HC Deb 12 August 1896 vol 44 cc655-70
MR. C. J. MONK (Gloucester)

called attention to the terrible events which were taking place in Crete—events which had shocked the public opinion of the civilised world. He was not quite satisfied with the reply of the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs when the right hon. Gentleman stated that the representatives of the Great Powers were in almost daily communication with the Porte, with a view to the suppression of the disturbances and the restoration of order in the island. Surely something more was required than mere "communications" with the Porte. It was notorious that the island was in a state of open rebellion against the Porte, and that the events which had taken place during the past six months were of a nature to justify the inhabitants of Crete in their attempt to shake off the chains which now bound them. ["Hear, hear!"] The answer of his right hon. Friend was almost identical with that given on July 6th, when, after admitting the gravity of the situation, he said that the Charge d' Affaires at Constantinople was urging the Porte to carry out remedial measures. It was time that this country should know what the remedial measures recommended to the Porte were. The Porte had refused any guarantee to carry out reforms in Crete. Something more than this was required, because not even the presence of British ships of war on the shores of Crete could prevent the massacres and the desecration of churches. He had received a telegram that day stating that it was true that a priest had been roasted alive in the neighbourhood of Heraklion. Some announcement on the part of the Great Powers was being anxiously waited for. Was it intended to grant autonomy to Crete, or was it intended to allow Crete to be annexed to Greece? Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the Powers intended to intervene forcibly before the island was desolated and its inhabitants massacred in circumstances of the greatest horror, almost in the sight of British sailors? He had great faith in the Government, and still greater faith in Lord Salisbury, but he regretted very much that the mantle of Lord Palmerston had not fallen on the shoulders of the Prime Minister, so that he might recognise the soundness of that Statesman's views when he expressed his conviction in 1830, that the only true solution of the difficulties in Crete was to be found in the annexation of that island to the kingdom of Greece. He hoped that would be the policy of the Government. [Cheers.]


coincided with the remarks of the last speaker and asked for some reassuring statement from the Government that the matter would not be allowed to drift. While having perfect confidence in the tact and judgment of Lord Salisbury, he hoped that the Government would be able to announce that evening that they had a clear, definite, and settled policy with regard to Crete, and that they intended to carry it out by diplomatic and peaceful means during the next six months. He did not agree that the island should be handed over to Greece; he should much prefer to see autonomy granted to the island under the guarantee of the Powers of Europe. It was because the Government in power in 1880 or 1881 did not interfere actively as they might have done in Egypt that the insurrection of Arabi subsequently occurred, and that we were led, against our will, into the war of 1882, resulting in the bombardment of Alexandria, and the bloodshed that was caused. He hoped that a similar mistake would not be committed now. There were, no doubt, conflicting interests in Crete, and certain Powers had objects of their own to gain in Eastern Europe. The Government, he trusted, would endeavour to preserve the concert of the European Powers, but if the resistance of any Power with selfish interests should make common action impossible, he trusted that they should not see a repetition of the humiliating fiasco in respect of Armenia. It was said at the time of that fiasco that our ironclads could not sail over the, mountains of Armenia. The same excuse would be of no avail in the case of Crete, which was surrounded by sea. He hoped that the Government would watch closely the events of the next few weeks, and would do their best to bring the present abominable and hideous state of things to an end, remembering that Great Britain ought to be the predominant Power in the Eastern Mediterranean.


observed that the concert of Europe was useless in matters like that which they were discussing. Not one life had been saved in Armenia through the agency of the concert of Europe. It now appeared that in these Cretan massacres a priest had been roasted alive. How long were they going to allow such atrocities to be perpetrated? If Great Britain were to send troops to Crete for the exclusive purpose of putting an end to such atrocities, what other nation would dare to find fault with her? It might, however, be necessary to give some guarantee of good faith, because the action of this country in Egypt in 1882 had created some suspicion. In 1882 Great Britain sent troops to Egypt for the purpose of restoring order, but, unfortunately, she had held the country ever since. European nations might fear that in the same way she would hold Crete permanently if she sent troops there to preserve order. Therefore, some guarantee might have to be given. He could not forget, and he was sure it must be present to the minds of many Members of the House, that in 1882 what was at stake was not the rights of the Christian people in Egypt—because the Egyptian people tortured no one before the English troops landed—but what was at stake when the English fleet did not hesitate to bombard Alexandria, without any respect for the rights of Turkey, was the dividends of the bondholders. [Cheers.] But now, when it was only a question of murder and outrage, this country fell back on the concert of Europe, which had become the laughingstock and scorn of Europe.


I do not at all deprecate the conduct of my hon. Friends on this side of the House or the hon. Member opposite in having raised this subject. The Cretan question is undoubtedly one calculated to cause great anxiety, and I think that before the House separates hon. Members are quite entitled to appeal to the Government for some statement of the policy they have been pursuing and of the policy they purpose to pursue during the time they will not be called upon to make any announcement to the House. ["Hear, hear!"] I will not not go behind or beyond the last occasion when Crete was discussed in this House. At that date the Porte had conceded the four points to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester alluded. I think, perhaps, he rather understated the fact when he said that these points had been only nominally granted. That is hardly the case, for, as regards the first—namely, the appointment of a Christian Governor, a Christian Governor has already been appointed, and has been in the occupation of his post for some weeks. As regards the second point—namely, the immediate convocation of the Assembly—the Assembly was convened; and, as regards the third, the suspension of hostilities, I am bound to say that although there has been one lamentable exception, yet in the larger towns and in places where the largest bodies of troops have been [collected together, there has been a general desire on the part of the Turkish troops and their commanders to observe the conditions imposed on them by their Government. As regards the fourth point—namely, the revival of the Halepa Convention—that is being made the basis of negotiations between the two parties, and subject to modifications, which, I think, are required, that Convention is capable of giving relief to the situation. There are two main difficulties by which the policy of the Powers has been confronted in Crete. The first is the unremitting importation of arms and ammunition and volunteers into that island from Greece. The strongest possible representations have been addressed to the Greek Government on the subject, and I am bound to say, from such information as we possess, that I believe the Greek Government have done the very best with the means at their disposal to check this importation of inflammable material into the island. ["Hear, hear!"] But it must be remembered that public opinion in Greece is not unnaturally strongly excited, and that the Government of Greece itself cannot have the means at its disposal with which to guard a very long and indented line of coast, and that from the islands and mainland it not unfrequently happens that vessels sail across under cover of the night which no precautions that may be taken can altogether check. On the other hand, these importations of arms and armed men have undoubtedly rendered the work of pacification in the island more difficult, and have hampered the Powers in the efforts they were making. We hear from more than one source, that the Turkish troops and their commanders have, on the whole, done their best to observe the suspension of hostilities of which I have spoken, and I do not think it is quite fair that isolated cases, deplorable and horrible as they may be, should be mentioned in this House, if they have been so mentioned, as typical of what is going on in the rest of the island. ["Hear, hear!"] That is not so, and our latest reports are to the effect that if in particular cases outrages have occurred, yet over the bulk of the island the suspension of hostilities has been observed. Secondly, there are the local outbreaks of religious and political animosity in the island, as to which I gather from the reports that in the disturbed districts the terror that prevails is so extreme that the minutest incident, such as the casual firing of a revolver shot, is likely to lead to panic and almost to end in a massacre. I cannot attempt to divide the responsibility in the matter. One day one party is in the wrong and another day the other. It is not fair to say that in the majority of cases Christians are the victims, and if the House could at all realise the intensity of the political and religious feeling that prevails, I am sure it would as far as possible try to avoid taking sides in the matter. ["Hear, hear!"] These two elements, distorted as they are by political and religious passions, and separated by generations of feud, can only be brought together and reconciled by the most careful language and conduct on the part of those who are trying to compose the quarrel, and any too strong expression of opinion either of censure or praise, can only really retard the Powers in their efforts. Hon. Members will have noticed in the papers a great deal about the proposed blockade of the island, and I think that before we part I should explain exactly what is the situation. The proposal has been made that the six Powers should themselves undertake a blockade of Crete, or that they should assist Turkey in enforcing a blockade of the island.


Against whom?


To prevent the importation of arms and men from Greece. I have no doubt that those suggestions were conceived with the best possible intentions, and that it was thought that by preventing the importation of arms and armed men into the island you would both narrow the area and dry up one of the fountain heads of the insurrection. We thought, however, we should look a little further, and take into our view the possible consequences of such action. In any case it is a somewhat doubtful operation for any Government or any group of Governments to interfere between a Sovereign and his subjects, but still more does that appear to be the case when that intervention is directed exclusively to the suppression of a rebellion for which there appears to be much excuse, and when, moreover, it would be a suppression by force of arms. The Government thought it was not their duty to take sides in this matter, but to hold the scales even. [Cheers.] If force was to be used to paralyse the insurrection on the one hand, some compulsion ought to be exercised upon the Sultan to secure a quid pro quo for the Cretans, and some guarantees for their better government in the future. [Cheers.] I think this will commend itself to hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is obvious that there is no finality in a blockade. A blockade is essentially a temporary expedient, intended and calculated only to re-establish and, if I may so say, to crystallise the status quo. Lord Salisbury has expressed himself as willing to consider the question of joining in any guarantee with the other Powers for the observance of the conditions that may be arrived at between the Turkish Government and the Cretan population; but he found himself unable to consent to any arrangement by which the Government should join in an application of force alone, while they desisted from any attempt to find a remedy. That is the present situation of affairs. The hon. Member for Gloucester very strongly recommended the annexation of Crete by Greece. In connection with such a proposition, three parties, besides Turkey, have to be taken into account—Greece, the Cretans, and the Great Powers of Europe. I have no reason to believe that any one of these parties is willing to consent to such annexation. I doubt whether there is anything like a unanimity or even a majority of feeling in that direction on the part of the Cretans. Greece is not only unable but unwilling at present to assume such a responsibility, and I have no doubt whatever that annexation by Greece would be most unacceptable to all the Great Powers. Very well. What are the specific remedies that are capable of being applied? I think there are only two. One is temporary and local. We have not abandoned the hope that the insurrection in the island may be stopped. ["Oh!" and Mr. T. M. HEALY: "Crushed!"] We have not abandoned the hope that the Powers, through the agency of their Consuls in the island, may be able to bring the two parties to terms with each other. The hon. Member spoke of the island as surrounded by "a powerless British fleet." That is not an exact description. The British fleet off the coasts of Crete has already rendered almost invaluable assistance, and it is safe to say that at every port where ships, and more particularly where British ships, in consequence of their superior number, have been stationed, the insurrection has been nipped in the bud when on the verge of breaking out—[Mr. T. M. HEALY: "Shame!"]—or has been composed where it had already broken out. The hon. Member says "Shame!" Does he really mean that, when you have two sections of the population in a state of physical and moral tension so extreme that at any moment there may be a fearful massacre, the presence of British ships in the harbours acting as a security to the people and a warning to turbulent elements—that that is "a shameful thing? "


Why don't you take the side of the Christians?


I will not pursue the matter, but I will repeat that the Government have thought it their duty to take no side in the matter, but to hold the scales even. Of course, for a real settlement of the question, something more permanent is required, some lasting readjustment of the Government of Crete by which the abuses of which the inhabitants complain shall be secured. I do not say that any such permanent remedy is easy, but that, at any rate, is the object which the Government are pursuing. It is a little too much to expect that the situation should be solved with the promptitude which my hon. Friend expects. You cannot in five minutes, or five weeks, or even five months, solve a problem that has been growing up for generations. Let me implore the House before we part to realise that in this matter some self-restraint, some patience, some self-control are required. [Cheers.] I hope the House will trust that the Government during the next six months will pursue a policy which I believe will be backed up by the public opinion of this country. [Cheers.]


hoped that the fact that this subject had been brought before the House by two of the supporters of the Government was an indication that the continued domination of the Turkish power over their subject Christian populations was no longer a party matter. ["Hear, hear!"] He hoped the Government would not be put off by any promises of reform. He did not wish to attack the Government for what they had done hitherto; but he was bound to say that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman had shown that there were still other entanglements existing, and existing in the Foreign Office itself, in regard to that policy which all sections of the House wished to repudiate. The right hon. Gentleman, speaking as the mouthpiece of the Foreign Office, said that this was a question between two rival factions in the island, rather than a question between the population of Crete and the Turkish Government. He trusted that the Government during the recess would try not merely to hold the scales even, but would try to see that the majority who had risen in rebellion, against what the Government themselves admitted to be intolerable oppression, should not be subject to the ordinary deeds of the Turk when dealing with an insurrection. There was no case in the history of the Turkish Government where they had granted reforms which were worth anything to their subject Christian populations, and he hoped, therefore, that the Government would not be put off by any promise of reform.


said the present Session had been a disappointment. He hoped some attempt would be made to cure the evils which had attended their method of doing business. Eleven Measures were announced in the Queen's Speech, but only three of them had been passed, although this was the strongest Government the country had had for 60 years. [Cries of "Order!"]


ruled that the hon. Member was not in order in discussing this subject.


said he would call attention to the number of hours they had been sitting.


said that the hon. Member would not be in order in doing so.

SIR HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

said he wished to call attention to the conduct of the home affairs of the country by the Government. There had been an enormous increase in the importation of foreign manufactured goods into this country, amounting, in the 12 months ending 31st July 1896, to the enormous sum of 80 millions of pounds sterling. He wished to call attention to the policy of the Government in regard to this matter.


Order, order! The hon. Member can only deal with the administrative policy of the Government upon this question.

SIR HOWARD VINCENT (Sheffield, Central)

said he would be glad to hear in what way the subject was engaging the attention of the Board of Trade. This was no party question, and he was justified in asking what was being done by the Department with regard to the enormous increase in the competition of their rivals. Was the Board of Trade going to institute a Parliamentary inquiry? [A laugh.]

*SIR HENRY FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I regret that two hon. Members opposite have interrupted a discussion in which attention was being called to the foreign policy of this country. ["Hear, hear!"] I regret that after the speech of the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs they should have intervened in this extraordinary way. ["Hear, hear!"] I do not say that it was a designed attempt to direct the Debate into another channel. [Cheers.]


Nothing of the sort. ["Oh!"]


I think there are many Members of this House who would like to turn their attention to the statement made by the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. I am not going to discuss the subject myself, but I wish to point out that while the Under Secretary gave us his views in July with regard to Crete, no papers have been published and no information has been given as to what is the present state of affairs. We know that the Foreign Office has not known, or is inadequately informed, as to what the public Press has been informed of. ["Hear, hear!"] There is the question of the roasting of a priest.


said that what he had stated was that they had not an official statement from the British Consul.


I understood the hon. Member to say that there was a danger of the extension of the insurrection, and all I say is that it is desirable we should have all the information that it is possible to obtain. ["Hear, hear!"] But that, after all, is a small matter. The grave matter is, is the statement of the right hon. Gentleman as to the present policy and the future policy of the Government satisfactory? I, as a humble Member of the House, enter my protest against that policy. [Opposition cheers.] I do not think it is the policy which Great Britain pursued in times past, nor is it the policy which, pursued to-day, will meet with the sanction of the people of this country. [Renewed cheers.] The hon. Member for Gloucester, in expressing confidence in the Goverment, and especially in Lord Salisbury, wished that on their shoulders had fallen the mantle of Lord Palmerston. No one will say that the policy which is being now pursued is the policy that Lord Palmerston would have pursued in the circumstances. ["Hear, hear!"] I am not going to discuss that policy. It is impossible for the House, without the Papers on the subject, to express any safe or wise opinion. It certainly would be unwise for the House to indulge in language of a provocative character, or say anything that would still further embitter the present difficult situation. But I do not think we ought to separate leaving the Government under the impression that there is a feeling in the House and in the country of agreement with the policy they are pursuing in regard to the state of affairs against which the better feeling of Europe protests as a public crime. [Cheers.]


It is our desire to lay Papers on the Table as soon as possible. I believe my right hon. Friend the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs has already laid in dummy Papers which will make information on the subject accessible to the public during the Recess.


Down to what date?


The most recent Papers will be laid. The right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has interpreted, or appeared to interpret, my right hon. Friend's speech as an indication that the Government were pursuing a pro-Turkish policy. I can assure him that there is not a word of truth in that. [Ministerial cheers.] The primary object of the Government in the interests of Crete, in the interests of the Christians of Crete, in the interests of Europe, and in the interests of Turkey itself, is to get good government for that island—["Hear, hear!"]—and no effort is being spared by the Government to obtain that object. [Ministerial cheers.] There are hon. Gentlemen in this House who think that the Government have only got to send a sufficient number of ironclads to Crete, and, if necessary, to land a sufficient number of marines on the island, and the Cretans will get good government, the Eastern difficulty will be solved, and Europe will be relieved from the stress and strain which perennially arise from that difficulty. But the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Eastern Question is inextricably bound up with European politics, and involves the danger of a war which would not be restricted to a small area, or to one nation, if any one country, ignoring its connection with the other countries that form the European concert of which it is a member, should rush forward and attempt by its own power to solve problems which I hope are not insoluble, but which cannot he solved in a simple, rough-and-ready fashion. ["Hear, hear!"] The Government have, indeed, before them the interest of the Christian population of Crete; but they have not that interest alone before them in the policy they are pursuing in the East of Europe. We absolutely refuse to allow the power of England to be used for the suppression of the revolt of the subjects of the Porte, unless, indeed, the pacification of that population can be accompanied, not by promises—["Hear, hear!"]—but by something more solid and more durable than the promises of the Porte. ["Hear, hear!"] But, Sir, while we hold those views, and hold them strongly, we also have present to our minds the constant responsibility that lies upon us to maintain, with others, the peace of Europe, and to avert calamities incomparably greater than those isolated horrors which have been brought before the House to-night, and have been condemned in language none too strong. All this would sink into insignificance compared with what might happen amongst the family of European nations if by the rash action of one isolated Power we should provoke a crisis with which that Power, single-handed, would be incapable of dealing. I cannot say more without perhaps dealing in greater detail than I have a right to do with the European situation. But I trust I have said enough to show that in the first place the Government are deeply sensible of the misfortunes under which every section of the Mussulman and Christian Cretan population is suffering from the present state of tension. On the other hand, they are equally sensible of the duty that rests upon them to put an end to this state of things in Crete as soon as possible. But, at the same time, it is not to be done by turning their eyes with too concentrated attention upon one small spot in the European map and provoking misfortunes which would not be confined to that restricted area and might have widespread effects on the future history of the world. [Cheers.]


said the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs spoke as if there were only three alternatives before us in regard to Crete. But other Turkish provinces had suffered from massacres and cruelties at the hands of the Mussulmans, and they had been brought to an end. The case of the Druses of the Lebanon was quite as abominable as that of the Cretans at the present time, but was settled by cautious and statesmanlike efforts, and he could not understand why the Government, by friendly intervention, in co-operation with the other Powers, should not secure for Crete the same good local administration and protection for the Christian population as was secured for the population of Lebanon.


said he had never before spoken on any question of foreign affairs, but he desired on this occasion to say that the horrors in Crete had made their blood run cold. With regard to the general lines of the policy of the Government he would not offer any criticism. He knew the enormous difficulties of their position. But surely there was such a thing in this matter as playing into the hands of Turkey. If the Turks felt the dread of a European war was so great to most of the European Powers—and the jealousies of those Powers were enormous—it gave a certificate of indemnity to Turkey for all time. It was an appalling thing for any Christian man, he cared not what his tenets as to our Saviour might be, to know that non-combatants, innocent women, and the children and unhappy priests were subjected to such barbarities as had been inflicted upon the people in Crete. ["Hear, hear!"]

MR. WILLIAM AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)

protested against the notion which prevailed on both sides of the House—that Great Britain's duty was to act as police for the whole world. Wherever there were massacres we were expected to interfere, and now it was suggested we should send our Fleet to the shores of Crete and engage in hostilities which would inevitably result in a European war. He listened with amazement to the speech of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton when he recollected that a few years ago the great policy of the Liberal Party was that of non-intervention. But when they heard speeches from gentlemen who were in the position of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton which, if they meant anything at all, meant that this country must go to war. Were hon. Members prepared to declare war against Turkey or against Russia? Could they conceive any step which the Government might take in Crete now that would not result in some such eventuality unless the Government were to make themselves ridiculous by crying, Peccavi, and submitting if they did not succeed immediately? He would like to see what the right hon. Gentleman opposite would do under the circumstances if he were occupying the Treasury Bench. They had these difficulties arising during the existence of the late Government, and they very properly took no steps. In his judgment the opinion of the hon. Member for Gloucester and the other hon. Member on that side of the House, who had spoken upon this subject, found little or no sympathy with the other occupants of those Benches or with the Conservative Party. He hoped the Government would realise—as he believed they would—the responsibility of their position and not be led to take a step which would lead them into a false situation, and which might bring about the greatest possible calamity to the whole world in a sort of knight-errant adventure from which they were utterly powerless to accomplish any satisfactory result.

MR. J. COLVILLE (Lanark, N. E.)

observed that neither the House nor the country could consider the present affairs in Crete without recollecting the shocking barbarities in Armenia and other parts of the Sultan's dominions, and without recognising their obligations both to humanity and Christianity to see that that abominable misgovernment and misrule was not perpetuated in the Island of Crete. The suggestion that the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs mentioned as having been considered, of a British Fleet being called upon to assist the Sultan of Turkey was such a preposterous one that not even the present Government, one of the strongest of modern times, dare seriously entertain it. In the Recess, not only the great masses under the British Government, but the whole of Christendom would look with anxiety and concern upon the action of the Government, that whatever steps they took did not in any way tend to maintain and support the abominable misgovernment of the worst of all modern Powers.

CAPTAIN BETHELL (York, E. R., Holderness)

had a great deal of sympathy with what had been said by the hon. and learned Member for Louth, and he often asked himself whether their overwhelming dread of a great war was not tending perhaps to render them fainthearted in upholding the great traditions of the past history of this country? He asked himself whether after all the dread of this great war, promised now for so many years, was as present as they were often persuaded it was? He frankly admitted how great the difficulties were which the Government had now to encounter. There was this to be said, which he thought was over-looked by some of the speakers—namely, that at this time there was probably now taking place a change in the policy they had been pursuing since the Crimean War. Since the Crimean War they had, on almost every occasion, supported Turkey. The blows which had fallen in America and in Crete had undoubtedly so affected the people of this country that no Government, at any rate for many years, could hope to support Turkey. He remembered thinking last year, when Lord Salisbury made that noted speech at the Guildhall on November 9th, that it would be interpreted to mean that if the advice he then gave to the Sultan was not complied with great events would take place. But behind that there seemed to be a much more tremendous threat for Turkey, which was that, if these things were not changed and these horrors were not stopped, the support this country had given to Turkey for the last 40 years in such full measure would be alienated from her, and that alienation would mean the very approximate destruction of the Power as a European Power. If that was what was meant by Lord Salisbury, the meaning had not yet been taken to heart by Turkey, but it was one which met them, as he understood it, at the turning of the ways—the turning away for having supported Turkey for nearly half a century. Of course, considering the ramifications to which their policy had extended during the last 50 years, anyone could see how extremely difficult it was to change that policy suddenly. That was what, he conceived, made the great difficulty of the Government at present. That was what made him be content to say now that in the policy they were pursuing he personally was very willing to give his confidence, although hoping that, so far as in their power lay, they would do what they could to suppress the extension of these troubles in Crete, and, what was more important, that they would revert to the older policy of diverting their support from Turkey, which he thought had completely forfeited their support, and holding out the hand of friendliness to those Great Powers whose dominions they touched in every quarter of the globe.

Bill read a second time, and Committed for To-morrow.