HL Deb 08 May 1866 vol 183 cc569-78

rose to put the Question to the noble Earl the Foreign Secretary which stood on the notice paper in his name. A Question on the very same subject had, he understood, been put on the previous evening by an hon. Gentleman in the other House of Parliament, and, had been answered by the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. In spite, however, of that circumstance, he thought their Lordships might still deem it advisable that he should persevere with the Question of which he had given notice, in order that their Lordships and the country might have the benefit of a statement from the noble Earl at the head of the Foreign Office, not simply with reference to the material facts as to what had lately occurred—on which, perhaps, his noble Friend might say their Lordships were already well informed—but also with respect to any steps which the noble Earl might have thought fit, as the organ of Her Majesty's Government, to take, with a view either to avert or mitigate the deplorable consequences which might arise if hostilities were unfortunately to break out. Assuming that he had their Lordships' sanction for proceeding with that matter, he would endeavour, as much as possible, to confine himself to the Question which stood in his name. He would express no opinion himself, nor would he challenge any expression of opinion on the part of the noble Earl or their Lordships on subjects which, although of great interest, it might be premature to discuss, such as the causes which had led to the present critical state of affairs; the relative amount of blame to he awarded to each of the three Powers whose differences seemed to threaten the outbreak of a European war; and lastly—and this was not the least important point—the motives that might have influenced the Emperor of the French, who had it in his power by one word to prevent the conflict which was now impending, but who had left that word unspoken. These were subjects of very great delicacy, and if approached at all ought to be approached with very great caution. In his humble opinion the moment had not yet arrived when those subjects would be ripe for discussion; but he was afraid that that time was not far distant. He had no doubt that there were many Members of their Lordships' House far more competent and with much greater claims to their attention than himself who were prepared to discuss those subjects with that calmness and impartiality and statesmanship which their importance demanded. But putting those subjects aside, he would advert to points to which the same considerations of caution and forbearance did not equally apply. He meant those points to which his question referred. On these he hoped he might be allowed to say a very few words. His noble Friend at the head of the Foreign Office was far too sagacious and had too much foresight not to have discerned the premonitary symptoms of the approaching storm which threatened very shortly to break over a great part of Europe, and he was sure his noble Friend also had too keen a sense of the responsibility which attached to his high office to have satisfied himself with sitting quietly by as a calm and idle spectator of what was going on, and with not doing whatever might be in his power in the way of taking precaution against the ruin and desolation which, when that storm burst, would be scattered far and wide. If his noble Friend had taken that course, it could have been only from one or other of two causes—either the noble Earl was a determined adherent of the new policy known as the policy of non-intervention, or from a conviction that the influence which this country had so long possessed in the councils of Europe had become a thing of the past. He did not, however, believe that he held either one or the other of these opinions, and he was rather disposed to assume that his noble Friend had impressed upon those Governments whose unhappy dissensions were likely to embroil Europe in war those counsels of moderation and those friendly remonstrances and warnings which he was justified in offering from his long experience, high character, and the great estimation in which he was held by the Sovereigns and many of the principal statesmen of Europe with whom he was intimately acquainted. He would now ask the Question of which he had given notice—namely, Whether Her Majesty's Government have made any Offer of Mediation, either alone or in concert with The Emperor of the French and The Emperor of Russia, to the Courts of Austria, Prussia, and Italy, with a view of assisting the Governments of those Countries in arriving at a Pacific Settlement of the Questions at issue between them? He trusted that the noble Earl would not confine himself to the specific terms of the Question; but would consider it as applying to a proposal of any other nature which he might have made to the Courts in question.


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble Friend for the tone of the remarks he has made, and for the courteous manner in which he has expressed himself in regard to myself. I am afraid that, in one respect, it will be necessary for me to maintain a discreet silence, if my noble Friend alludes to the apportioning of blame and the imputation of motives.


said, he had expressly disclaimed any wish to enter into topics of that kind.


I beg my noble Friend's pardon. I am glad I have misapprehended him on that point. It is perfectly true, as my noble Friend said, that Parliament has been without any information communicated by us on the subject, and for this reason—that, so far as the action of the Government is concerned, this country will, neither directly nor indirectly, take any part in war, if war should unfortunately occur. Of course, we have always been ready to answer any inquiry that might have been addressed to us; but until last night, in the other House of Parliament, and to-night in this House, no inquiry of that nature has been addressed to us. I am sure this has not been from any want of vigilance on the part of Parliament, or from want of interest in Continental affairs, but because it was felt that the public are just as well informed as the Government on passing events. There is now little of that secret diplomacy which in former days so much prevailed. There is on the part of every Government—such is the power of public opinion—so great an anxiety to appeal to it and obtain its support, that despatches of the most important character and entailing the gravest consequences are no sooner delivered than they are published; and the telegram secures that there shall be no priority of information. We are, therefore, all placed on the same footing. We know the complaints of Prussia against Austria, and in what manner Austria has answered those accusations. We know by the able papers they, have published what are the opinions of Bavaria and Saxony as to the conduct of their two great neighbours, and what are the opinions of the rest of the German Powers. We know how loud have been the remonstrances throughout Germany against a war uncalled for by national honour and forbidden by national interests. The fall of the funds and of all public securities throughout the Exchanges of Europe—the paralyzation of credit, of commerce and industry—the enormous losses that were entailed as soon as the rumour of war assumed an appearance of reality—seemed to be so many warnings to Sovereigns how they trifled with the interests of their subjects. Up to about a fortnight ago there was an appearance that moderate counsels would prevail, and that the calamity of war would be adverted. But within the last fortnight this hope has become less and less felt, and, although each Power declares that it baa no aggressive intention against the other, and although each declares that it has only armed against an attack which they all declare they do not meditate, yet when three large armies are marching to their respective frontiers there is too much reason to fear that war is at hand. If we had the least reason to hope that our good offices would have been of any use, they would have been freely offered and conscientiously employed. That we have taken care the Powers in question should know. I should not be discharging my duty if I said too much; but, my Lords, we have stood alone, and alone we could do nothing against the determination that war was the most effective means—the only effective means of giving effect to an ambitious policy. This determination may possibly be carried into effect—we must hope that until war is actually declared it will not be carried into effect, but more than a million of men are now armed and prepared for the conflict. And I must say that it is a melancholy sight in this enlightened age, and in the present state of civilization and progress, that Europe should be even menaced with war for which no casus belli can be said to exist, and for which there is no justification.


said, he did not rise with any intention of entering into a lengthy consideration of the subject, but he heartily concurred in the opinion that the war which now menaced Europe was to be deprecated, not only with respect to its probable consequences, but to the motives of its authors. It was to him a matter of surprise and regret that, in spite of the public knowledge and public opinion to which the noble Earl had referred, those who were at the head of the councils of States and of great armies were disposed to carry out their ambitious projects, and the present prospect was that Europe was about to be involved, not only in one of the most extensive wars of this century, but one of the most extensive within historical record. This country, under these circumstances, would be more than usually fortunate if, with the best intentions and the greatest love of peace, we were not eventually drawn into it. It appeared that, with every disposition on the part of the Government to give good advice, the voice of England was of no effect upon the Cabinets of Europe, and that this country was condemned to silence and inaction, and was unable to take precautions or even to raise a voice against the coming calamity. That was a state of things deeply to be lamented, and if that was the position in which we stood he should say that he thanked Heaven that at his time of life he might naturally hope to be spared the contemplation of the evils with which we were threatened. He did not believe that in this case Austria was the aggressive party. He could not believe that in her state of financial weakness at home, of political weakness in Hungary and in Italy, and in her doubtful position in Germany, it was possible that she should be the aggressor. But when the affairs of the Duchies were under discussion many of their Lordships who took part in the debate foretold that the bitter cup prepared for Denmark contained some dregs which the Great Powers would one day have to drink, and this hour now seemed to be approaching. That did not explain the extent to which the danger had gone, but it did explain its origin, and it was to the last degree lamentable to see the peace of the world compromised under such circumstances.


My Lords, I must say, for myself, that, though I view the state of affairs to which the noble Viscount has called attention with the same dismay and the same horror as he does, I do not look upon it with the same surprise. It seems to me that what has now taken place in Europe is the natural consequence of that conduct which we thought it right to pursue some two years ago. Your Lordships will remember that it was at that time ostentatiously laid down as the political rule of conduct of this country that we were never to interfere with foreign States except when our own interests were directly and immediately threatened. The rule or principle of nonintervention, which had been understood in a very different sense by great statesmen in former times, was abused to this extent. In former times, when the principle of non-intervention was invoked, it meant this—that no State had a right to interfere with the internal affairs of another; that it was an abuse and scandal if any nation prevented another from settling its internal Government in the manner it thought best for its own welfare and its own prosperity. But in these days no man ever dreamt that the principle of non-intervention applied to the case of the disputes which arise in the civilized world, or that it meant that a great country like this had no duty to perform in endeavouring to prevent the oppression of weak States by the strong, and in maintaining, not only peace, but the interests of justice throughout the world. My Lords, I say this is a new doctrine, for the first time put forward and for the first time acted upon in a manner which has left a stain on the fair fame of this country some two years ago. We then not only acted on this principle, but acted on it in this manner—we deluded unfortunate Denmark by intimations, if not promises, of support, until we brought her into a false position—and then we abandoned her. I then foresaw that if we were to proceed on the purely selfish principle of thinking of our own interests only, it would very soon happen that some strong and unscrupulous Power would avail itself of the new principle to be guilty of acts of spoliation, that the peace of Europe would be in danger, and that sooner or later we should see those deeds of wrong and violence which we had encouraged by our sufferance rise to such a height and be applied in such a manner as to fill the world with blood and misery. I ventured at the time to express to your Lordships my conviction that this would be the consequence of the policy pursued; that, encouraged by our sufferance, scandal, wrong, and robbery—what we stated in our official papers to be wrong and robbery—would result; and I am certain that a single word said at the right time and with proper firmness would have stopped the entire mischief without danger of war. We are told that it was a great triumph for the Administration of that day that it kept us out of war. I ventured then to say that they ought not to boast until we had seen the end of it; and, looking now at the threatening state of Europe, will any man tell me that we are not now more in danger of being drawn into a contest than if we had at that time taken a bolder course? My Lords, I say the consequences may he put off for a time, but they will come; and for those consequences I hold Her Majesty's Government to be responsible.


My Lords, I must say a few words with respect to the speech which my noble Friend (Earl Grey) has just addressed to your Lordships. I never heard it laid down—I know not whether anybody laid it down, but certainly Her Majesty's Government did not—that this country was not to interfere where the peace of Europe or the interests of justice might require. What I said was that if neither your honour nor interests were concerned you must consider long and with great deliberation before you enter into a war. If you enter into a war merely for the sake of preserving the general balance of power in Europe, without your interests or honour being involved, you ought to see whether you are not likely to produce much more evil than you are likely to remedy. My noble Friend, on the other hand, says it was no question of Germany being in the right or of Denmark being in the right, but that there was an opportunity of entering into a war and we ought to have accepted it I differ entirely from my noble Friend, and I certainly cannot accept his representations of the conduct of Her Majesty's Government.


I never heard a more complete misrepresentation than has been made by the noble Earl (Earl Russell). He represents the noble Earl on the cross-benches (Earl Grey) to have laid down that it was not a question whether Germany or Denmark was in the right, and also that he desired to enjoy the opportunity of dragging this country into a war. Nothing could be more different from the language of the noble Earl, whose language was this—and I entirely concur with him—that you had laid down that the action of the German Powers in the affairs of Denmark was a wrong and a robbery; that there was no question as to which was in the right or which in the wrong; that the aggression was on the part of Germany on inoffensive Denmark, or, at all events, that the offence of Denmark was slight as compared with the wrong of the German Powers; and having done all this, and having gone to such an extent that the Prussian Minister told you, in answer to one of your threatening and braggadocio despatches, that it was a declaration of war—when Denmark depended on your moral if not your material support, then you took an opportunity of withdrawing from the contest which you had yourselves encouraged, and abandoned the ally whom you had led by your encouragement to maintain her own rights.


I must say, in explanation, that we maintained with regard to the engagements which Denmark had entered into with Austria and Prussia that Denmark had given cause of complaint to both these Powers, and we advised her to set herself right by fulfilling punctually those engagements. Denmark was recommended to do that; but she determined to resist, and refused to comply with the advice of Her Majesty's Government. We again urged that course subsequently upon Denmark, and Lord Wodehouse was sent to Copenhagen with the view of prevailing upon the Danish Government to do so. The Danish Government still refused. We urged upon the German Powers that there was still an opportunity of setting the matter right, and that they were bound not to go to war until they had exhausted every other mode of obtaining what they sought. At the last moment Denmark was prepared to do justice to the claims of Germany, and we held that the war was consequently an unjust war on the part of the German Powers. But they had originally a good right to complain that Denmark had made engagements with them which she was not willing to fulfil.


I should like to ask a question of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I see from a report in the papers of what was stated in another place last night by a distinguished Member of Her Majesty's Government, that "it will be unadvisable for Her Majesty's Government to enter alone into any communication with the view of offering their good offices to the Powers now on the verge of war" It struck me as being a very remarkable thing that this country should be unable to do anything alone—that it had not of itself sufficient power and weight to appear be-fore Europe as an arbiter, well wisher, or good adviser; but that it must, forsooth, go to some powerful neighbour, and say, "Will you act with us, because we are so feeble that we can do nothing alone?" I should like to know if that is really the condition in which we are placed?


I can tell my noble Friend that that is not the condition in which we are placed. I do not know what report my noble Friend read, but it certainly was not correct. I suppose that between Governments, as between individuals, an inquiry beforehand is necessary, whether your advice, if given, would be acceptable or not; otherwise, if offered, it would be more likely to do mischief than if you let the matter alone. Long ago we took means to ascertain whether our good offices would be acceptable and useful, and the answers we got were "not encour- aging. The matter, therefore, was not pressed, for we had ample means of knowing that it would not be useful to do so. We addressed ourselves to other Powers to know whether they took the same view as we did; and when we found that we should be left in the position in which we found ourselves at first, we did not press our good offices further.

House adjourned at a quarter past Six o'clock, to Friday next, half past Ton o'clock.