HC Deb 07 February 1911 vol 21 cc240-9

I ask the attention of the House to transfer them from the somewhat turbulent discussion of events in South Wales to the scarcely less turbulent atmosphere of international politics at the present time. I very much regret the necessity of having to refer to any matters of foreign policy when the Foreign Secretary, under such lamentable circumstances, is unable to be here to-day, but in view of the curtailment of the privileges of private Members, which have been alluded to by the hon. Member for South Hackney (Mr. Bottomley) in terms which I very cordially agree with, this is the only opportunity during this Session probably when we shall have the opportunity of getting any statement from His Majesty's Government with regard to their policy in Europe and in Asia. I cannot help feeling convinced that the time has now come when it is very important that we should have some clear reaffirmation of the continuity of our foreign policy, with the object of allaying the anxiety which is very palpably existent in Europe, and which cannot be allayed without some very determined statement on the part of His Majesty's Government. I think many of us on this side of the House have read with dismay, or at any rate with great disappointment, the allusion to the Persian trade routes and the Government's policy with regard to them. I myself feel that, although the paragraph is a very short one, it is, if I may say so, almost humiliating in character. Many of us have for a long time past regretted the action which the Foreign Secretary took with regard to the intervention in Southern Persia. We have regretted it because, however excellent it was in its object with regard to securing the disturbed trade in those regions, the course of action which he took was one which was extraordinarily difficult to enforce without arousing those suspicions in the minds of the Persian Government, which the whole of our recent policy there has really attempted to eradicate. But what is the truth with regard to Persian trade routes at present? The statement is not only one in which no one can take any pride, but it is entirely misleading. Is it to be supposed that the action of the Government has really produced any security on the Persian routes? By no means at all. It is not in the power either of the Persian Government or of our Government at home, by any actions they may take at the present time, to secure that security for our trade which we so anxiously desire. The facts are very simple. The facts are that it is only in the power of one man, the head of a turbulent tribe, namely, the Sowlat of Kashgai, who has lately found it to his advantage to restore peace on those routes, and who, I venture to predict, may at some future time, when it suits him, not give that measure of order which he now gives. Perhaps before many months are over he will revert to those lawless methods for whose extinction the Government now take credit as resulting from their policy.

After all, these matters in Southern Persia and the trade routes, which are referred to in the King's Speech, are not nearly as important as other matters which are not referred to at all in His Majesty's Gracious Speech. There can be, at the most, only a temporary disability or temporary inconvenience upon the steady flow of British trade which passes up from the Persian Gulf into markets of Persia, but there is another movement that is going on, imperceptibly, perhaps, to many people, but none the less steadily, of which mention is studiously avoided, and which I, for one, think most certainly should have been mentioned and laid great stress on at the present time. It is in the knowledge of this House that for many years past there has been a scheme of a trans-continental railway which will link Constantinople with the head waters of the Persian Gulf, and which is steadily advancing into a sphere of influence which has been regarded, and which is still regarded, I believe, in all quarters of the House, as a sphere of influence which, if not exclusive in character, is, at any rate, of paramount and peculiar importance to us. I do not wish to enter to-night into any discussion of the merits or demerits of the Bagdad Railway scheme. If I were to do so, for my own part, at any rate, I should condemn it utterly; and still more should I condemn it from the point of view of Turkey herself, who, I believe, would unquestionably suffer, financially and politically, from the very adverse terms to which she submitted under the old regime some years ago when the concession was granted. This, after all, is a matter for Turkey to decide in her own interest. Sympathetic as I believe the whole of this country is towards the steady and wise development of railways in the Ottoman Empire, I for one hope that England will never smirch her fingers with the kilometric guarantee system which is peculiar to another of the great Powers of Europe.

But I wish to allude to that part of the scheme which must concern us, whether in the future we become participants in the scheme or whether we do not; I refer to the project as regards the outlet on the Persian Gulf. I need not remind the House of the special position which we hold in the Persian Gulf, or of the necessity of maintaining the paramountcy of that position at all and at every cost to (his country. This latter position has been affirmed by Lord Curzon as Viceroy of India; it was reaffirmed by Lord Lansdowne as Foreign Secretary; it has been recognised in no unhesitating terms by the present Foreign Secretary. These affirmations were made by men who knew it to be necessary, to affirm that position, not in any offensive manner to any of the Powers concerned, but to affirm it in no uncertain language, because they knew that the safety of India itself, and nothing less, depended upon our maintaining that paramount position; they had looked back upon history and knew that every nation that had lost its paramount position in the Persian Gulf had also very soon lost its paramount position in India. As it was then, so it is now, and so it probably will be all our lifetime.

It is useless for us to expect, in the present condition of affairs in Europe, that the rest of the world will go on acquiescing without increasing reluctance in the special position which we have built up in the Persian Gulf. The world narrows daily; and as it does so the recognition of special claims becomes more and more difficult, and more and more keenly contested. The moment the Persian Gulf becomes the centre of world politics and of international interest—a time which I think will very rapidly arrive—our claims are likely to be called more and more in question. Our record of achievement will probably be forgotten. It will be forgotten that only England kept the peace in the Persian Gulf for more than a hundred years; forgotten, too, will it be that we alone made it possible for trade to exist, and that we stilled the turbulent tribes on the borders of these waters; forgotten, too—more important than anything else—will be that splendid policy of territorial self-denial for a period of over 100 years; forgotten the international trade that has sprung up under the protecting ægis of the British flag in the Persian Gulf. That time of difficulty, that time when our claims are likely to be more and more keenly contested, is, I believe, drawing very near indeed. Already there is a disposition in Turkey itself to discuss these matters, a disposition, I should say, that cannot be too much deprecated by all those staunch friends of Turkey who are looking most eagerly—as I have been looking—for her success and the consolidation of Turkish interests to make her a strong and united empire. The more do we regret any disposition to discuss our special and recognised interests in the Gulf when we consider the battle that is going on to-day in Arabia, a battle that is for the very life of Turkey, a battle which, if unsuccessful, will separate Turkey from the holy places, and perhaps throw into jeopardy the position of the Caliphate on which the power of Turkish sovereignty so largely depends. I think if I ask to-day from the Government, at the commencement of another Parliament, some reaffirmation of the continuity of our Persian Gulf policy, I shall not be considered to be asking for too much, or, indeed, anything not urgently necessary, when we consider the difficult situation of international and Imperial politics at the present time. I am one of those who believe that our foreign policy should not be cast into the vortex of party conflict, but it is only on the understanding that it is agreed and understood that there is continuity in the principles of our foreign policy. It is on that understanding that the foreign department in this country is not made liable to these attacks which other departments are liable to. Therefore, when we ask from time to time for a reaffirmation of that continuity of policy it is only just that we should get it in no unhesitating terms from the Foreign Office. I would remind the House that these principles generally have not been reaffirmed for some years now. As regards the Persian Gulf they were only reaffirmed —and then not strongly enough—on the conclusion of the Anglo - Russian Treaty two or three years ago. Inevitably there arises out of these matters the question as to how these Mid-Asian issues are going to be approached by the Powers that make up the Triple Entente to-day. Both France and Russia have their own commercial interests in these regions, and in addition, of course, they have such political interests as arise out of the guardianship of their trade interests in these regions. But neither for France nor Russia, I submit, is the Bagdad Railway question so grave in a purely political sense, as it is to England. We ask the Government to-day what is the position of the Triple Entente or even of the Dual Entente in regard to the Bagdad Railway question; and I ask a definite question, Is the Bagdad Railway question included, or is it excluded, from the scope of these understandings? What do we understand by a Triple Entente? I conceive it actually to mean a group of three great Powers who have come to an understanding on certain matters which had before that understanding proved a source of friction and difficulty. That is what I conceive the Entente as existing to-day to mean. But I suggest to the Government that the Entente should mean something more than that, and I should like to know whether, in their view, it does mean something more than that. Many of us on this side condemned the serious, and, I believe, unnecessary sacrifices of British interests in Central and Southern Persia in connection with the Russian agreement. But these sacrifices were only defended on the ground of broader interest, and that future value would result in European and international politics from the conclusion of that Entente. The Entente then did refer—must have referred, I suggest—not only to past policy but to a future policy. Will' the Government now inform us what were the questions, not all, because that would be difficult and unnecessary, and perhaps unwise, but what are some of the main questions included in the Entente, for I, for one, am getting rather weary, as large international questions crop up and vital matters of the future interests of this country, of being told continually that this particular question is entirely and, of course, always was, out of the scope of any Entente we may make. I think it would be more satisfactory and, I think, would tend to consolidate and strengthen the Dual and Triple Entente—and I speak with knowledge of the prevailing opinions upon the other side of the Channel with regard to this question, I believe it would be to the strengthening of the Entente if it was made pretty clear that certain main issues were included and not excluded from the purview or understanding of what is known as the Triple or Dual Entente. We were informed beforehand of the subjects to be discussed by Russia when she paid a visit to Potsdam. Monsieur Pichon the other day, in the Chamber, gave a categorical statement that we were informed by Russia of the subjects to be discussed before that visit was paid, but what M. Pichon did not inform us of, and what I ask the Government to inform us of, whether in such case we were informed not only of the subjects to be discussed but of the policy that would be adopted with regard to the subjects that were going to be discussed—a very different and a very important point. Let me precise that remark. Do we, in fact, pursue another policy of mutual interest, or do we only have a common, and I must say I think rather unsatisfactory, information exchange bureau? It must be one or the other. I think, really, the time has come when, for the sake of the peace of Europe and our own interests, and even for the sake of British interests, we should understand clearly where we are in regard to this matter. If I have refrained from mentioning many matters on which I disagree with the Government in their foreign policy it is because I wish, under the particular circumstances of the present time, to say nothing which might be construed into the nature of an attack on the foreign policy of the Government, but rather to ask for some reaffirmation, strong and determined in character, of the position of the Government with regard to the Triple Entente and the paramountcy of our peculiar and important position in the Persian Gulf. The Prime Minister only yesterday used a phrase which has a peculiar importance. He spoke of the non-exclusive character of our Ententes. No one, I think, will quarrel with that phrase or the friendly sentiments obviously intended to be conveyed by it, but I submit that it has a dangerous side and is somewhat misleading. Dismissing, as we may do for our momentary purpose, the sincere phrases of courtesy to Powers outside the Triple Entente, it is, I think, obvious to everyone that it is the existence of the Triple Alliance which has called into being the Triple Entente, but it cannot be supposed for a moment that a country so weighty in the councils of the world as England can perpetually add to the number of her Ententes without either weakening them all or without disturbing the balance of power in Europe. I make that point because I think we can go too far in perpetually reaffirming the nonexclusive character of our Ententes unless we also reaffirm from time to time the particular cases in which we consider ourselves bound to act together with no uncertainty and no hesitation. Without going any further, I ask the hon. Gentleman opposite to give us some clear indication to-night of the policy of the Government. Do they continue the foreign policy as laid down by Lord Curzon and Lord Lansdowne with regard to the Persian Gulf. Perhaps the hon. Member will also give us some reaffirmation of the policy with regard to the Triple Entente, which I believe would be considered in all parts of Europe as of great importance and of great value at the present time.


I ask for the indulgence of hon. Members while I refer to one passage in the King's Speech which is entirely new, and which I do not think has been discussed up to the present moment. It is a matter which is causing the gravest concern in the breasts of a large number of workers and small capitalists in this country—I refer to the announcement that legislation will be introduced with regard to insurance against sickness and invalidity, and also against unemployment. I would like to inform the House that a very large branch of business is concerned. I am not wishful to anticipate what the measure will be, but I wish to make an appeal on behalf of 80,000 persons connected with industrial insurance societies in this country. I venture to say that one of the greatest matters of pride to us all has been the growth of thrift among working men and the building up of those colossal institutions which have not been matched in any other country on the globe. I am afraid these gentlemen and their interests are not having that full consideration in the preparation of those measures which I should like. I want to appeal to the House to give these men their most careful consideration at the right time. I feel confident hon. Members will do so. These are working men who have trained themselves specially in this branch of industry. It is a complicated branch of industry, and only those of us who have been acquainted with it know how intricate it is, and how many are the pitfalls which will beset any legislator who seeks to deal with the matter. These men go from door to door inculcating habits of thrift among the working classes. They have acquired an interest in their books. If they were sold at the ordinary market price—I hope hon. Members will accept my figures—they would run into a sum of many millions of pounds. Some of the books are saleable at £20 and some at £200 or £300. They are the result of the thrift of these working men, and I venture to hope that, in addition to the consideration which should be paid—and I believe will be paid by the Government—to those insurance associations with enormous funds, with huge capitals, and large organisations, the Government will not forget the working men who in tens of thousands throughout the country have by their own industry and by an honourable calling built up their own little propertied interests. May I appeal to hon. Members who sit upon the Labour benches that they will not forget some of their fellow-toilers at the right time? May I trust that hon. Members opposite will not expend the whole of their sympathy upon the landed classes and upon the holders of licences? I am sure I can appeal at the right time to them, and that they will show, at any rate, the same sympathy and justice to these toiling working men who are not represented in quite the same force in this House. I only just make this plea. It is feeble, but I felt it my duty to make it. I beg pardon of the hon. Member who spoke before me for introducing a different topic. It is not out of any discourtesy to him, but I felt that the only point I could usefully touch upon was this on which I claim to have some special knowledge and information.


I must apologise to the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Lloyd) for having been absent at the beginning of his speech, but I thought the debate on the Home Office would have lasted somewhat longer. The hon. Member was very anxious that we should reaffirm the policy of our Ententes, but I confess I do not see on what ground he desires us to make that reaffirmation. There has been no change in our policy in that respect, and no new circumstances have arisen which renders a reaffirmation at all necessary. With regard to the arrangements which Russia is making with Germany, those arrangements deal only with the rail ways in its own sphere of interest in Northern Persia. They do not affect our interests in the South of Persia, and I can reassure the hon. Member that our sense of the importance of British interests and British trade——


I believe the hon. Gentleman referred to our interests in Northern Persia. I beg to state I think he is mistaken. I think he meant Central Persia.


I was talking about Germany and Russia, and said Russia was making its own arrangements with regard to its own interests, and was not interfering with our interests in the other part of Persia. In regard to the Persian Government, I can reassure the hon. Member that our position is the same exactly as it has always been. The hon. Member told us he had no desire to deal with this in a party spirit, or to make any attack on the foreign policy of the Government. I am not quite clear why he used the phrase "humiliating paragraph" if his intention was entirely amiable. Where is the humiliation in the paragraph in the Gracious Speech from the Throne? We say simply we are extremely anxious that the Persian Government shall take such steps as will secure order and get rid of brigandage on the Southern roads, the trade upon which is a matter of interest to us. I do not see any humiliation in that, nor do I see any humiliation in our saying that we are anxious that Persia should do this herself. The very object of the Entente is to maintain the integrity of Persia, and to provide that there shall be no conflict between the interests of the two great countries so largely concerned—Russia and ourselves. The hon. Member has invited me to make a sort of declaration of faith about our attitude to all the European Powers. I confess I can see no advantage for my attempting to do so. These Ententes are not exclusive or directed against other countries. Their object is to secure common action with regard to certain purposes, and in this case the common action with regard to Persia is not directed with a view to hostility against other countries. I do not think it desirable on my part-in the regretted absence of the Secretary of State—that I should enter into details of the objects to be secured—objects which are well known to the House, and with which the hon. Member is well acquainted. These Ententes are in exactly the same position as for some time past. There has been no weakening at all; the position is satisfactory. We have been informed by the Russian Government what it is doing. I do not think it is advisable to enter into the discussion of details, because the negotiations are not complete, and therefore we should be dealing with information which must, in the nature of things, be inadequate. The hon. Member may rest assured that no change has taken place such as he seems to fear.

ADJOURNMENT.—Resolved: "That this House do now adjourn."—[The Prime Minister.]

Adjourned accordingly at Ten minutes before Eleven o'clock.