HC Deb 01 August 1912 vol 41 cc2338-46

I desire to call attention to the present state of affairs in Persia. I am quite aware that it is only three weeks since some aspects of the Persian question were debated in this House on the Foreign Office Vote, but the situation is, I think, so serious, the state of affairs in Persia is so unsettled, the prospect of maintaining in any degree the independence and the integrity of Persia according to our pledges has become so precarious, that I hope there is no need to apologise for raising this question again. In doing so I want to confine myself so far as possible to the immediate situation. In some of these Debates we are apt to enter into a good many recriminations as to the virtues or the demerits of the Convention of 1907. I could hardly imagine a more useless argument than that. The Convention is a fact. For my part I accept it, and have always accepted it. I accept the policy of the Convention. Nor do I wish again to attack in any way the present policy, so far as I understand it, of the right hon. Gentleman and of the Foreign Office. I have not always agreed with his policy in the past. In the crisis of last December a good many of us felt that he did not, perhaps, do all that might have been done to save for Persia the best servant that possibly Persia in recent years has even had, Mr. Shuster. I always deplored the dismissal of Mr. Shuster, and more particularly the circumstances in which he was dismissed. But these are old stories. What I want to deal with to-night is the present policy. What I want to ask the House is, how far the present policy as laid down by my right hon. Friend himself is being adhered to and carried out?

The present policy was described by the Secretary of State in a speech of 14th December, to which I listened with great interest and attention. It was made at the time of the crisis. Mr. Shuster was just being got rid of, and my right hon. Friend, after dealing with the incident of Mr. Shuster, turned to the future, and laid down what he called the general lines of a constructive policy with regard to Persia. The object of his policy was to place the Persian Government on its feet and maintain it there. It was to be a policy directed, rightly enough, to the peaceful development of the country. He painted, I will not say a rosy picture, because every one must realise the difficulties the Foreign Office has to contend with in Persia, but he gave us a fairly hopeful outlook of what might be done when the causes of friction had been removed, and Great Britain and Russia were co-operating for the peaceful development of Persia. Let me describe, very briefly, the four main points he put before us. They were six altogether, but two of them were comparatively unimportant. The four main points were: First, that the Persian Government should conform to the principles of the Anglo-Russian Convention; secondly, that the ex-Shah should not be brought back to Persia—I think Lord Morley said that in no circumstances whatever would, the British Government recognise the ex-Shah in Persia; thirdly, that a sufficient loan should be advanced to the Persian Government to enable them to restore order; and, fourthly, that the Russian troops which were then in Northern Persia should be withdrawn as soon as possible.

7.0 P.M.

Those were the four main heads of the programme, which had already been sub- mitted by my right hon. Friend, and apparently accepted, so far as I can judge from the White Paper, by the Russian Government, before they were mentioned to this House. What I want to know is how far is that policy being carried out? It is only eight months since it was announced, and one could not expect that it would be carried out all at once. But at least we may ask what prospect is there of its being carried out? As regards the first point, every one who has studied the matter will see that there is no question that the Persian Government have conformed, and are doing their best to conform in every possible way, to the Anglo-Russian Convention. Never was there a more amenable and docile Government than that in Persia to-day. They may fairly ask themselves what they are getting in exchange for the attitude of submission they are showing to the two great Powers. As regards the second point, that the ex-Shah should not come back, he has not at present come back, but every one who studies the present Persian situation must be aware that as regards that we have not any great certainty. Ever since the right hon. Gentleman spoke on 14th December the ex-Shah's main lieutenant has been maintained illegally as Governor of Tabriz. In many towns in Northern Persia meetings are openly held advocating the return of the ex-Shah. I cannot believe that the British Government can so far stultify itself as to consent to his return, but I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to give us once more assurances on this point.

The loan was referred to by the Secretary of State as perhaps the most important point. He laid great stress upon it. He said it was a cardinal point of the utmost importance that the Persian Government should be put in a position to restore order in Persia, and I quite recognise that by his efforts £200,000 has already been advanced to the Persian Government in March last. At the time it was advanced a great deal of it was required for paying off the soldiers of the ex-Shah in order to disband them; and a great deal more was required in order to carry out expeditions against the brother of the ex-Shah, with the result, I understand, that all the money has been spent. The Persian Government is penniless, and therefore helpless. When I asked my right hon. Friend the other day what he was going to do to advance the further money which they must have if they are to restore order in that country, he said until order had been restored there would be no sufficient security for any further loan. It is suggested that the Persian Government can restore order without any further loan. That is impossible after all that has happened. After four years in which they have had revolutions, counter-revolutions, civil war and invasion, it is utterly impossible to suppose that the Persian Government can organise their gendarmerie and their police without resources. They are not allowed to go to any other country in order to raise the loan which they require, and at present, as I understand, Great Britain and Russia are not willing to advance the necessary loan themselves. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some assurances on this point. I also sincerely hope that we shall not be told that fresh conditions are to be extorted from the Persian Government as the price of a further loan. I come to the last point in his policy, the question of the Russian troops in Persia. Upon that the request made by the British Government was perfectly precise. As I understand, from reading the papers, the answer of the Russian Government to the request made by my right hon. Friend on 7th and 8th December was that all Russian troops should be withdrawn from Northern Persia—not merely the expeditionary force, but all Russian troops—at the earliest possible moment, and I have here the reply which was made on 23rd December upon that point by M. Sazonoff. Sir George Buchanan telegraphed:— M. Sazonoff assured me the decision of Russia would not be influenced in any way by the fresh incidents, the outbreaks which have occurred at Retsch and Tabriz. The expeditionary force would be withdrawn as soon as Shuster's dismissal had actually taken place. Persian Government confirmed in writing their verbal acceptance of the three Russian demands. From that day to this they have been pressed again and again as regards the withdrawal of these troops. On 15th January the British Government sent a dispatch of the most urgent character, asking that some, at any rate, of these troops should be withdrawn. To-day there are 12,400 Russian troops in Northern Persia, and from information which I have from residents in Tabriz I understand that, so far from these being diminished, they are being increased in numbers, and that fresh guns are arriving. I do not know if that information can be substantiated, but, at any rate, the position is very serious in this respect. I know what the answer is. We are told, of course, at once that it is impossible for Russian troops to be withdrawn as long as there is disorder—and there is disorder in the North of Persia. Unfortunately, there is disorder, but I think in a good many cases it is the Russian troops themselves who, by their presence, are creating it. In one case certainly, as far as I know, they are actively engaged in disarming some of the native tribes. A movement of that sort must be found to lead to disorder. It is impossible to ask that all Russian troops should be immediately withdrawn—I quite admit that we cannot expect that in the present state of Persia—but I think we are entitled to ask that the Persian Government should be put in a position to ensure order themselves, and that as their new gendarmerie is being created so at the same time the Russian Expeditionary Force should be withdrawn.

We are being told again and again by despairing friends of Persia that the position is already hopeless. They say Northern Persia has become a Russian province. Why not, they say, accept the situation? Let the British Government occupy Southern Persia, and make that a British or an Indian province as well. I hope it is unnecessary to say it would be not merely a gross breach of faith, but it would be, of course, a reversal of the policy which has been pursued for one hundred years past if we were to consent to any policy of that sort. Bad as the situation in Persia is, I do not believe it is hopeless. The powers of recuperation of a nation are extraordinary. A great deal of the independence has been destroyed, at any rate, but still nominally the integrity remains. I trust my right hon. Friend will be able to give us some more hopeful assurances that the pledges given by the two Governments to Persia will be faithfully carried out, and that the independence and the integrity of that country, which are of such importance to the British Empire, and which we are bound in honour to do our utmost to maintain, will as far as possible be preserved.


No apology is needed for calling attention to a matter of so much importance to Great Britain as the recent crisis in Turkey. Great Britain can never be disinterested in what happens in the near East, and we are for the third time in four years confronted with a crisis which may lead to grave events. It is curious to think that only three years ago the men who have just been hurled from power in Turkey wore being entertained in this House by the Government in conjunction with the Leader of the Opposition. Their photographs still hang in the passage downstairs, and the time may come when they will be in power again. Meanwhile it is noticeable that the change of Government which has taken place is not an ordinary change of Government, but a revolution. It is a change brought about by a military mutiny, as the famous revolution of four years ago was brought about, and who knows but that in a short time, possibly in the next few weeks, the whole near Eastern question may be in the melting pot. This is a subject which concerns the British public on several grounds, but largely because the influence of Great Britain in the near East concerns itself with the preservation of the peace, and without our influence in the near East peace is less easy to preserve. An illustration of that is the influence which was exercised by Lord Lansdowne in the years between 1903 and 1906, and by the present Foreign Secretary in regard to the long negotiations and efforts which were made to bring about a reform in European Turkey. If it had not been for the influence of the Foreign Office in giving a lead on several occasions to the other Powers in proposing the introduction of foreign officers and foreign advisers peace might possibly not have been preserved, and in that sense the British public is closely interested in what happens in the near East. We are always, of course, interested too, because Turkey holds the gate of the road by which our largest corn supply comes to this country, and again we are always interested in that part of the world because of our obligations under the Berlin Treaty, and everyone feels and knows that the debt which we incurred under the Berlin Treaty has not yet been fully discharged to the populations that suffered under the Turkish Empire.

Various contingencies might arise before this House meets again, and I should like to draw attention to a contingency which we all hope will arise, that is the conclusion of the war, which sometimes almost seems to be forgotten, but which means an enormous cost to both parties to it, and which has lasted now for ten months. Supposing the war came to an end or supposing the negotiations for bringing it to an end to be in progress. This country will naturally have a great influence. The latest event has been the seizure of a great number of the Ægean Islands. What many of us wish to urge in that connection is that the maxim which Lord Salisbury laid down should be remembered. Lord Salisbury said that where any country had been removed from the direct control of the Turkish Government it should never return under the Turkish Government. It will be a difficult question what is to be the fate of the Ægean Islands, and it raises very many difficult questions. I would only urge that Lord Salisbury's maxim in this country has unanimous support and there is one possibility which if it can be acted upon will very likely cause more general satisfaction than any other, and that would mean that the Ægean Islands which have now passed from Turkish control should be formed into some sort of federation which would meet their own desire and need of self-government, and by which the face of the Turks might be preserved by retaining Turkish suzerainty under the Turkish flag, and in which possibly even—although this is an irresponsible suggestion—the Cretan question might be solved in conjunction with the solution which will be found best by the Powers for the other Islands. However that may be, the contingency of peace will arise, though it is more probable that peace may be very far off. It is more probable that things will drift on.

Although Turkey is at war, it has been occupied with reforms. The internal problem of Turkish government proceeds by gradual stages towards solution, war or no war, and I would urge that reform may very likely proceed, before this House meets again, to a solution which may last for a long time, and in which this House is keenly interested. We have now by a singular turn in the wheel of fortune, a Government in Turkey again which is not only favourable to reform, but is considered to be pro-British. I do not think it is wise to dwell upon the supposed partialities of one Minister or another. A country is in an unhealthy state when Ministers seek for support from foreign countries, and when one faction pits its friendship to another country against another faction. But we have a chance of influence with the Turkish Government which has come round to us by a stroke of luck. We have had such a chance before. In the hands of His Majesty's Ambassador at Constantinople will now lie great opportunities which we all know he will be ready and eager to take. We will have influence in regard to reforms which the Turkish Government have already voluntarily suggested. The Government that has just fallen proposed that in Macedonia there should be European Powers, and, as we all know, it applied to this country for a loan of officers. In regard to that I would urge that the vital thing, if these officers are to be of value, is the extent of their diplomatic and personal power, and their knowledge of the country to which they are sent. They cannot have, obviously, direct, executive control, but many British officers, and in particular some of the military men and military gendarmerie officers we have lent to Turkey, have had immense influence. I would urge that if we lend these officers, since there will be undoubtedly a very great number of applications for those posts, their personal qualifications, not only military, but diplomatic—diplomatic, I mean, in the way of experience—are of vital importance.

The Government of Turkey must come to us, because it needs not only political, but financial help. It desires our friendship, and while we may have the opportunity of lending them military officers, I would suggest another point in which we may be able to introduce British and European civilising influences. The civil government of Macedonia, which is a danger spot of European Turkey, and perhaps the greatest danger spot of the world, was influenced before the Revolution by European officers, and we may have the opportunity of bringing it about that Europeans will also be invited to aid in the civil government. That is a point at which we might exercise influence which would turn the scale in favour of the permanency and success of the Turkish government in Europe, and I hope our influence will be exercised in that direction. There is one other possible contingency, and that is that such chaos as existed before the Revolution of 1908 might return in Macedonia. There has been in recent times a very unhappy return towards that. Extraordinarily violent proceedings have been witnessed in the recent elections, and violent death has been a common feature not only in Macedonia, but in Albania. I have only one point to urge in regard to that. If chaos should come back again, I would urge upon my right hon. Friend that his policy of four years ago, by which he proposed that European control should be established over Macedonia, would again be appropriate to the situation. The Foreign Secretary, in 1908, made a move which was of extraordinary value. Although it did not bring about the control at which he aimed, it brought about something very great, and, more important still, it brought about the Turkish Revolution. That proposal, which is associated with the Reval visit, has not had the attention it deserves owing to the Turkish Revolution, but it did represent such a contribution of thought, energy, and courage, as I think has not been surpassed in the efforts of Foreign Secretaries for a long time. The Foreign Secretary would be the last to care whether he received credit or not for such efforts, but among those who knew the Turkish situation it was recognised as a contribution of extraordinary value.

I think the time has come when such a contribution will be valuable again, and I hope that, if chaos intervenes in Turkey, it is not impossible for the right hon. Gentleman to turn his attention to that policy of four years ago when he desired that the Powers should exercise direct control by means of a European Governor and work together as a concert, and not leave matters to the two most interested Powers, but rather, by concerted action and preserving the status quo in the territorial integrity of Turkey, introduce European control in the civil government. Four years have been granted to the Young Turks to show whether they were worth their salt. We may very well give a respectable tether to their successors. I hope they will always understand that the support of Great Britain is conditional on their establishing reforms. Personal security is a matter of concern to the British public, and the present Government we may hope will reverse the Turkeyfying policy, as it has been called, and establish the Ottoman policy of granting equal rights to every section and every religion. My right hon. Friend in watching these matters will be carrying out the desire widely felt in this country, and representing really national interests.