HL Deb 26 February 1908 vol 184 cc1711-5

My Lords, before the commencement of public business I ask leave to make a very brief personal statement with regard to a Paper which was circulated to your Lordships with the Parliamentary Papers this morning. It is an extract from a despatch written by the Government of India in my day to the Secretary of State, relating to British policy in Persia. It is dated 21st September, 1899. Your Lordships may remember that the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Crewe) in the debate on the Anglo-Russian Convention, referred to this despatch with the object of arguing that the Government of India had committed themselves therein to an expression of opinion about the respective limits of the British and Russian spheres of influence in Persia which precluded me from passing the criticisms on the Anglo-Russian Convention that I had done. I thought at the time and I think still that it was a most irregular, and, if I may say so in the face of the noble Earl, who is so remarkable for his courtesy, an improper proceeding, that any one of His Majesty's Ministers should, without notice, suddenly in public debate, for the purpose of debating advantages, quote a passage from a confidential despatch of the nature of that to which I have referred. It will be remembered that I at once challenged the representation of my views given by the noble Earl, and asked him to lay the Paper on the Table.

That is the history of this document. I may say at once that I accept the fullest responsibility for it, because I wrote the despatch myself. The argu- ment of the noble Earl was that in this despatch the Indian Government had intimated their opinion as to the proper limits of the Russian sphere in Persia; secondly, that that sphere included the trade route running from Baghdad by way of Khanikin and Kermanshah to Teheran; thirdly, that it included Yezd; fourthly, that it passed through Kerman to a point north of Seistan; and fifthly, that the Russians consequently would have obtained under this proposal a sphere of influence larger than that conceded to them under the treaty. A reference to this despatch will reveal that not one of those propositions can be sustained. As a matter of fact the Government of India in this despatch were not discussing a Russian sphere at all. They had been asked by the Secretary of State to give their opinion on a proposal which had emanated from Sir Mortimer Durand, the British Minister in Persia, with regard to the northern limits of the British sphere, both political and commercial, in Persia. Secondly, so far from including in the Russian sphere the trade route of which I have spoken, we used these words: "On no account ought we to forfeit British supremacy in this trade route"—a supremacy at that time reflected by an annual trade of about £1,000,000. Thirdly, of Ispahan, I said that it must on every ground be included in the zone in which British interests are supreme. Fourthly, we even said that Sir Mortimer Durand's line which stopped at Ispahan ought to be amended so as to include Kashan, a place more than 100 miles north of Ispahan, and that it would be unwise in British-interests for any Russian railway to penetrate to any point south of that town. Fifthly, our line included Yezd. Sixthly, we expressed no opinion in this despatch about the boundary north of Seistan beyond pointing out that there was no natural or geographical line of division there, and that this would be a difficulty that would have to be borne in mind by His Majesty's Government in discussing the matter with Russia. Throughout the despatch the Government of India stated over and over again, with an insistence that cannot be denied, that the regions of Central and Southern Persia, to which by the treaty Russia has been brought down, should be, and should remain, because of our interests there, inside the British sphere. I hope I have said enough to show that the spirit of our argument and indeed, the strongest individual points in it were no doubt unintentionally misrepresented by the noble Earl.

I am well aware that the matter is not one of general interest, and I do not desire to push it; but inasmuch as the reference to the despatch emanated in the first place from the noble Earl, and his representation of the case stands on record, I had no alternative but to ask that the Paper should be laid, and to make this brief statement on the subject.


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord for having given me private notice of his intention to raise this matter, which, while of no great general interest, is of some importance both to him and to me. I will not attempt to argue as to the propriety or impropriety of the action I took, but I think it will be generally conceded that a Minister has the right to quote from a State Paper if he is prepared to lay that Paper on the Table of the House. There is a peculiarly disagreeable form of argument in which I am sure the noble Lord will acquit me of engaging. It consists in accusing a person of something he has never done, or imputing to him opinions he could not possibly hold, and then demanding his gratitude on the ground that you have given him an opportunity of contradicting the statement. I am sure the noble Lord will not accuse me of any action of that kind if I say that I am glad he has had an opportunity of contradicting the statement I made; because my right hon. friend Sir Edward Grey and I did form an entirely different interpretation of the noble Lord's meaning in this despatch from that which he has stated to the House. It used to be stated of the late Mr. Browning that admirers of his poems were in the habit of applying to him as to the meaning of difficult passages in them, and he generally answered that no doubt he knew what he meant when he wrote them, but at the time of receiving the request he had entirely forgotten what the real meaning might be. We are much more fortunate, in that we have had a detailed statement from the noble Lord as to what his meaning really was. The statement on which I founded what I said was this— Sir Mortimer Durand has drawn a line across Persia from Khanikin on the Turkish frontier on the west, through Kermanshah, Hamadan, Ispahan, Yezd, and Kerman to Seistan and the Afghan frontier on the cast, as indicating approximately the British and Russian spheres of influence, both political and commercial, in Persia. That passage having appeared in the despatch without note or comment, we assumed it was the view taken by the noble Lord, subject to the correction at a later stage in which he said— In any care we should recommend that the line of partition suggested by Sir Mortimer Durand should be so far amended as to substitute Kashan for Ispahan. If I remember right, I think I particularly said that Ispahan was not included in the line the noble Lords' Government appeared to favour.

The terms, I think, are open to misapprehension, because when you say a line is drawn through these important places, I admit it is exceedingly difficult to say in which sphere they are supposed to be included; for it is hardly conceivable that half of each town should be under the influence of one Government and half under another. But when I went on to say that in some respects I considered this arrangement a less satisfactory one than that which we proposed, I meant that, looking at the two lines drawn on the map, it was perfectly evident that the Durand line, if I may so call it, runs as regards the Russian sphere at a distinctly more obtuse angle than the line of the Russian sphere as drawn by our Agreement, and the argument I used was that the British and neutral spheres together, as compared with the British and Russian spheres mentioned in the despatch, at any rate so far as the Afghan frontier was concerned, showed a greater advantage from the British point of view. I most fully accept the interpretation of the despatch as having been what the noble Lord meant when he was writing on behalf of the Government of India, and I can only say further that I had not the faintest intention of misrepresenting the noble Lord, but that the misconstruction arose from some degree of obscurity in its wording.


, who had given notice of his intention to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether the autograph promise of the Shah of Persia given to His Majesty's Government in March, 1889, and repeated on several occasions at a later date, that Great Britain should have priority in the construction of any southern railway to Teheran, that if concessions for railways were given to others in the north, a similar concession should be granted to an English company in the south, and that no southern railway concession in Persia should be granted to any foreign company without consultation with His Majesty's Government, which promise was referred to by Lord Cranborne in the House of Commons on 18th February, 1903, and by the Marquess of Lansdowne in the House of Lords on 5th May, 1903, is still regarded by His Majesty's Government as operative, or whether it has been abrogated or modified by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 31st August, 1907, said: My Lords, at the request of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs I beg to postpone this Question to some day next week.


I have to thank the noble Lord for postponing the Question. I asked for a postponement because I did not see the Question on the Paper until yesterday, and owing to the great pressure of the debate on Macedonia it was really impossible for me to prepare the answer for to-day.