HL Deb 17 June 1880 vol 253 cc165-72

My Lords, it may be useful to enumerate the circumstances which seem to justify the Notice I have given, to call attention to the revival of the Ottoman Assemblies in connection with the Special Embassy to Constantinople; and to move an humble Address to Her Majesty that a Copy of the Instructions to Mr. Goschen be laid upon the Table. Although a few days ago the present aspect of the Eastern Question was rather copiously discussed by Members of the House well qualified to handle it, not one alluded to this important chapter of the subject. If a stranger had come into the House, and listened with avidity, as I did, to so many competent instructors, he would not have discovered that these Assemblies had existed, or that a grave event had dropped a curtain on their action. The answer of the noble Earl the Leader of the House, towards the end of May, as it appeared to me, was little calculated to assure the House that the Special Embassy had been directed to revive them. In the meanwhile, two of the most recent and distinguished travellers from Constantinople—Sir William Gregory and Mr. Lawrence Oliphant—have borne witness in the public journals to the necessity of that line which I should urge your Lordships to insist upon, The language of Sir William Gregory is more remarkable on this account. He was known in the House of Commons not only as among the first of Irish debaters, but as a special patron of the non-conforming races in the Ottoman Dominion. In this very letter, while he deprecates undue hostility to Russia, he maintains that these political Assemblies ought to be revived, however much that Power may oppose the consummation. On both points the expressions of Mr. Lawrence Oliphant are almost identical in substance.

My Lords, it might be a remedy to some misapprehensions to bring before the House a short narrative of the mode in which the Ottoman Assemblies were established, and of the destiny they suffered. If my version is erroneous, the noble Lords who spoke the other night may contradict it or correct it. Although no statement is more reckless than a statement too familiar in the House, that since the Crimean War there had been no improvement in the Ottoman Administration, it is certain that great abuses existed under Abdul Aziz, of which Christians and Mahometans were equally the victims. In 1875 Constantinople wore a melancholy aspect, which might recall the darkest sketches of St. Simon or of Tacitus, when they unfold the daily march of arbitrary power. Even before that time, among the first men of the Sublime Porte there was a firm conclusion that Assemblies of some kind were indispensable. Not only Midhat Pasha, well known to your Lordships from his exile in this country, but Khalil Cherif, once Ambassador at Paris and nephew of the former Khedive, Hussein Avni, who was afterwards assassinated, and others I might mention were impatient for this object. In the spring of 1876 the movement of the Soft as brought about the downfal of the Grand Vizier and the deposition of the Sultan. Arbitrary rule was overcome decidedly and bloodlessly. Prom that moment some kind of Constitution was inevitable. Large masses do not enter into union and expose their lives to hazard, merely to change the person of the despot and put another individual at the head of the system they conspired to overthrow, after a long struggle with fear, with indolence, with loyalty, which must oppose themselves to such an enterprize. From that moment, therefore, some kind of Constitution was in embryo. There was nothing very tardy in the parturition. The Sultan Abdul Aziz fell in the summer of 1876. At the close of that year the new Assemblies were established. In the early months of 1877 their vigour was demonstrated. It only remains to see in what manner they were doomed to perish. When the Sublime Porte had gone through this remarkable transition, it is quite true that they were not prepared to acquiesce in the decisions of the Conference which General I gnatieff seemed to them to have originated. Their objections were elaborately, as many think unanswerably, stated. No rejoinder followed. A Russian Army crossed the Pruth in April 1877, avowedly to enforce the propositions which the Conference had settled. When that Army reached San Stefano, at the end of 1877, the Ottoman Assemblies were deliberating. They were closed by military fiat, and have never since been opened. A restrospect of this kind is the only mode of dealing with the fallacy that these institutions were extemporized for nothing except to parry the legitimate demand of virtuous negotiators.

My Lords, it may now be proper to remark upon the objects which demand a revival of the Assemblies overthrown, either in a form identic or amended. Although far from the gravest point, the question of the Greek Frontier bears upon the subject. The Sultan is placed in a dilemma, from which nothing but a co-ordinate Assembly can release him. The demand which certain Powers have addressed, or are preparing to address, to him is one to which no arbitrary Sovereign can lend himself. He is asked to give up territory for which he is accountable to 30,000,000 subjects, to Mahometan opinion, to succeeding generations. Ho is not asked to give it up as a mode of solving any European difficulty. He cannot guide his conscience by the principle of making sacrifices for the general tranquillity of nations. The aggrandizement of Greece may be a benefit to Greece; it may be even a benefit to Thessaly, or any region to be possibly annexed to the Hellenic Kingdom; but it involves no gain of any kind to Europe. The Sultan, therefore, cannot venture to initiate the course demanded of him. A Parliament, if it existed, might canvass it, and possibly indorse it. The responsibility would be diluted. The Head of the State would no longer find himself in the almost iniquitous dilemma of being forced to alienate exacting Powers, or else to place his Throne and life in jeopardy that he may satisfy and humour them.

But there is something to which the House may, perhaps, attach more weight than the Greek Frontier. That question is not so grave as it appears, since, although it tends to rupture between the States concerned, the war may be averted by the greater forces on which either is dependent. All enlightened statesmen must be anxious to retard the disintegrating movement in the territory of the Sultan until they have arrived at novel combinations, which it is harder now than it has been at any former period to realize. We see the growth of that disintegrating movement in Albania. We see it on the Balkans. A Parliament in which every race may find a voice, and every discontent the opportunity of utterance, tends a good deal to the cohesion of an Empire so distracted. In Austria it has eminently been a manner of facilitating union. So much is it the case, that those regions which at given moments have effected separation—such as Bohemia and Gal-licia—have been inclined to avoid it and withdraw their Representatives. To establish at Constantinople a body privileged to speak upon and remedy disorders is an obvious method of assuaging the propensity to fly in all directions from the centre, which may surprise the world into hostilities.

But, if we may judge from what took place on Friday last, the same conclusion may be based upon a ground more interesting to your Lordships. The whole atmosphere of Western Europe is charged with the idea that certain Ottoman reforms are indispensable. Before 1877 the condition of the Empire was alarming. It is now materially graver. Taxation has become more necessary to impose—more difficult to levy. Large armies are unpaid, and thus reduced to the necessity of brigandage. Around Constantinople discipline can hardly be maintained in the interior of barracks. The inhabitants of Pera, where all the European Embassies are placed, appear to be unable to leave their houses after nightfall. The houses themselves are an imperfect refuge from the violence the war has left behind to prey upon the capital. So much may be inferred from local correspondence. Our own Blue Books are full of gloomy pictures, both in Europe and in Asia. It is seen that the new organization of East Roumelia has been utterly disastrous, The oppression to which Mahometansare now exposed, without the slightest provocation, surpasses the atrocities which led to so much ferment in this country, but which, at least, were traced to insurrectionary movement. In Armenia no form of discontent or misgovernment is wanting. The functions of Baker Pasha and the gendarmerie are unhappily suspended. On all these subjects, Major Trotter, Consul Mitchell, Vice Consul Biliotti, are authoritative witnesses. Their evidence is crowned to-day, by a despatch from Sir Henry Layard of April 27th, which must be known already to considerable numbers. The result is, that Great Britain is impelled to use the language of remonstrance. In a despatch of May 6th, which your Lordships may have also seen to-day, the Foreign Office have employed it. Such language, however just, however good, in its intention, is entirely inadequate. We did not act as a defending, and have, therefore, little weight as an admonitory, Power, as it is only through defence that we have any title to admonish. Besides, as it appears to mo, although the question may admit of being debated, you can only act on distant Provinces by acting on Constantinople. It is scarcely possible to form enlightened institutions at Bagdad, and leave unchecked venality at Stamboul. The only method is to limit arbitrary power, and with it arbitrary outlay. No doubt, the same conclusion may be based on larger and more speculative arguments. But the language of Sir Henry Layard, which the House has seen this morning, is so authoritative in favour of this measure that I will not pursue the subject as I might have done. It might only weaken the impression he has made upon your Lordships.

At the same time, it may be necessary to offer some reply to the objection pertinaciously resorted to and founded upon one despatch of the noble Marquess who presided lately at the Foreign Office (the Marquess of Salisbury). A few week ago, in answer to a Question, the noble Earl the Secretary of State thought proper to revive it. I once had occasion to remark that the despatch may be interpreted in a different way from that which has been usual. It would be easy to contend that, in the light of subsequent events, it may be wholly disregarded. The despatch is founded on conjecture, and could not have another basis, as it was written before the Assemblies had begun to operate. But the conjectures of the greatest minds are not an answer to experience and trial. The noble Marquess reasoned á priori. He could do nothing else. Sir Henry Layard, a short time after, reasoned upon evidence, and, reasoning on evidence, pronounced in favour of the system the noble Marquess is supposed to have disparaged. How is it that the noble Lords, who bow so readily to the impressions of the noble Marquess on what he did not see at work, defy the language of Sir Henry Layard, who was able to remark its tendency and character, and who in several despatches of 1877 became a witness of its benefit? It is not a question between two rival critics, which might be an invidious one. It is a question between the previous estimate of one mind, and the actual observation of another. But Sir Henry Layard was not alone in his conclusion. The Greek Patriarch endorsed it. After the Assemblies had been sitting, and when Russia crossed the Pruth, the Greek Patriarch diffused a solemn Manifesto—it is in our Blue Books—to protest against the march of the invader, to vindicate the Sultan, and to proclaim his strong appreciation of the Charter which had recently been granted. It is no reproach to the noble Marquess if his speculative judgment is outweighed by the experimental verdict of the Ambassador and Patriarch together. Indeed, the criticism of the noble Marquess may have been thoroughly well founded, so far as it showed that the new Assemblies would require a modifying process. All Constitutions are imperfect at their outset. The world, it would appear, is more successful in mechanical discovery than in political contrivance. The Parliament of Great Britain had to go through various developments, and was not matured by Simon de Mont-fort, who is popularly mentioned as its founder. The Prussian Chambers were erected on the basis of a provincial system, which had been the only check upon Monarchical ascendancy. Austria, emerging from an arbitrary government so recently as 1848, has gone through several organic changes before the present system was arrived at. According to the ordinary estimate, France has gone through 14 Constitutions between 1789 and that of M. Wallon, which is still enduring. Besides, although under the direction of Lord Palmerston, who was the author of that policy, Great Britain has advanced and multiplied Assemblies in the world, she has never yet presumed to dictate their form, to organize their attributes, or regulate the manner of electing them. Her aim has been confined to the encouragement of institutions by which arbitrary power would be limited and Ministerial responsibility created. It is now beyond all question that the Chambers initiated by the Sultan were tending to these desirable results.

It remains, however, to consider by what line of action can the Assemblies be set up again. It seems to me that Sir William Gregory and Mr. Lawrence Oliphant are justified in their impression that it is impossible for Russia to favour a revival of the system she has lately overthrown and previously discouraged. It would militate against her influence upon the Bosphorus. It would endanger the stability of the despotic régime she adheres to in her territory. It would render nugatory, to a great extent, the waste of armies and expenditure of millions, to say nothing of the formidable hazards by which the process was accompanied. It follows, that a Prime Minister who hugs himself in the idea—however conscientiously—of a European concert, in which Russia would preponderate, as an agency for dealing with the clouds and problems of the East, can hardly take a step towards the consummation I have pointed to. He is himself the obstacle to such a consummation being arrived at. It is partly upon that account I do not ask the House to adopt a Resolution in favour of the measure I have touched upon; but, with a view to make the situation more intelligible, and thus to guide ulterior proceedings, shall move an humble Address to Her Majesty that the Instructions to Mr. Goschen may be laid upon the Table.

Moved, "That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty for Copy of the Instructions to Mr. Goschen."—(The Lord Stratheden and Campbell.)


A copy of the instructions to Mr. Goschen has al- ready been presented to the House. I did so on Tuesday last, in accordance with the promise I gave that as soon as we learnt the Identic Note of the Powers had been presented to the Porte those instructions should be laid on your Lordships' Table. I do not know that I have anything to say on the statement just made by the noble Lord. It has frequently been my misfortune not to agree with him on the different stages of the Eastern Question; but I am glad on this occasion to have heard from him arguments in favour of the re-assembling of the Ottoman Parliament at Constantinople, because the instructions which we have given to Mr. Goschen are to use his best efforts towards the attainment of that object.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.