HC Deb 22 March 1917 vol 91 cc2085-94
The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)

I beg to move the Resolution which stands in the name of the Prime Minister:

"That this House sends to the Duma its fraternal greetings and tenders to the Russian people its heartiest congratulations upon the establishment among them of free institutions in full confidence that they will lead not only to the rapid and happy progress of the Russian nation but to the prosecution with renewed steadfastness and vigour of the wax against the stronghold of an autocratic militarism which threatens the liberty of Europe."

The events in Russia, which have followed each other with such startling rapidity during the last thirteen days, have arrested the attention of the world even in the midst of the greatest convulsion that has ever been wrought upon earth by man. What has happened in Russia reminds us of the earlier days of the French Revolution. We recall with what a glow of hope the fall of the Bastille was received by liberal-minded men throughout the world, a feeling which was thus expressed by our own poet: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be voting was very Heaven. We recall, too, how quickly and how sadly that bright dawn was overcast. It is too soon to say that all danger is over in Russia. It is too soon to feel confident that the new Government has already laid the foundation on which, in the words of Burke, liberty will have wisdom and justice for her companions, and will lead prosperity and plenty in her train. But it is not too soon for the Mother of Parliaments to send a friendly greeting to the Parliament of an Allied country, and it is not too soon for us to send a message of good will to the new Government, a Government which has been formed with the declared intention of carrying this War to a successful con- clusion, and a Government which has undertaken a task as arduous as has ever fallen to the lot of any Administration—the task at once of driving out a foreign aggressor and of establishing freedom and order at home. It is not, I think, for us to judge, much less to condemn, those who have taken part in the government of an Allied country, but I hope I may be permitted to express a feeling which I believe will be shared by the vast majority of the Members of this House, and which I, at least, hold strongly, a feeling of compassion for the late Czar, who was for three years, or nearly three years, as I believe, our loyal Ally, and who had laid upon him by his birth a burden which has proved too heavy for him. But we cannot forget that one of the issues, and the greatest of all the issues of this War, is whether or not free institutions can survive against the onslaught of military despotism, and we cannot but rejoice in the hope that in the final stages of this world conflict all the Allied Powers will be under the direction of Governments which represent their peoples. The Government, in putting down this Motion for the consideration of the House of Commons, were well aware that it might be considered premature, but we have submitted it to the House in the hope and in the belief that if sent now it may strengthen the hands of the Russian Government in their difficult task. I venture earnestly to express the hope that no Debate may be found necessary, from the fear that such a discussion may diminish the value of our message as an encouragement to the Russian Government and the Russian people.

4.0 P.M.


The Resolution which my right hon. Friend has proposed expresses, in my belief, the opinion not only of the House of Commons, but of all the peoples of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom and of the whole British Empire. It is not our practice to interfere in the domestic concerns or the internal controversies of other nations, however closely their interests may be bound up with ours by kinship, by industrial relations, or even by the closer and more sacred ties which bind together Allies who are unitedly making sacrifices for a common cause. This rule we have steadily observed, and, in my view, it is no violation if we feel, as we all do, that the momentous events which are taking place in Russia are of such a kind as to deserve, and even to demand, from us special and—I agree with my right hon. Friend—immediate recognition. An autocracy which, notwithstanding the strange mutations in its history in the personal fortunes of the occupants of the throne, seemed to have become an integral part of Russian life, and beyond the reach of possible attack, has, in the course of a few days, without effective resistance, or even defence, been blotted out of existence. The form of Russia's future government is to be submitted, as we are glad to know, to the free judgment of an enfranchised people. Whatever their ultimate decision may be, at this moment, by that very fact, Russia takes her place by the side of the great democracies of the world. We, here, as my right hon. Friend has reminded us, the first home, the original home, of Parliamentary institutions and of popular election, feel that it is not only our privilege, but that we have a special claim of our own to be the first to rejoice in her emancipation, and to welcome her into the fellowship of free peoples.

There is no lesson which history teaches more clearly than that freedom is justified by her children. Power and responsibility go hand in hand. The wider you make the basis of your power the more you infuse and stimulate the sense of responsibility. We may predict with confidence that that will be found to be as true in Russia as it has been proved to be true in every other part of the world. In the meantime, and until the moment comes when the great Russian people become constitutionally articulate, we here watch with the keenest solicitude and sympathy the efforts and labours of her Provisional Government. To carry through a revolution so deep and so far-reaching in its effects upon the social and political fabric of a vast and varied community, to carry it through with foresight, with self-restraint, with only a slight dislocation of the framework of life, and as little hardship to innocent victims of the change as is consistent with the due and complete achievement of the governing purpose—that is a task which under any conditions would tax the sagacity of the wisest statesmanship. But, in fact, it has had to be done, as my right hon. Friend has said, at a time when Russia was under the strain and stress of the greatest War in history. We have confidence that the distinguished men who formed the new Government. will be found to be endowed with the patience and the prudence which such a situation demands; but, above all, we feel sure that neither they nor the Russian people will abate by a jot the tenacity of their resolve or the concentration of their resources to bring the War to such an end as will justify all the sacrifice of all the Allies. We read with pleasure to-day—but, of course, with no surprise—the declaration of the new Russian Government that they will sacredly observe—I am quoting the words-—the alliances uniting them to other Powers, and will resolutely carry out all the agreements concluded with the Allies-The cause of the Allies, whatever may be the number and variety of the theatres of war, is one and indivisible. Russia has from the first played her part, not only loyally, but lavishly as well. We-are assured, now that the people see their own freedom within their grasp, they will continue in that course with, if possible, an intensified fervour of purpose-and of will. Every blow that is struck effectively by the Allies in this War is aimed against the design of our enemies to set up an international autocracy, and it is aimed equally on behalf of the-freedom of the peoples, be they great or be they small.


On a great and historic-occasion of this character I think that. the House will agree that the voice of Ireland ought not to be silent, and, in the absence through illness of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford, I have been invited by my colleagues to associate myself on their behalf with the Resolution which has been proposed by the Leader of the House. If I may be permitted to offer one criticism-before I briefly support this Motion, I. should express my deep regret at the fact, that there was not a more triumphant, note in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, because we are in the presence of a great and epoch-making event. In the midst of the horrors, of war—we ought to rejoice at it—there springs into life a free and enfranchised Russian nation, and this mighty people, now in the enjoyment of genuine liberty themselves, will be all the more determined and the better equipped to battle successfully for the liberty of Europe, and particularly. for all small nations rightly struggling to be free. We on these benches regard the Russian Revolution—striking, dramatic, and almost bloodless, as, it has been—as a message of hope to all oppressed peoples and to all freedom-loving nations. But it is something more than that. It is a warning and a portent of doom to autocracies and tyrannies everywhere. I might be tempted on this occasion—for it affords me a splendid opportunity—to draw a moral from the great events of the last two weeks, but I do not desire to avail myself of it. I want to let the voice of Ireland join in, in united harmony, and my right hon. Friend knows now, after his experience of Leader of the House, that when we have opportunities to draw a moral at other times, we will avail ourselves of them. My desire now is, on behalf of my colleagues representing Ireland, to express the profound sympathy which we feel with the Russian people, and to say how deeply we rejoice at their emancipation.


I feel that it is impossible to let this occasion pass without adding a word on behalf of the Labour movement of this country. There is one point on which I agree with the hon. Member who has just sat down. The right hon. Gentleman in introducing the Resolution, I do not think, was quite so happy as the Resolution itself. I venture to submit to the House that the Resolution, in its wording, is all that any one of us could possibly desire. At a Labour Conference held this week, although we were met to consider the conference over which you presided, our first thought was Russia and the revolution which had taken place there; and although we were considering in regard to this country some kind of franchise which should take the place of the present franchise, yet universal suffrage was the message that we heard, and it was rather difficult to persuade our people to take anything less. But our first thought was Russia, and we sent on our behalf a congratulatory telegram to that country on its successful emergence from the throes of revolution. I think we all desire to join with the whole of the nation, as represented in this House of Commons, in sending a message from the democracy of Great Britain to the democracy of Russia, and to extend to her the hand of fellowship. I would just like to say one or two words more. With myself and those with whom I am associated there is no reservation in our greetings to the Russian people. There are no doubts or hesitations in our welcome to the giving of liberal institutions to a great people. It is often asserted that wars breed reaction, and reaction alone. It has not been so in the case of Russia. The Russian people for some time have won fresh liberty in every war in which they have been engaged. The emancipation of the Serfs followed the Crimean War. The establishment of the Duma was the immediate consequence of the Japanese War. Civilisation itself sometimes gets forward on a powder-cask. There is something inspiring about liberty when it is accompanied by a free and resolute acceptance of law and of order. Two facts stand out with regard to this revolution—it is parliamentary, and it is constitutional. It betokens no weakening of Russia's will in regard to the War. May I add this one word—it is the sign and the signal that representative government is not dead. It receives fresh inspiration from this revolution so dramatic, so clear, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, so almost bloodless. But let us hope that it may not have been achieved too easily. I hope there will be no dissension amongst any classes of the Russian people, but that they will accept this revolution, that they will accept this new system of government, and that they will all combine, along with our Allies, to break wherever they can, and on every occasion, the bonds of tyranny, and to set up free and liberal institutions throughout the world.


I do not think it is inappropriate on a great occasion of this sort that an unofficial private Member should be allowed to add his voice to the congratulations which are being tendered to the Russian Government. I welcome the overthrow of the late Government in Russia, and the establishment of a constitutional system and free institutions. I congratulate the members of the Duma on the skill and determination that they have shown in bringing about this very remarkable result. I for one have always had a most profound admiration for the Russian people. I have for long watched their struggles against misgovernment and against oppression with sympathy and with interest. They are a very great people, capable of great achievements in all branches of human activity. But they have been thwarted, oppressed, persecuted, and arrested in their development by a reactionary Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed!"] Through the instrumentality of their elected representatives the Russian people have at last cast off the yoke which has been weighing down on them for so many years. It is, indeed, an occasion for warmest congratulation. These sentiments may be applauded here to-day, but not long ago they were criticised, and even blamed. But I think that the House will look back with appreciation on the words of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at the Inter-Parliamentary meeting which was held in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, in 1907, who said, "La Douma est mort, vive la Douma!" That was regarded at the time as an indiscretion, but indiscretions are sometimes the better part of wisdom. In 1908, soon after I entered this House, I was severely reproved for protesting against the greatest compliment that could be paid being paid to the Russian Government which has now fallen. But events have proved that some of us had, perhaps, foresight even in those days. But the task which lies before the chief agents in this great event is no light one. They have before them problems which at this distance, and with the meagre information allowed to filter through, we cannot appreciate. Our Press, no doubt under instructions, emphasises the keen desire of the new Government in Russia to prosecute the War with increasing vigour. Many in the country may be led to think that the revolution was in order that the War might be continued indefinitely, and that there should be no falling off in zeal for conquest and victory, and that this is the chief concern of those responsible for the remarkable change in the government of Russian. The Prime Minister a few days ago said: But it is satisfactory to know that the new Government has been founded with the express purpose of carrying on the War with vigour. That is not my reading of the event. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed, agreed!"] The chief concern, the great ideal, of the eminent statesmen who are now at the head of affairs in Russia, is, and indeed must be, the consideration of good government, the redressing of evils, the alleviation of distress caused by hunger and starvation, the safeguarding of their initial efforts from the forces of reaction, and the establishment of stable and just government, which will lead to a freer and fuller development, not only of the resources of the Russian Empire, but of the qualities and talent and the well-being of the Russian people. [HON. MEMBERS: "Agreed, agreed!"] This must be the one aim and object of these statesmen, who have accomplished so great an achievement; and it remains to be seen whether the sufferings which her people are now undergoing, and the losses which the European War is inflicting upon them, are compatible with the attainment of these high aims. Anyhow, I trust they will be allowed to pursue their great and noble work without discord in their own country, and without interfer-ference from outside. Let us remember that our Russian Allies have achieved a far greater victory than the conquest of Constantinople—[An HON. MEMBER: "Stop your whining!"]—or any other territory. Let us not contribute to the undoing of their labours, let us not divert them from their march towards freedom, but do all in our power to help them in every way we can in the great task which they have before them.


As there is an Irish Debate coming on this afternoon, and I know that, as usual, the occupant of the Chair will be unable to see me, I thought that this would be an appropriate subject for me to intervene upon, and as I know I will only be allowed to do it on this question, I think it better to say a few words on this occasion with reference to a subject about which I do not care a jot. The leaders of the day on the Front Benches were good enough to intimate-to the House that they desired to speak, and they desired that nobody but themselves should speak on this subject. Do they think that this was a good object lesson to Russia? Do hon. Members who can do nothing better on this historical occasion than interrupt their colleagues, think that a good object lesson to Russia? Do they think they are maintaining the dignity of what is called this Mother of Parliaments by making themselves ridiculous. War produces reaction. Who can deny that war produces reaction? This Mother of Parliaments has been brought by war to destroy her own offspring—personal liberty. Can any of the inarticulate hon. Members deny that fact? I find fault with this Motion before the House? on quite a number of grounds. The leaders on the Front Benches congratulate whom? Successful rebels. Within the last ten months they have been hanging and shooting unsuccessful rebels. They have sent Lord Milner to Petrograd to foment this rebellion. They have not uttered a word of thanks to his Lordship. Free institutions indeed! This country was a country of free institutions. It is so no longer, and still less is Ireland. You recommend to everybody free institutions anywhere but at home at your doors. The Parliament that proposes to congratulate the Duma has destroyed the free institutions of this country, and it has always denied free institutions to my country.


On a point of Order. Is the hon. Member in order in discussing the general question of Ireland on this Motion?


I cannot stop a passing reference, but the hon. Member certainly would not be in order in discussing on this Motion the affairs of Ireland.


I am discussing the qualifications of this House for congratulating anybody on setting up free institutions, which are destroyed in your own country. What do you know about free institutions, except what a murderer knows of his victim. I beg to move to leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, and to insert instead thereof, the words,

"this House, while appreciating Lord Milner's action in fomenting the Revolution which has dethroned our Imperial Russian Ally, whose fidelity to the Allied cause we have invariably applauded, and having betrayed its own promise of full self-government to Ireland, suspends its judgment on the new institutions alleged to have been founded in Russia until time has revealed their character."


The hon. Member's Amendment is an irrelevant negative.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House sends to the Duma, its fraternal greetings and tenders to the Russian people its heartfelt congratulations upon the establishment among them of free institutions in full confidence that they will lead not only to the rapid and happy progress of the Russian nation but to the prosecution with renewed steadfastness and rigour of the war against the stronghold of an autocratic militarism which threatens the liberty of Europe."—[MR. BONAR LAW]

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