HL Deb 28 July 1890 vol 347 cc1025-37

in rising to call attention to results which have followed the connection of the duties belonging to the First Minister with those belonging to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and move for precedents upon it, said: My Lords, the notice has been put upon the Paper only to repeat or follow up what I have urged before upon the subject both in Parliament and elsewhere. The last time I addressed your Lordships I alluded to it briefly. Recent circumstances have, however, given a fresh importance to the topic. Embarrassments have happened attributable fairly to the union of two functions I have indicated, but which, unless their origin is traced, may lead to violent conclusions. In the few remarks I have to make nothing will fall from me—at least intentionally—which is opposed to the general idea of Lord Hartington and his supporters, in whom alone I recognise a guarantee of national security. So far am I from being alone among men friendly to the Government that only on the Thursday before last, the 17th of July, one of their organs anticipated nearly all that has occurred, to me. On that account, I am more inclined to abridge or hurry over what I wish to bring before your Lordships. To specify that organ might produce misapprehension, or be against the usages of Parliament. It showed, however, clearly that the regular supporters of the Government are far from easy at the situation which exists. The journal went even beyond the view I have arrived at. I hold that in two cases the union of the functions is desirable; one when a particular emergency requires unusual concentration; the other when, at the beginning of a Government, the First Minister has never been conversant with the Foreign Office and feels the want of being conversant with it. Such a rule would have applied to Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Derby, Mr. Disraeli, and others. But it is obvious to the House that neither of these cases is before us. There is no great international emergency to traverse at this moment. The noble Marquess opposite was enabled to learn the business of the Foreign Office between 1878 and 1880. My Lords, it may appear presumptuous in anyone to enter on a problem of this nature unless he has a long experience at Downing Street to back him or instruct him. But during the past autumn much light has been thrown on the mechanism of government, and distribution of employment by the Papers of Lord Melbourne, by the life of Lord John Russell, by the correspondence of the late Earl Grey with Princess Lieven, which are accessible to everyone. The first result of the connection—as it now subsists, at least—is that the Treasury is violently dislocated or divided from the power which for many generations has supported it. The experience of two centuries has led to the convention, or one might say, the conviction that the First Lord of the Treasury and the First Minister of the Crown ought to be identified. Since the time of Lord Chatham, who formed a Government in 1766 and took the post of Privy Seal, the practice I refer to seems to have been constant. However scattered in the House, there may be noble Lords who know that kind of history much better than I do. The system, so long matured and suddenly renounced, had grounds which are intelligible. The Treasury is constantly refusing money. To-night an instance was alluded to. Refusal to be tolerable must be based on policy, and no one but the head of the Government can urge with prudence and authority that such and such demands ought not to be complied with. The Treasury is also like the Supreme Court of the United States, enabled from time to time to keep Acts of Parliament suspended by withholding funds, without which they are unexecuted. There is a late example in the Public Offices Site Act. Now, such a power of revising Acts of Parliament can hardly be entrusted to an ordinary Member of the Cabinet, although it may be to the Leader, who reflects its general sagacity. But I attach no great degree of weight to the consideration of the Treasury. It is far more serious to recollect that the First Minister, according to all antecedent probability, must be overburdened, when he unites the general direction of affairs with the minute, far-reaching, and inexorable labours of the Foreign Office. I will not dwell on antecedent probability, although the topic is a fertile one. But what has been, my Lords, the recent observation of the country? Departments have appeared to reach a perilous autonomy. Bills have been improvised which might have been retarded with advantage. Things urgent and required have seemed to be obstructed or blocked up by things uncalled for and superfluous. Schemes based on prudence and necessity have been thought to yield to schemes whose parentage is doubtful, but which have been often traced to fanciful ambition and to impetuous philanthropy. Confusion must arise in Parliament when the First Minister, absorbed by diplomatic correspondence, has neither time nor energy to obviate it. The country has next observed the foundations of society impaired; the Constabulary and the military power shaken in allegiance. No doubt the danger is exaggerated, and must be till its latent cause is properly appreciated. But it might be thought at first that while the First Minister is decidedly a loser, the Secretary of State may be a gainer in proportion; that while at home there is a semblance of anarchy, there may be abroad a growth in energy or in efficiency. It is against all reason that it should be so. Foreign policy demands a great deal more, but yet I venture to submit that it demands in limine and as an indispensable preliminary strength in the Executive. It cannot flourish when all the world remark that the Executive is crumbling or weakened. Foreign policy, when ably conducted, is no doubt a bar to war, but the ability to go to war must yet be its foundation. No country is prepared for war when its police is undermined, and when the garrison of its metropolis, even to a limited extent, partakes of the infection. But on a general position of this kind men often differ in opinion. I am more inclined to look to circumstances which surround us. When there is a controversy with the United States as to the Behring Sea, with France as to Newfoundland, each tending to the chance of possible hostilities; when it is necessary to give up Heligo land, which could not but enhance our negotiating influence at Berlin; when nothing has been done to remove the danger long inherent in Bulgaria, or to revive the Ottoman assemblies, or to repair the Treaties of 1856, so vital to the Eastern Question, although we may acquit the Foreign Office of any strong reproach, although deficiency, much more than error, is imputable, although these difficulties may all have a happy settlement, it is impossible to urge that the union of the functions has led in that Department to any visible advantages. But if my estimate or survey is disputed, I retire from a strong to an impregnable position. The present union has one inevitable consequence, which, duly weighed, at least suffices as a reason for avoiding it as permanent or final. If anyone has meditated long enough on foreign policy he will arrive at the conclusion that two spheres of operation are related to it. One evidently is that of arrangement and adjustment in order to compose the differences, minute or large, which have sprung up between Great Britain and other independent Powers, such as a question on an Afghan frontier, or a parallel of latitude in Africa, or how far lobsters fall under the provisions of a celebrated Treaty. In that sphere —if I could judge at all—the noble Marquess is a considerable master. But even there he cannot do so much as if the general direction of affairs was not absorbing and distracting him. The other sphere appears to be that of prosecuting, after deep reflection, changes, combinations which are good both for the honour of Great Britain and the tranquillity of Europe. Such was the Quadruple Alliance of Lord Palmerston, which required originating faculty to plan and to effect it. It would be easy, although it would not be desirable, to point out a series of measures not entirely dissimilar which merit grave consideration at this moment. In that higher sphere a Secretary of State, who, as First Minister, is responsible for every Department, every proposal, every appointment, it might, indeed, be said for every event, must be, no matter what his talent, helpless and incapable. It would be folly—with a mind so harassed and divided—to approach it. The utmost he can aim at is to put an end to complications of to-day, and to prepare for complications of to-morrow. He may be a plasterer, but he can never be an architect in Europe. However, granting, for a time, that arrangement and adjustment are the only business of the Foreign Office, that it ought not to aim at any objects more enduring, there is a practical objection to the present union which seems to me to be unanswerable. In these days it is essential that the Secretary of State should be at liberty, when an occasion calls for it, to visit capitals in which his influence is wanted. Since 1870, the Government would probably admit it, foreign policy has been to a great extent a struggle at Berlin between the counsels of St. Petersburg on one side, the influence of London on the other. Although to carry on that struggle we have had, in Lord Ampthill and Sir Edward Malet, two invaluable agents, it is important that the Secretary of State should throw his weight sometimes into the balance. M. de Giers, on the part of Russia, often does so. But it is not only at Berlin that the Secretary of State, in rare conjunctures, might exert a critical authority. Now, if he is first Minister, his duty to the Sovereign, the Cabinet, and public must retain him in this country, except when need for rest induces him to quit it. He cannot ever do so for exertion and activity. On the whole, therefore, it seems to be apparent that either function suffers by the union, when it is protracted. It is quite consistent with our general experience of human effort that it should be so. The sound direction of the whole, and the exact manipulation of a part, are seldom found together. The man who guides a helm can hardly labour as a stoker in the engine room. A general, directing armies, can seldom lead a charge of cavalry with profit. The bandmaster, who by the movement of a wand gives harmony to an orchestra would not succeed in doing so if he performed himself upon the kettledrum or trombone. At the same time I readily admit that the first Minister is bound to exercise a great control over the Foreign Office, although not technically leading it. We know from Mr. Lecky, the historian, who has investigated records, that Mr. Pitt composed a number of Despatches for the Foreign Office when his Ministry began. We know from the private secretary of Mr. Canning—and the fact is most impressive—that the last production of his mind was a State Paper upon Portugal, which he drew up while First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Unless I have been much deceived by statements current in political society, Lord Palmerston was ready as First Minister at given times to labour for the Foreign Office as he had done when connected with it. The noble Marquess has, indeed, sometimes, in a few words, defended the new system by pointing to inconveniencies which showed themselves under the normal one. I readily admit them. They are patent to all who have been ever versed in the career and correspondence of the very statesmen I have mentioned. But it does not follow that because one method is imperfect, another may not be attended with hazards less to be endured. It might also be pointed out that the deficiencies of the established form admit of mitigation by safeguards easy to advert to. If the first Minister and Secretary of State approximate in views to one another; if they deliberately settle how to act in every probable contingency; if the First Minister is accessible at all times to any difficulties which the Foreign Office may present to him; if the Foreign Office never enter upon any new departure until the Sovereign and first Minister have previously endorsed it, the former system may do well—as it has under many Governments—down to the period when some transition in the country leads us to improve upon it. On the other hand, it would be difficult to mention any safeguards or conditions by which the [lasting union of the offices would not continue, as it is at present, weakening to both of them. I have proposed to move for precedents, but doubt much whether any can be found since 1688 for such a combination. When Mr. Pitt came back to power in 1804 he may be thought to have united the two functions down to 1806, under the pressure of the war, although nominally First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, With what deplorable results and tragic fate he did so, the pages of Lord Stanhope have explained, and it would well become the friends or colleagues of the noble Marquess to remember. Nothing which comes from me, nothing which transpires in the House, is likely to have much influence upon the Government. It ought not to be assumed that, because the present union has worked badly, a prompt or a precipitate correction of it would be useful. The good which I may partially effect, or have been led at least to contemplate, is that of drawing some attention, either here or out of doors, to the real origin of much which causes general disquietude. If men perceive that what has lately happened may be traced to a political experiment which ought not to be deeply blamed, however unsuccessful, they may recover equanimity and firmness, instead of looking to subversive remedies and revolutionary antidotes. The illustrious Duke, who often sits on the cross Benches, has frequently explained, in reference to military projects that "everything is tentative." We are familiar with the maxim. The noble Marquess may have been fully justified in initiating such a change as he has hazarded, although it has not borne the fruit which he anticipated. An eminent authority, while leading in the other House of Parliament, once stated— The misfortunes of individuals and of kingdoms that are laid open and examined with true wisdom are more than half redressed, and to this great point should he directed all the virtue and all the talent of the House. Although the phrase may go too far, although the task it recommends may be too difficult, or little suited to, the lassitude which marks the Session as it closes, we ought, I think, in some degree, to act upon the lesson it conveys to us. I, therefore, move according to the notice on the Paper.

Moved— That there be laid before the House any precedents that there may have been for the connection of the duties belonging to the First Minister with those belonging to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs."—(The Lord Stratheden and Campbell.)


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has undertaken a task which in itself is rather difficult. He obviously does not approve of the course which the Government has followed, and he has little confidence in us. That is a very proper and constitutional position, and I have no wish to complain of it. He thinks that I am guilty of many things: I am guilty of the mutiny of the Grenadier Guards or their insubordination; I am guilty of the fact that lobsters are not recognised as fish under the Treaty of Utrecht; and I am also guilty of not going circuit among the capitals of Europe in order to influence the various statesmen at the head of affairs in those countries. I do not think that the noble Lord opposite, my predecessor, did any better in that respect; but the noble Lord, while blaming me for those faults—and I have not enumerated one-tenth part of those which he has detailed—was kind enough to provide an excuse, and said that if only I had been Prime Minister without being Foreign Minister, or Foreign Minister without being Prime Minister, I should have committed none of these blunders. Well, it is very difficult for him to prove that. It is very difficult for him to prove that my blunders are not the result of my own innate incapacity and folly. And especially will he find it difficult when he finds that I am on the other side, and when I assure the noble Lord that, however difficult I find the two offices, if the two offices had been separated I should have done just as badly as I have done. That is the result of my own introspection, and I must entreat the noble Lord to abandon that kind effort to cloak my shortcomings which he has been good enough to invent. The consequence I quite admit, though I entirely demur to his mode of proving it. I say it is quite impossible for the noble Lord to indicate how much of my failings come from one cause, and how much from another. Still the question raised by the noble Lord is one of considerable constitutional interest, and I observed that it was raised in the other House by no less a person than the leader of the Opposition. I think Mr. Gladstone was equally in error. He stated that it was impossible for anybody to do the duties of the two offices unless he was possessed of almost superhuman energy and skill. I think he did what is very natural to do; he contemplated the situation from the position which he himself occupied. If he had said that it was impossible for any man to be Prime Minister, leader of the House of Commons, and Foreign Minister as well, I should have absolutely agreed with him. There is no doubt that it would be too much for any man; it would crush even a Napoleon or an Oliver Cromwell. But the matter is very different when the Minister sits in the House of Lords. I am not prescribing the arrangement as one for universal adoption, but it seems to me a very fair thing to do when it is convenient to do it. But the noble Lord appeals for precedents in the matter. It is not for me to decry Conservatism wherever I find it; but I confess that, while I have a deep respect for Conservatism in matters of substance, my respect for Conservatism in matters of form is very small indeed; and if a thing is more convenient now it does not matter two straws whether or not it was found more convenient to Prime Ministers 20, 30, or 40 years ago. In considering it I think a mistake is made in talking of the offices of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary being united as though that was an extraordinary combination of offices. The office of Prime Minister is never held alone; it is always united with some additional office or another. The question is, what office should be united with it; whether it is more convenient to unite with it the office of First Lord of the Treasury or some other office? My Lords, that seems to me to depend very much upon the question whether the Prime Minister is in this House or the other. I am not disputing that there are many reasons why it is more convenient that the Prime Ministership should be held by a Member of the House of Commons; but, on the other hand, the labour of that House is increasing so enormously that I have my doubts whether, unless some change which we cannot forecast takes place, it will be always easy to find a man of that surprising vigour of body and intellect, combined the great knowledge of which Mr. Gladstone speaks and of which he has been an example. For an ordinary man I think the labour of leading the House of Commons and being Prime Minister at the same time is a very overwhelming task. But if you pass by that question, and assume that it is settled by events whether the Prime Minister is to be in this House or the other, I should say that, on the whole, it is less convenient that he should hold here the office of First Lord of the Treasury. If he takes no part in the duties of the Treasury, then he has really very little as First Lord to do; if he does take part in them, he divides the Treasury into two halves, and is probably a serious impediment to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In fact, so much has it been found a matter of difficulty to work those two offices separately, if the holders of them both take part in Treasury business, that it has constantly been the practice, as noble Lords will recollect, to unite the two offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. I confess from the little insight I had into the work that I do not think the tenure of the office of First Lord of the Treasury by a Member of your Lordships' House is very convenient; it is much better that the office should be held by a Member of that House in which Treasury questions constantly come up for discussion and are principally dealt with. Then as to the question, what advantage is derived with respect to foreign affairs from the Prime Minister not being Foreign Minister, I had the honour to serve under Lord Beaconsfield as Foreign Minister, and I occupied the inverse position towards my lamented Friend Lord Iddesleigh when he was Foreign Minister. My experience of that relation is, having been at both ends of it, that the Prime Minister interferes extremely-little in the conduct of foreign affairs. Of course, he has to deal with those great questions which come before the Cabinet and are decided by it; but outside the class of Cabinet questions he has not that daily familiarity with what is said and done which enables him to interfere with advantage in the conduct of foreign affairs. I can imagine a Prime Minister—I have heard rumours of such—interfering a great deal in the conduct of foreign affairs, but, if it has ever been so, I am quite sure that whatever the ability of that Prime Minister may have been, he could have done nothing but harm, because no good can be done in the management of complicated affairs when the same string is pulled by two people who are differently qualified for the duty of pulling it by the amount of experience, knowledge, and daily information which they possess. I can quite imagine that if a Prime Minister thought it his duty to interfere too much with foreign affairs, it would cause confusion rather than advantage. These things must be matters of estimate rather than of judgment. My impression is, that the shortcomings which the noble Lord finds, and which I do not wish to deny, are shortcomings personal to myself and in no degree arising from the combination of the two offices; and that if it is otherwise convenient for the Government, it is a combination which may be wisely permitted, and which affects injuriously neither the general conduct of the business of the Government nor the conduct of foreign affairs in particular.


My Lords, I have grave doubts whether any practical advantage would result from continuing this discussion, but, at the same time, I am the last person who would have the right to complain of the noble Lord's bringing it forward, because some years ago I dwelt upon the subject at considerable length, and gave a good many reasons, and went into considerable detail. My complaint at that time, I am bound to say, fell absolutely flat, but that complaint has now become more general; it is not confined to the noble Lord, but has taken a considerable hold of the public mind. There was one thing in which I was perfectly wrong, though I deemed it very likely at the time; my own conviction was that it would be impossible for the noble Marquess's physical strength to stand the great strain which filling the two offices would entail upon him. I am happy to say that I was completely wrong in that conviction, and nobody is more pleased that it is so than I am myself. With regard to the answer of the noble Marquess as to precedents, he said that he was not much of a Conservative as regards matter of form. Now, I must confess that, although I think that he is in some ways a strong Conservative, I have always thought there was a slight flavour of Radicalism about him. I have never concealed that from myself, and I rather think there is a disposition on the part of the present Government to throw aside, as matters of form, matters which have very often a great deal of substance in them. But when the noble Marquess says he doubts the usefulness, as a rule, of Prime Ministers taking a very great part in foreign policy, I am obliged to say, partly from my own experience and partly from what I have read, that Mr. Canning, Lord John Russell, LordPalmerston, Sir Robert Peel, and Mr. Gladstone, all took the deepest and most constant interest in the supervision of foreign affairs when they were Prime Ministers, so that my experience and what I have heard is entirely opposed to that of the noble Marquess. I really cannot see the strength of the argument of the noble Marquess with regard to the position of the First Lord of the Treasury when he talks of the inconveniences of uniting the two offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister, because really the work of the First Lord of the Treasury is very little more than a sinecure. He is the head of the hierarchy with regard to the national expenditure; he is in a position in which appeals are necessarily made to him. But as to the daily working of it really the office of First Lord of the Treasury is one which would not interfere in the slighest degree either with the other duties of the Prime Minister or with the duties of leading in the other House of Parliament. I quite admit that there is a great distinction between the offices being held by the Prime Minister in this House and being held by one who, at the same time, is leading in the House of Commons. I do not mean in the slightest degree to diminish the enormous difference; but I think there is so much that requires constant attention, and that the drudgery of the Foreign Office is so great, that there are great objections to this union of offices. Quite beyond the important questions to be settled, there are many things in -which the Foreign Minister must take part, and with which he must show acquaintance when addressing Ambassadors and Ministers of Foreign Powers. He must be able to talk on the subjects of which they talk, though they may not be of vital importance, and the numbers of hours constantly occupied by any Foreign Minister in his work is enough to incapacitate him from undertaking the heavy duties of another office, too. I am unwilling to prolong this discussion, because, as I have said, I think it can lead to no practical result; but I do differ from the noble Marquess, and I adhere to my former opinion, not only with regard to the strength and powers of the individual who holds both offices, but I believe there is a very grave objection to having the two offices in one, because there is no longer the advantage of having a certain amount of check from one to the other.


I have no wish, my Lords, to prolong discussion by an answer, but am contented to leave to the general arbitrament what has fallen from myself, the noble Marquess, and the noble Earl who has just spoken. As the Government appear to be unable to furnish any precedents such as the Motion would require, I feel entitled to withdraw it.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.