HC Deb 02 April 1897 vol 48 cc466-76

said he had put down a Motion asking the House to express the disapproval which was felt outside the House of the action of Her Majesty's Government in tiring on the Cretans and the Greeks, and in blockading Crete. By the Rules of the House, however, he was precluded from bringing the matter to a vote, and as the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs had already spoken and could not speak again, he should not go at all exhaustively into the subject. There were, however, two or three things he wished to point out. They had really great difficulty in finding out what was going on and what was the policy of Her Majesty's Government. [Cheers.] He would not say there was absolute evasion, but practically the outcome of the answers they addressed to the Government was that they knew as little when they had received the answers as they did before. When they pointed to facts that had taken place, according to the accounts of journalists—and he was not taking journalists who were opposed to the Government, but the correspondents of The Times and of The Standard—they were told by the Under Secretary that the Admirals had not seen the matter in the same way, and that they must attach no credibility to the correspondents. He was far from saying that there might not be sometimes exaggeration in the correspondents' messages, but when they had three or four correspondents not opposed to the Government giving the same statement of what occurred and of what they had seen with their own eyes there must be a considerable measure of truth in what they said. Under these circumstances they found a difficulty in dealing with the matter on the data of admitted facts. There was a certain amount of point in the suggestion of the First Lord of the Treasury that they should at once proceed to a Vote of Censure, but the answer to that was that they did not know what was the policy of Her Majesty's Government. It seemed to him that, according to all Parliamentary precedents, when important actions like these were taking place, and where the Government were urging the matter to be met by a Vote of Censure, they ought to put the House in as full and as complete possession of what was going on and what they contemplated as was possible. That, he complained, the Government had not done. ["Hear, hear!"] What had happened in the last two or three days? At Malaxa it was admitted there was a conflict. The allied fleets and the Turkish fleet there fired indiscriminately both on the Turks and the Christians. Surely that was the most reckless act that could possibly have been done. ["Hear, hear!"] to the best of their knowledge the Cretans were not notified that there was any intention to fire upon them, and certainly the Turks were not. Again, what took place at Retimo was really a disgrace to war itself. There the Russian Consul invited a conference with certain chiefs of the insurgents. The chiefs came to this conference with a flag of truce, and at once they were fired upon by the Bashi-Bazouks! What happened then? When the Admirals had complaint to make of the Greeks they fired into them, but, as far as he could find out, nothing was done against the Bashi-Bazouks when they did a thing which was not recognised even by barbarous tribes as legitimate, except that a protest was made at Constantinople! [Laughter]

Take what occurred at Candano, when Sir A. Biliotti managed to release the Turks there, and bring them to Canea. They found from the newspapers that these men had been armed by the Turks, and were engaged with our troops in defending Canea against the insurgents. In a speech at Norwich the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition said that we were on the side of the Turks, and that the Greeks were on the side of the insurgents. Was that not textually true? It had been stated officially that, if the present Measures were not successful, the Allied Powers would proceed to other action. What other action? It seemed to him that the Powers could not make up their minds what it was. One day it was said that some mountain batteries were to be sent; another day it was said the Piræus was to be blockaded; another day it was stated that the Gulf of Volo was to be blockaded; another day it was announced that the Turkish troops were going to retire from Crete. This evening the Under Secretary said that we were urging at Constantinople that the Turkish troops should retire from Crete, but he did not say that this was to be preliminary to any threat or determination to blockade any port in Greece, nor did he state whether the six Powers were united on the subject. He could not find that the Powers were united on anything except on some act of oppression or war against the Greeks. ["Hear, hear!"] The fact was that they were so jealous of each other that they could not be brought into line to act in a reasonable and practical manner. It was stated in the newspapers to-day that Colonel Vassos, whom he took to be a truthful and honourable man, had sent a protest to the Admirals. Was that protest to be answered? They were told that all this was occurring in order to give the Cretans the benefit of self-government—autonomy it was called. It seemed to him that to kill people was a curious way of giving them an opportunity of governing themselves. What the Cretans wanted was to be separated entirely from the Turks, and the reply they received was, "We will give you autonomy." Again and again he and others had asked what was the nature of the autonomy. The newspapers slated that the Ambassadors had declared that they were unable to elaborate any scheme of autonomy. The Cretans, therefore, were to give up their arms and all hope of being connected with Greece, on the understanding that they were to receive some vague and indefinite autonomy. The Government would no doubt say that if they left the Cretans in fight matters out for themselves they would conic worse off. But how did they know that? He and his Friends believed that the time had come when England should withdraw from the Concert of Europe. They did not believe that the Government were representing fairly the opinion of the country—["hear, hear!"]—in fighting for the integrity of the Turkish Empire, and in turning English guns upon the Cretans, who were fighting to escape from a connection with that empire. It was perfectly true the Government had a majority in that House, but did they obtain that majority at the general election by advocating the policy of defending the integrity of the Turkish Empire? The Government were now blockading Crete with the deliberate intention of starving it into submission. He regretted he was unable to take the opinion of the House. He had always thought that on his own side of the House they entertained a strong opinion with regard to what the Government was doing, and that they ought to accept the challenge of the Government and move a Vote of Censure. [Ministerial laughter] He could perfectly understand that the wise and eminent Gentlemen who sat upon the Front Opposition Bench—[Ministerial laughter, the Front Opposition Bench Being empty] —desired to choose their own time. After the belligerent speeches they had had from the Member for Montrose and the Leader of the Opposition, he was firmly convinced they would find the wishes of the Leader of the House gratified, and that before the Easter vacation they should have those Gentlemen moving a Vote of Censure. [The FIRST LORD of the TREASURY: "Hear, hear!"] He had no doubt that the reason why they were not there that night was that they were preparing that Vote of Censure. [Laughter.] As an humble follower he did not think they would fulfil their duties to the Liberals in and out of that House unless they moved a Vote of Censure. Of course they knew that they would be beaten. He thought, however, that it would have a great effect outside this country if it was known that the entire Liberal Party— [lord laughter]—well, they would admit that the Liberal Party constituted a large section of the people of this country, and if it was made clear that the Liberal Party as a whole was prepared and did challenge the action of the Government, it would have a great effect abroad. It would be seen that this country was split into two parties, and Lord Salisbury, who was a man of considerable intelligence—[ironical Ministerial laughter] —when he did not allow himself to be led by those who had not his intelligence — [Opposition laughter] — would say, "I am the Minister of England, not the Minister of Russia or of France or of Germany, and I will act as the Minister of England, and in accordance with the views of the English people." [Cheers.]


, who was received with Ministerial cheers: It is not for me to say what is the duty or what is not the duty of right hon. Gentlemen opposite in dealing with the question, but if it be their duty to make perpetual protests against the foreign policy of the Government, nobody has acted up to that profession more laudably than the hon. Gentleman himself. It has been said of a great preacher, Whitefield, that he had delivered the same sermon 40 times and that the 40th delivery was the best. I do not say that the hon. Member has made the same speech 40 times on the subject of Crete, nor do I say that his last utterance was the best. [Laughter.] At all events, he has shown perseverance in well doing, which ought to earn the gratitude of the small fragment of his own Party who have thought it worth while to come down to the House. [Laughter.] I do not mean to detain the House at any great length on the foreign policy of the Government, more especially as we have received a half pledge from the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his absent leaders—


Yes, "hope springs eternal in the human breast." I only hope they will do it. [Loud laughter.]


I gather at all events from the hon. Member, who is naturally deeper in the confidence of those who are sometimes on the Front Opposition Bench— [laughter]—than myself, that the general intention is that a Vote of Censure shall be moved in the course of next week. [Ministerial cheers.] If this he so, we shall welcome such an opportunity of defending our policy and taking a vote of the representatives of the people upon that policy. It is sufficient to say, in the meanwhile, that he has entirely failed to comprehend the importance of the events which are going on before our eyes in Crete at this moment. He appears to think that there is a series of acts of wanton aggression on the part of the Turks, backed up by the Powers of Europe, against the peaceable and unoffending citizens of Crete and their Grecian allies. ["Hear, hear!"] That, I gather, is a true rendering of what he means. The facts, however, are somewhat different. The facts are, that the Powers of Europe are occupied in defending a portion of the Greek population of Crete, who are Mahomedans in religion, from the attacks of those who belong to the same race but not the same religion —["hear, hear!"]—and that the whole action of the Powers during the recent weeks has been to defend against the insurgents and their allies certain positions which, if taken by the insurgents, would imperil not merely the maritime ports, but the honour and the lives of the Cretan population, of Mahomedan religion. That is described by the hon. Gentleman as England fighting on behalf of the Turks. [Opposition cheers.] Surely it requires an Irishman to cheer that. [Laughter.]


Why are Irishmen to be insulted?


The hon. Gentleman knows very well that I am the last person in the House to underrate his capacity for expressing himself clearly and forcibly on anything he may desire to discuss: but I do say that to describe these operations as fighting on behalf of the Turks is the most inaccurate and inappropriate use of the English language. [Cheers.] My right hon. Friend near me the Under Secretary has already told the House that we desire the withdrawal of the Turkish troops, and we have no doubt that that withdrawal will take place. He has also told the House, and I and other Members of the Government have told the House, that the policy of the Government, is to withdraw Crete altogether, not from the suzerainty, but from the power, of the Sultan, and to give to Crete complete power of controlling her own affairs as far as the Porte is concerned. It is tolerable that such a policy as that should be described as fighting for the Turks? [Cheers.] Our policy may be right or it may be wrong, but let the language applied to it be accurate, and describe the true facts of the case. [Cheers.] The hon. Gentleman asks what is autonomy? And he appears to think that we have no right to talk of autonomy for Crete unless we are prepared to lay on the Table of the House a brand new constitution of local government, complete in all its details from the smallest to the largest. Sir, autonomy means self-government. ["Hear, hear!"] The autonomy the Powers of Europe mean to give to Crete is the power of self-government free from interference on the part of the Porte. It is true that the Powers of Europe are resolved that there shall not be at this moment a scramble for fragments of the Turkish Empire, and, in forming that resolution and carrying it out, we consider that we are not merely not fighting against the cause of civilisation, and freedom, but that we are fighting for civilisation and freedom and for the peace of Europe. [Cheers.] But let not that policy—a policy which Mr. Gladstone has in his time supported by Measures not less forcible against Greece than those we are employing—let not that policy be described as fighting for the Turkish rule or the Turkish Empire in Europe. [Cheers.] We have no such views or desires. I have before endeavoured to describe the policy of the Government as freedom for Crete and peace for Europe. That the first of these objects will be attained I have not the slightest doubt. I wish I could speak with equal confidence with regard to the second; but if I cannot speak with equal confidence of the prospects of peace, this I say with full assurance, that no better course for maintaining that peace can be conceived than the course we are pursuing of maintaining the Concert of Europe, and preventing that general fight for the provinces of Turkey in Europe which must end in a flow of blood and an amount of human misery which it is difficult to estimate and impossible to describe, and which will not, we believe, curtail for one moment or prevent for one instant the gradual spread of free institutions and of settled government over all the provinces occupied by Christians in the Eastern part of Europe. [Cheers.]

MR. J. H. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

said that during the long mouths that had passed by, while they had been pursuing their present policy, the Government had not thought it worth while to take the House into their confidence and to justify their policy. The right hon. Gentleman said that in this matter the British Government was not allied to the Turks. Would the right hon. Gentleman deny the allegation of his hon. Friend that while reinforcements were being denied to the insurgents, under the protection of Her Majesty's ships, the Turks were daily receiving munitions and reinforcements? ["Hear, hear!"] In the face of such a position it was idle to tell the House that the Government were not acting as protectors of the Turks in this matter. The insurgents were fighting their own battles against the Turks, and when they were successful Her Majesty's ship Comperdown fired shells into their midst. ["Hear, hear!"] No Member of the Government had yet denied that, and again he said, it was idle and absurd to say we were not acting as the protectors of the Turks. The right hon. Gentleman asked what was autonomy? It meant that a people should be allowed to govern themselves in the way they thought best for themselves; but that was exactly the opposite to what the Government of the right hon. Gentleman was carrying out in Crete. The Cretans had expressed a desire to be united with Greece, and if any respect were to be paid to the principle of self-government, that desire ought to be recognised. The principal point on which complaint was made against the Government was that they had not the courage or the power to insist on the Turkish troops being withdrawn. He believed that if the Turkish troops had been withdrawn and the troops of the Powers placed in the island there would have been no danger of war. It was quite clear that Lord Salisbury and the Government recognised the importance of the withdrawal of the Turkish troops, but we were so impotent in this Concert of Europe that the Government had nut been allowed to carry out that policy. The Government challenged a Vote of Censure, the Party advantage of which they all foresaw—[Ministerial cheers]—but hon. Gentlemen opposite were not returned at the last election to support the integrity of the Turkish Empire, neither were they sent there to support the firing of shells into the midst of the poor people of Crete. Their Party majority was secured for other reasons, and this question had not been before the country. They could not therefore be considered to represent the opinion of the people of this country in this matter, and the feeling outside was strong enough to considerably reduce their majority. He regretted that the Government had not been able to succeed in carrying out the policy of withdrawing the Turkish troops, which he believed was their desire.


said the speeches to which they had listened had not been attacks on the Government, but attacks on the Leaders of the Liberal Party and the Concert of Europe. No public man had more strongly protested that it was necessary in these matters to act with the Concert of Europe than had Lord Rosebery. No Government had more strongly held that opinion than the Government which in 1886 blockaded the Piræus and thereby protected Turkey from the attacks of Greece and caused Greece to withdraw the forces she had sent forth to make war on the Turkish Empire. There was an example if the Government needed one, but the present Government had not gone nearly so far as had the Government of 1886. As soon as they blockaded the Piræus Greece would come to her senses, and not till then; and then, as in 1886, she would obey the mandate of the Concert of Europe. In the meantime they were in Crete endeavouring to keep the peace between the two sets of combatants. It was constantly said that the Cretans were mad to be united to Greece, but when he was in Athens in November he had been told by several Cretans that they did not want to be united to Greece, because they knew perfectly well that if they once came under the Greek flag their taxes would be five times higher than they were now. The fact was, the great desire of the Cretans was to fight out their grievances among themselves. He read an extract from a letter of a young naval officer now employed on the coast of Greece, which showed that the desire of the Cretans was simply to light it out amongst themselves. There was an old English proverb that he who parted the fray went away with the blows. This country was rather in that position now. The hon. Member for Northampton had made some very severe strictures on his absent chief. [Mr. LABOUCHERE: "No."] He thought those attacks should be made when the right hon. Gentleman was there to defend himself. There was only the late Solicitor General for Scotland on the Front Opposition Bench. He quoted a speech delivered by the junior hon. Member for Devonport at Lynn, in the unavoidable absence of himself—[laughter]—in which the hon. Member said that Sir William Harcourt was willing to declare, if he was not hampered by those traitors who sat around—[laughter]— that he and the Liberal Party were anxious to destroy the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, even as a figment of international law, and to smash the Concert of Europe. However difficult the task to which it had set itself, the Concert of Europe was the only thing that at present stood between Europe and a general war. He admitted that the Cretan phase of the task to which the Concert of Europe had set itself was being attempted under circumstances of great risk and danger. He thought, himself, that although the Concert of Europe had the right to keep the peace, there was great risk run in landing in Crete detachments of different nations, speaking different languages, having different military systems, and congregating them together under one single commander. So long as they were not attacked by the insurgents, well and good. But if they were exposed to attacks by the insurgents, they would run great risk of disaster indeed. But he put it to the Liberal Party that it would be better for their own dignity to stop this constant snapping and snarling at the Concert of Europe, and the policy of Her Majesty's Government—which was honest, however imprudent some of them may deem it to be—and to raise the question m a proper manner so that the House might once and for all give its decision upon it.