HC Deb 21 March 1910 vol 15 cc839-54

I believe the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has been here to-day, knowing that many Members in all quarters of the House have undergone a certain disappointment, reflected in the letter in the day's paper of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with regard to the speech with which he wound up the other night the short Debate upon the Congo question. The Noble Lord, who has just addressed the House, said that the Government was always in the position of intending to do something violent the day after to-morrow, but in the matter we wish once more to bring before this House in order to try and clear up the points which were left obscure the other night by the Secretary of State— in that case we are sometimes accused of desiring the Government to do something violent in support of their own statements in this House in the past and in support of the honour of this country, which is deeply engaged. The Secretary of State will allow me to direct his special attention on this occasion to three or four matters, which I can state very briefly, which are thought by those who have dealt with this question in the past to leave the matter in a less favourable position than he himself, as well as the country, would desire that it should be left. The Secretary of State attached importance as great as on former occasions to his negative action in declining to recognise the annexation of the Congo State to the Kingdom of Belgium, but when the House agreed to support that annexation, when they followed the Government in supporting that annexation, they received from the Secretary of State assurances from which he has never departed, and which led them to think that when the time came to give recognition it would imply a change from non-recognition to recognition more important than that which he now seems to assume.

He says that we have not weakened our position, that we have given nothing away that we have not recognised, but it is not a mere paper recognition or a paper non-recognition to which we attach high importance, and which we formerly thought we understood from his speeches. We have noticed that negotiations have been proceeding at Brussels between the Government and the Government of Belgium, representing the Congo State, on the frontier questions, and that there is a tendency, in Belgium at all events, to explain to the Belgian people that our non-recognition is a mere formal business which they assume might satisfy our rigid conventions, but which nobody thinks means much, and that a complete change has been produced, not only in the record but in the non-popularity of the Congo Government in this country by the accession of the new King to power. The hon. Member for Ipswich, in a most powerful speech the other night, in which he followed up the cogent argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, made a strong case upon the public defiance of the action of this country which has been uttered quite recently by M. Renken, the Colonial Minister for Belgium in the Belgian Senate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his reply —time pressed him, I know, to develop his full argument—made no answer whatsoever to that which was the principal part of a most eloquent and powerful speech, followed with assent by the whole House. He made no reply to what had fallen from my hon. Friend upon the defiance of this country by M. Renken. We have before us a bill for the largest naval expenditure that any country has ever incurred in time of peace. We add, for the first time, to that expenditure, Colonial expenditure, which swells out beyond that of our own Estimates. The House has supported those Estimates and the Empire is spending on land forces even a larger amount than it is spending on her Fleet. None of us believe that war is probable, but we do think, and many in this House believe, that the armaments of this country, if they are to have weight in time of peace, ought to have weight behind our diplomacy, and if they are to be justified by many of the arguments put before this House there is no reason why at this moment we should be afraid of our own shadow. We have been afraid of our own shadow on the Congo Question. I think there can be no doubt we have received from M. Renken, the Colonial Minister, such treatment as we have never had to put up with from any great Power, at all events in recent years. We are responsible in a degree which cannot be stated more strongly than it has been stated by the Prime Minister in the creation of the Congo State as a model state on behalf of the natives. We are the Power most responsible, because the United States and ourselves are the two Powers which made treaties before the Berlin Act, and we, though not the United States, are signatories of the Berlin Act. We are not only entitled to interfere, but we are morally bound to interfere, and we all know it. The Government has asserted that position over and over again. The Prime Minister, when he said at the Guildhall last autumn that we were responsible in this high degree, suggested one of the steps that we might take to act upon that responsibility if the separate action contemplated at one time should become necessary.

Speaking of a population towards which we have undertaken, as he said, solemn obligations, the Prime Minister pointed out that one means open to us was to refuse any longer to admit any jurisdiction but our own over British subjects travelling or trading in the Congo. That argument is closely connected with the position of non-recognition or of recognition of the Congo State. But we find that the apologists of the Congo State in Belgium, although they have changed their line towards individuals, although their great official organ now admits that, though formerly attacked with violence, Mr. Morel and others are honest men, acting upon public grounds, now admitted even in the "Indépendance Belge" in these very words, yet they at the same time repudiate our right to interfere, in the Chamber and in the Senate, and they also state that since the accession of a new King our Government is weakening and no longer shares those views which they admit to be honest on the part of Mr. Morel and his friends. On 24th February, in the Belgian Senate, the Minister for the Colonies, M. Renken, in the strongest possible terms, said, "Hands off ! "to this country. He formally repelled, from the height of his dignity, as it were, any foreign intervention in their affairs. M. Renken is one of those who, in the words of the Secretary of State, are wedded to the old and worst traditions of the Congo State. He cannot now be said to have the confidence of his own country, and barely of his own Government, which he represents as Minister for the Congo, and I will show the House how that can be well proved.

The question of the Noble Lord (Lord Ronaldshay) at the end of last Session brought out the fact that M. Renken is one who is deeply committed, as an administrator of the Congo State, on the worst side of the old system. He was also the lawyer of King Leopold, and he became first Minister of Justice and then Minister for the Congo. He was one of the signatories on the part of the Congo State of the original Treaty of Transfer in 1899 and last year he visited the Congo, and he made at Boma a speech with regard to the future of the Congo, which was almost word for word the same as the speech made about the same time by King Leopold, when he said it would be no longer necessary for the Belgian working man to pay heavy taxes, because there was the Congo, from which great national objects in Belgium could be served out of money which would come from the Congo and would relieve taxation in Belgium. That speech was apologised for and withdrawn in the Belgian Chamber in a Debate in which the Government found no friends; but still, on 24th February that Colonial Minister, M. Renken, defied this country in the language which I have quoted. He was attacked, and the whole position of the Belgian Government was attacked primarily on the question of the distribution of the money drawn from the Congo by King Leopold, but also on the question of the treatment of the natives still in the Congo by combination of the friends of M. Vandervelde and the Liberal party in the Belgian Chamber in the present month. In these last Debates M. Renken was put in a position which I think justifies me in my statement that he no longer has the confidence even of the Government of which he is a member, and yet he has defied this country and denied the right of foreign interference, and of our interference in circumstances where our Prime Minister and our Government say not only that we may, but that we are bound, to interfere, and that we can do nothing but interfere in the present state of things. M. Vandervelde is the leader of the Socialist party in Belgium. He is, quite apart from that, a man of brilliant distinction, and he is a man who carries such weight in the Belgian Chamber that on the one hand he voted alone of the Socialist party for the annexation of the Congo by Belgium, the whole of his party voting the other way, but giving him leave to carry out his own honest and long held view, and now he has the support not only of the entire Liberal Opposition in the Belgian Chamber and the Senate upon this question but of a large section of the Catholic majority. In the name of that combination M. Vandervelde brought this question again before the Belgian Chamber in the Debates of the 4th and 5th of this month. The Secretary of State told us the other night that he doubted whether we should have the assent of those who hold the same views with ourselves in Belgium now in raising this question here.




I have the words. The Secretary of State was replying to the hon. Member (Mr. Silvester Horne) and the hon. Member for Norfolk. He asked:— Is it their view that, we ought to depart from hope who have expressed extreme indignation at the delay?


The point I was making at the time was that to give up hope was to admit that improvement was perfectly hopeless, and that we were, therefore, going definitely to refuse to recognise the annexation and to take our own course.


I will put it in this way. There were two parts of the sentence, one was milder than the other, and I will quote the milder one. The phrase was "benevolent expectancy ":— They would prefer us rather than taking our own line, to take an attitude of benevolent expectancy.


Rather than give up hope.


I do not give up hope. I should not be raising this question now if I had given up hope. After the violence of the language, honestly used from the hearts, far more violent than the language the other night of the hon. Member (Mr. Silvester Horne), by M. Vandervelde and the Liberal speakers when, with a nominally considerable Clerical and Catholic majority, they ran M. Renken within six votes, and there was no approbation by the Chamber, it was a mere order of the day—against one of the most violent motions ever put before the Chamber—when I say they were within six votes of beating M. Renken, I should think that at least half the Belgian people, while they still have hope, would desire that we should support their hands by continuing to maintain the principle which we have maintained in the past, and by exercising more pressure on the Belgian Government to avoid continuance of these delay's, and by resenting the language of "Hands off" applied to us by their Colonial Minister. I am sure none of them would desire that we should sit down under declarations of that kind. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend made no allusion to the "Hands off" statement of M. Renken the other day. He, after all, is one of the men of the old system, and in this very Debate one of the Liberal leaders said of him, "Who was the man who advised King Leopold to break the laws of this country? Who was that great lawyer who so advised him? You "—pointing to the Colonial Minister—a man of the old system, a man wedded to the old system, King Leopold's lawyer, who represents the continuance of these old traditions. When he declares, in even stronger language than King Leopold did, that he repulses all interference, foreign or by this country, I believe the House of Com mons should resent the use of language of that sort, and try once more to show that they have the whole country behind them in the belief not only that we have the right, but that we are bound to interfere.

The points I have raised are the "Hands off" declaration—the fear that we have that the refusal to recognise annexation may become a mere paper refusal if we go on negotiating and allowing things to pass in this easy fashion, and the certainty that we are able to express that those who form half the Belgian people, who now have been brought to understand this question and who are exercising on that Government the same pressure that we are exercising upon it, will not desire that we should hold our hands or refrain from expressing our opinion. Of the delay I need say very little, because my object to-day is rather to secure a statement from the Secretary of State on these three points which may probably produce something to clear up our difficulties. But of the delay I will only say that it was eighteen months—eighteen months—and eight months more in another case, making from three to four years' delay, and that my right hon. Friend in two successive years said, "We will wait, but we cannot wait indefinitely," and twice pointed to the end of the year, in 1908 and then in 1909, as being the last time to which we reasonably could wait for the full grant of our demands. I will not go into these promises, because we do not differ greatly as to the value of the promises. The-Secretary of State has some fears that they are at present only paper promises. The promises as to the Kasai and some other districts stand outside them. The Belgian Government is now at Kasai. It receives 50 per cent, of the profits of the Kasai Trust. It is living on forced labour, and the Belgian Government therefore is living on forced labour to that extent. I warn the Government and all who speak on this Question that we are met by answers in regard to the labour conditions that the law is clear and that the concessionaire companies cannot do this or that, but I would point out that what is done by the Kasai Trust makes the Belgian Government still responsible for the running of the country by forced labour.

I would say one word in regard to the fears which some Members have when they are asked what they would do in certain events. I have never shared these fears, and I would point out that in this House, when the Government takes strong action with certain powers, not even a single question is asked. Not one was asked in the far more dangerous case of the ultimatum which we now know was sent to the Turkish Government by our Government when they came into office in the beginning of 1906 in regard to the occupation of the village of Tabah. That ultimatum might have raised serious questions in Europe. I think a little more courage would be desirable in a case like that of the Congo. It is not a question of £10 or £100 of somebody's property, as in the case of some successful acts by France and Italy against Turkey. We are shocked in the case of the Congo, because that which would never happen is put as a conceivable danger at the end of a long train of hypothetical events. It is said that there might be an act of violence. There would not be an act of violence, and I beg the House not to be led away by the fear of trifling complications following upon our insisting, not upon anything new, but upon that which we have been insisting upon for years past in a matter in which our moral obligation is very weighty. It would almost amount to moral complicity in the evils if we did not endeavour to put an end to them.


I will endeavour to clear up the points which the right hon. Baronet has raised, and I do not at all complain of his having raised them, because on the particular point of M. Renken's speech—although I was not well acquainted with the speech except from what the right hon. Baronet has told me—I quite agree that it is a point to be taken notice of, and I will deal with it. First of all, let me say that although I do not consider we are at all in a less favourable position—on the contrary we are in a more favourable position—than on previous occasions with regard to this question, I have never said that the question, was completely satisfactory. Opinion runs very high on the question of the Congo, and when feeling runs high it is always the case that words are apt to be misinterpreted and one is thought to have said more than one intended, and when one says on the question of the Congo that one has not yet given up hope it is too apt to be interpreted as if one intended to sit down under the present position as if it were completely satisfactory and to show no desire for either movement or improvement. That is not so at all. All I would say with regard to the present situation in the Congo is this. As to the actual facts in the Congo, the situation leaves an immense deal to be desired. As to promises with regard to the future, they also leave something to be desired. But the question has moved considerably, and the attitude of the Belgian Government, which now undertakes the responsibility for the government of the Congo, is very different, alike in language, in promise, and in spirit from anything we had to deal with under the old régime. As to our own position on the question of the difference between recognition and non-recognition, I would say that it is in my opinion of vital importance. I am told that people have asked in Belgium—What does it matter whether Great Britain does recognise annexation or not? Well, it matters a great deal, because we cannot go on indefinitely when we have not formally acknowledged annexation to agree to jurisdiction being exercised over British subjects. The position must be regularised sooner or later. And as long as it remains in the present state of suspense it is always open for any British Government at any moment to say that we cannot prolong this informal situation, and until the situation is regularised we must insist that we ourselves and nobody else shall exercise jurisdiction over our own subjects in the Congo State. That is the situation.

My right hon. Friend is afraid that our position will be weakened by the negotiations on the frontier question. These negotiations are going on with the distinct understanding that they are informal, and do not involve recognition. I do not see how, if substantially the negotiations result in an agreement on particular frontier questions which are being discussed, that they will take definite shape until formal recognition has taken place. But if negotiations had not been undertaken there would have been danger of conflict between the Congolese officials and the British officials on the disputed frontier, and I should have been sorry if conflict had occurred on that sort of point, because it would have appeared to be a dispute about territory, or territory that we were claiming for ourselves, and it would have at once exposed us to misconstruction— for it would have been misconstruction— that we were making use of the position of suspense with regard to annexation in order to acquire territory for ourselves which was being claimed on behalf of the Congo. If a rupture does come on this question I do not wish it to come on a question of ownership of territory. Precisely because we do desire that questions of territory where there are claims overlapping should be settled by peaceable means, and in the same friendly spirit in which we should wish to deal with a country on the best terms, we have agreed to negotiations proceeding informally upon these matters, but they cannot be definitely settled until the question of annexation is cleared up. Meanwhile they proceed in order to prevent conflict arising upon what, I am sure, the House will feel is the most undesirable ground on which it could arise, and it proceeds without prejudice to our position as to the recognition of annexation.

With regard to M. Renken's speech, I take the right hon. Baronet's account of the language he has used, and which he construes as a denial of our treaty rights on the Congo. That is entirely contrary to any language the Belgian Government have used to us. They have not only not denied our treaty rights, but they have admitted that they take over the treaty obligations of the old Congo State, and they have kept us informed of what their intentions are in regard to the administration of the Congo. So far from denying our treaty rights, they have, on the contrary, given full assurances that they are going to make changes in the administration of the Congo which will bring the state of things there into accord with our treaty rights. If any language of the kind which the right hon. Baronet attributes to M. Renken had been used to us as a Government—of course I cannot commit the Cabinet on a question of that kind—I should certainly have recommended the Cabinet to at once take up the position of saying that our treaty rights and our own rights to stand up for treaty rights should be observed, and to continue diplomatic pressure until we secure them. If that was denied, we should at once deny the right of any Government which denied that in the Congo to exercise any jurisdiction whatever over British subjects, and we should have taken that into our own hands. I never thought that any language of M. Renken's was intended to convey that they were not prepared to discuss British treaty rights with the British Government, and if language of that kind was put forward I should at once have replied, denying the right of the Congo Government to exercise jurisdiction over any British subject in the Congo State.

With regard to the attitude of M. Vandervelde and the Belgian reformers, I am glad the right hon. Baronet mentioned that, for I. never thought they would have objected to the question being raised. I said the other day I did not believe it to be their view that we should depart from hopeful expectancy, or think that the situation is now hopeless in the Congo, so far as the Belgian Government is concerned, and that we should therefore come to an open rupture and take things into our own hands. I said that so far as I knew, the position of the Belgian reformers ought to be rather that of benevolent expectancy than departure from hope in that sense. I was thinking of the point that I was making to the House whether the time had come when we should say that the situation was hopeless, and that we should resort to measures other than those of mere diplomacy. I assumed that the Belgian reformers did not wish us to say the time had come that we should say that the situation was hopeless, and that the British Government could do nothing more. I never supposed for a moment that they desired that we should take no interest in the question here, and that we should sit down while they themselves were pressing for projects of reform in the Belgian Parliament. What the right hon. Baronet quoted tonight as to the pressure used in the Belgian Parliament and the large measure of support it has received is itself a justification for saying that the situation is not hopeless, that the time has not come to say that it is hopeless, or to break off all diplomatic negotiations on the subject of the Congo. With regard to departure from diplomatic method, the right hon. Baronet said we seemed to be afraid of our own shadows. I do not think that is quite a just reflection of the view of the Government or of any section of the House.

8.0 P.M.

I have always understood that if any Government came forward and said, "The situation is now hopeless; diplomacy can do no more. We must resort to other methods," the feeling of the House was such that the Government would have the support of the House. But the more that was the case, the more it was the duty of the Government not to make that remark until they did think that the situation was hopeless, and until they were perfectly clear as to what they were going to do and to what lengths they were going to proceed. I think that some of the misapprehensions arose from something which I said in the Debate last year, not in the House, but outside, because probably the Debate was not reported at great length outside, An hon. Gentleman who is no longer a Member of this House impressed upon me in the Debate last year that we should depart from diplomatic methods, and take the course of blockading the Congo, and stopping merchant vessels carrying rubber. I replied on that point that it must be borne in mind that the navigation of the Congo was free by international treaty, and not by treaty with us, and therefore that we are under obligations to all the other Powers with respect to freedom of navigation on the Congo as well as to the Congo State. And to apply this principle of blockade is useless unless it is applied to everything going up and down the river, and if we had adopted that course it would have involved, and rightly involved, that we should be prepared to stop all ships under the flag of perhaps two of the greatest European Powers. It would raise the question of interfering with the flag of other European Powers in waters where they had a perfect right to go. That, in my opinion, would be about the most undesirable method to take of raising this particular question.


A clumsy way of doing it.


If you were intending to raise the question of the Congo you would, as a matter of fact, have raised the question of the right of interference with the flags of other European Powers. That was the most undesirable way of raising the question. But because I deprecated that particular method, it was interpreted outside as if I suggested that any departure from the diplomatic course in the taking of matters into our hands would have involved war, especially war with Germany, which, even before the last election began, seems to have been in people's minds whenever there was talk of any action whatever. That was not in my mind at all. I wanted to deprecate that particular course for the reasons I have stated. I never intended to imply that the drawbacks to that particular course necessarily applied to other courses of departure from diplomatic action. I have been giving for some years careful attention to what we should be able to do supposing diplomacy failed in this matter. I have always been reminded of our treaty rights.

But when you come to look at the remedies which those treaties provide if those rights are infringed you will find that the treaties are not very satisfactory. I always thought under the oldrégime of the Congo that the proper course to take was to refuse to recognise any longer the authority of a Power which has for years violated our treaty rights, and to resume jurisdiction over our own subjects, on the ground that we cannot allow any Power we do not recognise to exercise jurisdiction over British subjects. If we had done that, or if we were to do that now, it would, of course, throw the Government of the Congo into confusion, and we should have to be prepared to have our decision disputed, and to take whatever steps we thought justifiable and necessary to ensure that British subjects were not interfered with. That would mean occupying whatever position in the Congo we considered to be necessary, not for the purpose of assuming responsibilities ourselves in the Congo, for neutrals or for natives, but for the purpose of protecting our own British subjects from interference by any foreign Power.

If we decided to resume our authority over British subjects and to deny the authority of anybody else we should have to be prepared to take those steps, and I think we ought to be prepared to undertake them, and we ought to undertake them, and we should not for a moment admit the right of any other Power to interfere with us when we were taking action for the protection of our own subjects. I do not think any European Power would wish to interfere with us if we were taking action of that kind, and if they did pretend to interfere with us then I should rely upon the forces at our disposal, which the right hon. Baronet referred to as being very considerable. But I do not for a moment suppose that other Powers would interfere in matters between ourselves and our own subjects, and I have nothing to say in deprecation of that course. To my mind that has always been the course which, if diplomacy failed, should be adopted. All I contend for is this, that not even the Belgian reformers themselves would wish us to say at the present moment that the situation is so hopeless that we should abandon diplomacy and resort to force. If the situation does become hopeless it will be the duty of some British Government to propose a course of the kind to the House, for I am convinced that there is better hope now than there has been in any of the past years that things are moving in the Congo. I promise the House that we will not imperil resort to measures such as I have described, in the assertion of our rights over our own subjects, by definitely recognising the annexation of the Congo until we have assurances, and not merely assurances, but reports from our own representatives in the Congo, that things were vastly improved, and brought into accordance with our treaty rights. And we shall retain our diplomatic methods for the purpose. All I say to the House is that I do not think that the moment has come to abandon diplomatic methods; but we shall not permit any definite recognition of the annexation until we are able to lay before the House evidence to show that the actual state of things in the Congo with regard to the condition of the natives and with regard to trade is such as to have brought us within, at any rate, reasonable measure of fulfilling our treaty rights.


I certainly would not describe myself as one who on this question has ceased to hope, but I am bound to confess to the House that I am very nearly one of those to whom hope has been deferred so long that the heart begins to get sick. One of the painful features of the whole of this controversy has been the facilities that have always been afforded to Foreign Ministers for assuring the House that things are getting a little bit better. We were told that from 1903 onwards, when the negotiations were opened for the purpose of transferring the Congo from King Leopold's personal government. When that was finished we were told we ought to postpone pressure because the Belgian nation was considering its plans. And now because there has been a debate in the Belgian House of Representatives, which resulted in the remarkable survival of the Government by the narrow majority of six votes upon a very wild and, speaking for myself, altogether too strong resolution, we are told once more that that is a good reason why this country should not fulfil its obligations. There is one thing I wish to be perfectly clear about. Whatever Belgium is doing we have obligations, and I think as a matter of simple fact that Belgian reformers are very anxious that side by side with anything that is going on in Brussels pressure should be kept up by us for the carrying out of our portion of the obligations. I really wish I could say to the House that the language and the spirit of the Belgian representatives were better than they are. I am bound to say it takes one a very long time to discover that. Take the language of the Colonial Minister, to which my right hon. Friend alluded. That language translated into English, and quite accurately translated, used not at some private meeting or social function, but used deliberately in the Senate on the 24th of last month is as follows: "It does not pertain to the dignity of a free country to admit foreign intervention in their internal affairs." That is a perfectly plain claim laid down by the responsible Ministers that Congo affairs are purely internal to Belgium.

Nothing can be clearer than that. The language could not possibly be used under circumstances more sober, more serious, and more responsible than when the Minister is addressing the Senate. He says that there must be no outside intervention, and that the International Acts relating to the Convention of the basin of the Congo exclude the possibility of this absolutely. I do not care who speaks. I do not care who acts; but this responsible Minister and this language give the key, so far as I am concerned, to the language of the Government of Belgium and to the spirit in which it is approaching its responsibilities. What other guarantees have you got? The right hon. Gentleman the other day referred to the Budget. The Budget removes nothing, not one iota of it, to which we have been objecting. It does not remove what we have been objecting to regarding the land tenure. Fifty per cent, of this Reform budget is still being provided for by the forced labour of natives. The percentage of the income of the Congo Government provided for by forced labour in the new Budget is not any appreciable percentage less than the percentage in previous years. Moreover, I would like to remind the right hon. Gentleman that the figures he gave were merely estimates, and that we know on these occasions, and in such cases as that, that the estimate is very likely to err upon the liberal side rather than upon the other. But that is not all. It is stated that half of the Congo, after July, is going to be thrown open to Free Trade. What was the condition of affairs in that part of the Congo? That part of the Congo was doubly barred. There was the Kassai Company, in which the Belgian Government holds 50 per cent, of the shares. They have economic conditions under which it is practically impossible for free- dom of trade to be established. That half of the Congo was also barred by the political edicts of the Congo Government, so that this matter upon which the right hon. Gentleman has placed so much emphasis is this, that the political bar is being re moved, but that the economic bar remains. That is no guarantee—

And, it being a Quarter past Eight of the clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means, under Standing Order No. 8, further proceeding was postponed without Question put.