HC Deb 11 August 1877 vol 236 cc802-7

Sir, I desire to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to certain matters connected with the Eastern Question. I had, indeed, hoped that some such appeal would have been made to the Govern- ment from the front Opposition bench; but whatever may be my opinion as to the policy or the expediency of allowing Parliament to separate without an expression of opinion upon this subject of absorbing interest, I am perfectly well aware that the Government may be in possession of information which we as ordinary individuals do not possess—information which it is not expedient for the Government to divulge; and whatever may be my own opinion of the policy of an open discussion upon the subject, yet after the special appeal addressed to us by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday that it would be disadvantageous to the public service to press the Government for information which they do not wish at the present moment to give, I should be the last man to incur the very great and serious responsibility of attempting to raise a discussion. But still, I think it is important that we—that appeal having been made and accepted—should have information on certain points, and I think I shall not transgress reasonable limits if I state in a few words what some of us on this side of the House think we have a right to demand. Our position is simply this—the Government have declared that they will preserve in this war a policy of strict neutrality. But what were the words of the Prime Minister in "another place?" He said that their policy was one of "strict, but conditional neutrality"— which implies that something might occur which might make it necessary to depart from that policy of neutrality. Now, I do not desire to press the Government to tell the House or the country what are the circumstances or the conditions under which they might think it necessary to depart from the policy of strict neutrality which they are now maintaining, and which, if possible, they intend to maintain. I quite recognize the fact that it would be unfair to press for information upon that point, for such information must necessarily relate to circumstances and occurrences of a purely hypothetical character, the nature and results of which none of us can possibly anticipate or foresee. I shall not, therefore, ask the Government under what conditions they may think it necessary to depart from their position of strict neutrality. But, on the other hand, there is a matter upon which it seems to me we have a right to demand an explanation from Her Majesty's Government. We shall, if the ordinary rule be observed, be practically without a Parliament for the next six months; and consequently for six months the country will be deprived of that check which Parliament exercises over the Executive Government. Never probably was Parliament about to be prorogued at a more critical moment. Now, all that I venture to ask the Government— and I believe, after making careful inquiries, it is a request which will be echoed by many Members of the House, and by a considerable section of the people of the country is this—that if anything should occur during the Recess which, in the opinion of the Government, should make them think it necessary to depart from the policy of strict neutrality which they are now maintaining and are desirous to maintain, they should not depart from that policy of neutrality, and should not decide upon taking any course which might ultimately involve the country in hostilities, without first calling Parliament together. It seems to me that that is a reasonable request; for if there is a question upon which it is important that Parliament should express an opinion, it is upon this question of paramount and almost of unparalleled importance—namely, whether at any particular moment anything has occurred to render it necessary to depart from a policy of neutrality and to participate in the conflict which is now raging. I believe that if the Government will give us some assurance upon this matter it will cause very great satisfaction throughout the country. In the few remarks I have made I have carefully redeemed the promise that I would not press the Government to give any information on any point on which they said it was not expedient that information should be given—all I ask is that Government will give us the assurance that if they should think it necessary to depart from the policy of neutrality, Parliament should be called together to express its opinion. Before I resume my seat I wish to ask the Government two Questions with regard to certain telegrams which have appeared in the papers of to-day. In The Daily News I have seen a telegram to the effect that Chefket Pasha, the principal instigator of. the Bulgarian atrocities last Autumn—a man who was placed in the foremost rank of those who were so vigorously denounced by Lord Derby in his despatch of the 21st September last—has been appointed to a command at Batoum. The telegram further states that Mr. Layard had remonstrated against the appointment. If that be true the country will be very glad to know that such a protest has been made, and also whether there is any probability of its being listened to by the Sultan. The other point upon which I should like to ask for some information is this—It appears in a telegram in the papers that the greatest possible indignation had been caused in Berlin and all other European capitals by a report of an official character which had been laid before the German Government, to the effect that the Turks in the Balkans had fired on a Russian flag of truce, and had committed the greatest barbarities on the Russian wounded. I should like to know whether Mr. Layard has protested against such a breach of international usages; whether the Government can give any information, and also an assurance that, if in this contest international usages should be disregarded, they will protest against it? I would also further ask whether the Government will, as in the case of last Session, promise to issue such papers on the Eastern Question as they may deem it expedient during the Recess?


Sir, with regard to the last Question of the hon. Member for Hackney—to take them in reverse order—I may say that the Government will unquestionably desire, during the Recess, to publish and bring under the attention of the public any information which is likely to be of interest to the public, and which can be properly produced. With regard to the specific points on which the hon. Member has put Questions, I may say that no information has been received with regard to the alleged firing upon a flag of truce by the Turks in the Balkans. I do not know whether anything may be coming to us upon the subject, but we have received no information with respect to it one way or the other. Then with respect to the alleged employment of Chefket Pasha—we have no information of his having been appointed to a command at Batoum. But on several occasions since the despatch of Lord Derby in September last, to which the hon. Member has alluded, suggestions have reached us that it was the intention of the Porte to employ him in different commands; and on each occasion of such suggestions being made Mr. Layard has remonstrated against the employment of Chefket Pasha, and upon all those occasions these remonstrances have been attended to. Otherwise we have received no information as to the particular question of his appointment to a command at Batoum. With regard to the general position of the Government and the policy they have announced to Parliament, and which they have been and are steadily pursuing, that policy is before Parliament and the country. It is a policy of neutrality —of strict neutrality—as regards the questions which are at issue between the two contending Powers, but subject, of course, to the condition that this country will feel herself obliged to watch over her own interests; and as that was considered to be a phrase that required fuller explanation, and which might be considered to be open to various constructions, Lord Derby has very distinctly and in a manner which is beyond ordinary diplomatic precedent, explained the points upon which we feel that our interests may be affected, and on which it might be necessary for us to consider what course we might have to take. We have in no degree departed, nor do we intend to depart, from the lines so marked out. Then with regard to the Question which the hon. Member has put as to the course we may take as to consulting Parliament, I can assure the hon. Member that the Government are fully aware of their constitutional obligations, and are prepared to give effect to them.


said, although the Chancellor of the Exchequer had said that the Government were prepared to give effect to their constitutional engagements, he did not think that was a sufficient answer to the appeal made by the hon. Member for Hackney. The hon. Member was justified in asking that some assurance should be given that Parliament should be summoned incase of its being decided by Her Majesty's Government to depart from the policy of strict neutrality. The opinions lately expressed had given a certain confidence in the prudence and moderation of Her Majesty's Government. He believed however that while those Ministers who counselled prudence and moderation were in the majority, there were some dangerous elements in the Cabinet. Things had been said, written, and done which justified a suspicious watching. In the matter of "British interests" he hoped the Government would remember that although British interests might be affected at Constantinople or elsewhere, still it would not be British interests alone, but those also of many other European countries, which would be affected; and therefore he earnestly hoped that Her Majesty's Government, while guarding the interests of this country, would not thrust themselves forward alone in reference to matters in which others were as much concerned as ourselves. With regard especially to Constantinople, although we had great interests in that part of the world, our interests there were secondary in importance to those of nations which were more nearly concerned with the navigation of the Danube and the Black Sea. He was sorry the assurance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not more explicit, but he hoped, the Government accepted the constitutional propriety, in case of their being any likelihood of this country being led into war, of calling Parliament together.

Bill read the third time, and passed.