HC Deb 28 July 1890 vol 347 cc1071-4

I ask permission of the House to make a short personal explanation as to an incident which appears to have occurred in the Debate on the Heligoland Bill on Thursday, when I was not in the House, and which affects me personally. I am glad to see that the Attorney General has just entered the House, because, although I have no reflection to make upon him, he is concerned in the statement I have to make. I, having contended very strongly in that Debate that the question of cession lay entirely with the Crown, the hon. and learned Gentleman is reported to have made a citation from an answer made by me to a question in 1870, put to me by Sir John Hay, as to the cession of Gambia. I replied that, according to my belief and impression, the Crown had no power to make that cession. I was not surprised to see in the report that the statement drew forth loud cheers. It would have been most disrespectful to the House if I, having made such a contention, had passed over the fact that I had declared a contrary opinion. The fact is, that the hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely mistaken. He cited a portion of the question put to me by Sir John Hay, not the whole of it.


I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; I read the whole of it.


; I think that the hon. and learned Member was not reported as having read the whole of it, but I am glad to hear that he did. He supposed that my statement about the power of the Crown related to the cession of Gambia. But Sir John Hay's question referred to two matters, and not one. It did include the question of cession, but it likewise included an arrangement with France, giving to France the great arterial communication with Africa—that is to say, making an arrangement with France which would have been compulsory, as I understood, on the subjects of Her Majesty with regard to territory which was no part of the territory of the Queen. As to the right of cession, I may observe that in 1843 and 1854 and 1863 I had, as a Cabinet Minister, been a party in two cases to direct cession by the Crown, and in the third case to the cession of a Protectorate of the Ionian Islands, which included many of the same elements, but had no reference at all to the question of cession. The answer I made, and the declaration of my belief and impression, that the Queen did not possess the power had reference exclusively to that portion of Sir John Hay's question which referred to territory not within the dominions of Her Majesty. I quite understand that the hon. and learned Member may have felt that that part of the question was immaterial, but whether it was, or not, it was to that question I replied—Sir John Hay's question embraced both points—that I did not believe such an arrangement could be made without the assent of Parliament, because it contained one portion to which the Crown could not give effect without the assent of Parliament. It was, perhaps, bold of me to give that opinion, but the reason was that I had been studying an important qutstion of the same kind with regard to the Hudson's Bay Company's charter, which was a charter granting' rights to British subjects outside the British dominions; and I had arrived at a very strong conviction that such a right was not in the power of the Crown. It was to that I referred in the answer I gave.


I claim, permission to explain to the House how the matter stands. The House is aware that Her Majesty's Government had not the slightest notice, direct or indirect, that the question was going to be raised. I obtained by accident, by communication with the Foreign Office, after the right hon. Gentleman's speech, information which led me to suppose that the question had been raised in connection with Gambia; and without going further than I am entitled to do—I will show the right hon. Gentleman the Papers, if he desires to see them—I was perfectly justified in coming to the conclusion that the question had been raised and discussed distinctly with reference to Gambia. After the right hon. Gentleman had left the House I had no means of communicating with him, and having to reply to the right hon. Member for Derby I, with the assistance of the Solicitor General, found out this reference in Hansard. I will read the question and the answer as I read them the other night; and although I accept, as I am bound to do, the explanation given by the right hon. Gentleman, as to what he had in his mind, there is not a single word in that Report which could possibly lead any one to the conclusion which he now asks the House to come to. Let the House be the judge. Neither am I aware of any Report that puts upon the question and the answer the construction, which I understand the right hon. Gentleman wishes it to bear. The first question was put by Mr. Robert Fowler (now Sir R. Fowler) to Mr. Monsell, who was then the Under Secretary for the Colonies—

"West Coast of Africa—The Gambia Question.

"Mr. R. Fowler said he wished to ask the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether it is true that negotiations have taken place with the view of the transfer of the settlement of the Gambia to the Emperor of the French.

"Mr. Monsell: In answer to the question of the hon. Gentleman, I beg to inform him that communications have passed between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of France, having for their object the determining the limit of English and French influence on the West Coast of Africa, and that the transfer of Gambia to France is one of the steps under consideration as part of that arrangement. It may be well to state that in 1868 the European population in Gambia numbered 39 males and eight females.


"Sir John Hay said he would beg to ask the head of the Government whether it is possible that the settlement of Gambia and the great arterial communication of Africa can be conveyed to France without the consent of Parliament.

"Mr. Gladstone said that though he was taken by surprise by this question being put, still he might say that his impression was that such an arrangement could not be carried out without the consent of Parliament. He could not answer positively, but that was his impression and belief.

"A little later in the afternoon the right hon. Gentleman added that what he had already said had reference to the power of the Government -to the question whether there was power in the Government or not. He added that there never had been the slightest intention of taking any proceedings of the kind without the consent of Parliament."

I have read every word, and I am perfectly certain that no one reading that answer could possibly come to the conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman, in answering the question, specifically referred to the great arterial communication of Africa, and had not referred to the cession of Gambia. The question is distinct; there is no reservation in the question, and the answer is categorical. Of course, I was not in the House in the year 1870, but I went to the only possible authority, and I read verbatim the other night the Report from Hansard. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes it I shall be glad to show him privately the document to which I have referred.


Of course, I make no charge against the hon. and learned Gentleman. I by no means undertake to say, for I do not recollect, what exactly may have taken place in the Colonial Office or the Foreign Office; but the hon. and learned Gentleman argues very illegitimately that my answer must be taken as referring to everything that Sir John Hay's question contained. No; Sir John Hay asked whether Her Majesty's Government intended to do two things, one within the power, and the other entirely beyond the power, of the Crown. I answered that no such step could betaken without the consent of Parliament, having reference to that which was beyond the power of the Crown.