HL Deb 14 February 1871 vol 204 cc239-50

rose to call attention to the Provisions of the Treaty of Paris (1856) as to the Black Sea, with reference to the statement lately made on this subject by the Prime Minister, and said—My Lords, remembering that a Conference is now sitting, I should have preferred observing silence on the subject to which I am anxious to ask your Lordships' attention for a short time; but, inasmuch as we are given to understand, that a very broad and explicit opinion has been already pronounced by the Prime Minister, notwithstanding the sitting of the Conference, and inasmuch as some statements of fact made by him, as we understand, on the same occasion, have created some surprise, I cannot but feel that the proper time to take notice of the matter is the present. It might otherwise be said hereafter that those statements were made in the face of Parliament, and were unchallenged at the time, and that they must, therefore, be supposed to have commanded the assent of Parliament. It will be in your Lordships' recollection that the Treaty signed at Paris in 1856 contained a clause for the neutralization of the Black Sea. The terms of the 11th Article are— The Black Sea is neutralized; its waters and its ports, thrown open to the mercantile marine of every nation, are formally and in perpetuity interdicted to the flag of war, either of the Powers possessing its coasts or of any other Power, with the exceptions mentioned in Articles XIV. and XIX. of the present Treaty. These exceptions permit the Russian and Ottoman Governments to keep a limited number of small gunboats for the service of the coasts of the Black Sea. Your Lordships may also recollect that the Crimean War, which commenced in 1854, was interrupted in 1855 by negotiations conducted at Vienna, which at one time seemed likely to result in the establishment of peace. Those negotiations were twice broken off and twice renewed. On each occasion they were broken off on the very point on which they were ultimately, in June 1855, abandoned—namely, on the mode of reducing, as it was termed, the preponderance of the power of Russia in the Black Sea. Two modes by which that object might be effected were proposed. One was that Russia should not be prevented from maintaining a naval force in the Black Sea, but that other Powers should be at liberty to maintain a force of equal magnitude. On that point the late Lord Clarendon always held in his despatches the same language—namely, that that was not the form of giving effect to the object in view which this country would approve, as it would lead to a constant state of preparation for war in the East, instead of to a peace that might be expected to prove lasting. The other solution of the difficulty was that proposed originally, I think, by France, and warmly taken up by Lord Clarendon on behalf of the British Government. It was looked upon somewhat coldly by Austria, but supported, I believe, to a certain extent by her. This alternative was the neutralization of the Black Sea. Your Lordships may remember that in the negotiations at Vienna four heads or bases were constantly referred to. I believe I am right in stating that the first two were substantially agreed to, while the third was this question of the reduction of Russian naval preponderance, on which the negotiations were twice interrupted and finally abandoned. The fourth head was never touched; but there is no reason to suppose that had the difficulty as to the third been surmounted it might not have been easily arranged. I have thus shortly reminded your Lordships of the position of affairs at that time. I will not trouble you with quotations from Lord Clarendon's despatches, for the difficulty would be to know what to select, since every page is full of the expression of his views on this point. When, moreover, the negotiations were broken off, a circular was addressed by him to our diplomatic agents in different countries, giving a narrative of the course they had taken, and assigning as the reason for their termination that which I have mentioned. He appealed to the protocols of the Conference as evidence showing how well founded was the determination of the Western Powers to insist on the cessation of Russian preponderance in the Black Sea as alone offering any real security for Turkey and Europe against any ulterior designs on the part of Russia. The Conference of Vienna having come to an end, the war consequently went on during the autumn and winter, resulting in the further defeat of Russia; and finally the Treaty of Paris was concluded, in which Russia assented to terms which she had before positively refused—including the neutralization of the Black Sea. This being so, it was with no small surprise that I read expressions recently used, if he had been correctly reported, by the Prime Minister. He is reported to have said that if this country were now to insist on this Article of the Treaty we should not have the co-operation of Austria. I do not dwell on that statement, for very possibly there is some foundation for it, for anyone can see that Austria was very unwilling at the time of the Conferences at Vienna to be a party to any terms irksome to Russia with regard to the Black Sea. The Prime Minister also said that France, by her official acts, had expressed her readiness to give up the neutralization of the Black Sea. Now, as to that point, so far as I know, or any of your Lordships have been informed, no document has yet been produced, having the character of an official act, showing that France is prepared to give up this part of the Treaty. I have seen in newspapers statements of what France was prepared to do; but I am not aware of any official act of this character. What follows, however, is much more remarkable. Meeting an observation made by Mr. Disraeli that the Treaty of 1856, if it produced nothing else, produced one result of the utmost value and the most vital importance—namely, the neutralization of the Black Sea — the Prime Minister is reported to have said—"That was never, so far as I know, the view of the British Government." Now, this is a most startling statement. Unless we are all under a delusion—unless all the documents which are upon record are entirely baseless and inaccurate, it was not only the view of the British Government that the neutralization of the Black Sea was of vital importance, but it was the very point on which the Vienna negotiations broke off, and to attain which millions of money were expended and thousands of lives lost in continuing the war. The Prime Minister went on to say— In this House, in the year 1856, I declared my confident conviction that it was impossible to maintain the neutralization of the Black Sea. Mr. Gladstone said this immediately after the sentence as to the view of the British Government. In 1856, however, Mr. Gladstone was not in Office, and his attitude in the House of Commons, if not one of opposition, was one of very careful, and frequently hostile, criticism of the Government of the day; yet, if he is correctly reported, his expressions amount to this—"I maintain that the neutralization of the Black Sea was never, in the view of the British Government, of vital importance, and I made a speech in 1856 insisting that it could not be maintained." So far Mr. Gladstone only is concerned; but what follows concerns others. He says he does not speak from direct communication with Lord Clarendon, but he has been told since his death that Lord Clarendon never attached value to the neutralization. Now, this is a grave statement. I should say that it is a very grave imputation on the memory of Lord Clarendon; for it amounts to this—that when Lord Clarendon wrote despatches, one after another, insisting on the necessity of reducing Russian preponderance in the Black Sea and on its neutralization, and when he assumed the responsibility of advising the Crown to continue the war in order to obtain that end, he did not believe what he was writing, and was all along of opinion that no value was to be attached to the neutralization of the Black Sea. The Prime Minister continues— I do not speak from direct communication, but I have been told that Lord Palmerston always looked upon the neutralization as an arrangement which might be maintained and held together for a limited number of years, but which, from its character, it was impossible to maintain as a permanent condition for a great settlement of Europe. So that Lord Palmerston, who was Prime Minister at the time, plunged the country anew into war in order to obtain an arrangement to which he attached no idea of permanence, and when these stipulations were made, closing the Black Sea for ever to vessels of war, he knew that this arrangement could only be kept alive for a certain number of years. I do not know what is the authority for these statements. Opening almost at random the Papers laid on the Table yesterday, which it would be premature to discuss now, I observe that the Russian Minister at Constantinople seems to have told Sir Henry Elliot that Lord Palmerston had said the neutralization of the Black Sea could not be maintained ten years. Now, I do not think Lord Palmerston, looking to his official or public acts, believed or thought this; but even if he did, I think he was the very last man to tell a Russian diplomatic agent that this was his opinion. This is, so far as I know, the only foundation for the Prime Minister's statements. The question assumes greater magnitude when we connect it with some other events which have occurred. Tour Lordships remarked with great surprise at the beginning of the winter a despatch addressed by Prince Gortchakoff to the Government of this country. I think I speak the sentiments of everyone present and of the great majority of the country when I say that the public were satisfied with the manner in which that despatch was, in the first instance, answered by the noble Earl opposite. All thought that the despatch was a most unwarrantable and unprecedented attempt to repudiate treaty engagements on the part of Russia, and that in point of form and manner it was as objectionable and censurable an act as was ever committed; but there was on the part of the public a very strong impression that there was something in the question much more than manner and form. The public recollected the Crimean War, they were quite aware of the object which we then had in view, and while they naturally resented the manner and form in which Russia repudiated her part of the Treaty, they felt that it was an attempt to subvert an arrangement to which this country attached great importance, and to set aside that security for the freedom of Turkey and for our own interests in the East which we had obtained at great cost and with great difficulty. They, therefore, regarded the manner and form as by no means the whole, or as perhaps even the gravest part, of the attempt itself. We all remember the excitement which prevailed on the Stock Exchange and throughout the country, and the general anxiety as to the further action of Russia, and the manner in which the noble Earl's answer would be received. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that people supposed we were possibly on the verge of an interruption of our friendly relations with Russia. Now, suppose that interruption, which we should all have deplored, had occurred, and suppose the public had afterwards been told that the whole controversy was merely upon the form and manner of the Russian despatch, and that what Russia was insisting on was, in substance, what the Prime Minister had always thought was the proper view of her rights, on what Lord Clarendon could never have seriously objected to, on what Lord Palmerston thought must come about in a few years—suppose the public had been told that the rupture was not on account of the substance, but merely the manner and form, what would they have thought? I think certainly they would have been much surprised at finding that this was all the while the view of the British Government, when these excellent and spirited despatches were being written at the Foreign Office. The result, as we know, is that the aim of Prince Gortchakoff has been accomplished—there is a Conference. The noble Earl, I observe—although objecting to limit the operations of the Conference in terms to the neutralization of the Black Sea—has stated his opinion that every effort should be made to limit the Conference to that question and to matters necessarily arising out of it. The case, therefore, is this—the Conference is to consider the demand of Russia that the neutralization should be put an end to. We all thought that, if such a proposition could be entertained at all, Russia must be prepared to offer an equivalent for that to which we attached great importance. But the Prime Minister comes forward, and in the face of Parliament gives an opinion that the point which the Conference is treating as a matter of controversy is not a matter of controversy at all; that he is of exactly the same opinion as the Emperor of Russia; that Lord Clarendon and Lord Palmerston were of the same view; and that France and Austria think the same. The noble Earl stipulated prior to the Conference that the Plenipotentiaries should enter it without any foregone conclusion; but the Plenipotentiaries of the Powers most concerned have entered it with foregone conclusions. Russia, of course, has determined in her own mind to put an end to the neutralization; and I greatly fear that the Representative of this country has entered it also with the foregone conclusion, expressed by the Prime Minister, that the neutralization must be given up. I should have been glad not to touch, on any point relating to the Conference, but under present circumstances I wish to ask, What is the foundation for the statement that Lord Clarendon attached no value to the neutralization of the Black Sea, and that Lord Palmerston thought it an arrangement which could be maintained only for a few years? I would also ask, Whether the question of neutralization is any longer a question of controversy, or whether it has passed out of the sphere of negotiation and arrangement at the Conference?


My Lords, I cannot think that the noble and learned Lords has taken a very convenient course. The Papers on the subject were presented only yesterday, and, though this circumstance does not affect me, the noble and learned Lord admits that he has only been able to take a very superficial view of them. The noble and learned Lord did not give Notice in the House of his intention, but merely put it down on the Paper. As I have already explained, I was unavoidably obliged to leave London early this morning—before I got the Minutes—in order to present two foreign Ministers at Windsor, and I only got back just in time to reach the House. Of this I do not complain in the least, for if I had been the whole day in London it would not have enlightened me with regard to the Notice, which is certainly one of the vaguest which I ever saw on the Minutes. Indeed, I should like to refer to a noble Viscount (Viscount Eversley), who formerly presided over the other House, whether such a Notice as this would have been inserted at all on the Votes of the House of Commons— To call attention to the provisions of the Treaty of Paris (1856) as to the Black Sea, with reference to the statement on this subject lately made by the Prime Minister. Anything less specific it is impossible to imagine. I have not seen Mr. Gladstone, and have not been able to ask him whether he has been correctly reported or not. The noble and learned Lord blames Mr. Gladstone for having introduced this question at a time when it is before the Conference. I beg leave to say that he did not introduce it; it was Mr. Disraeli who introduced it, and argued it at great length, saying, among other things, that the neutralization of the Black Sea was the one vital and important point in the Treaty of 1856. I think Mr. Gladstone might properly have remained silent; but, if so, what would have happened? We should, have had, as we had last year, the noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Salisbury), and others, in both Houses, complaining bitterly of Mr. Gladstone's reticence on foreign policy when he ought to declare every view of the Government upon it. I do not know whether the words are reported or not; but I was a Member of Lord Palmerston's Government, and I certainly go with Mr. Gladstone in saying that we did not regard this neutralization of the Black Sea as the one vital part of the Treaty of 1856. They were most important stipulations, and I say—and I cannot imagine that Mr. Gladstone meant to convey a different impression—that we attached very great importance to those stipulations at the time and in the circumstances of the case. In one respect, things are now very different; for Turkey has now one of the most powerful fleets in the world, whereas at that time she was without an armed vessel she could call her own. I do not wish to enter into a matter on which I am the negotiator for this country in a Conference which is going on and will meet again this week. The noble and learned Lord asks whether I can answer for Lord Clarendon's opinion. Well, there is not the slightest doubt that Lord Clarendon was very anxious for these stipulations at the time. There were persons out of the Government who took a different opinion—Lord Aberdeen, for instance, and, if I remember rightly, the noble Earl on the cross Benches (Earl Grey) were opposed to these stipulations, as also some of my present Colleagues. Sir Roundell Palmer was much opposed to them, and Mr. Layard, who usually put himself forward as a friend of Turkey, strongly deprecated them. I admit that Lord Clarendon, and all of us at the time, thought they were an important and good arrangement. The noble and learned Lord says Mr. Gladstone states that he has heard that Lord Clarendon did not attach importance to them. All that I can say is, that I was informed, on what appeared to be good authority, of exactly the same thing. I have taken some pains to inquire, and I have ascertained that there is no evidence whatever that Lord Clarendon changed his opinion. He might have done so, but I have found no authority for it. I mentioned this to Mr. Gladstone the day after his speech, and said—"You seem to have been misled in the same way that I was; I have made inquiries, and I believe there is no proof of anything of the sort." Mr. Gladstone, of course, accepted the correction, and he will, no doubt, be happy to make the same declaration. With regard to Lord Palmerston, I am bound to say that the evidence is rather of a different character. The noble and learned Lord objected to what the Russian Ambassador told Sir Henry Elliott, and he will probably object, therefore, to what the Russian Ambassador told me. General Ignatieff told me that he remarked to Lord Palmerston—"These are stipulations which you cannot expect will last long," and Lord Palmerston replied—"They will last 10 years." A learned civilian, a great friend of mine, told me he heard Lord Palmerston talk on the same subject, and say—"Well, at all events, they will last my life." A noble Peer, a Colleague of mine, not at this moment present, an intimate friend of Lord Palmerston, says Lord Palmerston told him they would last seven years. Lord Palmerston certainly took occasion officially to represent to the Turkish Government his opinion that within 10 years from the time of the Treaty Russia would certainly be at war with them. He warned them of their danger, and told them that upon them the stress must lie; that they must look not only to their naval and military, but their financial condition, and that by good government towards all their subjects, without distinction, they must obtain their full support, so as to be able to defend themselves in an emergency, which he apprehended, but which, luckily, has not occurred. There is a great deal I could say on the subject of the Treaty of 1856 and any possible revision of its Articles, but I think your Lordships will agree with me that, being officially engaged in the Conference on the part of this country, it would be injudicious for me in the House of Lords to argue or give my individual opinion about different Articles of that Treaty. There is one thing I feel excessively grateful for — that we went into Conference before the noble and learned Lord had made his speech of to-night. The noble and learned Lord has treated Prince Gortchakoff's despatch as a mere matter of manner and form. Now, I believe there is nothing more important than what he calls a form. I believe that if this country and the rest of Europe had submitted without resistance to the denunciation of solemn obligations to which we were guarantees, a more severe blow would have been struck not only at the character and position of this country in Europe, but at the validity of all treaties, than it is easy to conceive. I am glad, therefore, that that part of his speech was delivered after we had been some days in Conference, and not before our sittings commenced.


The noble Earl (Earl Granville) has been kind enough to make an allusion to me; why, I do not know. It seems to me that the accusation that I should have complained of the reticence of the Prime Minister had he abstained from throwing down his policy before Parliament at a time when it was a subject of negotiation with foreign Powers, is an accusation which could not be made against me or any single Member of either House. Reticence under such circumstances is what I should not only not have complained of, but should have been very grateful for. No doubt the negotiations are carried on with the utmost skill by the noble Earl opposite. I do not know what securities he may have to try and extract from the Russian Government; but I certainly join in his congratulations that the negotiations began before Parliament met, and before the Prime Minister had the opportunity of telling the country and the world that the object for which, they were carried on was, in his opinion, perfectly worthless. I should like to know—but the noble Earl must use his official discretion in the matter—whether the Prime Minister was equally frank in his confidences to the Plenipotentiaries as he was the other day to the House of Commons? I should like to know what their feelings were when they read his speech the next morning, and whether they did not suggest to the noble Earl that, as far as the substance of it was concerned, they might as well return home? I do not believe we shall find in Parliamentary history any instance of a Prime Minister throwing discredit on the very cause which his Plenipotentiary was engaged in maintaining at the time negotiations were going on. Another very serious criticism may be passed on Mr. Gladstone's speech. We suffer a good deal from the constant change of the public men at the head of affairs. This country has to maintain unity of policy in the face of foreign countries as though the same brain always conceived, the same mouth announced, and the same hand executed that policy; yet men of the most opposite views have to concur in maintaining it, and the man who denounces the policy of a Minister one day may the next day be called upon to carry it out and see it to its fair conclusion. Such has been the case with Mr. Gladstone. In 1856 he was denouncing the policy of neutralization in terms to which Prince Gortchakoff himself could have seen little to add. None of us who heard that eloquent speech can forget how he pointed to that neutralization — to that part of one of the four bases of negotiation—as the point on which the negotiations were broken off, and as the cause of the sacrifice of fresh victims to the demand of military fame. I well remember how eloquently he denounced that policy. In the course of events it became his duty to maintain the policy that he had opposed, and to sustain that which his predecessors, his Sovereign, and the country had stamped as the policy of the British Empire. That was his duty to-day. It would be absolutely fatal to the performance of this delicate and difficult duty if, when negotiations are going on, a Prime Minister may come forward and refer to his own personal feelings, when expressed in Opposition, as a means of damaging and discrediting the policy of the country. About a year after the China debates the late Lord Derby took Office, and it became his duty to give some expression of opinion with reference to the prosecution of the Chinese War. He was taunted because he did not in Office reiterate the opinions adverse to the war which he had expressed in Opposition. But my belief is that that was the only true and patriotic course. A man, of course, cannot act contrary to his own sincere conviction; but he is constitutionally bound when he accedes to Office to be silent on his own former objections to the policy which he has inherited, and to do his utmost by judicious reticence, by silence, by discretion, by carefulness in the use of language, to maintain that unity of policy which is essential to the conduct of foreign affairs of a great nation, but is so difficult under a constitutional Government such as ours. This is another and serious objection to the course the Prime Minister has pursued. I agree with the noble Earl (Earl Granville) as to the inconvenience of this discussion. I only say it was commenced by the Prime Minister, and the responsibility for all the inconvenience—and I fear much greater inconvenience was felt within the walls of the Conference-room—lies with him and not with us.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, to Thursday next, half past Ten o'clock.