HL Deb 09 March 1891 vol 351 cc457-66

in rising to call attention to the correspondence in Turkey, and to move an humble Address to Her Majesty for further Papers in connection with the Eastern Question, said: My Lords, a notice of this kind would have come on in August last had it not been for the absence of the noble Marquess who directs the Foreign Office. Something at the time occurred with regard to the appointment of the Bishops in Macedonia which tended to provoke a serious discussion, and it is no matter of astonishment that the noble Marquess, placed and burdened as he is, should sometimes withdraw before the Session terminates. I make no observation upon that point. I know how difficult it is to draw attention to any question of Foreign Policy at present. We have had too much in the United Kingdom to preoccupy and to distract us; but even the incidents of the Divorce Court, or the embarrassments of Ireland, will not avert the march of armies on Constantinople, but, on the contrary, are much more likely to encourage it. They do not either release Great Britain from the obligation of supporting the treaties she has entered into. It is when we are much preoccupied at home that we become more vulnerable in the larger and more general circumference. To take an extreme case, if the country was engaged in Civil War, Parliament no doubt would be rather deaf to Foreign Policy, and yet, under those conditions, Foreign Policy would be fraught with peril and anxiety. Domestic troubles should be rather an incentive, although no doubt they are an anodyne of, vigilance. Although, under the circumstances which I am pointing to, I cannot hope to draw much attention from your Lordships, I will hazard a few words in strict accordance with the notice I have given. There is a volume upon Crete which contains an important despatch from Commander Brenton proving that the disturbances in Crete were pretty well arranged unless aggressive movements in Greece happened to renew them. There is an important volume upon the trial of Moussa Bey, the Kurdish chieftain, which shows that in the East as well as in the West of Europe it is not easy to obtain convictions in spite of evidence to call for them. His acquittal was lamented by the British Embassy and by the Foreign Office. There is a volume on Bulgaria which shows that the position there is still unaltered; that Prince Ferdinand has not received the sanction of the Powers, and that the Sublime Porte bas sent out a manifesto to impeach the validity of his position. There is a volume also, presented in this very Session, which is a lively mirror of Armenian disturbances. It concludes, however, with an intimation that at the end of last December they were in a great degree composed. During the last three months there is perfect darkness which might be a sufficient ground for seeking further information. In that volume on Armenia, presented in this Session, there is an interesting Minute from Mr. Clifford Lloyd—at page 82—which will remind anyone who reads it of a well-known passage in Burke, to the effect that "distance always weakens government," and which shows that the Sultan cannot govern in Kurdistan as he might do in Asia Minor. It is curious as showing that the genius of one century may be corroborated by the detailed knowledge of another. As it would be fatiguing, I shall read no extracts to your Lordships. It is more important to advert to the conclusions which the Blue Books may suggest to us. They are I think that Russia is entitled to expostulate as regards the position of Bulgaria—that peace was duo to a great extent to moderation and forbearance upon her part. If Russia is ever to move again towards the Balkans, it ought to be when France is seeking her alliance; when Germany, on that account, is little able to restrain her; when Great Britain is anxious about Herat and India, as well as about the Black Sea and the Bosphorus; when a distinguished orator who sought the partnership of Russia, and who proclaimed her benevolence, is active still on the political arena. But what may be the counsels at St. Petersburg is too intricate a question for me, perhaps for anyone, to fathom. It may, however, be worth while to point to two or three expedients or precautions which these documents, in some degree, suggest to us. One is that the mode of nomination for Bulgaria ought to be corrected. The principle of giving a veto to every Power has proved to be impracticable. It ought to be recollected to his credit that at the Congress at Berlin the noble Marquess did his utmost to prevent it. You may see it in the protocols. Another is, that it might be usefully laid down that the ruler of Bulgaria, whether he is destined to be sovereign or vassal, should only be of the Greek or of the Bulgarian religion. As the Blue Books show, Russia is inexorable against Prince Ferdinand on the ground of his connection with the Vatican. The third point which might suggest itself at present is that the Treaty of April 15th, 1856, by which Austria, France, and Great Britain engaged to act together when the Sublime Porte is in danger, might be subjected to some re-construction, by which other Powers should be admitted to partake in it. It might then become what it has not been—a barrier to war, a shelter to the Bosphorus. But I pass by these topics, each of which would in itself suffice to occupy an evening, in order to go on to one which is more practical and urgent; which also tends to a result more easily attainable. I cannot help thinking that the time has come when a judicious effort might be made to revive the Ottoman Assemblies which sat in 1877, which were supported by Sir Henry Layard, as Ambassador, by Sir William Gregory, and Mr. Laurence Oliphant, as travellers, which were suspended by the war, and which have fallen since into comparative oblivion. Ten years ago, upon a Motion exclusively directed to that subject, I went into a statement which is long ago forgotten, but which at present I should venture to repeat, only desiring to add to it an observation suggested by the recent Life of Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was well known to your Lordships. Although he was, no doubt, little suited to the Parliamentary arena, as a thinker, a negotiator, a despatch-writer, his merits have been long acknowledged and referred to. To recall his type you would have to go back to the first Earl of Malmesbury in the last century. Now, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, during a long career at Constantinople, was constantly engaged in the attempt to overcome abuses from, the Adriatic to the Black Sea, from the Danube to the Tigris and Euphrates in the State to which he was accredited. After the Crimean War, which raised him to a pinnacle almost above the Sultan and his Empire, he did appear to have established various advantages. But still he had imperfectly succeeded. The evidence is copious. You have it in the admirable work of Mr. Nassau Senior, who travelled to Constantinople and the East between the close of the Crimean War and the retirement of the illustrious diplomatist. Mr. Nassau Senior, was admitted to the confidence of the Ambassador, and was not at all inclined to disparage his achievements. But that volume constantly reflects the general misrule, imperfect justice, lawless conduct, and corrupt administration which everywhere met the brilliant, painstaking observer. Now, the point which I wish to bring before the House is this; that what Lord Stratford de Redcliffe failed to do, his successors can hardly be expected to accomplish, because they have not the splendid vantage ground of the Crimean War from which he was enabled to exert himself. No doubt, Lord Dalling, Lord Lyons, Sir Henry Elliot, and others who succeeded Lord Stratford de Redcliffe in that post, were men of eminent ability, but they were not, like him, from early youth acclimatised upon the Bosphorus, and, therefore, could not reach his personal ascendency. Nor is it the least disparagement to say that even Sir William White, who stands above my praise, is far from likely to effect what Lord Stratford de Redcliffe was thus unable to accomplish. I know that the prevalent opinion in Great Britain as to Ottoman abuses runs in an old and rather superannuated channel. Governments are urged and Embassies exhorted to lecture or reform autocracy in the Ottoman Empire, as if political assemblies had never come into existence there. The old agency is constantly invoiced in spite of its reiterated and, indeed, intelligible failure. The new one, in spite of the applause it gained during the short time it lasted, is altogether disregarded as if it had no place in history. Articles and speeches are constantly put forward to make autocracy effective and benevolent, but none, or scarcely any, are directed to restore the agency by which improvement is attainable. If all the power of mind so frequently brought to bear on the despotic system of the Ottoman Empire was directed to the establishment of a system for reforming and for balancing it, the end, no doubt, would be attained. But no such effort is apparent. On the contrary, the fig-tree is importuned for grapes; the vine is left to perish on the dust-heap. I admit, however, that the present Government can hardly be expected to make exertions to revive the Ottoman Assemblies unless impelled in some degree by national opinion. Those bodies came into existence, or, at least, apparently, as a counter-project to the schemes of the noble Marquess and of General Ignatieff, in the Conference which went on at Constantinople towards the close of 1876. Their origin, however, is wholly independent of that circumstance. They would have appeared if the noble Marquess and General Ignatieff had never met, and if the Conference which I have referred to had never come into existence. They were the outcome of a movement some time before against the Sultan Abdul Aziz. The object of their founder was a higher and more substantial one than that of rivalling or parrying the scheme which the Conference had organised. But, in consequence of the moment at which they first appeared, there was an inclination to disparage them among the friends of the alternative proposals which that Conference matured, and which the Porte refused to acquiesce in on grounds explained in Despatches of January 25th and March 31st, 1877, just before the war was imminent. But the language of the noble Marquess soon modified on that subject. In 1878 his Despatches to Sir Henry Layard, which I have had a recent opportunity of glancing at, admit that the Constitution of 1876 may be at least a partial basis of reforms to be initiated. But, my Lords, that I may not be too retrospective, I pass at once to the Correspondence now before us. The acquittal of Moussa Bey, in itself, sufficed to condemn the institutions under which it happened. The noble Marquess and Sir William White have mingled and accentuated their concurring protests on that subject. But, in order to correct tribunals, you must correct the power which underlies them. It is the great lesson of our history. The Revolution of 1688 was marvellous in its effects on justice. You would have had no Sir John Holt if you had had no Prince of Orange. Beyond that, if nothing is now done, a brilliant opportunity to recover influence will be abandoned. The power which comes forward to revive the Ottoman Assemblies will have in some degree the credit of establishing them. In different regions, in Armenia, in Albania, in Asia Minor, Syria and Kurdistan, the divided races would combine to exult in its design and welcome its initiative. It cannot be denied, indeed, Her Majesty's Government have frequently admitted, that the Conference of 1876, the war of 1877, the turn of subsequent events, have deeply compromised our influence. The aim would be by some new method to restore it to the elevation which it reached after the events of the Crimea. If Great Britain cannot be hailed as a defending, she may yet be cherished as a liberating Power in all the regions I have mentioned. But here it should not be forgotten, if that mode of looking at the subject is correct, that the opportunity may be a very transient one. There is a series of contingencies which might entirely withdraw it. The Sultan may himself determine to restore the Ottoman Assemblies, under a secret influence too difficult to analyse. An insurrection might arise, like that of the Softas in 1876, to call for these Assemblies or to suggest the policy of granting them. A Grand Vizier, anxious to stamp his name or benefit his country, might resolve to tread in the now abandoned path of Midhat Pasha. Some calculating Power might desire to recover over these Assemblies the influence to which the Polish Diets used to be subject. It is only now that Great Britain can secure priority, ascendancy, and gratitude, by moving. It will not be denied that many methods would be open. The Armenian movement which is not, as far as I know, yet extinguished, might easily be drawn into the channel. The British Embassy, of course, may well be called into activity. If all other methods fail a special mission might be easily defended. No doubt the chances of succeeding may not be equal to the risk of failing. It is not easy to persuade an arbitrary sovereign to share his power with representatives, but come what may, there must be yet advantage to Great Britain. If the assemblies are restored a British object is arrived at. If a deaf ear is offered to well supported admonition we should be less firmly bound by obligations which now weigh upon us; we should be more entitled to enter upon other lines, to contemplate experiments which policy suggests, but honour would not sanction at this moment. Her Majesty's Government, I think, are able to concur with me that, before you contemplate a new system on the Bosphorus, before you overthrow the landmark which the fall of the Byzantine Empire created, you are bound to give the Ottoman Dominion, which, through so many wonderful vicissitudes, has endured 400 years, the latest prospect of surviving. In urging, as I only do, however, subject to the light which further correspondence throws upon the subject, the revival of the Ottoman Assemblies, I am not blind in any manner to the merits which belong to the existing ruler of that Empire. His zeal and industry are universally acknowledged. His liberality to the Armenian prisoners has recommended him to Europe. It is enough, perhaps, if we admit that there is no one else to whom despotic power could be so usefully confided. And here I cannot help remarking that there is a chain, a succession of authorities presiding over the Ottoman Empire, who have all been genuine reformers in design, but all oppressed and thwarted by malignant obstacles around them. Sultan Mahmoud, if I am not entirely deceived, was inclined to many salutary measures besides the war which he conducted against the Janissaries, and with which his name has been conspicuously identified. Abdul-Medjid, who immediately succeeded him in 1839, promulgated most excellent decrees—that of Gulhané, which was famous—in order to create a new departure in the Empire. Abdul-Aziz, who succeeded him, I think in 1862, was for many years looked upon as a champion of improvement in that respect, and was welcomed in this country, in this capital, while yet his melancholy end may be remembered by your Lordships. The fact is that, as regards the autocratic system in that country, bad rulers are insufficient to condemn it. It is by good rulers that its inherent vices must be stigmatised. When you have men like Nero and Domitian, their characters may be the mainspring of abuses which betray themselves. It is far graver that a system is incurable when men like Trajan and the Antonines direct it. The strongest argument against autocracy in Turkey, and the most difficult to answer, is that during half a century the greatest minds, greatest virtues, when placed upon the Throne, have not been able to redeem it. My Lords, as I think the Government intend to produce some further Correspondence, there will not, I trust, be any technical objection to the Motion now submitted to your Lordships.

Moved, "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for further Papers in connection with the Eastern Question."—(The Lord Stratheden and Campbell.)


My Lords, if I followed rightly the thread of the noble Lord's discourse, his object was to persuade the House that it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government to take steps for establishing representative Government at Constanti- nople. He referred with eulogy to a Representative Assembly which sat at Constantinople for a short time, but whose precise exploits I am unable to remember. He said that, if we could not do what he suggested, other Powers might anticipate us, or that the Sultan might be moved by a sudden desire for representative institutions, or that some Grand Vizier might desire to tread in the path of Midhat Pasha. From all I have heard of Midhat Pasha, I doubt whether any Grand Vizier would desire to follow his career, because it ended in a very unfortunate manner. My Lords, I do not feel very competent to express an opinion upon the value of representative institutions at Constantinople. We have never yet seen representative institutions successfully conducted by a Mahomedan population, and I am not aware that the experiment of Midhat Pasha was enthusiastically received by the population of the Empire, or that any regrets were expressed when it disappeared. I have seen many things stated as to the wishes of the people in various parts of the Empire; but it has never been my fortune to come across any expression of a desire that that transitory institution should be revived. If I were forced to give an opinion, therefore, I should be rather doubtful whether there is any strong desire for the institution of such a Government, and I should be more than doubtful whether the present Sultan is an enthusiastic admirer of representative institutions. But, whatever may be the facts with respect to these points, I would submit to the noble Lord that we have sufficient trouble at home and in our colonies, in managing representative and other institutions, and that it is not our business to set about extending them to Constantinople. If the people of Turkey want Representative Institutions, I have no doubt they will get them; but if they want them and get them, they probably are capable of working them, and they may come to some good. But if they are imposed by a foreign and distant State, by a people who have no sympathy whatever in religion, in manners, or in political life with the existing inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire, the probability is that institutions which we should foist upon them would be utterly foreign to their nature, and would not succeed in producing contentment, or in administering to the prosperity of the country. Without, therefore, venturing to pronounce dogmatically as to whether there ought to be representative institutions or not at Constantinople, I say it is no business of ours, and that we shall best consult our own credit and the advantage of our own and other people by confining ourselves to our own business. There are Papers in preparation which it will probably be more convenient should be laid before Parliament in the ordinary form, as by command of Her Majesty, rather than in compliance with Motion; but if the noble Lord still wishes to move for them, I have no objection.


As the noble Marquess is so good as to assent to the Motion, I have no wish further to detain the House; but I think that considering the great importance that attaches to his language it ought to be remarked that when we disclaim all responsibility for what goes on in that distant country we entirely forget that the established policy of Great Britain, of which the noble Marquess is but a passing organ, has been to insist upon Ottoman reforms, upon Ottoman improvements, and actively to protest against all abuses in the administration of that Empire. If it can be reasonably established that such a mode of acting is thoroughly exhausted, and has irrevocably failed, it must be rational and politic to attempt the sole alternative which offers itself.


I would merely suggest to the noble Lord that from the librarian's point of view it is not very convenient in the case of a series of Papers such as this, which are printed by command, to present one portion separately. It is merely a question of convenience, and if the noble Lord would not press his Motion now I think it would be advisable on that account.


I will undertake that the Papers shall be laid in a few days.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes past Five o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Ten o'clock,