HC Deb 06 July 1877 vol 235 cc913-7

, who had the following Notice on the Paper:— To call attention to the fact of the Mediterranean Fleet having been ordered to Besika Bay, and to inquire of Her Majesty's Government the names and type of ships, and why they have been sent there in place of to Egypt; and, further, to inquire the number and description of ships composing the Channel and North Sea Squadrons, and nature of the manœuvres in which it is intended to exercise the officers and men of the several squadrons, rose to address the Chair, when—


said, the hon. Member was out of Order, inasmuch as he had already spoken on the Question that he do leave the Chair.


said, as his hon. Friend (Mr. Gourley) was out of Order, he wished to take the opportunity of making a few observations upon the question. The House had been for three hours and a-half discussing the question of the construction of ships of war; but what he wanted to know was, what these ships were for? Before voting money to be expended on the Navy, he thought it as well to know what the Government intended doing with the ships. He should like to know why, in this crisis of affairs, the Government had thought it right to alarm Europe by ordering the Fleet to Besika Bay? He thought it would have been well if, before doing that, the Government had taken the House a little more into its confidence. [Admiral Sir WILLIAM EDMONSTONE: No, no!] The hon. and gallant Admiral said "No;" but, perhaps, he would admit that there was at least some argument on the other side. He (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) was not one of those who had been very hostile to the past policy of the Government; indeed, he had separated himself from many of his hon. Friends on that point. He honestly confessed he had seen very little to find, fault with in the manner in which they had conducted the foreign policy of the country. When he saw the Blue Book at the commencement of the Session, he felt that there was nothing shown in those Papers which he should wish to find fault with. Indeed, he felt that the Opposition could not make out a case against the Government. As matters went on, the House and the country had become more and more re-assured—a result to which the recent speeches of Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for War, and. the Secretary of State for the Home Department had greatly contributed. Nothing, indeed, could have been better than the speech of Lord Salisbury, in which he warned the country not to fight against a nightmare, and in which he sought to dissipate the absurd notion of those who were frightened by the progress of Russia, by advising them to consult a large map. After that speech, he felt more than ever re-assured, and his confidence in the Government had become greater than it had been before. Well, after all that had taken place, he thought it was a most unfortunate time to arouse new anxiety by the removal of the Fleet, even for better anchorage, to Besika Bay. He was alarmed chiefly for this reason—that the movements of the Meet had been the weak part of the foreign policy of the Government all along. When last year they sent it to Besika Bay, they took credit for the step being supposed to be an indication that they were favourable to the cause of the Turks; but the country was much relieved by the assurance of Lord Derby, in answer to a deputation, that it had been despatched there solely for the purpose of protecting the Christian population. What, however, happened later on? The Meet was ordered away from Besika Bay by Lord Salisbury during the progress of the Conference, in order that the Turks might not by its presence be induced to place undue reliance on the assistance of England, so that there were three versions given at the time to account for the position of the Meet. That being so, there might be some other reason now for its having been ordered to Besika Bay besides that which had been assigned. It was, it appeared, sent there now, because Besika Bay was a better place for anchorage than where it was stationed a few weeks ago. But even so, it was, he thought, an unfortunate proceeding on the part of the Government to order it there, because in the present disturbed state of Europe it was most dangerous to do anything which might be misinterpreted, and because it would produce the impression that something more was meant by the step than the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to imply. It might be supposed, as it seemed to him, that it was a hint, or a warning, or a threat to one or other of the contending Powers. His opinion was, that if we were to attempt anything of that sort we might, in spite of ourselves, become parties to some extent in the conflict now going on. But it was said that the Government had no regard in the course which they pursued in reference to the Eastern Question to anything but British interests. Well, British interests were the interests of justice and freedom and humanity all over the world; and if it was not for the purpose of protecting interests of that kind, it was, he could not help thinking, a great pity that the Fleet had been moved at all, especially if, as a consequence, great uneasiness was created. He had deemed it right, speaking for nobody but himself, to make these few remarks, and although he did not wish the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reply to them, should he think that to do so would not be conducive to the interests of peace, he could not refrain from expressing his regret at what had occurred. In conclusion, he would merely express a hope that the Government would adhere to a policy of strict neutrality, which he believed to be the wisest for the country, and the best calculated to secure the approbation of the people.


Sir, I am afraid from one remark which fell from the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) that the answer which I gave a little while ago may have been misunderstood. I think he spoke of my having given as a reason why the Fleet has been sent to Besika, that it afforded good anchorage. I did not, however, say anything about good anchorages. I said that the reason why it was sent there was, that the situation is a convenient and central one for the purpose of communication between our Ambassador at the Porte on the one hand, and the British Government at home on the other. I am sorry, I may add, that it should be supposed that there is anything in that answer, or in the action which the Government have taken, which should be open to such an observation as the hon. Baronet made about alarming Europe by a step which might be taken as a hint, or a warning, or a threat, by either of the parties to the war. That, it appears to me, is a very unnecessary construction to put upon the course which we have adopted. It would not, I think, be convenient at the present moment to enter into a general discussion of our foreign policy. I would, however, say this much—We spent'a fortnight a few weeks ago in discussing fully the position of affairs and explaining the policy of the Government, and we have since laid on the Table despatches in which that policy is set forth in the most distinct manner in communications of a diplomatic character. There is, therefore, no need now for further explanation in the matter. Nobody who reads those despatches carefully, and also the language used by Ministers in the course of the debate to which I have just referred, can, it seems to me, refuse to admit at least this—that we have stated our views and intentions with as much clearness and minuteness as has ever been done in any diplomatic despatches with respect to the war which is now going on. With regard to the war now going on, our policy has been to maintain the principle of strict neutrality. We have also said that we will take due cognizance of the maintenance and protection of British interests. We have gone even beyond the enunciation of the doctrine, which might be looked upon as a truism, of regard for British interests, by specifying, with a detail for which I find no precedent in similar circumstances, the particular points which we considered those interests to embrace. In discharging the duty which rests upon us we have, I believe, been supported by the confidence of the country. I do not think it would serve any good purpose now to enter into a general debate on this question, and I hope, therefore, the House will allow us, after the long discussion we have had, to go into Committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.