HC Deb 28 March 1895 vol 32 cc426-34

said, that, in relation to the Vote for the Colonial Office, he wished to call attention to the appointment of Sir Hercules Robinson as High Commissioner for South Africa. He was desirous of not saving anything of a personal nature with regard to this difficult matter, but he thought the time had come when the question of this appointment should be brought before the House. It was time the House of Commons expressed some opinion as to the appointment. He had no interest, direct or indirect, in any matter connected with South Africa, and in view of that fact, he could speak with perfect freedom on this question. His point was that the appointment of Sir H. Robinson to succeed the late High Commissioner was one which should not have been made, and he would briefly state his reasons for taking that view. The position of the High Commissioner in South Africa always must be a peculiar one. He was not only High Commissioner of South Africa, but he was the Governor of Cape Colony, and, as such, he was absolutely compelled to accept the advice of his constitutional adviser—the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. They still further complicated the situation by making the High Commissioner the servant of the Cape Colony in his capacity as High Commissioner, because, by what appeared to him to be a very mistaken act of policy, they allowed the Cape Government to pay, he thought it was, £2,000 of the salary of the High Commissioner. Therefore, he was, in the most ordinary interpretation of the word, the servant, not only of this House and this country, but also of the Cape Colony and the Cape Government. This was a matter which he wished to touch with the greatest moderation, but it was well known to every Member of the House that the High Commissioner who had just been appointed was interested, or had been interested, to a very large extent in matters which were not political in South Africa and in the Cape Colony. It was a matter of common knowledge that Sir H. Robinson became, during his period of office at the Cape, deeply interested in commercial speculations at the Cape; that those commercial speculations were initiated and promoted by the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and that the introduction of the High Commissioner to those speculations was owing to the action of the Prime Minister of Cape Colony. The Prime Minister was the most potent financial force in South Africa. He was, besides being Prime Minister, President of the Chartered Company, which controlled an enormous area in South Africa. He was also the chairman of the De Beers Company, one of the richest corporations in South Africa, and the chairman of a large number of subsidiary enterprises in that country. It was a matter to be greatly regretted that the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony should have these double functions, but it was a matter they were not concerned in. The Prime Minister was responsible to the Cape Parliament alone. But the position of the High Commissioner was a matter in which they were very much concerned. The High Commissioner returned home from South Africa, and he thereupon still further extended his interests in commercial speculations in South Africa. He became the chairman of the De Beers Concession in this country, and if he had been content to let the matter remain there and to give the benefit of his experience to those commercial undertakings in England, no one could have said a word. But he was now going back to South Africa with all these circumstances fresh in the memories of all the persons whom he came in contact with. What was the condition of South Africa at this moment? South Africa was simply rotten with Stock Exchange speculation. The Government of South Africa was now so bound up with the most sordid side of Throgmorton Street, that he believed the history of this country did not present anything like a parallel. Every single stick of property was being made the subject of gambling—property that did exist and property that did not exist. The whole thing was seething in the cauldron of Stock Exchange speculation. These circumstances ought to make us particularly careful as to the policy we adopted towards the country. They would be told, perhaps, that Sir Hercules Robinson had parted with all the interest he ever had in South African speculations. To his mind that was an irrelevant consideration; the fact remained that he was deeply indebted to those charged with the promotion of these enterprises, and he was going back to South Africa to be guided by the advice of a Minister who controlled all the springs of these speculations. It was not, therefore, a desirable appointment to make. There ought not to be even a suspicion that pecuniary considerations were put side by side with political considerations. Hon. Members would remember the Rudd Concession in the last administration of Sir Hercules Robinson, one which ought never to have been permitted in the interests of good Government in South Africa. That concession gave to Lobengula, in exchange for the mineral rights of a large area, £1,200 a year, and 1,000 rifles, and that at a time when the whole policy of the British Government in South Africa was to keep arms out of the hands of these savage tribes, and particularly out of the hands of Lobengula. In the recent Swaziland concession there had been a deliberate bargain between the High Commissioner's advisers and the Boers that the latter should not pass into the Chartered Company's territory in consideration of their refraining from doing what they had no right to do. That might have been perfect from the point of view of policy, but they had to look at the fact that the policy adopted was one which made it far easier to raise money for the Chartered Company in London at that time, than the alternative policy. However these concessions might be justified, it was open to any one to say that the true motive which prompted them both was not political expediency, but the financial excellency of the move. He had no personal feeling in the matter. He had a great respect for the ability of Sir Hercules Robinson; but he believed that he was speaking in the interests of the good government of our Empire. It might be said that the appointment was desired by the people of Cape Colony, speaking through the mouth of Mr. Rhodes, and that, therefore, there was no alternative selection; but surely we had not come so low that we could not find another man able to fill the post. He had made no search for these particulars, the facts to which he had referred were matters of common notoriety, and there was a party at the Cape—not the Dutch, but the English party—which was animated by a similar spirit to that which prompted him to bring forward the matter. He desired an assurance that this appointment should be reconsidered. It might be right and wise that a time should come when the Colonial Office should no longer have any power in such matters; but when it did, the Cape Colony should take its own responsibility, and this country ought not to take any responsibility which it could not take, honourably. Our policy in the matter had not been in accordance with the traditions of Colonial administration. We were making a mistaken concession to what was believed to be the interests of peace and quiet between the Colonial Office and South Africa. If we could not play our part m South Africa according to our own traditions, we should stand aside and let the Cape Colony take this responsibility themselves. He spoke from no personal point of view or the point of view of pecuniary interest, but simply because he believed a mistake had been made, and he hoped the appointment would be reconsidered.


reminded the Committee that it was necessary to get the Vote that night. Further discussion could take place on the report of Supply.


said, he had no fault to find with the tone adopted by the hon. Member who had brought forward this matter. He seemed to cast no blame either on Sir Hercules Robinson or the Colonial Office. He would endeavour, in a few words, to put before the House the position of the Colonial Office. When Sir H. Loch retired from Office as High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape, it became necessary to look round to see who should succeed him. It was essential in the very peculiar and delicate circumstances in South Africa to find not only a strong man, but a man of experience and knowledge of South Africa who had some knowledge of the past history and present position of affairs there. Certain names were considered by the Colonial Office, and, looking to Sir H. Robinson's former career in South Africa, his knowledge of existing questions there, the very independent attitude he took when High Commissioner before, and his great ability and intelligence, the Colonial Office came to the conclusion that he was the best man available for the post. His hon. Friend seemed to think the Colonial Office ignored the difficulties and questions he had just raised. He could assure him that they were as palpable to the Colonial Office authorities as to him. They considered them most carefully. As in Sir H. Robinson's position with regard to certain companies in South Africa, his hon. Friend had made a statement which he (Mr. Buxton) belived to be entirely erroneous. In a letter in The Times it was said that Sir H. Robinson placed large sums in different South African interests, while an High Commissioner before, on the suggestion of Mr. Rhodes. He was authorised to say—and he believed it was true—that neither directly nor indirectly had Sir H. Robinson and Mr. Rhodes had any business relations of any sort or kind either in the form of suggestion or recommendation or assistance in investments. As regarded the Chartered Company, Sir H. Robinson had held no shares whatever in it or in any subsidiary undertakings for some years. Since 1891 he had not been connected with any Rhodesian ventures in South Africa. The only pecuniary interest he had had there of late years had been as chairman of the De Beers Company and of the Standard Bank of South Africa. As to the bank there could be no question. As to the company, the Committee would recollect that if Sir Hercules Robinson had desired to use any undue influence, he would have been unable to do so, because, as Governor of the Cape, he must act under the advice of the Cape Ministers. Therefore, neither directly nor indirectly could he have any influence of the kind; and he had had no pecuniary interest in South Africa of late years which could in any way incapacitate him from being High Commissioner. As regarded the implication that influence had been brought to bear upon the Government to appoint Sir H. Robinson, he could only say that no such influence had been brought to bear. The Government had appointed him because they believed him to be the man most suited in the peculiar circumstances for that position, and that he was in no sense incapacitated for being an impartial and independent High Commissioner. The appointment was a very important one indeed, and the Government felt that they ought to appoint a man who was above suspicion; they believed that in Sir H. Robinson they had a man above suspicion, one who would be able to carry out their policy in South Africa, who would, on the whole, be acceptable in South Africa, and who would be absolutely independent of any influence direct or indirect; and they thanked him for having patriotically parted with all his interests in South Africa in order to undertake this onerous duty.


I have never understood why it is necessary that this Vote should be taken to-night. [Sir W. HARCOURT was understood to say it really was so.] If that be the case, if there is really no possible alternative, my own recommendation to my hon. Friend would be that he should withdraw the Motion and raise the question again on the Report. There is no doubt the matter cannot stand where it has just been left by the Under Secretary. It is a matter of the very utmost importance, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recognised, and it must be fully discussed. I will not stand in the way of the Vote; but I should like to say a word on what the Under Secretary has just said. He admits that the objections to the appointment of Sir Hercules Robinson were palpable, and asserts that they were fully considered by the Government; he actually almost makes it a matter of credit to the Government and boasts that, in spite of these apparent objections, they have, nevertheless, appointed a man who, of all others, is fittest for the position. I may admit with him that in no conceivable circumstances will Sir Hercules Robinson be improperly influenced by his previous connection with these speculations; but something more than that is expected of a person who is appointed to represent the Queen in a Colonial Government. It is not only necessary that he should be pure, but, like Cæsar's wife, he must not be suspected. I pay no special attention to the correspondence in The Times of this morning beyond this, that it shows the strong feeling on the part of one political Party in the Cape that suspicion will be against the future decisions of Sir Hercules Robinson in consequence of his connection with these financial affairs. The Under Secretary says— Oh, but what is his connection? He is not connected with the Chartered Company. Does he mean that that would be a disability, and would he still have appointed him even if he had been connected with the Chartered Company? I suppose, if credit is taken for his not being connected with the Chartered Company, he admits, that if Sir Hercules Robinson had been connected with it, that would have been a serious objection. Then, is it not a serious objection to have been connected with the De Beers Company? It is not an ordinary company; it is a great financial undertaking, dealing with enormous funds, which have been used again and again for political purposes, used publicly for political purposes and to carry out political aims, which may be, and, I am inclined to believe, are, very worthy aims; but still, nevertheless, you have got this distinct and definite connection; and you cannot regard the De Beers Company as if it were an ordinary business. It is a compromising connection for anybody who has to undertake the position of impartial arbitrator between various parties in South Africa. I must say say that if I had, as I have, some doubt of the propriety of this appointment, I have now, after hearing their defence, no doubt whatever as to the mischievous character of the precedent the Government are setting up. In what they have done, they are breaking down the traditions and rules of this generation; at any rate I would ask the Under Secretary what are the regulations of the office with which he is connected? Are they not of the strictest character, and are they not all intended to preserve the character of those who are engaged in the Government of our Colonies as persons against whom suspicion cannot breathe a word as to their absolute impartiality? Yet, here is a case in which it is acknowledged by the Under Secretary that the Government were aware that this particular gentleman was connected in an important capacity to one of the greatest financial undertakings in South Africa. In spite of that the Government propose to send him out not merely as Governor of the Cape Colony, but also as representing Her Majesty in the position of High Commissioner. I think we owe an obligation to the hon. Member for bringing the matter before the Committee, and I hope it will not be disposed of until it has been much more fully discussed.

MR. F. G. BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

said, he wished to ask only one question. Was the Committee to understand that the De Beers Company was the only company in South Africa with which Sir Hercules Robinson had been connected?

MR. W. REDMOND (Clare, E.)

remarked, that it was a matter of great surprise that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham, who had been a responsible Minister in that House, should lend himself to the unworthy action of the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Belfast. The hon. Gentleman had spoken about the good government of the Empire. Did he think that the Colonies of this Empire were to be retained or the Empire well governed by standing up in the House of Commons and making a disgraceful attack on a gentleman just appointed to go out to an important Colony, and occupy a high position. This was an attempt to handicap Sir Hercules Robinson in the great task he had before him. If the hon. Member for West Belfast had the charge of these matters, in a very short time there would not be a single Colony attached to the Crown.


, replying to the hon. Member for Peckham, said, that he was assured by Sir Hercules Robinson that, as regarded his interests in South Africa, while some few years ago he held some few shares in the Chartered Company, and subsidiary company, he had parted with them some time since. He had also held shares in the Standard Bank and the De Beers Company, but those he had parted with on his appointment being made.


said, there were a great number of important points which ought to be discussed. They could not be brought on in the ordinary Estimates because they never came before the House. To-morrow they would not be able to divide on more than one question because, by the Rules of the House with regard to the Report of Supply only enabled the House to divide once. He wished to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he would put down a second Vote so as to enable hon. Members to raise the points they wished to discuss?


I will do what I can, but the hon. Member must not expect me to pledge myself at the present moment.

Amendment by leave withdrawn; Vote agreed to.

Progress reported.