HC Deb 14 March 1864 vol 173 cc1939-42

said, he did not rise to put the Question with reference to Denmark, of which he had given notice, but to complain of the bitter manner in which the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) had put his Question with reference to America, which rendered it necessary for the noble Lord at the head of the Government to answer him at once, and precluded him, by the forms of the House, from answering any other Question. The hon. Member for Sheffield was never. remarkable for his courtesy or consideration for others; and he (Mr. Griffith) should, under the circumstances, take another opportunity of asking his Question?


said, he would beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury, with reference to the detention of the Danish Iron-clad in the Clyde, Whether, following the course adopted at the commencement of the Italian War and at the outbreak of the American Rebellion, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to advise the issue of a Royal Proclamation in regard to the Danish war? There was no doubt, he said, of the fact of war. Whatever character might be applied to Federal execution in Holstein, the moment the German Powers invaded Schleswig a state of war ensued between Denmark and those Powers; and in order to set the matter entirely at rest the invasion of Jutland completed the position of war. What, then, was our condition? We were not a belligerent. Were we neutral? Until the proclamation issued we could scarcely be said to be neutral. We might be termed quasi-neutral. How could we ascertain our exact position? The best way was by listening to the utterances of the responsible Ministers of the Crown. Those utterances were neither feeble nor ambiguous. They were told by the noble Lord at the head of the Government that the invasion of Jutland was an aggravated outrage on the part of the great German Powers. Arguing from such language they could only come to the conclusion, upon the grounds of a pretty wide induction, that Her Majesty's Government were animated with the most pacific intentions, and had not the least possible intention of going to war in favour of Denmark. If that was the case, why was there delay in issuing a Proclamation such as was issued at the commencement of the Italian war and at the outbreak of the American hostilities? It had been suggested that Her Majesty's Government, having taken Denmark under their protection, and having in despatches made use of threatening language towards Germany, it would be rather a tame conclusion to allow all their ardour to evaporate in a Proclamation of neutrality. That argument betokened a sense of honourable shame and an appreciation of the ridiculous on the part of Her Majesty's Government. There were still more important considerations, however, which ought to outweigh such considerations as those. The country had become rather accustomed to this kind of conclusion of diplomatic negotiations. We had a negotiation with Russia conducted on a large scale. It was ushered in with pomp and circumstance. There was a good deal of threatening language, and consequences were denounced against Russia if she did not take the advice of the English Minister. The advice of the English Minister was neglected, and the only consequence was the writing a short, pithy, and sarcastic note. The country would not, therefore, be particularly shocked if the Dano-German negotiation ended in a Proclamation of neutrality. There were important reasons why the Proclamation should be issued. The noble Lord the Foreign Secretary was rich and fruitful in expedients. When one expedient failed he was never at a loss for another. What guarantee was there that when he had utterly failed in the attempt to coerce and threaten Germany he might not turn round and threaten Denmark—and what security was there that the Channel Fleet, as to the destination of which the Secretary to the Admiralty knew nothing the other night, might not be sent to Copenhagen to assist our German allies. There might be grave reasons why such a Proclamation should not be issued. But it was right to inquire of Her Majesty's Government what those reasons were, in order to know what was the position of this country; whether we were neutral or not, and whether we intended or did not intend to remain neutral. It might be said that the war was not likely to last long. Every one must hope for the calamity of war to pass away; but there was no ground for expecting that this would not last the average duration of wars, or even be dragged out beyond the average. The noble Lord seemed to think the Conference would settle the matter. But till the Conference had taken place the matter could not be settled. As it had always been customary for the Government of this country to issue a Proclamation of neutrality, he hoped the Government would tell the House whether it was their intention to issue one in reference to this war; and, if not, upon what grounds they did not issue it.


The hon. Member has proposed to the Government a question so unusual that I cannot think that he is serious in asking it. I rather suppose, from the tone of the speech which he has addressed to the House, that he desires to take the opportunity of making by anticipation some remarks which, no doubt, will be enlarged when the subject of Denmark comes to be discussed. At the same time, the respect we feel for the hon. Member makes us think it right to give some answer to the hon. Member, and the answer is simply this:—It has never been the custom to issue Proclamations of neutrality in any case in which Her Majesty's Government have felt that they have a deep interest involved, pending negotiations which may or may not have the result of calling for action on the part of Her Majesty's Government. In this case, as the House is aware, questions to which Her Majesty's Government is a party by treaty are, or may be, involved in negotiations pending; and Her Majesty's Government, with a deep solicitude, are watching the course of events, and using their utmost exertions to promote that issue which is for the general interest of Europe, Denmark, and this country. Under these circumstances, it is absolutely necessary that Her Majesty's Government should reserve to themselves the power of taking any course which the honour of Great Britain and Europe may require. Therefore, to issue a Proclamation of neutrality, which, is a declaration that you will remain neutral during the course of a war, whatever eventualities that war may involve, would be a most undignified and inconsistent course.

Motion agreed to.