HC Deb 21 March 1910 vol 15 cc878-83

Postponed Proceeding on Question, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Question again proposed. Debate resumed.

10.0 P.M.


When I was interrupted by Private Business I was trying to make clear to the House that the concession supposed to have been given by the Belgian Government in respect to the opening of half of the Congo for trade is nominal and not real. The point I wish to make is that the half of the Congo now opened up has been under a double embargo—first of all, the political edict of the Government of the Congo itself; and, secondly, that part of the Congo has been operated by the Kassai Company, and they have got certain economic advantages which secure to them a practical monopoly of Congo trade. Therefore the mere removal of the political embargo is not sufficient to open the door of that part of the Congo to ordinary competition. I am bound to say, however, that when the Foreign Secretary disclaimed the statement made by the Belgian Colonial Secretary which my right hon. Friend (Sir Charles Dilke) and I quoted, I am bound to say that I am not sure how he stands in that matter. In the despatch which he sent to Sir Arthur Hardinge on 5th March, 1908, he informed our Ambassador at Brussels that, in consequence of the statement which he made in this House, the Belgian Minister had called upon him. The statement the Foreign Secretary made was that he would insist upon guarantees precedent to the annexation of the Congo. The Belgian Minister, when he called, made certain representations to him, namely, that in negotiating with the then existing Congo Government the Belgian Government would not recognise any interference on the part of this country; and not only that, but it would not recognise that this country had any right to interfere in the matter of the transfer of the Government. Then the Belgian Minister went on to say that the Belgian Government considered that the organic law of the Congo, and the reforms it was going to make in the political and economic system it was to establish were internal affairs, and would decline to allow our Government to interfere in any way whatever. What is that but what the Belgian Colonial Minister said the other day? That has been the unhappy circumstance of the whole of this case. We are not quite sure that the Foreign Secretary has made up his mind. So far as his action is concerned, it seems to cast doubt in our mind as to what the rights of this country are in respect to the Congo. On 26th February, 1908, the right hon. Gentleman said:— I go further and say that it must be a condition precedent to any transfer of the Congo to another authority that that authority should take it over on terms which will place it in a position to give assurances, and to guarantee that these assurances shall be carried out, and the treaty obligations of the Congo fulfilled. On 27th March in a despatch to our Minister at Brussels he said:— As already stated His Majesty's Government submit these views for the friendly consideration of the Belgian Government. I do not like to use the expression "climbed down," but it does strike me as if, after the interview with the Belgian Minister, the right hon. Gentleman climbed down, and that the statement made in his despatch to our Ambassador is very much milder not only in form—for that does not matter—but in substance and fact than the statement he made in this House during the Debate. But while we are waiting why cannot the Government publish some Papers?

There are two sets of papers I would like very much to see. These are, first of all, our Consular Reports. I would like to know whether the assurance given us this afternoon by the right hon. Gentleman that the Belgian Government is really making change, is supported by the Consular Reports. I am bound to say that if the right hon. Gentleman could produce and make public reports from our Consuls in the Congo, stating that improvements are taking place, I would for one be very much gratified, and would be much more satisfied than I am at the present moment. But there is another kind of paper that we might have. Why cannot we now see the correspondence that has taken place between His Majesty's Government and the Belgian Government. I am very certain that some correspondence must have taken place, and as the last despatch we have got was dated June, 1900, was a despatch which certainly invited further communication, surely the time has come for some supplementary papers upon this question. I would like to ask categorically if other communications have taken place of an important character between our Foreign Office and His Majesty's Government. If they have, I think we might have them. If not, I think we ought to be told quite candidly that the correspondence, the pressure, and the operations of diplomacy have practically come to an end for the time being. There is another point on which the right hon. Gentleman places great emphasis. He told us again this afternoon that His Majesty's Government has not recognised and does not propose to recognise the annexation. I am not at all sure that that is so very important. I know this that it is of no importance as far as the man in the street is concerned.

The man in the street does not care whether we recognise the annexation of the Congo or not, and he does not regard the refusal of the right hon. Gentleman on behalf of His Majesty's Government to recognise the annexation as being a very substantial benefit. The statement made by the right hon. Gentleman in June, 1909, was this, that if he refused to recognise the annexation serious embarrassments would be caused to the Belgian Government. The implication of that was that those embarrassments would be immediate, not that they would appear ten or twenty years hence, but that the mere fact that now and immediately His Majesty's Government did not recognise the annexation would cause the Belgian Government to find itself in difficulties. In other words, the declining of His Majesty's Government to recognise annexation would be of the nature of pressure upon the Belgian Government. But that is not the case. I would like to quote the "Indepéndence Beige," which, I think, is very well known to be practically an official paper, which interferes in foreign politics generally, if not always, upon the instructions of the Belgian Foreign Office, and which on foreign politics expresses the opinions of the Belgian Foreign Office. This paper, commenting upon the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman here, when this question was before the House last, I think on 10th March, says in its issue of 12th March: "We are very sorry to hear that there should be any doubt about this annexation"—(I am paraphrasing this.) "We are told that until the English Consuls tell the English Foreign Office that they are satisfied with the arrangements for the protection of the natives, the English Foreign Office will not recognise an annexation." They go on: "If for reasons which we cannot comprehend it should be thought necessary in London to let matters drag on, we should regret, without, however, troubling ourselves greatly, as the non-recognition does not imply for us any real inconvenience from a practical point of view." That is the opinion of the Belgian Colonial Office.


That will not be so after what I have said this evening.


That is a very important interjection. All I can say is that up till now, at any rate up to this evening, the effect of the refusal to recognise annexation has been expressed in that contemptuous way by this official organ of the Belgian Government. I would also like, before I sit down, to object to the way the right hon. Gentleman referred to the suggestion made by Mr. Bennett, who is no longer a Member of this House. Several times the right hon. Gentleman has referred to that suggestion as having been tantamount to a blockade of the Congo. That really was never the suggestion of our late colleague the Member for South Oxford. I may remind the right hon. Gentleman what that suggestion was. Mr. Bennett said on more than one instance he hoped there would be reform, and that he need only mention the despatch of the Italian battleship and the occupation of the Custom House at Mitylene as an action which brought the Ottoman Government to a different frame of mind, and he said that a single British cruiser sent to the mouth of the Congo and the occupation of the Boma Custom House would possibly end the present system. The Noble Lord (Earl Winterton) cheers. I hope he is prepared to support his cheers by some sort of substantial action.


I support my action by my vote.


The Noble Lord votes for "Dreadnoughts" without perhaps any sort of policy behind it such I suggest. The right hon. Gentleman said in this House in 1908 that he was prepared to act alone. If he was prepared to act alone in 1908 surely he must have had in mind some sort of idea how he was going to act alone and yet maintain the peace of Europe. If in 1908 he could act alone in an effective way that would make Belgium recognise her obligations to the Signatories to the Treaty and the Convention, surely he must be able to do it in 1910; or if the right hon. Gentleman could not do it in 1908, surely the Member for Montgomery Boroughs (Mr. Rees) would be the first to admit that he had no business to say he could in this House. My point is that he said he could do it in 1908, and I think we ought to know now why if he could do it in 1908, he could not do it in 1910, or why if he was prepared to say in 1908 he could do it, he is not prepared to explain in 1910 why he has not done it, why he could not do it, and why he is not prepared to do it. All we want is to have some sort of assurance that the affairs of the Congo are going to be regulated in such a way as is consistent with our desires in the matter. We want an attitude to be taken by our Foreign Office which will convince the Belgian Government that we surrender none of the rights we have claimed from time to time in this House, and in these Debates, rights which are tantamount to this, that the Belgian Government, being the heirs of the Congo Free State Government and its obligations, are bound to consult us. We are bound to be consulted. We hope to be satisfied before the affairs of the Congo are to be regarded as having been settled at all in a proper way. That is the situation, and we did feel very sorry to think that the right hon. Gentleman has not pushed with that energy and that force and that power which he ought to have shown. But we just now, at any rate, on a most important point have got a statement which I suppose the Belgian Government will duly note. We beg him to stand by the position which he has indicated in that interjection, because he may be perfectly certain that all sides in this House, and all sections outside of this House, are agreed in supporting him in more drastic action than he has hitherto taken.