HL Deb 14 March 1922 vol 49 cc464-70

My Lords, I am sorry to have to ask your Lordships' attention for a few moments to a personal matter arising from the references to myself contained in a speech made by a late colleague of mine, Mr. Montagu, on Saturday last. I had thought that the Foreign Secretary, who is about to proceed to Paris for the discussions on the Eastern question, was the chief sufferer by the astonishing act of the late Secretary of State for India, inasmuch as the authorisation by him of the publication of the manifesto of the Government of India could not but gravely affect the position of the British representative in the forthcoming Conference. But I learned, greatly to my surprise, from Mr. Montagu's speech, that I am deemed in some way to have connived at this injury to the public interests in my charge. And this amazing proposition Mr. Montagu endeavoured to establish by a public reference to private correspondence with me and to a private conversation in the Cabinet chamber, which I cannot help thinking must be without parallel in the history of Cabinet proceedings. I am compelled therefore briefly to state the facts.

In common with my colleagues I received, on Saturday afternoon, March 4, from the Cabinet Office, a copy of the telegram from the Government of India in which they sought permission to publish their manifesto about the terms of peace with Turkey. Knowing that there was to be a Cabinet at the beginning of the next week, and not deeming it possible that Mr. Montagu could sanction publication without reference to his colleagues, I regarded it as certain that the question would be brought up at the meeting on Monday. On that day, before the proceedings began, I mentioned the Viceroy's telegram to Mr. Chamberlain, who presided in the absence of the Prime Minister, and expressed to him the view that when the permission of the Cabinet to publication was sought it must be unhesitatingly refused. In this he concurred.

A little later, in the course of a private conversation of a few seconds only with Mr. Montagu, I said: "Of course, you will not authorise publication without reference to the Cabinet." To this he replied: "But I have already done so on Saturday last." I was so dumbfounded at the avowal that the Secretary of State had already given his sanction—as it has since transpired., before the telegram from the Government of India could even have been seen by many of his colleagues—that I closed the conversation and returned to my seat. Had Mr. Montagu given me the slightest hint that there was still time to cancel or to postpone the order which he had sent to India by telegram two days before, or had I regarded such a suspension as possible, I should at once have brought this matter before the Cabinet. But I assumed that publication had already, under Mr. Montagu's authority, taken place in India—all the more so that the Government of India had pressed for immediate sanction to publish.

I presumed, therefore—and in the circumstances no other presumption was possible—that it was too late for me to intervene. Furthermore, the responsibility for the step was not mine; it was for the Secretary of State to explain and to justify his own action, already taken, to the Cabinet. He was the Indian Secretary, and not I. Whether he then or afterwards proceeded to do so or not I did not know, for being ill at the time and having only risen from bed to attend the Cabinet for certain Foreign Office matters, I left the room as soon as these had been disposed of. Feeling, however, profoundly disturbed and dismayed at the action which Mr. Montagu had just revealed to me, I wrote to him a private letter the same afternoon, deploring the action that he had taken and protesting against a repetition of any similar occurrence. Of so intimate a character was this letter, written by one colleague to another, that I did not even take a copy of its contents. I regarded it. as no less confidential than scores of similar letters which Mr. Montagu has addressed to me while we have served together, sometimes at the rate of two or three a week, the character of which I will not follow his example by attempting in public to describe.

I awaited a reply to this letter throughout Tuesday and Wednesday before deciding what further steps, if any, it might be desirable for me to take. Neither then nor since did Mr. Montagu favour me with any answer. Instead of this, the late Secretary of State, reversing the ordinary procedure by which a Minister who has resigned makes his explanation in Parliament, where his statements can be checked or answered—


Hear, hear.


—went down to his constituents, addressed a political club of his own supporters, publicly referred to and travestied both my private conver sation with him and my private letter, vilified the colleague whose advice in relation to Indian foreign and frontier affairs, he has not ceased both to solicit and to receive in unstinted measure in most weeks of recent years, and endeavoured to shift some portion of the responsibility for his lamentable indiscretion on to thy shoulders.

My Lords, I have this morning recovered from Mr. Montagu a copy of my letter, and I hold it in my hand. It was marked by me "Private." It seems to me an intolerable, as I believe it to be an unprecedented, thing that an ex-Cabinet Minister should, by quoting and distorting in public a private letter written to him under the seal of confidence by a colleague, compel its publication to the world. Such a proceeding appears to me neither consistent with the confidence which should prevail between Ministers, nor with the honour of public life. But Mr. Montagu has left me no alternative, and I will now read the letter to your Lordships. But first let me ask your Lordships to recall Mr. Montagu's description of it. This is what he said at Cambridge:— But what did Lord Curzon do? He maintained silence in the Cabinet and contented himself that evening with writing to me one of those plaintive, hectoring, bullying, complaining letters which are so familiar to his colleagues and to his friends, which ended with the request—what? Not to discuss the matter in the Cabinet, but in future not to allow publication of such documents without consultation with him. That was all.

I will now read the actual terms of the letter:


"March 6th, 1922.

"Dear Montagu,

"I much deplore that you should have thought it right without consulting the Cabinet to authorise the publication of that telegram even as amended. Had I when Viceroy, ventured to make a public pronouncement in India about the foreign policy of the Government in Europe, I should certainly have been recalled. As it was, I was once rebuked for making a casual reference in a speech. I consulted Chamberlain this morning in the absence of the Prime Minister, and found that he entirely shared my views.

"But it was too late.

"That I should be asked to go into Conference at Paris, while a subordinate branch of the British Government 6,000 miles away dictates to the British Govern- ment what line it thinks I ought to pursue in Thrace seems to me quite intolerable. But the part that India has sought to play or been allowed to play in this series of events passes my comprehension. Moreover it is of very dangerous import. For if the Government of India, because it rules over a large body of Moslems, is entitled to express and publish its views about what we do in Smyrna or Thrace, why not equally in Egypt, the Soudan, Palestine, Arabia, the Malay Peninsula, or any other part of the Moslem world? Is Indian opinion always to be a final Court of Moslem appeal? I hope this may be the last of these unfortunate pronouncements. But if any other is ever contemplated I trust at least that you will give me the opportunity of expressing my opinions in Cabinet before sanction is given.

"Yours ever,

"(Signed) CURZON."

Your Lordships can form your own opinion as to the tone of the letter which I have read.


Hear, hear.


But you will observe that instead of requesting, as alleged by Mr. Montagu at Cambridge, that he should in future discuss such matters with me without bringing them to the Cabinet, I said on the contrary precisely the reverse. I urged that it was before the Cabinet that I should be given an opportunity of expressing my opinion before any independent action of this sort was ever again taken by the Secretary of State for India.

Such are the facts of the case upon which it is open to anyone who hears or reads my words to pass his own judgment. They leave me still quite unable to determine whether the private or the public conduct of the late Secretary of State for India has been the more inexplicable and surprising, and, my Lords, in using those adjectives, I am astonished at my own moderation.


My Lords, in the first place I desire to express the sympathy which I am sure all your Lordships feel with the noble Marquess opposite in the circumstances in which he has had to come to the House to make this statement. The noble Marquess, as we know, has been seriously ill; I am not overstating the case in using that adverb, and we all watched, I think, with sympathy the difficulty and the necessary emotion with which he made the statement which he thought it his duty to come down and present to your Lordships at the earliest possible moment.

On the actual circumstances of this unhappy event I do not wish to say much. I have been a colleague both of the noble Marquess opposite and of the late Secretary of State for India, and I have no desire to engage in any personal criticisms of the actions of either. The noble Marquess has stated his case with the utmost fairness, and I am bound to say that so far as the original cause of his indignation is concerned, he will, as I believe, receive the universal sympathy of the House. Mr. Montagu has rendered, at any rate in the opinion of many of us, great services to India in the past, and I could not mention his action on this particular occasion without paying that tribute to him. It will, I believe, be the universal feeling of your Lordships' House, and I am bound to say it appears to be of everybody outside, that in having sanctioned the publication of this particular telegram—the manifesto, as the noble Marquess described it—of the Government of India expressing, it is true, views which they were known to hold but which they were not entitled to give formally to the world, Mr. Montagu committed a breach of the ordinary proprieties of Cabinet Government to which, like the noble Marquess, I can recall no precedent.

I do not desire to enter into the circumstances of the correspondence that ensued. I will say this—that the letter of the noble Marquess as read by him—and, of course, I bad no conception what it contained—does not appear to me to deserve the particular epithets applied to it by Mr. Montagu. If I had had to criticise it as between colleagues, I should have said that it was couched in rather more formal terms than, perhaps, is customary between men who are in the habit of sitting round the same table many days a week and perpetually working together. That is a somewhat opposite kind of criticism to that which its recipient levelled at it, and it is the only one that I at all feel inclined to make.

I do not desire to say anything more on the personal question, but I cannot help observing, and my observation is in no sense or way aimed at the noble Marquess, that action of this kind on the part of a Minister, surprising as it may be, is less surprising than it would have been from a member of a Government in which the old tradition of collective responsibility had been more uniformly respected. We cannot help recalling other cases in which His Majesty's Ministers—I do not name any—seem to have arrogated to themselves the right to make speeches either on platforms or sometimes even in Parliament, conveying views distinct from, and even opposed to, those which were understood to be entertained by the Government as a whole. If this particular Minister has gone too far, as we all think he has, in the assertion of this independence, I am afraid he has been encouraged to do it by the manner in which No. 10, Downing Street has conducted the system of Cabinet Government.

But what really matters after all is what is going to be the effect on India, and what is going to be the effect upon Europe at the Conference of which the noble Marquess has told us. That is what really matters, far and above all these lamentable personal questions. This is not the moment to discuss what the possible effects on either may be. All that anybody can do is to ask people to view the whole of this episode as soberly as possible, and we trust that when it comes to the discussion regarding Greece and Turkey, this will not be allowed, in the mind of Europe, to enter into the question at all. I hope this episode will be completely blotted out from the minds of those who attend the Conference in Paris. There is this much to be said, that the particular opinions of the Indian Government, going, as I personally hold, far beyond the needs of the case, were at any rate well known. I trust, therefore, that being so, that this most unfortunate publication will not in the event interfere with the smooth progress of that Conference, whenever it takes place.