HL Deb 01 August 1878 vol 242 cc850-4

My Lords, I am at all times reluctant to trouble your Lordships with any statement regarding myself, but I think it necessary to ask the attention of your Lordships to a few observations which I think it my duty to make in reference to some words which are reported to have fallen from the noble Earl the Prime Minister on Monday night last. I should have taken an earlier opportunity of making these observations, but that I have been absent from London. I may at once say that the passage in the noble Earl's speech to which I wish to draw attention refers both to my noble Friend Lord Derby— who is not now in his place—and to my- self; but what I have now to say relates simply to myself, though I have no doubt that if my noble Friend had been present he would have taken much the same objection to the words as I do. Now, my Lords, on Monday evening the noble Earl at the head of the Government is reported to have said—I take the report from The Times newspaper— which I have compared with the reports of the other newspapers, and I find them to agree substantially, though there is a slight difference of expression— As long as those two noblemen"— meaning the Earl of Derby and myself— remained in the Cabinet, we adhered to the policy which they had accepted, and on which we understood they were prepared to act; we adhered to the policy which, when the time came, they shrank from the responsibility of carrying into effect. Now, I think that these words, with whatever intention they were used, are calculated to give a very false impression. I admit they are somewhat ambiguous; but if the noble Earl means by these words that we, as Members of a common Cabinet, after travelling for some time on the same road at length finally diverged on questions which had arisen —if he meant that, despite some Cabinet differences and some divergence of opinion, we held together within the lines of a common policy, and at length separated when a greater and irreconcilable difference arose—of course, I will not object to his words, though I think that moaning might have been expressed a little more considerately, if not a little more courteously. Or, again, if the noble Earl means by these words that it is a matter of argument whether the policy of 1878 is identical with the policy of 1877, I have nothing to say on that ground. There are Blue Books, and speeches, and despatches, to which all have access, and by which every man may judge for himself whether there is that identity or not. But if the noble Earl means—I am speaking for myself now —that I, having agreed to particular measures of policy—having agreed to some one thing—when the moment of difficulty, anxiety, and danger arrived, flinched from that to which I had pledged myself—if he means that, with a clear perception of the end and of the means in view, to which I had pledged myself as a Member of the Cabinet, I, when the moment arrived, shrunk from the responsibility which that act and those measures involved—then I must, with all courtesy, but in the strongest language I can command, and Parliamentary usage allows, give the statement an absolute and unqualified contradiction. I must go a step further, and affirm that whilst I was in the Cabinet, never directly or indirectly— never as regards matter of detail or policy—never as regards any particular measure or a general conclusion —I never, so far as I am aware, advocated or consented to any course of action, and then recoiled from the responsibility of giving effect to that action. When, on the 25th of January, I troubled your Lordships with the reasons of my resignation, I stated them to he the divergence of opinion that had unfortunately arisen in the Cabinet, and which was shown by the fact that I had twice tendered my resignation. The moving of the Fleet into the Dardanelles, the Vote of Credit, followed by the calling out of the Reserves, constituted the reasons which induced me to resign the Office I held. Obviously, as I stated at the time, they were not part of the general policy to which I, or the other Members of the Cabinet, had, in the early days of our discussions, pledged ourselves. My Lords, those were comparatively new resolutions; and when those resolutions were arrived at, I stated that I could not be a party to them. I think it is a pity that if the noble Earl held the view which the words spoken by him on Monday night would seem to indicate, my statement of the 25th was not then contradicted. It seems to me strange, and rather hard on me personally, that this matter should be brought up by a side-wind, and that, in a discussion of a totally different matter, this imputation—for I consider it as grave an imputation as can be made— should be cast upon me. My Lords, I can conceive no imputation graver to a public man than to be told that he was a party to one particular thing in the Cabinet, and that, subsequently, when the moment of danger and anxiety arrived, he retired from the Government and fled from the resolutions for fear of the responsibility attached to giving it effect. It would-be unworthy—it would be base—it would be cowardly— it would be dishonest—it would be, not merely an act of irresolution, but it would be an untruth both in act and in word. My Lords, I cannot suppose that the noble Earl has any wish to go into questions of Cabinet discussions and Cabinet confidences. I have avoided them, and I have no wish to enter upon them now, unless the noble Earl himself desires it, in which case I shall be happy to meet him. All I wish is personally to clear my character and position from words which I think were very inconsiderately cast out. If the noble Earl denies—as I hope he may—that he attaches to those words the meaning which, I think, 99 out of every 100 men would attach to them, I am perfectly satisfied, and have no more to say. If, on the other hand, the interpretation of them is such as I have given to them, then I have but one course—a duty I owe to myself—in the plainest, most distinct, and simplest words, to give the statement the most unqualified and absolute contradiction.


My Lords, any remarks which I have to make on the statement of the noble Earl will be founded on information which is in your Lordships' possession and founded on facts known to all. There will be no necessity for me to enter on a narrative of Cabinet conversations and Cabinet proceedings. I have endeavoured—and I trust successfully—at all times not to enter on ground of so doubtful a character, and I shall, if possible, keep to the same determination. As I understand—so far as I could understand the noble Earl—he complains that I stated he had supported a certain policy in the Cabinet, and that when, from the necessity of affairs, the Cabinet was called on to carry that policy into effect, he declined to carry into action the opinions he had sanctioned. That I believe to be his complaint. Your Lordships are perfectly aware of what was the declared policy of the Cabinet during the two years when these considerable events occurred. That policy was described in a despatch which is on your Lordships' Table, and, therefore, I am not betraying Cabinet secrets in referring to it. The Government of Her Majesty declined to enter into the controversy between Russia and Turkey unless British interests were endangered. That was the avowed policy of the Cabinet, and they acted on it. Among the British interests enumerated, was any alteration in the possessors of Constantinople. Any change in that respect, it was declared, would involve British interests of the highest importance, which we could not view with indifference. Everyone understood what the policy of the English Government was. If Constantinople was endangered, British interests were involved in such a contingency, and the course to be pursued in such a contingency would be to guard them. Well, when the collapse of the Turkish defence after Plevna occurred, and when, shortly after that, the Army of Russia was arriving at the gates of Constantinople, the time had come when, in the opinion of the Cabinet, we should carry into effect a policy which had been so long avowed—a contingency which had entered into our calculations had arisen, one of the British interests involved in that policy was endangered— and the Cabinet determined to act on that policy. It was not by calling out the Reserves we first acted. My Lords, the Reserves, if I remember right, were not called out for a considerable period —I think for many weeks—after the noble Earl resigned. The recommendation we made in the circumstances was the natural one, if our policy was to be carried into effect. It was to order Her Majesty's Fleet to enter the waters of Constantinople. That was, and had been, our policy in defending British interests involved in the possible capture of Constantinople. That had been our policy for a long time; and, therefore, it had been sanctioned when the noble Earl was our Colleague. When the time came, we felt it our duty to carry that policy into effect. The noble Earl felt it was inconsistent with his views to act with us, and he quitted the Cabinet. That was the simple statement which I think I was justified in making the other night.