HC Deb 31 March 1885 vol 296 cc1138-44

said, he was one of the unfortunate and, he supposed, uneducated people who had not happened to hear of that distinguished man, Mr. O'Reilly. He desired to express his entire approval of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. S. Smith), and to assure the Government that there was in the country a strong feeling that our position in the Soudan was a most unfortunate and unjustifiable one. Everyone agreed that it was wrong to kill these poor unfortunate Arabs without some reason. The reports in this morning's papers to the effect that Osman Digna was retreating, and that another Mahdi had arisen, gave him a gleam of hope; and he trusted Her Majesty's Government would have the opportunity of procuring a peaceful settlement without delay. He could not understand the object of the fighting at Suakin, unless it was to prepare the way for the railway; but the railway could not be finished, at any rate, for a year or more, and how that was to enable us to carry on our campaign in the next summer, autumn, and winter he was at a loss to understand; but if we could not make the railway in time, what was the use of making it at all? If we made it we should have to maintain and guard it. We must not go away and leave it to be broken up. But why should we force ourselves on these people? General Gordon could not now be rescued, and the Slave Trade could not be abolished; and what possible object was there to fight for? As for defending Egypt, it could be much better defended on the Egyptian side of the Desert than on the other side where we now were. Another consideration which should be borne in mind was the great waste of power entailed by dividing our Forces, to have one Expedition at Suakin and another on the Nile, while at the same time war was threatening in other districts, without any really adequate object to be gained by such a division. It should also be remembered that the carrying on of a war of this kind encouraged a spirit for war in the country. It was being carried on in defiance of the principles of Christianity which they professed, and they were doing their best to destroy a people with whom they had no quarrel, and who were justified in defending their own country. Notwithstanding this, however, we continued on in this ill-defined course, and in keeping a vast number of our men in a dangerous position and in a miserable climate without, so far as he could make out, any object whatever. They could not go on as they were now doing, and they must give up a position which was inconsistent and not to be justified. This feeling was growing among all classes of Her Ma- jesty's subjects. Even the Opposition, which originally urged the Government to undertake these military operations, were now becoming disgusted. He appealed to the Government not to imagine that this was the idea of a few sentimental people; it was a widespread feeling of a vast number of their supporters throughout the country, and among classes of people whose opinion was well worth attending to. He implored the Government to lose no opportunity of getting themselves out of this situation, for which he admitted they were not wholly responsible. A great part of the difficulties of the Government had been inherited from their Predecessors; but he protested against any further needless slaughter of the people in the Soudan.


protested that it was incorrect to say that the Opposition had urged the Government to this war. They had urged the Government to relieve the garrisons in the Soudan, and that steps should be taken to succour General Gordon at a time when it could have been done with a small effort; they protested against the withdrawal of General Graham's Force when he could have opened the Berber road, and the war, which had since assumed such sanguinary proportions, could have been nipped in the bud. But to say that the Opposition were responsible because the Government, by their delay, vacillation, and cowardice, had given up all their opportunities, and now found themselves confronted by worse difficulties even than war and bloodshed, was most unjust and inconsistent. He had no doubt that the hon. Member (Mr. W. Fowler) had supported the Government on many occasions in each one of their blunders, and now he turned round and threw it in their teeth. There was, however, one phrase in the speech of the hon. Member with which he concurred—the undefined purpose of this slaughter. So far as the slaughter was purposeless and undefined, he joined in the hon. Member's condemnation of it. If General Graham's Expedition were to relieve Kassala and its thousands of people, or to put down the Slave Trade, he would say that it was a worthy object to attain; but the present policy of the Government, as explained to the House, was undefined, and until Parliament was told what the objects of the Government were, hon. Members had a right to denounce the slaughter now going on in the Soudan as most wanton and indefensible. In regard to the Afghan boundary question, he felt that the appeal of the noble Marquess that there should be no debate on our relations with Russia came with great force from him. He felt that his plea for silence was not a mere pretext, such as the House was accustomed to hear from Ministers, but that there must be some reason for it. The noble Lord, however, contrasted the bearing of the Front Opposition Bench by implication with that of hon. Members on the Opposition side, and had mentioned his name and the character of the Questions he had addressed to the Government. The Question referred to was simply a request for information, as to whether important positions in Afghanistan which had been occupied by the Russian Forces were or were not deemed by the Government to be part of Afghanistan? He had practically asked the same Question throughout. He ventured to say that there was a great misconception on the part of the Government and of hon. Members in the House with regard to the effect produced in Russia by debates in the House. The Government treated Russia as if it was a country like Franco or the United States, in which every statement made in Parliament was at once reported and excited public feeling. The Government ought to be aware that not an item of news was published in the Russian Press without the direct interference of the Press Censor. If any aggravating or imprudent statement in Parliament was published in Russia it could only be done with the consent of the authorities, and with the object of exciting public feeling; but nothing that could be said in the British Parliament would increase the difficulties of the position. The most certain way, however, of preserving peace was to convince the Government of Russia that all parties in this country were united—[Mr. O'KELLY: No, no!]—he was speaking of Great Britain—in their determination to maintain the integrity of Afghanistan. [Mr. O'KELLY: No, no!]


I must ask the hon. Member to abstain from making these indecorous observations and exclamations.


continuing, said, that such union as he had indicated, together with a declaration of our determination to uphold our pledges to the Ameer in face of the Russian aggression, and that no weakness on the part of any British Government would be tolerated by any section of the people, would be the most effective. The debate which made these propositions perfectly clear would be the surest guarantee of peace. Another point to be considered was the effect of withdrawal on the Ameer of Afghanistan. It was of primary importance, in regard to our position as to Afghanistan and to the Ameer, that there should not be the slightest sign of shrinking on the part of Her Majesty's Government. The Ameer was quite capable of judging whether England was in earnest or not; and if he were once convinced that our Government were really firm in their resolve to resist aggression, we might fairly count upon his friendship and support; but if the unfortunate policy of 1873 were pursued in the slightest degree, we should assuredly again drive the Ameer into the arms of Russia; and such laches would be most disastrous. In connection with the recent advances of Russia in Central Asia, the abandonment of Candahar by Her Majesty's Government some years ago had had a most disastrous result, He hoped that no hon. Member would be led away on that subject by any mistaken idea as to the amount of benefit to mankind which was said to have been produced by the Russian conquests in Central Asia. We had the safety and the prosperity of the 250,000,000 of people in India to look after. The security of the greatest Possession of the British Crown—a Possession that was more necessary for the trade and wealth of this country than any other Possession of our Empire—was at stake in that matter. He had the greatest distrust of the civilizing mission of Russia in Central Asia; and if he had time for the purpose he could demonstrate that the pleas often advanced on that score were to a large extent unfounded. He regarded it, however, as most unfortunate that the House was now unable to get some more definite statement from the Government. He regretted that the House had failed to obtain more definite information from Her Majesty's Government; but recognizing, as he did, the courtesy of the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War, as contrasted with the behaviour of other Ministers, he refrained from raising the question further on the present occasion. The position of this country was now very serious.; They had evidence that certain demands which Her Majesty's Government had thought fit to make had either been withdrawn or had "lapsed," and that a so-called "agreement" had been made which gave us no practical security, and which left Russia at liberty to revoke the arrangement at any moment when she chose to allege that "extraordinary reasons" had arisen. The construction of the railway from the Caspian was being hurried on, and it might be finished to Sarakhs at any moment. They knew that Russia was increasing her Forces in those regions, while the unfavourable season was coming on for the sending of reinforcements on our side. He, therefore, protested against the delay that had taken place on the part of the Government in regard to accurate information both as to facts and as to policy. He believed that their weakness and procrastination were in-creasing the dangers of the situation and tending to precipitate war; and if that result should unhappily ensue—although he should deeply regret it—and his appeals and warnings should prove to be correct, he should at least believe that he had discharged his duty—[Ironical cheers]—as a humble Member of the House of Commons. Hon. Members who indulged in such cheers would remember that every warning that had been given from that side of the House as to the movements of Russia had come true; and that the action of the Conservative Party was taken in the interest and for the maintenance of our Indian Empire.


said, that he could not see the situation in the same light as the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett). He failed to observe any danger in the advance of Russia, and believed it would be better for both countries and the world at large if the frontiers of England and of Russia in Asia marched together. With reference to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. S. Smith) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. W. Fowler), as to the war in the Soudan, he regretted that the action of those hon. Members in that House did not correspond a little more closely with their profession. Why did not those hon. Members and their friends tell the Government that if they did not stop the horrible, cruel, and wanton bloodshed in these petty wars, they would turn them out of Office? He regarded this Government and the Prime Minister as so guilty with respect to the unfortunate Soudanese that if there was a Motion to surrender the Prime Minister to the Soudanese women he would vote for it. Some time ago a few men who, in an out-of-the-way corner in Dublin, attacked Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke, were denounced as murderers and scoundrels, and held up to the execration of mankind. Other men, however, seated in a quiet room in London, armed tens of thousands of their fellow men, and sent them out to the Soudan to put to death men whom they had never seen, and with whom they had no cause of quarrel; and these men were said to be Christian Ministers and vindicators of the resources of civilization. He would ask what, from the calm point of view of morality and justice, was the difference between the conduct of the Prime Minister and that of "Skin the Goat," in Dublin, when assisting in carrying out the murder of Lord Frederick Cavendish? Common sense was shocked and the conscience sickened at the professions of Christianity and civilization made in that House, as contrasted with this revolting conduct, of which it was difficult to speak in Parliamentary language.