HC Deb 31 March 1885 vol 296 cc1110-22

Sir, I gave Notice yesterday that upon this Motion being made I would put a Question to the Government, and ask them to state to the House as fully as they feel themselves capable of doing, and without inconvenience to the Public Service, what is the position of negotiations with regard to the Afghan Frontier? I am quite aware that in delicate negotiations such as these, and in the delicate state of circumstances which prevails at this moment, we must be extremely careful not to put Questions or to make observations likely to seriously embarrass the Government; and I am most reluctant to do anything that would have that effect. At the same time, I would point out to the noble Lord that when this House is adjourning for eight or 10 days, and when there will be no regular opportunity of correcting any statement that may get abroad which may be of a mischievous character, and which may be very readily answered and safely disposed of in this House, there are dangers which it is desirable for us to reduce to a minimum by giving such explanations as can be given. Everyone in this House is well aware what the nature of our anxiety is in regard to the position and advance of Russia upon the Afghan Frontier. We know that for many years the advances of Russia from one point to another in Central Asia have been the subject both of uneasiness in England and still more, I think, of uneasiness in India. Of course such a move as that which has lately taken place in the advance to Merv, and the subsequent advance still nearer to the Afghan Frontier, has been of a character which must necessarily give occasion for anxiety; and when it is stated that that advance has gone actually beyond the Frontier, we say that it gives natural ground for anxiety, for rumours and reports which may lead to the very evils we are anxious to avoid. It is not so much what the feeling may be in this country as the feeling that may circulate among the Natives of India and the Indian population. If there is an idea allowed to get abroad among them that England is not firm in this matter, it may lead to serious consequences. I apprehend, as the Prime Minister stated some time ago, that there is but one real English policy in this matter, that we are all of one opinion—whatever may have been said in the past as to the former movements of Russia-—that we must stand by the Ruler of Afghanistan. But I am quite aware with regard to the details of the negotiations that we must be very cautious in the matter, and that we must not endeavour to spread alarm which is the object we have to take away. The noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs told us yesterday that there was every hope of a satisfactory settlement. He mentioned that there was a despatch now on its way from St. Petersburg of which we apparently have imperfect information. I do not know whether he has received any information with regard to that despatch, or what the nature of it is, or the conditions upon which the Russian Government may be willing to carry through the arrangement, which I understand they still adhere to, of laying down a boundary by the action of Boundary Commissioners on the spot. I think it would be satisfactory if we could be told whether such proceedings were in contemplation, whether we are substantially agreed that those inquiries which are to lead to the delimitation of the Frontier are really to take place, and any other in- formation which the Government can give with regard to the attitude of the Powers on this matter, and the state of the negotiations, will, I am sure, be of a very interesting and valuable character.


Sir, I entirely share the feeling expressed by my noble Friend the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, when he said that it was a matter of regret to him and to Her Majesty's Government generally to be obliged constantly to repeat, in answer to inquiries, perhaps not unreasonable in themselves, an answer which, from its constant repetition, might almost be considered to be stereotyed and discourteous. While sharing that feeling, I also may add that it would be far more satisfactory to us, if we thought it was in our power consistently with our duty to the country in regard to those great interests with respect to which the right hon. Gentleman says there is such general agreement in all parts of the House, if we were in a position to make a full statement to the House. We feel very deeply indeed the great responsibility that rests upon us in connection with negotiations of this character of taking measures we think necessary in the circumstances. We feel that responsibility would not certainly be taken away from us, but it would be greatly lightened if we could take the House fully into our confidence, and state the exact position of the negotiations and the exact character of the measures we have under consideration; but I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not using any mere conventional phrase, or that I am simply endeavouring to stave off discussion which might be considered inconvenient to the Government, when I do repeat that we must deprecate, and deprecate in the strongest terms, any attempt on the part of hon. Members to induce us to enter into any detailed statement, and a necessarily incomplete statement, as to the progress of these negotiations. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to what he knows from his experience of the inconvenience, under any circumstances, of attempting to enter into details respecting pending negotiations, when a full and complete statement cannot be made. That is an observation which I think is true respecting almost any difficult subject of negotiation; but cer- tainly, Sir, the character of the negotiations which are at present going on is such as to render that ordinary inconvenience very much greater. At present, as the House is aware, not only matters of fact and of policy are at issue, but there are also at issue questions respecting which there is the very strongest and most sensitive feeling both in this country and in Russia. Public opinion both here and in India—as the right hon. Gentleman has said—is justly sensitive upon anything which may appear to affect the security of our Indian Frontier or the maintenance of the engagements which we have entered into with our Ally, the Ameer of Afghanistan. And, although public opinion in Russia may not have such free means of expression as it has here, the House is perfectly aware that there exists in Russia a very strong military opinion—an opinion which, not unnaturally, is somewhat disposed towards strong and perhaps aggressive measures, and which is perpetually striving to thwart and counteract the diplomatic action which is endeavouring to bring the question at issue to a satisfactory settlement. Well, on the spot, on the scene of these transactions, we know that the Russian troops, the Afghan troops, and our own officers, who are acting as the advisers of the Ameer's Government, and the object of whose mission is to come to an arrangement respecting the disputed question of the Afghan Frontier—we know that they are all at the present moment in very close proximity; we know that they are in positions where an unfortunate accident or misunderstanding might lead to some occurrence, perhaps to some collision, which would greatly decrease the chances of a satisfactory settlement. Further, Sir, we hear in this country of certain movements of Russian troops. We ourselves also have thought it necessary, as has been communicated to the House, to make certain military preparations which we consider that the circumstances of the case demand. These military preparations on our part have not been made with any intention of their being a menace to Russia for the purpose of influencing the friendly negotiations at present in progress. But if we were to attempt to enter into a detailed statement or discussion on these matters, I cannot but feel that it is too probable that some unguarded word—which none of us possibly, and I myself certainly, could not feel perfectly certain to be able to avoid—might convert these military measures which we are taking, and which have in themselves no character of menace, into something that might be supposed to bear that character. But that is not all. It is not merely a question between the Russian Government and ourselves. There is a third party interested—perhaps interested even more than ourselves—and that is our Ally, the Ameer of Afghanistan. As we have repeatedly stated, in reply to Questions, we have entered into certain engagements with the Ameer, but they are engagements which are made on certain conditions. At this very moment the Ameer of Afghanistan is in communication and consultation with the Viceroy of India. And one of the subjects of those communications is a strict definition and a full understanding of those conditions upon which our support depends. Instructions—full instructions—have been given to Lord Dufferin in this matter. We know that those instructions are, in the opinion of Lord Dufferin, instructions which are sufficient for his guidance in the conduct of his interview with the Ameer. But it certainly would, in my opinion, be most inconvenint, most prejudicial to the interests of the Public Service, that anything in the shape of a statement as to the nature of these instructions should be made in this House, and should form the subject of discussion in this House, and should reach the ears or the knowledge of the Ameer, distorted, perhaps, by a colour which might be given to them by such a discussion. Well, under all these circumstances, it appears to me that however great the temptation might be—however anxious we are not to appear discourteous to the House—I should be altogether failing in my duty if I were to attempt to add to, or extend, the declarations which have already been made on this subject. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs have already stated that as to the position of affairs on the spot we have received assurances from the Russian Government that their troops will not advance beyond the positions which they at present hold except under certain extraordinary circumstances which they define. They have also given us assurances that the most stringent orders have been issued to their officers to avoid any collision with the Afghan troops. As has also been stated, instructions have been issued to our officers to give similar advice to the officers of the Ameer of Afghanistan. The House has also been told that we have advised the Ameer not to withdraw his forces from the position which they now occupy. These are measures of a purely temporary character, and which have been adopted by the two Governments with the view, if possible, of preventing any unfortunate occurrence or any collision between the parties. They have nothing to do, as has been stated by the Prime Minister, with the negotiations that are being simultaneously conducted by the two Governments with regard to what we hope will be the permanent delimitation of the Afghan Frontier. As to that permanent delimitation, the negotiations, as was stated yesterday, are still in progress, and we have sent and we have received several communications as to points upon which, in the opinion of the Russian Government, it is necessary to have a preliminary understanding before the Commission of Delimitation meets and commences its labours. The last of these communications, as was stated yesterday, is on its way. We do not know—the Ambassador has not informed us—what are the exact contents of that communication; but he has said that from the communications which he has had with the Russian Minister he has reason to believe that it is, at all events, of a conciliatory and friendly character, and that it contains an expression of opinion on the part of the Russian Government that the speedy meeting of the Boundary Commission will be of advantage, and will tend to allay the excitement here, in Russia, and Afghanistan. We have not the means, even if it were desirable, of adding anything to the statement on this subject which was made yesterday, and I am sure that the House would not desire that we should attempt to foreshadow the nature or character of a communication which we have not yet ourselves received. I hope that in these circumstances the House will not be disposed to enter into any lengthy or detailed discussion on the subject. I would deprecate, not only such careless or hasty expressions as have been depre- cated by the right hon. Gentleman opposite himself, but I would deprecate, if the House would allow me to do so, any discussion on the question at all. It is not merely a careless or a hasty expression that is capable of doing harm. If explanations are asked for on the one side of this question, it is only natural and reasonable that they should be asked for on the other; and if we were to attempt—if we thought we could attempt without injury to the Public Service—to give more definite and detailed answers to Questions, such as have been placed on the Paper by the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Ash-mead-Bartlett), we should also be equally bound to give detailed and definite replies to other Questions put by hon. Members who may take a more favourable view of the character of the Russian claims. We cannot possibly give a satisfactory reply to Questions of that sort, unless it were in our power to enter into the whole case. It is not in our power at the present moment to enter fully into the whole case; and under these circumstances I am of opinion, and the Government are of opinion, that no good purpose could be served, but that, on the contrary, there would be very great risk of mischief being unintentionally done if we were to attempt in any degree to extend the declarations which have been made to the House on this subject.


said, that he had no desire to run counter to the recommendation given to the House by the noble Lord in regard to the very critical and delicate negotiations to which the noble Lord had adverted, and in the few remarks he was about to make to the House he should avoid in any way trespassing upon delicate ground; but he thought there was one matter of scarcely less importance than the negotiations to which the noble Lord referred which the House would do well to consider for a moment. He wished to refer to the state of our relations with other countries than Russia. As to the state of our relations with Russia he would not then say a word; but during the last few days the House was aware that numerous Questions had been asked and statements had appeared in the ordinary channels of information respecting our relations with the Turkish Empire. A Question had been put to the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of a plain and specific nature, which had simply invited an affirmative or negative reply, with respect to a report, certainly of a very extraordinary character, which had been going the rounds of the journals in this country and on the Continent of Europe—namely, a Question asked by the hon. Member for Wicklow (Mr. M'Coan) with reference to menaces alleged to have been addressed by the noble Lord the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the Representative of the Ottoman Empire in this country. What was the answer of the noble Lord?


The Question was only given Notice of yesterday, and I stated in reply to it that I could not answer at a few hears' Notice.


observed that, full Notice having been given of the hon. Member's intention to ask the Question, the noble Lord had the opportunity, of which he doubtless availed himself, or, at all events, should have availed himself, of communicating with the Foreign Secretary. But the noble Lord had come down to the House and in the face of the whole of Europe declined to give the emphatic negative which the country at large expected to be given to this extraordinary report. Every rational person would no doubt put on the answer of the noble Lord the construction that there was a great deal of substantial truth in the suggestions contained in the Question. With regard to a most important point of our relations with the Russian Empire, he thought that this country at large was not disposed to feel any undue alarm at the possibility of having to face serious complications abroad, though, of course, there was a natural desire for the maintenance of peace. But under what circumstances were they now to surrender, on the eve of the adjournment, their opportunities of ascertaining what was passing with regard to our foreign relations during the Easter Recess? What assurances had they that Her Majesty's Government were using their utmost exertions towards establishing and maintaining friendly relations with the other Powers of Europe? Of course, he did not wish to bind the Government to any indiscreet, mischievous, and un states man like utterances which might have been let drop by any of them under circumstances of greater freedom and less responsibility. Nor did he wish to revive in the public mind memories which they would all gladly obliterate from their recollection. They could not, however, forget that five years ago this country was on terms of complete amity and accord with the Central Powers of Europe, with the Empires of Germany and Austria, as well as Turkey. They could not forget that at that time for partizan purposes grave and serious injury had been inflicted on our national interests, and our relations with those two Empires had become seriously strained instead of being friendly. In the case of one of those Empires an apology—not, perhaps, unduly endowed with dignity—for the moment, at any rate, allayed some of the most pernicious consequences which might have arisen from those very unstatesmanlike utterances. But what had been the case with regard to the Turkish Empire? They had never heard of any apology, abject or otherwise, offered for the expressions freely used with regard to one of the most ancient Allies of Her Majesty's Government. They had never heard withdrawn expressions which could not have failed to cause the most acute dissatisfaction in the ruling circles of the Turkish Empire. If they had felt that even at the present moment, guided by the light of painful experience, Her Majesty's Government had turned over a new leaf, and were prepared to cultivate those old cordial and friendly relations which had for many generations subsisted between the British and the Turkish Governments, he would be the last to raise the question now. But they had it deliberately on record that the Representative of the Foreign Office had declined to give a plain answer to a simple and plain question as to whether the most discourteous, most illegal, and absolutely indefensible menaces had been uttered to the Representative of a friendly Power. They were aware that certain Members, at any rate, in Her Majesty's Councils were of opinion that the Sultan would do well to clear out of some of the most fertile Provinces over which he ruled. It would be well, however, that when Her Majesty's Government were dealing with foreign affairs of the utmost gravity they should make it clear that those utterances of former times, followed as they had been by most unfriendly and gratuitous acts, would no longer hamper their diplomatic action, or stand in the way of the restoration and maintenance of cordial and friendly relations with the Ottoman Empire. The noble Lord would perhaps Bay that the Turkish Government had been treated with courtesy throughout these negotiations; but they knew that the lawful Sovereign of Egypt had been treated with scant courtesy in respect to that portion of his Dominions, which constituted an integral portion of the Ottoman Empire, and that the opinions of the Sultan and his Advisers had been treated with uniform contempt throughout the arrangements with regard to Egypt. He would like the Government to assure the House that they would make a serious endeavour to cultivate friendly relations with the Sultan of Turkey, and also with the Rulers of the German and Austrian Empires—that they had, in fact, at last returned to the old national policy of this country, and had abandoned once for all those unstates-manlike and mischievous lines to which he had referred. At the present time, when the public mind was not unnaturally exercised on the subject of our foreign relations, it would be desirable that some emphatic contradiction should be given to such mischievous reports as those to which their attention had been called, and that the Government should give some assurances as to the line which they would adopt.


remarked that they had been told by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for War that preliminary negotiations were going on with regard to the delimitation of the Afghan Frontier. But they had been told that many months ago; they had been led to believe that before Sir Peter Lumsden had left this country these preliminary negotiations had been ended, and that definite instructions had been given to him and agreed to by the Russian Government. He thought that some indication should now be given as to how it was that there were still preliminary negotiations going on when they had been led to believe that these had been settled last summer. There was every reason for impatience on the subject, because of the delay which had taken place. What the country wished to know was that the Government in- tended to be firm on this occasion and not give way at all. It was not a question of a compromise of any kind; they knew that much of this territory in which Russia was at the present time had always been recognized by every successive Viceroy of India, by every Ameer of Afghanistan, as well as by Her Majesty's Government, as Afghan territory. Why, then, was there any necessity for any compromise? If the Government were firm, there was much more likely to be peace; if Russia once saw that there was any chance of compromise, or that we were falling back from what we had said in previous negotiations, there was much more likely to be war. They ought also to consider the effect which a policy of retrogression might have in Afghanistan. Everyone on both sides of the House had a firm confidence in the wisdom and tact of Lord Dufferin. He believed that next to Lord Mayo he would prove the best Viceroy India had ever had, and they were quite prepared to leave matters in his hands if Her Majesty's Government were not going to trammel him with telegrams from Downing Street. The noble Lord had said that full instructions had been sent to the Viceroy; but they did not want full instructions sent out to him. The duty of Her Majesty's Government was to impress both on the Viceroy and the Ameer the enormous importance of this question, and their determination at all hazards to keep the Ameer thoroughly on our side. If there was any flinching we would lose the friendship of the Ameer, and they knew very well in whose hands he would speedily be found. It was not a question as to whether Russia should possess herself of a village, or a particular hill, but what the effect of such annexation would be on the Afghans. He, therefore, hoped the Government would maintain a bold, clear, and consistent policy with regard to Russia in Afghanistan.


said, that before the House adjourned for the Easter Recess he hoped he might be allowed to say a few words with regard to the troops in the Soudan. It appeared, from what was stated yesterday by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for War, that the Force lately under Lord Wolseley on the Upper Nile, weakened and worn out by privation and hardship, would be forced to wait from now to September, enduring the scorching heat of the Desert as best it might. Every one knew that enforced idleness in an unhealthy climate, after a very hard campaign, was fatal to British troops; and it would be peculiarly fatal to our troops on the Nile, enfeebled as they were by bad food, bad water, and bad air—without boots, without clothing, and without shelter, and, worse than all, depressed by the failure of all their hopes—a failure for which, not they, but Her Majesty's Government, were solely and directly responsible. According to the Medical Authorities, we must expect 40 per cent of the Force on the Nile to be invalided during the hot season, and the rest would be quite unfit for hard work in the autumn. The other Force at Suakin was for the most part composed of young soldiers, many of whom had never been out of England before. The hard work, made so much harder by the loss of many hundreds of camels, was beginning to tell upon them. A correspondent said, on Saturday last—"The troops are much overworked, and many of them are tired out." Sickness and sunstroke had already made their appearance among them, and this was only the end of March. What would be their condition at the end of May? What they wanted to know, and what they had a right to know before the House adjourned, was this—what was the object of all these sacrifices? What had we gained, and what were we likely to gain, by them? The one main object of the Nile Relief Expedition had passed away for ever. The last hope of the rescue of General Gordon passed away while the Prime Minister was arguing as to whether Gordon was surrounded, or only hemmed in. We had, indeed, gained one thing; we had gained the undying hatred of the Soudanese, whose women and children were fighting against us with the same savage ferocity as the men; but, apart from that, every life and every sixpence had been simply thrown away—thrown away as absolutely as the stores tossed into the Nile at Jubat. And now, in order that the Government might gain a character for consistency, and turn the attention of the country from their failure on the Nile, they had committed us to a war of extermination on the shores of the Red Sea. Thousands of Arabs and hundreds of British lives were to be sacrificed under the pretence of opening up the road to Berber—the very same road that was opened last year by General Graham after two bloody battles, and then deliberately abandoned again by the Government to Osman Digna. Another 10,000 or 12,000 Arabs were now again to be slaughtered on exactly the same pretext. This was a monstrous state of things; and it seemed that the oceans of blood shed by the Prime Minister had made him callous. Hon. Members on the Opposition side of the House, who did not desert Gordon, or betray the Egyptian garrisons, had no quarrel with those poor Arabs who had thrown away their lives with such devoted heroism; and a heavy responsibility rested on them if they sat still and connived at the insane and murderous policy of the Government. Khartoum and the Mahdi were out of the question till next autumn. Whatever the Government might say, they knew perfectly well that a railway to Berber was beyond the range of human possibility within the next two years; and while they were squandering blood and treasure in the Soudan, they were throwing away this country's interests in Egypt in the House of Commons—throwing them away to fatten English Jews and foreign bondholders. While our armies were locked up in the Soudan, decimated by fever, or wasted in fruitless fighting, Russia was advancing. The Prime Minister had all along been playing Russia's game. By sending out the Brigade of Guards to Suakin, the right hon. Gentleman went out of his way to expose the apparent military weakness of England—thank Heaven it was only apparent!—and encourage Russia to take advantage of our supposed un-readiness for war. The life of every British officer and soldier wasted in the African Desert was so much gain to Russia. Our national interests and our honour pointed the same way. The danger to the Empire was not at Khartoum or at Suakin, but on the borders of Afghanistan. We ought to concentrate our resources in the defence of our Indian Empire against Russian aggression, instead of wasting our strength in a war without an object, which was a disgrace to civilization, and unworthy of the English nation.