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Volume 203: debated on Friday 15 July 1870

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Sir, I rise to put a Question to Her Majesty's Government not dissimilar to that which I addressed to them yesterday, though perhaps of a more specific character. I will not conclude with a Motion, because I am at all times desirous to maintain the established custom of business. I think, moreover, it will be quite possible for me to bring my inquiry within the legitimate limits of a Parliamentary Question, and I am sure that if from want of skill I unwillingly pass for a moment those limits, the House will place a liberal interpretation upon our regulations, considering the gravity of the subject which has induced me to put the Question. I am the less disposed to think I may not perform what I intend within the limits of a Question because I rise at this moment not to embarrass Her Majesty's Government, but, on the contrary, if it be not presumption in me to say so, to endeavour to assist and support them at a moment of extreme difficulty. The Question I am going to put to the right hon. Gentleman is this—Whether he can inform Parliament what, in his opinion, is the cause of the present disturbed, state of Europe? It seems to me that the time has arrived when that Question is strictly legitimate. There have been two causes mentioned by public rumour for this unhappy state of affairs. One alleged cause has been that a German Prince has been a candidate for the vacant throne of Spain. I dismiss that subject altogether, as not an clement of the Question I am addressing to the right hon. Gentleman, and I advert to it only to render that Question more perspicuous. I cannot induce myself to believe that in the 19th century, with its extended sympathies and its elevating tendencies, anything so degrading and so barbarous can occur as a War of Succession. I may also remark, in passing, that we have had an authoritative statement very recently from the Minister of France which at once disposes of the pretext that any pretensions of a Gorman Prince to the Crown of Spain can be the cause of the present state of affairs. But, Sir, there is, in public rumour at least, another cause alleged, and it is with regard to that I wish to make an inquiry of Her Majesty's Government. It is said that between these two allies of Her Majesty, between whom this unhappy misconception seems suddenly to have arisen, there have been for a long time many causes of misunderstanding, much jealousy and distrust, and many difficulties as to their mutual relations, or their relations with other countries of Europe, which have been left open and unsettled, and that suddenly there has been a resolution in some quarters to bring about a precipitate settlement of those questions. Now, Sir, what I would venture to observe is this—If there be any truth in this statement, any foundation for the circumstances I allege, the cause of controversy between those allies of Her Majesty is purely a diplomatic cause. It has not arisen from an invasion of each other's territory or from any outrage which has been committed against the national honour of either throne; but it is purely a diplomatic question, and the causes must have existed for some time. What I wish to bring before the consideration of the Government and of the House of Commons as the foundation of the Question which I am going to prefer is this—that both these powerful States between whom this misunderstanding has arisen have, and have within a very short time, within only a few years, solicited the advice and prayed for the influence of Her Majesty to be exercised on their behalf. They have done more than that; they have induced Her Majesty to enter into engagements, and even perilous engagements, with a view of furthering their interests, securing the peace of Europe, and giving them the opportunity, the happy opportunity, of terminating all the questions of dissidence between them. Sir, under these circumstances I must express my opinion that, whatever may be the political competence of France or Prussia to declare and carry on war—and no one can question that—I say that, under these circumstances which I have recalled to the memory of Parliament, neither France nor Prussia has a moral right to enter into any war without fully and really consulting Great Britain, to whose Sovereign a few years ago they appealed to exercise her influence, and even to enter into engagements, in order to preserve the peace between them. What I want to know from Her Majesty's Government is whether, in the representations they have made to the Courts of the Tuileries and of Berlin, this view of the case by England has been fairly put before them? I make no doubt that the usual representations which at so critical a time would be made by the authority of England have been preferred; but we have arrived at a moment when it is not sufficient to dilate upon the horrors of war and the blessings of peace, when it is not sufficient to dwell upon the abstract principles which ought to induce any State that meditates disturbing the general peace to appeal to the comity of nations. That, to my mind, is not sufficient now. I do not for a moment wish the House to suppose from the tone in which I express myself that I doubt that Her Majesty's Government have fulfilled the task I describe; but its public announcement would, I think, have a beneficial effect upon Europe at the present moment. I say it is the duty of the Government—which I trust and believe they have performed—to bring before the consideration both of France and of Prussia the peculiar claims which Great Britain has at this moment upon their confidence, upon their trust, and for a reasonable deference to her counsels. I wish, therefore, to know from Her Majesty's Government, whether they have urged this view of the case on the Courts of France and Prussia—whether they have reminded them of the great sacrifices and of the great exertions which at their request and instigation only a short time ago the Queen of England made in order to advance their interests, secure the peace of Europe, and give them an honourable opportunity of terminating their differences? That is the Question, an answer to which I shall be glad to receive from Her Majesty's Government. I will only venture, before I sit down, to express my individual opinion that the ruler of any country who at this time disturbs the peace of Europe incurs the gravest political and moral responsibility that can over fall to the lot of man. I hear, Sir, superficial remarks made about military surprises, the capture of capitals, and the brilliancy and celerity with which certain results may be brought about. Sir, these are events of a bygone age. In the last century such melodramatic catastrophes were frequent and effectivo—we live in an age animated by a very different spirit. The fate of a great country like France or Prussia cannot be ultimately affected by such incidents; and the Sovereign who trusts to them will find at the moment of action that he has to encounter, wherever he may be placed, a more powerful force than any military array, and that is the outraged opinion of an enlightened world.

Sir, it is not for me to follow the right hon. Gentleman over the whole of his remarks, for he, I am sure, will agree with me when I say that at this particular moment he, in common with all other Members of this House, enjoys a freedom which does not belong to the Advisers of the Crown. At the same time, adverting to the impressive words with which he closed his speech, I must say that it is the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, as it appears to be his opinion, that there is nothing in the circumstances, nothing in the differences which have lately appeared, which will justify, in the judgment and conscience of the world, a breach of the general peace. "With respect to the Questions the right hon. Gentleman has put to mo, they are, as I understand them, these two—He asks whether I can inform Parliament what, in the opinion of the Government, is the cause of the present disturbed state of Europe? I think, Sir, for the sake of those who have official responsibility, and of those who have the duties in relation to Foreign Powers which official responsibility entails, it would be better that I should avoid reference at the present moment to any causes which may have contributed to bring about the present menacing state of affairs other than those which have appeared. The right hon. Gentleman has also asked me whether Her Majesty's Government have made it part of their care to bring before the two great States, now engaged in communications that appear to be very proximate to hostilities, the peculiar claims of Great Britain to be heard in regard to their disputes, and to have the recognition of her title to offer friendly advice with a view to friendly settlement. I am bound to say neither of these two States has, in the present instance, shown the slightest disposition to impatience at the representations of Great Britain, or the slightest indisposition to allow her to exercise whatever title to friendly intervention may belong to her, or has put upon us the necessity of resorting to arguments drawn from any special juncture in former affairs for the purpose of making good that right on our part. But, Sir, I may say that that title to friendly offices, on the part of any one State of the civilized world towards any other State, really has been placed upon a foundation in Public Law by a great European act of recent times, which does not admit of its being brought into dispute. I refer, of course, to that Protocol of the Conference at Paris in 1856, whereby it was recognized, in the most solemn manner, at an assemblage of the representatives of all the Great Powers of Europe, to be the duty of each of those Powers, at least as a general rule, in case, unhappily, of controversy arising with a neighbour, to submit that controversy to some friendly adjudication before having resort to the last, melancholy, and horrible extremity of arms. With respect, therefore, to the Questions of the right hon. Gentleman, these are the answers I shall give to them. With respect to the actual state of affairs, I have no decisive intelligence to communicate to the House; but I am sorry to say the course of the communications and transactions thus far between the two Great Powers concerned has not been, on the whole, favourable. The point, however, is now very near at hand at which things must take a decisive course in favour of either peace or war. Any functions which we can discharge, any offices we can render, are necessarily limited; but I have the hope that when the time comes, and probably it must very soon arrive, at which it will be our duty to explain in detail that which it is now no less our duty to withhold, the House may be of opinion that Her Majesty's Government have not fallen short of the obligations incumbent on the representatives of England, and likewise have not gone beyond them.

Sir, I merely wish to say, in a few words, that I believe it is impossible for any of us, however strongly we may feel on this subject, to exaggerate the difficulty, the delicacy, and the responsibility of the position of the Ministry. Possessing, as they do, the full confidence of the House, it is impossible for is—["Order!"]

I wish to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) put a Question to the First Lord of the Treasury, which has been answered. If a Debate is to arise it cannot go on without a Motion.

Sir, I will not do that which I might do; but I will only express my regret that, as the subject has been so largely gone into by the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire and by the First Minister of the Crown, it has not been introduced in such a way as to enable others to speak on the subject.

said, he rose to express a deep sense of obligation—["Order!"]

I am bound to point out to the hon. Member that, after what has just passed, and after the withdrawal of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Horsman), it would be impossible, without unfairness to that right hon. Gentleman, to allow a debate to arise.

I must appeal to the hon. Gentleman not to persist in speaking, seeing the injustice it would be to the right hon. Gentleman who consented to withdraw.

said, that as the feeling of the House against the course he proposed to take was evidently very strong, he would not persist in it; but he had thought his right hon. Friend the Member for Liskeard (Mr. Horsman) would probably second his Motion.

said, he rose to ask a Question of, or make a suggestion to, the Secretary to the Treasury. If hon. Members were—say, at Liverpool—every two hours they would receive telegrams from all parts of Europe; but attending the House of Commons, and rendering what service they could to the country, they were cut off from this intelligence. Would it not be possible to have arrangements made by which they might see telegrams every two hours, as they would if they were in the country?