HL Deb 17 February 1862 vol 165 cc347-51

My Lords, although I am afraid it is somewhat late, I hope your Lordships will allow me to trespass on your attention for a short time on a subject which, though personal to myself, is yet of great public importance, and which I regret that, owing to my unavoidable absence, I have not been able sooner to bring under the notice of the House. Your Lordships have probably read some letters of the late Count Cavour which have recently been published in the newspapers; and I can assure you that if any of you in reading those letters have experienced any surprise, it could not have equalled my own. I know not whether those letters are genuine or not, or into what hands they have fallen, nor do I know by whom or with what objects they have been published. With that I have nothing to do. But in those letters certain sayings are attributed to me with respect to which your Lordships and the public have a right to expect some explanation, because at the time those letters purport to have been written, and the conversations are said to have taken place, I had the honour to be Her Majesty's Secretary for Foreign Affairs and the first British Plenipotentiary at the Congress of Paris. In that capacity I think it was my duty to have expressed no opinion, and to have given no advice, without the sanction of the Government of which I formed a part, or which I did not think would be in accordance with the views of the Government. I am, therefore, prepared to take upon myself the entire responsibility of everything which I did say, but I cannot be made responsible for things attributed to me which I did not say. In offering the explanation, however, which you have a right to expect from me, I find myself in a twofold difficulty—first, that of separating what is true from what is incorrect in Count Cavour's letters; and, secondly, the pain and repugnance I feel in contradicting the late Count Cavour. If he had been alive, it would have been comparatively easy for me to have corrected any inaccuracy in his correspondence, and to have accompanied it with such explanation as might be necessary, and the publication of his letters, if authorized by him, would have justified. But as Count Cavour is, unfortu- nately, no more, I will say nothing beyond what I think strictly necessary for clearing myself from the absurdity—I may say the palpable absurdity—with which, although not directly, yet by implication I am charged. It amounts to this, that I encouraged Count Cavour to pick a quarrel with Austria—in fact, to declare war against her, by an assurance that in such a course of policy Piedmont would have the material support of England. There is much that is true in Count Cavour's letters, and I say so with reference to his account of what fell from him in the Congress when Italian affairs were discussed. From the first meeting of the Congress Count Cavour had constantly urged upon the British and French Plenipotentiaries the necessity of bringing before it the affairs of Italy. We had remarked to him that the Congress was assembled for the purpose of negotiating a treaty of peace with Russia; that to introduce any other subject would be irrelevant and even impossible; in fact, that even after the treaty of peace was concluded it might meet with serious obstacles, because the other Plenipotentiaries might protest, as they did, against the introduction of any other subjects; they might declare their powers limited to the matters for which the Congress was assembled, and that their instructions would not permit them to enter into the subject. Nevertheless, when the treaty was signed, the French and English Plenipotentiaries did bring on a discussion of Italian affairs, and Count Cavour's account of what I said with respect to the Neapolitan and Papal Government is perfectly correct. I neither regret, nor do I wish to retract, one word of what I said, because I felt, as every other Englishman did, the profoundest sympathy for the misgoverned Italians, and an ardent desire to see an alleviation of that system of oppression and tyranny which obtained from one end of the Peninsula to the other, and I thought the Congress in which the principal Powers of Europe were represented was a fitting place for the expression of those opinions. But the result of a long and angry discussion was only that the Austrian Plenipotentiaries agreed with the French Plenipotentiaries that the Pontifical States should be evacuated by the French and Austrian troops as soon as it could be effected without danger to the tranquillity of the country and the consolidation of the authority of the Roman See, and further that most of the Plenipotentiaries did not question the good effect might arise from measures of clemency. This meagre result not only did not satisfy Count Cavour, but it greatly disappointed him. With his views, looking at the matter both as an Italian and a Piedmontese, Ins irritation was not unnatural, for his whole heart and soul were set on freeing the North of Italy from the dominion of Austria. He did not conceal his irritation from me. He constantly told me that he could not present himself before the Parliament of Turin unless he proved that he had produced some effect by his presence at the Congress. I was in the habit of seeing him daily, and I willingly listened to him upon the only subject upon which he would converse, and on which he was always earnest and eloquent. But those conversations never appeared to me to be of a character sufficiently practical to make it necessary to report them to Her Majesty's Government. Consequently there is no record of them, though I have searched, nor of those repeated assurances which I gave him that our invariable principle was to maintain our treaty engagements, and to be guided by the principles of international law. At the same time, I did not disguise from him, what he knew and what everybody else knew, that our object at that time was to free Italy from foreign occupation, and to reform the Papal and Neapolitan Governments, and that towards that end the moral support of England would be always forthcoming. Out of the numerous conversations that I had with Count Cavour, the only one I can remember which could—I will not say justify but give rise to his assertion that I said "If you are in a strait, we shall come to your assistance,"had reference, not to a war by Piedmont against Austria, but to an invasion of Piedmont by Austria, which was a fixed idea in Count Cavour's mind. He always thought that the free institutions of Piedmont—her freedom of the press and freedom of debate—even her very prosperity under such a system, would always make her an intolerable neighbour to Austria. I assured Count Cavour that my conversations with Count Buol, though certainly not very satisfactory in general with respect to Italy, entirely confirmed my impression that no such apprehension need be entertained by him; and, upon Count Cavour asking me what course we should take in such un eventuality, I re- member saying, "If you ask my opinion, I should say that if Austria invaded Piedmont for the purpose of suppressing free institutions there, you would have a practical proof of the feeling of the Parliament i and people of England on the subject. "Of course I cannot pledge myself to the exact words, but I do feel quite sure about the spirit and scope of my answer. It was a personal opinion given upon an hypothetical case, to which I did not then attach any importance, nor did I know that Count Cavour attached any importance to it until I read these letters, in which he says— England, grieved at peace, would with pleasure see an opportunity for a new war, which would be popular because it would be a war for the liberation of Italy. He then goes on to say— If they (Lord Palmerston and his Government) share Clarendon's views, we must make secret preparations, contract the loan for 30,000,000f., and, upon Della Marmora's return, offer to Austria an ultimatum which it will be impossible for her to accept, and open hostilities. In another letter Count Cavour says— Talking with him (Lord Clarendon) as to the means of acting morally and even materially upon i Austria, I said to him, 'Send your troops upon men-of-war to Spezzia, and leave your fleet there.' And his answer was, 'The idea is excellent.' Now, my Lords, upon my honour I have not the slightest recollection of any such conversation, and, therefore, I cannot deny it; but I think so wild a notion cannot have been seriously entertained even by Count Cavour himself. Bearing in mind the enthusiasm of Count Cavour in favour of his own views, and his ardent desire to make known his activity in the Congress of Paris, and to keep up the spirits of his friends at Turin, I for one—though I have the most reason to complain—can make allowance for these imaginative reports of private conversations contained in letters to his friends and colleagues, but which were evidently not intended for publication. But that I, as one of Her Majesty's Secretaries of State, without any communication from my colleagues, and contrary to the dictates of common sense, knowing that the French Emperor at that time had not the slightest thought or intention of making war against Austria, that he did not then even require her to withdraw her troops; from the Legations, until he had withdrawn his own troops from Rome—that I, under such circumstances, should, even in the most indirect manner, have recommended a country to which we heartily wished well to commit such a suicidal act as going to war with Austria, with her large army under. Radetzky, and having the support of Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and Naples—and that, without the shadow of authority for doing so, I should have given any pledge for the support of England in such a policy as would have imbroiled us in war with half Europe—is an absurdity so palpable that I hope, your Lordships will think it carries, with it its own refutation, without my laying claim to that character for extreme reserve and discretion for which Count Cavour rather paradoxically on that occasion informed his correspondent I was notorious.