HC Deb 29 March 1878 vol 239 cc247-61

Mr. Speaker—Sir, I must ask the indulgence of the House for a few minutes while I venture to interpose between the Motion which has been made and hon. Members who have Amendments upon the Paper. I do this in order to put a Question to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I wish to accompany that Question with a few observations in explanation. I wish to call the attention of the House for a moment or two to the Papers which were laid upon the Table of the House last night, although, I believe, they are not yet in our hands. It has, however, been stated by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the portions of those Papers which he read last evening contained the most essential parts of the Correspondence on which my Question is based; and it will, therefore, I think, perhaps be not irregular if I venture to say a word or two in regard to them. The House will have observed that the Correspondence to which the right hon. Gentleman referred began with a despatch of Her Majesty's Government to the Austrian Government, and that, as far as we were informed, was the only despatch contained in the Correspondence which had passed between any of the Governments other than those of Her Majesty and of Russia. Now, I venture to think that the Correspondence which has been so described must be quite inadequate for the purpose of giving to the House all that full information which ought to be in its possession, if not at the present, at an early period. The Correspondence, as far as we know, contains the terms of the conditions which were raised by Her Majesty's Government as a preliminary to our entrance into the Congress, and it also contains the objections raised by Russia to the conditions desired by the Government of Her Majesty. But we know perfectly well that—to say nothing of the Governments of other nations—the Governments of Austria and Germany were deeply interested in the assembling of the Congress. We even know that the original invitation proceeded from Austria, and that the Governments of both Germany and Austria have taken and have shown in various ways a very warm and strong interest in the assembling of the proposed Congress. In fact, the questions which the Congress was to assemble to discuss were European questions, and were not in any sense questions which were alone confined to the consideration of this country and of Russia. Well, it is asserted—I do not know with what truth—but it has been asserted frequently, and it has not been contradicted, that the Government of this country stands alone in insisting upon the conditions which they raised as a preliminary to their entrance into the Congress, and that their refusal to join the Congress on the terms formulated by Russia has not been shared by any other European Governments. Now, under these circumstances, I think it must be quite clear to the House that communications must have passed between the Government of this country and the other European Governments in addition to those which have been laid upon the Table. It is impossible that in the state of things which I have described the Government should not have sought to obtain, and should not have obtained, information as to the views which were taken on this subject by the Governments of Austria and Germany, not to speak, as I said before, of the views entertained by the other Powers; and it seems to me that this House ought to be placed in possession of that Correspondence and of those communications—or, at all events, of such parts of them as it may be in the power of the Government to lay upon the Table. We have a right to information which will enable us to judge not only of the actual attitude taken by those Governments, but of the view which they take of the general position and of the position of this country as opposed to the view taken by the Government of Russia. I think, that under any circumstances, there would be the strongest reason for asking the Government to lay upon the Table the Correspondence to which I am referring. I think that in circumstances of such gravity as those which now exist—the probable failure of the assembling of the proposed Congress—a Congress which it was hoped would be the means of restoring peace to Europe—and of restoring tranquillity and good government to those Provinces in the East of Europe which have lately been the scene of a terrible war—it would, in any case, I think, under circumstances such as these, be desirable that the House should be placed in possession of the information, for which I am now asking. But I think the necessity for these Papers is greatly increased, and rendered much more imperative by the nature of the announcements which were made in the two Houses of Parliament yesterday. In "another place," it was stated that, in consequence of the abandonment of the hope that the Congress was about to meet, Her Majesty's Government had found it necessary to take the measure of making the necessary preparations for calling out the Reserve Forces. I need not dwell upon the gravity of that announcement; I need not ask Her Majesty's Government to anticipate the information which will be conveyed to Parliament by them in Her Majesty's Message on Monday next; nor need I ask them to anticipate the statement which the House will have a right to expect from Her Majesty's Ministers in support of the Message; nor need I say anything of my own to press further upon the House the gravity of the announcement that has been made. But I may, perhaps, be allowed to remind the House that, by a simple reference to the Acts of Parliament, to which allusion was made in this House yesterday, it will be seen that the Message which we are to receive on Monday from Her Majesty, by the advice of Her Ministers, must contain an announcement that we are at present in circumstances of either imminent national danger or of grave emergency. The gravity of a situation which can be—and we know must be—described in those terms, needs no comment from me, and is incapable of exaggeration. In these circumstances, it was my intention to have abstained—and I hope the House will think that it will be right to abstain—from any comment on the measure which has been taken—or which has been announced to betaken—by Her Majesty's Government. I think it is due to the Government, and also to Parliament, that we should wait, before making any comment on that measure, for the statement which will be contained in Her Majesty's Message, and for the further statement which may be made by Her Majesty's Ministers. But if it is the intention of the Government—as I infer from what has been said that it is—that the House is in the course of the next week or the week after to be called upon to express an opinion on the measure which has been taken, it is absolutely essential, I think, that the House should be in possession of the greatest possible amount of information. Now, Sir, we cannot be expected to express any intelligent opinion on that measure, unless we know the events which have preceded, and which have formed the necessity for it. And I venture to think that the Correspondence for which I am asking, containing the statement of the attitude which has been taken by the other Powers of Europe, and the statement of our attitude in regard not only to Russia, but to the other Powers, is an essential element in the consideration of this measure. I think that the House ought to know whether, in this grave national crisis, we stand or not in a position of isolation. It has been our misfortune—I do not say now owing to what causes—but it has been our misfortune, more than once in the progress of these events, to stand in a position of complete isolation among the European Powers. I think it is due to the House that we should know, before we enter on the discussion of the measure which the Government is about to propose to us, whether we stand again in that position of isolation; and, if so, in consequence of what causes and for what reason do we find ourselves in that unfortunate position? Sir, it is for these reasons that I venture to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to lay on the Table further Correspondence respecting the communications that have passed between them and the other Powers with regard to the meeting of the Congress?


Sir, I cannot for a moment complain, either of the Question which the noble Lord has put to me, or of the observations with which he has prefaced it. At the same time, I must ask the House to consider fairly the peculiar position of the Government at the present moment. The circumstances—I wish to speak as gravely and as frankly as possible—the circumstances in which we stand are simply these. The answer which was received from the Government of Russia to a very important communication which had been made by Her Majesty's Government was received and laid before the Cabinet only on Wednesday. The result of that communication was that a resolution was arrived at by Her Majesty's Government, which was to the effect that it would be desirable and proper that Her Majesty should be advised to exercise the power which is vested in Her by certain Statutes, of calling out the Reserve of the Army and of the Militia Forces. As soon as that resolution had been taken, my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary (the Earl of Derby) dissented from it, and felt himself obliged to tender his resignation. Yesterday, my noble Friend announced that fact in the House of Lords; and it appeared necessary to the Prime Minister—and such was the feeling of all his Colleagues—that, in order to prevent any exaggerated opinion as to what might possibly have been the cause of that important step on the part of my noble Friend, it was right and proper that he should state what the particular ground was upon which that step had been taken. And, therefore, it was that the decision of the Cabinet to recommend Her Majesty that She should exercise that power was communicated to Parliament yesterday. I am sorry that it should have been necessary—although it certainly was necessary—that that decision should be communicated to Parliament before the Papers which were prepared, or were being prepared, were laid on the Table. It would have been more convenient, both for the House and for the Government, that simultaneously the Papers should have been laid on the Table, and that Parliament should have been put in possession of and be able to discuss them at the time when the decision I have referred to was announced. But the House will, I think, understand that it was with the object of preventing misapprehension, which might have been serious and inconvenient, that that statement was made before the Papers were ready. Well, the Papers will be produced as speedily as possible; and I may say now, I believe, with confidence—and in this my hon. Friend the Under Secretary of State bears me out—that they will be in the hands of hon. Members to-morrow morning. But, as the noble Lord and the right hon. Gentlemen opposite, and those who have served in Cabinets, well know—and, in fact, it will suggest itself to every Member of the House—it is impossible that we can produce Papers containing Correspondence with foreign Governments on the spur of the moment, without in the first place ascertaining that the publication which has to be made of those despatches will be made with the consent of the Government with which we have been in communication. Therefore, it is necessary that there should be a short delay, in order to ascertain that what is to be published is published with proper authority. I understand that that authority has been obtained, and that these Papers are now in a state in which they can be properly laid on the Table. And when they are in the hands of the House, the noble Lord will see that they contain, not only communications between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Russia, but also communication with other Powers. I have no desire in any way to restrain the liberty of the House to discuss this question as fully as they think necessary; but I would venture to put it to the noble Lord, and to hon. Gentlemen generally, whether it will not be more convenient to wait a day or two before entering into a discussion into which we cannot now enter with any advantage? I hope and believe—in fact, I am sure—that the Papers which we present will be in the hands of the House to-morrow morning. The course we propose to adopt is that we should on Monday bring down the Message which Her Majesty will be advised to send to this House, announcing that She has thought it right to take steps towards exercising Her statutory authority to call out a certain portion of our Reserve Forces. That communication will be made on Monday; and I should propose, if it is the pleasure of the House, that the communication from Her Majesty should be taken into consideration on Thursday. Of course, I mentioned earlier in the day the Monday following, my reason being that Thursday next is the day which was set apart for the Financial Statement. It is not very convenient to alter the day for the Financial Statement; but I shall be perfectly prepared to put that down for Monday week. There will be no great inconvenience in that postponement for two or three days, with the understanding that if the discussion which will begin on Thursday should occupy more than the Thursday and the Friday—if that day should be available—it will not be resumed until the Tuesday following, so that the Financial Statement, if it is not made on Thursday, may be made on the Monday following. It would be inconvenient in many ways that it should be postponed any longer. I hope that this will be an arrangement which will be satisfactory to the House. It is not at all the desire of Her Majesty's Government to avoid in any way a full discussion of the position in which we stand; but I would venture to repeat that we have taken this step in consequence of the communications which have been passing between ourselves and the various Powers which are interested in this settlement, and that we feel that the time has come when it is necessary that we should take a decided step in this matter. I may say, generally, that what I understand to be the position of Europe at the present crisis is this. For a number of years—more than it is necessary now to recall—for a considerable number of years, the settlement of the Turkish Empire and of the Provinces lying in the South-East of Europe has been regarded as a matter of European concern, and has interested most, if not all, of the nations of Europe. For the last 20 years, at all events, it has been governed by Treaties which were solemnly entered into by a number of the principal Powers of Europe. Circumstances have occurred which have undoubtedly destroyed or materially altered the basis of the settlement which was arrived at 20 years ago, and there can be no question whatever that it is important that a full and candid examination of the situation should be made, and that those Powers which have been interested in maintaining the status of Turkey for so many years should now be consulted as to the position in which it stands, and as to the position in which it is desirable that that part of Europe should stand for the future. Well, we do not for a moment attempt to close our eyes to facts which are perfectly patent, and which it would be foolish to attempt to lay aside. We cannot for a moment close our eyes to the very great changes which the past year has wrought; and we cannot deny that the issue of the war, which has now been brought to a close between Russia and Turkey, has been so to affect the situation as that it is perfectly right and proper that a fresh examination of the situation should ensue. And, the point of departure being the old settlement under which Europe has so long existed, it is not inconvenient that we should take, as the basis for discussion, the new arrangements entered into in the preliminary Treaty of Peace between Russia and Turkey. But it would be impossible, of course, that any fair consideration could be given to that Treaty and to those arrangements, and to the whole question, unless the whole question is to be fairly open for discussion, and unless it is to be understood that each and all of the arrangements which affect the various Powers of Europe should be made a fair subject of discussion in any Conference which it may be intended to hold for the settlement of the questions we have attempted to consider. Well, that is all England has asked. We have not attempted to stand on any punctilio, or any question of form. We should have considered it most unjustifiable to do so. We have not desired to throw any impediment in the way of a fair settlement of this question on its merits. We have desired that there should be free and fair consultation and discussion of the various Articles of the Treaty, if that is what is to be placed before the Conference. We think in what we have proposed we have only asked that which is reasonable. We are sorry, and we do not understand why a difficulty should have been raised on the part of any Power to what we have demanded; and we are sorry that, owing to difficulties which we own we are not very well able to understand, there should be an appearance of a difficulty in the settlement at which we have desired to arrive. We have done what we could, and we regret that it is not more satisfactory; but, that being the case, we have to consider what the position of this country is, and what our interests demand. We have to consider the position of this country as one of the Great Powers of Europe, and as having an interest in common with the other Powers in a European settlement, and we have further to consider such interests as may be in any way more peculiar to this nation; and, therefore, it is necessary that this country should, either in Conference or in any other manner, maintain these interests, and maintain the position which we occupy. But I hope that, having explained the view which I take of our position, I may be excused from entering now into any details as to the course which it may be our duty to adopt. Parliament, no doubt, has a perfect right to demand a full and perfect explanation of our policy, and to put any question, and to demand to have the information on any points that it requires. But I would venture to point out—I do not now go into matters of detail—but I would venture to point out this, with regard to the particular step which we are now taking in advising Her Majesty to call out these men of the Reserves. More than a month ago we invited the House to grant us a Vote of Credit for a certain sum of money. It was remarked at the time that we did not ask for any additional men. We replied, that there was no object in asking for any additional force of men, because there were men available if Parliament chose to give Her Majesty power to call them out. These are the Forces to which reference has been made; and the effect of this step, if it should now be taken, will be that the men will be called into the Forces, and that the British Army will be augmented by the amount of the men of the Reserve to which the communication will point.


Sir, I am not at all surprised at the caution which the Chancellor of the Exchequer exhibited at the beginning of his speech, or at the request which he made to the House that we should abstain from discussing this question on its merits—that we should wait for the information which is to be laid on the Table—and that we should keep our minds unbiassed and unprejudiced until that information had appeared. A more fair demand could not be made. It was entirely conformable both in spirit and in letter to that which has fallen from my noble Friend (the Marquess of Hartington); but I confess I was surprised when the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not set the first example of that which he had himself laid down, but that—although he did not enter into details—he should set forth in very intelligible terms the bases of the justification which the Government intend to present to this House for the course which they have taken. Now, I shall endeavour to observe the rules laid down by the Chancellor of the Exchequer more accurately than he observed them himself. I will not venture upon any counter-statement of the general presumptions which appear to me to lie against the proceedings of Her Majesty's Government, until those proceedings shall be further and more sufficiently explained. This, however, I am obliged to do—I am compelled to enter my protest against the attempt of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after he had laid down the principle that there was to be no discussion, to prepossess the minds of the House in favour of the general intentions of the Government, when, according to his own notion, it was totally impossible for the House to appreciate those proceedings. Against such a thing as that I should enter my protest, by whomsoever it might be done, and particularly do I do so when it is done by the Leader of this House. I am bound to say that my knowledge of the question is too limited for me to pronounce any final judgment. My knowledge is confined to what was read by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday; but I am also bound to say, after what has fallen from my right hon. Friend, that so far as his statement goes, and the statements of history carry me, I am not prepared to admit—I am prepared to contest—the accuracy of the account which he has given. I go no further than that. I proceed upon information which I know is partial, and I hope that a very different impression will be produced upon my mind when I know the whole case, and that I may come to understand why it is that we are solely responsible for the failure of the Congress, without the co-operation of any of the other Powers. Upon the whole of that portion of the subject I carefully reserve my judgment, and I even venture to repeat that very reasonable demand which my right hon. Friend so properly made and which he so unquestionably departed from, that this discussion may not be entered upon on the present occasion, and that the whole matter may be reserved for the impartial consideration of the House on another occasion.


wished to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer when the effect of the Proclamation would take date? Would it date from the time when it was laid before the House on Monday first, or from the time when the House should have the opportunity of discussing it? It seemed to him that it was incumbent on Her Majesty to afford the House an opportunity for discussion before She made the Proclamation. It must also be matter for regret to many that the right hon. Gentleman should postpone the discussion of the Budget until after this Proclamation. He thought it desirable that the Budget should be known before entering on a discussion which might involve this country in the expenditure of unknown millions, and embark it in unknown difficulties.


said, he would be the last to force on the House a discussion on Papers they had not had the opportunity of seeing, nor would he say a single word on the policy of calling out the Reserve Forces. Whatever his opinions might be on the subject, it was due to the Government and due to the House carefully to refrain from expressing those opinions until an opportunity had been afforded for hearing from the Government a defence of what they had done. But it appeared to him that there was one Question put by the noble Lord (the Marquess of Hartington) which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had carefully abstained from answering, and that was a Question to which they had the right to demand an explicit answer, which could not be misunderstood. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was pleased to say that the position of the Government at that moment was peculiar. Yes, it was peculiar; but there was something far more serious than the peculiar position of the Government, and that was the peculiar position of this country in the eyes of Europe and in the eyes of the civilized world. What was the information received within the last few days? What was the question raised by the noble Lord at the head of the Government? It was that England had insisted on certain conditions with respect to the Conference, and that no other Power of Europe had thought it worth its while to insist on these same conditions. Therefore, it seemed to him that the House and the country had a right to require from the Government an answer to the question—Did England stand alone, or did she not stand alone in her demand that the Treaty should be placed before the Conference, and would that demand being pressed prevent the Conference meeting? It seemed to him this was a subject upon which the Government ought to give some information, for, from every hour they delayed in giving Parliament information, this country suffered. Let them all know what had taken place that day. During the last hour he had been tempted to enter into a speculation as to the depreciation of the value of the securities of this country. ["No, no!"] Yes, if it was necessary that the property and securities of this country should be depreciated, there was no loss that would not be borne if the people were told it was to defend the honour and interests of the country. But they could not conceal from themselves this fact—that the English people, from the depreciation of their property, were some £20,000,000 or £30,000,000 poorer than they were 48 hours since. They knew what a disturbance of trade would be caused by this suspense. There was beginning to be some rift in that depression, but that would be closed up. Therefore, the Question he wished to put to the Government was this—he had carefully refrained from expressing an opinion as to the policy of calling out the Reserve Forces, he had carefully abstained from expressing an opinion as to Papers the House had not had an opportunity of considering; but he wished to ask the Government this plain question—Did England stand alone in pressing the demand on Russia that the Treaty should be submitted to the Conference, or, in this, was she joined by other Powers whose interests were as vitally at stake? It seemed to him, without any anticipation of the discussion next week, that the Government could give-some information on this point; because he ventured to say that there would be great relief to the English people tomorrow morning if the Government could tell them that in this demand England was joined by the other European Powers. There was a common belief that she was pressing demands in which she was not supported by Germany, Austria, Italy, or by any other of the European Powers.


Sir, I do not wish to prolong this discussion for a moment; but I must say I believe my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken the proper course in merely anticipating what I am sure would be the entire desire of the House—namely, that we should not only not express any opinion on this stage, but that we should abstain even from discussing the subject until we have full information before us. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone)—though I do not wish to question his right to say so—was not correct when he said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had gone further than he ought to in explaining what the views of the Government were—I say I have no doubt the House will agree with me that my right hon. Friend only desired that there should be no reserve in this matter, and that he was anxious to give to the House and to the country, within the limits which he himself had laid down, every information which could be imparted in the circumstances. In answer to the Question of the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Fawcett), which has been fairly put, I think the only reply which it is possible for me to give is this—he must really wait to see the Papers which will be laid before the House. All of them which it is in our power to communicate will be laid upon the Table. I see the hon. Member smiles; but he will see in a moment the force of what I say. When Correspondence does take place, not only between individuals but between nations, it would not be right,—and might very reasonably be complained of by hon. Members opposite—if, not having the Papers before them, we were to put what they thought a forced construction upon them. It would be very much better, therefore, that the documents should speak for themselves, and then every Member can draw his own conclusion. That, I think, is a fair answer to the hon. Member for Hackney. I hope, therefore, the House will be satisfied with the ventilation of the question which has been given at this stage, and with the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government have no wish to delay for a moment the full discussion of this subject. Although the most important of all questions at this time usually is the Financial Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is willing that it should be postponed until this subject is brought forward in the first place, though, if the discussion be very prolonged, he cannot wait until if be concluded.


reminded the Government that no answer had been given to the Question of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn).


in answer to the hon. Member for Swansea, said: What I understood to be the undoubted fact, so far as the Statute is concerned, is that, when Parliament is sitting, the Queen, before She can call up what are called by a misnomer the Reserve Forces, but what should be properly designated Her Reserve Force, is bound to communicate to Parliament a Message stating that it is Her intention to do so. If Parliament is not sitting, Her Majesty is bound to give notice to the country by Proclamation—by an Order in Council—that such is Her intention.


asked from what date legal effect would be given to the Proclamation? Would it date from Monday?


Sir, there is no Proclamation in this case; but there will be a communication made to Parliament by Her Majesty, on the responsibility of the Government, to call out the Reserve Force at any moment She may choose. If the Government have been wrong in giving that advice, the House will know how to deal with it in due time.


Sir, I desire to say just one word in explanation. I feel that I would hardly have been justified in taking the course I have done in raising the present discussion—and for which I am responsible—if I had clearly understood what I now understand to be the nature of the Papers which are to be laid upon the Table of the House. My excuse is, that I understood the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say this afternoon that he had read yesterday all the essential portions of the Correspondence. It will be in the recollection of the House when I say that the extracts so read by the right hon. Gentleman had no bearing what-ever upon the views which were taken on this point by other Powers. I now understand, from the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary, that Correspondence has taken place with other Powers besides Russia, and that we are to wait to see what is contained in it. I think the House will thus see that I was justified, from the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon, in assuming that the Correspondence to be laid on the Table had no reference whatever to anything except what had passed between our Government and that of Russia.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.