HL Deb 19 June 1903 vol 123 cc1407-14

, who had given notice "To call attention to the statement of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, made on 15th June, that 'it has been intimated by the German Government that if other British colonies follow the example of Canada and give a preference to British imports, Great Britain probably will not be allowed to continue in receipt of the most - favoured - nation terms;' and to move that Papers may be laid upon the Table of the House as soon as the public interest will permit" said: My Lords, the Foreign Secretary the other night, in the course of the debate upon preferential tariff's, let drop certain very important words to which it was not possible to draw sufficient attention at that time. The subject which was before the House was not our relations with Germany, but the question of preferential tariffs. The noble Marquess, who never speaks without care and deliberation, made a very important statement, as I thought, and he concluded by saying that what had happened had created a very serious situation. I think, therefore, that it is desirable that the attention of your Lordships should be called, and that of the country directed, to the correspondence which appears to have been recently passing between our Foreign Office and the German Government. The noble Marquess, speaking at the time of the difficulties which had arisen between Canada and the German Government with regard to the preferential terms which Canada had conceded to this country, told us that it was quite possible, and, indeed, likely, that the German Government might proceed to put further surtaxes on Canadian produce; and then he used these words, that it had been intimated by the German Government that if other British colonies followed the example of Canada and gave a preference to British imports, Great Britain probably would not be allowed to continue in receipt of the most-favoured-nation terms.

Now, my Lords, what is this notice that has been presented to us by the German Government? The German Government say that if any other British colony chooses to concede to this country preferential terms punishment is to follow. Who is to be punished? Is it the colony? That, I presume, goes without saying. But, in addition to the colony, Great Britain, although she may not have asked for this preference, although she may not even be desirous to have it, yet because one of her colonies has chosen to place her upon preferential terms, is to be removed from the most-favoured-nation clauses as far as Germany is concerned. That is a notice which is quite unprecedented so far as I know; I am not aware that any independent nation has ever sent such a notice to another. But, my Lords, what is Germany's position? Germany argues, in the first place, in this wise. She says—"We claim to differentiate against Canada because we contend that Canada, having a fiscal system of her own, and being a representative colony, is not, for fiscal purposes, part of the British Empire, and we have the right to treat her as an independent Power." But she alters her ground after that. Then she says—"But we inform you, Great Britain, that if any other of your colonies concedes to you a preference, then you are responsible for that colony, although it is representative, although it has a separate fiscal system of its own. We will punish it, but we will also punish you, and we will no longer concede to you the most-favoured-nation terms."

My Lords, were such inconsistent arguments ever before brought forward? Can any one say that there is any justice in such a course? Now, what is the meaning of this notice? It must be one of two things. It may be a threat to terrorise the colonies and prevent them from drawing nearer to this country, and also a threat to this country that if she allows her colonies to draw nearer to her she is to take the consequences. Are German statesmen so ignorant of the whole character and temper of this country that they really believe that a course like this is likely to succeed? The policy of the "mailed fist" may do very well in Germany—though even there discontent and Socialism appear to be spreading very rapidly, according to what we see and read—but in this country that policy is of all policies the least likely to succeed. Yet we are told that Great Britain is to be placed on a stool apart from all the other boys as an example to the world of what happens to a naughty boy when he dares to disregard the directions of the master. If it is not this—and I see that some of the organs of the German Press have been contending just within this last day or two that it is not intended for a threat—then what else can it be except a direct challenge to this country to a war of tariffs? I can hardly believe that that is the case, but if it be so the levity of such a course as that is only exceeded by its unwisdom.

Does Germany really wish to enter upon a commercial war with this country? Is it wise, in her own interests, that she should do so? If you look at the trade between Germany and this country—I take the three years which immediately preceded the South African war and which therefore may be regarded as the last normal years—you will find that in 1897 Germany exported to this country goods to the value of 699,000,000 marks, and imported from us goods to the value of 567,000,000 marks; in 1898 she exported to us 740,000,000 marks, and imported from us 566,000,000 marks; in 1899 she exported to us 801,000,000 marks worth of goods, and imported from us 672,000,000 marks. Therefore, if Germany chooses to enter upon a commercial war with us, she is doing away with one of her very best customers. Of course, Germany is the best judge of what is good for her own commercial interests, but I do not think that any of us would have advocated a course like that if we had been speaking of the interests of Great Britain. Germany has declared commercial war upon Canada. What is the effect likely to be there? The trade is not a very large one, but Germany's exports to Canada are five or six times what her imports from Canada are. Pray how is Germany benefited if she places a surtax on Canada which merely produces a surtax in retaliation on her own goods? But she promises to carry this policy further, and she says that if any other British colony gives a preference to Great Britain it will be treated in a like way. I presume she therefore wishes to throttle her growing trade with Australia—a trade which at the present time is a very important one; and I presume also that she wishes to throttle her trade with British South Africa if the resolutions which were passed the other day at the Bloemfontein Conference are adopted by the various British colonies there. One can only say how unwise this is, but it is for Germany to take her own course.

Let us look nearer home. It is very evident from the German Press that this policy of preferential tariffs between this country and her colonies, which is at the present time under discussion, is a matter which creates considerable concern in Germany, and, as we know, the Secretary of State for the Colonies is not very popular in Germany. He has had to express his opinion, on one occasion at all events, very clearly to a German statesman, and he is not regarded with much favour in the German Press. He is the chief advocate of preferential tariffs. Pray how is Germany advancing her own cause by taking the line she has taken? If she had wished to assist to her utmost the cause which the Colonial Secretary is advocating, what better method could she possibly have adopted than by explaining to this country so graphically the lesson of retaliation? There is nothing like an object lesson to inform the public mind in this country with regard to any public question. This country never would have understood the South African question if ex-President Kruger had not declared war; and when Germany informs this country that if she draws nearer to her colonies she shall suffer by being taken out of the most-favoured-nation clause, that is a thing which, as soon as it is realised, will be thoroughly understood, and, as I believe, deeply resented.

I say it with regret, but unfortunately this is by no means a solitary instance in which the German Government has done its best to annoy and to irritate this country in late years. When the German Empire was founded there were a very large number of people in this country—I believe the majority—who thought that the German Alliance was the natural alliance and the best alliance for this country. We all respect the energy, the steadfastness, the thoroughness of the character of the German nation, and we admire many other of their high qualities, and it would seem that an alliance and a close friendship between the two nations was most natural. But I regret to say that on many occasions—I need not give instances, for there is no use in ripping up old sores, and your Lordships know them well—German statesmen and the German Press seem to have been actuated by a desire, and they certainly have known how, to annoy this country deeply in more than one way, and a conviction has been gaining ground, during the last two or three years I am afraid rapidly, that when we look for friendship we had better look somewhere else than to Germany. What the reason of this may be I am sure I do not know. All I can say is that I deeply lament it; but you may depend upon it that irritating messages such as this, even if for the moment their effect may pass away, are not likely to be forgotten. It is very desirable, I think, that we should see the correspondence that has taken place on this matter, and that we should see it with as little delay as may be. I do not think that it is possible that this correspondence, or this part of it, can be long. To any such communication as that which the noble Marquess said he had received there could be only one answer—a very simple one. No British Government could give any answer but one. What is wanted, I think, in this matter is plain speaking, and it does not at all follow that plain speaking means a diminution of friendship. The German Government, I hope, has already been made to understand that the relations between ourselves and our colonies is an affair which concerns us alone, and that messages or threats or warnings which are conveyed to us by any foreign nation with regard to our colonies, whatever may be their object and their intention, are only likely to confirm us more in taking the course which we choose to take. I beg to move for the correspondence which has taken place with the German Government on this matter.

Moved, That an humble address be presented to His Majesty for correspondence relating to the statement of the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, made on 15th June, that "it has been intimated by the German Government that if other British Colonies follow the example of Canada and give a preference to British imports, Great Britain probably will not be allowed to continue in receipt of the most-favoured-nation terms."—(The Earl of Camperdown.)


My Lords, I will not attempt to follow the noble Earl through the whole of the interesting speech which he has just delivered. That speech was mainly devoted to enforcing an argument which I used myself the other night, and I therefore listened to it with feelings of concurrence and approval. The noble Earl, of course, was able to speak with an amount of unofficial freedom which I could not use in the course of my remarks the other evening. I have, I think, however, said enough to show the noble Earl that I fully realise the great importance of the question which he has brought before your Lordships, and I do not feel that I am called upon to-night to add to, or to take away anything from, what I ventured to say on the subject the other evening. My Lords, I will only make this observation in passing. The noble Earl indulged in some severe strictures upon the conduct of the German Government on this and on other occasions. My Lords, I desire to deprecate the assumption that in this matter the conduct of the German Government has been actuated by deliberate hostility to the Government of His Majesty. I think the German Government have taken a course which it was perhaps nit unnatural that they should take, knowing, as they did, the manner in which up to the present time we have been in the habit of dealing with questions concerning the treatment of our colonies. What I think is necessary is that we should do what the noble Earl says we should, I mean that we should make our position in regard to these matters perfectly clear and intelligible to Germany and to all concerned, and I have very little doubt that when this is done we shall find it possible to bring about a settlement of these questions on terms satisfactory to ourselves and to the colonies. With respect to the Papers, the noble Earl and every Member of your Lordships' House is, of course, fully entitled, after the argument which I used the other evening, to require their production. I am having them got in in order. The noble Earl is, of course, aware that when Papers are laid including communications which have passed with a foreign Government that Government has to be consulted before the Papers are finally put in shape for presentation; but I see no reason why that process should take up any length of time, and I hope within a few days to lay the Papers before the House, and the noble Earl will find that they carry the history of this matter up to the present dafe.


How far will the Papers go back? I understand that there are some important despatches going back as far as 1897.


My idea was to begin with the Papers of 1897, and bring the correspondence up to the last despatches which have passed. Some of the 1897 Papers have already been laid, but I think it would be desirable to include them in the new Blue-book.


As the noble Marquess has consented to lay the Papers on the Table when they are ready, I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave of the House, withdrawn.