§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I have to inform the House that the German Government have issued an invitation to the Signatories of the Treaty of Paris to a Congress, and that Her Majesty's Government has accepted that invitation. I will read the terms of the invitation—and I will ask your Lordships to remember that an invitation in the same terms has been sent, and has by this time been accepted, by all the other Powers, Russia included. The invitation is as follows:—London, June 3, 1878.The Undersigned, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of His Majesty the Emperor of Germany, King of Prussia, has the honour, by order of his Government, to convey to the knowledge of his Excellency the Marquis of Salisbury, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, the following communication:—In conformity with the initiative taken by the Austro-Hungarian Cabinet, the Government of His Majesty the Emperor of Germany has the honour to propose to the Powers signatories of the Treaties of 1856 and 1871 to meet in Congress at Berlin, to discuss there the stipulations of the Preliminary Treaty of San Stefano, concluded between Russia and Turkey. The Government of His Majesty, in giving this invitation to the Government of Her Britannic Majesty, understands that in accepting it the Government of Her Britannic Majesty consents to admit the free discussion of the whole of the contents of the Treaty of San Stefano, and that it is ready to participate therein. In the event of the acceptance of all the Powers invited, the Government of His Majesty propose to fix the meeting of the Congress for the 13th of this month.The Undersigned, in bringing the above to the knowledge of his Excellency the Marquis of Salisbury, has the honour to beg his Excellency to be good enough to acquaint him as soon as possible with the reply of the British Government. The Undersigned avails himself of this opportunity to renew to his Excellency the assurance of his highest consideration.MUNSTER.That invitation has been accepted in the following terms:—Foreign Office, June 3.The Undersigned, Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, has the honour to acknowledge the receipt of his Excellency Count Münster's note of this day, inviting Her Majesty's Government to take part in a Congress at Berlin for the discussion of the stipulations of the Preliminary Treaty concluded at San Stefano between Russia and Turkey.1056The Undersigned, taking act of his Excellency's verbal intimation that the invitation has been sent in the same terms to the other Powers signatories to the Treaty of Paris, and understanding that those Powers, in accepting this invitation, assent to the terms stated in his Excellency's note, has the honour to inform his Excellency that Her Majesty's Government will be ready to take part in the Congress at the date mentioned.The Undersigned avails himself, &c.,SALISBURY.
§ EARL GRANVILLE
My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words with regard to the announcement which has just been made to your Lordships' House. I shall only say for myself—and, I believe, on behalf of those behind me—that I most heartily congratulate the House, and, if they will allow me, Her Majesty's Government, on the prospect of this matter being discussed in a Congress of the European Powers. I wish to ask another Question—whether the reports are true with regard to Her Majesty's Plenipotentiaries at the Congress being the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary?
§ EARL GRANVILLE
Then, I take the liberty of saying that I cannot equally congratulate Her Majesty's Government on this determination. I remember that in February, when the question of going into Congress was under discussion in this House, Lord Derby, the late Foreign Secretary, whom I regret not to see present, made a statement on the subject. We know that there are precedents for Foreign Secretaries attending as Plenipotentaries at Congresses of an important character; but Lord Derby then stated expressly, on behalf of the Government, that the attendance of the Foreign Secretary as Plenipotentiary at this Congress would be most undesirable; he thought that, however it might be with foreign Governments, with a Parliamentary system of Government like our own, and having regard to the way in which the Government of this country is carried on, such a course would be most inconvenient. He stated that if it were adopted, the Foreign Secretary would be cut off from all communication with his Colleagues, and would have to act upon instructions which he himself would have no share in framing.—[3 Hansard, ccxxxviii. 45.] I entirely acquiesced in the course which 1057 Her Majesty's Government then proposed to take; and, my Lords, it appears to me that if the objections made by the noble Earl then were valid against the appointment of the Foreign Secretary as Plenipotentiary, they are much more than doubled by the fact that two such important Members of the Cabinet as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will be absent from their posts in this country. My Lords, if the two noble Lords go to the Conference, either of two things must exist. Either—which I trust is the case—everything substantial is settled between the Powers before going into Congress; in which case there will only be details to settle—and, without the slightest disrespect to either of the noble Lords, I think that could be as well done by trained diplomatists of great experience as by two of the ablest men in England who have not the slightest experience in matters of the kind. If, on the other hand, there be anything of substance still to be settled, or if anything should suddenly arise, then the two Plenipotentiaries will either agree or disagree. It is theoretically possible that they may not agree; and in that case the Cabinet would be called on to decide without having the advantage of hearing the two noble Lords, and without either of the two noble Lords being able to bring to bear upon its deliberations that personal influence which Colleagues so distinguished must possess. If, on the other hand, they agree on any sudden emergency upon an important point—and I have seen this claimed as one of the great advantages of this plan—is the Cabinet to be left entirely outside their decision? I think, my Lords, that would be very undesirable. The other day my noble Friend behind me, who has had great experience at the Foreign Office (Lord Hammond), stated—we thought rather more broadly than was warranted—the important positions held by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in regard to the conduct of foreign affairs. The same remark applies equally to the duties, rights, and responsibilities of the whole Cabinet. I appeal to my noble Friend whether he would approve a course by which those two Ministers would be absent from this country and separated from their Colleagues, and by which those Colleagues would be placed—I say it without the slightest disre- 1058 spect—somewhat in the position of ciphers in dealing with a very important question? I trust the House will pardon me for having made these remarks. I wish to ask the noble Earl whether there is any precedent for a double appointment such as this to any Congress or Conference?
§ THE EARL OF BEACONSFIELD
My Lords, I will admit to the noble Earl at once, on his last point, that I am not aware that there is any precedent exactly similar to the course which Her Majesty's Government are going to take. The decision of the Government on such a matter must be one which can only be arrived at after long deliberation, and also after an acquaintance with the facts in great detail, which it would be most inconvenient, at present, to introduce into a discussion before your Lordships' House. I cannot understand exactly the reasoning by which the noble Earl who has just addressed us (Earl Granville) has come to the conclusion that the absence of my noble Friend and myself from the Cabinet would reduce our Colleagues whom we have left behind to the position of ciphers, when it seems to me that the consequence of our absence would be rather to increase their importance. I can only say that we have undertaken this important and laborious task with the full concurrence and at the wish and instance of our Colleagues; and as our Colleagues feel that in taking this course we are only fulfilling their wishes, I think the noble Earl will hardly be able to persuade this House and the country that we have slighted our Colleagues, or placed them in a position in which their influence and importance may be diminished. When the noble Earl asks for a precedent, I frankly admit that I cannot furnish one; but in matters of this kind we must not be guided merely by precedents. There are considerations which are quite independent of precedents, and which must guide us in the course we have to take. In the first place, I may remark that when the Conference was first spoken of there was a general understanding that the Powers should be represented by Ambassadors of the different Courts. But that course has not been adopted in this instance. It is a fact that the chief Ministers of Austria and Germany will certainly be present at the Congress; and, as I am 1059 reminded, the chief Minister of Russia will also be present. We had, therefore, to consider that in the altered circumstances, the Government of Her Majesty should be represented in a different manner from that which was first proposed. But, my Lords, on the whole, I can only say that we feel the great responsibility of the step we are taking; that we look in these circumstances to the support of your Lordships' House and of the country; and that if we fail in our duty—if it can be shown hereafter that any failure that may occur has arisen from the mode in which the Representatives of the Government of the Queen have been selected—we shall abide the consequences which we shall certainly entirely deserve.
My Lords, I concur with the noble Earl (the Earl of Beacons-field), that these appointments are to be considered with reference to the circumstances of the time, and not entirely by the light of precedent. I also agree that they are not to be regarded as any slight upon the Colleagues of the noble Lords who have been selected as our Plenipotentiaries. But it appears to me that the noble Earl has not adverted to another general question which was raised by the noble Earl behind me. I want to know how far it is consistent with our principle of Government that the whole Cabinet is responsible to Her Majesty and to the country for every important step taken by the Government, that, in relation to foreign affairs, the Cabinet should be separated from two of its most important Members during the progress of the Congress, and that important questions which might arise during the Congress should be settled by those Colleagues without consultation with the Cabinet as a whole? I am not prepared to express any decided opinion on this point; but I think it is a very grave question, indeed, and one requiring to be carefully considered, whether the course proposed is altogether consistent with the Constitutional principles and practice of this country. Are important questions which may arise at the Congress to be decided, as far as this country is concerned, by the two noble Lords, without consulting with their Colleagues—and, especially, without verbal consultation. No doubt, there may be consultation by letter or telegram, but we all know how inadequate this is as compared 1060 to personal communication and discussion Are decisions taken by the two Ministers in such circumstances to be binding? If they are, certainly Parliament would not have the same security which it would have if it knew that the decision was that of the Cabinet. The noble Earl said that the Members of the Cabinet in this country will have their importance increased by their being left behind. Is it possible to imagine that the Cabinet at home would overrule the decision of two such powerful Members of the Government as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary? This appears to me scarcely possible, and, therefore, the course proposed to be taken by the Government does imperil the security which the Government has hitherto had. I think that questions of the deepest importance to the country should not be decided except on the collective responsibility of the whole Cabinet.
§ EARL GRANVILLE
I must say that my recollection does not accord with that of the noble Earl at the head of the Government, and that in the reason he gave for his change in policy his recollection deceived him. In February, on the occasion to which I have alluded, Lord Derby explained that one or two other Powers intended to take a course different from that which would be adopted by Her Majesty's Government. He said that Germany would be represented by Prince Bismarck, and Austria by Count Andrassy; but that, so far as this Government was concerned, we should not depart from the ordinary course of sending an Ambassador.