HC Deb 16 December 1878 vol 243 cc862-76

I have now, Sir, to move that the Orders of the Day be postponed until after the Notice of Motion relating to the Expenses of the Military Operations in Afghanistan; and in making that Motion, which is but a formal one, I wish to take advantage of the opportunity to offer a few words of explanation with regard to a Notice I gave on Friday night, for the House to go into Committee of Supply for the purpose of granting a sum of money in aid of the sufferers in the Rhodope district. I need not detain the House by entering into any account of the circumstances which led to the appointment of the Rhodope Commission, or of the circumstances in which not one Report, but four identical Reports, were presented by four different Members of the Commission. In the circumstances in which the se Reports were presented it was impossible for us, as I have stated to the House before, to take any political action without very serious consideration. I have also stated to the House on a previous occasion that, considering that the se Reports concurred in representing the distress as very severe and beyond the reach of the charity either of private persons or of the Turkish Government, it had been recommended that some assistance should be given, and it was in contemplation by Her Majesty's Government to take steps, in communication with foreign Governments, for acting upon that suggestion in the Report. In order to do anything of that kind it was necessary to apply for the sanction of the House; but the Notice I gave on Friday has certainly produced a response which, the ugh it has not been given in any formal manner, is sufficient to show that there would be very considerable difference of opinion on the subject. This, we think, is not a Vote which ought to be proposed if it is not to be generally accepted. Under these circumstances, Her Majesty's Government have suspended their communications with foreign Powers on this subject; and it is not my intention to move that Vote. With regard to the position in which the House now stands, I do not know how long the discussion upon my hon. Friend's (Mr. E. Stanhope's) Motion, and the Amendment of the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Fawcett), is likely to occupy. I am quite aware that there are many Gentlemen who take a great interest in the subject who wish to address the House, and I do not know whether it will be possible to close the debate this evening. If it should be, I hope the House will agree that after the debate is so closed, I should be allowed to move the adjournment for the Recess. If that should not be the case, and if the debate should be adjourned, then I shall give Notice to-night that tomorrow at the opening I shall move the adjournment. I should propose either to-night or to-morrow that the House, at its rising, do adjourn till Thursday, the 13th of February.


Sir, the unexpected and extraordinary announcement that has just boon made renders it, I think, necessary that one or two remarks should be made upon the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although I must say that I did not come down to the House with the slightest expectation that it would be necessary to take any course of this kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson) characterized the other clay the Notice which was given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer relating to the proposal for a grant in relief of the distress in the Rhodope district as "extraordinary." No doubt it did take the House greatly by surprise, especially after the fact that an announcement had been made a short time since by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the House should not, during this period of the Session, be asked to consider any other Business than that which related to the war which had broken out in Afghanistan. But extraordinary as that announcement was, a still more extraordinary one has been made this evening. We are informed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government have had under their serious consideration the Reports of the Rhodope Commission, and that, having given them that serious consideration, they had resolved to make a proposal to Parliament. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has also informed us that Her Majesty's Government have entered into communications with foreign Powers on the subject. Now, I think we may be informed, at all events, whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to make this proposition to the House without giving them some information—for we have received none as yet—as to the nature of these communications with foreign Powers and the answers which have boon received from the se foreign Powers? But, Sir, what is the reason that is given for the withdrawal of this Vote? It has been, as I have said, under the serious consideration of Her Majesty's Government; but on account of something that they have heard in the Lobby of this House, or some paragraphs which they have read in the newspapers, they have arrived suddenly at the conclusion that their serious consideration is altogether misplaced, and that the proposal should not be made. Sir, I do not think that I ever recollect an instance of a very grave and serious proposal being made so deliberately and being withdrawn with so much haste. I do think it is unfortunate that the withdrawal has taken place in a form which gives Parliament no opportunity of expressing an opinion on the conduct of the Government. I think the House is entitled to know whether the proposition is entirely abandoned, or whether it is merely suspended until further communications have boon made with foreign Powers, or until some oilier temper be found to prevail in the public mind? I think that a little more explanation than has yet been vouchsafed to the House on this subject is required; and that we ought to make some protest against a proposal which is brought forward after serious consideration on one day being withdrawn, without any reason assigned, on the next.


said, that the announcement which he had just heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer had taken him as much by surprise as that which he had made on Friday last. The House would remember that not many days ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer answered a Question about the Rhodope Report in such a manner as to throw very considerable doubt on the veracity of that Report. Subsequently the right hon. Gentleman gave another answer, affirming the veracity of the Report; and, as if to emphasize that assertion, he came down on Friday night with the announcement that he was to move for a grant in aid of the distress in the Rhodope district. He now came down and withdrew that proposal, and so relegated them back to their old position in regard to the veracity of the Report. He (Mr. Anderson) regretted that the House was to be deprived of the opportunity of discussing the Report of the Rhodope Commission, because it was a Report which deserved some discussion. The origin of that Report was, to say the least, open to question. Her Majesty's Government invited Sir Henry Layard to select a Commissioner, and the Commissioner whom he selected was Consul General Fawcett; and these two facts were alone sufficient to throw doubts upon the veracity of the Report. ["Oh, oh!"] These facts tainted the Report, perhaps not in the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but certainly in the opinion of half the people of the country, who remembered perfectly who the se two gentlemen were, and how they were steeped to the eyes in philo-Turkish prejudices. He believed that, under the se circumstances, it was impossible for the se gentlemen to give an unbiassed Report. Well, what the grant was intended to do they were still left in ignorance of. They did not know whether it was intended as a rebuff to Russia—which they that morning learnt was the opinion expressed in Constantinople—or whether it was a small sop to the great Jingo Party. They were deprived of the opportunity of knowing that. At all events, they did know that the proposal was most inopportune and almost unprecedented. But at the time when their country was in a state of the deepest distress, when factories and mills were standing, when iron and coal mines and other means of productive industry were at a standstill, that they should be asked to constitute themselves into a sort of International Committee for the relief of other nations in distress, was, he thought, rather too bad. He had looked carefully into the subject, and the only case in the shape of a precedent that he had been able to find was a very different one, and that was when a few shiploads of sea-stores were sent to the suffering inhabitants of Paris just after the siege. There was a famine in China a few years ago, where millions perished, and the Government did nothing; and when our fellow-subjects in India were in great need—one-third of the inhabitants of Orissa having died of starvation—the Home Government did nothing. As regarded the late Indian Famine the Home Government again did nothing. All these were left to voluntary beneficence. And were they now to go out of their way to grant a sum of money to a small district in Roumelia? The proposal was altogether preposterous and absurd. He regretted they had not had the opportunity of discussing the proposed grant fully, and, most of all, he regretted they had been deprived of the opportunity, before the Recess, of discussing the present condition of their own country, which the Government evidently failed to appreciate.


wished to bring under the notice of the House and the Government a circumstance which came under his own personal notice. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the distress in the Rhodope district was beyond the means of the Turkish Government, and he (Sir George Campbell) wished to ask whether the Government were aware that the Porte had found the means for purchasing large additional quantities of arms and ammunition in America? That great purchases of arms were made was shown by the fact that a ship which started from America loaded with arms for Turkey, stranded just after starting, and remained so to the present time. He wished to know if Her Majesty's Government realized that Turkey was spending money in that way whilst she was unable to help her own starving people? With reference to the selection of Consul General Fawcett as a Commissioner, he wished to say that he knew him to be an honourable and upright man, and the roughly to be believed in regard to matters coming under his own personal observation. At the same time he also knew, as a matter of personal knowledge, that Mr. Fawcett was one of the most notorious Turkophiles and Russian haters in all Constantinople, and that was saying a great deal. As regarded that portion of Mr. Fawcett's Report which related to matters of opinion and not to matters of fact, he should receive it with the greatest mistrust.


I am sure that the House will feel on both sides for the Government that sympathy which is always felt for persons who have placed themselves by their own fault in a very humiliating position. A more humiliating position I have never seen a Government placed in in my life. They receive the silent sympathy of their own Party, and the cordial approval in the course they pursue to-day of ours. Now, I think that the Government may have learned one lesson from this experience—that the ardent and somewhat vociferous supporters whom they have in the country and on that side of the House will do anything for the Turks except pay for them. The Government have avoided that test up to this time. They postponed payments, they borrowed money; but they did not ask for the means of paying. They seemed to have a suspicion that these Turkophile Gentlemen would not like to ask their constituents to pay for their opinions, and they were quite right. But in an evil moment they thought they would come down to this House and ask these Gentlemen to go to their constituencies and ask them to back their opinions, and then there was a rebellion. They said—"For God's sake do not send us to our constituency loaded with a claim for payment to the Turks," and so the proposal has disappeared. But what can we think of a policy conducted upon such principles as the se? If it is merely a question of money, and you want to relieve these unfortunate people, I wonder why you (the Government) have not taken your favourite course. Did not this Rhodope affair arise out of your Eastern policy? But for your Eastern policy all these transactions which have occurred in European Turkey—this unfortunate and unhappy lot of misery—would not have occurred. But then your Eastern policy was a part of the defence of India, and why do you not propose to put this Rhodope grant on the Revenues of India? That would relieve you from the situation in which you are placed, because then the Tory Members would not have to ask their constituents to pay for Turkey. You can put it upon India as you put your other expenses for this policy, and that might reconcile them to it. I wish to ask a question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it is this—What are you going to do for the Rhodope sufferers now you have withdrawn the grant? My noble Friend the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) has disappeared in this catastrophe. He was very loud in his cross-examination, almost menacing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, upon the subject of the Rhodope district. Now you have got your Rhodope Report, and have made communications to foreign Governments, I want to know what foreign Governments will think when, after asking them to join you, you say you find the Conservative Members will not support you? A nice position that for a Government with a great foreign policy. But there remains the question—What are you going to do now? The answer to that question will interest the people of Rhodope; it will [interest most of the foreign Governments whom you have solicited to join you; it will be very interesting to Eastern nations, and also to the constituents of Conservative Members.


said, he was a little surprised to find that no hon. Member on the other side of the House had got up to defend the policy of the Government, or to find a precedent for them. He certainly was not on other occasions accustomed to take that task upon himself; but it certainly did appear to him that the position of the Government was perfectly natural under the circumstances. He had in his mind a precedent that he thought might stand them in good stead. There were once two Americans who found themselves in great danger in a small boat at sea, and they thought the time had come for some devotional exercises. So as they could recollect no hymn, and they had forgotten all their prayers, they made a collection. It appeared to him that Her Majesty's Government had got into very great straits with their foreign policy, and recent elections gave them reason to believe they would soon be in difficulties at home, and so he was not surprised that, under the circumstances, they made a collection.


said, the policy of the Government could very well be understood on the ground that "the least said was the soonest mended." The questions put by the Leader of the Opposition ought, however, to be answered; there should be some explanation. He hoped that this affair would be settled finally and at once.


said, he had been perfectly astonished at the course taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had been unable to find any precedent for such a grant. He believed both Sir Henry Layard and Consul General Fawcett to be honourable men, and incapable of wilful misrepresentation; but he must say it was impossible to read the Report without feeling that there had been a large amount of exaggeration and much looseness in the evidence upon which it was founded. He, as his votes showed, was anything but a Turkophile; but still he did not share with some hon. Members on that (the Opposition) side of the House in admiration of the Russian Government, on whose conduct he looked with great suspicion. He wanted to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what he meant by saying that he placed reliance on Consul General Fawcett? Did the right hon. Gentleman place reliance in every part of the Report, including the statement of facts, or only in some part of it? The Report, notwithstanding some exaggeration and a great deal of looseness, contained serious and grave charges against Russia. If these allegations were true, he appealed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to know whether the case could be met by a grant of money? Was the right hon. Gentleman going to confine himself to asking Parliament to pay for the misdoings of the Russian soldiery and Bulgarians; or was he prepared to announce what further action the Government would take?


It appears to some of us sitting below the Gangway that the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir William Harcourt) made a great deal more of this matter than it really deserves. It occurs to me that the case might have been much more grave had the Motion been proceeded with. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has gracefully withdrawn the Motion, when he found upon inquiry—and it is only upon inquiry that the feeling of the House upon such a question can be ascertained—that the proposal would, in all probability, not meet with the general approval of the House. The hon. and learned Member made a statement to which not only I and many who sit near me demur, but upon which the House itself has already distinctly pronounced an opinion directly the reverse of that entertained by the hon. and learned Gentleman. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the state of affairs in the Rhodope district was owing to the Eastern policy of the Government. Now, that must have been a mistake, because the Eastern policy of the Government had proved an entire success. [Laughter.] At all events, the votes of this House and the opinion of the country go to show that it is so. [An hon. MEMBER: Bristol.] The Chancellor of the Exchequer having withdrawn his Motion, when he found it was not met with general approval, the best course we can adopt is to put a stop to further discussion upon this small matter and to proceed with the other Business before us.


I cannot agree with the right hon. Baronet who has just sat down in thinking that the best mode of dealing with this subject is to make little of it, and at once to pass to the other Business of the evening. The question appears to me to be a very serious one indeed. I do not propose to widen the issue by discussing the very large question which the right hon. Baronet has raised as to the entire success of the Eastern policy of the Government, and as to the attainment of the objects with which they entered into the Berlin Congress. That may be a tempting inducement; but I think the present subject is important enough for consideration. The present proposal appears to me to have been a very unhappy mistake. The proposal of Her Majesty's Government, made on Friday and withdrawn on Monday, has not been the result of a sudden emergency, the Report having been signed by the Commissioners as far back as the end of August. Her Majesty's Government have had more than three months in which to consider this matter. The Report of the Rhodope Commission raises two points of the utmost importance: first, the conduct attributed, to the Bulgarians and to the Russian soldiery as against the Mahomedan population of Rhodope; and, secondly, the alleged distress of the Mahomedan population of that district. It is very unfortunate that when the question of that distress is so prominently raised at the present time no step was taken by Her Majesty's Government with regard to it until so late a period; and that the proposal to make a grant for its relief should not have been included in the objects with which Parliament was summoned. It is evident that the idea of making that proposal was only born on Friday last—or, at least, on the day immediately before that day. It may be that there is a difference of opinion as to the propriety of the proposal and also as to the propriety of withdrawing it when it was made; but there can be no difference of opinion as to this—that in withdrawing that proposal Her Majesty's Government are morally bound to make known to us what their intentions are in reference to the matter. It has been alleged as a reason for withdrawing this proposal that the communications with foreign Governments with regard to Rhodope have been suspended; but we have been informed that the people of that district are on the verge of starvation, and the suspension of communication has no effect in arresting starvation. Her Majesty's Government, in dealing with this matter, are bound to take into consideration what course has been taken in reference to it by their friends, and by their Ambassador at Constantinople. Their friends have not only promulgated throughout the country—and they were perfectly right in so doing—the severity of the sufferings of the refugee Mahomedan population, but they have bestowed the most unmeasured and severe condemnation upon the se who, as they have thought fit to say, have called the attention of the world to the sufferings of the Bulgarian Christians, but who do not care one rush for the sufferings of their Mahomedan fellow-countrymen. Sir Henry Layard has in the most unjustifiable manner embodied in a despatch, which was immediately published by Her Majesty's Government, a complaint of this kind; and our Ambassador at Constantinople, whose business it is to represent his country as a whole, has presumed to say that the se who made the sufferings of the Bulgarian Christians the subject of public interest and discussion have remained coldly silent when the sufferings of their Mahomedan fellow-countrymen are in question. Having seen that extraordinary statement, I made a private and personal appeal—not without the knowledge of the Foreign Office—to Sir Henry Layard on the subject and pointed out to him the notorious injustice and the total and absolute untruth of the charge of silence which he had brought against us. Naturally, I concluded myself to be included within that charge; and I pointed out to him that on the first intimation of the sufferings that had been caused to the Mahomedans of the district I had published a letter addressed to the Christians of Bulgaria, in which I had stated that Christian cruelty was quite as bad, if not worse, than Mahomedan cruelty. Sir Henry Layard, in his reply, stated that he had not named me in his despatch, and that, therefore, he did not consider that I had any title to call him to account in the matter. That is the manner in which these things are carried on. Having pointed to the manner in which subjects of private concern are managed, let us see how matters which are of public concern are managed. The inquiry into the alleged atrocities in Rhodope commenced in a manner which may almost be called august. It arose out of statements made at the Congress of Berlin. A Commission was given by that Congress to the Representatives of the Powers at Constantinople, ordering and authorizing them to make inquiries on the subject. I confess I cannot think that the steps taken in the matter, so far as this country is concerned, were of the most judicious character. Consul General Fawcett, our Representative on the Commission, whatever his ability maybe, was marked in the most eminent degree with the character of a partizan. On a former occasion, when an inquiry was to be made into alleged atrocities in Bulgaria, Her Majesty's Government made in the person of Mr. Baring, a most careful selection of a gentleman who bore no such character; and, consequently, the Report of the Commission on which he had sat was received with absolute credence and carried the greatest weight. But, on the contrary, no sooner had the Report of the Rhodope Commission been published than it became the subject of the most severe criticism. But a heavy responsibility lay on Her Majesty's Government. It was for them to consider whether the evidence was credible or not. They did consider it, and declared it to be credible by adopting the Report of the Commission. The matter was of the utmost urgency, for the honour and character of a nation was involved in giving it effect, because it was a Report in answer to inquiries which were instituted on international authority. Her Majesty's Government having declared that they gave credence to the opinion, likewise gave Notice of a Motion in connection with which it was understood that they would explain their views to the House. That being so, how have we been met to-night by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? This matter cannot rest where it is. You cannot institute inquiries of this kind; appoint agents; declare that you have faith in them; receive from them statements which describe the most horrible sufferings, and which remark upon their continuance down, as we are given to understand, to the present time; announce, in consequence of all these proceedings, a proposal to Parliament for the relief of the sufferers; and then simply withdraw the proposal on the ground that communications with foreign Governments are suspended. I do not enter into the political part of the question at all. If I have referred to the proceedings of Sir Henry Layard, it is because I feel that he has exhibited a portion of his fellow-countrymen to the world in a most odious and offensive light. He advanced the charge against them that they were willing to excite feeling on the subject of Christian misery, but that Mahomedan misery appeared to be to them a matter of indifference. Sir, it is no matter of indifference to us. We can draw no distinction between Christian and Mahomedan suffering. I should have thought that Her Majesty's Government would have exercised a sounder discretion if, originally, in lieu of suggesting a grant of public money, a largo proportion of which must have been paid out of the pockets of our own labouring population, they had adopted the means which were in their power, and which are still in their power, for instituting and recommending a voluntary subscription with the view of relieving the sufferings of these refugees. I do not know whether the consideration of that matter has been before them, nor whether it has met, or will meet with their favour. My view of the matter is entirely practical. It does not relate to the manner in which the Government or any particular section of the House will appear, but to the attitude in which the whole nation is represented if, after a solemn inquiry of this kind into the misery of a population has been instituted, and if, after a proposal has been made to Parliament, upon deliberation by the Government, the matter is allowed to be postponed sine die upon the mere statement that communications with foreign Governments are suspended. I hope, therefore, that the Government will satisfy the opinion which I cannot but think is general in the House—that this a matter with which both the interests of humanity, and the credit of the nation to some extent are concerned; and that if they do not think fit to persevere with the Vote which they proposed to submit to Parliament, they will let us know distinctly whether that Vote has been finally withdrawn; and, if so, whether they mean to take any and, if so, what measures with a view to the relief of these unfortunate people in pursuance of the Report of Mr. Consul Fawcett and his Colleagues, to which they have told us that upon consideration they give their credence.


Sir, I have no wish to disturb the good humour of hon. Gentlemen opposite, or the amusement which they seem to have derived from what has just passed. Perhaps they wanted something to put them in a good humour after what has lately befallen them. But I must ask the House not to allow itself to be drawn into a general discussion of the Turkish and Russian question. We did not come here expecting such a discussion, but to transact other Business, and it would not be convenient for the House to drift irregularly into such a discussion. I do not take any exception to what has just fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Gladstone). He may have had special reasons for wishing to say what he has done. But I hope the House will not permit itself to be carried into a discussion which might become animated, and which we could hardly enter upon with advantage at the present moment. The first question which has been put to me is, whether this proposal is altogether withdrawn? That is a question which may be fairly asked. In fact, this proposal has never been formally made, and there is no intention of making it. I am told that this is an extraordinary and unprecedented position for the Government to find itself in; but if we searched the records of this House, even for no distant year, I think we should find cases in which measures, even of much importance, have been brought forward with great solemnity, and have been elaborately introduced, and yet they have afterwards been quietly dropped out of sight, because it was not thought desirable to bring them to the test of discussion. But be that as it may, the position in which we really now stand is this—A Commission was appointed by the joint action of several Governments. The Commissioners held their meetings; they instituted an inquiry; but when it came to the time for reporting, it was found that they could not agree. The Report was prepared, not by Mr. Consul Fawcett—on whom rather unfair imputations have been cast—nor by Sir Henry Layard, but, I think, by the French Commissioner; and that Report was accepted identically by other Commissioners—namely, by the Italian and the Turkish Commissioners. The Reports were presented, not as one Report, but as identical Reports presented separately by the different Commissioners to their several Governments; three important Commissioners dissenting from the conclusions. In these circumstances the course to be pursued was obviously one which required considerable care and reflection. I do not think that we ought to be taunted or enticed into any discussion of that subject before we are really prepared to discuss it. At the present moment, and especially without a formal Notice and invitation to discuss the subject, I am not ashamed to say that I am not prepared to do so. But there was another matter, which stood apart or aside from the question in dispute between the Commissioners, and that was the undoubted fact, recognized by every one, that there was severe suffering, and suffering which it would be desirable, if possible, to relieve. It appeared to us that it might be a convenient and proper course to hold communication with other Governments, and, to a certain extent, such communication was opened; but in the particular case in which it was opened I do not think that the reception which the suggestion met with was such as entirely to make it clear that that course would have led to a successful result. And, at all events, when we made the proposal in this House we found there could be no doubt that there was a very widely-spread feeling that it was not desirable that such a proposal should be made and discussed. [A laugh.] It is all very well to raise a laugh, but we must look at these matters with the eye of common sense; and everybody must see that even if the Government should, at the risk of incurring ridicule, not make a proposal that would lead to repeated debates, and which, if it were adopted, would only be adopted by a majority, it is better that they should not persevere with a proposal which ought not to be accepted in a grudging spirit. I am quite prepared to take my share of any blame that may be cast on us for the manner in which we have acted, and I accept a considerable personal responsibility; but I hope the House will not now consent to be drawn into a wider discussion, and that we shall be allowed to proceed with the Business of the evening.

Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That the Orders of the Day he postponed until after the Notice of Motion relating to the Expenses of the Military Operations in Afghanistan—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)