained the feeling of the House generally, I think, is rather one of commiseration for the noble Lord at being any longer unable to conceal the intelligence than of gratification at the tidings which he has been obliged to con- vey. We have had some experience of the manner in which the noble Lord conducts his policy, and I am sorry to say that I conceive it to be far from satisfactory. For many months the noble Lord has had charge of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and I am bound to declare in my place in Parliament that I believe that policy to be both weak and vacillating. I recollect the noble Lord was sometimes very indignant with other Ministers when they did not pursue a straightforward policy. I remember perfectly well, when the noble Lord sat on these Benches, with what indignation, and how, with the mien of an exasperated patriot, he fulminated against my noble Friend the Prime Minister for what he called his mean and humiliating policy. I do not know whether the noble Lord recollects the expressions which he then made use of against the Prime Minister, but, if he does not, I will recall them to his memory. The House will recollect that in 1858 the noble Viscount now at the head of the Government introduced into this House a measure known as the Conspiracy Bill, which a large number of hon. Members, of whom I was one, from the first resisted most strenuously. The noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs was then sitting on the back benches, and, in a spirit of strong indignation—he was then, no doubt, anxious to replace his noble Friend—denounced the measure. The noble Lord, on the occasion to which I am alluding (the 9th of February, 1858), said—for the noble Lord at that time was very violent against the Prime Minister, although matters have since been made up between them—that the Government yielded to a demand from France; that it was not a strong Government; that it was about to introduce a Bill which he should feel it a shame and a degradation to support. "Let those who will support it," said the noble Lord, "in that humiliation I, for one, will not share." Loud cheers followed that announcement, and, of course, the noble Lord obtained credit throughout the country for being a very spirited and exasperated patriot. I must, however, say that I am afraid the noble Lord's present policy is very shameful and humiliating to the nation. The despatch which, if what I read in the newspapers be correct, has just reached the noble Lord from M. Thouvenel I look upon as an insult to us and our councils in the eyes of the nations of Europe, and as degrading to the prestige and character of England. M. Thouvenel appeals to the good faith of the policy of France, and says that, although the Court of France asks Europe to sanction the act of annexation which has just received its final consummation, yet that the Court of the Tuileries will not consent to any lessening of the Savoyard territory in favour of Switzerland. Now, I regard this, after the repeated declarations which have been made on the subject by the French Emperor, as a most serious and dangerous position of affairs. Upon three separate occasions—the 10th of February, the 1st of March, and then on the 6th of the same month—distinct assurances were given on the part of France that the Powers of Europe would be consulted before the contemplated annexation was carried into effect. Now, the expressions used were very singular, and if any faith is to be placed in the statements of public men, some importance ought to be attached to the report which on the 10th of February last was made by Earl Cowley to the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, when he wrote as follows:— I saw the Emperor yesterday, and had some conversation with him on the subject of the annexation of Savoy. The Emperor entirely disclaimed all intention of proceeding to make the annexation without consulting the great Powers. I asked His Majesty if I might repeat this assurance to your Lordship, and permission to do so was most graciously and cordially given. Now, that word "cordially" seems to me to possess a charming piquancy, because the Emperor of the French must have known perfectly well that when he gave the assurance in question he did not mean to act upon it. There is also another despatch, No. 17 in the books, in which Earl Cowley says that M. Thouvenel had again t assured him that the Emperor intended to abide by the statement which I have just mentioned. On the 6th of March the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs wrote to Earl Cowley in the following terms:— I wish your Lordship to ascertain from M. Thouvenel in what manner the promise of the Emperor that the great Powers of Europe shall be consulted is to be carried into effect. Now, I wish the House to bear in mind that from the date of that despatch—the 6th of March—to the 21st of June, no answer whatever to that question, with respect to which the noble Lord expressed a wish an explanation should be obtained by Earl Cowley, has been returned. That is, I contend, a very lax way of conducting the foreign affairs of the country, particularly in reference to a question affecting in so important a degree a State whose neutrality England as well as the six other great Powers of Europe had guaranteed. I will not at the present moment enter into a full consideration of this question, because I believe we shall at a future time be furnished with an opportunity of having with respect to it ample discussion. I cannot, however, allow this day to pass without entering, in the name, I will not say of Switzerland, but of every man who is desirous of seeing the principles of honour observed in the conduct of public affairs, my protest against the policy which the Emperor of the French has in this matter pursued. We must recollect that the neutrality of Switzerland is absolutely at an end from the present moment. The Cantons de Vaud and the Genevois can no longer deliberate in safety. Not only was the neutrality of Switzerland guaranteed by the great Powers, but it was distinctly laid down no troops whatever should enter into the neutralized province of Savoy, whereas, under present circumstances, not only are the troops at Chambery, but the Pont de Beauvoisin, St. Jean de Maurienne, Albeville, and Moutier will forthwith receive detachments. On the other hand, troops are going to Annecy, which is situated in the neutralized provinces. The garrison of Annecy will furnish detachments to Thonon and Evian, on the Lake of Geneva, in the Chablais, at Bonneville in Faucigny, and at St. Julien, the principal military station in the Genevois; so that you will have troops in that very district in which their maintenance is strictly opposed to treaty engagements and inconsistent with the due protection of Switzerland. There are troops on the very limits of the Lake of Geneva in direct opposition to the distinct understanding of treaties, and the distinct and reiterated protests of the Republic of Switzerland.

I would ask the House, in dealing with this question, not to lose sight of the important fact that the King of Sardinia, when the Treaty of Turin was framed,—base and iniquitous as it was on his part,—to sacrifice what I may call the berceau of his family, distinctly stated that, although he assented to the cession of Savoy to France, yet Sardinia reserved to Switzerland her co-operation in the steps to be taken on the subject of the neutralized provinces. Now, without entering more at length into the question, I maintain that Switzerland has not been consulted in this matter, and that if the Government of this country have been consulted, they have given an opinion with respect to it without the consent of the House of Commons. I believe I am in a position to state positively, and upon high and important authority, that in the month of February an offer was made to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs to the effect that France was prepared to cede those portions of territory adjoining the Lake of Geneva, in the hope that by means of that proposal arrangements might be quietly made for the cession of the rest. Now, the cession of Nice and Lower Savoy to France is a matter which perhaps does not materially affect us. One Power may cede to another, there being a mutual understanding on the subject, a portion of her territory without an infringement of the laws of nations, but when such a course is taken with respect to a territory whose neutrality has been guaranteed by Seven Powers of Europe in a most sacred and solemn manner, as is the case with Faucigny, Chablais, and Genevois—I say it is degrading to the councils of this country, and an insult to the character of England, to allow such a policy to be carried out without entering against it a serious and determined protest in the name of the English people. I hope the noble Lord, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, will be able to stand up in his place to-night and to state that he has received no communication such as that to which I have alluded; but, in order to refresh his memory on the matter, I would refer him to a despatch written by Earl Cowley on the 9th of February, in which he distinctly tells the noble Lord that the Emperor of the French is prepared to cede the territory in question, in the hope that the annexation of Savoy and Nice might be amicably arranged. The noble Lord will find that passage in a long despatch of Earl Cowley, of the date I have mentioned. I regret that I have felt it to be my duty to trouble the House with these observations; but, as hon. Members are probably aware, I have been recently in the locality of which I am speaking; and I can assure those who have not, that we in this country can scarcely realize the feeling of the inhabitants of those provinces when they see an enemy at their gates, and their rights and liberties being wrested from their grasp. These people are brave, and love freedom. They are anxious to enjoy the popular institutions which they have; but they know perfectly well, from the teachings and experience of history, that the progress of France on that side of Geneva is fatal to their aspirations, and that if she once obtains possession of the Lake of Geneva—I do not say the independence and integrity of the Confederation will be greatly endangered, but its very existence will be absolutely and permanently annihilated. It was only last night that I saw at a meeting in the City of London the whole colony of Swiss over here, I myself, perhaps, being the only Englishman who was present on the occasion; and I can assure the House I could not help responding from my heart to the sentiments which animated those men, when they saw the standard of Switzerland floating over the chair of the president, and heard from the lips of their Minister that the greatest danger threatened their country. I addressed to them a few simple words, but I could not, I repeat, help feeling from my soul the greatest sympathy with those men—Savoyards and Swiss—whose rights are now, to my mind, permanently menaced by the cruel hypocrisy of France.


In answer to the question of the hon. Baronet, and to his statement that I was not here last night to answer questions, I believe I am generally in the House almost every day at a quarter past four o'clock. Perhaps the hon. Baronet himself is not here quite so frequently or so punctually as I am. Every one at all acquainted with the Foreign Office must know that at times questions arise of considerable urgency, which take up time at the very moment one is preparing to do some other business. It so happened yesterday, just as I was about to leave the Foreign Office to come down to this House, I was consulted by the Under Secretary of State on a question of great importance respecting papers to be laid before Parliament, and I remained discussing the matter with him till past the hour when questions are generally answered. The only question that was on the Notice Paper was that of the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlow (Sir John Acton) who has just spoken with respect to the Correspondence of 1856–7. That was not a very urgent matter, and I desired a notice to be sent to the hon. Baronet that he might have the papers if he would move an Address to the Crown, the form of Motion for which I also sent him. The hon. Baronet does not seem to have correctly understood that message; but he may move any day for the papers. It has taken some time to collect them, being parts of a correspondence with a former Secretary of State; but they are now in order, and the hon. Baronet can have them whenever he likes to move for them. With regard to the hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth, I can only say, if he has any question to ask which he thinks urgent with reference to Foreign Affairs, his correct course is to do as other Members do, and to give notice of his intention to put such a question. The hon. Member might have had the courtesy to send me a note to say that he was going to ask his question, and then I should certainly have endeavoured to attend in my place to answer it.

Well, omitting all matters relating to the Conspiracy Bill, which has hardly any bearing on any subject now before us, it appears that the hon. Baronet has seen a report in the newspapers that a note has been transmitted to us from M. Thouvenel, containing, among other things, a very strong hint that France would not submit to any diminution of the territory of which she is now in possession, namely Savoy and Nice. Sir, I could not have answered the hon. Baronet on that point yesterday, because I had then no knowledge of any note from M. Thouvenel; but at half-past three o'clock to-day I saw the French Ambassador, and he placed in my hands a copy of a French note; and as to any such intimation as that stated in the newspapers, namely, that France would not consent to any diminution of that territory, there is not a word of that kind in the whole despatch. The purport of the despatch is to this effect:—It is stated in the Treaty of Turin that France will come to an understanding with the other Powers of Europe with respect to the neutralized portions of Savoy; and, according to the view of the French Government, that understanding is to be arrived at by endeavouring to reconcile the Second Article of the Treaty of Turin with the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna. The French note then proceeds to say that this may be done in one of these three modes:—Either the Powers who signed the Treaty of Vienna may meet in conference with the French Foreign Minister, or identical notes may be exchanged, the French note stating that France is ready to take upon herself the whole of the obligations by which Sardinia has been bound during the time she held Savoy. And here I may mention, in answer to the question put to me by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. B. Cochrane), that the despatch says that France is ready to make this neutral territory part of the neutral territory of Switzerland in the same manner as Sardinia did. The third mode would be by leaving it to France and Switzerland to effect such a substitution for the former engagements as France and Switzerland might mutually agree upon. The note then goes on to say that if there should be a conference, most of the Powers have already said they think that Paris would be a convenient place in which to hold it, and that it should meet on the points I have mentioned. Such, Sir, is the substance of the note we have received only to-day; and of course Her Majesty's Government have not yet answered it. It remains for them to answer it in such terms as they may think it requires.

But it appears to me the whole question rests upon this,—that the Great Powers of Europe were willing to agree on a guarantee at this portion of Savoy being left neutral and to its being held like the other parts of the country by Sardinia. Sardinia was a State with whom the Allied Powers were ready to agree upon such terms, and they might, at all events, be quite sure, when they had engaged with Sardinia upon those terms, that Switzerland was safe and that these obligations would be binding upon Sardinia. But the case is very much changed when a great Power like France comes into possession of the territory that was held by Sardinia. And it is not the same thing—although it is so represented by France, and although, indeed the words are the same, the technical engagements exactly the same—for France to say, "We will undertake to fulfil the obligations of Sardinia, and to place this neutralized territory in the same position as it stood in before." That is the answer which we have urged more than once to this proposal. Really, the hon. Baronet, who speaks frequently and with great ability on these subjects, should endeavour to be more accurate; because, be it observed, the engagement of the Treaty is not that there should be no troops at any time in the neutralized provinces. On the contrary, the specific engagement is that the Sardinian troops, in the case of war with the neighbouring Powers, shall evacuate this neutralized territory, thereby implying very clearly that during peace the Sardinian troops are at liberty to occupy it. This, therefore, is the position of the question. We have an opinion—and it is a very decided opinion—as to the mode in which, supposing France to have obtained, as she has done already, the cession of Savoy. a substitute should be provided which would, as I believe, be an efficient substitute, and one that would be satisfactory to Switzerland, for the engagements which have hitherto subsisted. But I am sorry to say that at no time, in any of our discussions, has France shown any disposition to adopt that substitute which seems to us to be the only one which would be an equivalent, in point of efficiency, to the security which the Treaty of 1815 created. It would be impossible for us, therefore, to state that we shall be satisfied with or shall accept the Treaty of Turin as affording an equivalent security to Switzerland for that which she has previously enjoyed. I do not know whether the hon. Baronet really means to say that we should not have given any opinion on the subject without obtaining the sanction of this House. ["No, no," from Sir Robert Peel.] That is certainly not the usual way of carrying on such correspondence. The Cabinet must obtain the consent of the Crown to such despatches and communications as they may feel it their duty to prepare, and on afterwards presenting the papers to this House their authors must submit to any opinion which the House may think fit to pass upon them. In this case the papers are rather voluminous; but I hope very soon to place at least a portion of them, bringing the correspondence down to this time, upon the table. For France having now, according to her own view, accomplished the annexation, and French authorities and French troops having taken possession of Savoy and Nice, as far as that point is concerned we have at length reached the stage at which it is fitting to produce to this House the correspondence which has passed on the subject.

With respect to the offer to which the hon. Baronet alludes—namely, that the French Government would give up Chablais and Faucigny if we would consent to the cession of the rest of Savoy to France, I can only say that the French Government has never made any such offer to the British Government. I do not think it would have been becoming in us to accept it, if such an offer had been made to us. But what has taken place has been accurately represented by the hon. Baronet, that in the early part of February the Emperor of the French and his Ministers declared that they were ready to yield Chablais and Faucigny to Switzerland. But in a very short lime afterwards the Emperor declared to a deputation who went to Paris that he should not consent to what he called the dismemberment of Savoy, and that Chablais and Faucigny could not be separated from the rest of the annexed provinces. Earl Cowley spoke to the French Minister for Foreign Affairs on the subject, and was told that the Emperor had been willing—if the population of these territories had consented to such an arrangement—to cede them to Switzerland; but that there had been such a strong disinclination, and repugnance even, evinced to being parted from the rest of Savoy, that the Emperor found himself obliged not to proceed with that cession. Earl Cowley likewise said he did not think that the engagement to come to an understanding with the Powers of Europe had been fulfilled. M. Thouvenel stated that he thought Earl Cowley was not very reasonable, that all the other Power3 of Europe seemed to think the despatches which had been written by France were satisfactory on that point, and that the engagement had been amply fulfilled. I have now, Sir, answered the question of the hon. Baronet. The hon. Baronet, always presuming upon certain facts without ascertaining whether they are correct, goes on to make some comments. He says, that if the French Government have made a communication to us in the terms which he has seen in the newspapers, it is very insulting to the British Government, and ought to be protested against. But, as he is wrong in his facts, his inferences fall to the ground with them. The remaining question for the Government to consider, I must say, amounts to little more than this:—how we can best use our influence to maintain the neutrality of Switzerland, and whether there be any terms which Switzerland is likely to accept that can now be proposed. But if there be no such terms—if France offers nothing further than that she will undertake the same engagements towards Switzerland and towards Europe, which were undertaken by Sardinia, Her Majesty's Government can only say—and they will say so in the strongest and most formal manner—that they do not think the engagements of the 92nd Article of the Treaty of Vienna, and the 2nd Article of the Treaty of Turin, can in that way be reconciled.