HC Deb 24 April 1873 vol 215 cc896-9

asked the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether, inasmuch as it appears from the opinion given by the Law Officers of the Crown to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that the law is neither sufficiently clear nor strong enough to enable the Government to prevent persons in this Country from inviting and collecting voluntary contributions of money and materials to be employed in fomenting civil war in Spain, he will apply to Parliament to pass an Act conferring power on the Government to put a stop to proceedings which are calculated to disturb the friendly relations so long existing between this Country and Spain, and which may give rise to claims analogous to those recently preferred by America and admitted by this Country, although, in the opinion of our Government, they rested only on the omission of acts to the performance of which we were not bound by International Law?


The Question, Sir, which has been put to me by my hon. Friend touches a subject of very great delicacy and of very great difficulty, as well as of very great importance, and I felt the difficulty before, when, in giving a very short answer to a Question upon the same subject, I conveyed my reply in terms perhaps too sharply defined. The state of the law was then generally described as we are advised it exists. There has been since that time some public discussion adverting to the fact that the view of the law, or at least the verbal expression of that view, has not at all times been quite uniform on the part of the various Law Officers of the Crown, and in particular reference has been made to an opinion given by the Law Officers in the time of Mr. Canning with reference to certain subscriptions which were then being levied, I think, for purposes connected with the very same country which has afforded my hon. Friend the occasion of his Question. Generally, the opinion given then was to the effect that that proceeding was not according to law; but it was limited in an important manner by two qualifications, which I quote from the documents of the period. The first of these was that a foreign Government would not, in the opinion of the Law Officers of 1823, be entitled to consider such a subscription as constituting any act of hostility on the part of the British Government; and the second referred to that which is really the practical question in the matter, much more than an abstract inquiry about legality—namely, the possibility of repressing by prosecution. The Law Officers of that date advised that it was not likely such a measure as an indictment founded upon this subscription would be successful; and I believe they could not find that at any period an attempt to bring home an offence, if offence there be, by indictment had been made. That may be enough to say on the subject of variation, if there be a variation, of opinion. I said on the former occasion that it was of course impossible for us to go beyond the law. If my hon. Friend asks me whether I state that simply as wishing it to be understood that we look with approval or indifference upon subscriptions of this kind, I venture to say to him that that is as far as possible from being the case. Subscriptions of this kind, in the present instance perhaps very particularly, but also as a general rule, are in our judgment open to great objections—first of all, because they tend to create causes either of complaint or of estrangement between friendly Governments; and, secondly, because they sometimes have the effect of grossly misleading the opinion of Europe, or of many portions of Europe, as to the state of opinion in this country. For instance, we are given to understand in this particular case that many persons in Europe have been led to believe, in consequence of the fact that an advertisement has appeared in some newspaper calling for subscriptions to support the Carlist rising in Spain against the Government which is, at all event provisionally, in a certain sense, established, that on that account the feeling of the British Government and of the British nation is favourable to such rising. I believe there could not possibly be a grosser error. The desire of this country is always that the peace of foreign countries may, if possible, be preserved; and on this occasion I am quite sure, with perhaps the exception of some small minority, the people of this country regard with very great aversion the bloodshed which has been caused in Spain in connection with this rising as an aggra- vation of the political difficulties of the country. And. the raising of a mere handful of money, perfectly insignificant in reference to the question, does thus become the cause of very serious mischief. I have now, so far as we are justified, expressed our opinion on the subject; and with regard to the practical question I can truly say, although we were advised that the simple act of contributing or asking for subscriptions did not of itself constitute a punishable offence, it was by no means intended to go so far as to say there were no circumstances under which subscriptions of that kind might be taken notice of in proceedings at law, and might form part of the subject matter for the cognizance of a Court. As far as the views and intentions of the Government are concerned, my hon. Friend knows very well that, independently of the offences which have been created by a Statute, there is a general principle of Common Law in the country applicable to the duty of a subject of this country, which requires him to respect the peace of the dominions of a Power with which Her Majesty is at amity; and whenever information is given to the Government, or obtained by the Government, from which there may appear to be any reasonable ground of expectation that an indictment for an unlawful conspiracy to aid in an invasion or in the disturbance of the peace of a foreign country with which Her Majesty was at amity—whether it be by the contribution of money for the purpose or in any other manner,—whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that such an indictment can be maintained, then would be the time when Her Majesty's Government would think it their duty and would be perfectly prepared to vindicate the law of the country. With regard to the alteration of the law, that is a very serious matter. An alteration of the state of the law raises many important considerations, two of which are these—first, we have recently been engaged in a very solemn and deliberate proceeding with reference to the re-casting of the Foreign Enlistment Act, and my hon. Friend, I am sure, will at once perceive it is not desirable that proceedings of that kind, or changes of that kind, should be made from day to day; they ought to be founded upon very grave considerations, and upon a very clear case, with a clear computation of the consequences to which they may lead. And, moreover, there is always the risk in cases of this kind of giving a factitious importance to things in themselves insignificant. I have gone somewhat beyond the limits of an answer to a Question, yet I am quite sensible that what I have said is a very inadequate statement upon a subject of very great importance and delicacy. I assure my hon. Friend, proceedings of this kind will be carefully watched by us. I hope he will not be surprised I cannot give a pledge to propose a definite alteration of the state of the law on the subject; but certainly attach great importance to the conviction which I entertain, and which we all entertain, that these proceedings are emphatically disapproved by the general and almost unanimous sentiments of the people of this country.