HL Deb 01 April 1878 vol 239 cc268-74

My Lords, I am commanded by the Queen to deliver a Message from Her Majesty.


, as follows:—


"The present state of public affairs in the East, and the necessity in connection therewith of taking steps for the maintenance of peace and for the protection of the interests of the Empire, having constituted in the opinion of Her Majesty a case of great emergency within the meaning of the Acts of Parliament in that behalf, Her Majesty deems it proper to provide additional means for Her Military Service, and therefore in pursuance of those Acts Her Majesty has thought it right to communicate to the House of Lords that Her Majesty is about to cause Her Reserve Force and Her Militia Reserve Force, or such part thereof as Her Majesty shall think necessary, to be forthwith called out for permanent service. V. R."


My Lords, I had intended to propose that on Thursday next I should move an Address to the Crown thanking Her Majesty for Her gracious communication; but I think it would be convenient and satisfactory that the Motion should be made in both Houses of Parliament on the same day. I believe there has been some difficulty respecting the day in the other House—whether it should be Thursday or Monday. Perhaps, therefore, your Lordships will allow me to leave the matter in this way for the present—the understanding is that the Motion shall be made in your Lordships' House on the same day as it is made in the other House of Parliament. Whether that day shall be Thursday or Monday next we shall know, probably, in the course of the evening. I take this opportunity of laying on the Table of your Lordships' House some further Papers on the Affairs of Turkey.


My Lords, though it would be obviously premature to express, or even to form, an opinion on the expediency of the measure announced to us by Her Majesty's Message which has just been read, until the reasons for it have, at the proper time, been explained to us, I hope it will not be considered premature if I now venture to express a hope that when the time comes for taking Her Majesty's Message into consideration, Her Majesty's Ministers will explain to Parliament very clearly what is the ultimate purpose for which the measure to which the Message refers is adopted by the Government. My Lords, we all know how very grave a measure it is to call out the Reserves. We know that, under the Act of Parliament by which the Force is constituted, such a step can be taken only at a time of great national danger or of great emergency. It is due to the men who compose those Forces, and requisite in order fairly to fulfil the engagements you have entered into with them, that the rule laid down by the law should be strictly adhered to—because, in calling out these men, you impose on them very heavy sacrifices. Many of them may be compelled to forego employment which they may not be able to obtain again; in the case of many of them, there will be a serious interruption of business; and many of them will be taken from families who can ill-spare their assistance. Therefore, my Lords, the measure of calling out the Reserve Forces is a most serious one, and when Parliament is asked to approve it, the case for it should be very clearly explained. And I beg to say that it will not be enough to tell us that the honour and safety of the country are at stake, and that it is absolutely necessary that the Government should insist that the whole of the Treaty between Russia and Turkey should be submitted to the consideration of the European Powers. We must have more than that before we can form a judgment. I am not here to question the right of this country to demand that the whole Treaty should be so submitted, nor will I stop to discuss what limits there may be to that right; but I would make this observation—that the demand can only be made because, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, some modifications of that Treaty are necessary. If the Treaty were satisfactory, as it stands, no particular object would be gained in requiring it to be submitted to a Congress; and, therefore, it must be considered that the end in view is some change or modification of the Treaty. Further than that, we may assume this—that Her Majesty's Government think some changes in that Treaty are so necessary, and the honour and interests of this country are so deeply involved in their being made, that they are prepared to insist on them even at the risk of being compelled to do so by force of arms—for that, in short, is the effect and meaning of the measure which has been announced to us. Now, my Lords, if that is so, I trust when the House is called on to consider Her Majesty's Message, Her Ministers will explain to the House what are the changes and what the modifications in the Treaty to obtain which they thought this measure necessary. Of course, I do not expect that they could go into details in regard to the changes they may choose to insist on, and still less do I desire that they should commit themselves to any particular steps on which they will insist in their negotiations with other Powers; but, undoubtedly, it appears to me that they cannot have resolved upon this measure without having formed in their own minds some clear conception of, at least, the general character of the changes they propose to ask for. If that is so, I think Parliament and the nation have a right to know, before we go further, what is the character of the changes contemplated. I am not surprised that Her Majesty's Government should regard the Treaty, as it stands, as unsatisfactory. It is impossible to study it without seeing that virtually it makes Russia absolute mistress of European Turkey. I do not see how anyone examining it can come to any other conclusion. But what is important to know is, as matters now stand, how is this unfortunate result to be averted? We all have some general conception of the objects for which changes in the Treaty would be desirable; but we ought to have something more definite than that. We ought to know something of the nature of the changes by which it is supposed that these objects might be accomplished. We have had too striking and too recent proofs of the danger of being content with mere phrases and indefinite announcements, without having laid down a clear view of the policy intended. It is time, when matters are becoming so serious, that we should be clearly informed of what is in contemplation. For my own part, I think this is the more necessary, because it appears to me that the problem which the Government will have to work out when they come to consider in what manner the arrangements between Russia and Turkey may be rendered more free from objection, will be found a very difficult one. My Lords, it appears to me, no one in his senses can suppose it possible to again set up the authority of Turkey; but I confess that, for my own part, I am utterly at a loss to conceive in what manner any other satisfactory authority to take its place in the government of these Provinces can be constituted. The result has, I think, justified the opinion I expressed in this House last year, that if an attempt were made to overthrow by force the power of Turkey in the Christian Provinces, a bloody war would ensue, which would cause infinitely more suffering than Turkish misgovernment in very many years, which would end by leaving things in a worse state than they were when it began, and which would probably lead to the virtual establishment of the dominion of Russia, which would prove more oppressive and more unfavourable to improvement than that of Turkey. As to the sufferings that would ensue, my anticipation has been confirmed by the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury), who represented this country at the Conference of Constantinople, who not long ago said in this House that this terrible war had compressed within a few months a greater amount of human misery than Turkish rule would have produced in generations. I fear the difficulty of providing for the future government of the Provinces in which Turkish authority has been destroyed will also be found as great as I expected. My Lords, I thought last year, as I think now, that if Her Majesty's Government had then pursued a more direct and generous policy than they did, this dreadful war might have been averted. I believe that this might then have been accomplished by a firm exercise of British power, with far less danger of our being ourselves involved in war than will now be incurred. But, having lost that opportunity, we ought to have it explained to us how our interference can now be made really useful. I trust your Lordships will excuse me for having made these remarks—the more especially as I may not be able to take a part in the discussion on the Motion of which the noble Earl at the head of the Government has given Notice.


My Lords, I must say I cannot conceive anything more likely to embarrass the negotiations on a subject of such importance as the manner in which this Treaty should be dealt with, than that the Government should take the advice of the noble Earl and state within the next two or three days at latest the changes in the Treaty which they would insist upon.


My Lords, I think it would be more convenient, as proposed by the noble Earl at the head of the Government, that the discussion on the Message from the Crown should not be held this evening. At the same time, I must express my very great satisfaction that the noble Earl (Earl Grey), who, I regret to hear, will probably be unable to take that part in that discussion—as he has done in former debates so much to our advantage—should have stated what he has stated this evening. He has really asked a Question in this House which everybody in the country is asking outside, and, so far as I am aware, without any answer having yet been given to it. I am quite sure that an answer to it has not been given in the very meagre Correspondence which has been presented to Parliament. I do not say anything at the present time with regard to the questions raised by that Correspondence; but I shall make a few observations as to the void in it. Firstly, I cannot come to a conclusion from the Correspondence as to the difficulty which exists between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Russia. I cannot infer from the Correspondence whether Her Majesty's Government or the Government of Russia was the more unwilling to enter into a Conference. I hope that further Papers will show that I am wrong, but it would appear from the Papers now before us that no other Power agreed in the course taken by Her Majesty's Government. The noble Earl at the head of the Government has laid some Papers on the Table this evening. I venture to hope that those Papers will in some degree answer the Question which my noble Friend (Earl Grey) has put to the Government, and will show at all events the general view of Her Majesty's Government, which do not appear very clearly in the Correspondence already before us. In the second place, I do think we have a right to ask of Her Majesty's Government, in their own interest as well as ours, that we should have in the Papers the communications which passed between them and the other European Powers on this subject. It may be said that those are confidential communications. I can perfectly understand that in diplomatic communications there may be things said of a confidential kind and which it would be imprudent to make known to the whole world; but in a question of such enormous importance as this, I cannot conceive how Her Majesty's Government could have abstained from communicating with the whole of the Great Powers of Europe, and if they have we have no means of forming any judgment as to the general opinion of the other Powers as to those proceedings. With regard to the day on which the Message from the Crown is to be taken into consideration, it will be best, perhaps, that the noble Earl should fix it tomorrow, as there seems to be some doubt respecting the day fixed in the other House. I understand that the Financial Statement will interfere with the discussion of this question in the other House. I believe—though I am not quite sure—that the usual course would be for the noble Earl to move that Her Majesty's Message be taken into consideration on a certain day. It is most important that it should be considered in this House on the same day as in the other House, and I hope that, if necessary, the noble Earl will postpone his Motion until Monday next. I repeat my hope that the Papers laid before the House will fill up the immense void which now appears in the Correspondence.


My Lords, I will not avail myself of this opportunity of entering on a general discussion of the subject which the noble Earl opposite has raised. I have laid some Papers on the Table to-night which I trust the noble Earl who has just addressed us will peruse with profit and perhaps not without satisfaction; but, until that has taken place, it would be quite irregular to make any reference to them. I now understand that in the other House of Parliament a desire has been expressed by the Members generally that the Budget should be brought forward on the day originally intended—Thursday next; and although we were quite ready to sacrifice that day, we are equally prepared now to meet what we understand to be the concurrent wish of both Houses, and to fix the discussion on the Motion for the Address on Her Majesty's Gracious Message for this day week.


Is the noble Earl in a position to state the character of the Motion which he will make?


I will move an Address of thanks to Her Majesty for Her Gracious communication.

Ordered that the said Message be taken into consideration on Monday next.