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France And Prussia—Alleged Draft Treaty—Question

Volume 203: debated on Monday 25 July 1870

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Sir, I thought it convenient, under circumstances which it is unnecessary for me to dwell upon, not to confine myself strictly to the limits of a Parliamentary Question in the matter which I wish to bring before the House. It is possible that the document to which I shall have to call attention may be contained in the Papers which are to be laid upon the Table, and may be accompanied with explanations. If the Papers about to be distributed among hon. Members contain that docu ment and a satisfactory explanation, my observations will be useless; but I am bound to say that if those Papers do not contain that document and a satisfactory explanation, they, perhaps, may merit the same epithet. I must say I regret very much that these Papers are not in our possession. No one feels justified, under ordinary circumstances, in hurrying a Government in the production of diplomatic documents; but—speaking, of course, with that want of knowledge which all but those in Office must be influenced by—I cannot understand that the awful events that have occurred, or are about to occur, in Europe, were preceded by any voluminous correspondence on the part of our Government with the belligerents, or with any other Powers. If not an official, we have a public declaration by the Minister most concerned in such matters—the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—that about the time when this startling intelligence alarmed Europe—he having then just accepted the seals and being about to assume the duties of Secretary for Foreign Affairs—he was informed by the highest authority that the diplomatic atmosphere was never so serene, and that he had the advantage of acceding to Office under circumstances which would probably occasion him less anxiety than ever fell to the lot of a Minister of State. And, therefore, though one may be mistaken, it seems a natural inference that the correspondence which is to be laid on the Table is not of a very voluminous character. Then why has it not been produced? Weeks have elapsed—at least I believe this is the third week since the announcement of the present state of Europe was officially made. The Government were asked immediately for Papers. And I must say for myself that I was surprised that so great a delay occurred in their presentation. It appears to me that it would have been natural, and even agreeable to the feelings of any Ministry, in the position in which the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues found themselves, to have lost not a moment in placing before Parliament the information, scanty but sincere, which it was in their power to give to us. However, the Papers, after a delay which is unaccountable under the circumstances as they occur to us, were presented and laid on the Table on Friday last, and I certainly was under the im pression that on Saturday morning they would be in the hands of every hon. Gentleman. So far as I know, that has been the custom with Papers presented by the Foreign Office. They are generally, if not Universally, printed, I believe, at the private press of that office, before they are presented; and accordingly there is nothing to prevent their being in the hands of Members on the following morning. I do not know whether any change has arisen in the administration of the Foreign Office with regard to matters of this kind, or whether the delay is attributable to motives of economy; but, if so, the House is, I think, entitled to information on the point. But even if we had to appeal to the resources of the private presses of the country, I am at a loss to conceive what could occasion this extraordinary delay. The Papers presented on Friday were naturally expected by Members of the House to be in their hands on Saturday, but this is now Monday, and no Papers are in our hands. It appears to me that, considering the awful issues that are at stake, some explanation should be offered by the Government with respect to this delay. That being the case, I have to address the House with the difficulty which must attend one who has no public documents to which he can refer. I have stated sincerely, and I think I have shown to the House, when questions of this importance have been before under consideration, that nothing would induce me to take any stop which would have for its principal object to embarrass the Government. But, although we are not desirous of embarrassing the Government, but would rather scrupulously avoid doing anything that would have that effect, we must recollect that there is a duty to perform to Parliament and the country. When the peace of Europe is broken, I think it is not unusual to expect that the Parliament of this country in due time, and as soon as possible, should learn the cause, and, at all events, if that is an expectation which we are justified in indulging, it has peculiar force when the Session is about to terminate, and when Members are about to disperse, when, under no circumstances, can our Sitting be much prolonged, and when, under ordinary circumstances, we cannot be re-assembled for a considerable period of time. It seems to me somewhat absurd that the peace of Europe should be broken on a scale so vast, and in a manner so threatening as the present, and that Parliament should really have no conception of the causes of such an event, and that Members, on going to their constituents, should, when asked any questions—as they always are in the autumn—be perfectly unacquainted with what has occurred, and be therefore unable to satisfy their justifiable political curiosity. And, Sir, it is the more desirable we should have some clear conception of the present state of affairs, because there are no want of alleged causes, and no want of statements made, and by persons of authority, but unfortunately they are all of a contradictory character. It is not for me for a moment to impugn the declaration made by a Minister of State in any country, or by individuals superior in station even to Ministers of State. I take it for granted that such persons are gentlemen influenced by a high spirit of honour, and actuated by a due sense of the grave responsibility that attends all their words and all their acts. I attribute the discordant statements that are made to the rapid and imperfect mode of communication which is the characteristic of the scientific age in which we live. But it is not a state of affairs that an English Parliament can find very satisfactory, to depend only upon broken telegrams of public declarations made by persons, however great or however distinguished may be their position. What we want are documents. And now, Sir, a document to-day has appeared, and respecting that document I wish to make inquiries of the right hon. Gentleman. That document appears in the form of a projected Treaty between Prussia and France. It involves considerable modifications of the present arrangements of Europe, and among other provisions it contemplates the military occupation, and finally the conquest, of the kingdom of Belgium by the Emperor of the French. Now, I do not know what may be the date of this projected Treaty, but it refers to a state of affairs which proves that the date cannot be a very remote one. I should like to know when this project was first proposed; and, if that was at some interval from the present day, whether it has come to the knowledge of Her Majesty's Government that it has been renewed? I need not touch upon the importance of accurate knowledge upon this subject to the Parliament of this country. I do not want to-night, indeed I entirely wish to avoid entering into, any discussion as to the merits of either of the belligerents in the war which may now, I am sorry to say, be described as having commenced. If the House thinks it its duty to come to some opinion upon it, I am sure it will not shrink from the fulfilment of that duty; but I am equally sure that it will not attempt to exercise its privilege of so doing without being in possession of the best information it can obtain, and without giving to it mature consisideration and thought. And I may be permitted to say, without at all adverting to the causes, the merits, or even the possible consequences, of the present struggle, that I think the policy which is indicated in this project of Treaty is one which this country has never approved and never can approve. I must say that I should look upon the extinction of the kingdom of Belgium as a calamity to Europe and an injury to this country, and I therefore trust that such an attempt will not be made; nor can I forget that, if such an attempt is made, the engagements into which the Soverign of this country has entered with respect to that kingdom will demand the gravest consideration not only of the Government, but of the House and the country. I will now take the liberty of making the inquiry of which I have given Notice to the right hon. Gentleman. I wish to know whether Her Majesty's Government can throw any light upon that project of Treaty which has been published this morning; whether they are in possession of information which may enable them to inform Parliament whether it indicates a policy which, in their opinion, may still influence the belligerents, or either of them; and whether they will give to the House such information as is in their power with respect to a subject which, I think I may venture to say, has occasioned great disquietude in the public mind?

I will first refer, Sir, to what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the anxiety of the House—and a very natural anxiety, to be in possession of the Papers which may, more or less, serve to illustrate the origin of the present unhappy war. Of course, I need hardly remind the House that the simple fact of the outbreak of a great war in Europe does not by itself imply that it should be—should necessarily be, in the power of a Government, however much they may desire it, to obtain for themselves, or to place in the possession of the House of Commons, full information upon the subject. That must depend upon the degree in which they themselves have been made parties to any transactions connected with the outbreak of the war. So far as we were made parties to any of those transactions, we have the means and the disposition to afford every information, and I join the right hon. Gentleman in regretting that the Papers are not yet in the hands of Members. But I think he will find, when they are in his hands, that they contain information coming down actually to the day before, if not to the very day, when they were laid upon the Table of the House. Possibly, the right hon. Gentleman may think that the earlier part of the communications which preceded the final rapture might have been separated from those of later days; but I mentioned upon a former occasion that every effort was made on the part of the Government before presenting these Papers; but the rapidity of the whole transaction was extreme, and it was absolutely necessary, in conformity with usage and obvious motives of policy, that we should give opportunities of communication with our chief representatives abroad, a process which necessarily occupied some time. That is all I can say, and I can only express a hope that when the Papers are laid upon the Table of the House the right hon. Gentleman will see that they contain sufficient to support the statement I have ventured to make—that there has been no voluntary or needless delay on the part of the Government. Now, with regard to the document to which the right hon. Gentleman has more particularly referred, I regret to say that it is not in my power to give the House any information in reply to the detailed Questions of the right hon. Gentleman. I will make to him such answer as, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, can properly be made under the circumstances. We, Sir, like others, have read the document to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, a document which deals with a sub- ject-matter of the deepest interest to us, and a subject the gravity of which the right hon. Gentleman has not in his remarks in the slightest degree overstated. That document, Sir, is of a nature to excite attention, and even astonishment. I can give no information to the right hon. Gentleman or to the House as to the mode in which it has come to be communicated to the world through The Times newspaper. From its character it may be deemed incredible, but it purports to be a proposal which has reached a certain stage of promise. Upon the actual contents of that document it is not at the present moment within the limits of my duty to offer any opinion. But I would venture to point out to the right hon. Gentleman what I think admits of no doubt whatever. We consider that the publication of such a Paper as this professed project of Treaty between France and Prussia, and for the objects set forth in it, must immediately draw forth from the spontaneous action of the two Governments concerned all the declarations that can be necessary for the fullest elucidation of the subject. They are not in our possession; but we have not a doubt that the next few days must place them at the command of the world. This is a very grave matter, and, therefore, I think I am not at liberty to enter upon it, and that no one can discuss it with any advantage after the present statement. The time must be close at hand when the surprise which generally must have been felt this morning will be cleared up, and cleared up effectually, by full information; and that being so, I think I shall best perform my duty by confining myself at this moment to these brief remarks, fully admitting that when the information shall be given the right hon. Gentleman and any other Member of this House will be perfectly in their right in addressing any questions they think fit to Her Majesty's Government.