HC Deb 10 August 1877 vol 236 cc760-71

said, he regretted very much that the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had declined to answer his Question with reference to the supposition whether, in the event of the occupation of Constantinople by the Russians, it was probable that the friendly relations between England and Russia would be disturbed, made it necessary that he should trespass for a few minutes on the attention of the House. He understood that, in consequence of an agreement come to by the two Front benches, there was to be no debate on the Eastern Question before the Prorogation of Parliament. He regretted that decision very much, but he and others acquiesced in it. He thought, however, that he was entitled to put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer which was very closely connected with the despatches of Lord Derby and Prince Gortchakoff in May last. That question was—Whether Her Majesty's Government would consider the temporary occupation of Constantinople by Russian troops so far inconsistent with British interests as to disturb the relations of amity between England and Russia? He thought he was justified in putting that Question, because Prince Gortchakoff in his letter of May 30 to Lord Derby, said that the acquisition of Constantinople was excluded from the views of His Majesty the Emperor of Russia, and that being the case, it would be satisfactory to the House and the country to know whether Her Majesty's Government, having received that assurance, had that confidence in the Emperor's words that they would not think it necessary to interfere or risk any breach of neutrality, if the Army of the Emperor, by force of circumstances, or by the fortunes of war, were to take possession temporarily of Constantinople. He had not the slightest desire to take any step which would in any way embarrass Her Majesty's Government or the country in this matter; but still he thought that it would be advantageous to the country to know, before the House separated, what was the policy of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the invasion of Turkey by Russia, and whether they considered that the temporary occupation of Constantinople would so far interfere with British interests as to necessitate our going to war with Russia. Lord Derby had said that Her Majesty's Government were not prepared to see Constantinople go into other hands than those of its present possessors, and undoubtedly there were serious objections to that city passing into the hands of any of the other European Powers; but when we had been told that the acquisition of Constantinople was excluded from the views of the Emperor of Russia, and that the future of that city was a question on which all the European Powers were interested, and would have to be consulted, he did not know what further assurance was necessary. But then it was said that British interests might be interfered with in regard to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. It must be remembered, however, that Prince Gortchakoff had said that there must be a common agreement between the Powers in the interests of peace, and with a view to the general balance of power in Europe, in regard to the Straits. It might be said, again, and undoubtedly with truth, that the Russians were not at that moment on their way to Constantinople, and that there was no immediate necessity for replying to the question which he had put to the Government; but still we knew what the uncertainty of war was, and it was by no means either impossible or improbable that in the course of the autumn the Russian troops might find their way to Constantinople, an event which many hon. Members might consider very undesirable. For his own part, he looked upon such an occupation as desirable, as a necessary preliminary to a permanent peace and to a satisfactory solution of the Eastern Question. He did not desire to raise any debate on the question; but he had thought it his duty, for the reasons already indicated, to bring the matter before the House. He did not suppose that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would think fit to give him any further reply to the Question than had already been given; but he wished for his own part, and speaking only for himself, to enter his protest against this country being drawn into a war with Russia in the event of Russia taking temporary possession of Constantinople. He felt quite sure that this country did not desire that a single soldier or a single ship of war should be sent out to prevent such an occupation taking place. The events of this war no one could foretell, but one observation he would venture to make—that the downfall of the Ottoman Empire was generally regarded as an event that was not far distant, and one which no effort on the part of England could long avert. He thought it therefore desirable before the close of the Session, that the Government should state to the House what were the views which they entertained in reference to the possible event of the Russian Army taking temporary possession of Constantinople.


said, that he did not at all question the right of the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Monk) to put this Question. He had, as they all knew, a perfect right to take that course. But he (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) maintained that the Government also had a right in the matter, and that was to maintain the course they had pursued in declining to answer the Question put to them. He, for one, thought the discretion of the Government might have been open to question had they answered it. But whilst he thought the hon. Member was perfectly justified in putting his Question, he thought he had gone rather further than he intended in discussing the general question of Eastern politics, and further than it was desirable to go after the appeal made by the Government that any general discussion of the subject might be avoided. He would give no opinion on the point, nor did he think it would be advisable for Her Majesty's Government to do so, for it appeared to be the general feeling of that, as well as of the other House, that it was desirable, at the present crisis, to avoid any general discussion of this subject, and that it would be inconvenient, while it might also be very dangerous, to enter on such a debate. Lord Palmerston always observed a sound rule on such occasions. His invariable reply was that he declined to answer hypothetical questions. The present was a hypothetical question. The Russians, let him observe, were not yet at Constantinople; we did not know whether they would ever get there; and we did not even know whether they really wanted to get there at all. It was difficult to define what a temporary occupation was. Occupations which had at first appeared to be only temporary had eventually proved to be permanent. An occupation could be said to be temporary only when it had ceased. They had several instances in the history of recent years. Austria temporarily occupied Tuscany, France temporarily occupied Rome, the united forces of England and France temporarily occupied Athens, and France temporarily occupied Syria. Well, they knew that in more than one instance the great difficulty had always been to bring to a close occupations originally announced as intended to be of short duration. But passing from that, he thought the great danger and difficulty incurred by the Government in answering any such Question as that addressed to them by the hon. Member for Gloucester was chiefly this — that in their answer they must give encouragement either to the one belligerent or the other. If the British Government were to say they could not look upon the occupation as justifying a breach of amity with Russia, that would encourage Russia in a course which our Government might or might not approve. If they were, on the other hand, to say the occupation would lead to serious consequences, that might encourage the Turks to pursue a course which we might not approve, and perhaps to reject terms of peace which otherwise might be accepted by them. Under the circumstances, therefore, he thought the House would consider that the Government was exercising a wise discretion in not committing themselves by giving any answer with reference to contingencies which had not arisen, and which might never arise.


I quite agree that the Government are exercising a wise discretion in not going into the general question at the present time. A great war is raging between two great Powers, and no one can tell exactly what circumstances may arise. I have always been of opinion that Russia must prevail against Turkey, because no Oriental Power has yet been able to cope successfully with any European Army; and, although we hear of great Turkish successes, still in the end we cannot expect Turkey to be triumphant. One of the most dangerous things is to have bad generals opposed to you, because it leads you to make tremendous blunders. That is what has taken place in this instance in regard to Russia; and, no doubt, the Armenian campaign was a mistake. In the end, however, in all probability, Russia will overrun Turkey, and possibly the Russian troops may go to Constantinople. Although, for my part, I regret this war, which must cause great loss of life and other evils, still, if Russia acts wisely and prudently, it may lead to a solution of the Eastern Question. Many have from the first believed that that question never would be permanently solved without a war, owing to the evident discord between the parties interested. Possibly, if Russia takes the advice of her Allies, and the European Powers generally, and does not proceed to such extremities as would imperil the peace of Europe, then, even if her troops did take possession to some extent of Constantinople, it would, perhaps, be done under such assurances to England and the other Powers as would remove any danger of a general conflagration, because I believe Russia would have the prudence to avoid any step likely to lead to a European combination against her. Certainly, Austria would not like to see Russia in permanent occupation of Constantinople any more than we should. All these things lead me to the conclusion that the best course to take is to leave matters as they stand, and for this country to persevere in that strict neutrality which has commended itself to the common sense of the nation, and to avoid anything that would give encouragement to one side or the other. It is be regretted that that course has not been pursued from the beginning, and I believe that abstention from Parliamentary discussion will be favourable to a peaceful solution of the question.


I do not rise, Sir, for the purpose of continuing this discussion, because, although it is quite clear that the subject is one in which the House is intensely interested, yet, just because they do feel such intense interest in it, they are not, I think, of opinion that this is a time when we can conveniently proceed with such a discussion. I should not have risen to address the House at all but for some remarks which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) made at the beginning of his speech, when he appeared to assume that there was some arrangement or understanding between the front Opposition bench and the Government, that there should be no discussion on the subject at this stage of the proceedings of the House. I am sorry that my noble Friend the Member for the Radnor Boroughs (the Marquess of Hartington) is not present; but I think I may say for him that there has been no understanding or arrangement of the kind referred to. But the hon. Member, in common with the House, is perfectly aware that the Leaders of both Houses have thought it right, representing the Government, to deprecate discussion on this subject at present, stating that they believed it would be disadvantageous to the interests which are so deeply involved in the question. Having heard that statement, and recognizing the very great responsibility of the Government in making it, my noble Friend and those who generally act with him have thought it right not to initiate discussion. At the same time, I do not suppose that the Government need to be reminded of the very great responsibility which they have undertaken towards the country in allowing Parliament to separate, or rather in desiring Parliament to separate, without affording further or special information with regard to the present very critical position of this matter. I may perhaps be allowed to say, speaking for myself, and I believe for others also, that we should not have assented to that course had we had reason to fear that the Government were likely between now and the reopening of Parliament to drag this country into war, or to involve us in any breach of neutrality. We have most carefully considered everything that has been both written and said by the Government in this matter, and, looking at the last despatches and the declarations of the Government, we feel convinced that they mean to abide by a policy of strict neutrality; and that being the case, we do not feel that it is necessary to do more than remind them of the responsibility under which they lie. As regards the particular Question asked by my hon. Friend, I cannot be surprised at his asking it, although if he had consulted me I think I should have advised him not to press it at this particular moment, because I think it is a question which the Government cannot fairly be expected to answer now. The answer might be misconstrued on either side by the belligerents—either as an encouragement to continue hostilities, or as a breach of neutrality. If the Government stated that the temporary occupation of Constantinople would be an act against which they would not protest, that would be something like a hint to Russia to go to Constantinople. On the other hand, I cannot imagine the Government for a moment making such a statement as that the occupation of Constantinople by Russia would be a hostile act, because that would be necessarily a breach of neutrality. When two countries are at war, the fortunes of war must in a measure decide the position of the two combatants, and no doubt it would be a breach of neutrality for us to inform Russia that, notwithstanding she was at war with Turkey and had been successful, yet she should not be allowed to take the same advantage over Turkey in reference to Constantinople as Germany took over France in reference to Paris. In my opinion, I consider that such a course would be a breach of neutrality, and therefore I cannot expect that the Government will either assent to or approve any answer being given to the Question of my hon. Friend, and I trust he will be content with having brought the matter forward without pressing the question.


I rise, Sir, chiefly for two purposes—in the first place, to express a hope that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Monk) will not consider that there was any want of personal courtesy implied in the answer I was obliged to give him at an earlier stage of the evening; and secondly, to bear out what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. W. E. Forster), that there has been no kind of understanding between ourselves and right hon. Gentlemen opposite as to the course which should be taken at the present time. It was, of course, entirely open to them, as to all other Members of the House, to take any course they might think it their duty to take in the matter; and we certainly should have had no right to complain of any hon. Member thinking it right to raise this question in the House. On the other hand, we do think it our duty to express on our part our strong sense of the inexpediency at the present time of raising a general discussion on the question. We are at the same time sensible of the kindness and forbearance of hon. Members, and of the confidence reposed in us by the House in this matter, after the appeal which was made to them on behalf of the Government; and I can only repeat that we still are convinced that it is for the true interests of the country that at the present time we should be as reticent as possible. I will only say this with regard to the policy of the Government which was declared some time ago—that since that declaration was made, the Government have not seen any reason to depart from the line of policy which they then announced. I think that the particular despatch to which reference has been made—the despatch addressed by Lord Derby to the Russian Ambassador—was a despatch which was unusually full, detailed, and frank in its declarations, and it was responded to in a spirit which, I think, leaves no reason whatever to complain of the tone of the Russian Government; and we have no reason whatever to doubt the propriety of the course which we took in regard to that despatch. But, under the circumstances, I think it would be very injurious, and might be exceedingly mischievous, if we were to go into details upon every question that might be submitted to us on a subject of this kind—upon every hypothetical question as to what we should do in this or that case, or how we should regard the matter. I think that the few words so well said by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) really hit the point of the case in regard to the position of the Government, and that we cannot do better than fall back upon the expression of Lord Palmerston, and say that we cannot answer questions of a hypothetical character in reference to such grave matters as that presently before us. There have been times in which hasty and casual expressions have been caught up, and made the foundation for action and ex- pectations which after all have been misunderstood and have led to subsequent misapprehension and disappointment; and the anxiety of Her Majesty's Government in this matter is to pursue a plain, honest, and frank line of policy, and at the same time a prudent and reserved one. I hope the House will feel that that is the spirit in which we have acted. But it may be said—"You ought to take the House into your confidence." We do wish to give the House the fullest information on every point; and that would be all very well, if we could take Parliament alone into our confidence; but remembering that everything we say here is reported all over the world, we are obliged to be very careful and very chary of the words which we use. I hope the House will act up to what I understood to be its feeling yesterday, and will not think it desirable to go into a discussion of this question.


I cannot allow the discussion to close without objecting to the sentiment that we could regard with indifference the occupation of Constantinople by Russia, whether temporary or otherwise. I believe that the occupation of that great city for one week by Russia would raise such a flame in this country as would not be easily allayed. Knowing the feelings of the people, I am convinced that the occupation of Constantinople cannot be contemplated seriously by any patriotic Englishman for five minutes. I sincerely hope that if any such thing should come to pass, this present Ministry will lose not a single moment in taking that course which the country calls upon them to do, and which I believe the country will heartily and valiantly support them in doing.


I think it right to call the attention of the House to the fact that the statement of the Prime Minister was not, as quoted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, that the Government would observe a strict neutrality simply. The Prime Minister stated that the observance of a strict neutrality on our part was dependent on the observance of certain conditions on the part of Russia.


said, that in the Crimean War this country had been made the tool of France—France being the mere instrument and sword of the Vatican. [Laughter.] He believed that Lord Russell would be disposed to say that it was by the inscrutable influence of the Vatican, which they were unable to detect and control, that this country was dragged into that war. ['' Oh, oh!"] He (Mr. Whalley) might be all wrong; but surely hon. Gentlemen might give their attention when such grave issues were at stake. All Europe concurred in the views which he expressed, and France was now in convulsions on the question whether that influence was to obtain a predominant power. He could not understand why these expressions of his were always met with laughter. [Laughter.] He begged to say that the laughter stimulated Mm in his effort to fix the attention of the House on the subject. He was speaking on an authority as high as a man could speak—namely, those engaged in the contest. Of course, he might be wrong. [" No," laughter, and cheers.] Surely when the issue at stake was the continuation of the Crimean policy, it could do no harm to offer a remonstrance. The hon. and learned Baronet the Member for Wexford (Sir George Bowyer) referred approvingly to the present war. Cardinal Manning said he looked upon it as a most beautiful sign, and he regarded the existing antagonism of the nations as a fact full of consolation. His (Mr. Whalley's) observations would be treated with ridicule; but Lord Palmerston said that there never had been a great war in Europe which had not been instigated by that Power, which was without exception the greatest Power in the world. He (Mr. Whalley) would be glad to believe that he was under a delusion; but Lord Palmerston said, that wherever they saw a Jesuit there was danger. Their laws said so, because they enforced a penalty of £50 a-week on every Jesuit; and Germany said the same thing, and had expelled them from the country, yet they were here in greater numbers than in any other country. The deliberate sense of Lord Derby's despatch of the 6th of May was to embitter the relations between the two countries; it was a deliberate insult, intended to provoke Russia into acts of antagonism and hostility. ["No, no!"] Of course, what he said was a matter of no further consequence; but he must further say that the Emperor of Russia had thought not fit to reply in the same insulting and arrogant terms, because he had not only his own sense of the rectitude of his intentions, but knew that he had Europe with him. [Sir WILLIAM EDMONSTONE: Oh, oh!] He greatly regretted that the hon. and gallant Admiral opposite did not favour them with intelligible speech, instead of exhibiting the House as a bear garden. He gave his cordial adhesion to the policy marked out by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich, and threw on the Government the responsibility of a line of action that had left them isolated and contemptible, and surely with nothing to go to their constituents with. If it were a national course of policy, they would deserve the hatred as well as the contempt of the nations of Europe. Under these circumstances he should second the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford, that on the Government rested the responsibility of conducting matters in a satisfactory manner during the Recess.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clauses 1 to 3, inclusive, agreed to.

Clause 4 (Treasury may, in certain cases of exigency, authorise expenditure unprovided for; provided that the aggregate grants for the Navy services and for the Army services respectively be not exceeded).


moved, as an Amendment in page 3, line 4, to leave out the word "with," and to substitute the words— Within ten days after such sanction shall have been given, if Parliament be then sitting, and if not, within ten days after the next meeting of Parliament, and shall be further included in; the object being that Parliament might as soon as possible have cognizance of such sanction. He had directed the attention of the House to this question last year, and pointed out many irregularities, for which the Admiralty was responsible. The present system had been condemned by the Committee on Public Accounts, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had promised inquiry during the present Session.


said, he agreed with the hon. Member, and thought that the present practice was capable of improvement, and that Parliament should have its attention called to such cases. But, regarding the Amendment which followed the one under Notice on the Paper—that of the hon. and gallant General opposite (Sir George Balfour)—with some favour, he should be inclined to let the matter be referred to the consideration of the Committee on Public Accounts next Session. He must therefore resist the Amendment at present.


said, he was glad to hear the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment (Sir George Balfour), by leave, withdrawn.

Clause agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed.

Bill reported, without Amendment; to be read the third time To-morrow.