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Neutrality Of Belgium

Volume 203: debated on Tuesday 9 August 1870

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said, he wished to make reference to what took place yesterday in the House with regard to the new Treaty. He should be unwilling to return to the constituency which he represented without saying a word upon that transaction; but what he had to say he said rather to relieve his own conscience than with the view of producing any effect elsewhere. The Prime Minister told them that the Government had placed the country under fresh obligations with regard to Continental Powers, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) had eulogized the transaction, and had said the Government were adopting a wise and spirited policy. Now, he had always found in the past that every policy which was characterized by Gentlemen in various parts of the House as spirited had not turned out to be wise. He had a very strong conviction that there was no wise policy for this House and for the Government of this country to pursue but that of keeping entirely free from Continental entanglements. He believed the Government was sincerely anxious to keep the peace, and that the course they had taken with regard to this new Treaty had been with a view to the promotion of that object. But, as it was so contrary to what he believed to be a sound policy for this country to pursue, he was personally wholly opposed to it. The Prime Minister of France a short time ago told the world that he went to war with a light heart. It appeared to him that there were a great many men in that House and out of it who could enter upon a Continental quarrel with a light heart, if he might judge from the manner in which they had spoken on various occasions. He could not imagine anything more grave or disastrous than for this country, on any pretext whatever, to enter upon a Continental Mar. Since he had been in that House nothing had struck him more than the debates with regard to the pauperism of the country and the burdens upon the class who had to support that pauperism; and when he heard men talk lightly of going to war, he remembered that we had more than 1,000,000 paupers, and that we had 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 who had to assist in supporting those paupers, though they had themselves no more than the bare necessaries of life. The conditions on which our prosperity was based were wholly different from those which were to be found in connection with any other country. If a wall were built round France or round Germany each of those countries could live though nothing wont out of it or nothing came into it. They produced enough for their people's food; but, as we had to obtain elsewhere a large proportion of what was consumed in this country, it was far more serious for us to enter into a war than for any other country that could be named. Besides, the British Empire extended over the whole globe, and if we were to enter into a Continental war it would be felt in Canada, on the shores of Asia and Africa, and in Australia. He could never, therefore, speak lightly of such a possibility. He hoped the day would come when the men who met in that House would feel that their duties were confined to wise legislation for the people, and the defence of British possessions and British interests. He was as willing as any man to give his voice and vote for the protection of that which belonged to us; but he protested against Quixotic expeditions, involving this country in difficulties from which it was often difficult to escape. He did not think any Government had a right to subject the country to greater obligations, or to incur any risk of Continental war, without the opportunity being afforded for some general expression of opinion on the part of the constituencies. He did not believe he should live to see the day when any Prime Minister who was at once remarkable for intelligence and conscience would, under any pretext do anything that would involve the country in a Continental war. To put himself in order he moved the adjournment of the House.

, in seconding the Motion, expressed his regret that the Prime Minister had not been able to give them more explicit information about the Treaty, and said they ought to be put in possession of such information as soon as possible. He felt considerable apprehension from the statement made by the Prime Minister last night. It was true we entered into a Treaty in 1839; but there were a variety of opinions as to the extent to which we were bound by it; and many good authorities held that we were only bound collectively, and not separately, to interfere in the affairs of Belgium. As he understood the statement of the Prime Minister, this new arrangement bound us far mere absolutely than did the old one to interfere in the affairs of Belgium, and it bound us in a very extraordinary manner, for it seemed to him we were to confine our operations to defending Belgium, and that we were not to go any further. If we went to war at all he would have us "go the whole hog." He should not perform his duty without saying that he felt much alarmed by the statement of the Prime Minister that the Government were entering into new obligations, as regarded Continental affairs, and without protesting in the strongest manner against any new engagement which could complicate us in the wretched Continental quarrel now going on.

said, he respected the courage of his hon. Friends as he respected the courage of the minority of 5 in the Division of the other day; but, as a Radical and an Economist, he would venture to say a word on the other side. He had seen nothing of levity in the spirit with which the prospect of war had been contemplated, either in the House or in the country. Foreigners had been spoken of as if they were peculiar human beings, always ready to rush at each other's throats, uninfluenced by the elevated motives which actuated the great British people; but we should do more justice to foreigners if we regarded them as human beings and nations actuated by the same desires and feelings as ourselves; as struggling for a freedom which we had happily attained, and for an independence which we enjoyed: and if people abroad were fighting for independence and freedom, they were fighting our battle too. If his hon. Friends spoke for the "peace at any price" party, he would go beyond them, and say he was for peace at any price, even at the price of war. As to speaking of the defence of the country, where were you to draw the line of defence? If we were in any danger of being attacked, it was the greatest absurdity to sit still with our hands before us, and to make no preparations. That was not the way to insure peace; it was the way to make war probable. During this war we had been so anxious to take neither side that the result had been to hide from ourselves that which we ought to know—namely, that the war arose because the chief of the most warlike nation in Europe held his position under conditions which required him from time to time to distract the attention of his own subjects by a war with foreign countries. The House did not know enough of the Treaty proposed by Her Majesty's Government to pronounce a positive opinion upon it; but he thought they had done well to stand by a smaller nation whose existence had been threatened. If a woman or a child were attacked by a ruffian in the street, would his hon. Friends keep safely in-doors, deaf to screams for help, and declaring that they would interfere in no such quarrels? In his opinion, the Government had taken a wise and spirited course in endeavouring to uphold the independence of Belgium.

said, his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor) had asked us to consider foreign nations as being actuated by elevated motives not less than the British people; but if that were so, what right had he to assume that any foreign Power would act the part of freebooters, and would, without provocation or justification, attempt to ravage our shores? On what ground did he assume that this country was in danger of being attacked by any foreign Power? The House had no right to assume that either France or Prussia had the slightest idea of attacking us, nor was it reasonable for the Government to act as though those Powers would take such a course as would render special measures of defence necessary on our part. Even if it were so, however, were not France and Prussia in a far better position to attack us before the war than now when they were fighting each other? Something had been said about panic, and there appeared to be a panic in that House, judging from the manner in which, night after night, hon. Members had got up in their places to put all kinds of Questions respecting the state of the defences of the country. It seemed as though their usual calmness and coolness had deserted them in the belief that we were in danger of invasion. And now after all our experience of the worthlessness of foreign Treaties we were about to be involved in another. It was only the other night that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tamworth (Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer), whose distinguished position gave him great authority on these subjects, had told them of a remarkable circumstance which had naturally excited considerable attention in the country. His right hon. Friend had said that before the ink with which the Treaty of 1831 guaranteeing Belgium was signed was hardly dry, there was a negotiation between the French and Prussian Ambassadors of that day to break its conditions. And just recently there was the proposed Secret Treaty between France and Prussia which had been brought to light not by diplomatists, but by the Press, and which gave us the right to say, notwithstanding every denial and explanation, that the course pursued by France and Prussia was open to grave suspicion. But according to the Prime Minister, the Government had practically given up a Treaty under which the independence of Belgium was guaranteed by the five great Powers, for a separate Treaty with the two very Powers whose agents so recently had been negotiating an infraction of the former Treaty. It appeared that under the terms of the new Treaty if one of the belligerents were crushed and its military forces destroyed, we were to fight alongside that crushed Power, against the victorious Power, should the latter invade Belgium. That was not a satisfactory position. The hon. Member for Leicester seemed to think we ought to defend every small and independent State against aggression: why, then, did we not interfere on behalf of Schleswig-Holstein, of Hanover, and the Duchies and Archduchies which were crushed out of existence by Prussia and by Italy? Did those Sovereigns not excite the sympathies of his hon. Friend? [Mr. P. A. TAYLOR: Certainly not.] No; he was perfectly well aware that his hon. Friend rejoiced at the downfall of those petty sovereignties; but that was entirely inconsistent with his argument, as those were small and independent States very much in the position of Belgium. He (Mr. Rylands) did not wish to raise the question as to what this country ought to do in the event of Belgium being attacked. There was really no danger of Belgium being attacked, and he thought the question of the independence of that country ought to be left till the eventuality arose, and Her Majesty's Government ought not to be induced by all this clamour about Belgium to take a step which placed us at so serious a disadvantage. As far as he could judge, the now Treaty was a foolish Treaty, and he must express his deep regret that after all the misfortunes brought upon us by our Continental engagements, the Government should be negotiating another Treaty which might be disadvantageous to this country. It was to be regretted that under our constitutional arrangements there was no power in the House to discuss the provisions of a Treaty until they were carried into effect. It was unfortunate that in the secret recesses of the Foreign Office, Treaties should be hatched, by which the Government bound not only this but future generations, under circumstances which he feared might at a future time result in some great and terrible disaster. He could not say that he thought the eventuality contemplated by the present Treaty was likely to occur; but if it did occur, and if we were called upon to defend Belgium by allying ourselves with a crushed Power against an army and a nation flushed with victory and conquest; if in the interest of the 4,000,000 of the population of Belgium, our own 30,000,000 of people were involved in all the horrors, privations, and sufferings of a protracted war, then he ventured to say that the authors of this Treaty would be condemned in the page of history, and the evil results of their present action would blot out all the good winch had been done up to this period by Her Majesty's Government.

said, he hoped that the debate would not be further prolonged. It was extremely inconvenient to discuss such a subject in the absence of the Prime Minister, and the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, as well as in the absence of Members of the Opposition, with only one or two exceptions. An opportunity would be offered for the discussion of the now Treaty to-morrow, when his right hon. Friend would be present, and in the meantime he did not consider it expedient on the part of the Government to enter into the discussion. In reference to a remark of the last speaker as to a general disregard of Treaties, he desired to point out that there was a great difference between Treaties just entered into and those which had been greatly modified by events that had occurred since they were concluded. He believed the conduct of the Government in regard to the new Treaty was eminently calculated to maintain the independence of Belgium, and to preserve the country from the horrors of war. It was from no "lightness of heart," but with a sincere desire of the Government to do their duty, to preserve the honour of this country, and to avoid war, that the Treaty had been proposed; and he could assure the House that it was not hatched "in the secret recesses of the Foreign Office;" but that it was adopted on the full responsibility of the Government, acting in accordance with what they believed to be the almost unanimous desire of the country.

said, he did not reply to the remarks of his hon. Friends below the Gangway, because he quite concurred with the Home Secretary that in the absence of the Premier and of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) this was not the time for discussing the new Treaty. At the same time, he did think it exceedingly desirable that before the House separated there should be some further opportunity of discussing the Treaty, which was at present very imperfectly known to Members.

said, he thought that an opportunity ought to be given to the House to express its opinion on the present conjuncture of affairs, or else it would have no opportunity of speaking at all. During the last 20 years the country had spent nearly £400,000,000—about half the amount of the National Debt — to place and to preserve the country in security, and the House ought to have an opportunity of knowing whether, in case of our being involved in war, proper provision had been made for the public security. The Government had promised to preserve neutrality; but the policy they had hitherto acted upon had operated in favour of France. Lord Russell had once laid it down as a principle that the only foreign policy that England was called upon to recognize, or that she had ever recognized, was one which was calculated to promote civil and religious liberty throughout Europe, which meant the maintenance of Protestantism. But Protestantism was in danger as long as they allowed the Jesuits to exercise their machinations. All the wars that had desolated Europe of late years were attributable to the action of the Jesuits. He regretted the absence of the Prime Minister, and hoped that the Government would be able to satisfy the House that the policy the Executive proposed to follow would prove satisfactory.

Motion made, and Question, "That this House do now adjourn," — ( Mr. Jacob Bright,)—put, and negatived.

House at rising to adjourn till To-morrow, at half after Twelve o'clock.

Statute Law Revision (Ireland) Bill

On Motion of Mr. SOLICITOR GENERAL for IRELAND, Bill for promoting the Revision of the Statute Law by repealing certain enactments which have ceased to be in force or have become unnecessary in Ireland, ordered to be brought in by Mr. SOLICITOR GENERAL for IRELAND and Mr. CHICHESTER FORTESCUE.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 264.]

House adjourned at a quarter before Three o'clock.