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The Suez Canal—Modification Of The Canal Dues—Observations

Volume 228: debated on Tuesday 11 April 1876

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rose to call attention to the negotiations on this subject between Colonel Stokes and M. de Lesseps. He said, he was sorry that by some oversight of the printer his Notice did not appear in the Paper this morning. It was desirable that some reference should be made to this question before the general meeting of the shareholders at Paris. He did not see why the Government should show such reticence on the subject. The nature of the negotiations which they were carrying on was known in every Court of Europe, and had been much and amply discussed. In fact, it was the secret de Polichinelle. There were times during negotiations between the Government of England and a foreign Government when it was advisable to maintain great reserve in Parliament; but in this case the Government were not negotiating with France, but by an inferior, though able, official, with the Chairman of a limited Company in France, with regard to the management of a Canal of which we were nearly half owners. Even in negotiations with foreign Powers it was sometimes desirable that the voice of Parliament should be heard. Before the Crimean War appeals were constantly made to Members not to bring the question before the House. Before the Conspiracy Bill Lord Palmerston constantly asked Members not to discuss the subject in Parliament, and that question ended in the destruction of Lord Palmerston's Government, which he hoped would not be the result in the present instance. The same course had been pursued during the negotiations as to the Alabama Claims, and the result had been one which was not received with enthusiasm by the country. The Government had allowed their subordinate official to make arrangements with the manager of the Canal Company which would be most damaging to our interests, and which would have the effect of destroying all the enthusiasm excited in the country by the purchase of the Canal shares, and therefore he thought it right that the attention of the House should be called to the matter. He was sure that nothing would be said in this House of France but words of cordial friendship and of neighbourly sympathy, with admiration, and, he might say, gratitude, to M. de Lesseps and the shareholders of the Canal for their courageous and enterprizing spirit. It appeared that those arrangements were—First, that M. de Lesseps accepted the decision of the International Commission which met at Constantinople; secondly, that the English Government undertook to negotiate for the gradual diminution of the surtax at the rate of half a franc a-year until 1884. M. de Lesseps further undertook to spend 1,000,000 francs a-year for 30 years on works for the improvement of the Canal; and he withdrew his protest against the arrangements of the International Commission; and, lastly, we, the owners of half the shares, were to be allowed to have three directors out of 24 on the Board of Direction. Now, he would ask, what benefit did we expect to derive from M. de Lesseps accepting the decision of the International Commission and withdrawing his protests? That decision had been imposed upon M. de Lesseps, and he had been obliged to accept it. Were we to go to foreign countries and ask them to allow M. de Lesseps to impose his terms upon them instead of those of the International Commission? M. de Lesseps undertook to spend 1,000,000 francs on the Canal for 30 years. Sir Henry Elliot, however, on the high authority of M. de Lesseps had written home that 40,000,000 of francs were required for repairs, of which 30,000,000 ought to be spent immediately, and the remaining 10,000,000 afterwards. But because M. de Lesseps withdrew his protest we were to allow those 30,000,000 to be spent not immediately, but in the course of 30 years, and not a word was said about the extra 10,000,000 francs necessary for the completion of Port Saïd. He would now ask the House to consider the question of the three directors. What was the meaning of having these directors at all? We had bought shares, but they were shares which would bear no dividend for the next 20 years. All that we could receive up to that period for these shares would come from the Viceroy of Egypt. What, meanwhile, would we have to do with the administration of the Canal? All that was necessary was for the Company to keep up to its cahier des charges; and the Viceroy had engaged to see that they did so, and had a comptroller empowered to carry out that object. How, and in what way, were these directors to assist us? The Company could do nothing in secret. The French directors only carried on the Company for the benefit of the French shareholders, and they were not likely to do anything to damage the Canal. But our three directors would have no influence at all in the administration of the Canal. He did not know that they would be men of much greater ability than the other directors; but there would be opposed to them no fewer than 21 French directors, and on every question in which our views diverged from those of our fellow-shareholders resulting in a division we should only have three votes as against these 21. In all these cases the minority would necessarily be bound by the majority. What were these three so-called directors to represent? Nothing whatever except shares which brought no dividend, and to see that arrangements were carried out without having any power to discharge this duty. Let them recollect what the real position was. In the case of all limited companies all appeals from the decisions of the Board were reviewed by the general meeting. Well, what power would we have at a general meeting? We had only 10 votes out of he did not know how many hundred votes of the Company. Were our three directors to see that the 30,000,000 of francs were properly applied? What were they to do that under the circumstances? The Committee of Direction consisted of five members. He did not know whether we were to have one representative on that body. They had powers of the widest administration, and submitted their plans to the 21 directors. If we had one of five members of the Committee of Direction we should still be in a minority of one to four in this Committee, of one to seven in the General Board, and without any force whatever at the general meeting. We could not bring in the power of the law without the consent of the general meeting, and an appeal would only lie to the French tribunals. He referred to the letter of Sir Daniel Lange on the 18th of April, 1871, addressed to Earl Granville, in which he stated that M. de Lesseps recoiled with aversion from the proposition to admit British influence into the management of the Canal, and declared that he never would be a party to transfer its control from French hands, though he might allow the appearance without the actual possession of power. In 1871 the French Company were prepared to give us a larger number of directors, but now, after purchasing one-half of the shares of the Canal, after spending £4,000,000 and creating an excitement over all Europe, we were only to have three out of 24 directors. Some time ago he gave Notice of a Motion for an Address, with the view of inducing some step on the part of the Government for placing the Canal under international control. That he felt to be a very delicate question; he would, therefore, only allude to it casually. It was not a new question. In a book recently published by M. de Lesseps, an account was given of a conversation he held some time ago with Prince Metternich, in which that statesman said that the Viceroy of Egypt would place himself in an excellent position towards Europe by proposing to the Allied Powers to send Plenipotentiaries to Constantinople to regulate by Convention the perpetual neutrality of the Canal. It was clear that this view of the matter was adopted by Her Majesty's Government long before they entered into negotiations for the purchase of the shares, and was also adopted by M. de Lesseps himself. This question of the desirability of making the Canal international had been put forward by the Board of Trade in 1871;it was also favoured by the Italian Minister, Visconti Venosta, and by Lord Derby in his communication to M. D'Harcourt. Yet they were now to be satisfied, after the purchase of these shares, with the withdrawal of M. de Lesseps's protest against the tariff fixed by the International Commissioners at Constantinople, and the offer to give three directors to represent two-fifths of the Canal shares. When the Government took the important step of purchasing the shares in November last the whole country supported and applauded them; but since then they appeared to have been intimidated by the comments of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and it appeared as if, on a question of foreign policy, the Conservative Government were conducted as the Conservative Party had been when they were in a minority in that House. Having taken that great step, he had no doubt they would obtain the further support of the country and the concurrence and sympathy of other nations if they would buy out the other shareholders of the Canal and render it a great international highway. But if they chose to listen to the tremulous advice of weak-kneed counsellers they would turn what had been a great political success into a mere financial complication.

I always listen with pleasure to any remarks that may fall from my hon. Friend who has just sat down. There is no man who has given more attention to this question, and we know that he has adopted views with regard to it which he expounds with very great ability, and that he enters upon all matters connected with it with a spirit of patriotic fervour, and, at the same time, with an earnest desire for the success of that which is one of the greatest works of modern times. Therefore, we listen with very great interest to anything that falls from him on the subject, and I certainly cannot at all complain on behalf of the Government of the speech which my hon. Friend has made to-day. I regret that it has been my duty more than once to ask my hon. Friend not to bring forward some part of this question at present, and I still regret that it is not in my power, consistently with what I feel to be my duty, to follow him into the discussion to which he invites us, although I may assure him that what he has said has our attention, and will certainly be carefully considered. I think he has a little exaggerated some of the matters to which he has referred; but I am disposed to agree with him in principle in other points with regard to the future management of the Canal. The negotiations, as my hon. Friend calls them, between Colonel Stokes and M. de Lesseps respecting the representation of British interests upon the Direction of the Canal were spoken of by my hon. Friend upon information which, as he truly said, was derived from outside authorities. [Sir H. DRUMMOND WOLFF: I beg pardon; you yourself told us of the three directors.] Yes; but my hon. Friend has used the expression "secrets de Polichinelle," secrets known to all the world. Yet my hon. Friend himself was not and could not be fully informed upon this subject, because, after all, this is not a matter in which Colonel Stokes and M. de Lesseps can settle anything. They may usefully discuss—as they have discussed—arrangements which might or might not be ultimately adopted; but it does not lie with those two distinguished gentlemen to enter into arrangements that should be in the nature of even preliminary binding engagements. It is necessary that there should be various important persons consulted. For example, no alteration can be made in the statutes of the Company without the consent of the Khedive. Then it is necessary also, with regard to some parts of this arrangement, that we should have the consent of the Porte; and with regard to others, that we should have the consent of the maritime Powers interested in the navigation of the Canal—Powers which were all, I think, or most of them, represented at the Conference of Constantinople, and who, in regard to this question, are more or less interested. It is impossible for us, at the present moment, to enter into discussion, because we have not as yet carried the correspondence to its legitimate and natural end. As to the question of the surtax, and the proposal of M. de Lesseps, on behalf of the Company, to withdraw his opposition or protest against the decision come to at Constantinople, we are in communication with foreign Powers. My hon. Friend speaks as though in this matter the proposals to modify the surtax and to ask M. de Lesseps to withdraw his protest had their rise in the purchase of the Suez Canal shares; but that is not the case, for these matters were going on long before the purchase of the shares was thought of, and when the proper time comes the reasons for reopening the question whether the arrangements made at Constantinople should be modified will be stated to the House. But it is impossible that we can discuss these matters without having the Correspondence and the Papers before us; and while it is reasonable, and perhaps advantageous, that my hon. Friend should state his views, we feel that it would be wrong and injudicious that we should follow him into a discussion of these points in the present state of the information which is in the hands of the public. I will only say, as to there being only three directors, I think my hon. Friend a little too hastily assumes that there will be 21 directors on the one side, and three directors—should that be the arrangement, which, however, is not settled—on the other, always voting against the 21. I do not think that is by any means to be always anticipated; and I will remind my hon. Friend that in the original constitution of the Suez Canal Company the intention was that the number of directors should be 32, the object assigned being that there should be representatives of the different nationalities who were interested in the Canal. Inasmuch, however, as no nationalities claimed representation, the number was reduced to 21;and this proposal is partially in the direction of a return to the proposal for the original constitution of the Company. I do not wish to enter into any discussion on the subject. For my part, I have always said, and I feel now as I did at the beginning, that it is of comparatively little importance what the particular representation of England should be upon the Direction of the Canal. I believe that the great importance of the step that was taken when we purchased the Suez Canal shares was wholly irrespective of any of these minor arrangements. I believe that at the moment when we agreed to purchase these shares the affairs of Egypt were in such a position that the great property, in the maintenance of which England and the civilized world had so large an interest, was, to a certain extent, in danger of being sacrificed, or of falling into hands in which it might have been inconvenient that it should remain. I believe that in stepping in and purchasing these shares at that time we did what was a very important act for the benefit of those interests. The other arrangements, though they are very important, are yet entirely subsidiary; and when the proper tim comes for discussion, we shall be able to show that we have not overlooked making these subsidiary arrangements in such a way as shall be for the advantage of this country.

said, he thought the House would feel that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in a difficult position when called upon to discuss this subject before the Correspondence was before them; but, on the other hand, this possibly might be the only opportunity when the House of Commons would be able to discuss the points to which the hon. Member for Christchurch had called attention before the matter was so far advanced that discussion would be futile. It was the misfortune of the position that the House could not discuss what was to be the nature of the arrangements entered into, and that when the Government had once committed themselves to these arrangements it would be too late for discussion; at all events, the House would be unable to alter those arrangements. He hoped it would be understood wherever the speech of the hon. Member for Christchurch was read that this important question had unfortunately been brought on without Notice, owing to an error of the printer, and when very few of the Members who took a particular interest in it were present. The occasion, therefore, could not be regarded as in any way an adequate one for discussion. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen Cave) was not in his place. Whether the right hon. Gentleman knew that this subject was coming on or not he was, of course, unable to say; but the House had not got the advantage of his presence, while the Government possibly had got the advantage of his absence in this debate. He made these observations in order that, if little were said on the Opposition side of the House upon this important question, it might not be supposed that there was little to be said, the real reason being that the occasion was unexpected. Had it been otherwise, the speech of the Chancellor of the Exchequer would probably have encouraged many hon. Members to state their views. From what had passed, he gathered that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not so wedded to the arrangement respecting the three directors as appeared probable upon a former occasion. The speech of the hon. Member for Christchurch certainly offered many strong arguments against that arrangement. He had especially called the attention of the House to the words of M. de Lesseps on a former occasion, to the effect that M. de Lesseps hoped to have the presence of English directors on the Direction, in order that there might be an appearance of representation, while, at the same time, they were powerless for any practical purpose. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was not always to be expected that the three directors would be on the one side and the 21 on the other side. Nobody imagined that such would always be the division. No doubt there might be many matters of routine and of comparatively trivial importance when the Council might be pretty equally divided. But if he understood the argument of the hon. Member for Christchurch aright, it was on the important questions, and where the interests of this country were most involved, that we should find ourselves in a minority of three, against a majority of 21. How different would have been the position had the nationalities been represented in a Direction of 32! There would then have been a much larger proportion of directors who were not French, and who upon certain occasions affecting the interests of the nationalities might have been found voting together. He did not, however, understand the Chancellor of the Exchequer to say that the scheme for the representation of the nationalities was likely to be carried out, so that the English directors must be regarded as essentially minority members. Apparently the Chancellor of the Exchequer attributed little importance to the presence of these directors in the Council, and relied upon the general influence of this country arising out of our interest in the Canal rather than upon representation. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman applied to the English directors the same argument which he used to defend the absence of our voting power as shareholders in the Canal. In what way were the three directors to represent Her Majesty's Government in a French Company, under French law, and in a French city? These English directors would not be in the position of ordinary directors acting upon their own responsibility, but would be nominees of the Government, having to consider what the views of the Government would be. The Government might find itself committed in a manner which it would regret, even by directors in whom they had the greatest confidence, and who were able men. As he understood that it was by no means a foregone conclusion, he had thought it right to state what had occurred to him on the subject at a moment's notice. He understood that the negotiations were still in progress, and that therefore any objections that might be taken to such portions of the scheme would still receive the attentive consideration of the Government.

, pointing out the impossibility of discussing so important a matter brought forward in this way without Notice, remarked that not a word about the matter appeared in the Notice Paper, and they did not even know what the terms of the Motion were. This matter was connected with the whole Egyptian question, and the purchase of the shares was considered to be an outward sign of the great interest which we took in Egypt and a determination to maintain English influence in Egypt. He therefore very much, regretted that this subject was being brought forward now. He had no papers with him, and was not aware the subject was coming on, and therefore he thought the less they discussed it the better at present. He suggested that they should wait until the Government could give the House fuller information, and then the attention of Parliament and of the country would be called to the subject.

agreed with, the hon. Gentleman that it was quite impossible for the House to discuss the details of this question, because they had not sufficient information. But what he rose for principally was to express his satisfaction that this matter was not to be taken up in connection with Egyptian finances in their present insolvent state. He felt it was necessary that they should trust to the discretion and patriotic zeal of the Government in this matter. The House and the country had been very much startled by the declaration made one evening by the Prime Minister that Her Majesty's Government were prepared to consider the appointment of a Commissioner to receive the Egyptian Revenues and to pay the Egyptian creditors. But they were greatly relieved by the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other night that there was no such intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government. Whoever took up Egypt in a financial point of view would eventually burn their fingers; and the best advice he could give to the Khedive was, without further assistance, to declare an honest dividend among his creditors.

said, that he had several times inspected the Suez Canal since it had been constructed and opened, and he could bear his testimony to the fact that last January, when he went through it from one end to the other, it was in excellent condition. He believed it would be totally unnecessary that 30,000,000 francs should be expended on it, and he also believed that we had got a really good substantial property in the Canal for the £4,000,000 we had paid. That was assured, because every year the income of the Canal had been increasing at a very rapid rate, and he estimated that at the end of the 19 years, when the property would come into our hands, the £4,000,000 we had paid would be worth £8,000,000 to the country. Indeed, he had no doubt of it. With reference to the maintenance of the Canal, many engineers with whom he had spoken were of opinion that the expenditure for that purpose would be less than had been estimated. At the Port Saïd end it might be entered at any tide and in any weather; but near the Damietta mouth of the Nile it was constantly silting up, and required attention, and dredging, which was expensive. We could, he believed, keep it in perfect order for less than £1,000 a mile, or £90,000 a-year. Many contended that the Canal ought to be doubled. But he was not of that opinion. Half of it was already doubled, where ships could pass the whole length, and there were sidings in other parts, where ships could pass also. Therefore, to go to the enormous expense of having the Canal doubled would not be warranted. A very slight expenditure would enable the Canal to do double the work, and the amount of the expenditure last year was nearly £1,250,000. He thought it almost an act of grace to give us three directors. If we were not satisfied our only remedy was, as in the case of any other joint stock company, to go into the market and buy up the remaining shares, and so get control of the concern. He should be glad if he could impress on the Government the importance of the idea of carrying out their purchases still further while there were shares still in the market. He strongly recommended that the 15 per cent Founders' shares should be purchased from the Khedive, and these would entitle them to speak at the Board much more effectually than the three directors. This was well worthy the attention of the Government, and he hoped they would give it favourable consideration.

said, he was one of the few who, on that side of the House, had from the first cordially approved the purchase by the Government of these Canal shares. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had stated that it would be necessary before the arrangement as to the three places in the Direction was finally concluded to consult the Khedive and the Porte and the other Powers interested in the Canal. He wished the right hon. Gentleman had added that it might be worth while to consult Parliament, otherwise they would be introducing an entirely new principle into English polities. The question of the neutralization of the Canal had been mooted. He wished most earnestly to protest—and from private conversations he knew that many hon. Members agreed with him—against any future neutralization of this Canal, because it appeared to him that this would be in direct opposition to the step the Government had taken in the purchase of the shares. He was sure that there would be the warmest opposition in this country to the neutralization, because that would be virtually resigning to the small foreign Powers a portion of the authority which we ought to exercise.

said, he had been anxious that on that occasion no indication of opinion should be given with reference to the general finances of Egypt. It was not for them to express any opinion on the subject. He wished to know from the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether it would be possible for Parliament to have the opportunity of again discussing the project of management and administration before the general meeting of the Canal shareholders, which he understood would be held on the 10th of May? It would be a satisfaction to know whether the voice of Parliament could be made known in such a manner as to secure practical results in connection with the administration of the Canal.

said, his right hon. Friend was precluded by the Rules of the House from answering the question; but if his hon. Friend would give Notice of his Question after Easter, he hoped the Government would be in a position to furnish him with a satisfactory answer.

House adjourned at a quarter before Three o'clock till Monday 24th April.