HC Deb 08 February 1864 vol 173 cc219-22

said, that he did not rise for the purpose of opposing the granting supply to her Majesty, but to do what was almost as difficult a task —that of obtaining a direct answer to a question put to the Treasury bench. On a very recent occasion he put two questions to the noble Lord at the head of the Government, and he was not fortunate enough to be able to extract an answer. The first question which he put was with reference to what, he admitted, was only a rumour, but one which from the best information he could obtain had so much foundation that, if true, he was sure it would fill not only the House but the country generally with astonishment and consternation; and he, therefore, took the earliest oppor- tunity of endeavouring to obtain a denial of its correctness. The rumour to which he referred was that it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to propose a reduction of the military establishments of the country, and not only did the rumour say that such was the intention of the Government, but it went on to say that the proposed reduction was in the artillery force. So far as he could learn, there was no military man in that House who would not admit that the artillery force was the branch which required the longest time to bring to a state of efficiency, and therefore it was the one which it was the most inexpedient to reduce. But without going into details of that kind, the first question he had to ask was, Whether or not, in the critical aspect of affairs in Europe, it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to make any reduction in the military forces? The second question, which he also put on a former occasion, was of a more comprehensive character, and one which the noble Lord would probably tell him must be answered by the progress of events. There might be some truth in that view of the case if the noble Lord thought fit to urge it. It was in the recollection of the House, that in the course of the present Session discussions had taken place as to whether it was the duty of this country, either on a point of honour or interest, to embark in the struggle now going on in Denmark. The noble Lord had given them no information on that subject, nor had he thought right to assure them that there was no probability or no possibility of the country being involved in war. They were therefore bound to assume that circumstances might occur which, in the opinion of the noble Lord and his Cabinet, would compel them to embark this country in war. With such a probability hanging over them he was justified in asking the noble Lord whether, in his opinion, the military force in the country was such as in reason and common sense would justify our embarking in such an undertaking? It might be said that in all foreign countries armies were on a peace establishment, but they could be raised to a war strength in a few days; whereas with us it took months, almost years, to make up the war establishment. Remembering the enormous sacrifices of men and money entailed upon us during the Crimean war by our utter want of preparation, he hoped the noble Lord would declare that such an event was not likely to occur again. He was aware of the weight attaching to the noble Lord's opinion, but if it should differ from his own, it would give him and others the opportunity of raising the question on some future occasion.


—Sir, I think that the first question which the hon. Gentleman has asked me might as well have been postponed for a day or two, until the Army and Navy Estimates are laid upon the Table, because they will show what is the amount of military and naval force which Her Majesty's Government think it expedient and proper to ask the House to vote for the present year, But I can so far assure the hon Gentleman that the consternation which seems to have pressed so much upon his mind, arising from the notion that there is to be a great reduction of our naval and military force, may be dispelled. Because, although we hope to make some reduction in the charges connected with the army and navy, there will be no material reduction of military force, beyond that which is the natural consequence of the transfer of the Ionian Islands to the kingdom of Greece. With regard to the other part of the question, which calls upon me to perform the part of a prophet, I really must decline that office. I am very sorry I cannot give him a plain and positive answer, such as he desires. But it is not the habit, and it is very undesirable that it ever should be the habit, of Her Majesty's Government to state prospectively what course they will advise the Crown or this House to sanction under circumstances which have not yet happened. The future is a closed book, and those who attempt to read it very often find themselves mistaken in their interpretation. But I am quite persuaded that if, under any circumstances, it should be the opinion of the Government, supported by Parliament and the country, that any great effort should be made, either military or naval, the resources of the country and the spirit of the country will never be found unequal to the occasion. And, therefore, the hon. Gentleman may rest confident, that whatever future circumstances may require, the country will be always able to find the means of answering those requirements. But I must decline stating what the course of Her Majesty's Government will be with regard to events which have not yet happened. We are perfectly free, and shall remain so, but, of course, it will be the duty of the responsible advisers of the Crown to form an opinion upon matters when they arise, and not before they arise.

Motion agreed to; Committee thereupon To-morrow.