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Clause 1—(Amendment Of Schedule To 9 & 10 Geo 5, S 43)

Volume 154: debated on Monday 22 May 1922

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The Government of the Sudan Loan Act, 1919 (which authorises the Treasury to guarantee the payment of interest on a loan to be raised by the Government of the Sudan), shall have effect as though the amount which under the Schedule to that Act is allocated to works for the purposes of irrigating the Gezireh Plain were increased by the sum of four hundred thousand pounds (being the amount allocated in the said Schedule to the Tokar irrigation and railway extension) and as though the reference in the said Schedule to the Tokar irrigation and railway extension were omitted therefrom.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

I think we ought to have some explanation from the Government as to what this Clause actually does. We had a discussion on the Second Reading, but circumstances have changed since then. As far as I gathered from the Debate on the Second Reading and on the Financial Resolution, the effect of the Clause is that the £400,000 which would have been paid to the Tokar irrigation and railway extension will not be paid, but will be used for something else, and that therefore it does not impose an additional burden upon the taxpayer nor an additional amount of loan guaranteed. But in the present financial stringency, before we give a guarantee for a loan we ought to have some explanation as to what is actually to be done. I congratulate the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs on his return.

I understand that at the very moment we are discussing this Bill the Government of the Sudan is in question. I understand there is a very considerable item, first of all of Cook's tourists who have been to Egypt, and some considerable section of the Egyptian Government who are insisting that the Sudan is part of Egypt. All I am concerned with is, before we vote the money, to know how far the Government agree with that suggestion, because it would be utterly absurd for us, if at this moment there is under discussion the prospect of declaring that. there never has been a Sudanese Government only so far as there is an Egyptian Government, to sanction any loan or anything of the kind. We want to know at least how far that part of the business has gone. I am interested in it, because when I was a very young man I operated in a campaign in that country. When I came back through the East two or three years ago I visited it again, and when I contrasted the poverty-stricken and hopeless position of the country 30 odd years ago with the condition in which I found it when I appeared there again, one would not have known that it was the same country. I have no doubt it is due to the administration and assistance this House and the Treasury have given to the Sudanese Government which was established after the battle of Omdurman that so much has been accomplished for the benefit of the whole people belonging to it. Now I am given to understand in such newspapers as the "Times, "and I believe I have seen it in the "Morning Post, "which is generally about the best read paper in the country —at least I read it every morning—I am given to understand by one of these journals, for whose truthfulness I can vouch, that there is an absolute set being made against the British connection with the Sudan, that there is a suggestion that the Government themselves are at the moment considering the claim of the Egyptian Government that the Sudan is part of their territory, and that when you gave independence to Egypt you also placed the Sudan under the Egyptian Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] You say "No, "but these newspapers are read by far more people than those who will hear and read your "No" Besides, a mere anonymous "No" in this House has no force at all. If I could get the same definite "No" from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs I would sit down in a moment. But shall I get it? His understrappers may shout "No" for him, so that he has not got to shout "No" at all. I want him to say the word. I am interested in this country, not so far as money is concerned, but I saw it in 1885 and I saw it again in 1919, and I never saw such a transformation in a situation in my life, and if this was going to lead to reconsidering it for a moment I certainly would not vote for this Bill. Otherwise I would.

I think I can, in a few words, set at rest the doubts of the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward) and some other hon. Members who raised this question on the Second Reading of the Bill. I might take this opportunity of apologising to those hon. Members for my not having been present on that occasion. I should certainly have been in my place if I had known that anyone was likely to raise any political question regarding the Sudan. I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that the status of the Sudan which he very fully understands as being that of a con-dominium of the British and Egyptian Governments, has in no wise been altered. It is true that some time ago some perhaps not very deeply considered representations were made in Egypt., but these have not met with any favour whatever from His Majesty's Government. I may remind the Committee that this con-dominium, which has existed since the year 1899, is in precisely the same position at this moment as it was when the Agreement was signed by Lord Cromer, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, and by an Egyptian Pasha on behalf of the Government of the Khedive. Coming down to a few weeks ago, I would remind the Committee of the British Government's declaration to Egypt of last February. I need not quote the declaration in full, but I would recite to the Committee a few of the concluding words:

"The following four matters are absolutely reserved to the discretion of His Majesty's Government until such time as it may be possible, by free discussion and friendly accommodation on both sides, to conclude an agreement in regard thereto, between His Majesty's Government and the Government of Egypt."
The fourth of these reserved subjects is the subject of the Sudan—
"Pending the conclusion of such agreement, thestatus quo in all these matters shall remain intact."
That is to say, the question of the Sudan is to be a subject of discussion between His Majesty's Government and the Government of the King of Egypt, when other subjects are also under review. I must not go any further than that, because it would be clearly improper for me to attempt or pretend to pronounce an opinion as to what the result of that discussion will be. The House will be perfectly satisfied if I remind them of what the Prime Minister said on the 28th February of this year, when he was making a full-dress statement about His Majesty's Government's negotiations with the people of Egypt. He said:
"His Majesty's Government will never allow the progress which has already been made, and the greater promise of future years, to be jeopardised. …Nor can His Majesty's Government agree to any change in the status of the Sudan which would in the slightest degree diminish the security for the many millions of British capital which are already invested in its development."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1922; cols. 273–4, Vol. 151.]
I do not think the Committee will look to me to go beyond that emphatic and categorical statement of the Prime Minister, and I beg my hon. and gallant Friend and others who have any misgiving whatever to accept that statement, as I am sure they will, as expressing the considered views of His Majesty's Government.

I think that the fears that have been expressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward) are without any serious foundation—for this reason. A few days ago I myself put a categorical question on the status of the Sudan and received a. most satisfactory answer. I would urge Members of this Committee to support this Bill, believing, as I do, that the future of the Sudan is of the greatest possible importance to this country. There is no getting away from the fact that since the recent agreement with the Egyptian Government the condition of cotton in the markets of Lancashire is most precarious and that the more quickly we can get cotton growing in bulk in the Sudan the better it will be for the looms in Lancashire. I do not speak as a Lancashire Member. I have been in Lancashire as a. member of a Lancashire militia, and I have visited Lancashire and seen the cotton industry. Butt I was one of the first of the Sudan officials and I know the great potentialities of that country and its possibilities in the development; of a great cotton industry. I believe that cotton in Egypt is in a most precarious condition, and for that reason I would urge the House to support this Measure.

I am, in the main, very much in agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward), and I am sorry that he should have appeared to resent my interruption in one part of his speech when I said "No!" I also have an interest in the appeal in connection with Lancashire. I have been a close student of Sudan affairs for many years, and lately I have asked two questions in this House on the subject, and when I said "No" just now, I said' it on the authority of statements made by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House in reply to questions which I put to them. The Prime Minister, in answer to the first question repeated what he had said on 28th February, to the effect that our position in regard to the Sudan was a reserved subject. I am not sure what that means. I think that it might be advisable for some spokesman of the Government to state exactly whether it means that the subject is not to he discussed at all, except as a closed book, or whether it is to he a matter of conference and possibly of compromise. The other question, which I put to the Leader of the House, I think last week or the week before, was the result of statement published in both the newspapers to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred. That was a very definite statement that the Egyptian Commission, appointed to draw up a Constitution for Egypt, had included, among its recommendations, a very definite statement that Egypt and the Sudan were inseparable, and that the Sudan was to remain not only part of Egypt but that the ruler of Egypt must he King of the Sudan.

That was a very alarming statement., and when it was produced in both papers, and others, as having been taken from the Commission appointed to draw up an Egyptian Constitution, I thereupon put this question down to the Leader of the House, and his reply again was to repeat that the relations of the Sudan to this country were a reserved subject. That the Government very much disapproved of the statement which had been inserted in the Report of the Commission on Egypt, and that they had communicated with the Egyptian Government, who also disapproved, with the result that some sort of reprimand was to be administered to the Chairman of that Commission.

But it still remains that this is to be a reserved subject, and as we are considering guaranteeing a large sum of money, it would be well if some light were thrown on the question as to what actually is meant by the Sudan being a reserved subject. Does that mean that we have settled irrevocably that our position in the Sudan must remain not less strong than it is to-day, or does it mean that the matter is open to discussion at a conference of some kind, with the possibility of our status and rights in the Sudan being whittled down?

I quite agree with my hon. and gallant Friend who said that the question of the Sudan is of very great importance to Lancashire industry, and therefore to the industry of the country as a whole but what we have to consider is that we are risking a certain sum of money belonging to the taxpayers, or rather imposing a liability on the taxpayers of this country.

My hon. Friend, who interrupts, is anxious to support the Government in any circumstances. He went to receive the Prime Minister on Saturday. What the Government propose is to guarantee a sum. We are to guarantee that sum or to continue the guarantee of it, and apparently we need not do it. I presume there is some object in the Bill?

One scheme does not want the money, and we are to transfer the money from the pockets of the British taxpayer. We are told that cotton is very important for Lancashire.

The cotton industry is the second greatest industry of this country, and it bears the largest amount of taxation in the country—the taxation in which the right hon. Baronet is so interested.

I thought agriculture was the first industry in the country. If we can get cotton to start the industry of Lancashire, no one would be. more happy than I would be. It would encourage all other industries, and that I am only too anxious to do. But I am afraid we are not going to do it. The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs said that until the time arose for a discussion the Sudan was a reserved subject, and that when the time did arise the Sudan was one of the subjects which would be discussed. He went on to say that in February the Prime Minister made an emphatic statement that a certain thing would arise. The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs seemed to consider that the Committee must take that as an indication that those things would arise. I remember a very emphatic declaration by the Prime Minister that the Kaiser was to be tried in England, and that the pockets of the Germans were to be searched in order to provide an indemnity against the cost of the War. Ireland was to be dealt with; murderers were not to be shaken hands with. Every one of these things has gone by the board, and the Prime Minister has done everything which in the last two or three years he stated he would not do. Why should the right hon. Gentleman himself not. come down here to-night and say that after further consideration, having found that the new King of Egypt could deliver the goods, he was prepared to deal with the new King of Egypt and give him over the Sudan and perhaps send the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward) to be the Grand Vizier. That is what I want to guard against. Things have changed very much since this Bill was originally introduced. We now know we hold Egypt on a very precarious tenure and we only hold the Sudan on an undertaking by the Prime Minister given as long ago as February. Four months is a long time for an undertaking of the Prime Minister to hold good, and it is more than conceivable that the opinion of the Prime Minister may be changed by force of circumstances. In these circumstances, I am inclined to agree that the hon. Member for the Kirkdale Division of Liverpool (Mr. Pennefather) is justified in asking for an explanation with regard to the question on which, as I understand, he has not received satisfactory answers up to the present. We suspended the Eleven O'clock Rule to-night, and it is now only 25 minutes to 11, and there is a goodly array of Under-Secretaries and other brilliant men on the Front Bench. There is plenty of time, if they have got an answer, to get up and give it.

I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Stoke that there appears to be some ambiguity about our position in the Sudan. Those who are acquainted with people out there know that a great deal of anxiety exists about the subject of the Blue Nile dam. When I asked if the Sudan Government were to be allowed to build the dam, as they want to, I got a very uncertain answer as to what the actual position was, and I should be very much relieved in my mind if the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs could give us a more definite assurance than he has done up to the present, as to our position, and told us that we do not mean to clear out of that country. It has always been a great point with us that the natives of a country should be governed by those people they prefer. What about the Sudan? How much have they suffered under the administration of Egypt in the old days, and do they not prefer the rule which they have now? It would be satisfying to our minds if we got something more definite than the assurance in the Prime Minister's speech, which is rather vague and into which a great many things might be argued from the other side. I think it is ominous that when we wanted to build the dam on the Blue Nile we were hindered in our operations by Egypt putting in an oar and raising an objection to it. I would not like to go the length of voting against this money being granted, but it would be gratifying to know our position, and as to whether or not we mean to retain the hold which we have on the Sudan, and we should get assurance in reference to that.

I have not had the advantage of hearing the whole of this Debate, but one point is quite clear and that is that the British taxpayer is asked to undertake a certain obligation.

No. The Committee will forgive me for intervening now, but I did not interrupt before because I had an opportunity of explaining the financial provisions of the Bill at a previous stage. I wish to remove any misapprehension that may have arisen in the course of the discussion. It is quite a misapprehension to suppose that this Bill proposes any new Vote. The original Bill provided for a guaranteed loan for a large amount for the Blue Nile dam and a small amount for the Tokar railway. The money for both these loans was raised and the issue was actually made, but the money for the Tokar scheme is not now wanted. On the other hand, snore money is urgently wanted for the Blue Nile scheme in order to save the works actually done, and this Bill enables the transfer to be made. It is not and never was the taxpayers' money, and it does not come from the Exchequer at all, but from the investing public. Our only financial interest is in the guarantee and in transferring this sum for the adequate protection of the very large capital expended on the Blue Nile dam.

I am grateful for the explanation of the hon. Gentleman. Apparently there is not a very large financial obligation on the taxpayer. But what is the status of the State where this money is to be spent? The Government has made no statement as to what is their policy, and whether or not they are going to remain in the Sudan. If they are not going to continue to make themselves responsible for it, what is their policy' Are they going to hand over the government to Egypt?

Perhaps the hon. and gallant Member was not in the House when I made the very statement for which he asks.

We want to know what is the considered policy of the Government and not a casual statement of the Prime Minister which no longer inspires us with the confidence which is necessary. What is the considered policy of the Foreign Office on this matter? That is what we want to know. We do not want to know what the Prime Minister or any other Minister said, but we want to know what is the policy of the Government in regard to remaining in the Sudan. The answer to that question is surely quite simple.

Question put, and agreed to.