HC Deb 07 December 1900 vol 88 cc221-35


Order read, for resuming adjourned Debate on Question [6th December], "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as followeth:—

"Most Gracious Sovereign,

"We, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."—(Mr. Gordon.)

Question again proposed. Debate resumed—

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

said the Colonial Secretary on the previous night made a somewhat aggressive speech, and as he continued speaking till close upon midnight there was no opportunity of replying, and he had consequently to move the adjournment of the debate. It would be admitted that the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman in reference to his conduct were not absolutely complimentary. The Colonial Secretary made a very singular statement during his speech, one which showed the tone of recklessness of the statements he was fond of making both inside and outside the House. His hon. friend the Member for the Rushcliffe Division had complained that the letters which formed the subject of the debate had been received by the right hon. Gentleman before the prorogation of the last Parliament, and yet were not submitted to the Members concerned until after the Parliament had broken up. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to that, said "Not at all; I sent them on the 6th of August." The right hon. Gentleman was right, no doubt, in the letter, but not in the spirit of his answer, because on the 8th of August Parliament was prorogued. Now, if the right hon. Gentleman had been exceedingly anxious that the Members concerned should have an opportunity of discussing these letters before Parliament was prorogued, it was evidently absolutely impossible if he only sent them in order that the hon. Members might make their observations upon them on the 6th August. Assuming that these hon. Members were in London, an answer might have come on the 7th, and then these would have had to have been printed, and the papers could only have been presented to the House on 8th August. Now, the House met at an early hour on the 8th—it was a purely formal proceeding—and how on earth could hon. Members have come down at ten o'clock in the morning and entered into a long discussion of these letters? He thought his hon. friend the Member for Rushcliffe had been most unfairly treated, and he could not help thinking that hon. Gentlemen opposite, after having heard the statement of his hon. friend, would share to a very great extent in that opinion. His hon. friend had received letters from the Cape, where martial law was going on, saying that certain transactions had taken place which were most undesirable. His hon. friend did not come down to the House to make a statement without full knowledge, but simply wrote out to the Cape to say that he wanted to have the facts before him. What else ought he to have done? The Cape was an English colony, and surely, as the representative not only of persons in that House but persons in the colonies, and especially in a colony where martial law had been proclaimed, his hon. friend had only performed his duty by writing to his correspondents, and asking them to furnish him with facts. As far as he could understand, the Colonial Secretary would not have objected if he had asked to be furnished with mere facts; but he observed that what the hon. Member did ask was, "Furnish me with a stream of facts." Now, when one wanted to have facts one could not have too many; and that was an exceedingly small point on which to found a charge against his hon. friend of the nature he so much objected to. Then the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary went on to say that his hon. friend wanted these facts in order to damage Her Majesty's Government. He did not know whether his hon. friend wished to damage Her Majesty's Government. Personally he himself would be delighted at any time to damage Her Majesty's Government. He did not believe that his hon. friend took these strong views, because he was a very staid gentleman, but even if that was not his object, it might have happened that he would have damaged Her Majesty's Government. Were they really to say that if a Member of the House thought there was due cause to bring a matter before the House he was to be restrained, declaring to himself "No, I will not do so because it may damage Her Majesty's Government"? If that was to be done they had better all go home; they had better have no Opposition at all, although hon. Gentlemen opposite did their best to tell them that they would be delighted to have a good strong Opposition. It seemed to him that it was not his hon. friend who wanted to damage Her Majesty's Government, but it was the Colonial Secretary who wanted to damage a political opponent in the person of his hon. friend. That appeared to him was the conclusion to be drawn from what went on the previous night. What they had found out at last in regard to these letters was that they were laid hold of by the Censor from among the papers of a gentleman who was believed to be, where martial law existed, a rebel. He could perfectly understand, if there had been a case against that gentleman, and if they really believed that he was a rebel, that they should look into his papers; but he did not consider that they had any sort of right to publish a private letter found among these papers addressed by his hon. friend to that gentleman's wife. As he had said, he thought his hon. friend had entirely cleared himself from the slightest imputation of disloyalty or conduct not proper to the Empire. And he believed that hon. Gentlemen opposite,, if they stated fairly their own views, would be of the same opinion Now in regard to his own letters, the Colonial Secretary took a more unfavourable view of these than he did of the letter of his hon. friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The right hon. Gentleman said that these letters showed "moral treason." He did not know what "moral treason" was, although he could conceive of immoral treason. He did not care for these adjectives that were always being invented nowadays; they were only words. What was the position at the moment when these letters were written? He did not think that anyone in the House would say that he had ever sought in any sort of way to conceal his opinion of the war. He considered that one of the reasons which were leading us to the war was the personal antagonism that existed between the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary, and Mr. Kruger. The negotiations, he thought, suffered from that antagonism. He was not one of those who thought that everything was perfect in the Transvaal. Very far from it. It seemed to him a thorough Conservative Government, and if he had been there he should in all probability have been an opponent of Mr. Kruger. But he did not think that the wrongs which the Uitlanders were suffering from were worth our going to war for, all the more as the right hon. Gentleman had told us they had agreed on nine-tenths of the questions at issue. At that moment a conference was proposed by the right hon. Gentleman himself. Well, what was it that he (Mr. Labouchere) did? He recommended President Kruger to accept that conference, and he mentioned to Mr. Kruger arguments which he thought would have some weight with him in agreeing to it. That was the best way; that was what was called diplomacy. It was not the new diplomacy, which appeared to him to be to insult as much as possible your opponent, and to drag in every sort of thing you could imagine to make him hostile to you. He told President Kruger that if he assented to this conference he would have a full opportunity of discussing the questions in detail—on what might be called the Committee stage of the conference. He had never seen any objection either to Mr. Kruger going into details, or any reason why they should be forced upon him if he did not accept them. They were merely little details of alterations in the registration law, and it seemed to him a piece of insufferable impudence for us to go to a foreign country and claim a change in its registration law, considering that we had without exception the worst registration law in the whole habitable globe. His object was to get the whole matter out of the hands of the right hon. Gentleman, and, he admitted, out of the hands of President Kruger also; for he did not think that either of them was a negotiator whose ways were particularly likely to make for peace. He thought that time was everything in these matters—it gave an opportunity for feeling to cool down; and he believed that if the conference had been agreed to in principle we should not have had war; that we might somehow or other have come to a friendly arrangement with the Transvaal. Time was in our favour, and if general principles were agreed on we should not have gone to war on questions of minor details. He gathered from one of the speeches which the Colonial Secretary had made in the country that what seemed to have irritated him was that he had said to President Kruger that he would have the advantage of giving a second fall to the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary. He thought that would have been a very pleasing thing to President Kruger, and he believed that President Kruger would have done it. He quoted also an incidental remark, which he thought well summed up the situation, made in the course of a debate in the House by a right hon. friend—namely, that the Colonial Secretary's speech was a little "bluster" of his own with the main points arranged by his colleagues, who sat like policemen to watch and see that he read them. He appealed to hon. Members on this side of the House and to some on the opposite benches, whether that was not the general opinion. It might have been right or it might have been wrong; but it was the current opinion, and he thought that it was quite right. It was said to be encouraging Mr. Kruger to lead him to suppose that in yielding to the proposal for a conference he would not be enabling the Colonial Secretary to score a point, but rather that he would get the better of him on the occasion. Did the right hon. Gentleman want war or not? They had been told that the whole matter in debate was a question of registration law; but when the war had taken place hon. Gentlemen seemed to have thought that that was a little too thin for the country. So they had, he would not say invented, but evolved or realised from their moral consciousness that there was a great conspiracy in South Africa—that the Transvaal people had united with the Dutch in our colonies, and that they were determined sooner or later to go to war, and that it would be a good thing if we went to war at once and nipped this conspiracy in the bud. The right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary had to a very great extent accepted that view. In one of his speeches in the country he said he was charged with the responsibility for the war, and that if that were true it was a feather in his cap. He did not know whether it was or was not; but if the right hon. Gentleman did want war it was evident that he would have been sorry if a conference had been accepted and had led to some sort of arrangement which would have tided over this conspiracy. Certainly a great many gentlemen opposite were of that opinion. What did The Times say when President Kruger refused the conference, or rather when he said, "I would first put in a counter-proposal, and if you do not agree to this counter-proposal, it must be understood that I fall back on the conference." Why, when the counter-proposal was refused by us, and the right hon. Gentleman told us that the conference was not to take place, did The Times, which represented the views of hon. Gentlemen opposite, deplore that? Not at all. On the contrary, The Times said it was a happy escape—that we had very nearly missed going to war by coming to an arrangement which would have prevented the war. So that certainly he was justified in believing that, if not the Colonial Secretary, a great many hon. Gentlemen opposite, and their organs in the press, would have regretted if President Kruger had accepted the conference, since they rejoiced that he had refused to do so. Now what was the object of his letters? We were not at war with the Transvaal at that time. The right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary seemed to think that when the Government was engaged in what he called very delicate negotiations, nobody even in this House, no Englishman, had got the right to step in and try to aid negotiations leading up to peace. That was, he need not point out to the House, a perfectly new doctrine. Everybody knew of a famous case last century in regard to Mr. Fox, when Mr. Pitt wanted to go to war with Russia. The charge made against Mr. Fox was that he had recommended the Empress of Russia not to yield, and Mr. Fox's defence was that he had made that recommendation to prevent our being dragged into war. But he (Mr. Labouchere) had recommended Mr. Kruger to yield,and he could not really understand—it might be stupidity on his part—how in the world any patriotic Englishman who did not want war, and who desired that we might get what we wanted without war, could object to the letter he wrote, seeing he recommended President Kruger to yield. The Colonial Secretary had been good enough to send him copies of these letters, and had invited him to make observations upon them. Never before had he been invited by so eminent a person as a Secretary of State to make observations on any letters of his, but he was afraid the invitation was given not in a friendly but a hostile manner. What business had the Colonial Secretary to issue any such invitation? He had no right whatever; all Members of the House were equal and had equal rights, and the Colonial Secretary had no more right to invite observations from any Member than he (Mr. Labouchere) had to invite the right hon. Gentleman to make observations upon any letter he might have picked out of a waste-paper basket and intended to publish. He wished to be courteous to the right hon. Gentleman, and therefore he had made the observations asked for, and as an exchange of views, suggested that the right hon. Gentleman should make a few observations as to what was going to be done with regard to the Hawksley letters. He had always understood that the refusal of the right hon. Gentleman to produce the Hawksley letters had led Mr. Kruger to infer that the right hon Gentleman was in some way connected with the Jameson raid, and in the interests of the House he had suggested that the right hon. Gentleman should confide to him a few observations. But when he received the letter from the right hon. Gentleman he smelt an electioneering trick. The right hon. Gentleman had been in America, and might be compared with Mr. Croker, in so far that he was a past-master as an electioneering boss. He suspected that these letters had something to do with a General Election, and would be published just at the time of the election, so he endeavoured to stop that by publishing the letters himself. He was absolutely indifferent to the right hon. Gentleman's opinion with regard to any political action of his, and he had no doubt the right hon. Gentleman was equally indifferent to any opinion which he might entertain with regard to the political actions of the right hon. Gentleman. He now differed absolutely and entirely from the right hon. Gentleman in almost every particular, politically, but the time had been when the right hon. Gentleman was his Gamaliel, when he sat at his feet, and when the right hon. Gentleman was his especial leader. His opposition to the right hon. Gentleman was purely political, and would disappear if the right hon. Gentleman returned to the true faith. If he came back as a repentant sinner, he would welcome him with open arms. He had told the right hon. Gentleman that in the matter of the letters he was responsible to his electors, and his electors alone. At the last election, when his electors knew all about these letters, they gave him a majority, and indeed the only pledge he was asked to give at the election was when an elector got up and asked, "Will you pledge yourself to keep your eye on Joe?" and he promised to keep his eye on Joe. He might be wrong, but he was proud of those letters, and he was only sorry that Mr. Kruger did not take his advice. If he had the Government would not have had the "happy escape" they had when Mr. Kruger would not agree to the conference. Passing to the letters of Dr. Clark, who was not a persona grata at the present moment to hon. Gentlemen opposite, but who was a friend of his, he must remind the House that when Dr. Clark told Mr. Kruger that there would be some military advantage in passing the frontier and attacking our colonies he also said that those advantages would be outweighed by the bad moral effect that it would have here. That was advice, therefore, to Mr. Kruger not to do it. Another thing to be remembered was the fact that Dr. Clark had long been in the Transvaal, and for many years had been the recognised Consul in this country for the Transvaal. He had been so recognised by the right hon. Gentleman, who had treated him as a sort of go-between, between Mr. Kruger and himself. Dr. Clark's letter commenced with the statement that he had had a long interview with Mr. Chamberlain, and had discussed with him some of the questions between the two Governments. The right hon. Gentleman could not have thought that his interviews were with Dr. Clark alone. He must have known that Dr. Clark would have transmitted his views to President Kruger. There was one paragraph in the letter which threw a searching light on the matter, and that was the paragraph alluding to the refusal of the right hon. Gentleman to consent to a tribunal composed of the four Chief Justices of South Africa, presided over by Lord Russell of Killowen, on the ground that such a tribunal must be a partisan tribunal. Such an objection, having regard to the head of the proposed tribunal, showed the temper and animus of the right hon Gentleman—that he should suggest that a tribunal presided over by Lord Russell would be partisan in its character. With regard to the letters of Chief Justice de Villiers, the right hon. Gentleman no doubt asked for permission to publish them, but if he did why did he not publish his own letter also? The Chief Justice could not refuse to have them published, because such a refusal would have cast an imputation upon him, but he said he had no objection to their publication. But the right hon. Gentleman knew perfectly well that those letters were only part of a correspondence. All the letters which had passed between the Chief Justice and Mr. Kruger, and Mr. Reitz and Sir Alfred Milner ought to have been published. The Chief Justice held the balance between them. Was the House to understand that Sir Alfred Milner threw the protests which he received from the Chief Justice into the waste-paper basket? The right hon. Gentleman said he had not got them, but if he had not it would be easy to get Sir Alfred Milner to telegraph them over. Another point which had to be considered was the fact that these letters were written to President Kruger before he made any concessions. What he would like to see were the letters which Mr. De Villiers had written after Mr. Kruger made concessions. The House had a right to complain of the one-sided view which had been placed before it. All sorts of statements were sent over to this country backed up by affidavits, but no man could form an opinion of only one side of a case. Then with respect to the letters written by Mr. Merriman. He was the minister of Sir Alfred Milner himself, and was one of the most distinguished men in Cape Colony. Surely if we had a colonial Governor who took, he would not say surreptitiously, certain private letters written by him he ought to have told him—he met him every day—that he had got these private letters, and that he intended to send them over to the Colonial Secretary. Sir Alfred Milner was a subordinate, and what he did he did in carrying out orders. Surely on every principle of fair play Mr. Merriman was badly treated when Sir Alfred Milner sent over these letters to the Colonial Secretary. So much for the letters. He had one or two remarks to make on the subject of the right hon. Gentleman himself. The right hon. Gentleman, in his speech on the previous night, had bitterly complained that insinuations had been thrown broadcast against him and attacks made upon his private character. There had been no insinuations made. There had been statements made, and those who made those statements were ready to stand by them. They were taken from the records of Somerset House and the reports of various public companies. There was no attack on the private character of the right hon. Gentleman, and all that could be said was that there had been an attack on certain financial matters affecting his position as a Minister of the Crown, which he thought everyone had a right to bring fairly before the House of Commons. They knew what occurred in the case of Mr. Mundella. Mr. Mundella was one of the most honourable of men, but he got himself mixed up unfortunately with some company. It was not in connection with a contract for the Government, but he got mixed up with the company in some way, and it was found that he ought to resign his position in the Cabinet. He did resign his position. It was perfectly wrong for the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary to imply that it was unfair and unjust to make insinuations, when they were dealing with a practical matter of this kind affecting his position as a Minister of the Crown. His hon. friend the Member for Carnarvon had given notice of an Amendment on this subject, and he would state his case. He did not think they would accuse that hon. Gentleman of making insinuations. He generally called a spade a spade in that House. The right hon. Gentleman would have a convenient opportunity of replying and they would be able to form their own conclusions on the matter. The right hon. Gentleman, knowing that there was to be an Amendment brought forward on the subject, went out of his way to talk for a long time about his private character. He was very angry with his right hon. friend the Leader of the Opposition. He (Mr. Labouchere) thought the Leader of the Opposition made an uncommonly good speech. He knew there was a tendency on both Front Benches to indulge in a sort of official Brahminism which united them together very much. He was always glad when that was broken through, and when gentlemen on the Front Bench on that side of the House talked to the gentlemen on the other Front Bench in strong, firm language. He was glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition stated his views in language which could not be misunderstood. The right hon. Gentleman said in reference to the publication of the letters, that such an act, if done in private life, would exclude a man from the society of honourable men. Did anyone deny that proposition? He thought it was a true one. Nobody doubted that these were private letters. The question, then, was not whether his right hon. friend was right in the proposition he had laid down, but whether it was not absolutely necessary in the interest of the whole country that these matters should be published, and that although they were private letters this salutary rule of dealing between man and man should be overruled. All he could say was—he could not go into men's minds—that they were used for the purposes of party, and the right hon. Gentleman the Colonial Secretary must have known perfectly well when he published them a little while before an election that they would be used for electioneering purposes. What was the Colonial Secretary's answer to that? He said his right hon. friend the Leader of the Opposition would do well not to associate with him. They had nothing to do with whether these spirits associated or not. He was always upset when there was a consultation between gentlemen on that side and the other side of the House behind the chair. He would be very glad if they would make a vow not to speak to one another while in that House. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition would be obliged to break social relations with the Colonial Secretary. The Colonial Secretary went out of his way to say that he had had some sort of social relations with the Leader of the Opposition, and had not enjoyed them, and so everything was for the best in this best of worlds, so far as that was concerned. He said: "You must not only drop my acquaintance, but you must drop the acquaintance of every member of the Cabinet, because I submitted them to the Cabinet, and the Cabinet agreed."

SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT (Monmouthshire, W.)

No, he did not say that.


My right hon. friend says he did not say that. My right hon. friend is more cautious than I am. I will take it that he submitted them in some sort of way. This was entirely a departmental thing. Mr. Goschen the other day had stated that he could not go closely into every matter connected with the government of the country. They could easily suppose that Mr. Goschen and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had really no time to go into the subject of the letters, and therefore he did not think they could be made responsible for the publication of them.


Yes, Sir, we are certainly responsible for them.


All the Cabinet.




was sorry to hear it. They knew what sort of re- sponsibility this was. The matter was a departmental one, not a thing of paramount importance, and, of course, it would be left to the head of the department. The next thing that the right hon. Gentleman complained of was that the Leader of the Opposition had said that the Colonial Secretary stated that most of them were traitors. The right hon. Gentleman to some extent denied it. He admitted that he had not spoken in amiable language, and he (Mr. Labouchere) did not think he had. An hon. Member pointed out that he had used the word on 22nd September, and what was the reply of the right hon. Gentleman? The right hon. Gentleman said the report was not very lucid. He did accuse the writers of the letters of being traitors, and afterwards went on to speak of a portion of the Opposition. He said he would not call them traitors, but misguided individuals, but in his mind was the word "traitors." He could only say to the right hon. Gentleman that if the report was not lucid the explanation was not lucid. There was no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman did go about the country bringing charges against them, and it seemed to him that he went a little further than he intended in this particular case. If he did not on every occasion call them traitors, he used language which implied that that was his opinion. As to the date of the election, the right hon. Gentleman said that suddenly he and his colleagues had read an article headed "The gilt off the gingerbread." He believed the newspaper was the Westminster Gazette. That article said that a reaction was taking place, and possibly the Government had not so strong a hold on the country then as they had formerly. They were asked to believe that the Government having read this article in a Liberal paper, at once said, "We must have an election." Well, never had an article such an effect—especially an article in an Opposition paper—since the world began, and he could only congratulate the paper. He would tell the House what he thought was the position of matters. If they had had an election in July he believed their opponents would almost have cleared them out of Parliament. He was speaking generally. The party opposite would have gained more than they had gained if the election had been earlier. He believed that if the election had been put off till January the Liberals would have come much nearer winning the election than they did in October. A reaction had set in. The Government saw the tide was rising, and they said, as practical people, "Let us look to our own interest." There was no use of the right hon. Gentleman or the First Lord of the Treasury being indignant with their opponents when they said that they looked to their own interest in fixing the date of the election, because the Duke of Devonshire had admitted it himself. He was an honest man. They were told by the right hon. Gentleman that they were misleading the electors. Why, the Government supporters not only appealed to the passions of the electors, but they declared again and again that it was not a party election. The whole idea of hon. Gentlemen opposite—and he said it with the greatest respect—judging by their organs in the press, was that they should dictate the policy of the Opposition. They were to carry on the Opposition under certain limitations. On minor details they might oppose, but they must recognise the great principles of the national faith. He had to tell them that they were not going to have such a dummy Opposition. They were there to oppose and they must oppose. He believed one of the reasons why they lost the election was their weakness during last Parliament. Yes, they were too flabby. They did not do their duty. They came back in no great numbers, but they made up in quality. They had come back determined not to be any longer open to those reproaches which had been thrown upon them. Gentlemen on the Front Bench were burning to oppose. A right hon. Gentleman opposite—he was not sure whether it was the First Lord of the Treasury or one of his colleagues—said his great anxiety was to have a strong Opposition. Well, so far as they could accommodate him they intended to give him a strong Opposition. They admitted freely and frankly that they were beaten at the last election. It came at a moment of excitement, but they did not think they did badly at that election, considering all the circumstances. The Colonial Secretary demanded an unanimous vote for the country; he did not get it, but he beat his opponents, and that, after all, was the object of an election. The Government had a good working majority, and it was no good sneering at the Opposition because they frankly admitted that majority. But they had come to the House to put forward the great principles of the Liberal creed, and they were determined to keep those principles alive. In regard to the war they considered themselves as patriotic as the supporters of the Government, and, although they might differ upon matters which they considered to be to the advantage of the country, they were not going to be bullied and cozened out of their views. They had been sent to the House to state those views, and they intended to do so, in season and out of season.