§ LORD NEWTON
My Lords, I wish to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs a question relating to an article recently contributed by Sir Horace Rumbold to the National Review. Sir Horace Rumbold is a distinguished public servant, who for more than fifty years was a member of the Diplomatic Service, and has served with distinction in various parts of the world. At the time of his retirement he was occupying the responsible and dignified post of British Ambassador at Vienna. Since his retirement, which took place a short time ago, following the example of other eminent public servants, he has been 198 occupied in giving to the world the benefit of his experience, and has, amongst other things, recently contributed an article to the National Review. It will be obvious to any one who has read that article that it was written with the laudable intention of showing that at a critical period as regards this country there was, at all events, one Government in Europe which displayed a friendly attitude towards us—a fact which I venture to say was not particularly obvious to the casual observer. But this article also contained unfavourable comments upon German policy with regard to this country. Unfortunately the publication of this article coincided with the visit of the German Emperor to this country a short time ago. I use the word "unfortunately" advisedly, because Sir Horace Rumbold himself was in no way responsible for the coincidence. The article was written some time previously, and the fact that it appeared at the same time as the German Emperor visited this country was due to the enterprise which characterises able editors who are well aware by experience of what is the most favourable opportunity to put their literary wares upon the market. The result of this was that Sir Horace Rumbold's views as regarded Germany were seized upon with great avidity by the more sensational portion of the Press. His article obtained a notoriety which otherwise it possibly would not have obtained; and finally it became the subject of a Question in another place. I think anybody who read this article would come to the conclusion that, although it might be marked by indiscretion—an error for which, I believe, Sir Horace Rumbold has already amply apologised—there was no further harm in it, and it only stated facts that are patent to everyone interested in foreign policy. It would be difficult for the most exacting person to discover in this article any real breach of trust or confidence.
In the answer which was given on behalf of the Foreign Office the impression was produced, or, at all events, the answer was capable of the construction, that Sir Horace Rumbold had been guilty of a grave breach of trust which 199 rendered him liable to severe pains and penalties for having disclosed official secrets. From my own experience I should say the crime of disclosing official secrets was very difficult of accomplishment. I have myself been for some years in the Diplomatic Service, and I do not mind venturing on the rather bold assertion that such things as official secrets practically do not exist. I really believe that short of selling a cipher, or other definite action of that kind, it would be extremely difficult for the most illintentioned person to offend against the Official Secrets Act. The despatch boxes which follow the Foreign Secretary wherever he goes, and which are looked upon as the repositories of earth-quaking mysteries, very often contain little that the outside world does not know. The same thing applies to despatches sent to the uttermost ends of the earth; there is very little in those despatches that does not appear a few hours afterwards in the public newspapers. Whether official secrets exist or not, nobody likes to be charged with an offence, even though it be an imaginary offence. Sir Horace Rumbold may be an over-sensitive person, and may have placed a totally wrong construction on the answer which was returned in the House of Commons. Some people may possibly think that ho would have been better advised if the matter had been allowed to remain where it stood. On the other hand, I would ask your Lordships to consider that a man far advanced in years, the whole of whose life practically has been passed in the public service, who, amongst other things, has attained the dignity of a Privy Councillor, cannot but be deeply pained at any sort of suggestion that he has acted in a dishonourable manner, or has in any way betrayed a trust. I, therefore, appeal to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to explain publicly that there is no imputation of this nature upon Sir Horace Rumbold.
*THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (The MARQUESS of LANSDOWNE)
My Lords, the manner in which His Majesty's Government regard this subject is clearly, and, 200 I think, sufficiently described in the statement which was made by my noble friend and colleague Lord Cranborne on November 13 last.† Lord Cranborne on that occasion explained that in our view the publication by a former representative of the Crown of reminiscences relating to recent events which had come within the writer's notice in the course of his official duties was not permitted without the previous consent of the Secretary of State; and it was stated that such publication, without that consent, was, in our view, reprehensible. I venture to think that there are few people who will dispute the reasonableness of that contention. Sir Horace Rumbold published two works—a book and a magazine article. I believe the House of Commons Question was, in appearance at all events, directed mainly to the question of the book. But the article attracted so much attention that obviously no statement could be made with reference to the one without pointing also to the other, and I observe that in the course of his remarks my noble friend Lord Newton referred almost entirely to the contents of Sir Horace Rumbold's article. Now, my noble friend told your Lordships that the contents of the article were, in his opinion, of a very nnocuous description. I should have agreed with him if he had said that of the book, but I am afraid I cannot go the length of agreeing with him as far as the article is concerned.
The article contained an account of a very interesting and important conversation upon an official matter which took place between the writer and the Emperor of Austria. It also contained an account of communications which had passed between the writer and the Austro-Hungarian Government upon a subject of great importance and great delicacy, in which the name of Her Majesty the late Queen Victoria was introduced. Now, when Sir Horace Rumbold reported these matters, as he did, to the Foreign Office, in official despatches, he marked both of those despatches "confidential," and I am able to tell your Lordships that we should certainly never have dreamt of publishing despatches of that description without first obtaining the concurrence of the Austro-Hungarian Government; and it seems† See (4) Debates, exiv., 871.201 to me to follow, a fortiori, that if the consent of the Austro-Hungarian Government was necessary for such publication, Sir Horace Rumbold should have applied to the Foreign Office for the consent of that Department before publishing on his own account in this country, I dare say my noble friend has observed that one of the consequences of this publication was an interpellation—rather think there were two—in the Reichsrath, of a somewhat embarrassing character, addressed to the Austro-Hungarian Government. Well, I certainly say that that publication was an indiscreet and, from our point of view, reprehensible publication. But, on the other hand, I gladly respond to the invitation of my noble friend, and add that we do not suggest, and never have suggested, that in committing this indiscretion Sir Horace Rumbold was guilty of a betrayal of trust, or, indeed, actuated by any unworthy motives. I think my noble friend was justified in appealing to Sir Horace Rumbold's long and distinguished career as a sufficient guarantee that he would have been incapable of any conduct of the kind. I also readily accept the assurance which was given to us by my noble friend —and it has also been given to us by Sir Horace Rumbold — that he was in no way responsible for the accident owing to which the publication of this article took place at a particular and a most inopportune and unfortunate moment. The only other matter to which the noble Lord referred was the concluding passage in my noble friend Lord Cranborne's statement, in which something was said of the steps His Majesty's Government were likely to take in order to mark their disapproval of Sir Horace Rumbold's conduct, and I must say my noble friend seems to have read into that statement a great deal more than it actually contained.
*THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
Well, Sir Horace Rumbold read into it a great deal more than it contained. What was the statement? The statement was simply this, that His Majesty's Government were considering what steps 202 they should take in order to make clear the manner in which they regarded the subject. I find in that no imputation on Sir Horace Rumbold. The words were simple words and all that they indicated, and were intended to indicate, was that, is there was evidently in the mind of Sir Horace Rumbold, and very possibly in the minds of others, some misconception as to the limits within which these publications were to be permitted, we should take care to remove that doubt. I will tell my noble friend how we propose to do so, and I do not think that he will complain of us. We propose, in the next issue of the Foreign Office List, to publish a new regulation affecting the Diplomatic Service, and we shall make it perfectly clear that members of that service must not, without the express permission of the Secretary of State, publish observations on, or accounts of their experience in the countries in which they are, or have been, officially employed, nor any information obtained by them in their official capacity; and we shall add—and I think that this is very important—that, in our view, this obligation of secrecy in regard to official experience and information continues equally after their retirement from the service. That will I hope, make it abundantly clear to all concerned that those acts of indiscretion must not be repeated, and 1am quite convinced that when it is so made clear the regulation will be respected, and honourably observed.
§ LORD NEWTON
I beg to thank the noble Marquess or his answer, but there are two points which I should like to comment upon. First, as to the word "confidential." I submit that it does not, in British diplomacy, bear the interpretation placed upon it by the outside world. As everybody knows, representatives abroad are eternally writing to the Foreign Office, and it is impossible to read all they write. My experience is that, unless documents are marked "confidential," most of them reach the pigeon-hole and are never heard of again. As to the second point, it seems to me that the noble Marquess proposes to add largely to the labours of the Foreign Office, because, if I interpret his answer correctly, he is going to establish a Press censorship in that already overworked Department. Suppose I propose to write my reminiscences, would it be necessary to submit what I 203 write to the Foreign Office to go over and carefully study all that I propose to put down, any trivialities? If so, I cannot help thinking that the noble Marquess is embarking on a large undertaking. Considering the large number of persons who have been employed in some capacity or other, if they all take it into their heads to publish their reminiscences, this duty would probably be found to require a large addition to the staff of the Department.
*THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I am afraid that if this discussion continues a great many of our idols will be broken for us. The noble Lord has told us that the contents of our little red boxes, which are so carefully locked, are well known to the man in the street. He went on to tell us that confidential despatches rarely, if ever, contain any confidential matter.
*THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
I am afraid we can hardly admit that. As to the noble Lord's last point, I am not at all intimidated by the prospect he holds out. It is quite clear that in the case of ordinary personal reminiscences— "trivialities," as my noble friend calls them —there would be no question of revision; but where there is debatable ground, and where the information contained —where its revelation — was likely to be of importance, in all such cases I feel convinced that the members of the Diplomatic Service would be the first in all doubtful cases to consult with the Foreign Office and honourably abide by the advice which might be given to them.
I should like just to remind the noble Lord who put this question that the rule now proposed by the noble Marquess is no new rule. It has been understood for generations that no public servant, serving under the Foreign Office, and receiving confidential communications from foreign Governments or Ministers, has any right whatever to publish any part of any information he may happen to possess, whether in or out of office, without the permission of the Sovereign, signified through one of the Secretaries of State.