HC Deb 03 July 1876 vol 230 cc873-85

I beg, Sir, to give Notice of a Question which I intend to bring on to-morrow at any time of the day or night that I may obtain an opportunity of doing so. As the matter is one of transcendant importance, and as the Leaders of this House have not thought proper to take any immediate action in regard to it, I ask the indulgence of the House while I make a brief statement, and to put myself in Order I will move the Adjournment of the House.


intimated that the hon. Member could not enter upon any debate upon giving Notice of a Question.


I shall conclude with a Motion.


rose to Order and submitted that the hon. Member could not make a speech upon giving Notice of a Motion.


I must hear what the hon. Member has to say before I can decide whether he is out of Order or not.


The news that has been received in this country within the last few hours has created every where the greatest anxiety, and I believe I am not incorrect in stating that the anxiety in the country outside is very great indeed as to the course likely to be pursued by Her Majesty's Government with relation to the affairs of Turkey. I also believe I express the feeling of hon. Members on both sides of the House when I say that whatever our opinions may be as to the policy pursued by Her Majesty's Government, we feel that matters are so serious, and have arrived at such a crisis, that we are entitled to ask the Government for some further and more real explanation than has been promised to us this afternoon. I have carefully followed the course of affairs, and up to this present moment, so far as I am able to judge from the information that has been received by the papers, I am prepared to say that I think that the Government have pursued a course that I could support. [Murmurs.] That, perhaps, is the greater reason why I shall now be allowed to say


rose to Order. He wished to know whether it was not an evasion of the Rules of the House to get up a discussion upon such an important question, and make a statement without Notice?


The hon. Member says that he intends to conclude with a Motion, and I cannot say that he is out of Order, though the course which he proposes to pursue, no doubt, is highly inconvenient. The hon. Member stated that he proposes to give Notice of a Question for to-morrow, as I understood, and he cannot at the same time do that, and move the Adjournment of the House.


I propose, Sir, to follow the course that you have indicated and to keep strictly within the rules of Order, but I appeal to the House, for I believe it will, upon consideration of the facts, come to the conclusion that we are at this moment placed in one of the most tremendous crises that has occurred in Europe during this century. Is it improper then for an independent Member to ask leave, in such circumstances, to make a brief statement? I think I shall be able at the proper time to show that the grounds on which I am acting are not altogether insufficient, but the only thing to which I wish to allude at this moment is this. The correspondence that has been sent to the public Press this morning contains a statement of the utmost importance. The news comes from Vienna—


I rise to Order. The hon. Member commenced by giving a Notice of Motion which he has not yet withdrawn, and I appeal to you, Sir, whether he is entitled to raise a discussion of this kind in this irregular way.


I am sure the noble Lord is aware I am pursuing a course that is strictly in Order. I am not now going to give Notice of my Question. ["Move now!"] I have stated that I will conclude with a Motion, and I would not ask the House to listen to me if I did not feel that I was acting under a deep sense of responsibility. It is stated in the public Press this morning that Her Majesty's Government were at this moment in direct negotiations with Russia with reference to the action to be taken with regard to the affairs of Turkey; and that two alternative propositions had been submitted. It is stated that— Already last year Russia favoured the idea of giving an autonomy to these Provinces similar to that enjoyed by Servia and Roumania, and in the negotiations which have been going on of late with. England this idea which had been abandoned has been revived by Russia. There seems to be no objection to the idea of such autonomy on the part of the British Go- vernment. On the contrary, it was accepted conditionally as an eventful mode of solution. As before, so now, the view of the British Government is that the Turks ought to be allowed time and full freedom to carry out the pacification, if need be, by armed force, and only, if they should not succeed in mastering the insurrection with all its possible ramifications, then the Powers should step in and propose an arrangement on the basis of giving autonomy to these Provinces. The course Her Majesty's Government appeared to favour was that the Turks ought to be allowed to carry out their policy, if need be, by armed force. Now, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that whereas we have from Her Majesty's Government no authoritative statement of the course which they are pursuing at this moment, it appears to be known in Vienna and is authoritatively stated in the Press of this country. I therefore feel justified in calling attention to the fact and in asking Her Majesty's Government if they are prepared to give us fuller and further information. With the permission of the House I will withdraw the Motion for Adjournment.


I informed the hon. Member that he was quite irregular in what he was doing unless he concluded with a Motion, and he said he would do so, but now he informs the House that he does not propose to make that Motion. ["Move!"]


If in consequence of my unacquaintance with the Rules of the House I have inadvertently, in my desire to save time, committed an error, I hope that both sides of the House will forgive me. ["Move, move!"] I move that this House do now adjourn.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Edward Jenkins.)


Sir, in answer to she noble Lord opposite (the Marquess of Hartington) I promised the House cheerfully, on the part of the Government, that the proper time having now arrived—namely, the conclusion of these negotiations, which both sides of the House agreed it was but fair that the Sultan should have a fair chance of carrying out—the Government would lay the Papers upon the Table of the House, and they are now prepared to do so with the utmost promptitude possible. When these Papers are laid before the House and read dispassionately, I have no doubt the House will come to a wise conclusion upon them; but, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, and for the general interests of the country, I must express a hope that the opinion of the House will be formed upon the authentic documents which, upon the responsibility of the Government, are placed upon the Table of the House and submitted to the consideration of hon. Members, and not upon anonymous articles in the papers from the pens of "Our own Correspondents, "who are now sprinkled over all the capitals of Europe. I could not collect, on account of the murmur in the House, exactly what the statement was which the hon. Member read, but I heard some opinions imputed to the Government as their matured policy, and I heard them for the first time. Part of what I did hear appeared to be too ridiculous for belief, though it may have been founded on the gossip which is always circulating wherever diplomatic proceedings are being carried on. I put it to the House that there is no wish on the part of the Government to conceal anything from the House, except what they believe it is for the public interest that reserve should be maintained. We have arrived at a period in these transactions when, with scarcely an exception, we can place before the House the Papers that have been exchanged between the different Courts. Having before it the authentic documents, for which the Government is responsible, the House will be in a position to form an opinion, and all I ask the House is that they will form their opinions from such documents offered on such responsibility, and not from anonymous articles in the newspapers.


said, he thought hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House were inclined to deal hardly with the hon. Member for Dundee. They had heard from the right hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth (Sir Robert Peel) that he had been in the House 30 years; but he (Mr. Bright) had been a Member for even a longer time, and he remembered scores of instances in which, on some emergency, hon. Members on both sides had moved the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of bringing forward a specific question. If ever there was a case in which it might be excused, or, at least, justified, it was the occasion which now presented itself. He was not going to blame the right hon. Gentleman or his Colleagues for not having stated all that had transpired between the Powers with reference to this great question; but he thought that when, as somebody said the other night, the Session was nearly at its close—that in about a month from that time those benches would be very thinly occupied—that these Papers, which were said to be very voluminous, would not be laid upon the Table of the House for a week, or probably a fortnight—that then there would be very little time left to discuss them. He should have been very glad if the right hon. Gentleman had communicated something himself to the House. He knew all about it. He knew how great must be the anxiety in the country with regard to it, and he could, in a quarter of an hour or less, tell the House and the country probably everything they wished to know. For instance, he could tell them how it was that, having agreed to the Andrassy Note, the Government thought it necessary not to agree to the Berlin Note. He made no charge against the Government, neither did he blame them; it might be they had done right; he hoped it would prove to be so. Still, it would have been a satisfaction to the House and the country to know what there was in the Berlin Note that was so far from the Andrassy Note that the Government were able to consent to the one and were not able to concur in the other. It would, moreover, have been a satisfaction to have known, as the Government were not willing to agree with the other Powers in the Berlin Note, that they had some other—it might be some wise and better—policy which they offered to the Powers in substitution for that with which they could not agree. He was sure the House and the country would be very glad to know this, and nobody would be more glad than he to know that the Government behaved with such wisdom as one hoped from them in so grave a crisis. Every hon. Member on both sides was anxious that the Government should do that on that great question which was consistent with the honour of the country and the desire for peace; but when we looked back at what oc- curred in 1854, when the Government, according to one of its chief officers, drifted gradually and—he was afraid to use the word which rose to his lips—discreditably into a sanguinary struggle, we could not help but have our fears, and he at any rate felt, as one of the great Council of the nation, that they had a right to be taken into consultation and to consider the matter. They had a right also to have an opinion, and to express it, before the country was irrevocably committed to a policy which they might find it necessary to condemn. As to that, he would only say that if the policy of the Government was that of maintaining the integrity of the Ottoman Empire at the sacrifice of British treasure and British blood, he believed, after the experience of 20 years ago, that no considerable portion of the people of the United Kingdom would be found to support the Government in that policy. Further, if the policy of the Government were to give its countenance, even its moral support, to the Turk, in opposition to the struggles and efforts that were being made by some of the subjects of the Porte to free themselves from its dominion, the people of this country would not support the Government. So far as they were neutral in the struggle, so far as they agreed to leave to itself that great contest, which was inevitable, and must be determined by the forces on the spot, then, he thought, in all probability the great bulk of public opinion in this country would support them. He did not wish to enter into any discussion of the subject, nor to offer any policy of his own, except so far as he had expressed his opinion; but he besought the Government not to pursue a policy that might lead them into all kinds of complexity, such as the Government of 1854 waded into, and then find there was no way out but by a war, which, in his opinion, was unjust in its beginning, disastrous in its course, and ignominious in its conclusion.


said, he thought that, under the present circumstances, it would be most disastrous if a discussion on the subject were to take place before the House had had an opportunity of reading the Correspondence which had taken place between Her Majesty's Government and the Powers. The present position with regard to the East was in strict analogy with what occurred in 1853. Then discussions, took place on the mere ex parte statements of Ministers, and which did not give correct views of the situation. At the end of that Session, a few minutes before the Prorogation, a Question was put by Mr. Monckton Milnes to Lord Palmerston, who expressed his opinion that things would end peaceably, and on that account Papers were not laid upon the Table. It would be dangerous if a similar course were adopted on the present occasion. There was some similarity between the circumstances then and the present crisis. The Crimean War began on the question of Montenegro; the present complications begun on the question of Servia. The British Fleet was then in Besika Bay; the British Fleet was now in Besika Bay. Instead of the Russians having crossed the Pruth, the Servians had crossed the Drina. He believed the majority of the people of this country, considering that the Government had won a diplomatic triumph, fully ratified the course taken by them. [Hon. Members: What course?] The Government had sent the fleet to Besika Bay. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laughed; but they did not recollect the circumstances that preceded the Crimean War, or they must know that it was now admitted by all Russian diplomatists that if the Fleet had been sent to Besika Bay when Colonel Rose sent for it, the Crimean War would not have taken place. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would not be hurried into a premature discussion on this subject, but that he would produce the Papers as early as possible.


said, the hon. Member who had just sat down was somewhat inconsistent. He deprecated discussion, and then expressed his opinion that the majority of the House would approve the policy of the Government. Now what they wanted to know was, what was the policy of the Government? At present they did not know what it was, and the impression was beginning to spread on these benches, and through them it would be communicated to the country, that the time had come when they ought to know something more of the policy of the Government at that great juncture than they did at that moment. No doubt, as the Prime Minister had said, it would be far better that the discussion should be taken when they had the Papers before them, and he was not going to say a syllable about the policy of the Government; but he wished to point out that the question was not simply whether they should have a discussion when the Papers were laid upon the Table, but whether they had any guarantee whatever that the country would not have glided into grave complications before the Papers were laid before the House, and before the House could express its opinions on the policy of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman had used some expressions which would cause uneasiness throughout the country to-morrow. He had said that "the Papers were very voluminous, but before he laid them on the Table foreign Powers must be consulted." Before this Government had embarked upon a grave policy of which the country might disapprove, something more must be done besides consulting foreign Powers. The House of Commons must be consulted; and he thought the right hon. Gentleman should give the House and the country an assurance that voluminous as these Papers were, and whether foreign Powers did or did not place obstacles in the way of their production, before the week had elapsed there would be no further delay, and an opportunity would be given the House of expressing its opinion on the subject. He believed it was the wish of the people of this country that no more English blood should be spilt and English treasure spent in maintaining the integrity of an Empire which he believed could not be permanently maintained, and that England ought not to be compromised by pursuing a policy which he believed would bring upon her disgrace and trouble, and her power ought not to be used against those who were trying to emancipate themselves from a galling and an unendurable thraldom.


said, he wished to draw a contrast between the conduct they had seen that evening and the course which was pursued by the present Government when they were in Opposition a few years ago. The right hon. Gentlemen opposite were then conducting negotiations with America which led to the Washington Treaty—negotiations viewed with the greatest distrust and dislike by hon. Members on his side of the House. Yet throughout the whole time that those negotiations were going on, the greatest influence was used, and used successfully, to maintain silence on the question until the Government of the day carried their policy to a completion. What had they seen that evening? The Government, no doubt, conducting negotiations of the greatest difficulty and delicacy; and yet the hon. Member for Dundee committed a breach of the Rules of the House by moving its Adjournment after giving a definite Notice of what they were to be asked to discuss.


rose to order. He had carefully abstained from giving the Notice.


said, the hon. Member began by giving Notice. The Government was carrying on delicate negotiations. ["No, no!"] Anyhow, he only wished to draw attention to the contrast between the conduct of the two Oppositions, for now, when the hon. Member took the course he bad adopted that evening, he was backed up by a right hon. Gentleman on the front bench. The Government had recently gained a diplomatic triumph, and it had secured for this country a feeling abroad to which it had been a stranger for40 years, that they had a Ministry who were capable of upholding the dignity and honour of the nation.


thought the discussion was very inconvenient. It was brought before the House without Notice and without the sanction of the Leaders of the Opposition, who seemed to be Leaders without united followers. He sympathized with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) in the hope that the Government would not lead the country into a Russian war as the Whig Government did in 1854. The country was not prepared to repeat the folly committed on that occasion. He knew a little about the East. He had no sympathy with what was called the religious question in the East. He believed the Christians of the East were about the worst specimens of humanity extant. He had, however, great sympathy with the feelings of the people of this country, and he believed their feelings were that such an anachronism as the Turkish Power in Europe ought not any longer to be supported by British blood and treasure. Turkey must fall, let the right hon. Gentleman opposite do what he pleased. It might be supposed that Ministers were able to read the signs of the times, and the right hon. Gentleman must see that it was impossible to maintain Turkey in Europe. He agreed with the right hon. Member for Birmingham that the discussion of this question should not be postponed till the end of the Session, and he hoped an early opportunity would be afforded the House of considering it. At the same time, he was sorry to hear what the Prime Minister had said upon the question, for it was new to him, and he believed new to the country, that a Minister of England would not lay upon the Table of the House of Commons diplomatic documents of the greatest importance without first asking the sanction of foreign Powers. That was not an English or a great policy, though it might be a convenient policy, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would lay the Papers on the Table regardless of what other Powers might think, consulting only the honour and interest of England in the matter.


I only rise, Sir, to say a few words, and I do not propose to detain the House more than a minute or two. There is undoubtedly considerable inconvenience in a discussion of this sort, brought forward without Notice and without materials on which a judgment can be formed. I wish, therefore, to express a hope—of course it would be presumptuous to express more than a hope—that the debate may not be carried very much further. But, Sir, although there is some inconvenience in the course that has been taken, it may not have been taken altogether without advantage. I do not suppose that the Government have ever at any time been under the delusion that the country was not watching the course of events in the East with the utmost anxiety, or that they were prepared to accept with a blind confidence the policy of the Government until they had larger opportunities than they have had of forming an opinion of what that policy has been. But this short discussion, even if it proceeds no further than it has hitherto done, will have removed all possible misconception on these points, and will have shown—will have convinced the Government that there is a strong feeling in this House—but not stronger, I am sure, than that which it represents out-of-doors—a strong feeling of the deepest anxiety on this subject and the utmost eagerness to have an opportunity, as soon as possible, of knowing what that policy has been. Without incurring the strictures of the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Cumberland, which, I think, have been hardly deserved, I may appeal to Members of the Government themselves whether they have suffered the slightest embarrassment in these negotiations from hon. Members sitting on this side of the House. It may be true—I do not know whether it is strictly true—that during the course of the American negotiations no formal discussion was ever initiated on the Opposition Benches; but my recollection deceives me very much if the Government of that day was not put repeatedly and very minutely to the question upon points arising in the course of those negotiations. And I believe that this is the first occasion since the opening of Parliament on which any discussion has arisen upon these recent negotiations. It appears to me unreasonable and impossible to expect—to require from the Government any statement of their present policy which they are not disposed at this moment to volunteer to give to the House. Undoubtedly, if the Government thought it would be conducive to the public service, and if they had any information to give to the House as to the course they are at this moment pursuing, that information would be received with the utmost pleasure and satisfaction. It is, however, quite impossible for us who sit on this side of the House to ask the Government to tell us what is the policy they are now pursuing, while we are in ignorance as to the policy which they have been pursuing. All we are entitled to require from them—and on that point I think they do not require any pressure—is to urge on them that these Papers should be presented with the least possible delay, and that the House should be allowed an opportunity as soon as possible of expressing its opinion on the subject.


Sir, I must claim the indulgence of the House to explain an expression I used, which to hon. Members who sat in previous Parliaments would not have been necessary, but seeing that the expression I used has been misconceived by several hon. Members, I should like to explain. I said that the Papers were voluminous, and that there were some Papers which we could not lay on the Table without previous communication with foreign Powers. That is the procedure which has always been adopted, as the noble Lord opposite and any hon. Members of this House who have any acquaintance with the conduct of affairs must know. That, however, does not mean that we cannot put on the Table of the House despatches in answer to our own. All those Papers are public records of the feelings, policy, and views of the different countries, and can always be produced; but in the course of negotiations of this kind there are confidential communications made by foreign Powers, and it is very often highly necessary for the vindication of our course and as illustrative of our policy that these documents should be published; but the House will see at once that the ancient custom which has always been observed of consulting foreign Powers before confidential communications on their part are laid before Parliament is a very proper and very wise one. The House must feel that otherwise there would be an end to all confidential intercourse with any foreign Power. When we are told that all that the Government have to do is to consult the House of Commons, and not under any circumstances to consult those who are our allies, the only consequence of such a policy would be that all the Papers we could lay on the Table would be documents which the House would soon find were wanting in light and information on many points of the most interesting character. I thought it right to explain the use of a particular phrase which is customary in Parliament, and to vindicate a practice which has been most salutary, and which has been observed by every Minister who has been entrusted with the conduct of affairs in this country.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.