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Volume 203: debated on Monday 8 August 1870

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Sir, in view of the approaching Prorogation of Parliament, I am anxious to state at as early a period as possible that Her Majesty's Government are not in a position to lay further Papers upon the Table relating to the subject alluded to in the Question of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Somerset Beaumont). Knowing well the anxiety which the House must feel with reference to the course which the Government intend to follow, I will in a few sentences explain to them exactly what we we have done and what we have endeavoured to do. In so doing I shall confine myself strictly to statements of fact, not mixing up with them anything in the nature of explanation or defence, if, indeed, defence be requisite, but will allow such explanation or defence to stand over until the proper opportunity for making it shall arrive. On Saturday, the 30th of July, the Government made a proposal to France and Prussia severally in identical terms, and that proposal was that an engagement should be contracted by this country with each of them, whether under the name of a Treaty or whatever other designation might be given to the agreement, to this oifect—that if the armies of either one of the belligerents should, in the course of the operations of the war, violate the neutrality of Belgium, as secured by the terms of the Treaty of 1839, this country should co-operate with the other belligerent in defence of that neutrality by arms. It was signified in the document so transmitted that Great Britain would not by that engagement, or by acting upon that engagement in case of need, be bound to take part in the general operations of the war. And, of course, the other contracting party was to enter into a similar undertaking to use force for the preservation of the neutrality of Belgium against the offending Power. We proposed that the Treaty or engagement—for it has now taken the form of a Treaty—should hold good for 12 months after the ratification of a Treaty of Peace between the two belligerent Powers, after which period it is stipulated that the respective parties being parties to the Treaty of 1839 shall fall back upon the obligations they took upon themselves under that Treaty. Briefly stated and divested of all technical language, that, I think, is the whole of the contents of the proposed Treaty. On the same day—last Saturday week—and two days before the discussion which occurred in this House in connection with foreign affairs, the whole proposal was made known by the British Government to the Austrian and the Russian Governments, and confidence was expressed that, under the extreme pressure that existed as to time, those Powers would not hesitate to adopt a similar measure. That is the course Her Majesty's Government have followed in the matter. Now as to the reception of this proposal by the other Powers. As far as we have been informed the Governments of both Austria and Russia take a favourable view of the proposal. I will not say that the negotiation has proceeded so far as to entitle us to regard them as held bound to a particular course; but, in the main, I may say that the reception of our proposal has been favourable by both of those Powers. And now, with regard to the two belligerent Powers. The proposal having been sent to Lord Augustus Loftus on the 30th ult., on Friday the 5th inst., Count Bernstorff informed Earl Granville that Count Bismarck had left Berlin for head-quarters, and that, consequently, the communication with him through Lord Augustus Loftus had been delayed. The terms of the proposed Treaty, however, having been communicated on the same day—Saturday week—to the respective Ambassadors in London, Count Bernstorff had telegraphed their substance to Count Bismarck, who had informed him that he had not then received any proposal from Lord Augustus Loftus, that he was ready to agree to any engagement that would tend to the maintenance of the neutrality of Belgium; but that, as the intended instrument was not before him, he could only give a general assent to its purport, and must not be regarded as bound to any particular mode of proceeding intended to secure that neutrality. Count Bernstorff subsequently informed Earl Granville on the same day, on the 5th of August, that he had ceived a later telegram from Count Bismarck to the effect that he had then received a summary of the draft Treaty from him, that he had submitted it to the King of Prussia, and that he was authorized to state that His Majesty had agreed to the plan. Later still on the same day Count Bernstorff informed Earl Granville that Count Bismarck again telegraphed to him stating that he had seen the actual document, and authorizing him to sign the Treaty. Count Bernstorff has not yet—at least, had not when I came down to the House—roccivod his full powers in the technical sense, but he expects to receive them in the course of the day, and therefore I think that the engagement may be regarded as being completed on the part of Prussia. Now as regards France. That country has accepted the principle of the Treaty, but the French Government were desirous to introduce some modifications into the terms of the instrument that were not of a nature, as we thought, in any degree to interfere with the substance of the clauses. The House will perceive that as we had made an identical proposal to the two Powers, it was impossible for us to undertake to alter the body of the instrument, for fear the whole arrangements might come to nothing, although the sole object of the modifications so proposed was to prevent misunderstanding. We had no difficulty in giving such an explanation as we thought amounted to no more than a simple and clear interpretation of the document. That explanation was sent to Paris on Saturday evening. Perhaps the pressure of affairs in Paris may naturally account for the fact that an answer did not arrive by return of post in a regular manner this morning; but we have reason to believe that this explanation will remove all difficulty on the part of the French Government and will lead to the signing of the Treaty. Possibly, therefore, even before the termination of the present Sitting it will be in our power to make a further communication to the House. In the meantime I shall be glad to answer any question, if my statement has not been sufficiently clear; but, as I said before, I should wish to refrain from saying more than is absolutely necessary on the present occasion, and I hope the House will not enter into any general discussion upon the subject.

Sir, I do not know whether I shall be required to put myself regular in accordance with the forms of the House; but, perhaps, under the remarkable circumstances of the moment, and considering the statement we have just heard from the right hon. Gentleman, I may be allowed to say a few words in reference to the important matter which he has brought under our notice. I do not know what opportunity we may have of learning the progress of the negotiations to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred before the Prorogation of Parliament. If the House meets to-morrow, of course we may have that opportunity; but I do not know whether the state of Business may cause us to meet to-morrow. Now, as to the proposed Treaty, it is necessarily difficult to gather from an oral statement the meaning of a diplomatic document; but I infer from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government have taken decided steps to maintain and defend the neutrality of Belgium. That will be a satisfactory intimation to the country generally. I would not myself at this moment give any opinion as to the particular diplomatic course followed by the Government on this occasion. That is really too grave a question to be decided in an off-hand manner in the course of a conversation like this; but as a general proposition, where there is a Treaty guarantee so explicit as that expressed in the Treaty of 1839, I think the wisdom of founding on that another Treaty which involves us in engagements may be open to doubt. I do not at present understand, if we join with one of the belligerents to vindicate the neutrality of Belgium against the other belligerent in case he violates that neutrality, what limit there is to be to our interference; because it would appear to me that in such a case we should have to share the fortunes of war with the belligerent whom we have joined, and it is quite impossible to see how we could limit our co-operation with that belligerent merely to the frontier of the neutralized country. But this is one of the points on which, owing to the manner in which the proposal of the Government has been communicated to us by the right hon. Gentleman, it is difficult to form an opinion; but I may venture to express a hope that during the brief period of existence now allotted to this Session the Government should omit no opportunity of giving this House and the country the fullest account of this new engagement they may have entered into, and the latest information on these matters they may have obtained. Now, Sir, accepting the declaration of the right hon. Gentleman as the declaration of the Cabinet, that they are resolved to maintain the neutrality and independence of Belgium, I accept it as a wise and spirited policy, and a policy, in my opinion, not the less wise because it is spirited. I cannot myself believe the position of England is such that she can no longer take an interest in the affairs of the Continent of Europe, or attempt to exercise that influence which has been so often exercised not only with advantage to this country, but with great benefit to the Continent itself. The policy of England ought certainly not to be a merely European policy. She has an ocean empire, and an Asiatic empire. But she has a great interest in the prosperity, the peace, and the independence of the various States of Europe. Viewing it from a very limited point of view, it is of the highest importance to this country that the whole coast from Ostend to the North Sea should be in the possession of free and flourishing communities, from whose ambition the liberty and independence neither of England nor of any other country can be menaced. We find that part of Europe at present constituted in such a manner, and it is well such a position of affairs should be maintained. The circumstances under which that state of society was injuriously menaced some years ago, though the distribution of territory which then took place has been in some degree diminished, has, I think, led to many of those complications which have so distressed and alarmed us. I make no comments on the startling events which are now occurring. I have never spoken of them in this House with any prejudice. I wish we may maintain the friendship and alliance both of France and Prussia. I am of opinion that the events now occurring afford an opportunity to a Power like England of coming forward with a friendship which cannot be doubted, to give counsels of moderation in such a manner as will show that, while anxious for the peace of Europe, she respects the dignity and national feelings of both belligerents.

Sir, I think that the House will allow me to say a few words in answer to what I may call the Question of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli), and that in my case, as in that of the right hon. Gentleman, it will not be necessary to make a Motion. I admit with the right hon. Gentleman that it is impossible for him or any other Gentleman to give any opinion on the subject of my statement except with reserve, because in such cases listening to an oral statement is very different from reading the document itself. But I hope I am not over-estimating the length to which the right hon. Gentleman goes in his judgment when I say I am glad he is disposed to view in a favourable manner what he seems to consider a wise policy. At the same time I wish now to say that the reason we restrained our own wish and the wish of the House last Monday by not making any general declaration on our part as regards Belgium was that we thought much danger might arise from such a declaration, that we might inadvertently give utterance to words that might be held to import obligations almost unlimited and almost irrespectively of circumstances. We had made up our minds that we had a duty to perform, and we thought that a specific declaration of what we thought to be the obligations of this country, founded upon the various considerations applicable to the case, would be much more satisfactory than any general declaration. It is by this instrument we ourselves desire that our view of the obligations of this country should be defined rather than by any vague expressions which might be used in reference to those obligations. The right hon. Gentleman said that as a general rule he would rather trust to Treaties which at present exist than cumulate them by other engagements. That observation reminded me that I might have pointed out more clearly what we thought was the necessity for this proposed Treaty. When the war broke out, we naturally looked to the declaration of the belligerents as to the neutrality of Belgium, and we were obliged to admit, as I think the House must have admitted, that those declarations contained everything that could reasonably have been expected from each Power speaking singly for itself; but, notwithstanding that, there was this weakness about them. In the event of the violation of the neutrality of Belgium by Prussia, France held herself released, and in the event of the violation of neutrality by France, Prussia held herself released. I think we had no right to complain of either Power. I think they said everything they could have been expected to say; but we thought that by contracting a joint engagement we might remove the difficulty and prevent Belgium from being sacrificed, and render it extremely unlikely that anything would arise to compromise our neutrality. That was our reason for thinking a Treaty of this kind necessary, because it is obvious that the Treaty of 1839, whatever value it may possess, could hardly be supposed to meet the circumstances of the present case with reference to the declarations made by the belligerent Powers. With regard to further opportunities for informing the House of our proceedings, I believe, and I may consider it as arranged, that the House will meet to-morrow and on Wednesday; and, certainly, it will be our desire not less than our duty to communicate to the House the substance of everything which we may propose to undertake in the defence of the honour and the fulfilment of the obligations of this country.