HL Deb 10 March 1904 vol 131 cc706-15

My Lords, I rise, to put a Question to the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of which I have given him private notice. I wish to ask him what justification there is for the use of the word "calumny" by the Prime Minister with reference to the comments I have made on Lord George Hamilton's speech at Ealing. I am sorry that I was not able to give earlier notice than this morning, but I did not at first observe the word "calumny," and it was not till this morning that it was brought to my attention. It is true that the Prime Minister used very freely the words "glosses" and "misrepresentations"; but those, after all, are idle expressions, and though they excite my curiosity quite as much to know what can have given rise to them as does the word "calumny" itself, I should not have thought it worth while to trouble your Lordships with the matter had it not been for the gravity of the word which the Prime Minister employed. I have been at pains to examine the latest authority on the English language—Dr. Murray's Dictionary —on the meaning of the word "calumny," and it fully confirms my view as to the gravity of the expression employed. It is said to mean—"false and malicious misrepresentation of the words or actions of others, calculated to injure their reputation; libellous detraction, slander." I ask the noble Marquess, who, I hope, has had an opportunity of communicating with the Prime Minister, what justification there is for the characterisation by the Prime Minister of my remarks as "a calumny."


My Lords, I am not sure that it is altogether regular for a Minister in this House to explain to your Lordships the language used by one of his colleagues in the other House. But, in the circumstances, I shall certainly not shelter myself behind the technical plea, and I will endeavour to answer as succinctly as possible the noble Earl's Question. Lord George Hamilton, speaking at Ealing in October last, made this statement— On the last day of the session the Cabinet met and we had before us two documents—a pamphlet entitled 'Insular Free Trade,' and another document containing the proposals the Prime Minister wished officially to put forward in the name of the Government. Preferential tariffs and taxation of food were included in that programme. We agreed to the publication of the first document. We differed as to the acceptance of the proposals in the second. My Lords, what were the facts? There were, as by this time it is generally known, two documents.


Hear, hear! At last we have that.


One of them was a document written by the Prime Minister, for the ultimate purpose of publication. It is the pamphlet which most of your Lordships have had in your hands, and it is entitled "Insular Free Trade." At or about the same time the Prime Minister placed in the hands of his colleagues another document of a different character. It was written entirely for his colleagues, and was in that form with which those Members of your Lordships' House who have served in the Cabinet are familiar—the form of a confidential Cabinet Memorandum. That Paper we are obviously precluded from producing, and I therefore cannot quote it. I should not imagine that any Member of your Lordships' House would desire that we should establish a practice of making public and laying before Parliament Memoranda or Minutes written in these circumstances by one member of the Government for the information of his colleagues. But, my Lords, this I am prepared to say—that my noble friend Lord George Hamilton is, in my opinion, under considerable misapprehension, both as to the purport of that second document and as to its relation to the published Paper, and also as to the manner in which it was treated by his colleagues. I may be allowed to add without, I think, being guilty of indiscretion—that in the unpublished Paper the Prime Minister expressed the hope that his colleagues would not dissent from the conclusions to be found at the end of the pamphlet on "Insular Free Trade." I should like to remind your Lordships of what is to be found in the concluding paragraph of that latter document. It runs as follows— I hold myself to be in harmony with the true spirit of free trade when I plead for freedom to negotiate, that freedom of exchange may be increased. The first and most essential objects of our national efforts should be to get rid of the bonds in which we have gratuitously entangled ourselves. The precise manner in which we should use our regained liberty (a subject I do not propose to discuss in this paper) is an important, yet, after all, only a secondary issue. What is fundamental is that our liberty should be regained. I now come to the speeches of the noble Earl. Speaking at Leicester on 8th November he used these words— We know that on the last day of the session Mr. Balfour presented to his Cabinet, not one, but two pamphlets. One pamphlet, which we have the priceless privilege of purchasing— though somewhat, perhaps, jejune, and even obscure, dwelt principally, largely, on the great prosperity of the country. It also urged retaliation. But we now know that the Prime Minister produced from his resources a second pamphlet, which he offered as the policy of the Government, and which contained the full scheme of preferential tariffs, including the food tax, which had been advocated by Mr. Chamberlain. And when that policy as rejected, the Prime Minister calmly put it back in his pocket until a more fitting occasion. And the Prime Minister sits with a pamphlet in each pocket ready to produce the pamphlet or the programme as may suit the occasion as a general election may guide. The first point to which I have to call attention is that the noble Earl's interpretation of Lord George Hamilton's speech was repudiated by Lord George Hamilton himself.




On 13th January, 1904, Lord George I Hamilton wrote this letter to the editor of the Daily Mail,— It is not my habit to notice the ordinary personal attacks to which every public man is liable and which from time to time appear in the Press. But in your leading article of 12th January you impugn my veracity by stating that Mr. Balfour flatly contradicted a statement I made at Ealing as to two documents which were under the consideration of the Cabinet. Mr. Balfour in no way traversed my statement, but he very properly repudiated the gloss put upon it by Lord Rosebery. If Lord George Hamilton's statement did not correctly represent the attitude of the Prime Minister, your Lordships will scarcely differ from me when I say that the speech of the noble Earl still more grievously misrepresented it. There was a second speech of the noble Earl's, delivered on 12th December, but I need not quote it as it virtually repeats what was said in the Leicester speech. It is impossible to read these speeches without remaining under the impression that the noble Earl imputed to the Prime Minister, conduct which I can only describe as wanting in good faith. It seems to me that he charged him with an attempt to trick his colleagues, to trick Parliament, and the people of this country. I do not think it is a matter of surprise that the Prime Minister should have felt himself called upon to repudiate with a certain amount of warmth, the imputations—for I cannot otherwise describe them—of the noble Earl below the gangway. Your Lordships should, moreover, remember that the Prime Minister, on more than one occasion, had given an emphatic contradiction to the story of the two conflicting pamphlets which he was supposed to have in his pocket available for use as circumstances might dictate. He spoke at Manchester of that story as an "amazing legend." In the House of Commons a few days ago he stated categorically that there was no second document which could be described as an alternative document to "Insular Free Trade," and again he denied that there were two documents similar in character but opposite in opinion. Two days ago, however, this question was once more brought up in the House of Commons; and upon that occasion I find that the Prime Minister spoke of the repeated attacks made upon him by the noble Earl, and complained that the noble Earl had misrepresented him; and then, in reply to an interruption which for a moment diverted the course of the debate, he certainly used the expression "calumny" of the charge made by the noble Earl. I have had an opportunity of conferring with the Prime Minister as to this episode, and I am able to state to the noble Earl and to your Lordships that nothing was further from the mind of the Prime Minister than to impute to the noble Earl a deliberate attempt to misrepresent him. But the Prime Minister certainly did regard the charge in itself as acalumniou; charge. The noble Earl was, I think, misled to begin with by the statement originally made by Lord George Hamilton. He amplified and developed that statement, with the result that, perhap; without realising how far his words went he held up the Prime Minister to obloquy for what I cannot describe otherwise than as a breach of good faith towards his colleagues. In these circumstunces the Prime Minister has not unnaturally repelled the charge in language which, no doubt, was warm, but which I do not think was exaggerated or unjustified by the facts of tire case.


My Lords, I must offer a few observations on the statement to which we have just listened; and in order to put myself in order I will move the Adjournment of the House. The noble Marquess began his statement, on which I must congratulate him as being more frank than those statements of which we have read in another place, by saying that it was somewhat inconvenient and somewhat unusual to call Ministers to account in this House for language used by their colleagues in the other House. The noble Marquess has been in the House longer than I have, but he has not, perhaps, sat in it so long, owing to high appointments abroad; otherwise be would know that one of the difficulties of the Governments of which I have been a member in former times has been to answer Questions with regard to language held by their colleagues elsewhere which was not agreeable to Members of the Opposition. I remember particularly a most awkward question asked with regard to the language held by Mr. Gladstone about this House being "up in a balloon," which I rein ember even the tact and skill of Lord Granville had great difficulty in dealing with to the satisfaction of your Lordships. I am exceedingly glad that this conversation has taken place, because we have at last obtained from the noble Marquess what all the energy and skill of the House of Commons have failed to extract from the Prime Minister —namely, an exact account of what took place with regard to these two documents. The Prime Minister, indeed, never allowed the description of "document" to be applied to the second "written thing," as it is now described, presented to the Cabinet in August; but we have, at any rate, got thus far. There were two documents presented to the Cabinet, but one was for publication by the thousand and the other was not to be seen except by the Cabinet. We have been told something of the concluding sentence of the document, and in that way I venture to say that we have got more illumination than from all the speeches Mr. Balfour has made on the subject.


I hope that I did not mislead the noble Karl, but the concluding sentence which I quoted was from "Insular Free Trade."


Yes; hut the sentence which the noble Marquess quoted was one in which the unknown document did end with a request to his colleagues, or the expression of a pious aspiration that his colleagues would all agree to the last sentence of the pamphlet on "Insular Free Trade." I think that is an accurate summary. The point is one which the noble Marquess seems to have failed to grasp, and I am glad he has failed to grasp it for otherwise we should not have had his interesting explanation. The point is not what actually took place, but what Lord George Hamilton said had taken place, which was all that was before the public. Therefore we are greatly obliged to the noble Marquess for the narrative he has given us. It does not bear, or only remotely bears, on the question I put to him. My question was what justification there was for the use of the word "calumny," of which I stated the gravity, in reference to comments I had thought it right to make on the statement of Lord George Hamilton at Ealing. It is no answer to that to say that the statement of Lord George Hamilton at Ealing was inaccurate. It is no answer to say that Lord George Hamilton subsequently contradicted it himself, because the noble Marquess, somewhat less ingenuous than in the rest of his statement, failed to remark that Lord George Hamilton's contradiction did not come until after the three speeches I had made on the subject had been already delivered. Therefore, the contradiction as against my speeches has no weight whatever.

Now you have from the Foreign Secretary what was the language of Lord George Hamilton, and he has also read my speech. Nothing is more loathsome than to refer to old speeches except to help to make new ones; but I am bound to say, recurring to the speech to which the noble Marquess has referred—that of 7th November—I can find nothing in it which taken with the text of Lord George Hamilton's speech, deserves the strong expression of "calumny" "We know that on the last day of the session Mr. Balfour presented to his Cabinet, not one, but two pamphlets." I was wrong to use the words "two pamphlets." I withdraw the word "pamphlet"; but surely the misunderstanding is not worthy of the stigma of calumny. "One pamphlet, which we have the priceless privilege of purchasing"—that is true — "though somewhat, perhaps, jejune, and even obscure"—that is a matter of opinion but not a calumny—" dwelt principally, largely, on the great prosperity of the country"—that again, cannot be considered a calumny. "It also urged retaliation"—that is a fact—"but we now know that the Prime Minister produced from his resources a second pamphlet"—I have withdrawn the word "pamphlet"— which he offered as the policy of the Government, and which contained the full scheme of preferential tariffs, including the food tax, which had been advocated by Mr. Chamberlain." Lord George Hamilton said it was a document which contained substantive propositions which were proposed on behalf of the Government and officially put forward; and these propositions embraced preferential tariffs and the taxation of food. I venture to say that my statement in the speech is an under-statement given of that document as compared with the description given of it by Lord George Hamilton. The document has disappeared. It is apparently never to appear, and so I said— And when that policy was rejected, the Prime Minister calmly put it back in his pocket until a more fitting occasion. What calumny is there in that? I do not know whether he did put it in his pocket; he may have put it in a box: but for the Prime Minister to come down to the House of Commons and to bang the Table and call it a "calumny" is a procedure I should have thought no one who ever hold that position was capable of. There was another sentence which the gentleman who has copied the speech for me has omitted, but which the noble Marquess may supply me with. It is the portion about the alternative policy in my speech at Leicester. Would you mind reading it? [The noble Earl resumed his seat, in the expectation, apparently, that Lord Landsdowne would read the extract, but the Foreign Secretary handed the extracts across the Table for the noble Earl to make his own selection. Lord Rosebery found that the passage he sought was apparently not included in the documents, and he continued.] It was a sentence to the effect that the Prime Minister was ready to produce either policy as a general election might dictate. Is that a libel? Is that a calumny? I cannot go so far into the general question as to debate it this evening; but I venture to say that no one who has read the debates or the speeches delivered in this country, no one, particularly, who has read the debate on the Motion of Mr. Morley, can fail to see that there is ample ground for an opinion of that kind. When the Government puts forward alternatively a protectionist and a free-trader to represent them, no one can help seeing that their attitude is one of animated expectation, a waiting for a general election which shall guide them in the policy they shall afterwards pursue. But that is, after all, a matter of opinion. I maintain, however, that it is a matter of fair political inference from the statement of Lord George Hamilton and the statements of the Government themselves; and I venture to say that no Minister of whom we have record has been so thin-skinned, in circumstances such as we have witnessed, as to regard as a calumny a statement of opinion so obviously dictated by the facts. I suppose these are the glosses, this the misrepresentation, and this the calumny of which the Prime Minister complained. I should have thought, after reading the speeches in the other House, that there was more he had to complain of than mine, but as we are talking about glosses, let me remind the Prime Minister that he who lives in a glass house should not be too ready to throw stones. When speaking at Manchester, how did he describe the speech which we have heard read out? He said— Lord Rosebery has given circulation to an amazing legend that I went down to the second Cabinet in August and presented to my colleagues two alternative pamphlets recommending two inconsistent and mutually destructive policies Whoever said a word about inconsistent and mutually destructive policies? I regard the one policy as a half-way house to the other. A man who uses expressions of that kind should not complain of the glosses of others — And asked them to take their choice. Your Lordships may judge from the speech of Lord George Hamilton whether I was not warranted in making that statement. My Lords, the noble Marquess has not in the least withdrawn the expression used by the Prime Minister. He has said that the Prime Minister used in the heat of debate the expression, which I do not think he even regretted, but he did afterwards say, and the noble Marquess adopted the expression, that the statements were calumnious. You may say that is only "pretty Fanny's way," but if these are the expressions of a gentleman speaking under great heat and provocation — I say that if a man cannot curb his tongue better than that "pretty Fanny" should not be First Lord of the Treasury. I say these expressions are outrages on the good taste and decency of Parliament. I have thought it due to the decency of Parliament to call attention to the matter —not that I care one farthing what language Mr. Balfour may use about me or the opinions I hold, hut to point out to your Lordships that there are decencies of debate which should he observed even by those who occupy the highest political posts in the country. I move the adjournment of the House.

Moved, That this House do now adjourn —(The Earl of Rosebery.)


My Lords, it is rather inconvenient to prolong a discussion of which we have had no notice, but I think there is something more due to my noble friend than has fallen from the noble Marquess the Leader of the House. I venture to support what my noble friend has said. There are various ways of dealing with what one opponent says of another, but it is a very strong thing indeed, particularly for a man in the great position of Prime Minister, to use the word "calumny" and apply it to the arguments of another politician, who, he must know, is a man of honour, and not likely to exaggerate or distort. Calumny is a terrible word to use. It means a wanton misrepresentation of what has taken place. How can anybody suppose that the noble Earl would wantonly try to misrepresent what has been said by the Prime Minister or any other politician? I think what the noble Marquess has said is a most inadequate explanation of what has taken place, and of what has been said by the Prime Minister. As the noble Earl himself has said, the noble Marquess did not withdraw tin; word "calumny" He admitted it was strong, but according to the noble Marquess, he said there was little doubt these misrepresentations were of a calumnious nature. I think, therefore, we on this side are bound to support the noble Earl.


Before the Question is put, I want just to read what was said by Lord George Hamilton himself in the debate on Monday night in winding up the discussion. He said— I wrote that part of the speech out with that document before me. I have read that document again in the last few hours, and I adhere to every syllable of what I said to my constituents.

On Question, Motion disagreed to.