HC Deb 21 January 1878 vol 237 cc257-63

Report of Address brought up, and read.


observed that having, in common probably with many other hon. Members, anticipated at the commencement of the Session that there would be a prolonged debate on the Eastern Question, he had been prepared to take an opportunity of expressing his opinion on that subject. But it had boon so evident that it was not the wish of the House that that question should lead to a lengthened discussion that he, with many others, had deferred to that wish; neither did he now intend to depart from that resolution. Indeed, he should not now have risen had it not been for a passage in the speech of the right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone) —whose absence he regretted—at the earlier stage of that debate, which he thought, if allowed to pass without comment, might, in the present critical state of affairs, be misconstrued and lead to serious consequences. Referring to the speech of the Chancellor of the Exche- quer, the right hon. Member for Greenwich said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had laid down a doctrine which, perhaps, he had not meant broadly to affirm; for, speaking of the demands which Russia had made at the commencement of the war, he had said that it was material for us to know whether any further demands were to be made. The right hon. Member for Greenwich went on to remark that he hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not wish them to infer that he intended to lay down the doctrine that Russia was bound, having obtained great success in warlike operations, to limit her demands to the terms by which she originally bound herself to keep the peace. The right hon. Member characterized that doctrine as totally untenable, and argued that Russia would be justified, after her successes in war, in greatly extending the terms of her demand, on the ground that on former occasions other countries which had been successful in war had increased their demands. Now, that appeared to him to be a new and somewhat strange doctrine, and if that reasoning was to hold good, and if it was to be sufficient to justify an act that a precedent could be be found for it, it seemed to him that there was no breach of faith, no violation of any law, no crime in the calendar which could not be justified on that principle. In the absence of the right hon. Member he would not enter into the question whether the remarks he had made were those of a statesman or of a patriot. He would leave that point to the judgment of the House. But other Powers as well as England were interested in the terms on which Russia might insist as conditions of peace; and it was not too much to assort that on the moderation of the terms on which Russia might insist do-pended solely the question of peaco or war in Europe. Was this, then, he asked, the moment at which to suggest that Russia would be justified in extending her terms without limit because of her great success in war? And was it to go forth to the world that the English House of Commons was indifferent as to the point to which those terms might be extended? He would ask the House to remember the part which the right hon. Member had taken in this question. Every word which fell from him was very carefully weighed by Russia, and much more importance was attached by that country to his words and opinions on that occasion than to those of any other Member of the House. He could not think, however, that the suggestion —he would not call it assertion—put forward by the right hon. Member, that Russia would be justified in extending the limits of the terms on which she was prepared to insist, was one that ought to be listened to in that House without comment, and, he would say, condemnation. He trusted that the suggestion would not be endorsed by the great majority of the House or by the great body of the people of the country. He concurred, however, with the right hon. Member in the horror he entertained for war, and he also cordially endorsed the saying of the noble Earl the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (the Earl of Derby) that the first interest of England was peace. He went further, and contended that a country which embarked in an unjust war was guilty of a great crime. But cases had occurred, and cases might occur again, when war ceased to be a crime and became a duty. He did not wish in any way to impugn the good faith of the Russian Government. He was willing to believe that it would fairly and honourably redeem those pledges which it volunteered before the commencement of the war; but he could not shut his eyes to the fact that the issues of peace and war depended very much on the nature of the terms that might be demanded at the forthcoming negotiations, and he felt that the House of Commons ought not to seem indifferent to them. Everyone hoped that the negotiations might succeed and that peace might be the result. If, unfortunately, those terms should be such as would disturb the peace of Europe, he was sure that if the Government of this country came to Parliament for assistance in redemption of the pledges they had given to uphold the honour and rights of England, they would meet not only with the cheerful support of the great majority of that House, but with the cordial and manly support of the great mass of the people.


while agreeing that it was not desirable that there should be any angry discussion in the House at that moment, said, there was one point of great importance which should be urged in this country, and that was that the language, attitude,' actions, and words of the British Government should be free from ambiguity. The opinion was held abroad by many who occupied themselves with the conduct of affairs that throughout the whole of these difficulties the action, language, and attitude of the British Government in regard to the definition of the interests for which they meant to stand up had never been free from ambiguity. He could not refrain from saying that in some respects the information presented in recent Parliamentary Papers was partial and garbled. It had been promised that a Blue Book should contain some of the late Diplomatic Correspondence; but any Correspondence which might have been exchanged with the Greek Government, in reference to her attitude towards Turkey, had been entirely omitted. It would have been better in any case to have laid those despatches on the Table, and then there would have been no doubt of the language employed, and any possible misapprehension would have been dispelled. Matters had arrived at that critical state when a word said in an angry tone might injure delicate negotiations and do a great deal of mischief, and at no moment was it of more paramount importance that the attitude of the British Government should be an attitude of impartiality, and should not be supposed to be coloured with the complexion of a partizanship.


said, there was no doubt the moderation of Russia was a matter of the utmost importance to Europe. If she acted up to her professions before she began the war, and if her demands were not excessive, then a speedy and solid solution of the Eastern Question might be found. But if she gave way to ideas of conquest, then she would be deserving of the greatest condemnation, and would justly be held to be the enemy of Europe. Such unwisdom was more than he anticipated, for he believed the Emperor of Russia to be sufficiently wise to see the tremendous importance of the terms he was willing to grant to Turkey. He could not, however, concur in the view that had been taken, that it was incumbent on her to gain no other advantages than those for which war had been ostensibly made; for during the progress of the campaign contingencies developed themselves which, could not be foreseen. No authoritative book on international law sanctioned that doctrine.


Sir, I will not detain the House more than two or three minutes. I quite agree with the general feeling of the House that this is not the time to carry on a debate on this question. I am also content to leave it as it was left last Thursday. But with regard to the answer of the hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Bourke) to the Question of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Cartwright), I was very sorry to hear that reply. Of course if, as has boon stated, the Government cannot, with a due regard for the public service, give information, it is very difficult to move for it. I am, however, sorry that they cannot give us the Correspondence between the Foreign Office and the Greek Government or with Turkey with regard to anything which has passed between England and Greece. I regret it partly on the ground mentioned by my hon. Friend, that there is some ambiguity connected with the matter; still more because it seems to me very necessary that the House should know any obligations which the Government may have incurred to any Powers. What we have gained by reading the common sources of information is that the Greeks, invited by what was passing around them, were—or at any rate some of them were—ready to take advantage of the war between Russia and Turkey to see how they could assert what they considered to be their rights. And what we also observe has been stated is that it was very much owing to the influence of our Government that they did not do so. It is impossible, to speak plainly, to conceal from ourselves the conviction that if they had been free to act they might have been in a different and better position for obtaining whatever they think they ought to obtain than if not hindered. And therefore, if it is in consequence of anything done by our Government that they have not acted, I think the House and the Government will admit that we may have incurred some obligation towards Greece, and that in consequence of the action we have taken Greece may not be in so good a position as she might have been. I do not mean to blame the Government in respect of this, but I think we ought not to be called upon to deliberate on the terms that Russia may propose, and on the possible phases the Eastern Question may enter upon, without knowing exactly the position to which the Government has pledged itself or committed the country with regard to any of the Powers that are interested. I do not press the Government on this matter, but I do hope they will take into consideration the grounds on which my remarks are based and that they will give us all the information in their power.


Sir, I do not wish to prolong this discussion, but I desire to ask the Government a Question on a matter relating to affairs in the East. I wish to ask whether it is true or not, as stated in a telegram which appears in this morning's Times, that a communication has been addressed by Her Majesty to His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia interceding for Turkey, and suggesting that the Emperor of Russia should stay his victorious armies? The telegram goes on to say that this news has produced a most unfavourable impression in the Russian capital. I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer will inform the House whether there is any foundation for the statement?


In answer to the last Question put by the hon. Member for Swansea, I have to say that I had seen the statement he refers to in the newspapers, but was not aware that any Question was intended to be put to the House on the subject, and I think it is a Question which should not be put without Notice. I think the feeling of the House is that which was expressed by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. W. E. Forster), that it is not desirable at the present moment, which is certainly a moment of considerable importance, that we should enter into a general discussion on the present position of this question. We have not yet heard what the Russian terms are. We have reason to know that those which were stated in some of the journals this morning are not correct; but we have not yet received the information which must come, I suppose, very soon. We know that the delegates are in communication now with the Russian commanders, and I have no doubt we shall very shortly be in possession of fuller knowledge. I think it is the opinion of both sides of the House that it is better we should abstain from any hypothetical discussion on a matter of this kind; and I hope, therefore, that the House will be content for the present with what has already been said. I am sure there is no desire on the part of the Government to hold anything like an ambiguous position. I endeavoured the other day to make our position as clear as I could, and I do not think we are open to that charge; but it is necessary that there should be a certain amount of reserve, especially when such delicate negotiations are proceeding.

Address agreed to: —To be presented by Privy Councillors.

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