HL Deb 19 February 1907 vol 169 cc674-88

My Lords, I rise to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies with what object he caused the Speech of the Under-Secretary of State of 18th December to be cabled to Johannesburg, and published in the Press there; and, whether he has received any, and if so, what repudiation of the allegations contained therein against the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association; and whether the Government of the Transvaal have expressed any opinion, and if so, what, on the policy of publishing the speech by order of the High Commissioner.

My object in putting down these Questions to-night is not merely to give the noble Earl an opportunity of explaining what seems to me to be rather an extraordinary proceeding on the part of the Colonial Office, but also to call your Lordships' attention to another instance of the very unusual attitude which His Majesty's Government are adopting towards our Colonies. There is scarcely an important Colony or group of Colonies or an important community in our great Dependency that has not in one short year received some affront from His Majesty's Government. We know from the recent debate in Newfoundland what feelings have been aroused in our oldest Colony; we know how, in the case of the New Hebrides, the Government have ignored the wishes of the Colonies most concerned; we know that in India they have sacrificed a loyal and capable administrator to the how lings of a noisy and seditious but quite insignificant mob. But your Lordships probably do not know of the case I refer to in my Questions.

Towards the end of last session debates took place in both Houses on the subject of the Transvaal Letters Patent, and in your Lordships' House the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies expounded the views of the Government, whilst in the other House those views were set forth by the Under-Secretary. The next day, with a modesty which I think I may correctly describe as singular at the Colonial Office, the noble Earl cabled out to the High Commissioner, with strict injunctions that he was to publish it in the local Press, not his own speech, but the speech of the Under-secretary. Now, I can quite understand the Under-Secretary feeling that any, or, indeed every part of the Empire would be the better for reading one of his speeches, but that the noble Earl, who must be pretty well satiated with these productions, should think it necessary for the Transvaal to read it is not so natural. And, again, why such extreme urgency? If the speech was of such eminent importance as to necessitate public attention being called to it in the Transvaal, it, would probably reach the public ear through the ordinary channels and all in good time. But not so. The noble Earl was not satisfied with the ordinary process of public distribution of speeches, but had it cabled out. Therefore I ask the noble Earl what was his object in taking this undoubtedly unusual course.

Now, it is impossible for me to gauge the depths of the policy of His Majesty's Government towards the Transvaal. But one thing, at any rate, has been conspicuous since they came into office, and that is their animus against those who, by the election of the shareholders of the mining companies, manage the mining industry. That animus has been shown in various ways. It was displayed in the case which I several times brought before your Lordships last year, where the Government entered into a preferential confederacy with one of the Rand magnates against the rest of the industry; and of all those magnates they selected the one who, when the Transvaal was in difficulties, when the mining industry was asked to come forward and guarantee an amount of £10,000,000, would not put his name down for a single sixpence. That is the man the noble Earl selected for the preferential confederacy, with the view of doing injury to the other mining houses, as regards labour from Portuguese East Africa. Their animus in that instance is made the clearer by this fact, that whereas they, by bullying and threatening our ally, have compelled Portugal to comply most reluctantly with their wishes and have carried out their part of the bargain, their confederate, whose intentions were proclaimed with triumph by the Under-Secretary in another place, has not moved a finger to carry out any of his part of the compact.

Again, their vindictiveness has been displayed in another way. The official responsible for the introduction of the Chinese Ordinance was Sir Richard Solomon. In tones and terms of conviction he supported its introduction, and so late as the autumn of 1895 he repudiated, by comparative calculations, the allegations that the Chinese were specially unruly. He came home last year ostensibly to assist His Majesty's Government in preparing the Letters Patent. He was closeted for weeks with the noble Earl and the Under-Secretary, and he returned to the Transvaal to prove what was boasted of him, that he was the Government's best asset, and to execute an astonishing political volte face. My Lords, the noble Earl may protest against the suggestion that his object in cabling out the Under-Secretary's speech was to influence voters against the party to whom he has displayed this animus, but he cannot complain if his Government are judged by his actions, and after specimens of such obvious animus as I have described it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose it possible that that was the noble Earl's object.

The Witwatersrand Native Labour Association represent commercially the mining industry, and the Progressive Association represents that industry politically, and the accusations to which I am now going to call your Lordships' attention which were included in the Under-Secretary's speech, were director against one or both of those bodies. I observe that it was stated last night in another place that the object of the Government in cabling out the Under Secretary's speech was their anxiety that the inhabitants of the Transvaal should have an accurate version of what the Under-Secretary had said. That may have its advantages if what the Under-Secretary says is accurate; but inasmuch as there are three, or, at any rate, two, gross inaccuracies in this statement I confess I do not see that the answer was sufficient to satisfy most people. The publication was made on 22nd December, and that part of it to which I desire to call your Lordships' attention is this— We could not view without anxiety the concentration of the whole black labour supply in the hands of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association. That, without the context—and I am not sure that the context is quite clear—might be read by unobservant people as referring to the whole labour supply of South Africa. I imagine that the Under-secretary could not have been so inaccurate as to intend that. He was referring to the Portuguese supply, for it is only as regards Portuguese territory that the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association has the monopoly of recruiting. Over the whole of the rest of South Africa everybody has equal opportunities, except in certain parts where the mining industry is not allowed to recruit. That is one of the—well, doubtful accuracies.

The Under-Secretary went on to refer to the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association as— That powerful body which exerts such immense influence on local politics, and which in a hundred ways has woven itself into all the apparatus of economic and social life in Johannesburg. Local politics, your Lordships will observe, are specially referred to. He continued— This body, which has a tremendous and sinister control over the local Press. Now, where is the proof that the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association exercises influence over the Press? And why sinister? If the association does attempt to defend itself in the Press I suppose it is no different from any other labour or political organisation. But why sinister? I do not suppose that the defence of the Government's policy in the Radical Press could be correctly described as sinister. Mr. Churchill went on to say, referring to the association— This body, whose influence may sometimes be traced even in the columns of some of our leading newspapers, was given by the Chamber of Mines the power of turning off or on as a tap the supply of native labour. That is a distinct allegation that the association has "doctored" the labour returns for its own purposes. I challenge the noble Earl to produce one single atom of proof to show that that is so.

Here, then, are two statements. One of them I contradict flatly, and the other is contradicted very flatly indeed by the Transvaal Leader, one of the principal newspapers in South Africa. This journal, in a leading article, remarks— The cable under notice constitutes the gravest piece of impertinence yet voiced by the Under-Secretary for the Colonies. Mr. Churchill says that the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association 'has a tremendous and sinister control over the local Press.' As far as the Leader is concerned we characterise this statement as a deliberate lie, and we regret we have to use such language as regards a Minister of the Crown. The second statement is that the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association has been 'given by the Chamber of Mines the power of turning off or on as a tap the supply of native labour.' We know enough to characterise that as being—well, worse than a terminological inexactitude. The association thus impugned took legal opinion, and counsel advised that the statements were libellous. Of course, the noble Earl and the Under-Secretary are quite safe. They shelter themselves behind privilege. But the person who had to put this speech in the papers was a junior official. He undoubtedly could have been prosecuted for libel. The association, of course, was not going to trouble itself about small fry, and therefore the only way of calling attention to these remarkable proceedings is in Parliament.

I submit that for the British Government to attack one of the political Parties in a Colony immediately before a general election is unprecedented; and that if it were attempted in the case of any self-governing Colony the British Government would have been told some truths in plain language. I observe that in the Answer which was given last night in another place it was stated that very probably the noble Earl would resort to the same thing again. Well, with a responsible Government in the Transvaal I should not be surprised if there, too, he receives rather a rough reply if he tries to do something which, whether intentional or not, may have the effect of influencing political voters.

It was not enough that the pro-British Party should have been deprived of four seats which they were justly entitled to on the voters' roll as compiled by Government officials—deprived, so far as we understand, on an allegation which there is no attempt whatever to prove; it was not enough that thousands of British workmen should have been deprived of those seats which they were entitled to; but the Government must also go out of their way to publish these libellous and inaccurate accusations, well calculated, whether so intended or not, to influence voters previous to a general election.

Finally, I have to ask whether the Transvaal Government have passed any Resolution or conveyed to the noble Earl in any other form their opinion on the publication of that speech? The noble Earl, in a burst of confidence last year on another matter, told us he had nothing whatever to conceal. I observe, however, that he has taken care not to present to Parliament one solitary Paper on that subject since he made that statement, notwithstanding that cables and other communications must have been passing in quantities between His Majesty's Government and the Portuguese authorities. We are still as much in the dark as to the process by which Portugal has been induced to give way upon that point as we were when I first raised the subject. I hope, however, that the noble Earl will have nothing to conceal on this occasion, but will tell us what the Transvaal Government think of the proceedings which I have taken the liberty of bringing to your Lordships' notice to-night.


My Lords, my noble friend has attributed to me more modesty than I can claim, for as a matter of fact the tele- gram to which he has called your Lordships' attention was really only a part of a considerably longer telegram, the greater portion of which consisted of statements made by me in my place in your Lordships' House. If I were to take the Question as it appears on the Paper, my reply would be very simple indeed. Answering the last part first I will say that as far as I can ascertain no communication of any kind has reached the Colonial Office from the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association or the Transvaal Government in respect of the speech to which the noble Lord has referred.

With regard to the first part of the Question, I have to say that we took the course we did for the reason given in another place last night, that the telegram was sent in order to secure the full and accurate presentation of words used in Parliament instead of the condensations which are necessary in Press telegrams. Of course, it is perfectly open to the Government to embody in a despatch any important statement they may consider it necessary to make in Parliament, but on this occasion we were aware that very great attention would be paid to the actual statements made. We knew it from experience. When the previous statements with regard to the Transvaal Constitution were made in both Houses in July, we did not send the telegram at once though we had it under consideration, and we were immediately inundated by requests from the Transvaal for information as to what actually was said. In these circumstances we thought that the cabling out to South Africa of the actual words used by responsible Ministers in the two Houses of Parliament, the precise words they used and nothing more, could not be seriously said to be taking an unfair political advantage. I have to say, with regard to the statement which the noble Lord says was made in another place last night, that if a similar emergency arose I am not sure that I should not wish to take the same course again. It is not every day that we have to frame Constitutional instruments of the importance of Letters Patent and to present them to Parliament. Therefore I quite admit that, though the process adopted is a perfectly legitimate process in certain circumstances, it is not one that should be brought into frequent use.

With regard to the greater part of the noble Lord's speech to-night, I would like to say that it is a very good illustration of the inconvenience which arises out of a practice in your Lordships' House. In another place the Question would have been put and answered, and there the matter would have been at an end; but the noble Lord has brought up a variety of subjects which I do not think are even indicated in the Question as placed upon the Paper, and many of them have reference to explanations of phrases not used by myself, to which I am asked to reply. I may frankly say that I am not sure that if the particular matter in the telegram to which the noble Lord has referred had stood by itself, I should have classed it in the category of subjects to which the practice of cabling would justly apply; but I was compelled to act otherwise by the action of the noble Lord himself. The noble Lord has on two or three occasions brought this particular matter before this House, and my hon. friend who represents the Colonial Office in another place was challenged upon it in the course of the debate by the late Secretary of State for the Colonies. In these circumstances we did think that it was desirable that those in the Colony who were interested in the matter should know the view held by the Government, i.e., that, while not in any way imputing malpractices to the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association in the matter of recruiting, we were not sure that disadvantages did not result—that in fact we thought that disadvantages were connected with any assertion of monopoly. It was to bring that out, and that only, that we took our stand in connection with the subject, and I do not think I can be fairly asked to answer here for particular phrases used by my hon. friend in the other House, not in his main statement but in reply after debate. My hon. friend is very well able to take care of himself, and if any attack is to be made upon him in reference to language he has used, it should be made in the place where he could reply.

I really do not think that I ought to take up your Lordships' time by again entering upon the question that has already been debated between myself and my noble friend with regard to the licence to Mr. Robinson. I have always admitted that the method of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association was an immense improvement on the practice that obtained before, but I have also maintained, and I will just repeat it, that the association being voluntary, we must maintain the right of any member to leave it, and if any member of sufficient status decides to leave the association and comes to the Government with a request that a licence should be obtained for him separately, I do not quite see the ground on which it should be refused. Mr. Robinson, therefore, got a licence, but, as the noble Lord knows very well, difficulties arose after that licence was issued; and as to the noble Lord's imputation that I have been keeping back Papers, I have but to say that the arrangement with the Portuguese Government has only just been completed. The terms of that arrangement were announced in another place, but perhaps your Lordships will allow me to state what that arrangement is. The Portuguese Government, whose readiness to meet their wishes in the matter is recognised by His Majesty's Government, have agreed to the appointment of a joint Commission to inquire and report what system of recruiting and distributing natives from Portuguese East Africa will insure the largest and most continuous supply of labour to the mines of the Transvaal, provided that—1. Such natives are recruited voluntarily and are subjected to the most humane treatment (a) it the point of recruitment; (b) on the road; and (c) at the point of employment. 2. That the conditions are such as are compatible with the satisfactory and economic working of the mines. 3. That to detriment accrues to the political interests of the Transvaal or of the Province of Mozambique. On the day of the meeting of the Commission, which will be fixed at as early a date as possible, the Portuguese Government have agreed to denounce their agreement with the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association. I understand that Mr. Holmes, who represents Mr. Robinson, is at liberty to engage natives under the licence granted to him, and that the facilities accorded him have lately been extended, but it is not clear how far he has yet availed himself of these facilities. In reply to the direct Question of the noble Lord, I will consider whether, and to what extent, Papers on that subject can be laid.

I do not think it is necessary for me to do more than to disclaim any of the animus which the noble Lord has imputed to me personally, or to His Majesty's Government. But I do think I ought to say a word in reference to another who is not in this country to defend himself. Sir Richard Solomon has done great work for the Crown in South Africa. He came to this country, the noble Lord says, ostensibly to assist in the preparation of the Letters Patent, but I believe really on leave of absence for one short spell in his long period of arduous service; but that he did assist, and assist greatly, in the preparation of the Letters Patent I am the first to acknowledge. I am not the man to make defence for any political action which he may have thought fit to take on his return to South Africa. All that I would say on that matter is that I am perfectly certain Sir Richard Solomon will be well able to defend his own honour.

I do not know that I have anything more to say in answer to the noble Lord. I maintain that the object which we had in view in sending the telegram in question to South Africa was a legitimate one, and that the means which we took to publish the real statement of the case was also a legitimate one. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will not disapprove of our action.


My Lords, I do not know whether your Lordships will consider that the statement to which we have just listened is a complete or satisfactory explanation of what my noble friend, I think, very properly described as the extraordinary proceeding to which he called our attention. We are placed at some disadvantage in discussing the matter, because no Papers are before us. We have learned incidentally from the Secretary of State for the Colonies that the particular telegram in which the publication of the Under-Secretary's speech was directed contained also a direction that the noble Earl's own speech, or part of his own speech, should be simultaneously published. I am glad to hear that, because it seems to me at least conceivable that the oratory of the Under-Secretary when intended for Colonial consumption would be improved by a reasonable amount of dilution with the oratory of the noble Earl.

But to me it is entirely new that speeches delivered in Parliament by Ministers should be converted at once through the agency of the telegraph into State papers for the information of the great Colonies. I would venture to suggest that the style and manner of a speech delivered in the heat of debate does not always suit itself exactly to conversion into a State paper such as I have described, and that I cannot help thinking would hold true particularly of the Parliamentary style of the particular official whose utterances we are discussing this evening. The extracts which my noble friend has quoted certainly contained passages which were of a somewhat vitriolic description; and there can be no doubt whatever that those passages have given very great offence in the Colony.

We have, moreover, a right to consider whom it is that these charges are levelled at. The Under-Secretary singled out for his denunciation the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association. Now I understand that this association is really more or less identical with the Chamber of Mines, and that it comprises nearly all the most influential and respectable British residents interested in the great South African mining industry—men many of whom have been staunch and tried friends of this country, men who stood by us and submitted to great sacrifices in the interests of the Empire during the trying times through which we have had to pass. Is it right, my Lords, that persons of that kind should be told that they belong to a body which exercises a sinister control over the local Press, and which exercises an influence—I presume also a sinister influence—over the Press in this country? These charges are resented, and naturally resented.

The noble Earl told us, or so I understood him, that the complaint of his Majesty's Government was that this association controlled a monopoly of the labour supply. That may be a very fair observation to make. But it was not necessary to add that the monopoly is exercised in the manner imputed to them by the Under-Secretary, who charged them, as I understand, with having used their opportunities for the purpose of starving the labour market when it suited them to do so, and of flooding the labour market at other moments when it suited their convenience. And pray remember that these charges were made on the eve of the general election. Is that a moment when charges of that kind should be made in this manner?

I must say the whole occurrence seems to me to be a most regrettable one, and I cannot help thinking that His Majesty's Ministers would do well to recollect the advice which has been given to them on more than one occasion by a member of this House who knows South Africa better than any of us, and whose absence tonight I regret. I refer to Lord Milner In an admirable article from his pen which recently appeared in one of the magazines there is a passage in which he warned us that the most dangerous way of healing rare cleavage in South Africa is by uniting both parties in a common antipathy to the Mother Country. He pointed out that gentlemen connected with the mining industry in South Africa had been reviled as a pack of greedy adventurers, or as the tools of such adventurers, engaged in a mere soulless scramble for material wealth. And the moral he drew was this— We are losing friends every day, and we cannot afford to lose them. Depend upon it, my Lords, if these charges are made in the heedless manner in which they have been made by the Under-Secretary for the Colonies, the effect of it will be that we shall lose in South Africa friends whom the Empire can ill afford to lose.


My Lords, I do not think that my noble friend opposite has any just ground for complaint in the course taken by my noble friend the Secretary for the Colonies in regard to these telegrams. That course was not so extraordinary as my noble friend seems to think. I believe there are precedents for it. I know of one myself. Anybody who has had experience of the way in which speeches made in Parliament are often telegraphed abroad will think it very natural that my noble friend should have arranged that the speeches made by him and the Under-Secretary on such an important matter should be transmitted to South Africa as they were actually delivered.

If I might venture without impertinence to give an incident in my own experience, I remember when I was Secretary of State for the Colonies having had occasion to answer a question dealing with Africa and relating to the annexation of two or three small native quasi-independent States on the east coast. Reports had appeared in regard to these matters with which those who sent the telegrams were not well acquainted, and knowing how delicate the matter was, I thought it much better not to trust to Reuter telegrams, and sent, just as my noble friend did on this occasion, in my own language what had passed in the House, and the reasons which I had given for the course which the then Government had adopted. I do not think, therefore, that the matter is one to which exception can fairly be taken. I do not say it is a practice to be constantly followed, but I do think it is very important, in these days of telegraphic communication, that in delicate questions the Government should avail themselves of any opportunity, any means, they may have of securing that what they really did say is transmitted abroad to the parties who might be interested.

I am not surprised that my noble friend is not very fond of the remarkable and powerful eloquence of the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies; my hon. friend Mr. Winston Churchill is, no doubt, a powerful speaker and perhaps, not always a very agreeable speaker to those to whom he is opposed, because his statements are not only powerful but very straight. On this occasion I have not had the opportunity of referring to he speech made by my hon. friend, and therefore can only say that I do not think my noble friend the Secretary of State would have taken steps to have anything published in the Transvaal which was open to the objections that have been taken on this occasion.


My Lords, the noble Marquess the Leader of the House has, I think prudently and skilfully, departed from the grounds that were stated to your Lordships as those on which this matter was brought to the notice of the House. The noble Marquess referred to an occasion in his long and distinguished political career when he thought it necessary to guard against inaccuracies by publishing his own well-considered words; and the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies has informed the House that he also published, on the occasion referred to by my noble friend Lord Harris, his own words in regard to this matter—words which, I am sure, were marked by that caution which is one of the characteristics of the land from which he comes. But surely your Lordships are not going to contrast what the noble Marquess may have deemed it necessary to wire to another part of the world in order to prevent misconception, and what the noble Earl the Colonial Secretary deemed it right to do in reference to his own cautious words, with the observations made in another place by one who, whatever his gifts, has not the characteristic I have referred to.

The telegram in question was a most exceptional one. It is not a common practice to wire to other parts of the Empire speeches made by Ministers in Parliament; but when that course is followed great care should be taken that the time selected and the method adopted are not open to grave criticism. The Minister responsible for such an extraordinary departure from usual practice should take care that what is wired out is accurate and not open to the serious objections stated in your Lordships' House this afternoon in very plain language by my noble friend. The noble Earl confessed that the words to which special criticism was directed were not used in the main statement of the Under-Secretary, but in a supplementary reply. I suppose that fact was intended as a kind of ex- tenuation and mitigation of the words; if not, I fail to see the noble Earl's point in mentioning it. But is it an extenuation or mitigation? The noble Earl was responsible for this cable. He must have read, not only his own words, but also the words of the Under-Secretary which he directed to be included; and one would have expected that the noble Earl would consider whether those words, used on the eve of a general election, the possible outcome of which all South Africa was discussing, were suitable words to be cabled at that time. I think that is a matter of grave importance.

The noble Earl has not attempted to say one word in justification, if that be possible, of the language used. He may speak again by the permission of the House, and I should like to ask him whether he thinks it becoming that such language should be used at such a time about an important body such as the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association. Does he think it proper that at such a time, when keen political feeling existed, such language as that complained of should be used in Parliament and cabled to the Colony? The noble Earl has reserved to himself the right to take similar action in the future, but I venture to hope that cables of this kind that may be sent out hereafter will be more carefully scrutinized and that we shall be spared repetitions of debates like the present.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Five o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Four o'clock.