HC Deb 31 May 1877 vol 234 cc1145-50

said, that when he was called to Order a few minutes ago he was under the impression that the necessity of England being prepared, if necessity arose, to defend her interests in the Eastern Question, was relevant to the question before the House; and he was at that time endeavouring to show that, as far as he had been able to ascertain, many things were required before this country would be in a position promptly and efficiently to give effect to the policy which had been announced by the Home Secretary, and which had been indorsed by both sides of the House and by public opinion out-of-doors, with reference to the course this country should take. He was endeavouring to show that in order to act promptly and efficiently, we must have something more than a paper organization or a skeleton organization, and when he was stopped he was stating wherein he believed our organization was deficient. If that was not so, no one would be more glad than he to receive an assurance to that effect from the Secretary of State for War. The deficiency, he ventured to point out, consisted in the want of transport of matériel, in the proper distribution of stores, in deficient ammunition, in deficient gun- powder of a proper quality, and in accoutrements, clothing, boots, &c. There was nothing the efficiency of an army, and especially of Infantry, depended upon so much as good boots, and within the last few days he had seen boots recently issued to the Guards, the soles of which had been worn off in less than a month, and which were being returned with a remonstrance to the Clothing Department. In all these matters time meant money, promptness meant efficiency, and they could not have promptness and efficiency without money. But up to the present, as far as they knew, ostensibly at any rate, there had been no demand for money on the part of the Government; and, therefore, if these things required money and none had been asked for, it was not unreasonable to assume that we were not in that prompt and efficient state in which it was most desirable that we should be, if we ever were called upon—which God forbid—to take part in this war in the East. This was his reason for bringing this matter before the House. In doing so he would guard himself against the supposition that, in urging the House and the Government to make timely preparation, he wished to urge the country to take part in this war. All he wished was that, if we were called upon to do so, we should do so efficiently, and that we should not find ourselves in the lamentable position in which the French found themselves at the commencement of the Franco-German War—believing they had stores in abundance, when they had practically none, and what they had were so badly distributed that a general collapse resulted. If precedent were needed to justify the course he was taking, it was furnished by what occurred in this House at the outbreak of that war. The present Government being then in Opposition, the then Prime Minister moved a Vote of £2,000,000 for the Army Services, and asked for 20,000 additional men for the Army, which were granted, the Prime Minister stating that the object was to establish, not an armed neutrality, but a secure neutrality. There was no likelihood of our being dragged into that war; we had no further interest in Belgium than any other of the great European Powers; and our position was one of undisguised neutrality on both sides: and if in circumstances such as these a Liberal Government, whose watchwords were peace, retrenchment, and reform, thought it necessary to act immediately, no justification was required now for calling attention to the question. But if it were it was furnished by the speech of the present Prime Minister, made on the 1st of August, 1870, although he knew that on the following day the then Prime Minister was to ask for additional men and money. The present Prime Minister began by saying— To a Minister himself, in a state of affairs so critical as the present, I believe there is nothing more valuable than the intelligent and discriminating sympathy of the House of Commons. The policy of neutrality, he added, should be made— Of so active a character that representations at the proper moment may lead to the restoration of peace." "A mere general exchange of platitudes as to the advantages of restoring peace and averting the horrors of war is insufficient; something more is wanted. I think the House will agree with me that excellent as is the policy of neutrality, the policy of neutrality which cannot on the right occasion speak with authority to the belligerents is really a policy not entitled to respect. … Therefore it appears to me that the policy of England should be not only neutrality, but armed neutrality. He asked— Are our armaments in such a condition as enables us to adopt such a policy? He referred to the proposed Vote, and said— On the present occasion it would be satisfactory if we received assurances from the Government, more in detail, as to the condition of our Forces. He inquired as to the Navy, the arsenals, the forts, and their armaments, the number of ships on the slips, the real condition of our stores, especially as to fuel and coaling stations, and said— It is not unreasonable that in the House of Commons these questions should be asked, and this information should be elicited. I will not at length pursue the same inquiries with respect to the Army, the state of which we have also been assured is satisfactory … but still one may ask these questions:—Have you an efficient Army? Are your battalions of becoming strength? Are your batteries complete? Are the numbers of the cavalry regiments what they ought to be?" "It is absolutely necessary, in a moment like the present, that we should press for some details on these vital points." "However much economy is estimated on both sides of the House, in crises like the present any body of men, being Ministers of this country, can never appeal in vain to the House of Com- mons in order that the country may be placed in a state of adequate and complete defence."—[3 Hansard, cciii. 1286–1300.] And, finally, he pointed out how the Crimean War might have been prevented by a decided course. Following the precedent thus set by the Prime Minister, he (Lord Elcho) considered that the state of affairs at the present time sufficiently justified him in calling the attention of the House to this matter. He did not ask the Government to enter into any detail, because he thought the House should trust them; and therefore he thought they should be perfectly satisfied with a general assurance that they were taking steps to give promptness and efficiency to any action which they might think it necessary to take. Those who had studied the question said that in the present state of things it would take seven weeks to land a single English soldier in the East. If that were really the case, he could not but think it desirable that the House should encourage the Government to come to them boldly and ask for the necessary money for the defences of the country. It was with the view, not of hampering the Government, but of helping it, that he had brought the matter before the House. In conclusion, he could only urge his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War to be bold in preparation and lavish in timely expenditure which, in the long run, would be the best economy. He was confident that in so doing he would have the support of the House; and he, therefore, hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would be able to give them some assurance that these things were being so looked into that they might be able to carry out promptly land efficiently the policy enunciated by the Home Secretary, and endorsed by the country.


said, he wished very strongly to deprecate a warlike discussion, especially at a moment when, as they had been assured, there was some hope that peace might be suddenly arrived at through the efforts of united Europe. If we maintained the view that because we held one part of Asia we were to dictate to other nations when they were looking after their interests as we had looked after ours—if we were to hold the principle that no other part of Asia should be occupied by any other European nation, then we should prepare for war. But, under present circumstances, he did not think they need prepare for war, except by making that moderate preparation which they could trust to Her Majesty's Government. As to the road to India, he quite agreed with the Home Secretary's views; but, at the same time, he did not believe that the loss of the Suez Canal would be absolutely fatal. There was an alternative route round the Cape, which they might use during a serious war, and he had Sir Garnet Wolseley's authority for believing that it would be used. As to preparedness and efficiency, our Navy was our main reliance, and he held it would be in our power by means of our Navy, in conjunction with the other Navies of Europe, to stop the war; and though the time might not be the present one, the time might come when by friendly counsels, backed by the Navies of Europe, peace might be obtained. Their best policy at present was friendliness, and he deprecated any discussion which might precipitate the very evil which they wished to avoid.


I am far from wishing to blame my noble Friend for putting the Question which lie has thought proper to put to me; but, at the same time, I think he would have acted more prudently if he had abstained from doing so. I have nothing to conceal from the House. I brought forward the Estimates, and have not asked the House to increase them; and I think it a little premature to ask me to express an opinion, and to urge me to say something beyond what I have thought it necessary to say. If the occasion should arise to render it necessary to come to the House to ask for additional means, that would be the proper time to inquire what I have done. I wish to have the peace establishment as the nucleus for the defence of the country in case of war. With respect to the Army Mobilization Scheme, that has nothing whatever to do with our sending troops abroad. Therefore, when I brought it forward I always spoke of it as a defensive scheme. Last year my noble Friend will remember that I said there ought always to be a well-formed nucleus, so that our Army might be sent wherever it might be necessary. The House enabled me to increase 18 regiments from 600 to 820 men; and so far as that mat- ter is concerned, everyone can find out our position by looking at the Army List. The noble Lord knows there are 21 regiments in the highest condition of efficiency. I can only rest on my own responsibility in this matter, and it is my duty to be ready for any emergency which may arise. Under these circumstances, I can only say that, feeling the full responsibility of my position, I have still retained the peace force, looking to the possibility, but not to the probability of the contingency of war arising.

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