HL Deb 08 March 1860 vol 157 cc91-102

said, that those of their Lordships who had gone through the Correspondence relating to the proposed annexation of Savoy and Nice to France, recently presented to Parliament, would, no doubt, be aware that in one of the despatches Lord Cowley stated that an important conversation had taken place between himself and Count Walewski; that in such conversation Count Walewski had reminded him that on more than one or two occasions he had intimated to him that under certain circumstances—for instance, if the Duchies should be united to Sardinia —France would feel it necessary to annex Savoy. Lord Cowley acknowledged the correctness of that statement, but he proceeded to say that he did not think it necessary officially to notify that conversation in a despatch to the Secretary of State, but confined the mention of it to his private communications to the noble Lord. Lord Cowley further assigned, as a reason for that course, that these were questions likely to come before the Congress of the Powers which was to be held at Paris, and that he was unwilling, therefore, to involve Her Majesty's Government in hypothetical discussions of that nature. Lord Cowley might have been perfectly right in confining his intimation of these conversations to a private communication, but the reason which he gave for adopting that course was questionable. He was quite aware that there were times and cases in which it was desirable that a Minister abroad should have the power of writing to the Foreign Secretary with less restraint and reserve than was compatible with a public despatch; not but he thought that the noble Duke (the Duke of Newcastle) must feel that it was a power which ought to be exercised with the greatest discretion. Unless that discretion was observed clearly one of two consequences must follow. In the absence of communications which had a direct bearing on the subject of the papers submitted, and without which those papers were incomplete, Parliament could not be in a position to draw a fair and impartial conclusion. And, on the other hand, unless they insisted that the communications which passed between the Minister abroad and the Foreign Secretary should be such as could be produced in Parliament, he did not know how they could enforce that Ministerial responsibility which the constitutional practice of Parliament required. There might be good reasons for what was done in this particular case, and therefore if the noble Duke could assure him that in those documents to which he had especially referred there was nothing necessary to a full understanding of the papers laid before the House, nothing in them tending to modify the views which might be reasonably founded upon those papers, as far as he was concerned, he should be perfectly satisfied. He should, however, be glad to have a statement from his noble Friend that that was the case.


The House will excuse me if I do not go into the question of the annexation of Savoy, or the conduct of Her Majesty's Government except as to one point, for that would be to anticipate the debate which is shortly to take place on the general subject; neither will I enter into any question as to the scope of private letters which may be addressed by a Minister abroad to the Secretary of State. I readily admit that it requires the exercise of discretion in both parties. But there are none of your Lordships at all conversant with the conduct of public business, who will not admit that anything which should tend to diminish free and unrestricted intercourse between those in high office and those whom they employ in distant missions, would be very prejudicial to the public service; and that, rightly restricted, the power of addressing the Minister at home or the Ambassador abroad in private letters is of great advantage, and enables the Minister to know much move of the details of what is going on than he could learn by means of public despatches, restrained by considerations which it is needless to point out. I do not think that in this instance the remarks of the noble Earl imply any blame to Earl Cowley for the letters he wrote, nor to the Foreign Minister for treating them as private. The noble Earl asked me whether these letters would alter the aspect of the case as appearing on the face of the papers already presented to Parliament. That is a difficult question to answer. It is a matter of opinion. It is possible, no doubt, that if the noble Earl saw the letters, he might take a different view from that which I take. But if the noble Earl asks me my opinion, I tell him that I believe Parliament has before it, frankly and fully stated, the whole of the case, from the time when the Government entered upon office down to the present time, and that the private letter would not at all alter or affect it. These letters give an account of conversations, in which, as Earl Cowley states, Count Walewski puts hypothetically a case assumed—that in such and such an event, France might consider she ought to have Savoy. It was not stated that there was any such proposition before the French Government. On the contrary, Count Walewski denied all intention of annexation, and he only reverted to the subject from time to time, hypothetically, as Earl Cowley states. These conversations were reported to the Foreign Minister; but, until the production of those papers, there was no reason to suppose that the solemn denial given by Count Walewski at an early period had been departed from. As soon as it was known that the subject was revived in the form of a definite project, the communications assumed an official character, and those official communications have been produced, and are on your Lordships' table. I can give no further answer, therefore, to the noble Earl than this— that I do not believe that the private letters would at all alter or affect the case on the papers presented to Parliament.


I cannot agree in the inference drawn by the noble Duke from the fact that the communications of the French Government declared no positive intention to annex Savoy. If I am not mistaken, the communications of Count Walewski amounted to a notification on the part of the French Government that if the English Government should persevere in taking a certain course, then that would compel the French Government to take a course which, at the first, they had disclaimed any intention of taking. If that is the real state of the case, the communication of these conversations ought never to have been confined to private correspondence. I am bound to say that I believe, in the whole course of diplomatic correspondence, there has never been an instance in which a communication from a foreign Government, of a possible change of purpose grounded on a change of course on the part of the British Government in a matter so important, has been suppressed: the result being that there is no official or parliamentary record of so important a fact. I cannot admit that a communication of that kind should be confined to private correspondence, and I protest against it as an unusual course.


I concur with the noble Marquess, and think it is a subject of considerable importance. I admit that it would be unwise to throw restrictions on private correspondence between Secretaries of State and those who serve the Government abroad; it would be a restraint attended with extreme inconvenience and injury to the public service. But the condition upon which such private correspondence ought to be allowed is this, that no fact of importance should be reported to the Government in a private letter which ought not also to be recorded in a public despatch; and that no instructions on which any official servant of the Government is to act shall be sent in a private letter without its being also accompanied by a public despatch. It is absolutely necessary that any facts reported to the Government, and any directions or instructions given thereupon, should be officially recorded. My Lords, observe how serious are the evils which must arise from the contrary practice. In the first place, as has been pointed out by the noble Earl who originated the conversation, the constitutional power and control of Parliament is defeated. And if eventually the negotiation, or the conduct of any affair, leads to consequences which occasion a discussion in Parliament, it is depriving Parliament of its power of forming a proper judgment on what has occurred. Again, the Queen has a right, and it is her duty, to exercise a control over the conduct of the Foreign Minister, and no despatch of importance can be sent to a foreign Ambassador without receiving the sanction of the Queen. Now we know that the noble Lord the present Foreign Secretary, in a very remarkable instance, enforced this prerogative on the part of the Crown against his present chief in the Cabinet. Nor is this all. It is not the less important to make the whole Government responsible for what is done in public affairs. It is a practice, however, I fear, not new for the Foreign Minister to act on a different principle from that which is observed in every other public Department; and I believe a great many important matters have been improperly confined to private letters, instead of being recorded in public documents. What is the consequence? The members of the Cabinet find themselves, from time to time, brought into a situation in which they are obliged to choose between either making themselves responsible for measures which, if they had known what was going on, they would have objected to, or abandoning the Government perhaps in a season of difficulty. My Lords, this is no imaginary case. Such things have actually happened. And when, in any particular instance, it is brought to our notice that the wholesome rule has been departed from, it is fit that it should be brought to our notice, as it has been by the noble Earl on the present occasion. No one can deny the fact that the Foreign Minister of France told our Ambassador that, under certain circumstances, France might feel it necessary to take possession of Savoy. And that was a fact of very great importance, which ought to have been placed on record officially at the Foreign Office. It is no excuse to say that is was desirable not to involve our Government in any correspondence about it, for it would by no means follow, because our Ambassador reported it to our Foreign Minister, that therefore the Government would think it proper to take any further notice of the fact. Such a notification was undoubtedly made, and I must repeat that there ought to have remained at the Foreign Office a record of the fact. On the contrary, we find that for several months there had been no official record of such an important fact, and I must say that a great constitutional principle has been seriously infringed, and that great blame is attached to the Government for having taken such a course.


said, his noble Friend (the Earl of Carnarvon) had laid down the rule very distinctly as to private letters passing between our agents abroad and the Foreign Secretary; but although he spoke of the Minister abroad exercising a certain discretion he appeared to deny altogether the exercise of any discretion in the present instance. In point of fact, the course which should have been taken depended very much upon the manner in which the so-called communication was made by Count Walewski to Lord Cowley. Any one who had carried on diplomatic conversations must be aware how very difficult it was to know how to treat a communication made by the Minister of a foreign country of an informal kind, especially when the communication is made as an illustration of an hypothetical event. There was, however, one mode of testing the weight which Count Walewski meant to be placed upon the communication he made, and the amount of importance Lord Cowley should have attached to it. In all cases where an important communication was made by the Foreign Minister of one country to the Government of another a despatch was addressed by the Foreign Minister to the Ambassador at the other Court, stating his views, and thus ensuring their communication to the foreign Government in his own words and supported by his own arguments. Such was the rule, and it was rarely, and always with inconvenience, departed from. The reason for it was obvious; being simply that, were the views stated in conversation, the person to whom they were addressed might not attach the same importance to them as the Minister who uttered them. He must say, therefore, that Count Walewski not having followed that course, Earl Cowley was entitled to believe that the communication in question was not of such importance as it was now attempted to attach to it. The noble Lord spoke of a change of purpose on the part of the French Government; but as far as he (Lord Wodehouse) was aware no such change had occurred. The matter remained as before. Count Walewski had on one occasion given an explanation of the condition of affairs, which was accompanied by a statement on the part of the Emperor himself; and afterwards the Count, in reference to the proposal for a Congress, made an observation as to what might take place in the event of a certain arrangement, which he thought could not possibly be adopted, coming into force. The noble Lord had alluded to a former difference between the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the present chief of the Government, in reference to the subject of despatches to Ministers abroad; but the conclusion to be drawn from that circumstance was, that the discretion of the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) might safely be trusted not to dispense with an official responsibility he had himself so strongly enforced.


My Lords, there can he no doubt as to the right of Parliament or the Crown in this matter. There is no question that the Parliament, as well as the Queen, has the right to be fully informed as to what has passed; and that the Queen must be informed before any despatches or orders are sent to our Ministers abroad. But I think the noble Earl (Earl Grey) went a little too far, and applied the rule somewhat too rigorously, when he alluded to a practice that he says has risen up, of Foreign Secretaries keeping their Colleagues in ignorance of what is going on. There is a difference between the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office (of which the noble Earl was formerly the head) as to the manner of transacting business. The Colonial Minister has plenty of time to answer despatches he receives, and to determine upon the course of action. That is not so with the Foreign Office. There is often extremely little time for action, or for reply. In these days much of the correspondence of the Foreign Office is conducted by means of the electric telegraph, and it is therefore obvious that if upon every point, even of importance, the Foreign Secretary were obliged to send round to all his colleagues, and inform them exactly of the communication he had received and what his reply was to be, it would be impossible to carry on the business of the Department. I agree with the noble Earl, however, that it is fit that the subject should be brought forward; and I cannot help thinking that on the present occasion there must have been some over- sight on the part of the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary; and I am astonished that he should not have required an official despatch for his own security. For my own part, I never considered myself, when I had the honour of filling the same office, I never considered myself safe unless my course of action was covered by an official record of the information on which I acted. I should have thought it to my own disadvantage to take action myself, and still more to give instructions to a Minister at at a foreign court to be carried out by him upon private information, without having it reproduced in a public despatch, properly numbered and recorded at the Foreign Office. Therefore I am surprised that the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary should, in a matter of so much importance, have neglected to have the sense of Lord Cowley's private letters put into an official despatch, in order that he might at any time have been able to exhibit the grounds on which he took the course which he pursued. What has happened might hare been expected. It was impossible that the fact of the private communication should escape Parliament; and the consequence is that in both Houses the noble Lord is censured, and he has not escaped some suspicion of having attempted to conceal something. The noble Lord has thus been himself the sufferer from the course he has adopted. But at the same time I must add, that it would be quite impossible to carry on the public business without private correspondence between the Ambassador and the Foreign Minister. An immmense quantity of information can be imparted only in this manner—without it the Minister would be without any better information than all the world possessed; and it would be impossible to carry on the public business if that information were not rigidly kept secret. Its publication would very often involve the safety of individuals, and many other consequences which their Lordships could well understand.


My Lords, there is a point which has not been adverted to, but which is of great importance. There can be no doubt that on many occasions it is essential to the public service that communications of facts should be made in private letters; and perhaps, also, that instructions should be given in the same manner. But whatever it is necessary for the Minister or the Ambassador to communicate should remain on record in the Foreign Office. If it is important that the Minister for the time should have the information, his successor should have the same information, I happen to know, however, that it is not always the custom to leave these private letters at the Office, and when it is not so, the Minister who succeeds is in a very unfortunate position, deprived of information which he ought to possess. I remember that the Quadruple Treaty was formed in 1834; and when the Duke of Wellington came into office at the end of the year, he could not trace the existence of one single paper relative to that treaty, assigning the grounds on which it was entered into. So as to the serious events in China; when Lord Napier got into serious difficulties, which might have led us into a war, there was not a paper left in the office about them; and it was only by applying to the then Earl Grey for any private letters he might happen to have, that any information at all could be obtained on a matter of such serious moment. My Lords, I consider this practice, which I believe to be a common one, a serious defect in our public administration, and it is for the public interest that it should be corrected.


My Lords, scant justice, or rather great injustice, has been done to my noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office in the course of this discussion. It has been assumed all along that proposals were made through the medium of these private letters. I have already denied this, and have stated that these letters merely refer to hypothetical conversations. The noble Earl (the Earl of Malmesbury) says he always covered himself by an official communication. I own I am of opinion that that principle may be carried too far, and it is dangerous for the public interests that a Minister should be constantly looking to the possible "blue-book." If he means to carry out his duty honestly, he must frequently depart from that respect for the possibility of publication. The noble Earl implied that my noble Friend had exposed himself to the suspicion that he was attempting to conceal something.


Not as my own suspicion, but as that of others.


Quite so; but there cannot be the least ground for such a suspicion, for if my noble Friend had desired to do so he might easily have suppressed the fact that any private letters had passed, for he could have erased the passage in the despatch referring to them, and the Parliament could have had no knowledge of their existence. But my noble Friend proposed taking a more manly course, and he permitted the mention of these letters to appear, while he judged it useless to produce them, as they were merely mentioned as an hypothetical, and not a definite or formal proposal, as the noble Earl (Earl Grey) appeared to suppose.


I never said anything as to a "definite" or "formal" proposal. I said that Count Walewski told Lord Cowley, and gave him clearly to understand, that in certain circumstances France would consider it ought to annex Savoy; and that this was a most important fact, which should not have been confined to a private letter.


—My Lords, without imputing to the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) any desire to conceal the existence of these private letters, I cannot admit that it would have been at all easy to suppress all mention of them, considering the nature of this correspondence. For, my Lords, how does the case stand? For four or five months the noble Lord remains, so far as concerns any official communications, in the full assurance and conviction that the French Government had abandoned the project of the annexation of Savoy. When the project again assumed a definite form, no time was lost by the noble Lord in communicating to the French Government the views of our Government upon the subject. But as soon as that communication was made there was another party concerned—the French Government and the French Minister; and when that remonstrance was made by the British Government, and Count Walewski replied,— "I told you that the proposal of the annexation of Savoy was abandoned. But it is equally true that this took place four or five months since, and during the interval I have, not on one occasion only, but many occasions, told you, on the part of my Government, that circumstances have changed, and that if all the proposals for the aggrandizement of Sardinia come to pass it will be necessary for France, having due regard to her own security, to take possession of Savoy." My Lords, that was stated by the Foreign Minister of France to our Ambassador at Paris as the answer to an implied charge on behalf of our Government that the French Govern- ment had been guilty of a breach of faith. And that answer, so defending the French Government, so announcing the intentions of the French Emperor, so reminding the British Minister that their intentions had been communicated to him, not once, but repeatedly—that answer, my Lords, ought to have been made the subject of an official communication, and ought not to have been wrapped up in a private letter. My Lords, after that correspondence it would have been impossible for the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) to have suppressed the fact that there had been such letters; for, supposing the paragraph alluding to them to have been omitted (which would have been very unjust to Lord Cowley), the question would have been asked at once in Parliament whether, if those statements had been made to the British Ambassador at Paris, to which Count Walewski alluded, the Ambassador had communicated them to the noble Lord; and the answer, of course, must have been the admission of the fact, that such communications had been made by the French Minister to Lord Cowley, and had by him been communicated to the noble Lord in private letters. My Lords, I can hardly understand how the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office with his sense of honour or of truth, after these communications from Lord Cowley — knowing that everything was tending towards the very event pointed at, namely, the aggrandisement of Piedmont —that very event which was to lead to the annexation of Savoy—I say I cannot understand how the noble Lord could give the answer which he is represented to have given in his place in Parliament, at the commencement of the Session, referring to the communication in July, as if that was the actual state of things at the time when he spoke, and suppressing the fact that from time to time the French Government had been warning us that if certain events should take place which were then in actual progress and in course of active accomplishment, the idea of abandoning the annexation of Savoy would be considered as not binding; and that it would be deemed necessary, on the part of France, to pursue it. I repeat, my Lords, I cannot understand how, under those circumstances, the noble Lord could refer us to the communication made in July, as if that contained all the information that could be given—sedulously concealing from us all that had passed in the meantime to vary and alter the case. The noble Duke may argue that the noble Lord did not desire to conceal anything, but it is vain to urge that he could have concealed the fact; for even though all allusion to the letters had been suppressed, the fact must have come out, even more discreditably than it has done as it is. My Lords, I think the Government have had fair warning as to the course which the French Government intended to pursue in a certain event, and that Her Majesty's Ministers had no right to charge the French Government with having deceived them or kept them in ignorance of their intentions; or to tell us that they were taken by surprise when they found in January that a totally different course was to be pursued by the French Government from that which had been avowed in July.


said, he thought it must necessarily have been left to Lord Cowley to judge whether the communications made to him were such as ought to be embodied in a public despatch, and he thought the noble Earl had exercised a sound discretion in making them the subject of a private letter. It had been assumed throughout that the communications made to Lord Cowley were much more definite than they really were. If the French Government had intended to make such a definite communication as was supposed, they ought to have done it in the form of a despatch. He regretted that this discussion had arisen. The argument of the noble Earl opposite as to the formal and definite nature of the communication was unfounded. The whole thing was not only hypothetical, in the event of certain conclusions being come to with regard to the Italian war, but it was also hypothetical upon the meeting of a Congress; and it was fully understood by Lord Cowley that whatever might be the views of the French Government at that time, this and other subjects would be matters for consultation at that Congress.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.

Back to